Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Immanuel Theme of the Bible Viewed through the Prism of Ezekiel 37:15–28

One of the amazing things about Christianity is the idea that God created human beings to be his friends. Think about it: the Creator of this universe wants to be friends with you! That’s pretty amazing. We know that friendship is one of God’s intentions in creating the world, because of the final picture painted in the Bible in Rev 21–22, where God’s final goal for creation involves the eternal union of heaven and earth. The city of God, the new Jerusalem, will descend from heaven to be established on earth. As God says in Rev 21:3: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with humanity. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.” This is the all-important Immanuel theme of the Bible. The word Immanuel or Emmanuel is a Hebrew expression that means God with us. The idea of God being with his people is the Immanuel theme of Scripture.

We are told in Rev 21:4 that as a result of God being with his people, “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” It’s a wonderful picture of harmony and peace.

But look at the world around you. What do you see? Do you see a world of unity and peace, a world where there is no more crying or death or pain? No, the world that we currently know is obviously not like that. There is so much pain, so many tears, so much death. Instead of peace and harmony, we see war and chaos. Instead of unity, we see disunity and hatred.

In the last few years, we’ve seen disunity at many levels throughout the world. Disunity between fundamentalist Islam and the West. Disunity between Israeli and Palestinian. In many nations there has been disunity in politics, and in the West there is a growing cleavage between people with conservative social values and those who are more progressive when it comes to social attitudes.

Our world is clearly characterized by disunity, and Christians are not immune to this. Within our churches, there’s not only division between denominations, but sadly even disunity within individual churches, when individual Christians are not able to live peaceably with one another. Within families, sadly there is often disunity too. Disunity between parent and child, disunity between husband and wife, disunity between brothers and sisters. If you’ve ever had a bad relationship or a falling out with someone, then you know how unhappy disunity can make you feel.

Disunity has been a human problem for many thousands of years … in fact, ever since Adam and Eve when Adam blamed Eve for making him eat the forbidden fruit. God’s people, Israel, were also not immune from the problem of disunity. In the year 930 B.C., the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon became divided into the kingdoms of Judah in the south and Israel in the north. The twelve tribes of Israel were now two tribes against ten.

Why did such a split occur? You might recall how after the death of King Solomon, his son, Rehoboam, took the advice of his young friends rather than the advice of the elders, and spoke harshly to the northern tribes when they were looking for some relief from the burden of labor that Solomon had exacted from them. You want relief? Well, I’ll have you know, my pinky is fatter than my father’s thighs! Rehoboam was going to make them work even harder. As a result of his foolish reply, the northern tribes rebelled and invited Jeroboam to be their king, and this was the beginning of the split between the northern and southern tribes of Israel.

We might be tempted to conclude on the basis of this that the split happened as a result of Rehoboam’s foolishness. It is true that Rehoboam’s foolishness was a cause, but it was not the ultimate cause. Rehoboam’s foolishness was actually a fulfillment of God’s word of judgment upon Solomon for leading Israel into idolatry. The ultimate cause of disunity and division in Israel stemmed from sin against God.

Disunity and division is never nice. When you argue with your husband or wife, or with your kids, when there’s conflict between friends, we all feel horrible. Certainly the division and conflict that we see coming out of many parts of the world whenever we turn on the telly also makes us feel sick, particularly when we see shocking injuries and death as the result of war. Sometimes the state of the world leads us to the point of despair.

It’s normal to feel horrible in the face of such a disunited and divided world. But the disunity and division that we see around us, in our world, in society, even in our churches, ought not make us despair totally. For the good news is that God is committed to bringing unity out of disunity, and harmony out of division.

Ezekiel 37:15–28 is just one example of a passage of Scripture that gives us a wonderful assurance that disunity and division will not endure forever in God’s plan for the world. The word of the Lord came to Ezekiel, and called him to take two sticks; on one, he was to write Judah and on the other the word Joseph (Ezek 37:15–16). The name Joseph here represents the northern kingdom of Israel, as Joseph was the father of Ephraim, the largest of the tribes of the northern kingdom. After taking hold of these two sticks, Ezekiel was to place them together to become one stick, and then to hold this united stick in his hand (Ezek 37:17).

This action was an action of prophetic force. The two sticks joined as one in Ezekiel’s hand was prophetic of the reunion of Judah and Israel in God’s hand in the outworking of history. It is to be noted that the sticks were not just placed together, but that they were to be held together so as to become one stick (Ezek 37:19). As Ezekiel held this unified stick in his hand, God was making a statement: not only would the divisions within God’s people be healed, but the disunity and distance that existed between God and his disobedient people would also be overcome.

As noted above, the division between Judah and Israel was ultimately caused by sin. Division among the people of God is always symptomatic of a prior division between God and human beings somewhere. When Cain was unhappy with God, what happened? He killed his brother Abel. Likewise the disunity in the world today fundamentally stems from the disunity that exists between humanity and God.

For God’s people of old, disunity and division was quite obvious. Not only was there division between the kingdom in the north and the kingdom in the south, but as God’s people continued to sin against God without any real repentance, it came to the point in time when God’s patience had run out. God had put up with Israel for over 800 years: from the time of the exodus rescue out of Egypt to the time of the defeat and exile of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah at the hands of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies respectively.

The exile of God’s people from the promised land was a reversal of the exodus. Israel had originally been saved by God from slavery in Egypt with the purpose that they would go and live in God’s presence, serving him in the Holy Land; but now like Adam in the garden of Eden, because of disobedience, Israel had lost the right to live in God’s presence. The exile of Israel and Judah to lands over a thousand km away from the promised land is indicative of the division that existed in their relationship with God. They were now distant from God in more ways than one: not only distant physically from Jerusalem, which was the place where God specially revealed his presence in the temple; but they were distant from God spiritually as well.

