Dave spoke tonight from Ezek 37:1-14, a very famous passage set in the Valley of Dry Bones. The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of God which completely transformed how the people saw their life in exile, and for us today, facing so many restrictions and uncertainties because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to learn lessons from this passage so that we can face life with encouragement and hope rather than with fear and despair.
Ezekiel was born the son of a priest, but at the age of 25, he was taken away with the people of God to exile in Babylon. He must have taken up his priestly duties at the age of 30 with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness (see Psalm 137 for a description of how the people felt.) To live in a pagan, secular world like Babyone was discouraging and there was probably also a sense of disillusionment and disappointment (just as many today are discouraged, disillusioned and disappointed), but God gave Ezekiel a powerful vision. When we see things from God’s perspective, our lives can be completely transformed.
The Valley of Dry Bones must have been a horrific sight for a priest not allowed to touch a dead body. These bones were unburied (contrary to all Jewish customes) and the sense of death and curse must have been devastating to Ezekiel. We too can feel overwhelmed by the pictures of death and destruction on our TV screens and phones as we view wars, terrorism and natural disasters. But in the midst of this horror, God asked an apparently impossible question: ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’
Ezekiel’s answer was honest: ‘O Sovereign Lord, You alone know.’ God then commanded him to prophesty to these bones. How ridiculous this must have seemed, yet Ezekiel did as he was commanded, and hear the rustling, clicking and miracle of bone coming together with bone. Human bodies were visible again, but they were still dead. Now Ezekiel had to prophesy to the breath, and new life appeared. What appears dead and lifeless can live again when God works, but what we need to remember is that God didn’t do the work on His own. He invited Ezekiel to participate in what He was going to do.
God invites us too to look over the Dearne Valley. We may feel like Ezekiel, seeing the dry bones of disused churches and closed churches, but God sees more than dry bones. He sees the mighty army as God’s people rise up again. To see in this way means we must stop relying on human eyesight and see through spiritual eyes. We must learn to speak the words the Lord has said. In the past, God has spoken through his prophets, promising to bring revival to the Dearne Valley. We must remember what God has said in the past and speak it out. We must prophesy over the church, over the streets and over the valley, seeing beyond empty seats, graffiti and vandalism, crime and despair to the miracles that God can do. God used Ezekiel – He wants to use us too.
O church of God, what do you see?
One of the things Garry spoke about this morning which cause our hearts to grow cold if we are not careful is being spiritually unfit. He illustrated this point with a story of a recent trip to the seal colony at Ravenscar on the East Coast.
The seal colony can only be accessed via a steep cliff (about 180 metres tall). Going down to see the seals was steep but manageable, and the ability to get so close to these beautiful creatures was well worth it.
But the climb back up the steep cliff was challenging. Several times, Garry had to stop and rest because the climb was physically exerting, reminding him that when it came to serious walking, he was physically unfit! To make it easier, he could have prepared for this in order to gradually become fitter and more used to such challenges. All athletes know they need to train to become fit; it doesn’t just happen automatically.
In the same way, we need to take our spiritual walk with God seriously. It requires us to be disciplined about spending time with God, to make an effort to be with Him in prayer and in reading His word. We need to learn to worship Him at all times, to sing to Him when we’re by ourselves, to rejoice and make time for Him and for meeting together with other Christians. (Heb 10:25) Only then can we gradually become fitter so that we are not put off by the many obstacles in life.
Garry spoke this morning from Matt 24:9, 12, verses which speak of the persecution and opposition to the Christian message which will happen before Jesus comes again. In Matt 24:12, we read that the love of many (or most) will grow cold because of the increase of wickedness; in the Message version, it’s even blunter: ‘the overwhelming spread of evil will do them in’ and the comment that there will nothing left of their love but a mound of ashes. We certainly need to accept that we will either grow up or grow cold; we need to run the race marked out for us with perseverance so that we do not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb 12:1-2)
External opposition may come as we stray away from God’s laws (often perceived in negative ways, but actually laws intended to teach, direct, guide and lead us into freedom.) Josh 1:7-8 reminds us of the need to meditate on God’s law and be careful to obey it. In our society, we see a moving away from God’s laws, with laws being changed which bear no resemblance to God’s law (on abortion and euthanasia for example.) In the face of such opposition, many will give up because it’s hard work to swim against the tide and we often find it easier to keep our heads down and say nothing.
