Ezekiel 29:13-16 and The Lord of the Whole World

ancient-egyptI have to admit, there are times when I read through the Bible that I forget that the Lord is God over the whole world. Sure, I know that there is only one God, therefore logically the Triune God would have to be the God of the entire world, but sometimes it is easy for me to focus exclusively on the Jewish people. Often times it seems that the Lord only looks out for the well being of Israel and all other nations are brought into judgment because of their mistreatment of Israel or their sins before Israel was around.

That is why it is refreshing to me to read verses like this one in Ezekiel:

13 The Lord God proclaims: At the end of forty years, I will gather the Egyptians from among the nations where they are scattered. 14 I will improve their circumstances and bring them back to the land of Pathros, the land of their origin. Egypt will be a lowly kingdom there. 15 Out of all the kingdoms, it will be the lowliest. It will never again exalt itself over the nations, and I will make it small to keep it from ruling the nations. 16 The house of Israel will never again bring guilt on itself by faithlessly turning to Egypt for help, for they will know that I am the Lord God.

Sure, there is an element of judgment here, but the Lord will bring Egypt back out of exile and resettle the people in their land. This is a promise of good news for Egypt. God will care for Egypt and restore Egypt as well. It is a good reminder to me that the Lord watches over all people. It is also a wonderful reminder that prophecies from the Lord are true, for this is the situation of Egypt today–never again has it been a world power, but a minor nation.

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Ezekiel 23:39-41 and The Difficulty of Holiness

The prophets in the Bible have a lot of very disappointing news and depressing situations they have to confront in their ministries. Reading through the Bible on a schedule for the year brings to light how sinful the Jewish people were, which led to their exile. This passage in Ezekiel shows yet one more dimension of the unfaithfulness of the Jewish people:

39 When they slaughtered their children for their idols, they came into my sanctuary and made it impure on that very same day. They actually did this inside my temple. 40 They even sent for men who came from a great distance. No sooner than a messenger was sent, they arrived! For these men you bathed, you painted your eyes, and you put on your jewelry. 41 You took your place on a splendid couch with a richly set table in front of it, and you set my incense and my oil on it.

The people made horrible, detestable sacrifices in the Temple of the Lord. They had pagan worship and child sacrifice to false gods in the very Temple to the Lord. And they used the incense and oil that were specifically for the worship of the Lord, forbidden to be used for any other purpose, and used them for whatever they wanted.

There was no distinction in the minds of the people of what was holy and what was not holy. Everything was equal. Nothing was set apart for the Lord, whether space or items for worship.

The difficulty here is that we have the same problem today in much of Protestantism. We have no sense of the sacred or the holy. Everything is on the same level. Of course, this reflects the spiritual truth that everything is holy because it all belongs to the Lord, yet the reality is that when everything is holy, we tend to see nothing as holy because it has lost its distinctiveness.

Many of our churches today are created to look like every other building with a large gathering room, or the ones that have an actual sanctuary treat that room like any other room in any other building. Our preachers either dress like every other Gen-X/Millennial in jeans or business people in suits. Except for the subject material, a worship service could be any rally for any reason or cause (and even the subject material in much of our churches could pass off for a self-help session instead of worship).

The reason God called his people to set apart certain spaces and certain items for worship as holy was to remind us that  he is holy, we are called to be holy, and there is a difference between being holy in this world and not being holy. The few things that were set apart as holy were to remind us that ultimately everything ought to be holy and is in a process of redemption. But when we make the leap to say that, since it is all holy and therefore everything is equal in the eyes of God, practically nothing becomes holy to us. The Church begins to look like the rest of the world.

We have even celebrated this fact by saying that people shouldn’t have a “stumbling block” that would separate them from Christ, so we should make everything in church look identical to the rest of the world. Then people will not feel uncomfortable in church. Jesus made people feel uncomfortable all the time! He made them so uncomfortable they killed him. And this is true of virtually all of the earliest apostles. The early Church intentionally set itself apart from the society around it though different worship and prayers. They did not mirror the culture; they transformed it.