But distance and division is not what God longs for. Thankfully God’s plan for his people and for the world as a whole is for disunity and division to be rectified. This is Ezekiel’s message in Ezek 37:15–28. The joining of two sticks, one representing Judah, the other Israel, symbolizes the reunion of God’s people under the rightful and eternal rule of the Davidic King. Ezekiel 37:21–23 records a series of divine promises:
“Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. They shall not defile themselves any more with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”
This is a promise by God that he would bring his wayward people back. God planned to cleanse his people of their sins, and they would dwell obediently and permanently in the Holy Land as the people of God. God would make “an everlasting covenant” of peace with them, and bless them, and dwell among them, with his sanctuary and presence in their midst … forever more.
God’s promises continue in Ezek37:24–27:
“My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children's children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land, and multiply them, and set my sanctuary in their midst forever more. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Do you see what God is promising here? There would be one king, one shepherd over the people of God. This shepherd king would led the people of God in the way of obedience as part of an eternal covenant of peace, and the truth of Immanuel would be realized.

When we realize that this is a prophecy of what God would achieve through Jesus, surely we must marvel at the way in which God has been working towards the fulfillment of his plan of Immanuel. And even more so to think that we who are living in the world today have seen the fulfillment of this prophecy in the Lord Jesus. The New Testament tells us that Jesus is the promised Davidic King, the one who has come to bring about not only unity between God’s people, but also unity between God’s people and God himself! In Christ Jesus, the division between us and God has been overcome, and unity restored; and this is why there is unity between God’s people in Christ, whether they be Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. The unity that our world longs for, this is what God is bringing about through Jesus, the suffering Spirit-filled Servant Shepherd King.

The restoration of unity between God and humanity is expressed particularly clearly in the expression they will be my people, and I will be their God. This expression can be found twice in Ezek 37, once in v. 23, and once in v. 27. This expression, or slight variations on it, occurs some fifteen times in the Bible, and five times in Ezekiel. So it is apparent that the Immanuel theme is quite an important idea in the book of Ezekiel relatively speaking.

And when it comes to Immanuel, we ought to note that the expression is God with us and not us with God. The stress in the Bible is on God coming to be with us, not on us going to be with him. The Lord Jesus came down into our world in order to take us up with him into the very presence of God, and this involves Jesus coming again to bring about the full unification of heaven and earth. The picture in Rev 21–22 is heaven coming down to Earth in order that our world might become “heaven on earth.” The way the Bible puts it, God actually created Planet Earth to be the palace or temple where he would come to dwell with his people eternally.

Often as Christians, we tend to think that when we die, we go to be with God in heaven and … that’s about all there is to it. After we die, we exist as disembodied souls in heaven forever more. Well, it’s true that upon death, the souls of Christians go to be with God in heaven; but from the Bible’s point of view, going as souls to be with God in heaven is not the end of the story. For just as Jesus died and was raised from the dead, so too believers will be raised from the dead, and our souls will be joined to our resurrection bodies to live together in bodily form with all of God’s people ultimately not in heaven up there but in heaven down here.

Viewed in the light of the wider purposes of God, it is also possible to say that bringing heaven to earth is actually the main reason why Jesus came in the flesh. It is true that Jesus had to became a man in order that he might die for us so that we might be saved from our sins, but this important reason is not the only reason why Jesus became a human being. The fact is that Jesus’ incarnation was an important part of God’s plan from the very beginning, because, even apart from the problem of human sinfulness, God has always had the intention of living with his people in his dwelling place on earth.

This brings us to one of the other amazing truths of Christianity, which is that, in creating a physical world, God had the intention that one day he would come to dwell in this physical world in a physical way in the person of the Lord Jesus, our Immanuel. The physical presence of God in human form is what the Bible calls the image of God. God’s ultimate plan for this world is for his dwelling place to be established on earth, for Christ, the visible image of invisible God (Col 1:15), to return to dwell in our midst forever more in a renewed world.

The siginificance of this for the human race is that, through Jesus, God is with us. Through Jesus, the Immanuel plan of God has been fulfilled. This means that, through Jesus, disunity and division has been overcome. Sure, the world around us is still racked with conflict and discord, but the fundamental change from disunity to unity has taken place through the Lord Jesus, through his death and resurrection. Jesus has extinguished the chaos and disorder of death through the restorative power of his resurrection. As a result, in God’s plan, the world as we see it today is not the world as it will be.

Even though we still do not yet see a world of perfect peace and harmony, we need to remember that the goal of unity and harmony that God has for his world has in principle been achieved with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven, and God has promised that the fullness of Immanuel will be achieved at the second coming of Christ, when God will return to be with his people forever more.

The truth of Immanuel means that, one day, the followers of Jesus will experience life in a world where disunity and division will be no more, a world in which there is no more pain, no more crying, no more sickness, no more death. I hope you’ll agree that, if you are a Christian, this is something amazing to look forward to.

David Livingstone, the famous Scottish missionary and explorer who served the Lord among what were usually hostile tribes in southern Africa in the mid-nineteenth century once wrote about what sustained him through all the difficulties that he had had to face. “Would you like me to tell you what supported me through all the years of exile among a people whose language I could not understand, and whose attitude to me was always uncertain and often hostile? It was this: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” On these words I staked everything, and they never failed.” David Livingstone staked everything upon the truth of Immanuel, and it never failed him.

So, whatever your situation in the world, whatever the suffering, whatever the pain, whatever the confusion, whatever the disappointment, if you are a follower of Jesus, you need not despair! Because God is with you! The truth is that, in Christ, the Immanuel, God is with us! He is with his people now through the power of his Holy Spirit, yet we look forward to the day when we shall see him face to face, when he will be physically present with his people forever more in a world where disunity and division and disease and death no longer exist.

In Christ, God is with us!

