SCRIPTURE: Ez. 18:19-32

Last week we treated Ezekiel’s argument to the people in captivity: namely that there is no self-justification in arguing that the punishment they receive is inevitable and should be viewed in light of the sins of their ancestors. As we saw in last week’s sermon, Ezekiel goes to great lengths to convict the people of their own sinfulness and to bring them to the realization that their own repentance is necessary for their salvation. God is just – and so is all his judgments, that was the message of the first part of this chapter. This message was a necessary prelude to what the prophet comes to in the second part of the chapter, today’s text – the call to repentance: “turn and live!”

I briefly mentioned Ezekiel’s heritage as born of the priestly family of Zadok last week, and, as a means of putting today’s message in context with regard to its history as well as the rest of Scripture, I want us to look at this aspect of Ezekiel’s identity in more detail. In order to understand where the figure Ezekiel comes from and why God chose this man to fulfill such an important calling at such a vital time in Judah’s history, we need to go all the way back to God’s anointing of Aaron as the father of the royal priesthood in Israel. Aaron, the brother of Moses, was appointed directly by God as a prophet (Ex. 7:1) and as the first High Priest of Israel (Ex 28:1). God also appointed his sons, in their generations, as the royal line of Priests of Israel. Scripture recalls that Aaron had four sons. Nadab and Ahihu, the oldest sons, desecrated the priestly office, however, and God consequently devoured them by fire (Lev. 10:2) and Aaron’s two younger sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, were appointed as priests in their place (Num. 3:3-4). They both ministered during Aaron’s lifetime, but upon their father’s death, Moses anointed Eleazar as high priest (Num. 20:28). The high priesthood continued in his family for 7 generations until it was transferred (for reasons unknown), to the line of Ithamar when Eli took over the High Priesthood. However, when Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, sinned so grievously before God – it was prophesied that the royal priesthood would return to the house of Eleazar. This prophecy found in I Samuel 2:35 significantly has Messianic implications: it is namely said that the house of the faithful priesthood “shall walk before [God’s] Anointed forever” – in other words, this royal line of priests from Eleazar shall prepare and cultivate the path for the coming of Christ, the Anointed of the Father. This prophecy would eventually be fulfilled in Ezekiel’s ancestor, Zadok, during the time of king Solomon.

Now Zadok was a descendent of Eleazar – part of the royal line of priests, who lived during the reign of the kings David and Solomon. Zadok is most famously known for anointing Solomon as king and for being personally appointed as the first High Priest of Solomon’s Temple. However, earlier on, as a young man, Zadok is also listed among David’s forces that supported him in his fight for the kingship against king Saul. During the later rebellion of David’s son Absalom, it was also Zadok and his son, Ahimaaz, who would eventually succeed him as high priest, who secretly provided David with life-saving information on Absalom’s actions. Eventually Ahimaaz also married one of Solomon’s daughters. All this symbolizes and emphasizes the intimately close relations between the royal family of Israel and this special priestly family.

We know see that both these families have a type of Messianic role to fulfill – i.e. as it was prophesied that Christ would be born of the house of David, so it was prophesied that the priestly/prophetic house of Zadok would serve and prepare the way for Christ. This prophecy on the family of Zadok would find its fullest fulfillment in the ministry of Ezekiel. How closely linked Ezekiel’s ministry is to that of Christ, is evidenced by two striking similarities: 1) Over 90 times in the book Ezekiel is, most extraordinarily, called a “son of man” – Ezekiel and Christ are the only figures in the entire Bible to be called “Son of man”; 2) Ezekiel, shortly after receiving his calling, is commanded by God to lay on his left side for 390 days as punishment to bear the inequity of the people of Israel and on his right side for 40 days to bear the inequity of the people of Judah (Ez. 4:4-6). This suffering of course, is no real atonement, but a shadow of the atonement of Christ for his church.

Apart from the shadows and parallels, Christ Himself, his coming in the flesh and his atonement, is literally and explicitly prophesied on at least seven distinct occasions throughout this prophetic book  – there might be more direct and explicit prophecies, but I’ve identified at least seven such passages (Ez. 1:26; 9:2; 17:22-24; 21:26-27; 34:11-31; 36:25; 37:26-27).

