When Jesus rose from the dead, there were already things in the Bible that if rightly understood, would have led Jesus’ disciples to expect him to rise from the dead. In this sermon, we look at one such part of the Bible.


Ezekiel 37:1-14

The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25-48 (NICOT)Daniel Block

Sermon Transcript

Well I mentioned already that today is the day many Christians set aside to give unique attention to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and since that is a matter of first importance to Christianity, I’m happy to give it unique attention today as well. One typical way of doing that would be to preach from one of the historical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection recorded in the Gospels, and we did read from one of those already this morning. Did you notice in that one, though, that John, the author of it, said that “as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead”? John suggests there that there was something in Scripture already when Jesus rose from the dead, that rightly understood, would have led Jesus’ disciples to realize that Jesus must rise from the dead. What is it? Well, it’s hard to say exactly what John had in mind there; but one passage that predicts resurrection is Ezekiel 37, which we’ve just read. Ezekiel was written about 500 years before Jesus ever rose from the dead, during a time in which many of God’s people had been brutally slain by their enemies, and those who survived felt hopeless. We too live in a world in which, despite wonderful advances in medical technology, death is all around us, and given the popular narrative that certainty about anything beyond death is impossible, real, substantial hope is also in short supply. Even as Christians it can look to us like sin and death are winning. But from 500 years before the resurrection of Christ to today, 2000 years after it, this passage shows us that the Spirit of God will give life to the people of God. The passage breaks down pretty neatly into two sections, the first of which is a prophetic vision of what the Spirit of God giving life to the people God looks like (that’s verses 1-10), and the second of which is God’s explanation of the reality that the prophetic vision symbolizes. So we’ll talk about what it’s like for the Spirit of God to give life to the people of God, and then we’ll talk about what that actually means.


What it’s like


The prophet Ezekiel begins our passage in verse 1 by giving us the setting. The hand of the LORD was upon him, a phrase that reoccurs throughout the book and that typically introduces some kind of prophetic vision, and so you should not think that what follows here is a description of Ezekiel’s body literally moving through space into a material valley full of material bones. If you have ever had the experience of putting on virtual reality goggles, a prophetic vision is something more like that, except there are no goggles, and the prophet is aware that it is actually the Spirit of the LORD, Yahweh, the God of Israel, the creator of everything, who is directing that vision. And here what Ezekiel sees is a valley full of bones. Then the Spirit of God leads him around them, and again picture a virtual tour like you might take online of any apartment, where you are seeing each room as though you are walking through them yourself. As that happens, Ezekiel realizes in verse 2 that there were a lot of these bones, they were on the surface of the valley, and they were very dry.


Try to imagine the scene yourself: A valley is a low area of land between mountains or hills of some sort. And above the ground of the whole valley is bone after bone after bone; like I’m picturing layer upon layer of bones. And these bones don’t look like the bones from your freshly eaten chicken wing. They are dry, brittle, bleached white by the sun bones, and as the vision develops, we learn that they are human bones. When was the last time you walked anywhere and saw even a single human bone? Wouldn’t it be disorienting if you did? We know humans have bones, but typically they are covered by skin, and when they are not, they are typically buried in the ground or cremated. That was true in Ezekiel’s day too. In fact, for a dead body to be left out in the open was widely recognized to be a horrific thing. At the end of Homer’s Iliad, the big suspense regards the body of the great Trojan warrior Hector, who was defeated in battle by the great Greek warrior Achilles (sorry for the spoiler, but you had a few thousand years). The final scene is of Hector’s father, King Priam of the Trojans, begging Achilles to release the body of Hector so that he can be properly buried or at least be properly cremated. So also in the Bible, when God warns his people of the curses that will come upon them if they disobey his commandments, he says not only that they will be defeated in battle, but that “your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth” (Deut 28:25-26). To see a valley filled with many dry human bones, then, suggests that many humans were brutally killed and their dead bodies were eaten by birds of the air and beasts of the earth. These are not the bones of people who died quietly in the comfort of their homes with their families at their bedsides. And again, it’s not hard to imagine how disorienting, how shocking it would be even today, if you found yourself in a valley full of the bones of such people.


