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.

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