Posted by: reformedmusings | January 3, 2010

Back from the dead

An exhortation for the Lord’s Day, January 3, 2010.

Old Testament Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14
New Testament Reading: John 11:17-44
Message Text: Ephesians 2:1-10

Back From The Dead

When we hear the phrase “back from the dead,” the secular thoughts that come to mind will probably be stratified by age to a large extent. Today’s video gamers will probably think of the Resident Evil games and movies where a virus kills people then reanimates their corpses with dire consequences. Baby boomers will probably recall Night of the Living Dead where a passing comet accomplishes much the same outcome. Pre-baby boomers may recall the 1940 Bob Hope movie The Ghost Breakers. In it, Richard Carlson’s character explains zombies to Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, after which Bob Hope, a mischievous comedian and life-long Republican, delivers an unexpected punch line. It went like this:

Bob Hope to Richard Carlson: You live here?

Carlson: Yes.

Hope: Well maybe you know what a zombie is.

Carlson: When a person dies, and is buried, it seems a certain Voodoo priest who has the power to bring him back to life.

Goddard: How horrible.

Carlson: It’s worse than horrible because a zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.

Hope: You mean like Democrats?

This was mild for Bob Hope. He and Bing Crosby became famous for ad lib quips in their road movies. Dorothy Lamour once said in an interview that although she memorized the scripts as a professional actress should, she didn’t think that Hope and Crosby even looked at it. She had trouble figuring out where they were in the scenes because Hope and Crosby made everything up on the fly.

Well, we’re not going to talk about zombies this morning. Rather, I’d like to tie the two passages that Steve read together with our exhortation text. When I read Romans 5:1-12 during worship a few weeks ago, I commented that I held it as one of my favorite passages in Scripture. That comment started a train of thought that led me to our passage for today, Ephesians 2:1-10. Let’s turn there.

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins
2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—
3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,
5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

I’ll break down my thoughts today into three parts: First, the power of God; Second, the grace of God; and lastly, the natural reaction of God’s people.

God displays his power in Scripture in a myriad of ways. He created the universe and all that exists within it as laid out in Genesis 1 and 2. He upholds his creation by the power of his mighty word as it says in Hebrews 1:3. Acts 17:28 tells us that in him we live and move and have our very being.

At the time of Ezekiel 37, Israel had been conquered and scattered by the Assyrians and Judah had been taken into exile to Babylon. Ezekiel himself wrote from Babylon. God had provided ample and repeated warnings to his people about these outcomes if the Israelites did not uphold their side of his conditional covenant for the land as laid out in Deuteronomy 8 and elsewhere. Now things looked hopeless for the Jews as they were prisoners of the greatest empire on the earth at the time. But Ezekiel delivered the message of God’s power and mercy.

God chose a valley scattered with dead, dry bones. They held no life in them, lying baked and bleached in the sun. Then God, as a demonstration of his power to deliver on his promises, caused the bones to come together and flesh to appear on them. Can you imagine that scene? The children of the Hydra’s teeth in the famous scene from the 1963 film “Jason and the Argonauts” pales by comparison. Then in a visual device that harkens back to the creation narrative in Genesis 1:3 and 2:7, God breathes life into them. He brings that which was dead and hopeless to full life. This stands as something that only God can do, and just the thought is amazing. God then tells Ezekiel that just as he has the power to bring life to the bones in the valley, he will do the same for Israel in bringing them out of captivity and back to worship him in the land he provided for them.

In verse 14, God promises his Holy Spirit to his people and thus concludes the core thought of this section of Ezekiel. In doing so, God illustrates that the problem with the Israelites isn’t with Assyria or Babylon, it’s with their hearts which repeatedly desire idols of their own manufacture rather than the living God. Their disobedient, sinful hearts, not foreign conquerers, separated them from God’s promises. Analogous to the bones, Israel is spiritually dead, but God through his Spirit will breathe life into his remnant. As I will show shortly, Ezekiel 37 has implications far beyond Israel’s borders.

The story of Lazarus in John 11 provides a striking parallel to Ezekiel 37. Here one of Jesus’ close friends lies dying, and those around him believe that Jesus can heal Lazarus and save him. He has certainly done this before. Jesus clearly indicates in verse 4 that he knows the illness is fatal, but Jesus doesn’t go to heal him. Even though verse 5 clearly says that Jesus loved this family, verse 6 says that Jesus didn’t go to help at that time. I love the 1599 Geneva Bible’s note on verse 6:

In that, God seemeth sometimes to linger in helping of us, he doeth it both for his glory, and for our salvation, as the falling out of the matter in the end plainly proveth.

God has a plan. As I exhorted a few months ago using an analogy from flying, God has the stick. He is in control. How often do we find ourselves or our loved ones in distress, be it physical or mental illness, joblessness, or some strife, and wonder what’s up with that? We pray without ceasing, yet the situation persists. Personally, that’s been my case at times in the last 18 years with my wife’s illness. We’ve seen great mercies over that time, but nothing permanent so far despite our, and your, faithful prayers. God’s plan doesn’t always involve our comfort in this world.