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Concept of Resurrection in the Old Testament with Special Reference to Ezekiel 37:1–14

Is there such a thing as life after death? Scientific atheism, which is growing in popularity in the West these days, says no; but those who believe that death is the end of a person’s existence are in the minority, historically speaking. Apart from some of the ancient Greeks, most people have believed in some kind of life after death.

But what about the orthodox Hebrews of the historical period of the Old Testament? What did they believe about life after death? Some people think that the Old Testament does not say much about life after death. There are also scholars who say that the concept of resurrection was only a new development relatively later on in the history of the Old Testament, and that resurrection was an idea that was borrowed from other ancient Near Eastern cultures, quite possibly from the Zoroastrian religion of the Persians.

Now it is true that the teaching about life after death in the Old Testament is not systematically developed, but the number of passages in the Old Testament that give voice to a hope and trust in God for deliverance from death is by no means small. The Old Testament saints believed that upon death the soul of the deceased went down to a place called Sheol which is often translated in our English Bibles as the pit or the grave, or in Chinese as 阴间 (yīnjiān), the dark place.

The orthodox ancient Hebrews believed in Sheol. They believed that there was a place that the soul of the dead person went to after the death of the body. But existence in Sheol should not really be described as life after death. As far as the Old Testament is concerned, although the souls of the dead had a kind of existence in Sheol, this existence after death was not life!

Existence in Sheol was not considered to be life for a number of reasons: because there is no praise of God in Sheol (Ps 6:5); and because it is a dark and dreary place, distant from God (Ps 88:10–12). As such, Sheol was not considered to be an abode fitting for the righteous, but is properly the appointed destination for the wicked and foolish (Ps 9:17; 49:13–15).

But the hope that the Old Testament believers had was that Yahweh was the one who controlled the movement of souls in and out of Sheol. Like an air traffic-controller who determines which plane comes into the airspace around an airport, which planes come in to land and which planes take off, God is viewed in the Old Testament as being the person who determines not only who goes down into Sheol, but also who gets to get out of that dark and dreary abode.

God has the power to preserve a person’s life by keeping them from descending into Sheol; but as we know, death is one of the few certain things in life. This means that God’s usual practice is to allow people (one day) to descend into Sheol. But the firm hope of the Old Testament saints was that although we might die, God is able to raise or redeem people up from Sheol with the purpose that those so redeemed might, as Ps 116:9 says, “walk before Yahweh in the land of the living.”

There are many psalms where the psalmist trusts in God to deliver him from death. In Ps 49:15, the psalmist says full of confidence: “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol.” In Ps 27:13, the psalmist says: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of Yahweh in the land of the living!” And Ps 37:29 says that “the righteous will be preserved for ever” and “will possess the land and dwell in it for ever.”

In other words, the Old Testament hope for life after death was the hope of life lived out in the presence of God in the Holy Land. The Old Testament saints had the hope of experiencing life in the land of the living, which involved being in God’s presence forever more. The Old Testament saints believed that God had promised that those who walk in his way would, after death, come to live life in the world again such that their relationship with God might continue.

But how could this idea of experiencing life in the land after death be fulfilled, if not by way of resurrection? The Old Testament belief in the restoration of the soul of the righteous dead to life in the land of the living clearly implies resurrection. As it says in Ps 30:3: “O Yahweh, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.” Being saved up out of the grave is basically the language of resurrection.

This concept of life through resurrection is something that is clearly seen in Ezek 37:1–14. Here the prophet Ezekiel is given a vision concerning the restoration of Israel, and the interesting thing about it is that it is pictured in terms of a large-scale resurrection.

At the commencement of the vision, Israel is pictured as many dry bones lying scattered across the ground in a valley (Ezek 37:1–2). Then God asked Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel wasn’t sure, but he knew that God knew (Ezek 37:3). Then God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy. God said that, as the bones heard the word of God, they would be moved by the Spirit and arranged in place, then joined by sinews, and covered with flesh, and then covered with skin (Ezek 37:4–6).

So Ezekiel did as he was commanded. He pronounced God’s word over the dry, lifeless bones; and as he prophesied, “there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone” (Ezek 37:7). The sinews, flesh, and skin linked and wrapped the bones into human form; but strangely the bodies were not alive (Ezek 37:8). God called upon Ezekiel to prophesy again, to summon the Spirit to give life to the bodies (Ezek 37:9). So once again Ezekiel did as he was commanded, and the Spirit obeyed the call. The Spirit gave breath to the bodies, and “they came alive and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army” (Ezek 37:10).

Ezekiel 37:1–14 is a vision of the resurrection power of the word of God. God can make dead bones live! And the purpose of this vision? From Ezek 37:11 it is clear that God gave this vision to Ezekiel in order to encourage the people of Israel who had come to despair of life because they were experiencing God’s judgment upon the covenant rebellion of Israel. They had lost hope, but their situation wasn’t truly hopeless. What about the life-giving power of the word of God, the very same word that created this universe back in the beginning? The life-giving of the word and Spirit of God means that Israel could have hope for the future. Specifically, this vision was also a promise, a promise that God would raise them from their graves and restore them back to life back in their own land:
“Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am Yahweh, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am Yahweh; I have spoken, and I will do it” (Ezek 37:12–14).
All of us are getting on in life … some of us perhaps more than others. We human beings all usually hope that death will be some time in coming, but the truth is that we never know when or how death will come upon us. Whether we like or not, waiting at the end of life for all of us is a dreadful reality … death. Naturally no one likes the thought of having to die. The English philosopher, Francis Bacon, once said, “Men fear death as children fear to go into the dark.”