The question then comes to Ezekiel in verse 3, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Son of man is just a common phrase in the Old Testament for a human, so you can easily read it like, “Human, can these bones live?” And, humanly speaking of course, the answer is no. But Ezekiel doesn’t say that in response, because he’s not talking to a human. He’s talking to God, and with God all things are possible. Granted, there wasn’t really biblical precedent for this kind of resurrection. Abraham received Isaac back from the dead figuratively, but he didn’t actually die. God raised a boy from the dead through the prophet Elijah, but the boy had only been dead for a brief period of time. His bones were certainly not visible, nor were they very dry. And he was just one person. But can the bones of very many long dead, unburied corpses that don’t even have their flesh anymore because the birds and beasts ate it, can those bones live, especially if the reason those corpses were unburied was because they were under God’s curse, like God said would be part of his curse in Deuteronomy? Well, is anything too hard for God? Certainly he can give life to these very dry bones; this is the God who made everything! If you’re here today and you are not a Christian, maybe this whole idea of Jesus literally rising from the dead that Christians talk about on Easter seems like a fairy tale. But if there is really a God who made everything that exists, isn’t it at least possible that he could raise the dead? So Ezekiel doesn’t say no to God’s question in verse 3.


Neither does he say yes, though, because while he knows God is able to give life to these bones, he does not know whether God is willing. Only God knows that, and so Ezekiel’s answer in verse 3: “O LORD GOD, you know.” If you don’t do it, of course these bones cannot live, and if you choose to do it, of course they can, but only you know whether you will or not. Will the person you love survive their cancer? O LORD GOD, you know. To cure cancer is easy for God, but he hasn’t promised to do it in every individual case. Will you get married and have children? O LORD GOD, you know. To give a spouse and a child is easy for God, but he hasn’t promised to do it for every individual person. Will the struggle with this particular sin ever go away in this life? O LORD GOD, you know. God promises that one day all sin struggles will be over, and to take away a sin struggle would be easy for him, but God hasn’t promised to take away any particular sin struggle in any particular believer in this life. Ezekiel’s posture in verse 3 is often where we find ourselves in this life: O LORD GOD, you know.


But in this case, God said more. Before God tells Ezekiel whether the bones can actually live or not, he tells him to prophesy over the bones, and say to them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.” Now I mentioned earlier how disorienting it would be if you were going on a walk through Philly and you saw human bones lying on the ground. How much more disorienting would it be, though, if you saw someone talking to the bones? Wouldn’t you be prone to think the person doing so was either high or suffering from some sort of mental illness? And yet, that’s part of this image of how the Spirit of God will give life to the people of God. It will be like a prophet of God speaking the word of God to a bunch of dead, very dry bones. And then here’s what Ezekiel was to say to the dry bones, verse 5: 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 cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD. When God made the first human, Genesis 2:7 tells us that he formed him from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. When that man sinned, God told him he would now have to return to dust in judgment on his sin (Gen 3:19). But here God speaks to the bones of people who have returned to dust under his curse, and he says not only that he can, but that he will once again cause breath to enter them, and they shall live again.


So Ezekiel says in verse 7 that he prophesied as he was commanded, and as he prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bones, and then the sinews, flesh, and skin comes upon them. It’s as he is proclaiming the word of God to the dry bones that the bones begin to rattle and come to life. And yet, his word alone is insufficient to give life to the bones. Verse 8 ends by saying there was still no breath in them, though now the bodies were fully formed. So now we’re picturing a valley full of pristine, newly created bodies; no blood stains, no broken bones, no rigor mortis, but they’re all laying there lifeless.


So God tells Ezekiel in verse 9 to now prophesy to the breath, and speak to it the word of God, telling it to come and breathe on these slain, that they may live. It will probably help you understand this if you understand that in both Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament was originally written, and Greek, the language in which the New Testament was originally written, the same word is used for breath and wind. And that makes sense, right? Both are air in motion. So when the ESV says, “Come from the four winds, O breath” it’s most likely just viewing the wind in this prophetic image like the breath of God that God said he would cause to enter the dry bones in verse 5. So Ezekiel prophesies again as God commanded him, this time speaking to the breath and telling it to come and breathe on these slain, that they may live, and sure enough, the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. Not only did they come alive, but these slain came alive with such vigor of life that they were not just any army, but an exceedingly great army. This is the image God gave Ezekiel, and through Ezekiel, gives us, of what it’s like for the Spirit of God to give life to the people of God.


It’s like starting with a valley filled with layer upon layer of the very dry, unburied bones of slain corpses under the curse of God, and then a prophet of God speaking to them the word of God, promising them life, and as the prophet speaks that word of God, God begins to give them life, and as the prophet then speaks the word of God also to the wind of God, breath enters into them, and the dead bones once again form living humans who have such vigor and might that together they form an exceedingly great army. That’s what it’s like, and you’d done a good job holding on this long, but by now I’m sure you’re wondering, “What does it mean?” And, praise God, he tells us through Ezekiel, starting in verse 11. Let’s look then at what it is.


