The Gospel Among the Dry Bones

As we have seen over the last several posts, God has given us a glimpse of the coming gospel, the coming new covenant, the coming Christ in the pages of the Old Testament.  But God also pulls the curtain back a little farther in places, and delivers clear and straightforward promises about what the coming message of good news will be like.  In Ezekiel chapter 36, we see one piece of the future new covenant; the promise of a new heart and a new Spirit.

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ez 36:26-27).  What a promise!

In the very next chapter, God gives the prophet Ezekiel a stunning visual of what this new breath of life in God’s people will look like.  God brought Ezekiel out to a valley that was full of dry bones; “very dry” according to chapter 37 verse 2.  God asked Ezekiel if these bones could live again.  Ezekiel, wise to God’s ways, replied that God only knows.

God asked Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones, promising the bones that they would come to life; connected by sinews, growing over with flesh, covered by skin, and full of breath.  So in verse 7, “I [Ezekiel] prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone” (Ez 37:7).

Soon the bones were covered in sinew, flesh, and skin.  But they still had no breath in them.  Then God said to Ezekiel, ” ‘Prophesy and say to the breath, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life.” ‘  So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life, and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army” (Ez 37:9-10).

Ezekiel prophesied.  The wind of God’s Spirit blew through the valley of dry bones.  And an army of people came to life.  A few verses forward God explains what happened when the bones came to life.  “And I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life” (Ez 37:14).

The wind that brought the bones to life was God’s Spirit.  And it is a foreshadowing of the same wind that will bring life to us.  “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit … And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting … And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Jn 3:8, Acts 2:2,4).

God’s Spirit has brought life to us; a life of peace, joy, love, wisdom, confidence, and compassion.  And God has place us in a world of people who, even though they look like they are moving, in a spiritual sense, they are dead.  They are lifeless and confused.  They are like dry bones in the valley.

The culture of death and confusion so prevalent today is a result of a world of “dry bones”.  These bones are not the enemy.  They are prisoners of the Enemy, just as we were before Christ came into our lives.  And there is no government program, no rise of capitalism, or rise of socialism, or climate improvement, or international engagement, nor any progressive or conservative public policy that will bring these dry bones to life.

Two thousand years after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the answer to a valley of dry bones is the same as it has ever been.  We need the Spirit of Christ to blow through, in a rushing wind, and bring life to this valley of dry bones.  It is our only hope for life, truly abundant and full.  This is God’s offer of life in Christ to us.  This is what it will be like and look like!

The Gospel and the Fiery Furnace

Here is a familiar story from Daniel chapter 3.  Three Jewish exiles had risen to places of administrative prominence in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon.  Their names?  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  And their day of testing is a gospel lesson in faith.  Let’s summarize the story.

King Nebuchadnezzar had constructed a golden image of himself on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.  The image was 90 feet tall and 9 feet wide.  Pretty imposing.  On the day of dedication for the image, all the government officials were gathered before the image and instructed that “at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, bagpipe, and all kinds of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king has set up” (Dan 3:5).  The punishment for non-compliance was being “tossed into a furnace of blazing fire” (Dan 3:6).

Jumping ahead in the story, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not bow and worship the image when the music sounded.  Their insolence was reported to the king.  The king called them out and proceeded to give them a second chance to comply.

But the men did not need a second chance as they explained to the king.  “If it be so, our God who we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king.  But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Dan 3:17-18).

Well, Nebuchadnezzar flew off the handle, ordered the furnace cranked up seven times hotter than normal, and had the men bound and thrown inside.  Let’s stop the story right here for a second and look again at the incredible statement of faith from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?

In essence, they are saying, “We have faith to believe that God can deliver us from the furnace, but even if He does not, we are all in.”  Staring at what appears to be certain death, this is quite a claim.  Notice that their faith is not tied to their physical rescue, but to the God who is in control.  They affirm that even if God does not deliver them from the fire, they will not worship other gods.  With or without physical deliverance, their faith is in the one true God alone.  Again, their faith is not dependent on an outcome.  It is dependent on a person; the character and person of God Himself.

But God does deliver them from the fire.  When the king peered into the furnace, “Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, ‘Look!  I see four men loosed and walking about in the middle of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!’ ” (Dan 3:25).  The fourth person may have been Jesus Himself coming to the rescue of His chosen ones in response to their faith.

