By Simon ManchesterSunday 6 Sep 2020Christian Growth with Simon Manchester
I have a small card on my desk at home. A young mother of two wrote it to me. As far as I know, she is not a Christian, and she had the experience of first of all seeing her husband become a Christian and then, the great tragedy of having him die quite suddenly and leave her and these two children. So the little card is a reminder to me that there are burdens or difficulties which are brought to bare which prohibit slick, lightweight, superficial answers. It’s also a reminder to me that the resources that I have, or that we have is all too deficient and that we need to ask God to, again and again, carry the challenge or the weight that He has brought to bare on His people.
I say that to you because as we come this morning to the vision of Ezekiel, we see that God allows something to take place which seems disastrous. He then provides what is needed, so that the people might cope and grow. Also, He uses the whole situation to create a witness in His servant and in His people who would not have come about, except through this particular means.
Ezekiel Chapter 1:1 is our vision. You will see there; in the thirtieth year, says Ezekiel, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River (that is in what we would call Iraq, ancient Babylon), the Heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. The vision prepares the individual for service of a very wonderful kind, but it also teaches instructive things about God’s glory.
We need the glory of God revealed in His Word for us, because the church, as you know, is getting more and more man-centred across the world and if you look at the books which are selling popularly in the bookshops, you will find that so many of them are just self-help books. You will find that many of the talks that are being given are just little light pep-talks and what is needed is something of the meat and the weight of the character of God.
This great subject will not only honour Him so that we will see Him rightly, but it will also sustain us through tough times, and it will also give some impact to those we mix with. I want to look with you at the vision under three headings this morning.
- What God allows
- What God reveals
- What God sends or commissions, as a result
What God Allows
Now the context of this vision, the setting, is crucial for appreciating it. What has taken place, as we have already been told, is that there is a massive upheaval, with the people of God lifted by the enemy and taken off into hostage territory. Not only are the people of God exiled and rejected and discouraged, but Ezekiel himself is in a little personal crisis because he was training for the priesthood. Now he has been removed from the very temple centre where he might have exercised any ministry.
Now let’s think about these two. The first is the exile.
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God’s people in Ezekiel are well down the Old Testament story. You have to remember now that we have said goodbye to Abraham, we have said goodbye to Moses, we have said goodbye to Joshua, we have said goodbye to David.
The people of God have moved into the Promised Land, and you would expect that that would be as secure as God Himself, and now they have been whisked out of the Promised Land, and they are in absolute perplexity.
The prophets had warned the people of God that their ungodliness would bring serious consequences, but the prophets, unfortunately, were ignored. These prophets have proven to have spoken the truth. The Babylonians have moved in. They have carried away approximately 10,000 of the cream of the Israelites and Ezekiel is one of those people. Here they are. They are in captivity. It’s a remarkable thing that as we read our papers today and we read of hostages in Iraq we are looking into our Bibles today and we are seeing hostages in Iraq (or ancient Babylon) in about 592BC. People of God, hostage, prisoner, outside the Promised Land.
As they were taken off to captivity, they must have asked questions like this;
- Did God lose?
- Has the overthrow meant that God’s promises and plans all finished?
- Is the Promised Land now a thing of the past, in which case the whole plan may be a thing of the past?
- Is this the end of God’s people?
- We no longer have access to Him. How are we meant to worship Him?
It’s a terrible experience, unimaginable to us and perhaps immeasurable, very different from just travelling to another country. This is the dispersal of a people whom God said He would centre in the Promised Land.
Then there is a crisis for Ezekiel. As you see, in Verse 3, training for the priesthood, and just before he can begin his service, which takes place from the age of 30-50, on average, he is whisked away from the very spot where he might work. If you could imagine a doctor being lifted up and taken off into the desert, with no supplies and being told, ‘Now, do your job’, here is Ezekiel being lifted up and taken away from the very place where he can do his job and for him, it is a personal crisis.
This is an unusual situation because the people are feeling great powerlessness and that means that the message of Ezekiel and Daniel, which are given to exiled people of God, is significant for us today.
