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!


Lisa said...

Hello. I just read your sermon, I'm assuming, and it has blessed me much!
Thank you for applying "Immanuel" to our life in the here and now.
I am a Christian school music teacher and am wondering if I could use part of your sermon as the theme of our upcoming Christmas concert? We have many songs with the word "Immanuel" in them and would like to use some of your words to spread the truth of Immanuel.


Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Lisa,

Yes, the content of this post has been adapted from a sermon that I gave earlier on this topic. I’m glad that you’ve found it helpful.

Feel free to use whatever content from this post in your concert. I pray that it will go well, and that the truth of Immanuel will be proclaimed through it to the children and everyone else involved.

Many blessings,