What it is


Then God said to Ezekiel, “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.’” So there you have it! Whose bones were they? They were the bones of the people of Israel! And why would God represent the house of Israel as very dry bones? Because they were saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost, we are indeed cut off.” And why were they saying that? Well we’d all know if we had read through the first 36 chapters of Ezekiel first, but since we didn’t, let me summarize: God had brought the people of Israel into the land that he promised to give to their forefathers, and he gave them his law, which told them what faithfulness to him required them to do and not to do, and he told them that if they were not faithful to him he would curse them by bringing another nation against them who would kill them and take them away from their land. Sure enough, the people were not faithful, and God sent the Babylonians, who brutally killed the people of Israel, leaving many of their corpses to be eaten by birds and beasts of the field, just like God said would happen if they were not faithful to him, and those that were left were taken away from the land to Babylon. So now those living in Babylon saw many of their family and friends killed, and they know it is because they are all under God’s curse. So what do they conclude? Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.


Therefore, verse 12, here’s the actual prophesying that Ezekiel is supposed to do outside the vision to the people of Israel: 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. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from our graves, O my people. 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. There you have it: What is the meaning of Ezekiel’s vision? What is the reality to which it pointed? It pointed to this reality: That God will open the graves of his people, put his Spirit within them, raise them up, bring them into the land he promised to give them, and then they will know that he is the LORD.


First, there is a promise of bodily resurrection: I will open your graves and raise you from your graves. Many of the people of Israel had literally died in the Babylonian conquest, and God says here that he will raise them from their graves. Second, there is a promise of spiritual regeneration: I will put my Spirit within you, and then they will know that I am the LORD. That spiritual regeneration was especially the focus of the chapter just before this one. In Ezekiel 36:26 God said that he will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. What’s that sound like? I will remove the dead heart, and give you a living one, and then in verse 27 he says that he will put his Spirit within them, and here’s what he says will happen when he does that: He will cause them to walk in his statutes and be careful to obey his rules. That was the problem in the first place: They did not walk in his statutes and were not careful to obey his rules, and therefore received the curse of his covenant, but now God says he will put his Spirit within them, and then they will walk in his statutes and be careful to obey his rules. The Spirit will make them careful rule followers in the best way: They will know that he is the LORD, they will love him, and so they will be careful to do what he says. And, finally, there is the promise to bring them into the land. Bodily resurrection, spiritual regeneration, and promised land; that’s what God promises his people who say, “our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.”


And, sure enough, God has been faithful to this promise. Decades passed, and God did bring them back into their land. But none of the dead were raised, and when they got back to the land, they did not walk in his statues, and they were not careful to obey his rules. They still did not seem to know that he was the LORD. They were like the bones that rattled together again as they were reassembled, but there was still no life in them. Until, that is, there was one man, one member of the house of Israel who was entirely faithful to God, who kept all of his commandments and was careful to obey all his rules, but who nonetheless was slain. On the cross, Jesus Christ cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” What’s he saying there? He’s basically saying, “My bones are dried up; I am indeed cut off.” And he did not hear back from God in heaven, “Oh no Jesus; don’t say that; you aren’t cut off.” On the cross Jesus Christ was cut off, not for his sins, but for ours, all the sins of all God’s people being laid on him. And yet here we are gathered for worship on a Sunday morning as God’s people because on Sunday morning, though Jesus Christ was just as truly dead as the people of Israel who died in the Babylonian conquest, God opened his grave, breathed once again into him the breath of life, and he came alive!


And then, having risen from the dead himself and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he poured him out on his spiritually dead people (Acts 2:33). I mentioned earlier that the Hebrew and Greek words for wind and breath are the same, but what I didn’t mention is that those words are also the same as the word for spirit, and in Ezekiel 37:1, what do we learn? We learn that God himself has a Spirit. Christians confess our belief that God is one God eternally existing in three persons, the third of which is the Holy Spirit, so called because the Bible calls him that, and so called by the Bible because he is spirated, breathed out, by God the Father and God the Son. So Christ is said to have been made alive “in the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18), and then to have poured out this Spirit, and what does the Spirit do when he is poured out? The Spirit of God gives life to the people of God.


