A watchman must speak God’s words – Ezekiel 3:16-27, Part 3

Seven Simple Ways to Speak the Truth in Love | From Daniel's Desk

How do you feel about confrontation? Most people I talk with don’t like it. I personally don’t like it, and I can work very hard to avoid it. That includes confronting others, and being confronted myself. Maybe you know what I mean. Confrontation is both difficult to give and receive, and few people do either well. That reality is why, I think, we so often run from confrontational situations, no matter which side of the confrontation we are on.

But confrontation, given and received in the right way, can be a healing balm, a needed corrective, helping us to ward off far greater pain in the long run. What we learn today in the life of the prophet Ezekiel will help us to have healthy, loving confrontation.

In the previous post, we learned that Ezekiel, as a watchman prophet, must first hear from God. Only then was he to speak the Word of the Lord that God first spoke to him.  As we read in Ezekiel 3, verse 17, the message Ezekiel is to give to his fellow Jews in Babylon is a warning from God, a confrontation.  This is the task of truth-telling that we talked about in a previous post in this series.  In the Bible, prophets do sometimes predict the future, but it is rare compared to the normal task of prophets.  The normal task of prophets is to do what God asks Ezekiel to do, to speak the truth about the current situation, with the goal of restoration to God and his ways.  

Sadly, because the Jews were rebellious, the message that God had the prophets speak was almost always negative, “Israel you are rebellious, obstinate and stubborn.  Israel you are wicked.”  Israel was not following God’s ways, and thus they had broken the covenant between themselves and God. Worse still, their rebellion had been going on for centuries.  God eventually had enough of their disobedience and betrayal, and he said, “You broke our covenant, and thus you have chosen to void its provisions of protection,” and he allowed the Babylonians to attack Jerusalem, defeat it, and cart off 10,000 Jews, forcing them to 900 miles back to Babylon.  Even that didn’t get the Israelites’ attention.  Last week we learned that even there in Babylon, for the five years they had been living there so far, the Jews were still rebellious against God, and that’s where Ezekiel came in.  God called Ezekiel to be a watchman prophet who would hear God’s Word, and speak it to the people, a message of warning from God.

But first, God had a warning for Ezekiel.  Scan through verses 18-21.  There God repeats the same idea numerous times.  He is saying, “Ezekiel, you are my watchman prophet, but if you choose to keep your mouth shut, if you choose not to communicate the warning to the people of Israel, I am holding you responsible.”  God further says to Ezekiel, “If you don’t confront them, the people will perish because of their wickedness, and I will hold you accountable for their blood.”  Yikes. 

That’s a tough one.  I don’t want to muddy waters here.  Ezekiel was a prophet.  We are not all prophets, and I doubt many of you would say that God has told you something that you must speak to someone, including the warning to you that if you don’t confront them, he’s holding you responsible.  Still, there is a principle here that we see repeated in the New Testament, a principle about what it looks like to love and care for someone in a sacrificial way: speaking the truth in love.  We Christians do have the responsibility to love the people in our lives, to watch out for them, to the point where we will speak the truth to them. 

While speaking the truth in love sounds great, if we’re honest, there are times we would rather not get involved in holding someone accountable, or confronting them, especially when the relationship is a close one.  We notice a family member or friend or co-worker doing something wrong, we see them headed for trouble, all the warning signs are there, and we know deep down inside us that we should say something to them.  If we truly love and care for them, we will speak up.  But we drag our feet, we get scared, we rationalize, “What they’re doing is not so bad…they’ll figure it out on their own…right?” and we clam up. Maybe we pray, “God, you convict them.” To the person, though, we don’t say a word.

Why do we keep silent?  Why do we feel lots of emotional pressure?  Why do we rationalize our behavior, or theirs? Even if we pray for them, which is always a good thing, God calls us to also express love and care for them by talking with them. But we can succumb to our fears, that if we confront them they will be offended, or that it will be awkward and they will get angry.  So we do not talk with them about it, and we fail in our God-given role as watchmen who are to love them.

Over the years, I’ve had people come to me with concerns about other people in the church.  I’m the pastor, and maybe they think it is my job to confront people.  Am I the professional watchman prophet of the church family?  Yes and No.  Yes, a pastor has a responsibility to “shepherd the flock,” as Paul writes to Timothy, and that can mean embodying the role of the watchman prophet and confronting people. But Paul also writes, as I mentioned recently in this post, that leaders in the church are to build up the church family to do the work of ministry. A pastor/shepherd, then, is to help the rest of the church family grow into the role of watchmen.

I will confess that sometimes over the years, I have indulged those conversations when people have come to me, asking me to confront people on their behalf, and I have even said, “Ok, I’ll talk with them.”  But what I really should have done is said, “Thank you for your concern, now you need to go talk with them.” That’s where the principles Jesus taught in Matthew 18 are so helpful.  If a person has sinned, go and talk to that person.  If that doesn’t work, take someone with you.  If that doesn’t work, then take it to the church leaders.

Quite frankly, as I look back over nearly 20 years at Faith Church, this is one area of growth that I believe my church family has struggled with.  We have seen so many wonderful aspects of spiritual growth, but this one, the area of spiritual truth telling, is a weak spot that we need to work on.  I lump myself in that critique too.  I need to work on speaking truth, especially in one-on-one or small group situations. 

Consider Ezekiel. For him to be the watchman prophet that God wants him to be, he must speak the true word of God to the people.  It will be difficult because it will be a warning, a confrontation.  Now apply that principle to yourself: Do you need to improve at sacrificially loving each other well, even if it means having difficult conversations, speaking the truth in love?  What will you do to work on that? 

