“For My Name's Sake”
September 28, 2014
Through judgment and mercy, in redemptions small and large, God makes himself known for our good and His glory.
I. Separated for judgment (Ezekiel 20:33-39)
II. Separated for mercy (Ezekiel 20:41-44)
One of the truths I saw in today’s Scripture was that the Bible tells one overarching story from beginning to end. I couldn’t help but compare that to the St. Louis arch which I looked at from the conference center windows these last few days. The Bible tells one big story by means of a huge number of little stories. The big story is a story of redemption. So the little stories are stories of little redemptions. I have long said that if I ever have a gravestone the things I’d like on it is the word ‘redeemed.’ My story is a story of redemption, of God's rescue of my life from sin and judgment. So the thing I want to be known for, if Jesus tarries, is that I was a person redeemed by him, saved by his grace.
All our individual stories, I pray, are stories of redemption, growing out of the big story of Scripture, the most beautiful redemption of all. It started with God’s creation of a good and beautiful place and of mankind in his image. But his image-bearers were given a choice, and they rebelled against God, forerunners of a species that would shake their fists in God's face, declare independence, and make themselves their own gods. Some say God should have wiped them out at that point, started over or given up. But he didn't. He chose redemption.
He revealed himself to men and women generation after generation and promised that he would save them from their sin. He revealed redemption in calling to himself Abraham and the nation Abraham fathered. He redeemed and rescued his nation from slavery in the land of Egypt, bringing them out through blood and water with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. He showed redemption through the judges, who called the people back to faith when they wandered time after time, and rescued them from the hands of their enemies. He showed it through David, to whom he taught songs of grace and redemption and through whom, he promised, there would one day come an eternal king who would be righteous and mighty to save. And yet David’s story was also a story of individual redemption, for when he sinned he received God’s undeserved forgiveness. “He redeems your life from the pit,” David says.
God worked countless little redemptions in his faithfulness to the nation of Israel, even after the nation divided into two kingdoms. He allowed them to imperil themselves through their idolatry, through their own choices and their seeking of worldly solutions. Time after time he rescued them in miraculous ways. In preserving them as a nation, generation after generation had the opportunity to learn of God's judgment and his mercy, before he finally showed those things in the ultimate, in the absolute reality of redemption in Jesus Christ.
Today's text is a promise of redemption. Ezekiel sums up his message to the exiles in Babylon by telling them God is going to rescue. He is going to rescue these people from exile, rescue the nation from judgment, and ultimately rescue all his people from sin and set them apart for himself forever, through the first coming of Jesus and the second, yet to come. He does this for our good, to bless and benefit us all, but also for his glory, for his Name’s sake, because of his Holiness. He does this so the world can marvel at his redemption. So, in Ezekiel 20 we’ll see today that through judgment and mercy, in redemptions small and large, God makes himself known for our good and His glory.
We begin with Ezekiel 20:33-39, where God promises to separate out his people for judgment. “As I live, declares the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out I will be king over you. 34I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out. 35And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face. 36As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you, declares the Lord God. 37I will make you pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. 38I will purge out the rebels from among you, and those who transgress against me. I will bring them out of the land where they sojourn, but they shall not enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord. 39As for you, O house of Israel, thus says the Lord God: Go serve every one of you his idols, now and hereafter, if you will not listen to me; but my holy name you shall no more profane with your gifts and your idols.
God's exiled people are in subjugation and misery, far from what God promised to those who would remain faithful, far from the ideal of a chosen nation and a privileged people. But God says his rescue is not far off. “With a mighty hand outstretched arm and wrath poured out,” he says, “I will be king over you.” He promises not just to rescue, but to take up the sovereign rule of his people.
In a very real sense this is a promise of Jesus who would not only save, but who would announce and inaugurate God’s kingdom. Through Jesus God would be king over his people. For Ezekiel’s hearers the Redemption by which God would begin to reign as king was still quite far off. It didn’t happen when they returned from exile. It didn’t happen until Jesus came. He is king, now, over his people. Yet Jesus himself recognized that his kingdom would be ‘now and not yet.’ He said ‘the kingdom of God has come upon you,’ but also ‘when the Son of Man comes in his glory he will sit on his glorious throne.’ Even for us, let alone for Ezekiel’s first hearers, God’s kingdom is now and not yet.
These verses look forward, but also backward to redemption from Egypt, in many ways the archetypal redemption in all Scripture. God rescued his people from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out on the Egyptians in the plagues and in the death of the firstborn and in the Red Sea. In contrast, God’s rescue from Babylon was much less dramatic. He worked in the hearts of the Babylonian rulers to let the people go. The pleas of Ezra and Daniel to God and to the Babylonians led to freedom. But it wasn’t absolute freedom, only a return from exile and the modest rebuilding of the temple, the delight of their eyes which they had lost in 586 B.C.
This rescue, like the rescue from Egypt, and like countless other rescues, before and after, and like our rescue in Jesus, and like the final judgment of the last days, this rescue is not without judgment. In this judgment God separates out true believers from those who do not believe, true Israel from those who are only ethnically Israel. God says that he will bring them into the wilderness of the peoples and enter into judgment with them face to face. Like the sheep and the goats in Jesus’s parable, he separates the faithful from the rebels.