Stepping out into the dark unknown is scary; but as we face death, as we look into the dark abyss, Christians need not be like those who, as the Apostle Paul said, “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). Christians are not like Theocritus, the Greek poet of the third century B.C. who said: “There is hope for those who are alive, but those who have died are without hope.” Being without hope is not true for the Christian. In the face of death, Christians have the hope of life. And this isn’t just wishful thinking, a kind of denial of reality. This hope is based on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and on the reality of the life-giving power of the Creator of this universe.

Jesus through his own resurrection has broken the hold of the power of death over God’s creation. Furthermore, the Lord Jesus has said that “the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). It is because of the power of the word of Almighty God that one day the bona fide members of Christ’s church, like Israel, will be restored to life in the land of the living.

The famous preacher Martin Lloyd-Jones once described the early Christians who often faced the prospect of a horrible death in periods of severe persecution, as being able to “face death with a smile.” Obviously they were not necessarily literally smiling when they died, but they did die with hope in their hearts. They died knowing that not only would they go upon death to be in God’s presence spiritually, but more importantly that (at Christ’s return to earth) God would act to raise them from the dead, and to restore them to life in the land of the living, where they would live in God’s presence and experience blessing forever more. That is the only way in which the early Christians could face death with a smile.

But what about us? As you face the awful reality of death, and your own death in particular, do you have hope for life after death in your heart? I hope you do. Christians can have a sure hope like no other people have, a hope that is backed up by the reality of the resurrection of Jesus.

The fact of the matter is that God has promised life to those who follow Jesus Christ, and life he will give to such people. God will definitely act to restore his people to life in the land of the living. He did that for Jesus, and he will do it also for us who believe. Believers may have to wait a while until they experience the fullness of this life, but in God’s good timing one day they will experience resurrection and eternal blessing in the presence of God in a renewed world. The God who brought life out of nothing back in the beginning is the God who brought life out of death in the resurrection of Jesus, and the God who will bring life out of death at the end of time when Jesus returns to judge all people.

Just as Ezekiel’s prophecy gave hope to the downhearted people of Israel, so too the word of God gives hope to people today. The gospel, at the heart of which stands the resurrection of Christ, is a prophetic promise that what God did for Jesus, so too he will do for those who are followers of Jesus. So whatever happens to you in the future, if you are a disciple of the Lord Jesus, you can face all things, even death, with the hope of eternal life in your heart. The resurrection of Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament hope of deliverance from Sheol and eternal life in the land of the living.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Meaning of the Name Yahweh or Jehovah

Yahweh is the most probable reconstruction of the divine name יהוה (see “The Reconstruction of the Pronunciation of the Divine Name Yahweh”). This name (pronounced incorrectly as Jehovah—see “The Mispronunciation of Yahweh as Jehovah”) is considered by Jews to be the supreme name of God, so sacred that they dare not pronounce it. Instead of speaking the name יהוה they substitute the name Adonai, which means Lord or Master. The Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, followed this tradition, and translated יהוה as κύριος, which means lord. From this Jewish usage has come the tradition followed in most English translations of the Bible where יהוה is translated as LORD or the LORD (i.e, the three letters o r d in LORD are written in small capitals).

The tradition of avoiding the pronunciation of God’s name is understandable—the sin of blasphemy is a serious sin—but at the same time there numerous psalms which actually call upon God’s people to bless or praise the name of Yahweh (e.g., Ps 113:1–3; 116:4, 13, 17; 129:8; 135:1; 148:1, 5, 13). Furthermore, by avoiding the name, the meaning of the name Yahweh is masked, and an opportunity to understand an important aspect of the character of God is potentially lost.

So what does the name Yahweh mean? The word יהוה is associated in Exod 3:14 with the Hebrew expression אהיה אשׁר אהיה, which means I am who I am or I will be who I will be. אהיה (ehyeh) is simply the first person singular form of the Hebrew imperfect verb היה (hayah), the Hebrew verb to be. The third person masculine singular imperfect form of היה is יהיה (yihyeh), which in turn looks and sounds like it is related to the divine name Yahweh. It seems, therefore, that the expression אהיה אשׁר אהיה is a word play on the divine name. This suggests in turn that the name Yahweh originally meant he is. Yahweh is not so much the great I Am but the great He Is.

But in what sense is Yahweh the great He Is? Some have suggested that the name Yahweh communicates the eternal existence of God. While it is true theologically that Yahweh is an eternal being, this is not the best explanation of the sense of the name Yahweh.

The expression I will be with you in Exod 3:12 preempts the expression I am who I am in Exod 3:14. This suggests that the meaning of the name Yahweh is (in part) connected with the idea of God being present with his people.

But there is more to the meaning of the name Yahweh than simply the idea of God’s presence with his people. In Exod 6:2 God says to Moses that he “appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty; but by [his] name Yahweh [he] did not make myself known to them.” Some people have suggested in the light of this that the patriarchs did not know God by the the name Yahweh. But this contradicts Gen 4:26 where it says “at [the time of Seth] people began to call upon the name of Yahweh.” Genesis 4:26 suggests that very early on in human history the name Yahweh was known by human beings, and used in the worship of God. We also have the name Yahweh used on the lips of Noah (Gen 9:26), Abraham (Gen 12:8; 14:22; 15:2, 8; 21:33; 22:14); Sarah (Gen 16:2, 5); the angel of Yahweh (Gen 16:11); and other angels (19:13). We also have Yahweh identifying himself as Yahweh to Abraham (Gen 15:7), or using the name to refer to himself (Gen 18:14; 22:16). So, if the biblical text is accepted as being an accurate record of historical reality at these points, then clearly the patriarchs knew and employed the divine name Yahweh.