A watchman must first hear from God – Ezekiel 3:16-27, Part 2

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Have you heard of the Whispering Gallery in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London? Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the cathedral includes a gallery 30 meters above the floor, under the large dome. Even when the gallery is crowded, when a person places their cheek again the wall and whispers, if there is another person leaning against the opposite wall 33 meters away, that person will be able to hear the whisper. I learned this story from Lectio 365, which I will talk about further below. The story reminds us that, like Elijah who heard the whisper of God, though our lives are packed with busyness and distraction, we can still learn to listen for God. That is precisely what God called Ezekiel to do. So if you’ve ever wondered how to hear God speak, keep reading!

As we continue our study of Ezekiel 3:16-27, notice in verse 17 how the Lord describes the job of the watchman that he is giving to Ezekiel.  First, the watchman is to hear the word God gives him.  Second, he is to speak that word to the house of Israel.  Hear.  And Speak.  These are the two main tasks of the watchman prophet. In this post we look at “Hear.” The next post will cover “Speak.”

Ezekiel must hear as God will speak his word. In other words, the watchman must be paying attention.  They must be listening.  This is like the scout who is using both senses of sight and sound to learn what is coming.  A wise enemy tries to be stealthy, to avoid being seen and heard.  Though the enemy is far off, the watchman places their ear to the ground to try to hear the sound waves traveling through the ground.  Or high up on the wall, the watchman looks for dust clouds indicating troop movement.  In like manner, the watchman prophet listens to God, seeking to discern the word of God.  For Christians we have the privilege of having the Bible, the written word of God.  Do we acknowledge that privilege and sit with it, read, listen, ask for the Holy Spirit to help us discern what we are reading?

How much of the written word of God Ezekiel had access to, I don’t know. We already learned in chapter 1 that Ezekiel was a son of a priest who was about to become a priest himself, as the story so far takes place in Ezekiel’s 30th year, which is when sons of priests become priests.  That means he had been studying, learning, and likely memorizing large sections of the written word of God, which at that time was primarily the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.  I suspect Ezekiel knew that section of the word of God quite well.  He may have even had access to scrolls.  So one way he could listen to the word of God was through the written word.

We aren’t all prophets, as Ezekiel was, but we do have the same living and active God loving us that loved him.  And, if we are followers of Jesus, we will have a heart desire to know more and more about Jesus and to have our lives look more and more like the ways of his Kingdom and his heart.  One way to fulfill that desire is to hear God speak through his written word. Thankfully, we have easy access to the written word of God.  Just open the Bible or pull it up on the app, and there it is.  It would be a tragedy, then, if we chose not to engage with the word of God.  Two ways I have recently started trying to have more exposure with God’s word are through a phone app and a podcast. 

The phone app is called Lectio 365, and it guides you every day through a short discussion of a passage of Scripture.  I love how it asks you to be like a watchman, actually listening to hear the word.  It reads the passage slowly, then asks questions of you, helping you to think deeply about how to apply God’s word to your life. 

In the Bible, this is called meditation (see Psalm 1, for example).  Meditation is a deep listening to the word of God.  As Christians, we will want to hear and interact with the Word of God, and meditation is a biblical way to accomplish this.  Biblical meditation is not like Eastern meditation.  In Eastern meditation the person empties themselves of all thought.  In biblical mediation we fill our hearts and minds with the word of God, listening, hearing it, and applying it to our lives.  I practice that kind of meditation when I use the Lectio 365 app, and when I listen the podcast I mentioned, Common Prayer Daily, which guides you through readings from the Old and New Testament.

But as God called Ezekiel to the task of being a watchman prophet, it was not primarily to listen to and communicate the written word of God to the people.  Ezekiel had to wait until God spoke to him.  That’s an entirely different kind of listening.  When we read that “the word of the Lord came” to Ezekiel, I wonder if it was in an audible voice.  That is what it seems like, God speaking audibly to Ezekiel.  But it could be that God spoke to him inwardly, through his thoughts.  No matter, Ezekiel had to listen.  He had to be attentive to communication from God. 

Remember a few weeks ago in the Colossians series when we talked about watchful prayer?  In Colossians 4:2, the apostle Paul writes, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.”  In that post I mentioned listening prayer, which is prayer that asks God, by his Spirit who lives within us, to speak to us.  The word of God says that his word is living and active.  And we know that the Holy Spirit lives within us.  Are we listening for him?  

“I got your back,” Watchmen, and distraction – Ezekiel 3:16-27, Part 1

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Two of my nephews are ages 10 and 11, and they ride the bus together.  This past spring, a neighborhood boy who also rides their bus, started making fun of the 10 year old, so the 11 year came to his defense, punched the kid. Right there on the bus.  Makes you think about the role of school bus drivers, doesn’t it?

Though the 11 year old was standing up for his brother, he shouldn’t have punched the neighborhood kid, so both the neighborhood kid and my nephew got kicked off the bus.  Eventually the suspension concluded, and a week later they were all back on the bus again.  This time, maybe because of the previous altercation, the neighborhood kid starting teasing the 11 year old, the one who punched him.  At this point, what do you think happened?  That the 10 year old would now stick up for the 11 year old, right?  Siblings stick up for one another.  But no…that did not happen.  Maybe the 10 year didn’t want to get kicked off the bus, I don’t know.  He didn’t stick up for the 11 year old. 

So later that week at my parents house, my parents took those same two nephews on a walk around their neighborhood.  The boys were walking a bit ahead of my parents, and for some reason the incidents on the bus came up.  The 11 year old started asking the 10 year old, “Why didn’t you stick up for me?  I stuck up for you!”  In a very short period of time, the boys were in scuffle, punching each other!  Ah…siblings…

You know the phrase: “I got your back.”?  What does it mean?  Your friend is basically saying to you, “I’m looking out for you, I care about you.  If something goes wrong, I will be there for you.”  Do you have a friend like that?  Think about them in your mind.  Could be your spouse.  Maybe a close family member.  A best friend.  They love you, and maybe they have bailed you out of a financial situation, or maybe they came to your defense in a relational situation.    