A very good friend of mine, Dr. Robert Tuttle, is fond of saying, “We remember and we forget; we remember and we forget. But mostly we forget.” This is why the sacredness of worship is important. It helps us remember that God is holy, calls us to be holy, and we are to be distinct from the culture around us–so much so that the power of the holy God among us can transform the culture to reflect him. Think about this in your own life and see if it is true.

Which of these two images conveys more a sense of difference from the rest of the world? For full disclosure, the one on the right is Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois and the one on the left is St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

 

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Ezekiel 20:41 and How the Lord is Revealed to the World

atheist-agnostic-56209170227_xlargeHow many times have you heard, “I would consider believing in God if I could just get some proof that he exists”? This seems to be a typical mantra among people who want to sound open-minded, but have the luxury of not making a decision at all. It is easy to place the blame on agnostics for choosing not to make a choice, or atheists who have chosen not to believe in God, as having come to an incorrect decision on their own. After all, faith is a personal matter and we all have to make our own decisions, right?

Look at what the Lord says through Ezekiel to the Jewish people, though, after they have experienced God’s judgment, learned their lesson from unfaithfulness, and are living in exile:

41 When I bring you out from the nations and gather you from the countries where you are scattered, I will accept you as a pleasing aroma. Through you I will be made holy in the sight of the nations.

It is through the faithfulness of the covenant people that God will be made holy in the world. It is when the people called by his name actually live up to that calling that the rest of the world will know there is a difference between living in relationship with God and not living in relationship with God. It is when we are faithful that the rest of the world will know the Lord is God.

Jesus made a similar statement when he said that the world would know we are his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:34-35). Everyone in the world is responsible for making their own choices concerning God, but we bear much of the blame for not allowing them to make an informed choice. We have withheld the evidence that shows God is real and makes a difference in our lives. In the West, we have created a version of Christianity that looks just like our culture, whether on the right or the left of the political spectrum. And our cultural Christianity has infighting just like the right and the left of our culture. The ones in the middle remain silent, just like our culture. And the our culture decided that they could live exactly how they do now without any added burdens of losing a Sunday morning out of their schedule or giving money to another charity.

We bear much of the blame for not showing our culture that there is a difference in being a follow of Jesus and not being a follower of Jesus. How to do that is much more involved than can be communicated in a blog post. If you would like to continue this conversation, you can contact me here.

I would just leave you with a prophetic word from Ezekiel 16:49-50 that also has meaning for us in the West today:

49 This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy. 50 They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.

Ezekiel 9:3-6 and God’s Mercy During Judgment

ezekiel-vision-merkabaReading through Jeremiah and Ezekiel it is easy to get the idea that every single person in Judah and Jerusalem had fallen away from the Lord and they all were destroyed or severely punished for their guilt. It is difficult to remember that the Lord is full of mercy and love. Thankfully, this passage is in Ezekiel right before the destruction of Jerusalem happens. The Lord commissioned a squad of beings to go through the city and begin to pour out his judgment on the inhabitants, but before they go this action occurs:

The Lord called to the man who was dressed in linen with the writing case at his side: Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and mark the foreheads of those who sigh and groan because of all the detestable practices that have been conducted in it. To the others he said in my hearing: Go through the city after him, and attack. Spare no one! Be merciless! Kill them all, old men, young men and women, babies and mothers. Only don’t touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary. So they began with the men, the elders in front of the temple.

God still makes a distinction between those who worship him and those who do not worship him, those who are grieved at the idolatry in Jerusalem and those who are not. God takes notice of our lives, our intentions, and our hearts. Stay true to the Lord and he will mark you as his own.

Compare this to a passage in Revelation and you will see that the Lord will mark those who worship and serve him. Will you be marked?

