We have already examined the introduction to the book and the whole of the first vision of God that was experienced by Ezekiel. The main purpose of that vision was the commissioning of Ezekiel as a prophet to his people. We also saw that it clearly was an indication that the Lord had not ‘forgotten’ about his people, nor had he abandoned them. He still wants to bless his people and prosper them, but first they need to hear his voice and renew their commitment to him, turning away from all false gods.
After the first vision, Ezekiel was taken, perhaps miraculously, to the settlement of Tel Aviv. The meaning of this name, which of course is also the name of the modern capital city of Israel, is ‘hill of the spring’ – so maybe Ezekiel was taken to a place of refreshing after being rather overwhelmed by that first vision.
But the time of resting was not so long. After a week his ministry began in earnest. And this is where we begin today, with our reading: Ezekiel 3:16-21
At the end of seven days the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, “You will surely die,” and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.
‘Again, when a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling-block before them, they will die. Since you did not warn them, they will die for their sin. The righteous things that person did will not be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the righteous person not to sin and they do not sin, they will surely live because they took warning, and you will have saved yourself.’
What happens for any person starting a new job? The first thing is some kind of guided tour of the place of work and then a beginning of training into what is required for the work. Even if it is something that a person is well qualified to do, and has had experience of in a similar role with a different employer, yet each employer has their own systems and protocols. So there is always some training in the new environment.
In a sense, that is exactly what is going on here, with this word being given to Ezekiel. He is receiving instruction about the work of his ministry.
There is again some interesting discussion about how the word came to Ezekiel. We are told clearly, at the beginning of the gospel of John, who and what the Word of God is. It is for this reason, among many others, that I refuse to use the tradition of calling the bible the word of God. Here in our text, more specifically, the translation and the original say the word of the Lord, and this word ‘Lord’ is the tetragramaton YHWH. So some commentators have said that there is sufficient difference between this and what we read in John’s gospel to say that this is not pre-incarnation Jesus talking with Ezekiel.
On the other hand, other’s say that this is a possibility that we should not rule out. And what better way to be trained than for another person, appearing in human form, coming to Ezekiel to bring him his instruction and training. I am always interested to think what it is that the prophet actually means – not only Ezekiel, but any of them – when they speak of how the words came to them. It was certainly not always only ‘discerned in the spirit,’ although that is, for certain, one of the main ways that the prophecies were delivered. But there were also the visions and visitations, like with the vision we have already studied. In some places there were dreams, and the dreams often not given to the prophet, but another person. This is how the prophetic ministry of Daniel began. Suffice to say, God is not limited in the ways he can deliver his words to the prophet or to any of us today.
For many, the message of this training of Ezekiel is a familiar one. It is often a text that is quoted for Christians young in their faith, to give them a sense of urgency about spreading the gospel. And yes, this is out of context in many ways. And because this use is out of context, there are many Christians who carry a guilt about the person or persons they did not speak with and who, it is believed, died in their sins. Even, sometimes, because of this to carry a feeling that they will have to answer for this on the day of judgement, because surely the blood of that person will stand against them.
But I would say, stop this thinking!
First, we are not all Ezekiel and called into a ministry as a prophet. Second, please note that part of this ministry was to be the watchman for the Israelites, but not all who still followed the Lord were called to this. And so, third, this requirement that was laid on Ezekiel is not required of us all.
It is the same in the church today. For one thing, there is the five-fold ministry: apostles, evangelists, prophets, pastors and teachers. Not all are called to the ministry of evangelism. Some never receive any of these five callings. There is a problem in that, for many churches, all five of these anointings are expected to be placed on one person, and that simply is just not what the Lord wanted. But there is also a problem with placing the responsibility of such anointing and ministry on a young Christians, or one who is not appointed by God to such a thing.
Yes, I know that there are texts that can be quoted about doing the work of an evangelist, and that we all have to be able to explain the faith we hold in our hearts. There is the general commission in Mark that is often quoted also – but it is just that: very general. How this is organised is what we read in Acts and the letters. Here we learn more specifically that people are called to different ministries, and only some to leadership, and so on. If you have the opportunity to lead someone to Christ, then of course it is better to speak up. And also, remember that Christ gave himself for us out of love, and so draw the person to the Lord through love, not by trying to scare them!
