To be a prophet was no easy task. A “prophet” was someone who spoke on God’s behalf. And when your heart beats in time with God’s, it makes you especially sensitive to those whose hearts do not. The prophets’ shared task was to deliver God’s message to a world that valued happiness more than holiness—in other words, a world not unlike our own.
Ezekiel was one of these prophets. Ezekiel wrote during the actual period of the exile—placing his book between 593-565 B.C. He delivered God’s message to a people who endured a sense of hopelessness and homesickness as strangers in a land far from their home. What was his message? God is bigger than the worst of our circumstances, but our circumstances often call us to radical repentance. Only by turning away from self and toward God would Israel find herself restored through God’s redemptive power.
The book is loaded with God-sized visions that dazzle the mind and explode the senses. When Ezekiel is first called by the Lord, it is in the midst of a fantastic vision:
Ezekiel 1:1-3, 26- In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. 2 On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), 3 the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the LORD was upon him there. […]
26 And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. 27 And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him.
28 Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.
The vision was as spell-binding as it was terrifying. In Israel’s religion (at least from Moses onwards), no one could see God and live. Here, the vision of God is obscured only by a rainbow. Why a rainbow? The first time we see a rainbow (Genesis 9), it is to symbolize God’s promise to never again flood the earth. A rainbow appears here to remind us that no matter how bad things may seem, God is a God who keeps His promises.
Seeing this vision, Ezekiel’s only response is to fall to his face in shock and awe. God bids him to rise:
Ezekiel 2:1 And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” 2 And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. 4 The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD.’ 5 And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them. 6 And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions. Be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. 7 And you shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house. (Ezekiel 2:1-7)
Like many of the prophets, Ezekiel faced the reality that not only would God’s message not be received, but it would be met with open hostility. If you’re a person of faith, there’s a strong chance that you’ve found yourself in hostile territory. Our world is perfectly comfortable with religion—just so long as it’s kept personal and private. Under no circumstances can you “push your views” on others. And in such a world it’s extremely tempting to settle back and say: “I’m not overly religious. I really don’t want to push my faith down anyone’s throat.” But if we’re honest, what is it we’re really saying? We don’t want to rock the boat. “I’m not comfortable making anyone uncomfortable.” But to follow Jesus is to be counter-cultural. To follow Jesus means saying the hard things. To follow Jesus demands our very lives—can we really be surprised that we lose a few friends in the process?
This sounds hopeless. What could possibly motivate me to remain faithful in a faithless world? There’s a clue in this passage. Though Ezekiel casts Himself at the Lord’s feet, God tells Him to rise. God speaks to Him. Ezekiel received the word of the Lord, but years later there would be a true and better Word (John 1:1) that would come to earth. God would literally come near to each of us in the person of Jesus Christ. And because of what Jesus accomplished through His death and resurrection, we can now draw near to God in the confidence of being adopted into the intimacy of God’s own sons (Galatians 4:5-6).
Do you hear how radical the gospel is? Through no work of my own, God approves of me. I have a relationship with the creator of the universe. And if I have His approval, who else’s do I need? I no longer need to fear the rejection of my coworkers. I no longer need to worry that I might anger or offend someone. In fact, if I find approval in God alone, then the gospel sets me free to offend people—so long as I offend them with the truth of the gospel.
CRAMMING RELIGION DOWN YOUR THROAT
The next scene is truly spectacular. Ezekiel is consecrated—set apart for Godly service.
8 “But you, son of man, hear what I say to you. Be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.” 9 And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. 10 And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe.
And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” 2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. (Ezekiel 2:8-3:3)
In some strange vision, Ezekiel literally eats a book. Ezekiel was called to speak to the people—to reveal the character of God. Do you see the irony? What some find bitter, Ezekiel finds to be sweet. What some consider “religion crammed down your throat,” others consider a delightful feast.
What about us? If I believe that God is harsh and cruel, then chances are I’ll lack the confidence to live out my faith. I’ll “shield” others from ideas (such as “sin” and “judgment”) in an effort to make the gospel more “relevant.” But the gospel doesn’t need to be made relevant—it already is relevant. If instead I am confident in the gospel—that I am a sinner saved by grace—then I can live out my faith in confidence and humility.
The world is not getting any easier—nor did Jesus ever promise that it would. If you are a person of faith, then you can be prepared to suffer the loss of both friends and reputation. This loss seems unbearable, until we weigh it against what we gain in Jesus. What have you really got to lose?