In the previous study we had a sharp reminder that there are two kinds of divine promises. There are those promises that are universal – for instance the one given after the flood that we would never face such a thing on earth again, and the rainbow to remind us of the promise. Then there are the other promises, the dependent promises. Promises that depend on something happening. The promise of salvation to us depends on repentance and acceptance of the saving work of Christ on the cross.
The promise to the land of Israel, we discovered last time, depended not on heredity as an Israelite, but on the ‘inner circumcision’ of the heart. As Paul so succinctly put it: he is a Jew who is one inwardly.
Therefore say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.’
They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a new heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.’
Then the cherubim, with the wheels beside them, spread their wings, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. The Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the exiles in Babylonia in the vision given by the Spirit of God.
Then the vision I had seen went up from me, and I told the exiles everything the Lord had shown me.
We can see here that this scripture brings us to the end of this particular vision and message of Ezekiel. It is hard to work out how long all of this took. I wonder at whether or not Ezekiel was alone in his bed when his spirit was returned to his body. More likely, at least one of the elders that had been in his home earlier had stayed with him to care for him, or appointed someone else for it. Remember, this whole experience was also something that the elders saw was happening to Ezekiel, and I already described some thoughts about how they may or may not have felt about it all.
The chances are that they were very glad to see that Ezekiel was back to normal, conscious and able to tell them what had happened. And so he most likely had a very ready audience who heard the message of this vision and prophecy.
This, of course, was the intended audience – the exiles in the land of the Babylonians. They maybe had some hope that one day they may be allowed to return to their homes in Israel. But, as I pointed out at the start of these studies, many among them felt despised by God and abandoned.
So now, here comes a prophecy that at first glance may have fed right into their hopes. But, when I sat and thought about it for a while, I realised that it is not quite as straightforward as it seems. There is a tendency to read scriptures in a black-and-white kind of idealistic way. But real life isn’t like that. There are many grey areas, whether we like it or not.
For a start, I began to realise that not all the exiles would be glad about a prophecy to return to Israel. As I mentioned in the earliest studies, some of them would have ‘gone native’ in order to improve the prospects for their lives and families. This would have meant accepting the foreign gods and showing, even swearing, allegiance to the foreign authorities and rulers. Maybe even beginning the process of working towards citizenship of Babylon and all the privileges that could bring. They may have thought of their neighbours as being crazy for sticking to the ‘old ways.’
But with the words of God comes a spirit of power. It divides between those who, in their hearts, want a god like ours, who want to find the Lord, and those who want to rule their own lives because, in so doing, they believe themselves to be free. Yet what freedom is it really? To have this ‘freedom’ they had to bind themselves to the enemy. For everyone else, it was the beginning of the realisation that the time of the enemy was going to be limited.
But there is more than this – the power of the words of God is such that it can turn hearts. This is what it actually says in the prophecy itself: “I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh,”
So this means what it says – and its application is like this: for those whose lives are going in the wrong direction, there is the opportunity to recognise this fact, and to turn around, and begin to follow the Lord. Even in Old Testament times, it seems, you were only lost if you chose to be – if you wanted to be. The ‘gospel’ of this message of Ezekiel was preached to the exiles, and they now had a choice for their lives. And so do we.
As what I write here is addressed in the main to believers, then it means two things in particular for us. First, it means that we should not write off anyone that we know in our lives. Our job is not to judge anyone, but rather to present Jesus to the world and his love. This is done mostly by the way we live, the love we present to others, and by the way we are good neighbours and friends. By how we care, help the needy, and are willing to make sacrifices. Just forcing Jesus down the throats of people diminishes the gospel, and shows a lack of respect. It makes you look like an idiot – and frankly with such behaviour you behave like an idiot. The gospel deserves more respect, and the people around you deserve more respect.
If you are willing to be as a servant, to love and care for those around you, and to give without expecting in return, then this alone will open the hearts of those who meet you and get to know you. Hearts that would otherwise be as stone to the gospel, when they hear it from you – those same hearts may now be hearts of flesh.
You can go to a person’s home and shout the gospel from outside – disturbing all the neighbours and showing yourself to be a bad citizen and an idiot. Or you can be a good citizen, a good neighbour, a person who sees problems and who helps – and so you can be someone who gets invited into the house. In the house, you can show respect and find that questions are asked about what makes you different. Well, of course, you will be different if Jesus lives in your heart and you live your life like Jesus, right?
Some are appointed by God to be evangelists in ministry. The rest of us are appointed also to be evangelists – but our ‘day job’ is something different. So how do we evangelise? By being those loving, forgiving, and caring people that Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount. Our very lives can point people to Jesus – and that is awesome! Praise God!