But what if you are the person who does something wrong?  And not against your spouse or friend, like my nephews?  What if you are sinning?  What is the person who has your back supposed to do then?  In this next section of Ezekiel, we’re going to learn what it means to be a watchman.

Let’s review: Ezekiel is one of 10,000 Jews exiled from the city of Jerusalem by the powerful Babylonians.  The Babylonians forced the exiles to walk 900 miles and start a new life in Babylon.  After living there for five years, striving to keep their Jewish identity and community alive in a foreign land, God appeared to Ezekiel in an astounding vision.  God called Ezekiel to be a prophet to that small Jewish community in Babylon.  God said that the Jews were rebellious, and Ezekiel was going to tell them so.  God’s vision leaves, and we read that Ezekiel is bitter and angry, with the strong hand of the Lord upon him.  The Spirit of God returns Ezekiel to the community of exiles, where Ezekiel sits among them for seven days, overwhelmed.  There in that foreign land, Ezekiel is not to prophesy against the enemy Babylonians, but to his own people!  Imagine if God said to you, “I want you to tell all your neighbors that they are rebellious, stubborn and obstinate.”  Ezekiel is in for a difficult job, isn’t he? Worse, God told Ezekiel that the Jews would not listen to him.  You can see why he sat there for seven days overwhelmed. 

That’s where the story picks up in chapter 3, verse 16. What happens at the end of the seven days?  God speaks to Ezekiel.  Let’s hear what God has to say.  Read Ezekiel 3:16-21.

At the end of the seven days, the word of the Lord comes to Ezekiel.  That phrase, “the word of the Lord came to me,” is one that we will hear many more times in this book.  In the Bible, the word of the Lord coming to a person is an indication of their prophetic role.  The words are not Ezekiel’s words, they are God’s words.  The message is not Ezekiel’s message, it is God’s message.  Normally, then, Ezekiel will simply be the messenger of God’s word to his fellow Jews.  Here in Ezekiel chapter 3:16-21, we just heard, though, the word of the Lord is for Ezekiel.

God says that Ezekiel will be a watchman for the house the of Israel.  A watchman is a lookout, stationed at the highest point of the city walls to sound the alarm if an enemy is approaching.  In the days before satellites, radar, telescopes, binoculars and contact lenses, a watchmen had 20/20 vision and a reputation for an eagle eye.  They could keep attention, stay focused, and avoid sleep or distraction.

That’s what Ezekiel was going to be, but not in the physical or military way.  He and his fellow Jewish exiles didn’t live in Jerusalem anymore.  There was no city, no wall and they knew where the enemy was!  They were surrounded by the enemy because they now lived in enemy land.  Instead, Ezekiel was going to be a prophet, a spiritual watchman.  As we discussed last week, a prophet tells the truth about what they see, with the goal of hope and restoration to God and his ways, just like a watchman tells the truth about an invading army. 

Imagine what it would be like for a watchman to fail at their job.  If they fell asleep on the job, an army might be able to launch a sneak attack on the city.  The watchman might also get distracted by lesser things.  They are at the high point of the city, and instead of looking outwardly, what if they turned around and started people watching down below?  There would surely be a lot of interesting happenings they could spy on.  Like David on his palace roof watching Bathsheba bathe, a watchman could easily fail at his job.  Is this starting to sound familiar?  Do we get distracted?  What distracts you?  We live in a world where distractions are called by far less threatening names, to the point where we don’t call them distractions.  We might actually call them good.  We can indulge ourselves in distractions.

But do we really need to watch as many TV shows as we do?  Do we really need to watch as many sports as we do?  Do we really need as many hobbies?  Think about how you spend your time?  Are you distracted?  Even if you are distracted 10% more than what you think Jesus might want you to be, what could you do to make a change?  What could you do to increase how much you actively fulfill the mission, like Ezekiel was called to be a watchman for his people?  What things are in your life that are distracting you from the things and ways of God?  What is distracting you from living a life that is about the heart of God?

Why I think you need an accountability partner – Ezekiel 3:16-27, Preview

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In my sophomore year of Bible college, my dorm section Resident Assistant (older student in charge of the dorm section, which included about 20 guys) asked me if he and I could become accountability partners.  I had heard of such a thing, but didn’t really know much about it.  The Resident Assistant, Chris, was a senior, and I looked up to him, so I was interested in what this accountability partnership would mean.  He explained that it came up in one of his classes, or maybe in a book he was reading, and he wanted to try it. Here’s how it worked: we would each write a list of questions that we wanted the other person to ask us weekly.  Then when we would meet, we go through the lists and pray together, seeking to encourage one another to be more faithful disciples of Jesus.

At the time, I was newly seeking to know Jesus better and follow his ways in my life, so I was 100% on board.  We each wrote out questions on paper, trying to focus on areas of life that are important to all disciples, as well as areas that were unique areas of struggle for each of us.  The list included questions about how we were doing with having consistent Bible study, prayer, and how we were doing academically.  We added questions about how we were handling our finances and our dating relationships. We asked each other about lust and pornography, and about media like TV.  In other words, we were seeking to live a life of purity, flowing with the Fruits of the Spirit.  I think each list had 15-20 questions, and we would ask them to each other one by one every week.  The listed concluded with the same final question: Did you lie to me about anything?  Then we kept the other person’s list in our Bibles as a bookmark reminder to pray for the other each day.

That kind of deep, relational accountability has been so meaningful and formative in my life.  In fact, Chris and I continue to meet for accountability and prayer to this day, nearly 30 years later.  We don’t meet every week, and we don’t have lists anymore.  Instead, the Q & A is incorporated in our discussion.  Chris shares his joys and struggles with me, and I share mine with him.  Then we pray, right there in the car, usually in the parking lot of the restaurant.  We also text frequently between face-to-face meetings, which are now about once every other month.  