According to Exod 6:2–8, the significance of this name would be revealed through the events of the exodus. God spoke to Moses and said to him:
“I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty; but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am Yahweh, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am Yahweh your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am Yahweh” (Exod 6:2–8).
The idea that God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai (rather than Yahweh) is derived from the language used at various points in Genesis. God appeared to Abraham in Gen 17:1, and identified himself as El Shaddai. In Gen 28:3 Isaac blesses Jacob by the name El Shaddai. Jacob had wanted to know God’s name (Gen 32:29); but God appeared to him shortly thereafter, identifying himself to Jacob as El Shaddai, and changing Jacob’s name to Israel (Gen 35:9–11; see also Gen 48:3).

The name El Shaddai communicates something of the destructive potential of God and his power, but Yahweh was going to reveal a different aspect of his character through what he was about to do for the people of Israel who were at that time being oppressed by the Egyptians. But how would the events of the exodus reveal the significance of the name Yahweh?

It is true that God’s power would be revealed through the events of the exodus (see Exod 9:16; 14:31), but God’s word to Moses in Exod 6:2–8 emphasizes how God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt was going to be in fulfillment of the promises of the covenant that God had entered into with Abraham, Isaaac, and Jacob previously. Yahweh would keep his word. He had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would deliver their descendants from oppression, and take them to the promised land. This was what Yahweh was about to fulfill.

In this way, the exodus deliverance was going to show that God keeps his promises, and this lies at the heart of the meaning of the name Yahweh. God is I am who I am in the sense of I will do as I have promised. In the exodus, therefore, Yahweh displays the meaning of his name, the Ever-Faithful God, the God who keeps his promises.

Yahweh = He Is (Faithful)

Monday, April 11, 2011

What is the New Covenant? The Concept of the Covenant of Peace in Ezekiel 34

Disoriented, distressed, and perhaps even depressed. Exiled to Babylon, Ezekiel and his countrymen would have been wondering: How did this happen to us? What’s gone wrong? Why have we lost our land? Why have we been exiled?

When things go wrong, when tragedy strikes, it’s natural to ask the question why. But often when we ask that question, sadly there isn’t a clear or satisfactory answer. Like when a child is born with some kind of defect, or when people lose their lives in accidents. The scientists or the police can often explain how, but the question of why still remains. Why? Sometimes we don’t know why. But for Israel, the situation was different. For them, the why of their situation was very clear … because God wanted it to be clear. God sent prophets to the people to clearly point out why. And the answer that the Old Testament prophets gave was crystal clear. Israel was in exile because Israel hadn’t been living in accordance with her obligations under the covenant.

Ezekiel 34 explores an important aspect of this covenant failure. Israel is pictured in this chapter as a flock of sheep. Her leaders are pictured as shepherds. Shepherds are supposed to look after the sheep, but that is not how the majority of the leaders of Israel had acted. Instead of taking care of the sheep, the leaders of Israel had been using the sheep for their own benefit. Instead of feeding the sheep, they had been feeding off them.

In Ezek 34:3–5 God indicts the shepherds of Israel:
You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they becme food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
That is, except for God. The kings of Israel might have led the people astray; but if an important part of the failure of Israel could be linked to ungodly shepherds, then the solution was for God himself to be Israel’s shepherd. This solution is found in Ezek 34:11–15 where God says:
I, I myself will search for my sheep, and I will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered … And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel … I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.
Here we have God promising that he personally would come to take over the role of leadership in Israel. And this is connected in Ezek 34:23 with God establishing over Israel “one shepherd, [his] servant David,” who would feed the sheep, and be their shepherd.

In the light of Ezek 34:23 it is clear that when Jesus came proclaiming himself as the Good Shepherd, he wasn’t just picturing himself as a shepherd because he liked sheep, or because he thought that it was a good metaphor. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd” because he wanted his opponents and the Jewish people to understand that he was the fulfillment of Ezek 34. He was the shepherd king, of the line of King David, who has come to bring God’s people back.

And it is significant that this time of God himself coming to seek and to save his lost sheep is connected in Ezek 34:25 with the idea of “a covenant of peace.”

Covenant is a concept that is very important for an understanding of our relationship with God, and for understanding the overall message of the Bible; but sadly the idea of covenant isn’t heard very often in churches today. In fact, the word covenant isn’t used much at all in the whole of the English language these days, except perhaps in the fields of law and theology. But when we read the Bible and want to understand God’s plan for the world, we have to deal with the term covenant. The word occurs some 301 times in the ESV translation. The Hebrew word for covenant (ברית) occurs 286 times in the Old Testament. So if you’re reading the Bible, you’re bound to encounter the idea of covenant.

But what is a covenant? The history of this word in English goes back to the Old French word convenant which means coming together. In biblical usage, a covenant is basically an arrangement between two parties wherein one or both of the parties solemnly bind themselves to act in a certain way within a relationship. The word translated as covenant in our Bibles can also be translated as treaty, alliance, pact, or compact. In the ancient world covenants were often legally-binding, written agreements that spelled out the privileges and obligations of each party in the relationship. And usually, as part of such an agreement, the parties committed themselves to faithfully keep their obligations to each other by placing themselves under the threat of a penalty, in the form of an oath or curse, and this would often be symbolized by the slaughter and cutting up of a sacrificial animal.

And this is exactly the kind of relationship that Israel had with God. God and Israel had entered into an agreement with each other about the nature of their relationship at Mount Sinai, after God had rescued Israel out of slavery in Egypt. God and Israel entered into a covenant with each other. The ceremony that took place at that time is recorded in Exod 24. This covenant was renewed on the plains of Moab before Israel entered the promised land after the forty years wandering in the wilderness. This renewal and expansion of the covenant on the plains of Moab is recorded in the book of Deuteronomy.