Verse 37: “I will make you pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant.” When a sheep passed under his shepherd's rod, it indicated that that sheep belonged to the shepherd. Again we are reminded of the teaching of Jesus. He says ‘I am the door of the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.’
By selecting his sheep this way, as the faithful who pass under the rod, God brings them into the bond of his covenant. Jeremiah, Ezekiel’s contemporary in Israel, had been teaching that God would make a new covenant with his people to give them a new heart and put a new spirit in them so they would be able to keep his decrees and follow his laws. Ezekiel is looking at that same new covenant, the same new covenant Jesus inaugurated through his shed blood.
The book of Hebrews teaches that Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive a promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. Jesus’ death redeems us from our sins, the transgressions that make us guilty before the law and before God. We often sing ‘A Debtor to Mercy Alone,’ and one of the verses says ‘The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do. My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.’ This is the new covenant to which Jesus the Good Shepherd call us as his sheep.
Verse 38: “I will purge out the rebels from among you, and those who transgress against me. I will bring them out of the land where they sojourn, but they shall not enter the land of Israel.” The sheep know his voice, pass under his rod, become part of his covenant, but the rebels, the traitors, those who persist in their transgression against God will not enter the land of Israel. Again this is an aspect of rescue from exile that has not yet played out in God’s plan. The exile in Babylon ended in wonderful return to the land, and the people were chastened, so that they were no longer tempted by blatant idolatry. They knew that ‘the Lord he is God,’ and ‘the Lord is one.’ But they were not separated in this way, the unredeemed from the redeemed. That judgment is yet to come, because at heart they were still sinful and wayward in many ways.
When Jesus returns and reigns as king for a thousand years in Israel, only those who have been faithful to his name through will populate that kingdom. By their pledge of allegiance to the Christ or to the anti-Christ they will be separated. For this is not at all an arbitrary judgment by God against the will of anyone. No, divine sovereignty and human responsibility bring these people to the point where their choices have eternal consequences. Verse 39: “As for you, O house of Israel, thus says the Lord God: Go serve every one of you his idols, now and hereafter, if you will not listen to me; but my holy name you shall no more profane with your gifts and your idols.” Fish or cut bait. You have to choose. Go and serve idols or listen to me and be saved. There is no middle ground. I’m not going to forever put up with a mixed allegiance where you pretend you’ve chosen to follow me, but you’re still chasing the old idols, making them your focus. I want your heart. I want your whole heart.
There’s a warning here for us, a warning against half-heartedness, and there are many ways we can apply it. We’ve talked several times about the way idolatry looks today; the idolatry of false gods, the idolatry of self, the idolatry of stuff, the idolatry of pleasure, of security and so forth. That which consumes our hearts and minds, our time and attention is an idol. But wholeheartedness is not just turning away from idols. It’s passing under the rod, so that we are all in for Jesus. If we’re half-hearted we believe in Jesus, hang around with his people, even talk to Him. Except when we don’t, and there are some areas we just don’t see how he’s connected, like maybe our work or our play, and some things we think too important for childlike faith, like health and finances.
Andree Seu Peterson is a columnist and reporter for World Magazine. Her mom passed away this past week from a massive stroke. She wrote three columns during the week, using words, as many writers do, to process. One of the columns was about the issue of wholehearted allegiance to God.
The doctors at the hospital, surrounded by their retinue of interns, told Andree and her father that there was very little hope. And from a human standpoint they were right. And Andree flirted with giving in to their assessment, their secular worldview. After all they were the experts. But she knew that as a Christian her definition of hope was supposed to be different. Andree says “I spent Monday through Thursday fighting just to keep my faith above water and to keep at bay lust for the good opinion of the experts.”
As a result, she says, “My faith did not sing. For that clarion quality, let me introduce my father, a simple man. He lacks theological sophistication, shall we say. When he talked to the neurologists, I wished he sounded smarter; I thought it did not help our cause that he did not. But most people, if dropped into the middle of a battlefield, say “I’m a Christian.” Or worse, “I’m a Presbyterian,” or, “I’m a Baptist,” always one or two steps back from the front lines of true testimony to Jesus. My father, on the other hand, speaks of God to lettered men in the same ordinary speech in which a person might say, ‘The grass is green’ and not expect an argument.” My words? He’s all in, he’s wholly God’s
Peterson goes on “Satan loves the mealy-mouthed. They do no harm to his kingdom. The experts will let you say, “I am Episcopalian,” and smile upon your quaint religion. They even tell you they are glad your faith helps you. This is the time to say, “No, you don’t understand. I’m not playing. What I am telling you is that Jesus is the only way and truth and life.” Are we all in? Or have we hedged our bets, seeing things God’s way at times and the world’s way, fallen nature’s way at other times. God is not amused by a half-hearted and mealy-mouthed faith. Don’t get me wrong, he can handle doubt. He’s compassionate toward doubt. But he’s not amused by our timid conformity and political correctness.