As you read that story of Chris and me, how does that sound to you?  Do you need that kind of accountability in your life?  Do you think maybe you don’t need that?  This coming week we continue our study of the prophet Ezekiel, and I will attempt to make the case that we all need accountability in our lives.  Check out Ezekiel 3:16-27 ahead of time to see for yourself, then I’ll look forward to discussing it with you on the passage next week.

Find out if you’re a prophet (and what to do if you’re not)- Ezekiel 2:1-3:15, Part 5

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Ezekiel has just been told by God that he will be a prophet. Imagine what you would feel like if God told you that you will be a prophet. Would you be happy?

Ezekiel is really upset.  He doesn’t tell us why.  Look at Ezekiel 3:14 and the phrase, “the hand of the Lord was on him,” gives us a clue.  It is highly possible here that Ezekiel is feeling some of what God is feeling about Israel.  Remember that for centuries Israel had turned its back on God.  Centuries of betrayal.  We have to consider the wider scope of God’s relationship with Israel.  Go back hundreds of years, reading the accounts of the leaders of Israel in 1 & 2 Kings, and we see loads of wickedness and unfaithfulness on Israel’s part.  Time and time again, God, heavy in heart, longing for a loving relationship with his people, would give Israel another chance to repent, to change and restore relationship with him.  God would send prophets to call the people to repent.  If you read the books of 1 and 2 Kings, you get to a point where you start thinking, “Enough already!  God, you are being too gracious and too forgiving to these people.  Punish them!”  Finally, God does allow Israel to be defeated and exiled.  But imagine what it took relationally and emotionally for God to get to that point.  You know how you feel when you are mistreated by the same person a couple times?  You know how frustrating it can be?

It seems Ezekiel is feeling some of that, as the hand of the Lord is on him, and that makes Ezekiel bitter and angry.

We get a bit of a cliffhanger here in chapter 3, verse 15.  Ezekiel has just had an astounding experience.  What does he do when he goes home?  Nothing.  For a whole week, he is just overwhelmed.  I get that. 

Does Ezekiel say to his family and friends, “You will never believe what just happened to me”?  Or is he quiet?  Are his family members concerned about him?  Can they tell that he is changed?  Do they have a sense that the hand of the Lord is on him?  Do they know he is angry and bitter?  Does Ezekiel see them in a different light?  Can he hide his anger and bitterness at the fact that his countrymen are rebellious and obstinate and stubborn? 

What do you do when you have had a life-changing experience, and you have to return home?  You’re not the same.  Things will never be the same.  And worst of all, you will have to talk about the job God just gave you, and that means you will have to confront your loved ones.  But not just a small group of 5 or 10 people, you’re going to have to talk to the whole community of 10,000.  While it might sound awesome to have the hand of the Lord on you, to have the Spirit empowering you, to be able to fly…I might trade all that for peace and simplicity.  For Ezekiel, he takes a week to stew in his feelings, overwhelmed, because life is about to get difficult. Like I said, I get that.  Maybe you are overwhelmed with life, and you just want to sit, to be alone. 

But like Ezekiel, it seems to me that to one degree or another, we Christians all have a prophetic responsibility.  We cannot just sit, overwhelmed, avoiding the responsibility.

I started this five-part blog series asking “Are there prophets among us?” There really are prophets among us.  There are some of us who have a prophetic gift.  But even those who don’t have the prophetic gift, we have the joyful privilege to be people who speak the truth in love.  Let’s talk about both of these situations.

First, the prophetic gift.  Our Leadership Team has taken what is called the APEST gifts assessment.  APEST stands for apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, which Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:11-12.  Prophets are those who tell the truth, those gifted by God to discern and see truth. Prophets have the heart and goal of truth speaking for the purpose of hope and restoration to God and the ways of His Kingdom.   When people attempt to sweep sin under the rug, as we people often do, prophets lift up the rug and say, “See that under there, that’s not right.”  That’s what Ezekiel was commissioned to do.  We need prophets in our day to do the same.  We should be people who embrace learning the truth about ourselves, about our church.  Of course I try to do some of that prophetic work in my blog posts, hopefully allowing the word of God to be the prophetic message.  But we also need individuals who can speak the truth in love to us. Are you a prophet? Consider taking the APEST test or using it your church family to find out.

Also, second, to those who do not carry the gift of prophesy: the message is still that God is the same God as the one who interacts with Ezekiel.  He is always with us. He desires truth.  He desires repentance.  He gives grace.  He wants us to live lives that are not fearful, but to live lives that are hopeful and to pursue Him and truth.  So speak the truth in love.  Again just because you’re comfortable with being bold, that doesn’t mean you’re a prophet.  Though you might be comfortable with being bold, that doesn’t mean you’re loving in your boldness. 

When God feels like a dropped phone call – Ezekiel 2:1-3:15, Part 4

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What does it mean to have a relationship with God? Is it just an intellectual concept that has little bearing on our real day-to-day lives? How do flesh and blood people have a meaningful relationship with invisible spirit? As a result, does God feel distant? Does it feel like God is something we read about in the Bible or hear about in stories, but God is maybe not a being that we can have a relationship with? Some people have said that having a relationship with God is like talking on the phone with no one on the other side of the line. You’ve had that experience before, probably. You’re talking, and then the call drops, but you don’t realize it, and you just keep chatting away. Some time goes by, maybe a few seconds, and you don’t hear any audible response from the person on the line. You look at the display and sure enough, the call dropped. For the last bit you have been talking to no one. Is that what your relationship with God feels like?

As we saw learned in the previous post, God said that he would strengthen Ezekiel to the difficult prophetic task he commissioned Ezekiel to. What happens next seems like the opposite, like talking on a phone line gone dead. Look at Ezekiel 3, verses 12-15.