This covenant, which the New Testament calls the old covenant (2 Cor 3:14), was a legally-binding written agreement between God and Israel in which God promised to bless Israel on condition of Israel’s obedience and to punish her on condition of disobedience. Moses makes this clear in the book of Deuteronomy. At the conclusion of the final sermon that he ever preached, Moses called out to the people:
Look, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of Yahweh your God that I am commanding you today, by loving Yahweh your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and Yahweh your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish (Deut 30:15–18).
The book of Deuteronomy testifies that obedience would lead to life and blessing, but disobedience would lead to the fulfilment of the curses of exile and death. If Israel kept God’s commandments, that is, if they were committed to following God’s word in their life, then they would experience the blessing of being God’s people living in the Holy Land.

Now some Christians think that it was impossible for Israel to keep this covenant with God, but this is to forget how God provided a means for the forgiveness of sin as part of the covenant itself. The different animal sacrifices that could be offered at the temple (the burnt offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering) all had atonement or reconciliation as a significant part of their function. The old covenant made provision for the forgiveness of sin. It was a covenant of grace. But despite this, the old covenant still proved to be a catastrophic failure on a national level. Because of Israel’s lack of commitment to God and his way, being led astray (as we see in Ezek 34) by ungodly leaders, the curses of the covenant came down upon Israel, the climax of which was exile to a foreign land. Because Israel was not holy as God is holy, they lost the privilege of living in the Holy Land.

The consequences were tragic. Famine, death, destruction, exile. Yet, in the midst of this awful tragedy, God never gave up on his people. In a quite wonderful way, at the lowest ebb of Israel’s relationship with God, God continued to send prophets to his people to announce a period in the future when Israel would be restored to life in a perfect and permanent relationship of obedience to God. God would not abandon his people to the punishment they deserved. He would come to bring them back. This time of restoration of the old covenant relationship between God and Israel is what the Old Testament calls the new covenant.

The phrase new covenant only occurs once in the Old Testament, in Jer 31:31; but both Ezekiel and Isaiah speak of the new covenant three times as a covenant of peace (Isa 54:10; Ezek 34:25; 37:26). Even more popular than covenant of peace is the phrase everlasting covenant, which occurs six times altogether as a reference to the new covenant (see Isa 55:3; 61:8; Jer 32:40; 50:5; Ezek 16:60; 37:26).

It is difficult to understand God’s purposes for the world without understanding the concept of covenant, and perhaps the best illustration for us today about what a covenant is all about is the concept of marriage.

Marriage is a covenant, and God’s relationship with Israel is like a marriage. The wedding ceremony took place at Mount Sinai. There both parties promised to love each other exclusively. Sadly, however, from when the honeymoon was not yet even finished and for over 600 years onwards, the marriage between God and Israel was on the rocks. Like many bad marriages, it ended up in separation, when the northern kingdom of Israel was exiled by the Assyrians, and then over 100 years later when the southern kingdom of Judah was defeated by the Babylonians. But in the midst of this period of separation, God kept sending letters to his sweetheart, Israel, saying that he wanted her back. Indeed, he promised that he would arrange things so that Israel would come back. The problem that led to the breakdown of the marriage was Israel’s unwillingness to obey God, but God promised that he would act to make Israel willing to obey him, so that in the end Israel would experience wonderful blessing in a restored relationship with God.

This new stage in the marriage, this time of blessing and peace within the relationship, is what the Bible calls the new covenant. And this is why the New Testament is called the New Testament, where testament is just an alternate word for covenant. The New Testament is simply the collection of books and letters that proclaims and explains the arrival of the new covenant. The New Testament is the historical record of the beginning of this wonderful, new stage in God’s marriage not just with Israel, but with all the nations of the world.

The new covenant is the fulfillment of God’s positive purposes for his creation. This is indicated in Ezek 34:25–31, where various positive consequences of the new covenant are delineated. The result of the covenant of peace is security, prosperity, blessing, and intimacy with God:
I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. And I will make them and the places all around my hill a blessing, and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land. And they shall know that I am Yahweh, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them. They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid. And I will provide for them renowned plantations so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the reproach of the nations. And they shall know that I am Yahweh their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares Lord Yahweh. And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares Lord Yahweh.
When you think about it, the Bible, with this movement from the old covenant to the new covenant, is telling us that the history of the world is basically one big, fantastic love story! It’s a story that moves from love rejected to love rekindled. And the exciting thing for Christians is that we, like Israel, are in this covenant relationship with God. We are part of this love story!

The New Testament teaches that Christians are in a covenant relationship with God; but we relate to God no longer on the basis of the old covenant, but on the basis of the new covenant. There has been a change from the old relationship characterized by unfaithfulness and disobedience on the part of Israel to a new relationship where the church has the power of Christ’s new life working in us to lead us back to God and to love him. Jesus is the one who has made the difference. He’s the one who’s saved the marriage, so that God’s original promise of blessing might be fulfilled. The overarching purpose of what God is doing in the world is breathtaking in its scope. It is something for which we ought always to thank God.

But, at the same time, understanding the concept of covenant can also help us better understand, not only the place of Jesus in God’s plan, but also the nature of our relationship with God, and what God desires to see in us. Think about it. If the church is like the wife in the divine marriage covenant, then what is our role in this relationship? What is required of us, and how are we to live? Well, like a wife loves her husband (or at least is supposed to), the job of each individual Christian is to love God, to be faithful to him, and (like women used to pledge as part of their marriage vows in earlier times) to be obedient.

Jesus picks up this idea in John 15 when he said to his disciples: “as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love ... These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:9–11).

At the heart of the new covenant for the believer is the constant discipline of striving to love Jesus and to live in obedience to him. As we love God, we experience more of his love for us, and we have joy in our hearts. But the key on our part, as always, is faithfully following the Lord Jesus and his way of life in the context of the grace of the cross.

