Can These Bones Live? (Sermon)
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
Two years ago, more than 5 million people tuned into the premiere episode of “The Walking Dead,” a television show about zombies.[i] Every year, the city of Louisville, Kentucky hosts a “Zombie Walk,” where people dress up as zombies and walk through the streets with their arms outstretched making horrible moaning noises.
Russell Moore, dean of theology at Southern Seminary, commented on this zombie fascination: “Clearly, there’s something about the zombie that resonates with the current mass imagination. Not only are zombies making a comeback in horror film, but they are everywhere in popular fiction, from apocalyptic zombie war novels to adaptations of classic fiction featuring the undead (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is one example). A forthcoming video game is set to feature Richard Nixon, of all people, as a zombie hunter.”[ii]
In the early part of his ministry, Ezekiel was commanded to perform many strange, symbolic actions. He had to lay on his side for more than a year without moving (ch.4). For a time, His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth so that he couldn’t speak (3:26). At one point, he was bound by ropes in his own house so that he couldn’t go out among the people (3:25).
Through the years, Ezekiel has been described with many words, including; “pathological, psychic, schizophrenic, epileptic, catatonic, psychotic, and paranoid.”[iii] One man described Ezekiel as “one of the greatest spiritual figures of all time, in spite of his tendency to psychic abnormality.”[iv]
This man and this book is where we find ourselves this morning as we continue to walk through the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. Our goal is to see how all of Scripture points to Jesus Christ. In this book full of bizarre and beguiling stories and visions, we find a message of hope and healing in Jesus Christ. In this exciting and often confusing book, we see our great need and our great Savior.
Before we dive into the story of skeletons coming to life in chapter 37, let me set the context for this book. Ezekiel was a prophet who lived and ministered during a very dark time in the national history of Israel. His book covers a period of 20-25 years. It begins with Ezekiel already in exile in Babylon. The nation of Babylon had defeated Israel and hauled many Israelites into captivity, including Ezekiel and Daniel. He begins by prophesying about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and the prophecy is fulfilled during the writing of the book. His prophecy then turns to God’s promise of restoration.
He is writing to a nation that has been defeated but not yet destroyed. His message is that destruction is coming, but God has a plan to restore His people.
Our passage, chapter 37, is found in the hopeful part of the book, where Ezekiel describes God’s promise for the future. What we’re going to do is look at this vision—see the problem in Israel and God’s promise to them. We’ll see how God has been faithful to fulfill that promise in Jesus Christ, and how these verses speak very clearly to our lives today.
(Ezekiel 37:1-14 ESV) 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.” 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. 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.’ 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. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your 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.”
We may want to read through this passage quickly, but it would do us good to linger in it for a time. It begins with Ezekiel being transported in a vision to a valley. But it wasn’t just any valley. It was a valley filled with bones. Verse 1 says “full of bones.” Not a random bone, littered here and there, but bones, stacked upon bones, stacked upon bones.
Probably not the place you’d go for vacation, right? God led him through the bones (v.2) and there “were very many on the surface of the valley.” How’s that for a sightseeing tour? Stop and imagine yourself there. Walking through a valley filled with bones. You’re wondering what happened here. How did all of these people die? Is there something I should fear? Your hair is on end and the single drop of sweat is making its way down your back.
I remember visiting the Holocaust Museum for the first time when I was still in high school. As I walked through exhibits and saw the photos, the bile rose up in the back of my throat. I haven’t forgotten the images of bodies stacked one on top of the other, like I might stack the empty bottles in my trashcan.
Ezekiel must have wondered where he was, and what kind of atrocities had taken place here. God tells him in verse 11:
(Ezekiel 37:11 ESV) 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.’
The dead bones were from God’s people. The nation of Israel was dead.
Israel’s biggest problem wasn’t foreign invasion. Its biggest problem wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. The nation’s biggest problem was death. They were dead. They were a valley full of dry bones.
