Can These Bones Live?
...That was the question asked of Ezekiel, the prophet, as he peeked over the valley of dry bones, which represented the spiritual status of Israel. The tribes consistently gave themselves to the worship of one thing, and it was not the Lord. Whether it was an Asherah, a hand-crafted goddess, (1 Kg. 16:33), Baal, the god of Canaanite tribes (1 Kg. 16:31), or the created order (Ezek. 8), Israel had dried up their hope with the worship of foreign and false divinities. They had forsaken the God of living water in exchange for broken cisterns that could not satisfy, and for this, their bones, hope, and covenant with God dried up (Jer. 2). The scene is grim; the bones are rotted and clogged with sin, and as any good mortician knows, dry bones do not have the power to bring themselves to life, and neither does Israel.
While the picture in Ezekiel is directly applied to the nation of Israel, it is startlingly illustrative of every human's spiritual condition. Paul, in his letter to the church at Ephesus, a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, reminds them of their spiritual status, "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked... and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Eph. 2:1,3). There it is, "dead...like the rest of mankind." Israel's status is not unique but normative to the world. All people are suffering from the same condition of dry, sinful, spiritually dead bones. The question of Ezekiel 37 is then raised, "can these bones live?" Can humans who love their sin be raised to walk in the newness of Life? The answer comes from Ezekiel's mouth, "O Lord God, you know" (37:3)
O Lord God, You Know
Ezekiel's response to the lord is a desperate realization of humanity's inability to seek God. He knows God will have to work a miracle to bring Israel to covenant life with him. Therefore, God steps in and tells Ezekiel, "I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live...I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live" (Ezek. 37:5,14). The mechanism of God's intervention is his Spirit, also referred to as his breath. The spirit is the enabling key to Israel's spiritual awakening and health, and apart from him, their bones will be left to rot. Not only this, the spirit empowers Israel to know the Lord and enter into the land (37:14). The Spirit plays an incremental role in the believer's initial response and perseverance in the Christian life. The spirit is always at work--from causing their bones to live; to helping them walk, to even preserving them till the new heavens and new earth. The Spirit is a necessary factor in the whole life of the believer, and anyone who calls upon Christ as their savior will be blessed by understanding his complete work in their lives.
Bones that Live
Turning the graveyard of Ezekiel 37 into a garden of life is no small task, but it is nothing God had not done before. In Genesis two, when God had not caused a plant to rise, he "formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" (Gen. 2:7). While Genesis two is a world away from Ezekiel's graveyard, as sin has not caused Adam's bones to dry up, God initiates physical creation the same way he initiates spiritual creation, by breathing life into their mortal bodies. This sets a precedent for God's intervention--if mankind is to live and breathe, they must receive breath from God. In the same way, if they are to have any delight in the gospel, they must receive the spirit of God. The physical and spiritual life are both inaugurated by the Spirit.
The apostle John has much to say about the reviving work of the Spirit in his gospel. He starts by telling the audience how the Spirit relates to belief in Jesus, he writes, "to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (1:12). On its own, this verse raises a question. Which one comes first, the believing or the right to become children of God? The following verse is helpful: "who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (1:13). This verse clarifies that the believers in Jesus are not doing so on their own initiative but God's. The second verse is the ground or the cause of the first verse; the reason that people are believing in Jesus, according to John, is God has provoked them to. This work of God is fleshed out when the reader gets to the scene of Jesus and Nicodemus in John three. Jesus uses very similar language, but this time he explicitly gives credit to the spirit: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of the water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God...The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:5,8). It is the spirit that brings someone to believe the gospel and experience new affections for God. No one can manipulate true belief in Jesus, for the spirit is like the wind. And only the Spirit will produce a genuine response to the gospel.
This work of the spirit is often called regeneration. This term is used by Paul when he says, "He saved us...by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). Often, with this teaching of regeneration comes the question, "how does a Christian know they are regenerate or are experiencing regeneration?" The answer is simple, belief. If a person is believing in Jesus, as John 1:12 says, it is because God has caused them to. Of course, there are qualifications to this, for example, people who never truly believe but appear to be believers (1 John 2:19). But in the case of Christians who genuinely repent and put their trust in Christ, they can have the assurance of baring a regenerate heart.
Reflection question: Tangibly, how have you seen the spirit provoke affection for God and conviction of sin in your life? If you have not, why do you think that is?
Bones that Walk
God, in working his resurrection miracle of the valley of dry bones, brings a structure and strength to the Israelite's former dead selves. The Lord says, "I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you and cover you with skin" (Ezek. 37:6). This infers that the bones will not only live and breathe, but walk, act, and be faithful to the Lord. The Lord's work of new life empowers believers in obedience to God. Followers of Christ do not live on their own power but by the support and strength of the spirit.
Paul picks up on the perpetual work of the spirit at the end of Ephesians three. He praises God, saying, "Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power [the spirit] that works within us" (3:20). The spirit is the power that enables believers to do all that the Lord asks. The spirit can be considered the engine to the car of the Christian life. As the engine runs, so does the Christian. Similarly, Paul instructs the Philippians to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 3:11-12). Even Paul's admonishing requires the work of the spirit. He understands that the Christian life is fruitless and vain apart from him. The spirit hold's the Christian life together by motivating and preserving it in faithfulness to the Lord. The mark of the Spirit is consistent obedience and repentance of sin. As he continues to work in a Christian's life, he will continue to refine them into the likeness of Christ, cutting away sin and enabling greater works for the Lord.
Reflection question: Do you see the Spirit igniting obedience to the Lord in your life? If so, what specific area of your life do you see the Lord calling you to do his work? If not, what steps can you take to get in tune with the Spirit?
Bones that Hold
As the bones begin to rise from the grave, God gives a promise, "I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken and I will do it" (Ezek. 37:14). The new birth of the Spirit comes with the most excellent inheritance, a promise of eternal life in an eternal land with the eternal God. The immutable guarantee of eternal life is then attached to the work of the Spirit. To rephrase Jesus, "all who are born again, will enter the kingdom of heaven" (John 3:3). The Spirit brings a culmination to his initial work of regeneration, glorification.
Jesus discusses the ever-present work of the spirit with his disciples, "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper [the Spirit], to be with you forever" (John 14:16). The promise of the spirit is not limited to the awakening of the soul. Instead, he is steadfast in the Christian's life. He will not leave the believer to walk on his own but will hold him firm in the gospel of grace till his last breath. Paul's confidence in the faithful work of the Spirit exudes from his writing: "I am sure of this, the he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). The work of God is in the believer by the Spirit, and God will bring his work to fruition. All who receive his promised Spirit are bound to receive his promised land. A wonderful promise, all who have been awakened by the Spirit, will be held fast by the Spirit.
Reflection question: How does the steadfast work of the spirit bring comfort to your life? How do you see this practically affecting your experience through trials and adversity?
Testing the Spirits
These doctrines surrounding the work of the Spirit are enlightening and comforting to believers, but how do Christians know if they are relevant to their lives? 1 John gives us some insights. John writes, "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (4:1). Followers of Christ are to examine the spirits that are at work within them. John then reveals the way to test the spirits: "By this, you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God" (4:2). The person who possesses the spirit will confess faith in Jesus Christ. A Christian who is looking for the work of the spirit should initially look at their faith. A person who has the spirit is someone who trusts in Christ. This is not the end of the Christian life, but it is the beginning. Therefore, if you are looking for the work of the spirit in your life, believe in Christ, and experience the Spirit that gives life and breath to your bones.
Grace and peace,