In the passage that Steve read from John 11, Jesus finally goes to Lazarus after the latter is already in the grave. Jesus himself grieves for the consequences of sin in our fallen world by weeping in verse 35. Make no mistake – our sin and its consequences grieve God deeply. Yet in the depth of this human tragedy, Jesus offers us in verses 25 and 26 our great hope:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Do we? When we’re suffering, when loved ones suffer, when death visits those around us and finally tugs at us, do we trust that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? Friends, I certainly hope so. This reassurance should comfort us at all times, especially in the darkest depths of the valley of the shadow of death.

Lazarus spent four days in the grave. As his sisters gently reminded Jesus in verse 39 in case he forgot, by that time there would be malodorous consequences to death. But nothing is too hard for God. Jesus literally calls Lazarus back to life through the power of his spoken word, showing us all that he truly has the matchless power of resurrection and life.

Which brings us to God’s matchless grace.

I strongly believe that this story about raising Lazarus from the dead has a specific purpose in Scripture beyond the immediate context. When considered in light of Ephesians 2 and other passages, this incident in John 11 provides a direct analogy to our spiritual life cycle.

Ephesians 2:1 says that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. Colossians 2:13 reinforces this truth, also telling us that we are dead in our trespasses and the uncircumcision of our flesh. The Greek word used for dead is ‘nekrous’. Throughout Scripture it means dead, without life, and hence useless. Like Lazarus was in the physical sense, so also Paul is telling us are we spiritually. Dead. Muerte, mort, tot, guasto, met, mortuus. Without life, unable to help ourselves. We can no more act to participate in our salvation from spiritual death than Lazarus could remove the stone from his grave and walk out after 4 days.

Why are we spiritually dead? Verses 2-3 lay it out for us. Like the rest of mankind, we were toast, cooked in the heat of God’s righteous wrath. Like ancient Israel, we worship idols of our own manufacture rather than the living God. Does anyone think that they are an exception? Romans 3:10-18 disagrees in graphic detail:

…as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

None is righteous. There Paul lays out the case against us from across Scripture. None of us seeks after God.

It’s a good thing, then, that God seeks after us as Paul explains in verses 4-7:

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,
5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

“But God…” That’s the hope. Not ourselves. The 1599 Geneva Bible notes on verse 4 put it eloquently:

…that by the virtue of Christ we are delivered from that death, and made partakers of eternal life, to the end that at length we may reign with him.

What amazing grace! And this while we were dead in our sins Paul says again in verse 5. Think that God’s trying to get a point across here? Dead. We cannot raise ourselves from the dead either physically or spiritually. But God can, and God chose to do so. God who is rich in mercy, abounding in love. Just as God enabled Ezekiel to call forth the bones to life, just as Jesus called out to Lazarus in the tomb “Come forth!”, so he calls us with his irresistible inner call, regenerating our hearts so that we can both hear and answer that call. By grace we are saved, raised in Christ as Paul tells us in verse 5.

And not just called to life, as if that weren’t enough, but to abundant life. He raises us up together to sit in the heavenly places as it says in verse 6. He calls us to share in the eternal inheritance of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Romans 8:15-17 says that we are adopted coheirs with Christ to all the riches of the Father. He holds nothing back from his Son, and he holds nothing back from us.

Does he do this because we’re basically nice folks who mean well? Because we’re doing the best that we can? No! We were dead in our sins, appropriate targets for his righteous wrath. Verse 7 tells us why: To show the world the exceeding riches of his grace. And all because of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Let’s back up to the bones for a second. Was God obligated to restore Israel to the land? Certainly not. His land covenant was purely conditional. Had Israel obeyed, then the land would be theirs forever. If they disobeyed, God would take the land away. There was no follow-up promise to Moses concerning restoration to the land. The same for Lazarus. No where did Jesus promise to raise his friend upon his death. Both the restoration of Israel to the land and the raising of Lazarus represented acts of pure grace from a loving God. Reading Ephesians 4-7 in light of all of redemptive history reveals God’s unconditional love for his elect. There’s nothing we can do to lose that love once God chose us before the foundation of the world. I don’t know about you, but that’s great news for me because I’d trip in a second.

So, what part do we play in our salvation? The same part that the bones in the valley and Lazarus played in their resurrections. Verses 8 and 9 make that clear:

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

By God’s free grace through a faith that is his gift to us as well – not of ourselves. Like the dry bones and Lazarus, the Holy Spirit breathes life into our lifeless spirits, making us able to love God and live for him. Verse 9 makes it clear that we have no part, lest any should boast. That’s who we are – boasters and self-promoters. We’re often like little children: “I’m saved because I made the smart decision.” “I’m saved because God loved me more than them.” Such boasting has no place because God specifically excludes it. God did all the work. Regeneration is a monergistic work of God.