Just like that the vision of God’s presence is gone.  God’s presence is equally as amazing in its exit as it was in its entrance.  Take notice that the Spirit is involved in Ezekiel’s life again, lifting him up.  We will see that the Spirit is a major theme in this book, and in Ezekiel 2:1-3:15, the Spirit is vital to Ezekiel’s prophetic commissioning.  When we read that the Spirit lifts Ezekiel up, I wondered, “Didn’t the Spirit already do that back in chapter 2:2?  He did.  In 2:2, the Spirit lifted Ezekiel from face-down position to standing position.  Now the Spirit lifts him further, likely into the air! 

After the Spirit lifts Ezekiel up, God’s lightning table/chariot leaves with an amazing sound.  Notice the short exclamation of praise in verse 12.  We can envision Ezekiel writing about this later, and he is still amazed, bursting forth with praise to God, simply in response to his memory of the vision of the glory of God.  That alone tells me that the vision was amazing, something that Ezekiel would never forget. 

God, though, is now gone.  After giving Ezekiel a profoundly difficult mission, and after telling Ezekiel that he should not be afraid because he, God, was going to strengthen Ezekiel to the task, God leaves. Doesn’t that seem like the opposite of what God should do? Maybe you feel like that. Do you look around your world and wonder where God is? If so, you’re not alone. Read Psalm 13, for example, as David laments feeling abandoned by God.

But as we keep reading Ezekiel is not really abandoned by God.  In verse 14, the Spirit lifts Ezekiel again!  It seems that Ezekiel is flying now, and the Spirit takes him away.  This is amazing supernatural stuff. It also shows that God is still with Ezekiel.  He has not left him alone.  His Spirit is with Ezekiel, empowering Ezekiel, and the same is true for us. While this experience would have been shocking for Ezekiel, it is commonplace for us. God has given us his Spirit to live with us. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6, our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. Have you become jaded or bored with the idea that God’s Spirit is with you? Do you feel like it is an idea, but not really impacting your life? Next week we’ll talk about this further, as the Spirit continues to have a real manifestation in Ezekiel’s life.

Notice Ezekiel’s response.  Is he thrilled and excited like the skydiving parasailers that whoop with joy as they fly over my backyard some weekends, on their way to a landing at nearby Smoketown Airport?  If the Spirit was truly transporting Ezekiel through the air, like the text suggests, you’d think he would be wide-eyed and loving life. He is flying! But nope.  Ezekiel is bitter and angry, with the strong hand of the Lord upon him. 

What?  Why is he bitter and angry?  Especially as the strong hand of the Lord is on him, shouldn’t he be full of love?  Instead the strong hand of the Lord is on him, and Ezekiel is really upset.  He doesn’t tell us why.  But that phrase, “the hand of the Lord was on him,” gives us a clue, which we’ll talk about in the next post.

For now, let’s take a moment to think about our relationship with the Spirit of God. Be amazed by the reality that God is with us. You and I are temples of the Spirit! We should dwell on that truth and be just as astounded as Ezekiel likely was as the Spirit flew him from the Kebar River back to Tel Abib where he lived. We should be filled with joy and hope and excitement that we get to have such a close relationship with God the Spirit!

God will strengthen you for the task he gives you – Ezekiel 2:1-3:15, Part 3

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Have you ever felt that God has given you a task that is too difficult? I think Ezekiel felt like that. As we have been learning in our study of the life of the prophet Ezekiel, God shows up in a shocking way with even more shocking news for Ezekiel. It was news that Ezekiel would be God’s prophet. Let’s continue studying Ezekiel 2:1-3:15 (which we previously started here) to see how this might apply to our lives when we feel God has given us a task that seems too difficult.

In Ezekiel 2:8, where we left off in the previous post, God says something strange to Ezekiel: “Open your mouth and eat what I give you.”  God is going feed Ezekiel?  Can you imagine how amazing food straight from God must be?  It would have to be the best food ever, right?  I love nearly every kind of food.  Have you ever said that you love a certain kind of food so much that you could eat it every day?  Pizza, Burgers, Steak, Mac & Cheese, Pasta, Mexican…Tiramisu.  What is your favorite food that you could eat every day?   Wouldn’t you think that food from God would have to be even better than that?  Well, let’s find out.  Read Ezekiel 2:9-3:1.

What?  A scroll?  God is giving Ezekiel a scroll to eat?  Scrolls were often made of leather of some kind.  It would bad enough if it was made of paper.  At least you can eat paper.  Do you remember in elementary school, when kids would eat a whole sheet of paper, scrap by scrap.  It is bland, but you can do it.  But leather?  I mean, I guess it is theoretically possible, bit by bit.  Have you heard of the guy who ate an entire car bit by bit?  His name is Vinni Bucci from Atlanta, and there is a documentary about it on Amazon.  Is that what God is doing with Ezekiel? 

No, as we read in verses 2-3, the scroll tasted like honey.  Remember that this is a prophetic vision, so we should look for symbolism, and thankfully, the symbolism in this part of the vision is clear.  By giving Ezekiel a scroll to eat, God is symbolically putting his words in Ezekiel!  Furthermore, in the Bible, honey sometimes symbolizes abundance or prosperity. The Promised Land of Palestine was said to be flowing with honey.  This is first indication of God preparing Ezekiel for the prophetic task. God will give him the words to say.

What words of honey will God say through him?  We read in 2:10 that on the scroll were written words of lament, mourning and woe.  That’s not honey. That’s not the sweet words of good news.  Instead God’s message will be a very unhappy one.  We don’t yet hear any specifics of the message.  That is to come.  For now Ezekiel is receiving his prophetic commission to speak God’s word, and it will be a difficult word.

Next God describes to whom he is commissioning Ezekiel to prophesy. Look at Ezekiel 3, verses 4-11. You’d think God would commission Ezekiel to prophesy to the horrible enemy Babylonians, right? They need a dose of holy fire from God, so that God will set his people free!

