Day 251: Can These Bones Live? Four Conditions (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

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?”

Ezekiel 37:1-3, ESV

Through the Bible: Ezekiel 37-39

If there is one story from Ezekiel that even non-Bible readers are familiar with, it is this story from Ezekiel 37. The song “Dem Bones” has been a staple of gospel quartets for generations (in my opinion, the Delta Rhythm Boys did it the best).

The purpose of the story, however, was never to be a vocal warmup for half-step harmony. And it was never to teach preschoolers about the skeletal system, although that is what it became once someone took out all the stuff about hearing the word of the Lord, making it a Halloween song instead of a spiritual.

The purpose of the story was for God to deliver a prophetic picture of the restoration of Israel. And while this is the passage’s clear and explicit meaning (see v. 11-12), I see application for God’s people–the church–today.

The Lord took Ezekiel to a valley full of bones. This may have been in a vision, or God may have literally transported Ezekiel bodily. This is one of those interpretations to hold with an open hand. Either way, God brings Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones and asks him a rhetorical question:

Son of man, can these bones live?

Ezekiel 37:3

Ezekiel’s answer, as well as the rest of the vision, point to four conditions for revival and revitalization of God’s people.

1. Can These Bones Live? It is up to the sovereignty of God (v 3).

Ezekiel’s response to this question is, “Lord God, only you know.” The prophet understood that anything and everything that happens is dependent on God’s sovereign will. Babylon could not have taken God’s people into exile unless God permitted it.

If we are applying this to the church, we know that Christ has already decreed that His Church– “Church” with a capital C– will endure forever, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (see Matthew 16:18). We also know that the church is not a building, but a gathering of God’s people. And in that respect, the Church will survive, and thrive, and endure forever.

At the same time, we must humbly acknowledge that we cannot, by our own actions, bring about revival. Churches–small c– are birthed, live, and eventually die. They can die because of sin, schism, changing demographics, or any number of other reasons. According to LifeWay Research, more Protestant churches closed in 2019 than were started. While there are many things congregations can (and should) do to remain healthy and vibrant, there is a 100% certainty that every single church building will one day be empty, because the Church will have been caught up in the air (see 1 Thess. 4:17-18). How long your individual church remains vital is ultimately up to God’s sovereign purpose.

2. Can These Bones Live? it Begins with the Word of God (v 4).

God said to Ezekiel, ““Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

While it is true that only God can bring a church to life, we are perfectly capable of putting one to death. All we have to do is decide that something other than God’s Word is the key to church growth.

Nearly 200 years before the Jews of Jerusalem were carried into exile, God spoke through to the northern kingdom of Israel through the prophet Amos:

11 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God,
    “when I will send a famine on the land—
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
    but of hearing the words of the Lord.

Amos 8:11

I wrote about this in a previous blog post, but it bears repeating: Our issue isn’t about having the word of the Lord. In 2021, research showed that the average American household contained 4.3 Bibles. And that’s just physical, printed copies of the Bible. Other research estimates that 91% of Americans own a smart phone. Which means that, thanks to apps like YouVersion, more than 9 out of 10 Americans have access to 2,898 Bible versions in 1,884 languages.

91% of Americans have a smart phone.
YouVersion has almost 3,000 Bible translations available for free.
Our problem isn’t a lack of access to God’s Word. It’s a lack of hearing it.

Bottom line, without a core commitment to teaching God’s Word and God’s Word alone, your church has no chance of survival. Not only will it die, it should.

3. Can These Bones Live? it Depends on the Spirit of God (v. 6, 8)

In verse 7, Ezekiel hears a rattling sound; and as he watches, the bones in the valley assemble themselves into bodies, and tendons and muscles and flesh covered them. But while the bodies have an appearance of being alive, verse 8 says that there was no breath in them.

Beloved church, hear and understand: Appearance and reputation do not equal life. Jesus told the church in Sardis that they had the reputation of being alive, but they were dead (Revelation 3:1).

Religious activity doesn’t equal life. When Jesus called out the Pharisees in Matthew 23, it wasn’t for a lack of religious activity. They were doing all the things, but they were doing them with dead hearts. When Jesus condemned them, He used imagery very similar to Ezekiel 37:

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Matthew 23:27-28

Life will only inhabit a local church if she is wholly, completely, unreservedly, and with no plan B dependent on God’s Spirit (Job 33:4, John 6:63, Romans 8:10-11). Yet we still fill our church calendars with events and activities we can accomplish in our own strength. Every pastor should ask himself, if God’s Spirit completely left our congregation, how long before anyone noticed.?

4. Can These Bones Live? It will be for the purpose of God (v. 10).

After the bones had come together and God’s breath came into them, Ezekiel says, “They came to life and stood up on their feet–a vast army” (Ezekiel 37:10).

God brought life to the bones for a purpose. They were an army. Ezekiel doesn’t describe them as a vast congregation, a huge Bible study, or a powerful voting block. The word “army” carries with it an expectation of training, discipline, strength, and combat-readiness. The apostle Paul often referred to the saints as soldiers (1 Cor. 9:7, Philippians 2:25, 2 Timothy 2:3-4, Philemon 1:2).

An army has a mission and a purpose. And the purpose of the church is to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). The purpose of the church is to do battle against a common spiritual enemy (Ephesians 6:10-17). The purpose of the church is to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).

And that mission, men and women of God, will take an army.

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