This is a key part of what the new covenant is all about: God’s people loving and obeying God as he has revealed himself to the world in the person of Jesus, and the resultant benefit of experiencing great blessing in intimate relationship with God. Jesus is the one who has saved the marriage. He died on the cross to atone for our rebellion, and through his resurrection he has brought new life into this relationship. But to benefit from this, we need to be participating in the new covenant in a positive way. If you’re not a follower of Jesus yet, you need to become one. And if you’re a follower already, you need to keep on following. Christians need to be committed to the covenant with God, and to find joy in being faith-full rather than faith-less, in being covenant keepers rather than covenant breakers. This is our responsibility and privilege within the new covenant of peace and blessing that Jesus died to achieve. Christians, honor Jesus’ death on your behalf by honoring him as your Shepherd King. This is what Jesus has come to achieve.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Theme of Judgment in Ezekiel 7 Read in the Light of Hebrews 10:26–31

In the world today there are many people who don’t understand that the Creator of this world exists, and that he has created our world for a reason. Key among those reasons, according to the Bible, is God’s desire to express himself. God created the world in the first place because he wanted to share the knowledge of who he is, and what he is like, with creatures made in his image with the express purpose that they might be able to know and appreciate this. To this end, God has directed the history of the world in such a way that, despite the presence of evil, this world, in the wisdom of God, is the perfect world for achieving his purposes of self-revelation.

In other words, God has made this world with the express desire of revealing his character to us human beings. The book of Ezekiel, for example, teaches us that God is glorious and majestic. It tells us that God desires to live with his people. Christians obviously find these positive characteristics of God attractive, and it is amazing to consider that God has achieved his plan of being present among us through Jesus, our temple, the visible image of invisible God among us. And speaking more generally of the character of God as it is revealed in the Bible, all Christians are aware, and many non-Christians too, that God is a God of love. In fact some people think that God is so much a God of love that he never raises his voice!

God can be warm and fuzzy, but is that all there is to God? What about the scarier aspects of his character, like his holiness and justice? The Bible doesn’t just encourage; it also warns. And Ezek 7 is one of those passages from the Bible that hits hard. Ezekiel 7 is one of those passages of the Bible that screams out “Warning!”

Most people don’t like being warned. How many soccer players do you see chasing after the referee, asking to be given a yellow card? And how many soccer players are happy when the referee gives them a yellow card even if the referee was justified in giving it? As children growing up, I’m sure there would have been times when you didn’t listen to the words of warning and discipline from your parents. The Bible frequently warns, but it does so for our benefit.

Ezekiel 7 warns us because it speaks about judgment. The theme of judgment is a prominent theme in Ezekiel, and in fact a prominent idea in all of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. The scary thing about judgment that is communicated in the Old Testament is that God is clearly revealed as being a God who judges and punishes. And if that were not scary enough, it is even scarier to realize that God is a God who judges his people! Didn’t the Apostle Peter say that judgment begins with the household of God (1 Pet 4:17)? There are many privileges in being God’s people; but being close to such an awesome, holy, and powerful God is also a dangerous place to be.

That God is a God who judges his people is very clear in Ezek 7. In fact every verse of this chapter speaks of judgment. In v. 3 God says: “the end is upon you ... I will let loose my anger upon you and ... judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations.” Verse 5 announces “disaster after disaster”! Verse 7: “your doom has come upon you!” Verses 8–9: “Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways ... my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity.” And vv. 15–16 continue the theme: “The sword is without; pestilence and famine are within. He who is in the field dies by the sword, and him who is in the city famine and pestilence devour. And if any survivors escape, they will be on the mountains, like doves of the valleys, all of them moaning, each one over his iniquity.”

Judah was going to be punished by way of military defeat, and this was fulfilled just six years after the proclamation of this prophecy when the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem, and took many of the Jewish people away into exile. Clearly God is a God who judges his people. But why?

In asking why God judges his people, Amos 3:2 provides an interesting starting point. Here God says to the people of Israel: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for your iniquities.” You can just imagine Israel saying: “Thanks, God. You’re going to punish us, because we’re special. Thanks!” But it makes sense: parents discipline their own children, not the children of others.

The fact that God judges his people is explained by the special nature of their relationship. Because the nation of Israel was in a special relationship with God, they would be judged by God in accordance with the agreement that they had entered into with God at Mount Sinai. The covenant established then clearly spelled out the consequences of sin and rebellion. For example, from Lev 26: “if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, then I will do this to you,” followed by 24 verses of bad things.

The covenant made between God and Israel at Sinai, and confirmed in the plains of Moab before Israel entered the promised land, clearly spelled out that the experience of the blessings of life in intimate relationship with God could only be experienced on the condition that God’s people were committed to obeying him. Their relationship was like a marriage. Unfaithfulness, especially unfaithfulness to God in the form of the worship of other gods, would seriously jeopardize the happiness of the relationship. As the covenant agreement delineated, God would judge Israel on the basis of whether or not they remained committed to their relationship with him.

Keep the covenant, and be blessed; break the covenant, and be punished. Punishment in this covenant relationship was always a possibility, but it is interesting to note that in the vast majority of instances God’s punishment was not meted out straight away. In dealing with rebellious Israel, the Old Testament shows us that God in his mercy and forbearance was prepared to put up with sin for a time, in order that the human race might continue, that Israel might continue, and that people might come to repentance. The fact that it was 800 years from the time of the sin of the golden calf until God had finally had enough of Israel’s continual rebelliousness, and expelled them from his presence in the land, speaks volumes about God’s long-suffering patience.

God is clearly a God of justice and judgment, but at the same he defines himself as one who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger ... forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6–7). God always gives people a chance to repent and receive forgiveness.

This is implied in Ezek 7:9, where God says: “I will punish you according to your ways, while your abominations are in your midst.” This leaves open the option for the people to remove their ungodly abominations, in order to escape punishment. God is always prepared to forgive, but forgiveness is given on the condition of repentance.

The Old Testament clearly teaches that God is a God who judges his people. That’s a historical fact, but the question for us is: Is God still like that? Christians are part of God’s people too, so is God a God who judges us Christians?