And here we begin to see the problem with taking such a commission and ministry, and then treating it as though it is for everyone. Some people simply are not good at talking to people that they do not know. Some people are not even a good ambassador for Christ and the gospel, and they need to put their own lives right first. Some people are too impatient with other people. Some assume that they are perfect and so have the right to criticise the imperfections of others and explain that they are going to hell because of this…
Oh boy!… What a mess the church has made by bringing this pressure on the unanointed and young in the faith. And what a bigger mess by adding a layer of legalism and judgement on top of that. It is no wonder that many in the world want to run a mile away from any public Christian singing and street evangelism.
But, on the other hand, if you know that you are called by God to be an evangelist. If you have received this ministry, and it is recognised within the body of Christ, then I would certainly say that this warning and training given to Ezekiel is directly relevant to you.
But let’s just take one more look at the context here. Who was it that Ezekiel was being sent to? Was it the world? Was he to make converts and add many proselytes to the faith? No! Ezekiel was being sent to his own people – the Israelites. To those who were chosen by God.
So to really take the context, this warning and training being given to Ezekiel is appropriate as a context only within the Lord’s people. So it is within the church, folks, and not actually about evangelism – if we wish to update the context as a relevancy for Christians. So, if you see someone in the body of Christ doing evil – then they are in danger of judgement for this. If you do not speak up, this will be accounted to you….
OK… so ‘this is telling the truth in love’?
This training came only after Ezekiel was commissioned as a prophet to the Israelites. So have you first been commissioned as a prophet in the church? Has the Lord anointed you into that ministry? No? Oooops…. Better think again then about ‘telling the truth in love.’
There is only one circumstance for you to do this directly, of yourself, to a brother or sister in the Lord. This is when they offend against you personally. So this is when you personally speak out, telling the truth in love, that you were hurt or offended by what they did personally against you (and no, this does not give you the right to say to a gay person, who has never done anything personally offensive against you, that you are ‘offended’ by them. That is simply bigotry).
You can say sorry in case you inadvertently did or said something, without realising it, that caused the actions or words that hurt you. But you want to try to make things right between you. If this is not well received, and if there is still a problem, then that is the time to approach the leadership of the church for help.
But too often, a person is approached by a self-righteous idiot and told that they are living a life of sin because of one thing or another, and that they better put it right.
No, no, no! This is judgement. This is pride and arrogance. God does not bless these sins. The whole situation can cause more harm than good.
And how about this: try to give some credit to the leadership team that they may already know about this! There are some awful leaders out there, but many do care and visit new Christians, or new members or attendees. There is a responsibility to get to know the people who are now coming into the church on a regular basis. And because of this, problems are usually recognised and already being spoken about and dealt with.
But then to have a random person from the congregation come and say something judgemental… This is scary for many people! It can make them feel like ‘everybody knows’ about the worst things in their lives. It makes them feel that everyone is talking and gossiping about them behind their back. There are many unhelpful thoughts and feelings that arrive to a person spoken to in this way, especially if they are new to that church or community.
The unfortunate truth is that there are many who were being helped through some difficult times and through some personal difficulties and habitual sins, but who now do not attend any church. Their faith is, well who knows? And why? Because they now did not have the courage to return to the congregation, where all may be judging them and saying and thinking bad things about them. Or, at least, that is how it would feel to them after being attacked by the sinner who could not resist the temptation to ‘tell the truth in love.’
So, to sum up the context – and to say why this is not ‘telling the truth in love.’First, this was to a person called to minister to his own people, the people God has chosen. This is not a word about the whole world. Second, it is for a person specifically called to the ministry of prophet. Thirdly, you are not a prophet and you still wish to speak to the other person? You better make sure that it is because of something they did that directly affected you, offended you or hurt you. NOT because you saw a sin in their life – just look in the mirror and see the sin in the person there first! If it is the latter, that you discerned a life of sin, habitual sin, or grave error – then your first course of action is to approach the pastor or elder and ask if this is something they know about. The leader should, of course, advise the informer not to speak or gossip about this to anyone. The leadership team, if this is new knowledge, can be much more gentle about this and bring the subject up in conversation in a non-threatening way.
But of course, I will not ignore that these verses have often been used in reference to evangelism. Again, most are not called to or anointed for that ministry. But we all can share the gospel if the opportunity arises. The main thing is to be natural, be friendly, be loving. No-one likes anything to be shoved down their throat by someone else! If you can’t be friendly and nice – please be aware you may be doing more harm than good!