Uh…no. As we have heard before, Ezekiel is to prophesy to his own people.  He will not prophesy to people from a different culture, nation or language.  Even though Ezekiel lives in enemy territory, Babylon, he is to preach to his countrymen, to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon.  This got me thinking about the mission trips I’ve been on, and you know what I discovered?  It is much, much easier for me to talk about Jesus to strangers far from home, than it is for me to talk about Jesus with my neighbors.  That might be a personality thing, but I suspect it goes beyond that.  I feel more free to talk with people in another country because I know that I am there for that purpose, and I am almost certainly never going to see that person again. I feel a lot more free and bold to launch into a conversation about faith in God.  There is very little risk.

But at home, I actually have to live next to people.  I have to see them every day. There is significant relational risk.  To me, the prospect of having a conversation about faith with neighbors, coworkers, family or friends feels very intimidating. What if they look down on me? What if it gets awkward?  By asking Ezekiel to prophesy to his own countrymen, I think God is giving Ezekiel the much more difficult job. 

God says as much in verse 7.  Israel is hardened and obstinate, and they will not listen to Ezekiel.  Of course they won’t listen to Ezekiel, God knows, because they haven’t listened to God.  If I’m Ezekiel, I’m growing less and less thrilled about this job by the minute. 

Remember when God came to Moses in the burning bush and told Moses that he had a job for him?  That task was leading the people to freedom from slavery.  Moses got a commission to be a hero.   Ezekiel?  He is getting the job of being a confrontational prophet to his own people who will not listen to him.  That’s three strikes right there.  Confrontational prophet…very difficult job.  Strike one.  Prophet to your own people…very difficult job.  Strike two.  People who are guaranteed to not listen to you…very difficult job.  Strike three. 

To use baseball terms, Ezekiel is not just behind in the count as he steps up to the plate.  He has already struck out.  Surprisingly, that’s what God wants him to do. He is saying, Ezekiel, I want you to go up to bat and strike out.  Or to use non-baseball terms, God is saying, “Ezekiel, I commission you to a very difficult job, and it won’t go well.  You will not succeed.  But I want you to do it anyway.” 

How would you feel about that?   Not good.

Except that God says something else.  Look again at verses 8-10 where God says, “Ezekiel, I am going to make you ready for this.  I am going to strengthen you for this task.  Sure Israel is hardened, but I am going to make you hardened too.”  In other words, God is saying, “Ezekiel, I am in this with you.  I am for you.  I am preparing you. This is not me sending you to be shredded apart.  I am going to strengthen you to the task!”  In the same way, God is with us! No matter if we have the gift of prophecy or of any of the other gifts, it is the same God, and He is always with us.  God promises that he will strengthen us to the task. Even if we do not feel strengthened, even if we do not feel ready, excited or qualified. We can step forward in obedience, knowing that God is with us and strengthening us.

Because of this promise, Ezekiel was probably shocked by what happens next. Check back to the next post to find out. Does God say one thing, then do the opposite? 

When God gives you a difficult job – Ezekiel 2:1-3:15, Part 2

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Have you ever felt like God is asking you to do something, but it is too hard? With Ezekiel on his feet, God talks to him, giving him a new job. What kind of job? Will it be fun? Or will it be difficult? Read Ezekiel 2, verses 3-8.

God calls Ezekiel to be a prophet, and specifically to prophesy against his own people!  Remember that Ezekiel is living in Babylon, far, far away from Israel.  So God does not mean that Ezekiel will be traveling back to the land of Israel, to Palestine.  Instead Ezekiel will prophesy to the 10,000 Israelite exiles he lives with in Babylon.    

What is Ezekiel to say?  It’s not a fun message.  Have you ever had to deliver bad news?  Maybe you’ve had to tell someone they were not hired for a position.  Maybe you’ve had to confront someone about their mess-up.  Even if you had to do it many times, telling people bad news is still difficult.  Confronting people about their sin or their error is particularly difficult.  It could be that you are holding a friend or a family member accountable.  When they cross a line they weren’t supposed to cross, often we feel like it is just easier to let it go.  But God says to Ezekiel, “You are going to tell Israel the truth.” 

That’s what a prophet is, a truth teller.  Sometimes prophets tell the future, but in the Bible, prophets rarely forecast the future.  The vast majority of prophetic messages are truth-telling, with the distinct purpose of bringing hope and restoration in our relationship with God and a return to living in the ways of His Kingdom.  Often the prophecy has a future condition: if you continue down this road, you will face major trouble. But if you return to God, you will receive his blessing.

Do prophets still exist in our world today?  Certainly there are people who call themselves prophets.  There are people who predict the end of the world, or people who have a variety of other predictions.  Some might be well-meaning, and they might believe that they hear messages from God, but it’s hard to know. 

Instead in Ephesians 4:11-12 we read that God gave some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds/pastors and teachers for the building up of the church.  Did you hear that second role in the list? Prophets.  Paul wrote that God still gives the prophetic gift as a means of building up the church.  It seems to me, therefore, that there is a strong biblical case to be made that people can have a prophetic gift, and the use of that gift is vital for the strengthening and the building up of the church. 

So what is the prophetic gift?  In the Bible, as we see not only here in Ezekiel, but also through the New Testament, the prophetic gift is primarily a truth-telling gift, calling people to return to God and living according to his ways.  It is the gift of looking at the situation around them, or examining the lives of the people around them, then responding to that situation or people based on the truth of the word of God.  Is there sin?  A prophet says, “That is sin.”  Is there disunity? The prophet says, “That is disunity.”  Is there injustice?  The prophet says, “That’s injustice.”  Prophets tell the truth.

In this, prophets are a gift to those they are interacting with.  Although, rarely are they received that way.  But, looking back, people will see and know that a prophet was with them – a gift – a truth teller who was perceptive and was used of God for the purpose of directing people towards hope and restoration to God and His ways. 

