The Christian Hope
This week, we found ourselves in exile in Babylon along with the southern kingdom of Judah. The southern kingdom, comprising the tribes of Benjamin and Judah and including the city of Jerusalem, managed to stay independent longer than their neighbors to the north, who were taken into exile by the Assyrians about 135 years before.
According to the Bible’s history books, Judah managed to stay independent longer because of a series of godly kings that ruled and restrained the idolatrous religious practices of the people. Yet such a return to God would always prove temporary. By 587 BC, Judah went into exile as well, thus setting up our story for this week.
This was the worst possible outcome because, from a religious perspective, the city of Jerusalem really mattered. Without the temple, which to the Israelites, was where the presence of God resided on earth, they had difficulty worshipping God. Without the temple, there was no sacrificial system, no way to receive forgiveness for sin and no way to be in God’s presence. Thus the exile is not just about some land; it’s about being exiled from the presence of God.
As the prophet Jeremiah had told the people, this was not going to be a short exile either. In fact, it would turn out that the exile would last for about seventy years. Almost everyone who went to Babylon from Jerusalem in 587 BC would die in a foreign land, cut off from the presence of God.
Our story this week is trying to inject some hope to the captives of the southern kingdom in the midst of their suffering. It looks forward to the ultimate restoration of both the southern and northern kingdoms. It insists that a better day is coming when the bones scattered on the ground (symbolizing the exiled house of Israel) would come back together and be restored in the land. The text of Eze 37 describes this promise of restoration as follows:
Son of man, take a stick and write on it, ‘For Judah and the children of Israel associated with him’; then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him’; and join them together into one stick, that they may become one in your hand…My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. They shall dwell in the land where your fathers dwelt that I gave to my servant Jacob…I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them and I will bless them and multiply them and set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. My dwelling place shall be with them and I will be their God and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is in the midst of them for evermore (Eze 37.24-27).
Sounds great, doesn’t it? There’s a full restoration coming. But, here’s the rub – this never really happened. Yes, there was a return from exile and a rebuilding of the temple. The books of Haggai, Ezra and Nehemiah all describe this. Yet, at best, only about 10% of the exiled Jews came back into the land. The vast majority stayed right where they were in Babylon, having become fully assimilated into a foreign land. Within a few generations, the Jewish people would lose their ability to read or speak Hebrew, necessitating the translation of the Scriptures into Greek. The Jews in the diaspora lost some significant elements of their Jewish heritage.
How could God promise restoration and never see it through to fruition? This has led to centuries of debates about how to understand unfulfilled prophecies. One school of thought, called dispensationalism, reads the text “literally” and insists that prophecies made to Israel still have to be fulfilled in Israel, and Israel alone, in the future. Thus God will yet restore the temple along with the Jewish nation in the holy land. More mainstream reformed interpretation argues that the church replaces Israel in God’s scheme. However, the idea that the church replaced Israel became very unpopular after WWII and the sufferings the Jews underwent in the holocaust.
This text does a nice job of demonstrating how difficult it is to understand the Old Testament unless we read it in light of Christ. Hence God’s promise of restoration and the remarkable imagery of resurrection that the story of dry bones envisions only really make sense when we read it in light of the ultimate restoration that God is intending to bring to all his people.
In other words, the story of the dry bones really only makes sense in light of the final restoration that will come at Jesus’ return when he raises the dead. Consider how the Athanasian Creed puts it:
At [Christ’s] coming, all men shall rise again with their bodies and shall give account for their own works.
Despite what many think, our ultimate hope as Christians is not to die and go to heaven. Our hope is to have our body and souls transformed so that we can live in the presence of God and enjoy being united with him forever. In fact, the book of Revelation seems to depict heaven as being right here on this earth, albeit in a re-created form. Consider the following text:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Behold the dwelling of God is with men.’ He will dwell with them and they shall be his people and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away (Rev 21.1-5).
Note that this text at the end of the Bible contains similar elements to Ezekiel’s prophecy. Jerusalem will be renewed, worship will be restored, a righteous king will rule and restoration will take place.
But, now, because of Jesus, the promised restoration is even greater. Now, death itself is destroyed and the barrier erected between God and his people because of sin will be torn down. No death. No tears. No separation from God. Resurrection leads to an ever greater restoration.
Thus the Christian hope is for resurrection. We need not debate the fine points of how this will take place or when. No one really knows. We simply need to believe that what God promises he will fulfill in Christ. Or as John puts it, “we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3.2-3).
Kevin Dodge is the author of several books on the spiritual life, including Confessions of a Bishop: A Guide to Augustine’s Confessions and Reading Dante: A Theological Paraphrase of the Inferno. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a ThM with Highest Honors from Dallas Theological Seminary.