After all, that is how He came to you and me.  Jesus’s offer of salvation is available to all.  Everyone is invited to come to Jesus.  But the invitation must be accepted by faith.  We must respond to His invitation with a “Yes, I believe.  My faith is in Christ alone.  I am all in.”

The faith that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego demonstrated in the Old Testament is the same saving faith required of us to join Christ’s family.  The gospel message in the fiery furnace is the message of Jesus’ rescue of those who place their faith in Him.

What is Enough?

The next Old Testament passage for our purview is found in chapters 32 and 33 of the book of Genesis. The story line involves Jacob returning to the land of his youth following many years of serving his uncle, Laban. By now Jacob is a wealthy nomad. But his deceitful past is waiting for him along the journey.

You may recall that Jacob, as a young man, cheated his brother Esau out of their father’s blessing. When his deceit was discovered, Jacob feared for his life – Esau promised to kill Jacob (Gen 27:41) – and he fled to Haran where Laban lived. Jacob spent many years working in the service of his future father-in-law. Now, returning home to the land of his fathers with his growing family and flocks, Jacob knew he must face his brother Esau once again.

So Jacob sends a message to Esau that he is on his way. His messengers return with news that Esau is coming to meet Jacob – with 400 men in tow. The news is distressing to Jacob and his fears of what Esau might do to him in revenge are reignited. So Jacob divides his people and his flocks and herds and camels into two companies. That way, if Esau attacks one, the other group can escape.

As the day approaches, Jacob considers what size gift will be appropriate (or “large enough” may be a better word) to stem Esau’s wrath. Jacob sets aside 200 female goats and 20 male goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, 30 milking camels and their colts, 40 cows and 10 bulls, and 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys. This is his gift that he plans to present to Esau.

But even with this huge offering, Jacob still is left with the burning question, “Is this enough to buy my brother’s acceptance and forgiveness?” He has a plan to find out if it is enough.

He instructs his servants to organize this gift into three groups. When the first group approaches Esau’s party, the servants are to say to Esau, “These belong to your servant Jacob; it is a present sent to my lord Esau. And behold Jacob is also behind us” (Gen 32:18). Jacob’s hope is that after 3 droves of gifts, Esau will be softened up to accept him. Jacob says to his servant, “Then afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me” (Gen 32:20).

“Perhaps” is the key word here. Jacob is uncertain if his gift will be enough. Is there a “perhaps” in your life? An uncertainty that you have brought enough to the Savior to earn His love, acceptance, or forgiveness?

Let’s fast forward to our situation in the New Testament. We have wronged a holy God. We have sinned against Him. What would be enough for us to earn His love, acceptance, and forgiveness? We are in the same place with God as Jacob was with Esau. If we think there is something we can do to buy our pardon before God, we will live in fear, never knowing if we have given enough. Do you see this parallel with Jacob and his fear, “Is this enough?”

But thanks be to God, that no gift on our part is required to come into His blessed presence. Oh, there is something required. But it is not a gift or penance or sacrifice on our part. The only requirement to earn God’s acceptance is faith. We must believe, accept, and embrace that He is willing and able to forgive us. And those hands of faith must be totally empty. Because there is nothing we can bring to the table to earn God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness. It is absolutely free; a gift of grace.

And this idea of “perhaps” and uncertainty is not just in regard to our initial salvation. It can also steal our joy in our ongoing relationship with Jesus. Am I working hard enough? Am I keeping enough rules? Am I … you fill in the blank with your unique situation.

As you dwell on this question, remember that there is no “enough” required from us because Jesus did it all. Our role? Abide in Christ and all he has done on our behalf. This is enough.

The Gospel and the Divided Kingdom

Let’s turn now to a more obscure Old Testament passage and look for the gospel message. During the last years of King Solomon’s reign as king, his heart turned away from the Lord (I Kings 11:4), and he did evil in the sight of the Lord (I Kings 11:6). He became a brutal ruler over his people.

So when Solomon died (I Kings 11:43), the children of Israel appealed to the new ruler, Solomon’s son Rehoboam, to lighten up. As He considered their request, he turned to the elders who served Solomon for advice. Their counsel was, “If you will be a servant to this people today, and will serve them and grant them their petition, and speak good words to them, then they will be your servants forever” (I Kings 12:7).