The death of Israel wasn’t the result of genocide. It wasn’t the sacking of the temple in Jerusalem. It wasn’t being exiled in a foreign country. The death of Israel was something else entirely. The captivity, the destruction, the exile were symptoms of a greater cause. They were the results of something else. The death of Israel is defined further in verse 11—Israel’s death was the result of being cut off from the Lord of Life. They were cut off from the Creator and Sustainer of life.
Earlier in the book of Ezekiel, we find a vision of God’s glory departing Israel. In chapters 8-11, God takes Ezekiel on a tour of the temple to see all of the wickedness the nation of Israel was engaged in. Chapter 11 ends with the glory of the Lord leaving the city of Jerusalem. God was leaving His people. This is why they were dead. Death was separation from the One who gives life. God, the giver of life, was no longer with them.
Why did this happen? Why did God leave His people? God left His people because they had broken the covenant. Like a wife (ch.16) who prostitutes herself with other men, the nation of Israel had prostituted itself with other gods.
(Ezekiel 16:59 ESV) For thus says the Lord GOD: “I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant,”
Later in chapter 37, we get an idea of what their covenant-breaking looked like.
(Ezekiel 37:23a ESV) They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions.
Though God had created them, loved them, rescued them, provided for them and made them His very own, they rebelled against Him. Worshipping other Gods and completely disregarding His laws. They were idolaters. They set up other gods in place of the true God. Their idolatry was manifested in carving new gods out of wood and stone, but its roots ran all the way to the heart. In chapter 14, God says that they have established “idols in their hearts” (14:3).
So here’s the nation of Israel: They were dead in their sin, cut off from God, having broken the covenant with Him by worshipping false gods and disobeying His commands. Not a pretty picture—in fact, a gruesome and grotesque picture—like a valley full of decomposing bodies.
Is there any hope for them? Not according to them. In verse 11, they describe their situation and say “our hope is lost.” That’s true in a sense. There was no hope for them to fix this situation. What can a dead man do to heal himself? I’ve never seen a corpse give itself CPR.
They were hopeless and helpless. Nothing and no one could save them. Listen to what God told the nation:
(Ezekiel 22:30-31 ESV) And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none. Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord GOD.”
No one could rescue them. No one could reverse their condition. In fact, God says in chapter 14 that if Noah or Daniel or Job were there, they couldn’t fix it. Their righteousness would not be enough to save the nation. One verse sums up the problem in the nation of Israel:
(Ezekiel 33:10 ESV) And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, “Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’”
“Our sin is eating away at us like a cancer. Our flesh is rotting. We are dying. How can we live?” God echoes that question to Ezekiel here in verse 4:
(Ezekiel 37:3 ESV) And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”
Is there any hope for God’s people? Because of their rebellion and unbelief, God has left. Nothing they do can solve the problem. They are a pile of dry bones in a forsaken desert. “Can these bones live?”
This question is answered by God’s command that Ezekiel preach to the bones. Ezekiel obeys and witnesses a miracle.
(Ezekiel 37:7-8 ESV) 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.
(Ezekiel 37:10 ESV) 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 explains this miracle with a promise.
(Ezekiel 37:12-14 ESV) 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. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your 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.”
What the people could not do, God promises to do. They had no hope of life, but God is going to give them life. Their problem of death would be solved by God’s promise of life.
There is no limit to God’s power. He can do what human minds can’t even fathom. A pile of dead bones turned into a living army? No problem. Not for God. God was going to reverse the tragic effects of Israel’s sin and disobedience. What they had broken, He would restore. What they had torn, He would mend. What they had shattered, He would repair. Their sin had brought death, but God was going to raise them from the dead and give them life.
Chapters 36-37 detail what this new life would be like. It would a reversal of all that had led to their death.
Death was the result of breaking the covenant. Life would come through a new covenant—a covenant of peace. (Ezekiel 37:26a ESV) I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them.
