Ezekiel 36:24-29a (text); John 3:5-8
December 28, 2014 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Congregation of Christ: A recent survey of Americans published these statistics: 45 percent make New Year’s resolutions, but only 8 percent accomplish them—maybe; 47 percent make resolutions related to self-improvement or education, 38 percent related to weight, 34 percent related to money, and 31 percent related to relationships.1
These are not bad resolutions, but what is the focus of all these? It is self: “I will do this thing. And I will do that thing.” This Lord’s Day, I will not try to avoid the traditional sermon on New Year’s resolution. Like many other churches, we will focus on New Year’s resolutions. Most of these resolutions begin with the words, “I will.” But from our text in Ezekiel 36, who is speaking these “I wills”? It is the Lord himself who speaks and make resolutions or promises.
Ezekiel was a priest who was exiled to Babylon around 593 B.C. after the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom of Judah. His entire prophetic ministry lasted until 571 B.C., and was conducted during the Babylonian exile. Our text is part of his prophecy on how God will restore his own chosen people from the exile. It is this restoration and salvation that Israel hoped for after they suffered the punishment of the exile.
From eternity past before creation until time ceases when Christ returns, God has always kept his “resolutions,” which are his covenant promises. In contrast, the man that God created has always broken his “resolutions.” He is a covenant breaker from beginning to end.
Today, our theme is “The Promise Keeper’s New Year’s ‘Resolutions’” under three headings: (1) The Promise Keeper; (2) The Promise Breakers; and (3) The Promises Kept.
The Promise Keeper
From the beginning of time in the creation account in Genesis 1 all the way to our time, God has kept all his “resolutions,” which are his covenant promises.
All the way back to the Garden of Eden, God promised a Seed or Descendant of the woman Eve who would crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). To Abraham, God promised the same Seed, a multitude of descendants, and a land where his descendants would dwell. To Moses and his chosen nation Israel, the Lord made this promise at Mount Sinai, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exo 19:5-6).
To King David, the Lord revealed more details of his promises, this time, of his Son ruling an everlasting kingdom, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body… and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam 7:12-13). But several kings and centuries later, God keeping his “resolutions” promised to Adam, Abraham, Moses and David seemed bleak. Assyria and Babylon conquered the two divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah and exiled the people as slaves. How would the Lord now fulfill his “resolutions” to his chosen people when they are destroyed?
When everything seemed to be hopeless, the messengers of the Lord came and proclaimed good news, news of comfort for his people. Isaiah proclaimed, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Isa 40:1-2).
The Promise Breakers
Why did God send the Assyrians and Babylonians to destroy his people and expel them out of the Promised Land? Because the Israelites, like Adam, did not keep their “resolution.” They were always promise breakers. At Mount Sinai, God warned them, ““Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant…” (Exo 19:5). Before Joshua died, he also warned the people, “If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good” (Josh 24:20). The people always vowed to keep God’s laws, but they always quickly broke them.
Israel was typological of all mankind after Adam. God has “written the law on [man’s] hearts” (Rom 2:15) as our conscience, but we have always broken God’s laws. Why are we breakers of God’s law? King David knows why, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psa 51:5). All are by nature sinners, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God… no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12).
How did this naturally sinful state affect our relationship with God? Not only that not even one person understands or seeks God, but that all things concerning God and his Word are offensive and foolishness to all unbelievers (1 Cor 2:14; 1:23). Therefore, they are all promise breakers. Just look at the world around us. Paul says that unbelievers are “filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom 1:29-31). Do you think Paul is describing only people in the first-century Graeco-Roman world? Certainly not! Most people in our homes, malls, offices and stores fit this description like a glove. Paul even says that these people are proud advocates of their wicked deeds (Rom 1:32).
So when God looks at churches, he also sees these kinds of people. Because no one is able and willing to keep his promises and his “resolutions.” All mankind are very much unlike God, the Promise Keeper.
The Promises Kept
In our text, the Lord’s word to Ezekiel and to his exiled people is a series of “resolutions” or “I wills,” a total of 13 occurrences in our English Bibles. The first “I will” is in verse 25, where the Lord says he will cleanse his people, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.”
The law of Moses demands ceremonial cleansing with the sprinkling of blood, or sprinkling and washing with water (Lev 14:7, 52; Num 19:17-19). The people are to be cleansed from their uncleannesses, usually sin and idolatry. In the Old Testament, sprinkling of water or even blood is the outward, visible sign of an internal, invisible reality, the forgiveness of sins, of being washed and cleansed from inward uncleannesses. In this ceremonial purification, God performs a complete cleansing from sin, which is required for spiritual communion between God and his people.
Zechariah prophesies that there will be a day coming when God will purify the people, “On that day there shall be a fountain opened… to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (Zech 13:1). Isaiah also prophesies that the day will come when the Servant of the Lord shall “sprinkle many nations,” so that many people from all nations will be cleansed of their sin and uncleanness (Isa 52:15).