But Rehoboam rejected their advice and sought input from the young men that he grew up with. They foolishly advised the new king to be even harder on his people. Giving heed to their advice, Rehoboam proclaimed three days later to the gathered children of Israel, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (I Kings 12:14).

Upon hearing this proclamation, the people rebelled and essentially left the kingdom. They formed a new kingdom of Israel and installed Jeroboam, Solomon’s former servant, as their new king. This action fulfilled the prophecy from God to an aging Solomon that the kingdom would be torn from Solomon’s family (except for the tribe of Judah) and given to his servant. The prophecy came true to the last detail.

The gospel message in this story is to compare and contrast with the servant king that is yet to come. Look again at the wise elders’ advice. “If you will be a servant to this people today, and will serve them and grant them their petition, and speak good words to them, then they will be your servants forever” (I Kings 12:7).

Compare this with Jesus’ words, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be servant of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:43-45).

The unresolved tension in the I Kings passage was an onerous king that led ultimately to a longstanding divided kingdom. The solution we find in Jesus is just the opposite. We have a servant king, whose service has a forever quality. His greatest act of service was to give His life as an eternal ransom for us. This is the gospel message.

A related tension in Rehoboam’s story is the heavy yoke he promised to put on his people. Compare this to more of Jesus’ words, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Come to the servant King. Embrace and accept His ransom for you. Embrace and accept His forgiveness for you. Embrace and accept his rest. Come to the servant King whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.

Jonah and the Gospel of Grace

As we continue our tour through the Old Testament, let’s make a stop in the familiar story of the prophet Jonah. His story is about much more than just a big fish.

Jonah was a Hebrew prophet called by God to preach a message of warning and repentance to the pagan city of Nineveh. But Jonah was not too keen on the idea and immediately set sail in the opposite direction. God sent a mighty storm of such magnitude that the superstitious crew cast lots to see who was at fault. The lot fell to Jonah. He confessed his disobedience, and convinced the sailors to throw him overboard. Immediately, “the sea stopped its raging” (Jon 1:15).

A large fish scooped Jonah out of the water and it spit Jonah out three days later. God called Jonah again and Jonah complied. He preached God’s message in Nineveh, and the city – all the way up to the king – repented. God spared the city. Chapter 4 is an object lesson with a plant regarding God’s compassion.

1. What gospel themes are present in the book of Jonah?

The book of Jonah is a picture of God’s grace and compassion shown throughout the story. In chapter 1, God spared the crew from the storm, and He ultimately spared Jonah through the means of a great fish. God showed compassion and grace to Jonah and the crew.

In chapter 3, Jonah is given a second chance by God’s grace to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s message. And by God’s grace, the people of Nineveh repented and were spared the calamity that had been predicted.

Finally, Jonah’s complaint in chapter 4 is exactly a complaint about God’s gracious nature. Jonah is actually upset with God’s forgiveness of Nineveh and lodges this angry complaint, saying to God, “Was this not what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in mercy, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jon 4:2).

2. What tension remains unresolved in the story that is solved in Christ?

In the Old Testament, God’s grace – just like His Holy Spirit – was intermittent. It appeared at appropriate times as God saw fit. It came and it went. Because God’s grace was not an indwelling presence, failure to obey, just as Jonah did, was somewhat inevitable for the Israelites. Their track record of complaining, murmuring, and leaving God’s path is a large part of the story of the Old Testament.

How is this solved in Jesus? The short answer is that through Christ’s death in our place, we are now under a permanent grace, a permanent indwelling of God’s Spirit. God’s grace has appeared (Titus 2:11) to bring us pardon and power.

The pardon of grace is being set free from the penalty of our sin. The power of grace is the energizing of His indwelling presence to live the Christian life. The Old Testament saints and prophets were living under a law system that only brought condemnation, sin, and death, and was powerless to bring about real change.

Self-effort and sin-management cannot bring lasting change. The inevitability of failure is one of the pictures we see in the book of Jonah. The New Testament message, the gospel of Christ, is full of hope, life, and God’s Spirit inside us. Our failure is not inevitable. The tension of how we live the Christian life with power was solved in Jesus.