If Dry Bones Lived Again
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1–14
1 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. 2 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. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 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.” 7 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. 8 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. 9 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.” 10 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. 11 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.’ 12 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 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.”
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the most important doctrine of the Christian faith. I realize that such a superlative claim can be misunderstood, taken by some to suggest that we don’t really have to believe in the virgin birth after all so long as we affirm Easter. That is absolutely false. But what I am arguing is that resurrection is the one doctrine of Christianity that gives to all other doctrines their real value. As one New Testament scholar has written,
Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke; nothing else. Take Easter away, and you won’t have a New Testament; you won’t have a Christianity; as Paul says, you will still be in your sins.
So, I will risk the misunderstanding and say it again: no Christian doctrine matters as much as the claim that “on the third day [Jesus] rose from the dead.”
But what exactly does it mean? I find that many of us Christians haven’t really come to grips with the implications of the resurrection of Jesus. We are muddled in our convictions on this matter, but so, too, were Jesus’s own disciples. Coming down with Jesus from the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus told three of his disciples to keep silent about what they had just witnessed “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mk 9:9). So, they did. They “kept the matter to themselves,” becoming preoccupied instead with another question: what exactly would “this rising from the dead” mean (Mk 9:10)? What exactly are the implications for such a thing, were it, in fact, to actually happen?
Let’s join with these disciples and ask the same question this morning. The text before us today, Ezekiel 37, is no doubt one text the disciples would have had in mind as they considered the implications, for here Ezekiel has a vision of a resurrection from the dead. And Ezekiel is even told what it means.
So, what does it mean? What does the resurrection of the dead signify? What are its implications? Here are three for us to consider today: the end has ended, the curse has been lifted, and the new creation has started.
The End Has Ended
The first implication is this: resurrection from the dead means that the end has itself come to an end. The end has ended. Let’s ponder this for just a moment.
The Requirement for Resurrection
You can’t have a resurrection from the dead unless you first have death. And death is about as synonymous with “the end” as you one can possibly get. Death arrives with a tangible sense of finality and irreversibility. They knew in the first century what we know today: dead people don’t come back to life. Death is the end.
That’s certainly the sense that Ezekiel describes in verses 1-2. He is brought out by God to a valley that is “full of bones.” As he walks around among them, he notices the great quantity of them (“there were very many of them”) as well as their particular quality: “they were very dry.” Whoever these bones belonged to, the life that once animated them has long been gone. Not only is there no more flesh on the skeletons, but there’s also no more marrow in the bones. Ezekiel’s vision is a vision of the end.
We’ve all heard stories of people who are said to have been dead and then brought back to life. These are usually classified as near-death experiences, even though some are adamant that they were, in fact, dead. But let us be clear: whatever else “resurrection from the dead” might mean, it cannot be confused with such experiences. That’s not what happens in Ezekiel, and that’s not what we can claim happened to Jesus, either. Death, real and final, is a requirement for resurrection.
The Uncertainty of Sheol
And since death comes as an end, what lies beyond death is a mystery. Anyone who can tell you what comes next deserves to be heard with the same skepticism as the one who says they know what lies beyond the boundaries of the universe. Unless you’ve been there, how can you possibly know?
Throughout the Old Testament, Sheol is the name for the place of the dead, and its etymology, just like what it designates, is uncertain. The King James Version translates it about the half the time as “grave” and the other half as “hell.” The latter translation is problematic, since for those of us living after the medieval era, “hell” puts all kinds of concrete images in our mind. “Grave” is probably better, reminding us where the dead person is and leaving us with not much else to say about them. That’s not because there is nothing else the Bible has to say about the present status of those who have died. But it is because, in fact, the Bible doesn’t have much to say. And unless you have truly died, until you have come to the real and final end of your life, you really can’t say much about the afterlife either. When you’re watching a movie, and the words “The End” show up on the screen, it’s a bit silly to ask what happens next. “Nothing! It’s the end!”
Only God Knows
Unless, of course, there is, or is going to be a sequel. And then, the question, What happens next?” can be answered in the same way Ezekiel answers the question God asks him. When God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel’s answer is, “O Lord GOD, you know.” He throws the question back to God because, from a human perspective, the answer has to be, “No way!”
But, the same God who created life out of nothing, who made a material world come alive with the words, “Let there be,” that God, and that God alone, knows all possibilities. So, “Maybe?”