And finally, getting to the text of today, the message of Ezekiel, is also the message of Christ. What Ezekiel says in verse 30 and 32 – the crux of his message: “Repent, … turn and live!” brings us the same gospel-message that Christ starts his ministry with when He says: “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand!” (Matt. 4:17).

Today, we are looking into the particulars of this message: the Gospel according to Ezekiel.

Ezekiel starts this message by proclaiming death as the consequence of sin. This is reiterated throughout the Bible, but we sometimes tend to forget the vital importance and the sentiment Ezekiel expresses here. From various places in Scripture, both Old and New Testament we know that God will judge all people, each one, according to their deeds. Ecclesiastes 12:14 says “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” Romans 2:6 teaches that God “will render to every man according to his deeds”, and similar passages appear throughout Scripture. This is serious. The Bible repeats this message time and time again. This was meant as a very serious message to the people in captivity by Ezekiel; and it is meant as a very serious message to God’s church throughout the ages – to us. Sin leads to death. In sin there is only death. And by death, Scripture does not simply refer to the few moments of suffering it takes the average person to die. No! Death means eternal agony, eternal suffering under the just wrath of God for ever and ever and ever without end. That is the second death – the final death. That is the wages of sin. That is extremely, extremely serious!

The soul who sins shall die!

Terrifying! That is what the message from Ezekiel is so-far!

But thank God for verse 21! Praise the Almighty for verse 21, because without verse 21, there would be no hope of any kind whatsoever. Not for the people in Ezekiel’s time. Not for us. Not for our children.

Verse 21 says: “But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die.”

And verse 22 elaborates further, noting: “None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him: because of the righteousness he has done, he shall live!”

This same message is repeated in verses 26-31. The message and call to repentance is repeated by Ezekiel twice at the end of this chapter no doubt to signify its utmost importance. So that it cannot be missed. So that it cannot possibly be misunderstood.

Repent, and live!

A question that might naturally arise in the minds of good Presbyterian folk, like ourselves, who hold the doctrines of grace in high regard is: How can we reconcile this message that we need to turn from sin and do good works according to God’s Law in order to be saved, with the doctrine of justification by faith alone? John Calvin said it best, in a rather short and sweet way: “Man is not saved by, but neither without good works.” You see, unrepentant sinners die – they go to hell. What we need to understand here is the difference between justification and sanctification. This is explained very well in our Westminster standards as well, and when reading today’s text, we should bear in mind that in verses 21 and 22 Ezekiel speaks, in each verse respectively, both of justification and sanctification.

Verse 21 says that if a wicked man turns from his sins, and this is justification by faith – for where is the only place man can turn to which is away from sin? – Christ! The verse continues stating that if this changed man keeps all God’s statutes – he shall live – this is sanctification: good works, which necessarily and always follows justification.

Verse 22 explains the same thing even more clearly – remember: it mentions transgressions of the sinful man – yet these sins are forgiven by God, says the verse. How? On the merits of Christ of course! Acquired and applied to the sinner through faith! Then the verse continues to say that because of the righteous deeds of the man, he shall live! Ezekiel is here not saying that the righteous deeds of the man somehow outweighs his sin and just tips the scale in his favor – no! Ezekiel is explaining that sanctification, good deeds to the glory of God, always, necessarily follows justification by faith in Christ – in Ezekiel’s Old Testament context, of course, faith in the atonement of the Messiah yet to come. Because these deeds follow justification, these deeds are counted as righteous, committed by a righteous man in Christ, and are part of his salvation and his life, true life, in Christ. “Man is not saved by, yet not without works.”