What do you reckon? Has God changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament? There are some Christians who think that back in the Old Testament God was a God of judgment, but today it’s different. After all, doesn’t the Apostle Paul say that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1)? There are people who, on the basis of that verse, like to think that as long as they believe in Jesus it doesn’t matter how they live.

So what do you reckon? Has God changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament? Can God still punish his people today?

The message of the New Testament in this regard is clear. God has not changed in the crossover from the Old to the New. If anything, God’s judgment of his people now is potentially even more severe than back then.

But maybe you’re thinking: Mmm, how can this be? Isn’t God a God who dearly loves me? Yes, it’s true to say that God dearly loves his people, but we need to understand that we Christians are also in a covenant relationship with God.

One of the most helpful New Testament books to explain this is the book of Hebrews. God teaches us through the book of Hebrews that Christians are also in a covenant relationship with God. Sure, we no longer relate to God on the basis of the old Mosaic covenant, but on the basis of the new covenant in Christ. But the new covenant is the fulfillment of the old covenant, and operates with the same relational dynamics. Under the old covenant, entrance into God’s presence was restricted. It is only under the new covenant that humanity can actually be seated before the presence of God in heaven. In Christ we regain, and even heighten, the degree of glory that Adam once experienced but lost back in the garden of Eden. But with this greater degree of access into and privilege before the presence of God comes greater responsibility.

That is why the author to the Hebrews says in Heb 10:26–30:
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.”
Hebrews 10:26–30 clearly presupposes that it is possible for Christians to break covenant with God. Breaking covenant with God means profaning the blood of the covenant, which is the blood of none other than Jesus himself (Heb 10:29). God views the blood of his son as precious! It was not split on the cross lightly, and God will avenge himself upon those of his people who break covenant with him, who treat the blood of the Son of God without respect.

Christians we have received knowledge of the truth, therefore we must not continue deliberately in sin (Heb 10:26). We need to persevere in faith and repentance. Ezekiel 7 and Heb 10 stand, therefore, as warnings to all Christians. Make sure that you’re not living a lie, saying you’re a Christian while not living as one. To say that we belong to God when we aren’t concerned about striving after a holy life is hypocrisy. God loves us dearly, but both the Old and New Testaments teach that God’s saving love can be withdrawn from those who spurn his grace and mercy through stubborn disobedience.

This may sound shocking to some, and I hope it does to many. The truth is that, just like Israel of old, Christians who break covenant with God will be judged and dealt with. That’s a scary thought, but at the same time we need to be confident in the grace and mercy of God, and also in the truth of the perseverance of the elect. The key in all of this is perseverance in faith and repentance. That means every day being concerned to walk in God’s way, and being disciplined in repenting of sin. The Apostle Paul who said “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” also said: “Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise, you too will be cut off” (Rom 11:22). We should never take God’s grace for granted, even though grace is (by definition) something that God grants to the undeserving.

So be warned! The Old Testament prophetic warnings also apply to Christians. It is wrong to presume that they don’t. “These things … were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:11–12). Or as Paul said to the Galatians, after talking about the works of the flesh, such as fornication, idolatry, hatred, jealousy, drunkenness: “I warn you, as I warned you before ... those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God … whatever a person sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal 5:21; 6:7–8).

Christians need to remember that judgment begins with the household of God. Each one of us one day will have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and give an account. On that day God will be looking for a genuine covenant-keeping faith in his people: not merely an intellectual faith, but a faith based in the heart flowing to all areas of our life; not just a cultural faith, but a faith that is real and genuine, that makes a difference to how we live. If you are in rebellion against God, and are not concerned to repent of your sins, you have no right to presume that God’s saving love and mercy is yours. Remember that Jesus said: “if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (John 15:10); that if we do not abide in him and bear fruit, we will be cut off from the vine, thrown into the fire, and burnt up (John 15:6); that whoever hears his word but does not do accordingly is like the foolish man who built his house on sand instead of rock (Matt 7:26).

So in the light of Ezek 7 (and the rest of Scripture) … how have you been living lately? Have you been endeavoring to keep covenant with God? Have you been endeavoring to live the life of faith? Have you been depending on the grace of God so as to walk in obedience, confessing your sins to God on a regular basis? Then you have nothing to fear concerning God’s judgment. Your sins have been forgiven through the blood of Christ. But if your faith has not been genuine, if other things are more important to you than keeping the commandments of Christ, then tonight God is warning you: turn away from your ungodly way of life, and return to him, and start walking again in the newness of life.

As the author to the Hebrews says: “it’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31)! Remember: God cannot be mocked! He knows your heart, and the day of judgment is coming. Be reconciled to God before it is too late! Don’t forfeit your heavenly inheritance through stubborn rebellion, but through growth in godliness make your calling and election sure (2 Pet 1:10).

I acknowledge that the theme of judgment isn’t the most palatable idea to many people today. This can be seen in the fact that some people criticize fire and brimstone type sermons as out of date, and possibly even offensive. Maybe, but it’s good for Chrisitans to be warned every so often. It’s good to be shocked out of the complacency that can often envelope our lives.

It’s a bit like the stories you hear about the good old days, how when a young kid was in trouble with the law, the local copper would give him a good kick up the pants, and a stern word or two, before taking him back home in disgrace to the parents. The way people tell it, a good kick up the pants from the local copper straightened out the wild kids real fast. I acknowledge that being warned is not necessarily a pleasant experience, but if God kicks us up the pants once in a while, who are we to complain? It’s actually for our good.

Remember: “it’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”! In the light of this fact, therefore, we need to resolve to take our relationship with God seriously. Being in, and staying in, a right relationship with our “awful” yet loving God is a wonderful privilege, but a privilege that should not be taken lightly.