But it’s really hard to imagine. Because if the dead, the truly dead, can live again, then that would mean that the end that comes with death has itself come to an end. Death itself would be no more, and who can comprehend a world where death itself has passed away? What would that even look like? Who has ever seen a body, real flesh and real bones, that do not grow old and do not succumb to death? Who has ever seen eternal life? Certainly not us who live in a world of death. Clearly, the end of death has not come, right? Right?
If Jesus was raised from the dead, that is what it would have to mean. Because “resurrection” is not another way of talking about Sheol. Resurrection is not what has already happened to people who are presently dead. Easter does not directly tell us anything more about what it is like to be in the realm of the dead, the experience of your soul while your body decays in its grave. What it tells us is the hope of life that has decisively defeated death. It tells us that there is now a way to be alive in God’s world with death no longer a threat.
That is what we mean when we say that Christ has risen, and that is what is promised to all who trust in the risen Christ. It is what is meant by Christian baptism and our union with Jesus. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death,” Paul writes in Romans 6:4, “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Don’t you know, dear Christian, that the resurrection of Jesus means that you, too, already have a share in this new life? He not only died for you; he was also raised for you, so that you might live in his world without death threatening you anymore.
The Curse Has Been Lifted
This takes us, then, to a second implication of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. You see, what Jesus’s disciples surely believed, like most Jews in their day, is that there would be a resurrection of the righteous at the end of human history, when all God’s people were raised from the dead. But what would it mean if one of God’s people were raised in the middle of history? That is certainly not what they expected would happen. Would it just mean that the end has come, already for one but not yet for all? Good for him, but the rest of us will just have to keep on waiting?
Well, if that one person just so happened to be the Messiah, then it would mean something not just for him but also for everyone he represents. It would mean that the curse of sin has already been lifted. It is over, a thing of the past.
The Wages of Sin
Again, we take our queues from Ezekiel’s vision. In verse 11, he is told that the bones he sees “are the whole house of Israel.” So the implication is that the entire nation has been wiped out. Why? What happened to them?
Commentators observe that the picture here is of Israel defeated in battle. A valley is the proper site for an ancient battlefield, in verse 9 the deceased are said to have been slain, and when they are resurrected, Ezekiel calls them “an exceedingly great army.” But first, they appear as a vanquished foe, with not one of them left. “The whole house of Israel,” the interpretation says.
Who defeated them? It would not be wrong to say, “Babylon,” or some other world empire, for this is what was happening at this very moment in history. But all of that history must be seen through the theological lens of Israel’s covenant disobedience. They have not merely been defeated by Babylon; they’ve been vanquished by their own God. They are receiving what they deserve, the wages owed to them for their sin.
Further evidence for this is seen from the fact that the defeated army of Israel lay like bones on the surface of the ground. The lack of burial is a sign of God’s covenant curse. Deuteronomy 28:25-26 warns Israel that, if they violate God’s covenant with them, then he will cause them to be routed by their enemies, “and your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth.”
The Lifting of the Curse
It was becoming increasingly clear to Ezekiel and his fellow exiles that what they were currently experiencing was the enforcement of this covenant curse. Verse 12 summarizes their realization that this is what was happening. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.” To be “cut off” means not merely to die; it’s worse than that. It means to be under the emotional weight of knowing you are separated from any degree of joyful human existence. It is to be under a curse.
Some of you can identify with this kind of lament. You feel as if you are under the curse of God himself. Your life feels like total misery, and death is starting to sound like nothing but a relief. You are not alone. The Psalms are filled with laments like this. And sometimes the heaviness of life can make one despair of life itself.
But what the Old Testament anticipated was the day when, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, someone would come under the curse in order to lift it off our shoulders. There would be a “servant of God” who would himself be “cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of [God’s] people” (Isa 53:8). There would be someone who would take on the full covenant curse, who would bear our griefs, carry our sorrows, who would be “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:4-5). “About whom . . . does the prophet say this,” the Ethiopian official asked Philip in Acts 8, “about himself or about someone else?” And then, “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture, he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:34-35).
One for All
On this Easter Sunday, let me do the same. If Jesus on Good Friday had his life taken away, then what does it mean that on Easter Sunday he had his life given back by resurrection? This is not simply good news about Jesus, a neat little historical abnormality that happened to one person in history. It has massive implications for everyone else.