That is what God commissions Ezekiel to do.  Notice the words God uses to describe Ezekiel’s message: Israel is rebellious.  Count how many times God says they are rebellious.  Five times! 

Specifically they are rebellious against God.  Their fathers (leaders) have been in revolt against him, and still were in rebellion up to the very day that God shows up to Ezekiel beside the river in Babylon. 

God has a lot more to say, and none of it is good.  Israel is obstinate and stubborn.  They are like briars and thorns and scorpions. 

God is pretty clear about the message that Ezekiel will share!  In verse 4 he is to say to them, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says.”  Do you think Ezekiel is cheering at this point?  “Yeah, Lord!  This is what you have for me say!  Let’s get started!!!” 

I’m not so sure, especially when we consider the relational dynamic of Ezekiel’s life.  He was part of a group of 10,000 Jews living in faraway Babylon, part of a subculture within a foreign culture, part of a network, a support system of people that were trying to make ends meet, trying to preserve their Jewish way of life among the Babylonians.  These were his people.  His lifeline.  His family and friends.  For five years they had been in exile, forging bonds of friendship and family in the land of the enemy.  Unless you’ve ever been uprooted and had to move to another place or culture, you might not understand what this situation feels is like.  My family and I had one year’s experience of it when we were missionaries in Jamaica.  It is a lonely, strange spot to be in. You search for those with a bit of similarity to you and try to form new norms. It is highly likely that is what Ezekiel knew.  Though the exiles longed for a return to Palestine and Jerusalem and all that was familiar in their lives, they established a new normal in Babylon. You know how we have China Towns in our big cities, or Little Italys?  They were establishing a new Israel within Babylon, and they had to form tight bonds in order to preserve that new Israel.

In that community, Ezekiel was all ready to start his life as a priest. Then God suddenly breaks into Ezekiel’s life and says, “I have a job for you.  You know that tight-knit group of people you have made a new family with here in Babylon?  Those friends you love?  You know that support group who you have locked arms with as you try to make it here in enemy territory?”  Ezekiel knows them well. “Yeah, Lord…” 

God says, “I am sending you to tell them that they are rebellious, obstinate, and stubborn.” 

How would you feel if you were Ezekiel in that moment? 

On the one hand, you’re dealing with the emotion of this surprising vision of God showing up.  That alone is a lot for a person.  You’re probably scared, yet the vision is also amazing, and maybe you’re curious.  You know God is a God of love, thus you might be partly delighted, wanting the vision never to end.  You’ve just had the Holy Spirit fill you and physically lift you up, which must have been awesome, and a bit freaky.  Your body just stood up without you controlling it.  Then God speaks to you!  Who knows what it was like to hear his voice.  Awe-inspiring?  You likely feel fear, excitement, and joy.  All of the above.  You know what you are experiencing is super rare.  Hardly anyone in history has been privileged to experience the presence of God like this, and even more rare is to hear God talking. 

But when God talks, he tells you to prophesy against your own people, your own network, your own friends, your family.  Are you so in awe that you are thinking, “Yes, yes, yes, I’ll do anything you ask, Lord?”  Or does the reality of having to confront your people have you thinking, “No, no, no, why can’t I just be a priest like my father before me?  Isn’t that also a great way to serve you, Lord?” 

I bet Ezekiel is feeling all of it, and more.  His emotions are probably all over the place.  God knows exactly what he is asking of Ezekiel, and more than that, he knows how Ezekiel is feeling.  Look at what God says repeatedly starting in verse 6, “Do not be afraid…do not be afraid…do not be afraid.” 

It doesn’t matter if the people listen to Ezekiel or not.  Do not be afraid.  It seems to me that Ezekiel needed that reminder.  So do we.  Do not be afraid.  It is easy to let fear get the best of us when we know we should speak the truth to people.  Of course there are probably some of you who are super quick to speak what you believe to be truth to people, and perhaps you should maybe be a bit more afraid!  Some people have no problem speaking whatever comes to their mind.  That doesn’t mean you’re a prophet.  You might just be bold. 

But what if Ezekiel didn’t feel bold?  He still had to preach his message of “Israel, you are rebellious, obstinate and stubborn.”  Maybe he was naturally bold.  We don’t know.  What I do know is this: If I had to preach that message to our church family every week, and in every email, I think I would start to feel nervous, afraid.  How would you feel if all I did was tell you over and over again how wrong you are?  If all I did was accuse you of being rebellious and stubborn? Would you keep reading the blog? I wouldn’t.

Yet it seems that’s what Ezekiel is to do, whether the people listen or not.  At this point, if I’m Ezekiel, I’m thinking that I don’t know if I would want God to break into my life in a glorious vision.  It would be one thing if God broke into my life and said, “I am going to bless you!  I am going to rescue you.  I am going to make you wealthy and healthy and wise.  I am going to make life easy for you.”  Nope, he is basically saying to Ezekiel, “You are going to be my prophet, and that means life will be hard for you.”  I would be thinking, “Lord, why can’t I just be a priest?  This prophet business doesn’t sound fun.”

No doubt about it, following the way of God is always the best way.  But that doesn’t mean it will necessarily be the easy way.  God is calling Ezekiel to a life of prophetic hardship.  So he says to Ezekiel in verse 8, “Listen to what I say to you.  Don’t rebel like your rebellious people.”  It is likely that Ezekiel already had a heart to love and serve the Lord.  If you are standing there, like Ezekiel was, with the powerful glory of God in front of you, I think Ezekiel would say, “Oh I promise, God.  I absolutely will not rebel.”  The much more difficult reality for Ezekiel will be when he actually has to live the life of a prophet to his family and friends, telling them they are sinful.  Maybe then Ezekiel will start having second thoughts about this prophetic business.  If he ever has those concerns, God’s words, “Do not rebel,” will hopefully serve as a motivation for Ezekiel to stick with what could likely be a hard life.