Ezekiel 3:17-21 and When is it ok to Judge

GAVEL_SCALESX390Christians in America have a reputation for being judgmental. This is somewhat deserved. There are many different behaviors and attitudes that are described as sinful in the Bible and Christians, for the most part, have not shied away from sharing that information with others. In fact, I would venture to say that many of them believe they are fulfilling the role set forth to Ezekiel in this passage:

17 Human one, I’ve made you a lookout for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from me, deliver my warning. 18 If I declare that the wicked will die but you don’t warn them, if you say nothing to warn them from their wicked ways so that they might live, they will die because of their guilt, but I will hold you accountable for their deaths. 19 If you do warn the wicked and they don’t turn from their wickedness or their wicked ways, they will die because of their guilt, but you will save your life. 20 Or suppose righteous people turn away from doing the right thing. If they act dishonestly, and I make them stumble because of it, they will die because you didn’t warn them of their sin. Their righteous deeds won’t be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for their deaths. 21 But if you do warn the righteous not to sin, and they don’t sin, they will be declared righteous. Their lives will be preserved because they heeded the warning, and you will save your life.

“We are following the precepts of the Bible in sharing with people what is sin, just as a lookout declares impending destruction,” they would say. Then they could point to Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 to further support this position that it is a part of our Christian duty to proclaim sin as sin and call it out.

Each of these three passages, Ezekiel, Matthew, and 1 Corinthians, all have one thing in common: they are directed towards a group of people who are intimately known by each other and a part of the covenant community together. Ezekiel was sent to his community of exiles in Babylon to prophecy to them. The Matthew passage specifically references when a fellow Christian sins against you, and the attempt of reconciliation, and the 1 Corinthians passage is about sin within the Church at Corinth. None of these passages is about sin in the society at large, only within the covenant community (Israel or the Church), and then even more specifically only among people who know each other. Ezekiel did not act as the lookout for the exiles in Egypt or Assyria, only those he knew in Babylon. Matthew does not write that Christians anywhere could bring anyone from anywhere else before the Church for judgment. 1 Corinthians does not allow the Corinthians to judge the Christians in Ephesus or Rome. This is very personal, and very close to home.

As well, the main thrust of the Matthew passage is what Jesus says to Peter and the disciples after this statement. The point is not that we are to judge, but we are to forgive–even if the one seeking forgiveness is abusing our forgiveness! We have been forgiven by God, therefore we must forgive others. If we do not forgive, then we will not be forgiven.

Finally, there is the passage in Matthew 7 where Jesus says

Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.

The passage in 1 Corinthians has the whole Church come together for the judgement (which is explicitly only directed towards those inside the Church). The Matthew 18 passage has the Church come together for judgment. The Ezekiel passage has a prophet explicitly sent by the Lord, who can only speak when the Lord opens his mouth to speak. In each case it is obvious that the Holy Spirit is guiding the decision and judgment made–a judgment only on those inside the covenant community who are personally known to all the others involved in the process.

Why is this important? Because we do not know the circumstances of anyone else’s life. Their obvious sins may be the least detestable things with which they are struggling and having victory over through God’s grace in their lives. But if we, as Christians, try to take the moral high ground and single out someone else’s sins, we ought not be surprised when God singles out our own sins for judgment (even if ours are more hidden sins than someone else’s sins). And this is just dealing with others inside the Church who we do not personally know who have sin.

We are explicitly told in 1 Corinthians we are not to judge those outside the Church. Without the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives we have no hope of overcoming sin in our own lives. Why would we expect those who do not have the Holy Spirit to live up to the standard of holy living and then judge them when they fail?

But are we not supposed to act as a lookout or watchman like Ezekiel? If God has personally spoken to you and commissioned you to a specific people group you know to act in that capacity, yes. Anything short of a direct, divine commission would have to answer no. Why? Because as Jesus said in John 16:8 that it is the Holy Spirit that convicts people of sin, not us. We have a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-21), not a ministry of judgement.

Does this mean we are soft on sin? No. It means we are large on love and share in the ministry of Jesus Christ, our head.