One writer points out that 50 years ago, it was relatively normal to call yourself a Christian; it was abnormal to call yourself an unbeliever. Now, in my lifetime, which is just a little over 50 years, that has completely turned 180 degrees. It is now very normal to call yourself an unbeliever, and it is quite abnormal to call yourself a Christian. It’s hard to find a Christian in the classrooms that our Scripture teachers go to. Finding a Christian in many companies is hard. Finding a Christian in our football and cricket teams is hard.
Although there are Christians around us that are speaking of revival (and I was sitting next to a man on Friday night who told me, that at his church, they have 65 conversions every week) and I must say my reaction to that was delight, if it’s true, but just astonishment that it could be true, because it seems that the reality is that the church is marginalised and in the exile situation. We are not, as it were (as someone said), Peter, on the verge of Pentecost. We are Ezekiel and Daniel, in the place of marginalised, exiled.
This is a very significant subject. What God allows His people, in the 6th Century BC to go through, is a judgement. He says, in 2 Chronicles, that He sent His Word to them, again and again, because He had pity on His people, but they mocked God’s messengers, despised His Words, until the wrath of the Lord was aroused, and there was no remedy and He brought up against them the King of the Babylonians.
He is putting His people through a kind of a fire, which is going to purify them, and Ezekiel himself is not there by coincidence. He is thereby providence. He is about to be made a prophet. We would say this is, in some ways, a promotion. No longer is he going to represent people to God with the sacrifices. He is now going to represent God to people, with the Word. He has a very great job to do.
What God Reveals
That leads me to what God reveals, secondly, this morning. The vision in Chapter 1 is so weird and so strange that it may even seem to you to be quite stupid and maybe you will lose patience with it. It would be of course cause many people outside the church to think of the Bible as a reasonably nutty book, which they have always thought, and for irrational people. Fire, creatures with four faces, four wings, flashes of lightning, intersecting wheels, a throne of sapphire and a figure of a fiery man on a throne. It is a bizarre image, isn’t it?
People have wondered in their writing in the past whether Ezekiel was hallucinating. Cynics might wonder whether Ezekiel had been smoking or taking something. However, I want to urge you not to be too snooty about the Scriptures too quickly, because if you are like me, and you have great bewilderment about modern art, it nevertheless communicates to many people.
We need to appreciate that biblical literature, which is called apocalyptic literature, also communicates very powerfully. Not all biblical literature is just plain history. Not everything in Scripture is just the Rembrandt type of portrayal. Apocalyptic literature, which means a revealing or an unveiling, is the word behind the Book of Revelation, which has much apocalyptic literature in it as well. These symbols in apocalyptic literature speak, or convey, often, a thousand words, with their symbols in a way that is very meaningful indeed.
Before we look at the symbols, however, notice that in Chapter 1:1, that Ezekiel sees God, although Ezekiel is hundreds of kilometres from the Jerusalem temple.
Now that may not surprise you, because we have known, even from the time of Solomon, that God is too big to live in a temple. The Bible tells us, through Solomon’s prayer, that God is much too big to be contained in a box like a temple. However, still, the temple was the place where God said he would meet His people and that’s where you would meet God. We don’t get to choose where we meet God. We meet God where He says He will be met and He decides how and where we will meet Him. And the meeting place, He says, is the temple in Jerusalem.
However, now we discover that Ezekiel, well away from this temple, is meeting God in Babylon. We will find, if we were to keep reading Ezekiel, in Chapter 10, that the glory of God has actually left the temple and God is presenting Himself now to the exiles. However, this crucial subject is summarised in a word in Verse 3: ‘there’.
There, a long, long way away, the hand of the Lord was upon him. I think, is the most significant word, in some ways, in the Chapter: that Ezekiel, cut-off from the exiles, sees and experiences ‘there’, the hand of the Lord.
It seems, from Verse 1, to have been his thirtieth year, so God has not forgotten this young man. He is just giving him a new job, as I say, as a prophet and not a priest. The impact of this is unfolded in Chapters 2 and 3.
There are the people of God, being given what they need, although they think they are cut-off, and the servant of God has been given something even more wonderful, although he felt he was cut-off. The details of the vision are compelling if you think about them.
Verse 4: there is the brilliant light, an obvious sign of the glory of God and this Chapter is full of light and fire.