In Ezekiel’s vision, what happens to the army of Israel is what God wants him to proclaim to everyone the army represents. “I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land” (v. 12). This is a clear word of encouragement, meant to give hope to the exiles in the midst of their despair. God will open their graves, not so that another family member who has died can be buried in the ancestral tomb, but so that the God of Israel can pose as the ultimate tomb raider. And, “The treasure he is after is the bodies of his people, whom he will raise from the grave.”
In other words, what this “rising from the dead” means for us is not the assurance that we will find a way to adapt to the misery of living under the curse of sin. It is the assurance that the curse of sin, and death itself, will be reversed. Resurrection is not a way of saying that it’s not so bad being dead, “that Sheol is not such a bad place after all,” that “dust will learn to be happy as dust.” No! It means that “Creation itself . . . will be reaffirmed, remade.” And so also will you, your physical body reaffirmed and remade by the same resurrection that Jesus experienced on Easter Sunday.
The New Creation Has Started
But there’s one more thing we must emphasize, and it all comes down to timing. As encouraging as Ezekiel’s vision might have been for the exiles, as hopeful as resurrection might sound to us as we look forward to the day when we, too, will be raised, what might Christ’s resurrection, already in the rear-view mirror, mean for us right now? What hope might it give us in advance of our own resurrection? The answer is this: the resurrection of Jesus means that God’s new creation has already started, and you can be a part of it.
The Breath of Life
In Ezekiel’s vision, the way the dry bones come back to life sounds not only like a resurrection, but like a re-creation. And for good reason, because that’s what resurrection would have to mean.
As Ezekiel prophesies, the bones come together in verse 7, joined by sinews (tendons) and flesh and skin in verse 8. “But there was no breath in them,” until Ezekiel prophesies again, and the breath of life comes to invigorate them. Sound familiar? In Genesis 2:7, we read that “God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
As it was in the beginning, so it will be in the new beginning. God’s new creation finds life only by the infusion of the very life-breath of God. What, then, will it take for you and me to be a part of God’s new creation? It will take the dramatic act of God’s own breath, his Holy Spirit, bringing us to faith in Christ and uniting us to the one who has already entered into God’s new world.
“If anyone is in Christ,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” To be a Christian means to have the very life-breath of God within you. And the evidence that you have this life-breath is that you believe in the only one who has passed through death and into life ahead of you.
But what does it mean to believe? Of course it includes assent, but it is not just that. As clear as the allusion to Genesis 2 is in Ezekiel 37, it is more explicitly tied to the exodus story in the interpretation that is given in verses 11-14, as God promises to lead the people out from their graves and in to the land.
What did one have to do in order to participate in the exodus from Egypt? They had to follow the savior, the deliverer. They could not just remain in Egypt and say, “I believe in the exodus,” they had to get up, leave behind their slavery, and move forward toward the promised land.
The New Testament speaks of Jesus’s accomplishment for us as a second exodus (Lk 9:31). He is the Savior, the better Moses, who leads his people out of the old world of sin and slavery and into the new world of holiness and freedom.
Sound good? It is so good. But you can’t just believe him. You have to follow him. You must become his disciple.
The Mighty Army
But what does it mean to follow him? Here we must be careful lest we impose our own ideas of what Christian discipleship necessarily entails. Our Lord is fully capable of making plain what it is he requires of us.
But I simply want to stress that the promise of resurrection, the invitation into God’s new creation, is the summons to be the true human being God intends for you and me to be. The end of Ezekiel’s vision is the sight of “an exceedingly great army,” (v. 10). Presumably, they are now ready to do the Lord’s bidding. The resurrection that has already broken in on our dark world is full of implications for those of us who would dare to hope in it.
Easter Sunday does not mean that one time in history God did something miraculous in the world but doesn’t seem to much care about doing miraculous things for it any more. And it certainly does not mean that we shouldn’t care about this world after all because we’re going to go live forever in heaven. What this “rising from the dead” means is that there is a power that has been unleased in the world that has the power to transform and heal it, precisely in those places where healing seems impossible.
And that’s the invitation, the marching orders if you will, for Christians to this day, the army of the God of hosts.
To be a Christian does not mean to try as hard as possible to be good, but to learn to live in God’s new world that has started with Easter Sunday and which we have entered into through our union with Christ.
Let us then follow him as he leads us through prayer and in community to work the soil that he has given us to cultivate, all for his praise and all for his glory and all with the assurance that our labor is not in vain. After all: He is risen! He is risen indeed!
 Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. P. Keith Gammons and Samuel E. Balentine (Macon, Ga: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2005), 454. Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 377.