Another Bad Churchy Phrase: “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.”

Church

Bad Churchy Phrases:

Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.”

Ezekiel 37:1-14

  

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been examining churchy phrases – things you tend to hear said in church circles offered by well-meaning brothers and sisters. We’ve examined phrases like, “It was a God thing;” and, “God will never give you more than you can bear.”

Last week we looked into Deuteronomy 27 with its 12-fold repetition of the sentence, “And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” For all the “Amens” recited there, is not a happy, scene as the people agree to the curses of sin. But we saw how God made a provision for the curses in the altar of sacrifice Joshua was commanded to build upon the mountain of cursing, the mountain where half the tribes of Israel were told to stand and say, “Amen” when the priests read out the covenant curses. The altar pointed us to Jesus and to his perfect, covenant-keeping life and bloody sacrificial death on a new mountain of worship: Calvary.

We haven’t been looking at church phrases so we can feel smug when we hear a well-meaning brother of sister in Christ use one. We haven’t even been doing them so you can astound your friends and confound your enemies.

We’ve been looking at these phrases so you can think according to scripture, so you can take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Punishment is measured on the basis of good intentions and bad intentions; But truth is measured by the Word of God alone. Good intentions don’t make unbiblical statements true.

This morning, we’ll examine another churchy phrase: “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.” That one holds hands with a few other phrases in church circles: “Be the gospel;” and, “You’re the only bible some people will ever read.” Those are well-meaning phrases emphasizing that Christians are supposed to love their neighbors, serve the underprivileged, and seek the good of the city as well as the congregation. In short, we are commanded to love the unlovely.

So why am I being such a Grinch by attacking a nice, well-meaning churchy phrase like “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words”? We going to tear down this churchy phrase this morning because it’s absolutely anti-biblical and anti-gospel!

First, let’s read our text this morning from Ezekiel 37 and see what the Valley of the Dry Bones has to show us about gospel preaching – you know, the kind that actually uses words spoken by a preacher.

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”

Ezekiel’s vision is a wonderful picture of how God delivers his good news to hopeless people.  Ezekiel was a prophet to the exiled Jews in Babylon. When this particular message from God came, the Jews had been in exile “for more than ten years, and what glimmerings of hope they had when first they arrived have now been altogether extinguished. Their hope was lost: as bones, they were very dry.”1

Neither Ezekiel nor you can “be” a proposition.

God doesn’t call Ezekiel to go BE the good news to the exiles. Ezekiel isn’t even instructed to go DO nice things for these sad people. God doesn’t tell the prophet to “use words if necessary.” God commands Ezekiel to speak and gives Ezekiel the very words God wants him to speak.

Our churchy phrase of the day, “Preach the gospel; if necessary use words” has become a favorite tweet and Facebook meme often attributed to Francis of Assisi, the early 13th-century monk and patron saint of Italy.  However, there is no historic record of Francis ever saying anything even close to this statement. Francis himself was a preacher, often preaching up to five times a day.2 Our churchy phrase of the day likely originated in our own era as a child of post-modern philosophy.

In post-modern thought, words are empty of meaning and there is no particular narrative or meaning to any story. So, the ideas that the bible has a storyline or that speaking words to people has any value are considered ridiculous.

Our churchy phrase of the day misunderstands the means by which God saves sinners and builds his church. To “live out the gospel” or “be the gospel” or “gospel each other” is literally impossible because the gospel is a message, a set of propositions expressed by God through words. Good news must be preached and the preaching has consequences. You can live in such a way that reflects your trust in the truth of the words; but you cannot BE the words.

Preaching seemed like a foolish idea, even to a prophet who preached for a living (vv. 1-4).

Ezekiel’s vision shows us how preaching the gospel is so upside down from the way the world works. God shows him a field of dry bones and asks in verse 3, “Son of man, can these bones live?” What a ridiculous question! Ezekiel would have known the stories of how the prophets Elijah and Elisha had raised people from RECENT death (1 Ki. 17:17-24; 2 Ki. 4:18-37; 2 Ki. 13:21). But these were bones – DRY bones (v. 4).

So Ezekiel gives God a cautious answer: “O Lord Yahweh, that only you know,” (3b). The prophet has no hint of what God’s plan is as he looks over this field of thousands of scattered bare bones, representing an army slain in battle and left to rot as a memorial to their dismal, gory, dishonorable defeat (vv. 9-10). The birds and beasts had picked the carcasses clean and scattered the bones; the wind and sun had turned the bones bleached and brittle.

It’s Memorial Day tomorrow, so imagine you and I went over to Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery and began to walk around among the thousands and thousands of neatly organized graves, all with American flags planted on them. I turn to you and say, “Can these bones live?

You live 2,000 years after Jesus’ resurrection; so you could fashion some kind of theological answer to the pastor. But Ezekiel lives centuries before Calvary and the empty tomb. He doesn’t have the context, the perspective you and I have now.