Persecution is a deliberate attempt to stop Christians and thus the spread of Christianity, and in many countries of the world, it is highly dangerous to be a Christian (e.g. Vietnam, China and North Korea.) Even ordinary trials and difficulties (such as illnesses, job problems or relationship problems) can cause our love to grow cold, however. What we perceive as unanswered prayer (effectively when God does not answer in the way we want!) can also be a stumbling-block to our faith. We rejoice when we hear testimonies of people coming to faith in Christ (even in lockdown), but we must also acknowledge there are those who once professed to be Christians who have abandoned the faith and now do not identify with Christ.
Other factors which can lead to us growing cold in our devotion to God include personal sin and being spiritually unfit. When we dabble with sin, we lose our connection to God, and when we lose connection, we lose direction (see Col 2:18-19). Sometimes, we become spiritually flabby (not spending time with the Lord in prayer or in reading His word or in personal worship) and as a result grow cold and indifferent to Him.
If we are to grow up spiritually instead, we must:
learn to live as children of the light, encouraging each other daily (1 Thess 5:4-11). As we wait for Jesus to return, we must put on love, faith and the hope of salvation and learn that mutual support is needed.
live the truth (Eph 4:15). When we speak the truth in love, we will grow. In any war, the first casualty is truth. We must keep to the truth, for a half-truth can be deadly. When we seek and find God’s truth, we are set free.
know that growth comes because God supplies all we need. (1 Cor 3:4-6) God’s desire is for growth and He gives us different ministries to help build us up.
grow in knowledge (Col 1:10). This is not simply ‘book knowledge’ about God but a personal knowledge of Him. We will only tend to know people well if we take the time to get to know them, and this applies to our relationship with God as well.
grow in grace (2 Pet 3:18, 2 Thess 1:3). We must learn to receive God’s lavish, undeserved grace and must also learn to be gracious towards others, surprising them with kindness. This inevitably will stretch us as we rise to the challenges God puts before us. It’s tiring and stretching at times to live like this because we must push forward and not be complacent.
grow in love (2 Thess 1:3). Our love needs to be continually increasing. Humanly speaking, our love has limits, but God wants to take us beyond our limits to adopt His love which is immeasurable.
Acts 18:18-28 introduces another character who was important to God’s plans in Corinth (and about whom we know relatively little!) Having met Aquila and Priscilla (fellow tentmakers like Paul) earlier in this chapter, we are now introduced to Apollos, who apparently went on to play a key leadership role in the church in Corinth, if Paul’s letters are anything to go by. It seems some in the church there were to feel he was a more impressive leader than Paul (see 1 Cor 1:12, 1 Cor 3:4-8), but here we meet him for the first time and see how Priscilla and Aquila are instrumental in teaching him more about the Holy Spirit and help him to grow in his knowledge of the Lord.
Apollos was a Jew (originally from Alexandria) who had come to Ephesus. Luke tells us that he was a learned, eloquent man with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. Alexandria had a huge Jewish population at that time. It was there that the Septuagint had been produced about 200 years before Christ, and there that the great scholar Philo (Jesus’s contemporary) had lived and worked. Apollos had been instructed in the way of the Lord and spoke with great fervour (‘matching erudition with enthusiasm,’ as John Stott put it.) However, he only knew about the baptism of John and there must have been, therefore, a limit to what he knew. Priscilla and Aquila invited him to their home to explain the way of God more adequately to him. We do not know exactly how his teaching was previously defective, or if he knew much at all about Jesus’s death, resurrection and exaltation. Perhaps Apollos preached repentance and faith in the Messiah—he maybe even believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah—but he did not know the full magnitude of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We see from these verses the importance of good teaching and how the ministry of Priscilla and Aquila helped Apollos, who, now armed with the complete message, immediately began a preaching ministry and was used of God as an effective apologist for the gospel (Acts 18:28).