Death was the result of disobedient and idolatrous hearts. Life would come through God granting them new hearts—hearts of obedience. (Ezekiel 36:26-27 ESV) And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Death was the result of following wicked and perverse leaders. Life would come through God’s new king—the Messiah, the Christ. (Ezekiel 37:24-25 ESV) My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children's children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever.
Death was the result of being cut off from the presence of God. Life would come through God’s presence with His people. (Ezekiel 37:27-28 ESV) My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.”
The book of Ezekiel begins with a vision of God leaving His people because of their unfaithfulness to Him. The book of Ezekiel ends with a vision of God returning to His people because of His faithfulness to them. Here’s the final sentence in the book:
(Ezekiel 48:35 ESV) And the name of the city from that time on shall be, “The LORD Is There.”
That’s the vision of the valley of dry bones. The people of God are zombies. They may walk around. They may be visible, but they are dead. Apart from a miraculous work of God, there is no hope for life. But God promises resurrection. He will raise them from their graves, give them a new covenant, a new heart to keep that covenant, a new king to lead them, and He would dwell with them.
What I want you to see is that this resurrection—God’s promise of raising His people from death to life—is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. I want to briefly show you four ways Jesus fulfills the promise of God.
Jesus inaugurates the New Covenant
Every month we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and we read the words of Jesus that the cup is the “new covenant” in His blood (1 Cor. 11:25). Jesus is the promise of God fulfilled. He brings the New Covenant to pass.
The writer of Hebrews said that Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant, and that His death redeems us from any transgressions committed under the previous covenant. Jesus paid for the laws we broke. In the previous covenant, animals were constantly being sacrificed so that sinners could be spared. But in the New Covenant, Jesus offered Himself as the sacrificial Lamb whose blood forever cleanses us from sin.
Because Jesus died, the new covenant—the covenant of peace—is now in place. We, as sinners, can be reconciled to God. God, in His grace, forgives us and gives us new hearts. Old things have passed away, and all things—including our hearts—have been made new.
Jesus reigns as Shepherd King
Jesus refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd who cares for the sheep. He is the new David, who unlike the evil leaders of Israel, will protect and provide for God’s people. In John 10, Jesus foretells His death, saying, “I am the Good Shepherd who lays down my life for the sheep.”
But He is more than a shepherd. He is also a King. All glory and dominion belong to Him. He will reign upon the throne forever and ever. He came to establish His kingdom, and He will return one day to destroy His enemies and usher His people into the kingdom that never ends.
Jesus dwells with us
The book of Ezekiel ends with the promise that God is Yahweh Shammah, the God who is there. Jesus came to earth as Immanuel, God with us. Through Jesus, we have been ushered back into God’s presence. Jesus told His disciples that no matter where they went, He would be with them.
We meet with God through Jesus Christ. The temple pointed to Him. He is the ultimate temple, where God and man meet. He has opened the veil that separated God and man, and He invites us to march boldly into the throne room of grace.
Jesus raises the dead to life
How could we see a resurrection in the Old Testament and not think of Easter Sunday, where Jesus broke the power of death and the grave and rose triumphant to save? Because of His resurrection, we can experience resurrection.
Like the nation of Israel, we are dead in our trespasses and sins. We have transgressed God’s law and are cut off from Him. Like Israel, we are hopeless and helpless.
(Ephesians 2:1-5 ESV) And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 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—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. 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—
Jesus is the way, the truth and life. No one comes to the Father, no one enters a covenant of peace with God apart from Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s vision. He is the way God kept His promise to His people. Jesus Christ inaugurated the new covenant, reigns as Shepherd King, dwells with us, and raises the dead to life.
The significance of these verses extends to all of us. I hope you’ve already seen that, but I want to reiterate it and make sure it’s extremely clear. I want to end by applying this passage to both the Christian and the non-Christian.
If you’re not a Christian, then I want to talk with you for a moment. Earlier I quoted the question Israel asked God. They asked, “How can we live?” The only way for them to live was for God to give them life. That’s true for each one of us. Each of us—including you—are dead in our sins. You cannot save yourself. Your good works, your feelings of guilt, your religious activities will not bring you life. Only God can save you.