That day of the Lord was inaugurated when Christ came to save his people from sin. Zechariah’s fountain was Christ’s own blood poured out from his side that was pierced when he died on the cross. On that day, the Lord fulfilled his promise, “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” (Zech 12:10).
So Jesus says, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Being born of water and the Spirit means being cleansed of uncleannesses by being forgiven of sins. Therefore, the believer’s comfort in Christ is this: since we have been cleansed of our inward pollution, we can now—with confidence and without fear of God’s judgment—”draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb 10:22).
The second series of “I wills” is in verses 26-27, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” If cleansing by sprinkling is an external sign of the forgiveness of sins and purification, the giving of a new heart and a new spirit is the inward work involved in God’s redemptive work.
A new heart means that the mind, will and emotions—the total person—will be changed. Because they have a heart of stone—stubborn, rebellious, cold, unresponsive—they are not able to obey God’s law. Remember the first heart transplant? In 1967, Dr. Christian Barnard performed the first heart transplant in South Africa on a dying man.
God will do a heart transplant on his people—not physical like Dr. Barnard’s, but spiritual—“And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (v 26). Thus, their hearts will be soft, pliable, warm and responsive. Moses prophesied this event centuries before, when he gave instructions to Israel before they entered the Promised Land. When the Lord exiles them into foreign lands because of their rebellious and unfaithful hearts, “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6).
The second transformation is of a new spirit. While God will give them a new heart, he will put within them a new spirit (vv 26-27). This spirit is his own Spirit indwelling them, because man’s spirit has been corrupted by sin. In fact, Paul says that the unbeliever’s spirit is dead in sin (Eph 2:1).
His Spirit will enliven man’s heart to transform his desires, thoughts and motives. He will “cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (27). Thus, his people’s spirit of disobedience will be replaced with his own Holy Spirit. They have been forgiven of their sins, and this transformation will enable them to continue to walk in obedience to God.
The last series of “I wills” is the land promise found in verse 24: “I will take you from the nations / and gather you from all the countries / and bring you into your own land.”
Just as in the exodus from slavery in Egypt, the Lord will bring the exiles back from slavery in Babylon in a new exodus. When they came to Mount Sinai at the beginning of their pilgrimage to the Promised Land, the LORD promised they will live under God’s abundant blessings and prosperity in their own land (Deut 30:5; Ezek 36:29).
In the Promised Land, Israel enjoyed the fulfillment of all of God’s covenant promises to their father Abraham. But alas! The people and their leaders were covenant breakers, so God drove them out of the land. Therefore, God restored his covenant relationship with his people by sending his Son, the Word of God, to dwell among his people (John 1:14). Now Paul confirms that you, the church, is God’s temple, his people, and he is your God dwelling among you(2 Cor 6:16).
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: God has kept all his promises to our forefathers in the Old Testament. The Seed of the Woman in the Garden of Eden (Gal 4:4), the Seed of Abraham (Gal 3:16), the Royal Son of David (Luke 1:32-33) is Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God who came down from heaven to save his people from their sins. Abraham’s multitude of descendants and the chosen people are all of you here and in all nations who believe in Christ as Savior and Lord (Gal 3:29). And the Promised Land is the heavenly city that Abraham looked forward to even while he lived in tents in Canaan (Heb 11:9, 10, 16).
All of you who believe are given new hearts and indwelt by the Holy Spirit so you would repent and believe. From the day of Pentecost, God started pouring out his Spirit on all nations, and he will continue to do so until the “day of the Lord comes” (Acts 2:16-21). With this command written on your heart, it is impossible for you to not be faithful and obedient to him. With God’s Spirit dwelling in you, you are enabled to bear good fruits of the Spirit, for as Paul says, if you “walk by the Spirit… you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16).
At the dawn of this new year, let us be confident that God will keep all of his “resolutions” for you. Not one dot of his Word will ever be broken, for all his promises are guaranteed by his sovereign and almighty Word, “I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it” (Ezek 36:36).
When we are weak, he is our strong fortress. When we are tempted, he is our helper. When we are ridiculed and persecuted, he is our Rock, our hiding place. When we are weary in our pilgrimage in this world, he is our resting-place. When we struggle with all these things, we have a Mediator, an Advocate before the Father in heaven, Jesus Christ, who brings all our troubles to his heavenly throne of grace. How are we confident of these things? Because God, from the beginning to the end of time, has fulfilled all his covenant promises to his people.
And in the end, he will keep one more promise: the new heaven and new earth. This is where you, the victorious church, will dwell in peace and rest in eternity, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 21:3).
1 “Statistics on New Year’s Resolutions,” Preaching Today, December 2009, http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2009/december/7122109.html. Accessed Dec. 22, 2014.