June 2, 1996
THE SPIRIT OF THE LAW
“And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” Ezekiel 36:27
God was in a tough spot. The almighty Lord of the universe was between a rock and a hard place. His reputation was being ruined, and there was no way out, it seemed.
It all started when God chose a group of people and decided that he would identify with them and show his character through them. The Lord rescued the Israelites from slavery in a foreign country; he showed them his majesty; he gave them his laws and commandments; and he settled them in a land he had picked out for them. The Lord promised to be their God, and he called them to be his people, living in his holy land and keeping his holy law. God’s aim was that all peoples would see this and be impressed and want to worship the holy God of such a holy nation.
But the holy nation became an unholy mess. The people turned from God and worshiped horrid idols, gods of sex and killing. They sank into all sorts of immorality and filth. They abused and mistreated others. They kept going from bad to worse.
What was God to do? He had tied his holy name to these unholy people. If he didn’t distance himself from their evil, if he didn’t punish them, it would ruin his reputation. So God did what he had to do. He threw them out of his holy land and made them captives of a foreign power. As the Lord put it, “I poured out my wrath on them because they had shed blood in the land and because they had defiled it with their idols. I dispersed them among the nations… I judged them according to their conduct and their actions” (Ezekiel 36:18-19).
But did that restore God’s good name? Hardly. Most people didn’t say, “Hallelujah! The God of Israel is just and righteous! He punishes even his own special people when they sin.” They didn’t say, “Wow, God must be powerful! He uprooted that whole nation from his land.” No, when people saw what happened to the Israelites, they scoffed, “‘These are the Lord’s people, and yet they had to leave his land'” (Ezekiel 36:20). They figured that if the Lord couldn’t keep his people in his land, he must either be weaker than the gods of the conquerors, or else, if did have power, he must be one of those nasty, temperamental, unreliable gods who doesn’t really care what happens to his own people.
God wouldn’t stomach that kind of talk. He said, “I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone” (Ezekiel 36:21). But what was God to do? No matter how he chose to treat his people, his reputation would suffer. If he blessed the Israelites even as they kept breaking his laws, people would say that Israel’s God had no sense of justice. But if he continued to punish his disobedient people, the other nations would go on saying that the Lord is weak or unfaithful. It looked like a no-win situation.
But did God give up? No, when God gets into an impossible situation, he simply goes ahead and does the impossible. That’s why he’s God. The Lord speaks of his dilemma in the Bible in Ezekiel 36. His options are to tolerate the intolerable or else to destroy the disobedient, and either way, his reputation suffers. God doesn’t like either option, so he simply creates a new option. When the Lord gets caught between a rock and a hard place, what does he do? He takes the rock and the hard place and turns them into something soft and alive and responsive to him.
Before God speaks of this, however, he first makes it clear that if he’s to do anything besides go on punishing his people, he must find the reason in himself, not in them. It won’t be any qualification of theirs; it depends entirely on who God is and how he wants to be known. It’s God’s decision, not their deserving. “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name… Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes” (Ezekiel 36:22-23).
How God going to show himself holy through such unholy people? Well, first he’s going to show his power and faithfulness by bringing them back to their land. He could cancel their future and let them perish utterly, but instead he makes a unilateral decision to stick with the people he’s chosen and to give them the place and destiny he’s chosen for them. God says, “I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land” (Ezekiel 36:24).
But how can God promise a great future and a place in his kingdom to a group of impure, hard-hearted, lawbreakers? Won’t that ruin his reputation for holiness? Well, here’s where the Lord shows just how amazing he is. God won’t tolerate their impurities, and he won’t punish them, either. Instead, he’ll just wash those impurities clean away. God won’t look for ways to react to their hard heart and sinful spirit. Instead, he’ll put a new heart and a new spirit inside them. And the Lord won’t just tell them his laws and commands and then judge them on how well they do. Instead, God’s own Spirit will work inside them and move them to follow God’s law.
In Ezekiel 36:25-27, one of the Bible’s most astonishing and important passages, the Lord says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
That’s the way God decided to clear his name and show his holiness. The only hope of God’s chosen people back then, and the only hope of his chosen people today, is that God, for his own good reasons that have nothing to do with our qualifications, will clean us up and give us a heart transplant and make us alive and put his Spirit right inside us and move us to live the way he wants us to live.
We can’t relate to God or enjoy his favor unless he makes us clean and gives us a new heart and a new spirit. The history of the Israelites is proof. God gave them his law. He showed the people what he was like and what he wanted them to be like. But although the law was good, the people were bad. They were corrupt on the inside, and as long as God’s law was a written code outside them, it couldn’t help them. It could only condemn them.
