“I see dead people”: On Hope in Missions

When considering the task of the Great Commission in light of the global plight, it is an overwhelming mission. If you’ve been watching the Arab Spring revolutions that have been devastating Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Turkey recently you’ll get a pretty stark picture of the human heart. In spite of these nations attempting to throw off tyranny and run after the freedom that other nations seem to enjoy, the fires of revolutions have primarily brought devastation, economic hardship, and instability to regions where the flames have kindled. In Syria alone, nearly 100,000 people have died in a quest that likely ends in greater bondage than what was originally thrown off. In addition, these countries reside in the 10/40 Window, an area known to be incredibly hostile to the influence Christianity. Thus, it is a place where the spiritual lives of its people is reflected in the landscape: dry, arid and dead.  What hope does such a place have?

And yet dwelling on the woes of such an “obviously” troubled region can blind us to the deadness of our own country. If we turns their gaze to states closer to home, we realizes that even in places where freedom  and tolerance are celebrated and embraced, in the “land of the free” itself, there is a very real deadness. People abuse their freedom to indulge in a number of unholy practices, and idolize people, ideas, and things rather than worshiping God. While this may be a land of plenty, it is all the more deadly for its apparent benignity. What hope does such a place have?

In the book of Ezekiel we, along with the prophet, are led to ask the same question. The people of Israel had been conquered, slaughtered and carried off to foreign lands to be slaves. They trusted in the idols and gods of the nations surrounding them and in their own might. They failed to uphold their end of the covenant with Yahweh. He removed his protection after the Israelites consistently rejected the grace God consistently offered. God had promised that they would be a nation forever, that they would be ruled by the line of David for eternity and yet they were scattered to the four winds. How would it be possible for them to regain the land? What hope do such a people have?

When God enters in to clarify the issue, it is not to alleviate Ezekiel’s fears, but to confirm them. God begins by showing Ezekiel a vision of a valley of dry bones (If you haven’t seen this depiction of it, go watch it, it’s well worth the two minutes). The bones are “very dry,” exceptionally lifeless even for bones, and they themselves cry out, “Our bones are dry, our hope has perished; We are cut off.” God asks his prophet, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” In a sense, God asks Ezekiel, “What hope does such a place have?” Ezekiel, standing in the midst of the desolation of an entire nation, knows that there is no way that these bones can live. But he doesn’t stop by just looking at the bones, he looks to the God who made the bones. He speaks to the Mighty One of Israel, and his reply demonstrates his faith and hope: “Oh Sovereign God, you alone know.”

When considering the spiritual status of the world, we need to look beyond what is humanly possible. We need to look to the one who created us, because He and He alone knows whether spiritual life can come to a person or to a people.

Our hope is the same tremendous hope that was given to Ezekiel and the remnant of Israel. In the latter half of chapter 36 God promises spiritual life to his people beyond anything that they could have dared to imagine or hope for. They are promised holiness and cleanliness in place of their sin and idolatry. God promises to replace their hardened stone hearts with hearts of flesh. He promised to set his spirit on them, not for a short time, but perpetually and continually – to be in communion with God and to know in their hearts the way He would have for them.  To drive the point home, God has Ezekiel  walk among the bones and prophesy to them:

“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.” [Ezekiel 37:4-6]

Miraculously, flesh covers bone. Sinews, tendons, muscles, organs and skin form where before there was only dust and death. God is replacing the hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. But there was not yet any breath in the bodies. “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.’” In both passages, the word breath can also be translated spirit – thus God is placing his Sprit into the bodies he has caused to form. Then they rose and stood, an “exceedingly great army”.

In these verses we see the impact that a person submitted to the will of God can have on the dead. God could have just formed flesh and breath and put them on the bones as he did in the beginning, without the help of Ezekiel. Instead, God graciously includes his servant in the process and allows him to be a source of physical awakening in the bones, and a spiritual awakening in the lives of the Israelites. The hope that these people have is a mighty God, who has provided a perfect sacrifice, priest, prophet and King to intercede at his right hand forever (see Hebrews, esp. 7:23-8:13). They also have the hope that God’s prophets will see the nations’ dead bones, and prophesy life to them. May we see dead people everywhere and seek to preach the hope of the Gospel to a dying world.