Ezekiel 36:22-27, NASB, 1995 update
22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went.
23 “I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight.
24 “For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land.
25 “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.
26 “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
27 “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
I often find myself returning to Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus, “a teacher of Israel,” in the dead of the night. Their responses to each other sometimes seem to be non sequitors, it takes some effort to see how their dialogue can be coherent. Besides the abruptness of their dialogue, Jesus’ statements also raise many questions. For example, Jesus asserts abruptly, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Does that mean that those who are born of the Spirit undergo an ontological change? Paul clearly speaks of a need for an ontological change to enter the kingdom of God when he says emphatically, “Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:50). It is ontologically impossible for flesh and blood to enter the kingdom of God. But, Paul is writing about that great transformation that will occur on the last day when the dead shall be raised to receive their glorified bodies and the living will be changed in the twinkling of an eye. Jesus is not talking about the end but a necessary condition even to see the meaning of Jesus’ signs now, a claim Nicodemus made for himself when he approached Jesus but was contradicted soundly.
If we do believe an ontological change happens when we are born from above, born anew, do we then believe that Christians become tripartite having spirit, soul and body while other humans are a duality, lacking the spirit by which we are able to see things with the eyes of the heart they can’t? Or, is thinking of this as an ontological change an entirely wrong-headed way of approaching Jesus’ statement?
I do not plan to discuss John 3:6 further; I’ve just used it to illustrate the many questions that occur to me as I read Jesus’ entire interaction with Nicodemus. My interest is in the previous verse, John 3:5, “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.'” And later Jesus chides Nicodemus for not understanding Him, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?'” (John 3:10) Jesus’ latter statement is very important. Commentators have come up with creative interpretations for the necessity of being “born of water,” including the waters of baptism, sperm, and amniotic fluid. Yet Jesus’ appeal to Nicodemus’s status as a “teacher of Israel” make it much more likely that these words contain an allusion to Scripture, something that Nicodemus would know, something the he had specialized in. The great promise of the restoration of Israel in Ezekiel 36 fits Jesus’ allusion best, a promise in which God, the LORD, promises to sprinkle clean water on Israel and put His Spirit within them. Water and Spirit, just as in John 3:5, that must be it. Surely Nicodemus could be chided for not recognizing the fulfillment of this great prophecy.
Paul quotes Ezekiel 36:23 when he finally appeals to Scripture to marshal his evidence to support his indictment of the Jews in Romans 2, esp. v. 24. (See my previous blog post, “When Does Paul Prove His Indictment Against Those Who Judge in Romans 2?”) The Jews remain under the domination of a foreign power, many of them live in the Diaspora; they are still under exile, profaning the name of God among the Gentiles, showing Him to be powerless, unwise, and unwilling to fight for His honor.
The entire passage is glorious, but my attention was recently drawn to the last sentence of verse 23 and the four verses that follow it beginning with verse 24. Some of this is the artifice of the English translators trying to make the relationship between these two sections explicit, but I think they did capture the flow of thought in the passage correctly.
In the NASB the last sentence of verse 23 says, “‘Then the nations will know that I am the LORD,’ declares the LORD GOD, when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight.'” Note that the LORD says “among you.” This contains a terrible indictment against the Jews; the LORD’s name is profaned among the Gentiles because the Jews have not treated Him as holy. The LORD will make Himself known as LORD, the one true God, among the Gentiles not by consecrating Himself among them but by making the Jews treat Him as holy. He will consecrate Himself among His own people exclusively, thus making Himself to be known as the only God universally.
Verse 24 in the NASB begins with a “for” indicating that the verses following offer an explanation for verse 23. The following verses describe the actions the LORD will take to prove Himself holy among His people, that is to guarantee that His called people will treat Him as holy:
First, verse 24, He will gather them together, eliminating the reproach that has fallen upon His people and their LORD.
Second, verse 25, He will cleanse them from the defilement of idolatry and other sins. They will stand perfectly clean before Him.
Third, verse 26, He will change the general bent of their desires, giving them a new heart, a new will. Instead of being grumblers and complainers, stiff-necked and forgetful, ready to disobey, distrusting the LORD GOD Almighty, their wills will bend toward His. As Isaiah says so beautifully, “they will tremble at the word of God.”
Four, verse 27, He will make His own Spirit dwell within each one of His people as He had made Him dwell in the great men of faith in Scripture, prophets and kings. And, His Spirit will ensure that His people will obey His will, so that He will never again have reason to send them off into exile.
I should have included verse 28 when I first selected this passage to write about because it is obviously the climactic verse: the LORD’s most important covenant promise will come to fruition, “you will be My people, and I will be your God” (v. 28) Fellowship with God! Some day it will be even greater than the fellowship Adam could have had with God because of our Mediator, fully God and fully man. There will not be the distance between the finite and the infinite; that has been taken care of in the incarnation of the Son of God.
Now the obvious question has to arise how this works with Jews and Gentiles today. Isn’t this promise made explicitly to Jews and not Gentiles? Various answers depend to a large extent on one’s eschatology, that is, one’s view of the end times, a subject I am not an expert on. However, it is telling that Jesus reasserts in the very next chapter of John’s gospel, “salvation is from the Jews.” In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells the apostles that after Pentecost they will be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and then the remotest part of the earth. The LORD did prove Himself to be holy among Jews first.
There’s far more to be said about this subject, but that goes way beyond the scope of this blog post.