Paul clearly had a high regard for Apollos (see Titus 3:13) and regarded him as a co-worker in the gospel. Although we know relatively little about this follower of Jesus, we see once again how the church is made up of many members and each one has a role to play. Each of us can be useful to God as we serve Him with the gifts and talents He has bestowed on us and how we can learn from others to become even more effective in our service.
Acts 18:18-28 gives us an unusual glimpse into Paul’s life, telling us that before he left Corinth and sailed for Syria, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken. (Acts 18:18) This was presumably something like the Nazirite vow (see Numbers 6:1-21), which involved abstinence from drinking wine and from cutting one’s hair for a period, at the end of which the hair was first cut and then burned along with other sacrifices, as a symbol of self-offering to God. Such vows were made either in thankfulness for God’s protection in the past (which Paul had definitely experienced!) or as a request for future safe-keeping.
Making vows before God was a serious business (see Deut 23:21 and Eccl 5:4-5), and in the Old Testament, we see several examples of those who made vows before God (including Samson whose parents were instructed to bring him up as a Nazirite and whose strength was bound up in his uncut hair, and Hannah, who vowed to give the son God gave her back to Him to serve Him.) Others made foolish vows (see Jephthah, whose vow to sacrifice whatever came out of his house as a burnt offering resulted in the death of his beloved daughter.) We do not fully know why Paul made a vow to God or what that vow entailed, and some have even felt it unlikely that Paul would have held fast to Jewish practices of this kind, but Paul was probably simply expressing gratitude to God and wanted to be ‘as a Jew’ to the Jews (see 1 Cor 9:20).
The Psalms remind us to fulfil our vows to God (see Ps 50:14, Ps 65:1) and Jonah says, ‘what I have vowed I will make good.’ (Jonah 2:9) Jesus talked about not making oaths or vows lightly (see Matt 5:33-38) and reminded us that we should be people of our word. Don’t make rash promises, but keep the ones you make!
Acts 18:18-28 offers us a whistle-stop tour: we see Paul travel from Corinth to Ephesus, Caesarea, Jerusalem, Antioch and back through Galatia to Ephesus again. The narrative is very condensed, either because Luke’s information was limited (since he was still in Philippi himself), or because his narrative purpose was to get Paul from Achaia to Asia (where he had previously been forbidden by the Spirit to preach), from his two years in Corinth to his three years in Ephesus without dwelling on his intervening months of travel.
Some time after the events narrated in the earlier part of Acts 18, therefore, Paul sailed for Syria (Acts 18:18a), presumably intending to report back to the church of Syrian Antioch which had sent him out. He was accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila who may well have financed his trip. Paul left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus. He went to the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews there. (Acts 18:19) From Caesarea (Palestine’s chief port), he went up and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch. After spending some time in Antioch (probably from the early summer of AD 52 to the early spring of AD 53), and having doubtless given its church a full account of his second missionary expedition, Paul set out from there on what proved to be his third and last journey. He travelled from place to place throughout the regions of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples. (Acts 18:23) – revisiting the churches of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, which he had established on his first missionary journey and consolidated during his second.
In this passage, Luke compresses a considerable amount of journeying by Paul which took him from Corinth via Ephesus to Jerusalem and Antioch, and then back to Ephesus where he entered upon the next main phase of his missionary work. We may feel it’s a bit of a whistle-stop tour (rather like some holidays where people want to cram as much sightseeing into a fortnight as possible!), but Luke is preparing us for the extended period Paul spent in Ephesus and as such, we realise that not everything we do needs to be recorded in minute detail! Getting an overview is important in life as well as in storytelling; sometimes we need to understand ‘the bigger picture.’