Reading Romans 12:20, I was struck by the idea of ‘heaping burning coals’ on your enemies’ heads. On the face of it, this doesn’t sound very loving! But burning coals come from the altar in the Temple; they are pure, holy, cleansing, and consume the sacrifice placed on the altar. Food and drink for a hungry, thirsty enemy are like the fire from the altar. They are pure, holy, cleansing things.
Sin is covered by sacrifice. This is at the heart of what Yahshua did for us, he offered a sacrifice for sin – his own body – while we were still against him and the cause of his grief and suffering. By his love, he bought not only our lives but our love. And by love we must buy our enemy’s love in the same way. We don’t give our enemies the necessities of life in order to hurt them, but because of love and in order to provide an opportunity for them to change. That’s why Paul writes, ‘Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’.
If it’s wide and deep vision that you are looking for … then read this book
I don’t often write about books here on JHM. But I just have to tell you about 5Q.
If it’s wide and deep vision that you are looking for, a penetrating gaze into the truth written with passion and humility, then read this book; you will not be disappointed. It’s a book for everyone who is serious in following Jesus. 5Q will challenge you, encourage you, and maybe shock you, but it will also illuminate your thinking and understanding.
5Q is a book by one of my favourite authors, Alan Hirsch. In it, he examines church as commonly understood in the West, and challenges his readers to look at it with fresh and inquisitive eyes. For many years now, Alan has been accumulating knowledge and experience about the way we tend to do church, and sharing his thoughts on what fundamental changes are needed. He has delved deep into both theology and practice, he’s written and taught extensively about the understandings he has developed. And it’s not merely theoretical stuff, much of it is good, practical guidance and advice.
5Q is based on frameworks Alan has described before, namely his ideas around the APEST gifts to the church described by Paul in Ephesians 4. These are the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. But he has gone much further in the grand synthesis that is 5Q; his excitement and passion shine out on every page.
This time we’re going to take a look at the first verse of Ezekiel 37; the start of the section on the valley of dry bones. Let’s see what Father has for us in this verse.
‘Yahweh’s hand was on me and he brought me out by the Spirit of Yahweh and set me in the middle of a valley. It was full of bones.’ (Ezekiel 37:1)
We can’t tell whether Ezekiel visited a real valley or whether the entire section from verse one to verse fourteen is a vision. Perhaps it’s most likely to have been a vision. But it doesn’t really matter, it’s far from being the most important thing.
‘Yahweh’s hand was on me…’ – That’s what Ezekiel says. And this is always Papa’s heart toward us; unless his hand is on us we cannot move except by our own efforts. This is fundamental to everything the Almighty does. He speaks, he moves, he demonstrates, he heals, he forgives – and in all these ways he touches us.
Have you noticed how often Jesus touched people? He touched their eyes and mouths and ears when he healed. He touched what was ritually unclean – a leper, a dead girl. The most intimate thing we can do is to touch someone. Touch brings us closer than words ever can. What do we do when a child is afraid, or anxious, or hurt? We pick them up or hug them or kiss them better. We need to touch and be touched. So Yahweh’s hand was on Ezekiel.
And notice that this is the first thing that happens, before Ezekiel sees the bones or even goes to the valley, Yahweh’s hand is on him. This is the touch that says, ‘I am going to use you’. The Almighty lays hold of us because we are his instruments and he plans to use us in some way.
Have you felt his hand on you in your life? I hope so! But if not, pray that he will touch you and use you in whatever way he chooses. If he knows you are truly willing he will use you. That’s what he longs to do with all his people. He has chosen to use us to do his work in this world today. We are to go in his name (Matthew 28:18-20); we are his body; we are his hands, his feet, his eyes and ears and mouth (1 Corinthians 12). Isn’t that extraordinary?
‘…and he brought me out by the Spirit of Yahweh…’ – He brings us out and he does it by his own Spirit. Out from what? Out from the place where we currently are! See how he is one with himself in doing this? It’s explicit in the Hebrew, the name is used twice. Yahweh uses the Spirit of Yahweh. He chooses what he wants us to do, and then he uses his own Spirit (the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ) to guide us. If necessary he will nudge us.
Sometimes we get stuck in a place. I don’t mean physically, I mean a place in our lives from which we are unable or unwilling to move on. Sometimes we are simply waiting for direction. It might be something we’re doing or a thought pattern we return to or just that he has finished using us in one situation and now wants us in a different one. Whether we are stuck or not – he brings us out, he draws us on, he sends his own Spirit to lead us into the next thing, the next place. For an example read about Roy Godwin. If you want the full story you can buy his book.