And God will. But He requires one thing from you. Listen to how God answered Israel’s cry. He said:
(Ezekiel 33:11 ESV) Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?
God will take no pleasure in you dying apart from Him and being cast into hell. He will take no pleasure in you suffering under the punishment for your sin for all of eternity. You are dead, but God asks, “Why will you stay dead? Why will you not come to me for life?”
All God requires from you is turning back from your sin and coming to Him. He commands you to repent and be saved. He calls you to leave your sin and rebellion behind and come to Him that you might find life. What are you waiting for? What’s stopping you? Why will you die?
(Ezekiel 18:32 ESV) For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.”
God loves you and calls you to come. Come to Jesus and live!
If you’re a Christian, this passage should affect how you think about obedience and conversion. If you’re a Christian you've had a heart transplant. Your old, hard, unbelieving, disobedient heart has been removed, and in its place is a new heart. The great physician has given you a soft, tender heart that beats with love for Him. It’s a heart that works and can now power your body to acts of righteousness.
Brothers and sisters, you have been given the ability to obey God. Sin no longer has dominion over you. You don’t have to say, “Yes” to sin. You can say “No!” If you’re struggling with a certain sin, if there’s a root of bitterness springing up, if you keep giving into a particular temptation, let me assure you that God has given you the power to see victory. He has written His law on your heart so that you can obey Him. His will has been internalized.
Ask Him for help to walk in obedience. He promised that He would cause us to walk in His statutes and that He would make us careful to obey His rules (36:27). He wants to help you obey. He will help you obey.
Because of this new covenant, we obey Him, not out of fear, but out of love. We have been brought into an everlasting covenant. It’s an unconditional, eternal covenant. If we are part of God’s family, nothing we do can ever break the covenant. We obey, not as a slave, but as a son. Our obedience isn’t driven by fear of punishment, but by love of family. Christian, don’t listen to Satan’s accusations that your sin makes God angry with you. God has brought you into a covenant of peace, and nothing you do can nullify His commitment to you.
This passage informs our view of obedience and our view of conversion. Conversion is not God making sick people well—it’s God making dead people live. All around us are dead people. Today if you go out to lunch here in town, you’ll see dead people. In your business, your neighborhoods, your PTA meetings, your gym, all around you are dead people. The only hope for them is a God who raises the dead to life.
Maybe you’ve got a family member who seems so far from God—let this encourage you. There aren’t levels of dead. That’s how we think. We look at the well-behaved, moral, respectful unbeliever and think that God can save them, but the rebellious, hard-hearted, troubled person we’re not so sure. It takes the same amount of work by God to save either one. There aren’t levels of dead—you’re either alive or dead. No one is beyond hope. Don’t think that it will take more of a miracle for God to resurrect this dead sinner. So if you’ve got a child who’s particularly rebellious, a parent who’s especially antagonistic or a friend who’s flagrantly immoral, don’t think God is powerless to save them.
The way God raises the dead to life is the same now as it was in Ezekiel’s vision. God had Ezekiel speak His Word to the bones, and they came to life. God sent His Spirit and animated them. God’s Word applied to the heart by God’s Spirit is the only way a person will be saved. You can’t argue a person into new life. You can’t beat or berate a person into new life. You can’t trick a person into new life. All you can do is share the Word of God and trust that the Spirit of God will raise them from the grave and breathe into them the breath of life.
Maybe society’s fascination with zombies is understandable. Maybe there’s something about a zombie that feels familiar. As men and women walk through this life, physically alive but spiritually dead, maybe they feel a kinship with zombies when they see them on the page or screen. Maybe they look in the mirror and wonder, “Can these bones live?”
They can! Jesus Christ died so that dead men could live. Jesus speaks to those who are dead and says:
(John 11:25-26 ESV) “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2012.