But he is merciful, for his Name’s sake. Verses 40 to 44 “For on my holy mountain, the mountain height of Israel, declares the Lord God, there all the house of Israel, all of them, shall serve me in the land. There I will accept them, and there I will require your contributions and the choicest of your gifts, with all your sacred offerings. 41As a pleasing aroma I will accept you, when I bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered. And I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations. 42And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I bring you into the land of Israel, the country that I swore to give to your fathers. 43And there you shall remember your ways and all your deeds with which you have defiled yourselves, and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed. 44And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt deeds, O house of Israel, declares the Lord God.”
In verse 40 the separation, the sanctification of God’s people is complete. There, on God’s holy mountain will be gathered all the house of Israel, the true children of Abraham, to serve God in the land. And these people will bring offerings and gifts, and they themselves will be an offering, set apart for God, a pleasing aroma acceptable to him. This separation is about holiness. As I told the kids at Awana recently, when we say God is holy we mean that he is set apart by his greatness and his purity. So now he has set his people apart as he himself is set apart and the holiness of that community is visible to all the nations.
Now I have to ask, at the risk of critiquing some theological systems: when does this happen? When are these promises to Israel substantially fulfilled? It didn’t happen after the first exile; the people returned to the land, but it was hardly holy, hardly set apart. The first generation had problems with intermarriage with the Gentiles, and then the Greeks came and put their mark on the culture, the Romans came and put their boot on the culture and by the first century a powerful ruler, Herod, only half Jewish, was the Roman puppet on the throne. No purity, no holiness, no presence of God shining to the nations there. At best the return from exile is a partial fulfilment of these promises.
Now it’s tempting to say that this is fulfilled by the church, that this land of Israel is symbolic, and the church is a beacon of God’s holiness set among the nations. And we should be a beacon, but we are not fulfilling these verses, for two reasons. First, no one would ever guess this was primarily a symbolic section. Ezekiel’s readers could probably see some spiritual imagery in this, but none of them would have expected it not to have any ‘land’ in it at all, not to have any literal fulfillment. Look at verse 42: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I bring you into the land of Israel, the country that I swore to give to your fathers.” That doesn’t sound very symbolic.
Furthermore the church isn’t a paragon of holiness. God’s people in this age haven’t been completely separated from sin, nor a pure light to the nations. The verses anticipate that purity, God manifesting his holiness in the sight of the nations.
So it hasn’t been completely fulfilled. It’s not being completely fulfilled. That only leaves one option: it will be completely fulfilled. I believe God’s promises to the nation of Israel will be literally fulfilled when Jesus comes to reign for a thousand years. The two things just fit. Clearly there is a thousand year reign of Christ talked about in Revelation. Clearly there are prophecies of the Lord’s future reign in Zion. God says in Zechariah, for example, “I return to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts, the holy mountain.” This prophecy in Ezekiel fits in the intersection of those two truths, as do many other verses.
So God works judgment and mercy, smaller redemptions, as in the wonderful end of the exile in Babylon, and larger redemptions, such as the world rescuing redemption which Jesus won for on the cross, and the world restoring redemption which he will accomplish at his second coming, when he first reigns in Jerusalem and then creates new heavens and a new earth.
But verse 44 is the capstone, the zinger of this wonderful truth: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt deeds, O house of Israel, declares the Lord God.” One of Ezekiel’s great themes is that because of what God does in both judgment and mercy he is known by his people, he is revealed to them. “You shall know that I am the Lord.” Our own Sherry Early has been reading along in Ezekiel and recently blogged about some things she’d been noticing. She says “This phrase appears more than sixty times in the book of Ezekiel. God tells the people through Ezekiel that He is planning to bring great calamity and judgment upon them and that then they will know that ‘I am that I am.’ Sin separates us from the life and the glory of God, but we will no longer ignore His word or His glory when He brings both judgment and mercy to bear upon our sin. Then they will know that I am that I am.:
The beauty of this spot is that the thing that makes God famous is his redemption, his rescue, small and large of his people, and that it is entirely undeserved. You will know that I am the Lord when I deal with you for my Name’s sake, not according to your evil ways or your corrupt deeds. This is grace; this is mercy, this is redemption. God deals with us in mercy. We don’t get what we deserve so that he will be glorified. All of creation, fallen and unfallen, will say of God ‘His mercy is incredible. Look, he’s not dealing with them as their sins deserve. He’s treating them the way he treats his own Son. He’s redeeming, he’s restoring, he’s blessing. What an amazing God.’ Because of grace, because of mercy, God becomes famous. He’s feared for his judgment, but he is loved for his mercy by which he rescues the undeserving.
Andrew Peterson has often said this well. In one song he cries over and over ‘My God, My God, why have you accepted me?’ Jesus was forsaken, but we are accepted, and Andrew Peterson calls this a mystery of mercy. His latest album has the great song ‘Don’t you want to thank someone’ which includes this section, some of the great words Andrew Peterson has ever penned. ‘And when the world is new again, and the children of the king are ancient in their youth again, or maybe it’s a better thing, a better thing, to be more than merely innocent, oh, but to be broken and redeemed by love. Maybe this old world is bent, but it’s waking up and I’m waking up.” We are broken but redeemed by love. This is a huge blessing to us and, it brings glory to God.