And notice this, if Ezekiel had not moved he would not have come to the valley. We have a propensity to cling to what we know and to keep doing what is already familiar. But we need to be ready to allow the Spirit to move us at any time so that we can receive something new, Father’s next thing for you, for me.
‘…and set me in the middle of a valley.’ – And so Yahweh sets Ezekiel in the valley. Now a valley is a low point and must be surrounded by higher ground. Ezekiel is placed ‘in the middle’ of this valley, right at the lowest point. He is as far from the surrounding hills and mountains as it is possible to be.
We know this feeling don’t we? Life is hard and promising to get harder yet. There are low points in our lives and there are also low points in the life of the church. Such valleys are places of defeat where there seems no hope or joy or victory; these are assuredly not ‘mountain-top’ experiences. We’ve all been there. Ezekiel was aware of the state of Israel in captivity under Babylon, but Yahweh’s Spirit brought him here so there must surely be a reason for it. Does it sometimes seem as if church is in a valley? A slough of despond? At times like these we need to remember that Papa has something in mind to show us. Jesus didn’t just come to redeem people, he came to redeem situations too.
‘It was full of bones.’ – What do bones usually signify to you? Are they always just the dusty remnants following final and permanent defeat? Or might they suggest that what was once alive might yet be restored? More on this next time.
For much of my life Ezekiel’s words about the valley of dry bones have seemed highly significant. I now feel I should work through the passage in detail here. I’ll take it verse by verse and we’ll see what it has to say to us today.
First, a little background; Ezekiel saw the valley in a vision, as part of a series of visions. Right at the beginning of the first chapter he gives us the details.
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.
On the fifth of the month — it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin — the word of Yahweh came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians.
There the hand of Yahweh was upon him. I looked, and I saw… (Ezekiel 1:1-4)
Living in exile – There are several things to notice right away. Ezekiel was an exile from the promised land and was among other exiles. In other words he was not alone, but along with others he was not where he truly belonged. Worldly powers had taken them far from the land of their inheritance. But Ezekiel was a Jew and of a priestly family, that personal inheritance could never be taken from him.
Is that true for us? Have we, the church (or at least the western church) been taken far from our true and full inheritance in Christ? I’m not talking about salvation here, nor do I mean our individual lives in Christ and he in us. Those cannot be taken; I mean the posture and behaviour of the church.
The Almighty has permitted the church to be captured by all kinds of worldly attraction and methodology. We have replaced falling on our faces in the presence of his glory and power with worship bands. We have replaced going in the name of Yahshua (Jesus) with outreach initiatives. We’ve replaced sitting at his feet, hearing him speak and watching him work with training sessions. We’ve replaced loving our neighbour with leaflets through doors.
Of course all these things have their place and all are useful – worship bands, outreach initiatives, training sessions and attractive leaflets are not bad in and of themselves. But they should not and cannot replace his glory and power, going in his name, listening and watching him or loving our neighbour. Peter’s intentions on the mountain were good, but he missed something significant. What you and I can do for Jesus is not the point, what he wants is that we listen to him (Matthew 17:1-5). And implicit in hearing the Master is obedience.
But all is not lost! – As an exile from the land of promise, Ezekiel was by the river when the heavens were opened and he saw visions of (or from) the Most High. Do you think that might be true for us too? Is it possible that in the middle of this foreign place the church has been taken to, the heavens might be opened and we might truly see the Most High? Notice what he says at the start of verse 4 – the hand of Yahweh was on me. I looked and I saw.
Is his hand not also on us? If we look, we too, will see. But we surely won’t see unless we look! King David wrote, ‘Taste and see that Yahweh is good’. (Psalm 34:8) We need to look, listen, and taste. What does this mean? Simply this – it’s time to check Papa out, it’s time to hear what he is saying, see what he is doing, and taste the flavour of his nature and love. We will not be disappointed! Others are asking the same sorts of questions. Alan Hirsch for example, in his book The Forgotten Ways, argues strongly that we need to think afresh and re-calibrate our behaviour. Ed Stetzer, in his foreword to Alan’s book writes:
‘The Forgotten Ways’ has become a foundational text for exploring the missional nature of the church, challenging … what it means for the church to reactivate anew its forgotten ways.
We haven’t even started on the dry bones passage yet, but we have set the scene. We know that even if we are in exile the Master can reach us with a new vision, that he can touch us, and that we are free to look and see. There is everything to play for. Are you up for this?
Next time we’ll look at those dry bones – I promise!
