This is week four of a series in Ezekiel 33-37, about God’s promised reboot of his people. If you’ve just joined, you can either go to the start of the series, or simply begin the new chapter with us starting with Monday’s post.
Yesterday, we saw how Jesus defeated death on behalf of his people, and rose again so they could have new life: both spiritual resurrection (the gift of the Holy Spirit) and a future physical resurrection (when Jesus returns). But how is this our story? We end up asking that each week, don’t we? Because so far tonight: this is Israel’s story. God’s people in the Old Testament. And Jesus turns up as the fulfilment of their story. What’s that got to do with us?
The two-stick magic trick
Thankfully, God gets Ezekiel to perform a magic trick to explain it. Back to the passage, starting at verse 15:
Ezekiel 37:15-17 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, ‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ [That is: the southern kingdom—the Jews] Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, ‘Belonging to Joseph (that is, to Ephraim) and all the Israelites associated with him.’ [These are the northern tribes who got scattered back in the 8th century BC.] Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand.”
Ta-daa, says Ezekiel. Now what?
Ezekiel 37:18-19 “When your people ask you, ‘Won’t you tell us what you mean by this?’ say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph—which is in Ephraim’s hand—and of the Israelite tribes associated with him, and join it to Judah’s stick. I will make them into a single stick of wood, and they will become one in my hand.’”
We’re getting the band back together.
Ezekiel 37:20-22 “Hold before their eyes the sticks you have written on and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms.’”
Who’s going to do this? A king from David’s line. Jesus, of course:
Ezekiel 37:24, 27-28 ‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd… [v27] My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’
OK, so we have a promise that both sticks of Israel—the Jews in the south, and the other tribes in the north—they’ll get joined together again. God’s people 2.0 includes all Israel.
Fair enough. Except that it’s not going to be an easy task. I mean, reanimating that pile of bones was tough, but hey—at least the bones were in a pile. Judah’s in exile in Babylon, right where God left them.
But the north? They’re long gone. They’re like most of my socks: scattered among the nations; intermarried; who knows where they are? (By the way, ignore any websites that say the northern tribes went to Britain. Sadly, I’m not joking.)
But think about it. After so many generations—how do you unpick that mess? How do you gather the northern tribes from among the nations? I mean, this is how they’re described in the prophet Hosea:
Hosea 8:8 Israel is swallowed up; now she is among the nations
like something no one wants.
Yet still, Hosea prophesies this reunification:
Hosea 1:11 The people of Judah [the Jews in the south] and the people of Israel [the tribes of the north] will come together; they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land…
Hosea 2:23 I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’
How’s God going to sort out the northern tribes from among the nations? The Apostle Paul suggests he’s not. So the nations will just have to come along for the ride. He sees the gathering of the northern tribes as including all the nations:
Romans 9:23-25 What if [God] did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles [that’s us]? As he says in Hosea: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one.”
That’s were we fit in! We were not God’s people, but now we are. We belong to the stick called “Joseph” that’s now been joined with the Jewish stick to make one stick. So that together with the Jews, in this way “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:6). The whole people of God, together under one shepherd—Jesus.
There aren’t two sticks
Now I’m labouring this a bit, because some Christians still think there are two sticks: (a) Christians and (b) the present-day nation of Israel. And they think that God deals with the Israel stick differently: that all of the promises about the land and the temple still need to be fulfilled in the actual land of Israel; another temple rebuilt where, right now, there’s a great big mosque. Some go as far as thinking he still saves Israel through the law (a two-track salvation). And this can lead to Christians blindly supporting the state of Israel no matter what it does.
But that’s not how the Bible sees things. It’s one stick, not two.
It’s not a new stick
But it’s not a completely new stick. That’s the opposite error: what we might call “replacement theology.” This is where God’s fed up with his chosen people, so he votes them off the island, and brings in a bunch of intruders to replace them. He divorces his old wife, and gives his new wife all his ex’s stuff, including the wedding ring.
And that attitude can sometimes lead Christians in the opposite direction. They become anti-Jewish. We saw quite this recently in the US: a massacre at a synagogue, carried out by a mentally unstable man—but whose church taught replacement theology.
And again, that’s not how the Bible sees things.
Two sticks become one
The one stick was made from two. The first stick was the people in Israel who embraced Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. Always remember that the first followers of Jesus were Jewish. Most of the New Testament writers were Jewish. That’s the first half of the stick. But God in his mercy allowed us to be part of the second half. The scattered northern tribes; the children of Abraham; all the families of the earth—brought back under the one, good shepherd.
And all of the promises made to God’s people in the past—they’re now being fulfilled in us: God’s new people. With a new leader. Having a new heart. And given new life.
To think about
How have you thought of present-day Israel’s relationship to the Church? Has this given you cause to rethink, or to investigate further?