God’s chosen people needed a cleansing and a new spirit that would fulfill the law. But that cleansing and new spirit were exactly what the law couldn’t provide. And so God promised that, instead of condemning his people for breaking the law, he would cleanse his people and empower them to be holy so that the intent of his law would be fulfilled in them.
One thing that had to happen was for God to provide a way to clean his people’s dirty record and forgive their sins. And that required a blood sacrifice. Under the law God gave through Moses, animals had to be killed as substitutes for the sins of people. Israelite worship was spattered with blood; it smelled of burnt flesh. The sights and smells of death were a constant reminder that the chosen people could live and stand in God’s presence only because of the death of a substitute.
But did those animal sacrifices actually save anybody? Of course not. An animal’s life isn’t a true substitute for a person’s life. The blood of an animal can’t wash away human sin. The slain animals of Old Testament law portrayed forgiveness through the sacrifice of a substitute; but they didn’t provide it. The Bible puts it this way: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship… It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1-4).
The only sacrifice, the only blood that could wash away sin once and for all, was still to come: Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus was the perfect man, the man who fulfilled God’s law and intent for Israel. When this perfect man was brought under the curse of sin and nailed to a cross, there was at last a substitute whose blood could actually pay the price of the sins of God’s people. Until then, the animals sacrifices in the law of Moses remained in effect. They couldn’t actually provide forgiveness, but they served as a visible and smelly reminder that, as the Bible puts it, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22), and they pointed people’s faith to the great Sacrifice to come.
God wanted his people to fulfill his law, but they couldn’t do that unless they were first rescued from the law. And Jesus did that. As the representative of his people, he obeyed God’s will perfectly; and as their substitute, he died the death the law required. By dying on the cross, Jesus cancelled the written code which stood as an indictment against his people, and he earned a new status for them, once and for all. Under the old law, animal sacrifices had to be repeated over and over; but under the new covenant, the blood of Jesus pays for every sin, past, present, and future, of every person the Lord has chosen.
Once Jesus had died and risen, the laws of ritual sacrifice were obsolete. The reality had replaced the shadow. God’s people today don’t follow the letter of the old law concerning sacrifices. Instead, the Spirit of the law, God’s Holy Spirit, gives his people a faith that connects them with the perfect sacrifice of Christ and with all the benefits that flow from it.
No longer are people sprinkled with animal blood. God promised in Ezekiel 36, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean,” and he has done just that. God baptizes his people with water and with his Holy Spirit. He applies the blood of Jesus to their guilt and declares them forever clean and free from the threat of punishment.
Does all of this sound strange and primitive and irrelevant? Maybe you prefer preaching that offers a few uplifting stories and a bit of advice on how to be a nicer person. However, I can’t just make up things that I think you might like to listen to. I have to say what God says in the Bible, and what God says is this: unholy people can be saved from the curse of God’s holy law only because Jesus became a curse for them. My only basis for knowing that I am right with God is found in God himself: God the Father decided to choose a people for himself in whom he would reveal his glory, Jesus offered a perfect sacrifice in my place, and the Holy Spirit gave me the faith to accept that sacrifice and to enjoy my new standing with God.
But God doesn’t stop with cleansing our record and giving us a new legal status. No, his stated purpose is to show himself holy through his people (Ezekiel 36:23). He doesn’t just forgive us in Christ and rescue us from the penalty of the law. He changes us and makes us more and more like Christ through his Holy Spirit living in us, “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).
How can we meet the righteous requirements of God’s law? We can’t, at least not on our own. The Bible says, “The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:7). That’s the problem God addresses in Ezekiel 36. He’s dealing with people who have his law, but whose sinful nature is hostile to God and who are totally unable to submit to his law or do what it says.
If we are ever to live up to the true intent of God’s law and radiate God’s holiness in our own lives, then God must do within us what we can’t do on our own. God says in Ezekiel 36, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
These days there’s a lot of talk about morality. Many people worry about the breakdown of the family and the plague of drugs and violence in many neighborhoods. Politicians are talking about values and virtues and V-chips. But how much good is all this talk about morality doing? What if our greatest need isn’t a Book of Virtues in our home or a V-chip in our television, but an entirely new power and personality in our heart? It’s fine to teach virtue and filter out filth, but even if we succeed at that, it would only change what comes into our minds from the outside. It won’t change what we’re like on the inside.
We can talk about what’s right until we run out of breath, but what we really need is to love what’s right and have the inner power to do what’s right. And for that we need God’s Holy Spirit to live and work in us and move us to follow God’s decrees and keep his laws. Knowing the letter of the law isn’t enough; we need the Spirit of the law, the Spirit of the living God.