‘He guided me back and forth amongst them and I saw a huge number of bones lying on the ground in the valley – very dry bones indeed. He asked me: “Son of man, is it possible for these bones to be alive?” I answered: “Yahweh Almighty, only you know”.’ (Ezekiel 37:2-3)
Take a really good look – Ezekiel is there in the valley and Yahweh leads him about amongst the bones. This is not just a casual look, it’s a really thorough examination of the situation. Notice how Ezekiel is guided back and forth, this is not ‘Go and look and I’ll wait here’ on Yahweh’s part. It’s an intimate togetherness in which they both go, we can almost imagine Ezekiel as a child hand-in-hand with a parent. I should warn you that the rest of this article might seem very gloomy. But please remember, this is a low point in a deep valley and things get better – much better!
For Ezekiel this is all about Israel in captivity under Babylon. For us it should also speak about the church in captivity under the thinking and dictates of the world. We can no more shake ourselves free from the influence of the world than Israel could have shaken herself free from Babylon. Yet we need to be free.
Because we are in the world it is very, very natural to apply processes like planning, teaching, organising and structuring, hierarchies, and leadership. We emphasise great presentation and engagement. There is nothing wrong with these methods in themselves, but they do have the sneaky potential to intrude on an intimate walk with Papa day by day. Methods alone are death, Jesus alone is life. Where would you rather be? If you choose both, be aware there may be some conflict – tread carefully!
We can learn from Ezekiel’s thorough examination of the bones. We really do need to be ‘guided back and forth’ amongst the remains of church. How can we encourage abundant church if we don’t first understand the nature if the problem? It’s time to examine the situation very, very carefully and thoroughly. A casual glance is not going to be enough. Father’s guidance is essential, not optional. The good news is that there are people being guided back and forth today; I am aware of some of them but I’m certain there are many more. This is not something we initiate, it’s something Father is initiating, guiding us by the Spirit of Christ to become aware of our situation. A study of church history can open our eyes to the sorts of error we may be tempted to make.
Consider, for example, some of the great movements of the past – the Reformation, the Celtic monastic movement, John Wesley and the beginnings of Methodism, the Welsh Revival, Azusa Street. The pattern is clear; it begins with revelation and fresh ideas, these are widely adopted, there’s a period of stagnation, then fossilisation, then there’s fresh revelation and the pattern repeats. Do we think that our generation is different? Is church today in its final and perfect form? Are we now the pure and unblemished Bride of Christ? Or are we, in our turn, waiting for fresh revelation?
Dry as a bone – Ezekiel sees that there are huge numbers of these bones, but he also notices that they are very dry indeed. This is significant. These are not the remains of something that was recently alive. Think about the process of decay – the muscle and other soft tissue is the first to go, skin and hair takes much longer, sinew and cartilage require even longer, and to get to the stage where the bones are disarticulated and scattered and powder dry takes a very long time indeed.
This is true of the church too. Please don’t miss the point – I’m not saying that individual believers are dead or dry, this is about how we are fitted together and active together – church. What should be a mighty army is dead, dry and scattered; church has been in that state for a long, long time.
So here is Ezekiel, arm in arm with the Almighty Power behind the universe, checking over the state of the remains. And Yahweh looks at Ezekiel and asks: ‘Can these bones live?’ Only a wise person would answer this correctly. Reason tells us dry, scattered bones cannot live – ever. They have already had their chance. But Ezekiel says: ‘You tell me, Lord!’
If only we would stop talking to one another and begin listening to Father together instead. If only!
Death is in the world but life is in Christ. If careful inspection shows dry bones then we need to know that Jesus is our only hope. Every time we have come off the church rails it’s because we’ve turned away from Christ and trusted instead in mission, or training, or… fill in the blanks. We do not need a new programme, we need a new vision of Christ!
When we examine the state of the church and how it needs to change, are we walking arm-in-arm with the King or are we going on our own, for our own ends, in our own wisdom and strength?
Watching ‘The Shack’ was an emotional experience, it had me on the edge of tears a number of times.
Paul Young’s extraordinary book, The Shack, came out in 2007. I read it at the time and was so impressed that I shared it widely amongst my friends and family. A film based on the book was released in March in the USA, but here in the UK we had to wait until June.
Donna and I went to see it in Cheltenham on 10th and thought it was very true to the book. In some ways it’s better than the book! Watching ‘The Shack’ was an emotional experience, it had me on the edge of tears a number of times, and I mentioned the book and the film on Thursday when I met with some friends from Cirencester Baptist Church. One of the people in that meeting, Miriam, told us about an online video she had seen in which the author is interviewed by Nicky Gumbel. This is just one of many interviews out there, my three particular favourites are below, Paul Young has collected others on his own website, and Google will find more with the author, and with the actors in the film,