In the New Testament it’s called the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom [God] poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6). Or listen to this description of it: “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” (Eph 2:1-5). What’s that telling us? It’s telling us that God has now done what he said he would do in Ezekiel 37! If you are a Christian, he has made you alive when you were dead in your trespasses and sins by putting his Spirit within you, and that new life he has given you is eternal, such that though you die, your spirit will live on in fellowship with God.


And yet, we still wait for the hour that is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear Jesus’ voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. Those who are raised to the resurrection of life will then inherit not only a strip of land in the Middle East, but an entirely new earth, in which righteousness dwells. The bodily resurrection, the spiritual regeneration, the promised land will be theirs, and then they will know in full, even as they have been fully known, for they will know that he is the LORD.


If you are here today and you are not a Christian, we are so glad to have you with us. I want you to see what this passage means for you. It means at least two things: 1.) You’re worse than you think you are, and 2.) There is real hope for you. First, you are worse than you think you are. Most every person I meet assumes that they are imperfect, but as far as I know, Christians are the only ones who would say that apart from a miraculous work of the Spirit of God, they are dead, that is, that nothing good dwells in them before the Spirit of God gives them new life (Rom 7:18). The problem of humanity that this text depicts is not that we’re imperfect; it’s that apart from the Spirit of God, we’re as dead as very dry bones. You can easily go away from even a sermon like this and think, “Ok; I really should try to live a better life” but that’s not what this text is saying! You must not merely do better from this day forward to live a life pleasing to God; you must be born again! You’re worse than you think you are, and yet, here’s the hope: This God, the God of the Bible, the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the God who made everything, the God who exists, is a God who raises the dead, who makes alive those who are dead in their trespasses and sins. Turn from your sins, turn from your efforts to improve yourself, receive and rest upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation, and you can know that you have been born again. If you have questions or even reservations about that please talk to one of us after the service.


On the other hand, I know many of you in the room today do profess to be Christians already. If you truly are a Christian, one simple way to describe you, then, would be as someone who once was spiritually dead, but has now been made alive, and those who have been made alive demonstrate signs of life. When doctors declare a patient to be alive, they do so because of certain evidences of bodily life: Breath, a heartbeat, bodily motion, and so on. What is the basic sign of spiritual life? Well, back to Ezekiel 36: God says when he puts his Spirit within someone, he causes them to walk in his statutes and be careful to obey his rules. Examine yourself, then: Are you careful to obey his rules? Would the Christians who know you best say, “Yes, of course he or she is not perfect, but he or she is really careful to obey God’s rules”? If not, it may be that though you profess to be a Christian, you are still dead in your trespasses and sins. And the good news is, there is still hope for you too, the same hope as for the person who knows they are not a Christian: Turn from your sins, turn from your efforts to improve yourself, receive and rest upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation, and you can know that you have been born again.


Many others of you have been truly made alive, and the Spirit of God is now in you. Are you rejoicing in that today? If not, why not? Remember that God’s goal in this is so that in the end we might know that he is the LORD. In other words, it’s so that he might get the glory he deserves. Are you giving his glory to other things today? Do you see the wonder of what he has done in your life? You were like slain, very dry bones, and though the preaching of the gospel, he made you alive together with Christ, such that now not only are you alive, but you have strength from him, like the strength of a great army together with your church family, to sing his praises and put to death the sin that remains in you! Don’t ever think that your hope is now lost. The details of our life only the Lord knows, but we know how it all ends: From the tomb you will hear the voice of Jesus, and you rise to the resurrection of life.


And don’t ever think your hope for the salvation of others is lost. Yes, as Christians when we proclaim the gospel to those who don’t yet believe, we are doing something as seemingly crazy as what Ezekiel did when he preached to very dry bones. Not only is it unlikely that the people you are speaking it to will believe it; it is impossible that they will believe it…unless God sends his Spirit to give them life. Remember how Ezekiel had to not only speak to the bones, but also to the breath? We know the bones symbolized the whole house of Israel, but what about the breath? Well, remember that’s the same word as the word for what? Spirit. And what does God say in verse 14 when he’s explaining the literal meaning of the vision? I will put my Spirit within you. Ezekiel speaking to the breath is like us praying and asking God to use the words we speak to others who don’t believe and through them, to give them life! In Acts 6, what do the apostles devote themselves to? Prayer, and the ministry of the word. Speaking the word to people, and speaking to God on behalf of the people. Will the individual you’ve been praying for and sharing the gospel with ever believe? O LORD GOD, you know. But we know what message he has commissioned us to proclaim, so let’s be bold to proclaim it, and let’s pray fervently for God to save many who do not yet believe, trusting all the while that the Spirit of God will give life to the people of God.