We saw earlier that the sacrifices of the law portrayed atonement for sin but couldn’t provide it. Only the sacrifice of Jesus could do that. In a similar way, the moral commands of the law portray holiness, but they can’t produce holiness. Only the Spirit of Jesus can do that. Under the new covenant, the law isn’t just the precept of God above us. It is the presence of God within us. God replaces the stone heart, dead to him, with a new, living heart which pulses with the rhythm of divine life. Just as we can’t earn forgiveness on our own, so we can’t live holy lives on our own. It all depends on Jesus. Just as he is the foundation of forgiveness, he is also the fountain of holiness from which the purity of God flows to us.
In Ezekiel God promised to show his holiness through the people he chose, and that’s exactly what he does. The Bible says to Christians, “You show that you are a letter from Christ… written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts… He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:3-6).
Anyone who depends on the letter of the law is dead. Even if you work hard and keep a lot of dos and don’ts, you are still ruined if you break the law at even one point. And the fact is that we don’t just break the law here or there; we are miles away from its true intent. The whole meaning of the law is summed up in two commands: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do we love God so completely, or our neighbor so unselfishly? No, we may be able to keep certain regulations from time to time, but when it comes to love, our old heart is as hard and stony as the stone tablets of the law God gave to Moses.
Only when the Spirit gives us a new heart and makes us alive in Christ and writes that law of love on our hearts can we even make a beginning of living up to God’s law. Only then can we begin to look like a letter that God himself is writing.
God promises his chosen people in Ezekiel 36 that he will forgive their disobedience and put his Spirit in them so that they can live up to his decrees and laws. This will result in blessing, and also, strange as it may sound, it will result in a kind of shame and self-loathing. God says, “Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, O house of Israel!” (Ezekiel 36:31-32).
Those aren’t exactly soothing words to boost self-esteem. Who wants to feel like a failure? But if God’s Spirit is really working in you, one thing that will happen is that you will feel a terrible sense of failure. If you’ve never felt a deep disgust for your own sin, if you’ve never felt completely unworthy of God’s favor, then it’s evidence that you still have the old heart of stone. When God’s Spirit comes in, he casts you down and lifts God up. He moves you to see all your own achievements as garbage and to look to the glory of God and the merit of Christ crucified as the only sure ground for your salvation. The Spirit rids you of any illusions you might have about being able to keep God’s law through your own efforts. Then he fills you with gratitude to Christ and with a longing to please God and to live in his love and to fulfill his law by growing to be more and more like Jesus.
The final outcome of the Spirit’s work is that God’s chosen are made perfectly holy and enter into the full blessings God has in store for them. The Bible says, “The covenant of which [Jesus] is the mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). The promises which flow from the sacrifice of Jesus are better than any promises under the law of Moses. For one thing, these promise are better because they are not confined to the nation of Israel but extend to people of every nation who are among God’s chosen and are made spiritual Israelites, children of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ.
Also, the promises in Jesus are better because they promise a home in a Promised Land that is far better than any piece of land in Palestine that God promised to the Israelites. Just as animal sacrifices were signposts of a far better sacrifice, so the land of Israel was the signpost of a far better land. The holy land of the law portrays the land of promise; it doesn’t provide that kingdom of perfect peace and blessing that God has prepared for his people. Only God’s final intervention in history, the return of Jesus Christ in glory, can do that.
Ezekiel 36 speaks of God bringing his people to their land, and God brought about a first installment on that promise when he brought the Israelites back from exile and prompted a great revival of faith among them. But the real Promised Land is more than just Palestine, and there are hints of that already in Ezekiel. God promises his people that their homeland will be “like the garden of Eden” (Ezekiel 36:35).
Even before Jesus came, people of faith knew that the Promised Land of Palestine was the first installment of God’s blessing, not the final fulfillment of it. The Bible says, “They were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, because he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16). The destiny of those in whom the Holy Spirit lives is nothing less than paradise.
My friend, this is what true religion is all about. It’s not a few suggestions and moral principles to make you a bit nicer and your life a bit more liveable. It is a mighty work of the living God. So let me ask you: Has God done this in you? Are you counting on the blood of Jesus to make you right with God? Is the Spirit of God moving you to loathe your sinful ways and to love God’s law and to become more like Christ? Are you looking to the land God has promised? If so, I rejoice with you. If not, I pray that God will even now replace your heart of stone with his Holy Spirit. Repent and believe the good news, that you may be saved and that God’s name may be glorified in you.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.