Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.
I had a friend once who allowed that human beings were like fish eggs. He and I were sitting in the sun on a bass boat trying unsuccessfully to catch something and he was trying to make sense of the world. A fishing boat is a great place for philosophizing. “I know,” he said, “that there is only one way of salvation, and that is by the name of Jesus Christ. But I also know that the vast majority of the people who have ever lived have never so much as heard that name.”
So he proceeded to draw an analogy to the life cycle of the largemouth bass who lays millions of eggs. Many of her eggs will be eaten by the male that fertilizes them. Most of her eggs will be eaten by bream and other small fish and will never hatch. Of those that do hatch, most of those tiny fish will be eaten by minnows and bream. As they mature to minnow size, most of those will be eaten by adult bass. And in the end, only a tiny fraction of the eggs originally laid will become mature bass. She has to lay millions of eggs in order to get a very few mature fish.
My friend speculated that God, in order to bring a very few sons to his kingdom, had to put billions of us here on the earth to allow for wastage. I had to admit that the idea had a perverse logic to it. But what did it say about the kind of being who would create a system like that for man? For we are not fish, we are human. We suffer. We hope, we love, we create.
Is the God we read about in the Bible the sort of being who would waste real people in their billions to achieve his objectives? It is one thing for God to give man the freedom to accept or reject life with God, but another thing altogether to subject man to the kind of suffering we see in this world without giving him hope of something better. And the picture is even more bleak if you think God is going to take all those billions who were never saved, and torment them in hell for billions of years.
We know what Paul thought about this: “For this,” he said, “is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4).
So we know what God’s intent is. That doesn’t mean that every last person will finally be saved, because we can push God away if we wish. But we know the salvation of all is in his plan.
The Apostle Paul couldn’t bring himself to think otherwise. It was unlike God, he thought, to just throw people away, to cast them to the wolves. We would like to think that a man like Paul had all the answers, but it is apparent that he didn’t, at least not all at once. Paul struggled with this, thinking out loud in his letter to the Christians in Rome. He tried to take what he knew about God and his plan, to develop an explanation for what was happening as he took the Gospel to the Jews. In city after city where Paul went, the Jews rejected the Gospel while Gentiles flocked to it. It didn’t make sense to Paul, and it is easy to see why it didn’t. Here was a people who lived in hope of the Messiah. They looked for the Messiah, they prayed for the Messiah, they expected the Messiah. Some expected him in their own lifetime. The very idea of a Messiah is a Jewish idea.
And now, a man walks into their synagogue and announces that the Messiah has come. Paul might have expected them to be excited at the news, but they brushed it off. The Gentiles, who knew nothing of a Messiah apart from the Jews, flocked to Christ in droves. This is the problem Paul has been debating at length in his letter to the Roman Christians.
Now he begins to see the answer and explains, using an olive tree as his chosen analogy. Having come to the conclusion that a resurrection must, somehow, be a factor, he goes further. “If the root is holy,” he said, speaking of an olive tree, “so are the branches. And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree . . .” (Romans 11:16-17).
Consider what he is driving at. We have a natural olive tree. We have broken out some of the branches to make room for branches from another species of olive. The new branches are Gentile, and having been grafted in, they are as holy as the natural branches were. But, Paul continued, “do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you” (v. 18).
You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.” Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either (vv. 19-21).
Now the logical question is this. Why does it help to remove the Jewish branches from the tree in order to graft in Gentiles? Why wasn’t there room for everyone? The picture Paul draws is of an olive tree that has a limited capacity for branches, both for room and for sustenance. If we are going to make the graft, we have to make room for it. It is a fact, that most Jews were simply not ready to make room for Gentiles in the community of God’s people. The battle to make room for Gentiles is the big story of the book of Acts. The first line of defense was, “Well, if they are going to come in, they all have to be circumcised.” i
The early church decided against that, but the struggle didn’t go away. And the truth is, if all the synagogues where Paul preached had accepted the Gospel, then Christianity would have been seen by most as a purely Jewish faith, and that’s where it would have ended. But it didn’t. As the Jews rejected the Gospel, Paul was forced to turn to the Gentiles who, marvel of marvels, accepted it wholeheartedly and in growing numbers.
Paul cautioned his readers to “consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off” (v. 22). And this is what my friend cited to support his idea. “Behold the severity of God.” For the tiny bass that get eaten, it is just tough luck, he theorized. But Paul isn’t quite ready to allow that. Speaking of the Jews, he continued:
And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (vv. 23-26).
In calling this a mystery, Paul admits that this is not something that is easily grasped, but ignorance is not acceptable. Now I dare say we could ask more questions than Paul himself could answer, but he understood the basics. He understood that the cutting off of the Jews was a temporary expedient. It was being driven by the plan of God. He understood that it was God’s intent to save all of Israel, not just a few. We naturally wonder how, but Paul doesn’t help us a lot here. For this is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins. Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also THE THREAD 182 have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy (vv. 27-31). Paul is simply saying that the unbelieving Jews were in the same boat with unbelieving Gentiles, and could receive mercy the same way. But there is this to consider: “For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all” (v. 32). How on earth does it make sense to shut a people up in unbelief that he might have mercy on them? I would think giving them belief would be the merciful thing to do. Well, there is a short statement in the book of Hebrews that might help, even though it is disquieting.