Verse 5: there are the four living creatures. Some of the details of the four living creatures are hard to be dogmatic about but at least we could safely say that they are heavenly. They have the wings like the vision that Isaiah received. However, they also have very earthly faces. The face of a man (Verse 10), the face of a lion, the face of an ox, the face of an eagle. We can safely, and I think without any quibbling, say that if they have four faces that face four directions, there is something global about these creatures.
There is something heavenly, there is something global and the fact that the four creatures are the supreme creatures in creation;
- the man (being the pinnacle of creation),
- the lion (the king of the beasts),
- the ox (the leader of the domestic animals),
- the eagle (the king of the air)
We could say that these faces indicate a superiority, a greatness, a strength, even perhaps a royalty.
These four creatures, heavenly, earthly, are in perfect symmetry, entirely co-operative. As we read in Verse 12 and Verse 20, they do precisely what the Spirit tells them to do.
Not only that, we see that there is some space (Verse 22) above these creatures and there are the wheels (Verse 15). The wheels, which as one writer said, are very like castors, or gyroscopes. They can move precisely in the direction which they desire. They are adaptable. They are mobile.
When you put all this together, here is Ezekiel being given a vision which is very bright and very radiant, and apparently of something glorious. He is also being given an image of heavenly, earthly creatures, in symmetry, co-operative, under the influence of the Spirit. He also sees this mobility, this adaptability, this moveability (with the wheels). He also sees the expanse above and the throne at the very top, with this figure on the throne.
You wouldn’t need to work too hard to say that by the time you have read the vision, you could be reasonably reassured by these details. It is a very reassuring vision. I will give you some proofs of this.
Do God’s people think they are defeated and that God Himself is defeated? Answer; here is a picture of the glory of God, in the very context of exile.
Has God lost control of His world? Here are creatures, heavenly and earthly, more spectacular than anything that could be seen on the earth, completely orderly. Are they cut-off from God, so He is helpless to contact them or to reach them? No. The wheels show that God can come and go, with total freedom.
Theologian Don Carson says 2,500 years before the mobile phone, here we see in Ezekiel, the mobile throne. Is God demoted? Has King Nebuchadnezzar replaced him? No. The throne is so high, so secure, so glorious, so wonderful, that even in symbolic terms, Ezekiel is overwhelmed, and falls on his face.
So you see, you read this vision, bizarre as it seems on the first reading, and God is fearfully great. He is present. He is sovereign, and He is entirely exalted. The wonderful thing is that He wants to communicate that to His exiled people. They don’t deserve it; they can’t earn it. It is given to them as a part of God’s kindness. He wants them to know that He is as He is so that they might continue to trust Him and to be faithful.
Now when we read these details, as Christians you have to ask yourself – is God communicating these same truths today?
In other words, it’s one thing for God to have said this in the past. Does He say it today? The answer is, that in a straightforward reading of the New Testament, He makes the same points to us today, even more wonderfully.
So we see His glory, according to the Bible, in the world around us. We see it in His Word, but we also see His glory in the person of Jesus, because the disciples of the first century tell us: we have seen His glory and now we are writing about His glory. He came to live among us, say the disciples, we saw Him, we heard Him, we touched Him. There are historical realities that we have recorded for you. Be assured by them.
How do we see the sovereignty of God? Well, we see the sovereignty of God again in His Word. We see it in His genius, overruling all the events of His Word. We see it in His promises that He is working everything for good so that we might know that He is working everything for good. We see it, supremely, of course in His overruling of the opposition to His Son. And out of the opposition to Jesus comes this remarkable salvation, this wonderful victory, the proof for all time, that God is the Master of oppositional forces.
I was talking with a man recently, and I asked him how he became a Christian. He said, ‘I became a Christian because someone explained to me the swap of the cross. When I understood the swap of the cross, that’s when everything fell into place. I suddenly realised that all that I had done was placed on Christ and all that He deserved was offered to me. A simple swap of the cross.’ He said, ‘I had been sitting in church for decades, even singing in the choir and never understood the great victory, the great success of the cross.’ That, of course, is the great proof to us that God is sovereign over all events.