How do we know that this is what Ezekiel had in mind? After all, Christ is not explicitly mentioned in today’s passage. We know this, because God, through Ezekiel, says in verses 25 and 29, that his judgments upon the righteous and the wicked are fair. Now, God reveals that he judges fairly, noting that the righteous will live and the wicked will perish. Yet the Bible says that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that we all rightly deserve to perish in hell. How then can God, through Ezekiel, righteously claim to save righteous people? Remember the Messianic character of Ezekiel’s calling and entire message. It is true that in this passage Ezekiel, while noting that justification takes place, does not explain how it does, but one of the direct prophecies of Christ, later in his book, does exactly that. It is vital understand this gospel of Ezekiel, that the transgressions of the righteous are forgiven and forgotten by God, in light of his proclamation in chapter 36, verse 25: “I [God] will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all filthiness…” Listen carefully: God says that He will sprinkle water and that He will cleanse. This is not something that man does. Yet, we have seen in our text today that in order for the righteous man to live out his good works to the glory of God, God needs to first forgive and forget his transgressions. When Ezekiel refers to the cleansing water, he explains what he neglected to explain in chapter 18, how this happens. Like so often in his book – Ezekiel here in chapter 36 also speaks by means of symbolism. What this “sprinkled water” symbolizes is explained fully in the New Testament: Hebrews 12:24 reads that the “sprinkled blood” of Christ mediates between God and us in the New Covenant. This versein book of Hebrews explains and clarifies the gospel as presented by Ezekiel in chapter 18 of his prophetic book.

Therefore, understand the message of Ezekiel thus: Every human being, a sinner, perishes by his own sin, yet justified by Christ, we can lay off the old, sinful man, and live, truly live, to God’s glory by doing righteousness according to his law.

One final aspect and potential difficulty of this text deserves our attention before we can conclude today: verses 23 and 32 state that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but in that he repents and lives. At first glance, these texts seem to imply that it is God’s earnest desire that all men repent and receive everlasting life and that none shall perish. However, we know that man is not saved by his own free will but by God’s grace and in our Westminster Confession (in chapter 3) it clearly states that God, in his sovereignty, and for his own glory, “predestines some [people] unto everlasting life; and others [He] foreordained to everlasting death.” I assume that there is no need for me to go through a catalogue of the innumerable passages in Scripture that supports this proclamation of Westminster, and that we are all convinced in our hearts that this teaching and wording is in accordance with the Bible. If you still have doubts about this doctrine, I encourage you to go study Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 at home. But, for the sake of the argument, allow me to reference one verse which is particularly clear regarding the issue that arises from these Ezekiel passages, Proverbs 16:4 reads: “The Lord has made all things for Himself, Yes, even the wicked for the day of doom.” How then do we reconcile this purposeful decree of predestination unto death of some people by God, with these verses in Ezekiel which seems to teach that God wants everybody to be saved?

There has been a number of different takes on these two verses by respected commentators, for example:

  • The Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards argues that a passage like this is simply a form of rhetoric to show that God is slow to anger and that He only gives up sinners after exhausting the means to get them to repent.
  • The 20th century American Reformed theologian Lorraine Boettner argues that while this verse simply teaches that God takes no pleasure and has no joy in the damnation of the wicked, He still decrees it. He observes by comparison: “A righteous judge does not will (desire) that anyone should be hanged or sentenced to prison, yet at the same time he wills (decrees) that the guilty person shall be thus punished.”

There are perhaps elements of truth in these interpretations, but  I believe the best to have been provided by the Dutch reformed theologian of the 20th century, Herman Hoeksema: Now, although I’m no Hoeksemite, I do believe he interprets these particular verses in Ezekiel 18 the best. He states that these verses address not all men universally, but only the church, God’s people, in particular – who have dwelt away from his Word. He points to the context: Remember the prominent theme of last week’s sermon – the message of Ezekiel 18 is giving hope of repentance to the people of God inside his covenant – they will not perish for the sins of their ancestors – if they repent, they will live. They will not simply be continued to be punished for the sins of their fathers, no, God desires them to repent, and then they will surely live. To affirm this hope – to further explain to them that there is indeed hope in repentance and to affirm that God indeed desires his people to repent and prosper, God adds that He does not take pleasure in that they, his people, who have been wicked themselves, perish for their own sins, but that they repent and live. Remember, the prophet Ezekiel, after all, does not address e.g. the Babylonian oppressors in this chapter, but the people of Judah – the entire chapter is a covenantal message in a covenant context about encouraging the people of Judah to repent. The same also goes for verses 23 and 32. Within the covenant, within the elected covenant people, God does not desire any to perish, but that his people repent and live.

May we take this same encouragement from today’s passage for our daily lives and our walk with Christ. May we continue to fight sin – to repent, and to live!