There’s a fancy Greek theological term. ‘Monergistic’ comes from ‘mono’ meaning one and ‘ergon’ meaning to work. Thus the work of one. Our salvation comes solely by the grace, mercy, and work of God. Thus we say that our regeneration is monergistic meaning that God alone effects it in us. The examples of the valley of dry bones and Lazarus provide graphic portrayals of how that works, lest we become tempted to think otherwise.

Lastly, note the use of the past tense throughout these verses: “he made us alive”; “have been saved”; “raised us up”. Paul spoke to the elect of a done deal. As a believer, you are already made alive, already saved, already raised up with Christ. Be confident in Christ. While we still look forward to Jesus’ second coming and the consummation of creation and the final resurrection, our salvation as his elect is already accomplished. We praise God not just for what he will do, but for what he’s already done in us.

We are saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone, and solely for God’s glory. That’s what the Scriptures teach in a wonderful unison, and that was the battle cry of the Reformation when the gospel was rediscovered.

So, how then should we live?

Verse 10 provides the succinct answer:

10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Note that these works which God prepared beforehand are not the cause of our salvation. They do not contribute to it in any way. They are the natural outgrowth of our regeneration. God replaced our heart of stone with a heart of flesh. Our new heart of flesh desires to live a life of gratitude and obedience to God.

Note the order of the thoughts in verses 1-10 – they are in logical order. The chapter starts out with our condition and its cause in verses 1-3. It then transitions to God’s gracious work in and for us in verses 4-9. Then lastly, in verse 10, God lays out the result. We all start out as sinners, God regenerates us, then that regeneration naturally produces works of gratitude and obedience which God has prepared for us. We mix up that order to our peril.

We WILL produce fruit if we’re truly regenerated. These include the fruit of the Spirit enumerated in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We want to please our heavenly Father who chose us before the foundation of the world, just as children wish to please their parents (on a good day, anyway). How do we know how to please God? He tells us throughout his word, and Jesus sums it up nicely in John 14:15:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

It couldn’t be any clearer. The Reformers understood this well. When Calvin wrote on the three uses of the law, he included this as the third use: For believers, the law tells us how to please our heavenly Father. We don’t obey out of fear, but out of love and gratitude. Unlike the covenant God made with Israel for the land, the Covenant of Grace under which we’re saved is unconditional.

The implications of the unconditional Covenant of Grace lead directly to the fact that nothing we do can reverse our election. As we’ve already seen, God did everything required for our salvation: he chose us before the foundation of the world, regenerated us, called us, and justified us. Even our faith came as a gift from God. We have no basis for boasting, but also have no basis for doubting God’s great promises. We can have assurance of our standing before God and that we will stand before him at the last day covered in the righteousness of Christ.

But before we decide to “let go and let God” as a popular phrase a few years ago mistakenly asserted, there’s work to do. Verse 10 tells us that we’re God’s workmanship and that God has stuff for us to do. Our sanctification – being transformed into the likeness of Christ – is a cooperative effort between us and the Holy Spirit and will continue throughout our lives. The fancy word that describes this is “synergy”, from the Greek ‘syn’ meaning together and again ‘ergon’ to work – hence working together. So we see that our regeneration is ‘monergistic’ – solely a work of God, while our sanctification is ‘synergistic’ – a cooperative work between us and the Holy Spirit and powered by the Holy Spirit.

Thus we need to be in the Word to understand what pleases our heavenly Father and then be about doing it. Study the Scriptures, live them out in our daily lives. Not out of fear of losing our salvation, but out of gratitude and love for our salvation. Since this is the first Lord’s Day of the year, I’ll make a pitch for reading through the Scriptures in a year. It only takes about 15 minutes each day. We have several different plans on our website and others are out there. This discipline will bless you in ways that you cannot imagine.

Now, there will be times when we’ll sin, perhaps even grievously. This will cause us and God great pain. But we can be confident in our salvation when we repent, bounce back, and again walk in a way pleasing to God. Our salvation isn’t an excuse or free pass, but our motivation to please God and walk in the good works he has prepared for us. If we love him, we’ll obey his commandments. We’re not saved by our works, but our works naturally flow from our regeneration.

So I’ll wrap up this morning by reiterating that God has repeatedly demonstrated his power to resurrect the dead and fulfill his promises. With Ezekiel in the valley, he raised dessicated and bleached bones into a living, breathing army. At Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus grieved over the effect of sin in the world and then called Lazarus back from the grave. In Ephesians chapter 2, Paul tells us that God does the same for us spiritually. The bones, Lazarus, and we all contribute the same level of effort to our resurrection – zero! Nor could we. The dead don’t reconstruct themselves, don’t resurrect themselves, don’t reach for life preservers, and cannot save themselves.

We are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ’s work alone, and all to God’s glory alone. All glory be to God! What amazing grace!

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