How do we get assured that God is able to come to us, to be near us, to draw near to us? Ezekiel, as we know, was shown this with the wheel illustration. Isaiah asked the same question, in Chapter 40: why do you say my way is hidden from God? Is it possible that God can’t see what’s going on in our circumstances or that He is too small to help us, or that He is too unwilling to reach us? Impossible.
The Gospel provides us with news of His availability, of His interest to the limit. And not only the news of the death of Christ, but also the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. So Jesus said: I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you. The Comforter will come to you. He will live in you, and He will live in you forever.
One pastor was able to write to his member of the wider church, who had just been bereaved and say,’I can’t get to you. The distance prevents me.’ However, then he went on to say this: the Holy Spirit has already begun His work of comfort in your life. That is the great confidence for the pastor or the believer that the Spirit of God gives us this wonderful access to God’s fellowship.
How does God communicate the throne? We see something of this in the resurrection and the ascension, that Jesus is raised, exalted, to the right hand of God as the psalmist in Psalm 2 says, ‘I have installed my King’, and therefore, it is quite ludicrous to think of Him being toppled or unseated.
These things don’t give a quick fix. But be assured they do give us the precise piece of information that we need. If you can imagine, soldiers in the trench of battle and they are cold and tired, frightened, and they are unhappy and missing home. They are fiddling with their radio, their two-way radio and suddenly they discover that there are massive resources on the way to help them and that the enemy has been reduced to almost nothing and this simple piece of information transforms their experience in the trenches. It hasn’t lifted them quickly out of the trenches, but it has changed their perspective and their attitude in the midst; and that is what God does for His people, through His servant.
God Sends, The Commission
The last thing is His sending. In Chapters 2 and 3, we see the effect of the vision on Ezekiel because he is told, in Chapter 2 to stand on his feet and God will speak to him. As God speaks (Verse 2), the Spirit of God comes into him.
The prophet Ezekiel is given the job of going to the people of Israel. He is not given the job of going to the Babylonians, although that might have been easier and sometimes the foreign missionary has the easier job in this sense: that he goes to people who are hungry and receptive and teachable, while the person like you or me stays home in this very secular and rebellious and neo-pagan city,has the hard job of talking to people who have no hunger or interest whatsoever.
Ezekiel has a job very similar to ours. He has to speak to the rebellious. He is given a scroll (in Verse 9) which has writing on both sides – words of lament and warning and woe – and to take in the word (literally, or symbolically), he has to eat it. Then, he can speak it. So this is his commission after the great vision. He has the job of passing on the weighty news of the greatness of God. He has a scroll, covered on both sides (probably because he is not to add to the Word of God). He has an obligation to speak, whatever the reaction, to tough and rebellious people.
However, Verse 9 of Chapter 3, God is going to make him hard or strong, so that he is not to be afraid or terrified, although they are a rebellious house.
The success of Ezekiel is going to be the faithfulness of Ezekiel, not the numbers. That’s the need today.
The need today is not that we would somehow pretend our circumstances are different. We are not asked today to do something beyond us. We are just asked to do something responsible, which is to take the message which we have been given, the Word that we have been given, of a very great and gracious God, a God who is not only in Heaven but has visited the earth, who is not only great in power, but gracious in character. We are to take that message to the people that we can. We don’t need big numbers with lightweight theology. We need just a few people, with heavyweight biblical theology.
Let me close by reading a disturbing paragraph to you. I hope you will find this a challenge, from a book that I am reading called ‘Hard questions… real answers’. He says this, on the basis of the fact that there is a third of American people claiming to be re-born.
‘The vast growth of evangelically-minded people should, by now, have revolutionised American culture. With a third of American adults now claiming to have experienced a spiritual rebirth, a powerful counter-current of morality, growing out of a powerful and alternative worldview, should have been unleashed in factories, offices and boardrooms, in the media, the universities and the professions, from one end of the country to the other. The results should by now, be unmistakable: secular values should be reeling, and those who are their proponents should be very troubled.
However, as it turns out, all of this swelling of the evangelical ranks has passed unnoticed in the culture. The presence of evangelicals in American culture has barely caused a ripple.
That, of course, is the danger of an all too lightweight Christianity, which we are certainly capable of experiencing and practising here. However, what is called for is a heavyweight view of God, from people who are living a heavyweight Word of God.