Then [YHWH] said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

Nothing could seem more ridiculous to this bewildered prophet than speaking words to a valley full of bleached, scattered bones. This is no Memorial Day ceremony where one talks ABOUT the honored dead! God wants Ezekiel to speak words TO the dead – the long dead, the dishonored dead, the shamed and grave-less dead.

Wouldn’t it have made just a little more sense for God to tell Ezekiel to walk out into that valley and start organizing these scattered bones back into complete skeletons? “Ezekiel, get out there and lay some groundwork first. DO something useful. Earn the right to be heard by these dead bones. Then, if necessary, use words.”

Using mere words, just speaking to a valley full of dry, scattered bones is foolishness. It’s totally upside down. Preaching (with words) is foolishness! Paul even says so:

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:20-21).

Ezekiel speaks the words, but God promises He is the One who will give life through the words (vv. 5-6).

Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

What God promises to these dry bones, and by extension to the deathly-discouraged Jews in Babylonian exile (and to you and I this morning) is “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”  

Yahweh himself will put breath into the bones to resurrect them to new life. But he will do it by using his prophet to speak/breathe out the words of life. The Hebrew word translated breath (rûaḥ) represents the “divine animating force without which no life is possible” (Gen. 2:7; Judg. 15:19). “Only God, from whom all life derives (Eccl. 12:7), can revive these bones.”3

In both Hebrew and Greek, one word is used to represent our English words “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit.” Jesus, in speaking to Nicodemus, uses these words:

unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind [spirit/breath] blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (Jn. 3:5-8).

Adam did not become a living, breathing being until God breathed into him. Israel cannot have true life again until God breathes into them the words He speaks through his prophet. Can you see how saying, “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words” is as utterly meaningless a statement as, “Feed the starving; if necessary, use food”?

The gospel is propositional truth expressed in words. Jesus himself is called The Word (Jn. 1:1 ff.) because he is fulfillment of all God’s covenants (expressed in words); he spoke creation into existence as the Spirit hovered over the waters to carry out Jesus’ spoken creative words.

By the time Ezekiel is given this vision, the prophet Jeremiah has spoken God’s promise of a New Covenant:

33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put [the words of] my law within them, and I will write it [words] on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer. 31:3-34).

Ezekiel’s vision is the explanation of HOW God will breathe the life of a new relationship (new covenant) with God into His hopeless, dead, dishonored people.

He will do it with his breath, his Spirit, by means of the preached Word of Christ through those whom He calls and empowers to preach it! The Westminster Confession of Faith, to which our congregation adheres, teaches there are only two means of grace in the New Covenant: the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments (of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper).4

Though it may be utter upside-down foolishness to preach words to the dead, it is the ordinary means God uses to bring the New Covenant blessing of life to His hopelessly-dead people. So Paul wrote:

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:14-15).

Real hope only comes through God’s words (vv. 7-14).

Look in our text at vv. 9-10:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

God’s words bring with them the power of God’s Spirit. That power builds a vast army raised from death and dishonor to a new and powerful life.  I wonder if St. Author of Hebrews didn’t have this vision of God’s army in mind when he wrote:

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb. 4:12-13).

God’s words produce a vast army. Armies do stuff. They act. So words bring actions. But notice how Paul describes Christian warfare in 2 Cor. 10:3-5,

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ….

God’s army fights with words, with THE WORD of God. That is why Peter told us we preach the gospel to the dead:

 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does (1 Pt. 4:6).

“Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.” Really? Seriously? Life, real life and the hope of it, come only by means of God’s two words of Law and Gospel. God’s Law-words reveal our death and dishonor to be like a field of dried scattered bones from an annihilated army. We are dead beyond any hope of life.

  • God’s words of Law demand that we love so him with total perfection in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds.

  • Those Law-words tutor us to see that our father Adam failed to keep the Law. Those Law-words reveal to us that we have utterly failed God’s demand for our perfection.

  • Jesus said, “48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

  • Those Law-words show us that all who fail to perfectly obey them must and shall die; indeed, we are all dead in sin (Rom. 3:9-20; 7:5).

God’s Law-words show us the scattered bleached bones of our hopelessness. God’s Gospel-words promise resurrection from our dishonorable open graves into a new life created by the power of Word and Spirit. Look back to our text in vv. 12-14:

Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.

God’s Gospel-words raise the dead! God offers the dishonored dead new life, a new relationship with him, a new Spirit with a new-life power. O beloved, hear these words of life and hope – for there are no other words to raise you from death to life:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:4-9).

Beloved, share the gospel; and by all means, use your words.

1 John B. Taylor, Ezekiel: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 22, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1969), 228.

2 Ed Stetzer, Preach the Gospel, and Since It’s Necessary, Use Words. Accesses 5/27/16 at http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/preach-the-gospel-and-since-its-necessary-use-words/

3 Daniel Isaac Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997–), 376.

4 Morton H. Smith, Westminster Confession of Faith, electronic ed. (Greenville SC: Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Press, 1996), VII:6.