For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The LORD will judge His people” (Hebrews 10:26-30).
Disturbing though it may be, it is clear enough. Willful sin, with the knowledge of the truth is, quite simply, the end. But if God concludes that people sinned ignorantly, in unbelief, or in weakness, then there is room for mercy. So if God senses that the Jews will reject the knowledge of the truth, perhaps He concludes that it is safer not to show them the truth for the time being. Paul concludes his argument to the Romans:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor? Or who has first given to Him And it shall be repaid to him? For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
Paul does not do us the grace of explaining his conclusions, but perhaps he has given us something to go on. Some have said they don’t know what God is going to do with all those who never had a chance to be saved. They just believe that God will “make a way.” Paul seems to feel the same way but, Old Testament scholar that he was, he was still looking for hints. He has already hinted that it might be life from the dead. What was he driving at?
Well, there is an obscure prophecy from Ezekiel that I have found fascinating, ever since I first heard it in a Negro spiritual. Now you have to understand that this prophecy is set way out into the future. It is obscure in its own way as many prophecies are. But it may provide a glimpse into the mind of God on this very important question. Also, it is not real. It is a vision of something that has not yet come to pass. And it is highly symbolic.
Poor Ezekiel. In the course of receiving and getting to the end of a long series of visions, he must have been thoroughly wrung out. But now, he is carried out and set down in the middle of a valley full of broken skeletons. Everywhere he looked, he saw rib cages, spines, skulls, femurs, obviously the bones of human beings. Ezekiel walked around, following instructions and took note of how dry and old the bones were. I have been out hunting and have come across the bones of animals long dead, bleached white, dry, porous and easily broken.
God then spoke. “Son of man,” he asked, “can these bones live?” Ezekiel is noncommital, “O Lord GOD, You know” (Ezekiel 37:3).
Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!’ Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD” (vv. 4-6).
How strange it must have seemed, to have chosen an elevated spot and then to have begun preaching to a huge bone yard. And the message was just as strange. I would have felt thoroughly silly standing there preaching with no one around, but Ezekiel was a man who did as he was told.
So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them (vv. 7-8).
I expect some of the shaking going about this time was Ezekiel himself. What a thing to watch. There is a scene in the movie, The Fifth Element, where a human being is reconstructed from nothing but her hand. It is eerie to watch, but no more than what Ezekiel saw. When the shaking was finished, he was surrounded by complete, restored bodies. But they were not yet alive.
Also 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.’” So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army (vv. 9-10).
But an army of what, of whom? Who are these people, and what is this vision all about? The answer follows apace.
Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel’” (vv. 11-12).
You can almost hear Paul reciting the same Scripture as he made his point. “And so, all Israel shall be saved.” Now it is clear that this is a vision, not a reality that Ezekiel sees. It is just as clear that it is symbolic. But the allusions to a resurrection of physical bodies and a restoration to the land is clear enough. Normally, when Christians think of the resurrection, they think of a resurrection with a spiritual body and a rising up into the air. This is a resurrection to physical life and a restoration to the land of Israel. This resurrection involves bone, sinew, muscles, flesh, and breath.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it, says the LORD (vv. 13- 14).
Take special note. The Lord says, “I will put my Spirit in you.” Whatever this may finally mean, it holds out a possibility of a resurrection, bone to bone, skin to skin, flesh to flesh, breath to breath, and an opportunity for receiving the Holy Spirit, to those who are raised in this cohort. Can God do that? Is that fair? Is it right?
Well, God is sovereign. He can do whatever he wants to do. Putting it another way, whatever he does is right.
Again the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “As for you, son of man, take a stick for yourself and write on it: For Judah and for the children of Israel, his companions. Then take another stick and write on it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel, his companions. Then join them one to another for yourself into one stick, and they will become one in your hand. And when the children of your people speak to you, saying, ‘Will you not show us what you mean by these?;’” say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD: Surely I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel, his companions; and I will join them with it, with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they will be one in My hand. And the sticks on which you write will be in your hand before their eyes” (vv. 15-20).
If you didn’t know the history of Israel, how after the death of Solomon the kingdom was divided into two, the House of Israel and the House of Judah, you might not understand the import of this. The House of Israel had gone into captivity in Assyria many years before Judah went captive into Babylon, and was lost to history and never heard from again. But at the very end time, the time of the resurrection and the time of a restoration to the land of Israel, the House of Judah and the House of Israel will be reunited. But that suggests that the House of Israel, though seemingly lost, is a political entity at the time of the end. Nearly everyone knows where the House of Judah is. But where is the House of Israel as a separate political entity?
i. See Acts 15:1 ff.