Then God says something that is…well…strange. Check back to the next post to find out.

Are there prophets among us? – Ezekiel 2:1-3:15, Part 1

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What comes to mind when you think of a prophet?  I think of guys like Elijah and John the Baptist, and they are wearing clothing made out of animal skins, holding staffs of wood, and their hair is out of control.  They have a personality to match.  Bold. Courageous.  They make loud and authoritative proclamations.  They sometimes do miracles and confront hypocritical leaders and oppressive kings. 

Imagine if someone like that showed up in our day and age.  Would we listen to them?  We would likely say they are out of their minds.  In my city’s center square, there’s often a guy shouting into a megaphone that everyone is going to hell.  I admire his boldness, but I disagree with his method.  But I have to ask, is he a prophet? Then there are doomsday preachers.  These so-called Christian prophets predict the end of the world, and they never get it right. Are they prophets?

When I think about prophets, what I don’t think about is you, the reader.  You might think, “Why would you think of any of us????”  But let me ask a question: “Is it possible that there is a prophet among us?”  Don’t think so? 

I think there are.  I actually think it is highly likely that there are more than one prophets among us!  What we will learn today from Ezekiel just might help us find out. Open a Bible and turn to Ezekiel 2.

As you turn there, let’s review Chapter 1. Five years prior to the events of Ezekiel 1 and 2, Ezekiel was part of a group of 10,000 Jews that the powerful nation of Babylon exiled from Jerusalem, forcing them to walk 900 miles and live in Babylon.  Ezekiel was the son of a priest, so there in Babylon, in the year of his 30th birthday, the year that sons of priests become priests themselves, God appeared to Ezekiel in an amazing vision.  Ezekiel was very familiar with the idea that God’s presence was located in the temple in Jerusalem, so it would have been a major shock to encounter God in Babylon.  At the end of chapter 1, while seated on his throne which was riding on this majestic lightning fire table chariot, God speaks to Ezekiel, and Ezekiel falls flat on his face.

That’s where we pick up with chapter 2, verse 1.  Pause reading this post and read Ezekiel 2:1-2.

God calls Ezekiel, “Son of man.”  This is the first of 93 times that title will be used for Ezekiel.  Jesus also used this title of himself sometimes, but it doesn’t seem there is any intended connection between Jesus and Ezekiel.  Instead this term refers to Ezekiel’s humanity.  In a scene the like this one, it is very appropriate.  With the unparalleled glory of God there before him, Ezekiel’s humanity is obvious.  There is a vast difference between ourselves and God.  This is the difference between divinity and humanity.  In the presence of divinity, humans cannot stand, and Ezekiel is laid out flat on his face.

The difference is so stark that Ezekiel cannot even move in God’s presence.  What God tells Ezekiel next is “stand up and let’s talk.”  I find that amazing.  God could easily just talk with Ezekiel while Ezekiel is face down on the ground.  God would have no problem communicating to Ezekiel in that state.   But God doesn’t want to do that.  Instead God wants to talk with Ezekiel face to face.  Think about that. This is just one of the many ways God shows us in the stories of the Bible that he values us and a relationship with us.

You might have heard the verse, “No one can see God’s face and live.” (Ex. 33:20)  That describes the intensity and purity of the presence of God.  We simply cannot survive if we were to face God’s holiness.  So why does God want Ezekiel to stand up to talk? Is this a death sentence for Ezekiel?

No, because Ezekiel can’t stand up!  It seems he is physically unable to move, the presence of God is so overpowering.  But God has a solution.  God’s Spirit enters Ezekiel and raises Ezekiel to his feet!  We’ve already talked about how the Holy Spirit is a major player in the book Ezekiel.  We already saw in Ezekiel chapter 1 how the Spirit guides the lightning chariot/table of God.  Now the Spirit empowers Ezekiel to stand in God’s presence.  This is important for us to take note of because we Christians know that we are temple of the Holy Spirit.  Hold that thought.  There’s more of the Spirit to come. The Spirit’s raising of Ezekiel to his feet indicates God’s desire for relationship, even face to face. So why didn’t Ezekiel die? It could be that this was just a vision of the presence of God and not the actual thing. Or perhaps God preserved Ezekiel’s life because of the mission he had for Ezekiel. Maybe there is another reason. No matter, what we see in this encounter is the relationality of our God.

Now with Ezekiel on his feet, God talks again. What does he say next? We’ll find out in the next post.

The precarious business of telling the truth – Ezekiel 2:1-3:15, Preview

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Do you tell the truth? Of course you do…or do you? Are there times when you might fudge a bit on the truth?

I suspect that all of us struggle with lying here and there, but for the most part we are committed to telling the truth. I ask the question, though, because there are times when telling the truth is very tricky.

For example, what do you do when a friend or spouse asks, “How do I look?” and you think their outfit doesn’t look so great? Worse, what do you do when a spouse or friend says, “Do you think I’ve gained weight?” You know they have gained weight, but red flags are flying, saying, “LIE! LIE! LIE! Get yourself out of this trap. Tell them they don’t look like they’ve gained even an ounce.” Harder still can be those situations in life when a person in your life is behaving badly, and you know need to talk with them, but you are afraid of alienating them or offending them. Should you speak truth to them? What if you lose them? What if they stop talking to you?

It’s complicated, emotional and we can clam up, while the person continues their bad behavior. These are difficult situations, and while we might not tell outright lies in those scenarios, we can avoid the truth. Does that resonate with you? What do we do about it? As we continue studying Ezekiel, the next passage describes God’s commissioning of Ezekiel to that very role, the role of a professional truth-teller. There will be much we can learn from God’s commissioning of Ezekiel that will help us as we consider the oftentimes difficult task of truth-telling.

Open a Bible to Ezekiel 2:1-3:15, read it and on June 28’s post, we begin discussing how it applies to our lives.