Ezekiel 2:3-5 and Fulfilling Calling and Responsibility

phone-callSometimes I think we make it more complicated than it is to fulfill God’s calling on our lives and live up to the responsibility he gives us. Perhaps it is because we see in the Bible and in ancient and modern Church history stories of how people did mighty and amazing things for God. Perhaps it is because of fear and insecurity. Whatever the reason, Ezekiel gives us a reason to think differently about it. God comes to Ezekiel while he is in exile in Babylon and calls him to preach to the other exiled Jewish people there. Part of his calling follows:

He said to me: Human one, I’m sending you to the Israelites, a traitorous and rebellious people. They and their ancestors have been rebelling against me to this very day. I’m sending you to their hardheaded and hard-hearted descendants, and you will say to them: The Lord God proclaims. Whether they listen or whether they refuse, since they are a household of rebels, they will know that a prophet has been among them.

That is a tough calling to live out and a lot of responsibility. These people are exiled because of unfaithfulness to the Lord. They have been captured, led away, lost everything they owned, no longer have a home–all because of their unfaithfulness–and Ezekiel is sent to them to preach to them. I would imagine there was some trepidation on Ezekiel’s part with this task the Lord has given him. If the people would not listen when they were in Judah and Jerusalem and had an opportunity to repent and avoid this punishment, why would they listen now?

But notice what the Lord says. It does not matter whether the people accept what you say or not. You will be faithful if you do what I say and speak to them. Their response is their responsibility. Your obeying me is your responsibility.

That really takes the burden away from Ezekiel. He is only responsible for himself and his faithfulness to God. This is as it is with all of us. We are only, ultimately, responsible for being faithful to the Lord in what he has called us to do. Obviously we want to fulfill that calling in the best way that we can so we fairly and accurately represent the Lord as his faithful ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:13-21), but other peoples’ responses to what God has called us to do is their responsibility, not ours.

God has called us all to love and to share the Good News with others. What their response is to that message is between them and God. We need to make sure we are being faithful to what God has called us to do.

Lamentations 3:40-42 and The Right Response to Discipline

slide-12Reading through Jeremiah and Lamentations can be very depressing. The Lord sent warning after warning that he was about to punish the people of Jerusalem and Judah for their sins, giving them every opportunity to turn from them and turn back to God. Yet every warning was met with more of the same kind of action and attitude. Finally, the destruction happens and the people are carried off into exile just as God had forewarned them through Jeremiah.

It is at this point, in Lamentations, that we find the first right response from the people:

40 We must search and examine our ways; we must return to the Lord.
41 We should lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven.
42 We are the ones who did wrong; we rebelled. But you, God, have not forgiven.

Here, finally, there is a recognition that it was the sins of the people that brought the judgment down upon them. Finally they recognize that they are the ones who were in the wrong, not God. Finally they understand they are the guilty party here.

But notice the last sentence in the last verse. God has not yet forgiven them. This is because it is one thing to recognize our guilt and be convicted of our sins, it is quite another thing to repent. Even feeling sorry for the sins and the wrongs we have done is not repentance. Recognizing our need for a savior is not repentance. True repentance is turning from our sins and to God. The sorrow, the guilt, and the need for a savior all are necessary parts of turning towards God, but without actually turning away from the sin there is no repentance.

Many times in churches across America people feel convicted of sin and recognize their need for a savior. They go forward, pray, and are declared forgiven and now a Christian. Yet these same people, after the emotional high of that experience wears off, find themselves still struggling with the same sins they have always had. This is because there was no real repentance, there was no turning away from the sin and towards God. The prerequisite for truly converting and becoming a Christian is to repent, believe, and confess; not feel guilty, believe, and confess.

Just as God gives us his grace to come to him, God also gives us his grace to truly repent and turn away from our sins. We must avail ourselves of that grace. Sometimes his grace is enough for us to turn our backs on that sin by ourselves and be freed from it in an instant. Sometimes his grace comes through the working of other Christians in our lives, acting like the Body of Christ in bearing one another’s burdens, to pray for us and support us and hold us accountable to exercising God’s power in our lives to turn away from that sin.

Without true repentance, though, we are left in the same position as the Lamentation above. We feel guilty and recognize we are where we are because of our sins, but God has not forgiven. Guilt alone is not enough. We must repent.