The Testimony of Resurrection
by Harry Foster
(Published in "A Witness and A Testimony" magazine, 1957)
And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, O my people. 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, when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. Ezek. 37:13; 36:23.
Reading: Ezekiel 37.
The Spirit's purpose is to glorify the Name of the Lord among all the nations. He plans to do this through the people of God. But the people of God can never be His true witnesses until they themselves have had a mighty experience of His power in their own lives - an experience that is nothing less than a resurrection from the dead, and therefore something that is wholly of Himself. "You shall know..." - that is the first requirement; "and the nations will know..." - that is the end in view. Our testimony is to be a testimony of resurrection Life.
The Spirit's Problem
Ezekiel's vision was a revelation of the true state of natural man. It is with this unpromising material that the Spirit undertakes to raise up a testimony to the mighty Name of the Lord. The prophet's first reaction must have been to wonder how ever this valley of dry bones came about. Was it the result of some dreadful catastrophe? Had some extraordinary pestilence killed the people? Had there been a great battle and a singularly tragic defeat? The answer was: No, none of these things. This was just natural man as God sees him. This is nothing unusual: tragic, yes, but common enough - as common as human nature. The hand of the Lord was on Ezekiel, and he was seeing things as God sees them. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Light and of Truth. And it is He who makes clear by this graphic vision that the true spiritual state of men - all men - is as of dry and scattered bones.
Realisation of the Fact
God had, of course, told Adam that this would happen: "...in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). Just because Adam did not at once fall down dead, many people who read that Scripture cannot credit it. But spiritual death is not so easily observed. It may be that Adam appreciated something of the tragedy which had happened inside him, but, even if he did, the awareness probably passed as the days went by. The race multiplied. They seemed far from dead - indeed very much alive. But beneath the surface, they were now - spiritually - a dead race, and their world nothing better than a valley of dry bones. It is true that from time to time, by the grace of God, men were raised from that death, and walked in blessed fellowship with God. Spiritually these were resurrection men. But the vast mass of people never knew this life; they lay like dried-out bones scattered in an open valley. And one feature of their death was, as it still is today, that they had no consciousness of it.
Now, at last, the realisation had dawned upon them. At long last the people of Israel had come to appreciate their true condition. "Behold, says the Lord, they say, Our bones are dried up" (v. 11). It was this which made Ezekiel a prophet of hope. This is the reason why this particular chapter introduces an altogether new prospect of glory. It is a most hopeful sign when a man or a people begin to see themselves as God sees them. For it was not that they had only just died. Even their captivity was not the beginning of their death; it had but served to emphasize a longstanding condition - the spiritual deadness of which the prophets had complained for so long.
Ezekiel's is the third of the great written prophetic ministries. Isaiah and Jeremiah had preceded him, and the period spanned by their three ministries was considerable. Isaiah, from the beginning of his service, had been in no doubt as to the bad spiritual condition of the people. It was he who spoke of man's total sickness, his wounds and bruises and putrifying sores (Is. 1:5,6), and it was he who in the presence of the Divine glory cried out that he and the people around him were unclean and undone (6:5). By Jeremiah's time the sad spiritual death was far more apparent, though the people themselves would never admit it. They tried to cover their dry bones with the cloaks of religion and ceremony. They could not understand Jeremiah's dismal calls to repentance. 'Repentance, indeed!', they said - when they took such pride in their temple and spent so much on their frankincense from Sheba and their sweet cane from a far country (Jer. 6:20)! This is one of man's commonest subterfuges, this attempt to cover up spiritual death with religion. "Whitewashed tombs" were the words which the Lord Jesus used (Matt. 23:27). What it amounts to is that men were denying that they were really corrupt, insisting that they were not so bad as all that. It is striking that there is not one mention of the Holy Spirit in all the long fifty-two chapters of Jeremiah. The reason is plain enough. Wherever there are those who claim self-righteousness, who refuse to acknowledge their utter deadness as before God, there is no place for the Spirit; for the life which He offers us is resurrection Life - that and no other.
Uselessness to God
This, then, is the natural man. Call him an Israelite, if you will, or call him a Christian; but whatever you call him, it will not make any difference to the valley of dry bones. This, mark you, was the people that had been called to serve the Lord among the nations. It would be difficult to find anything more expressive of absolute uselessness than these scattered bones. The first vision which Ezekiel had was very different indeed. It spoke of life and purpose, of mighty, living instruments for the fulfilling of the will of God. It was the vision of the Enthroned Man in Heaven, directing glorious, living embodiments of the character of God; of wheels of purpose with eyes of understanding and perception; of direct, irresistible movement - wings and wheels, and wheels within wheels, whirring on with a sound like mighty waters; and round it all the rainbow of hope (Ezek. 1). That is how things ought to be - how they are when the Spirit of Life is in charge.
Now this later vision came down to the sad reality of things as they were: from the vital glory of the Heavenly Man to the dead despair of the natural man. It is not unlike the contrast between the early believers and the church of our day. The first chapter of Ezekiel finds its counterpart in the first chapters of the book of the Acts: they set forth the mighty effectiveness for God of those who live in the power of resurrection. Alas, that the vision has now turned to this later one of Ezekiel 37, and the purposes of God seem to be entrusted to those who are of no more use to Him than the dry bones of the valley. No wonder Ezekiel would not commit himself when asked by the Lord whether he thought there was any hope for such a situation. No wonder that he answered the question with - "O Lord God, You know!" (v. 3). How can dry bones testify to the great Name of the Lord among the nations? How indeed?
Signs of Spiritual Death
Emphasis is laid on the fact that the bones were dry - "very dry" (v. 2). Their form may have been correct, their shapes just as they should be according to the textbooks, but they had no vitality. It was not just that they felt dry - we often feel like that - but that their effect on others was lifeless. This is a very thirsty world, and the pity is that often believers are too dry to meet its needs. Very dry, these bones were; and if, even for a moment, we cease to abide in Christ, the same is true of us. The challenge catches us unprepared. Just when we encounter thirsty hearts and would wish to convey to them some spontaneous outflowing of the water of Life, we ourselves are dry. Such moments pass. The opportunity is soon gone. Had they met Christ in us, they would have met Life; but, as they only meet what we are naturally, they find only dry bones.
The bones were also scattered. They were not a number of skeletons, though that would have been bad enough; the situation was worse than that - they were scattered, disconnected bones. Now the purpose of a bone is only served by reason of its relationship with other bones. However much sinew, muscle and flesh you may be able to build up around a bone, there can be no vital functioning until that bone is properly linked up with its fellows. It has to be subordinate to the others. Even the large bones depend on small ones. It also finds its strength and support from such relatedness. That is how God's people are meant to be, vitally integrated, submitting to one another and supporting one another. Unless and until that happens there is no opportunity for the mighty Spirit of Life to express Himself through them.
Moreover the bones were static, immobile; they were so to speak becalmed, shut up in a valley. As soon as we move into the purposes of God, the effective Word is not 'valley' but 'mountain'. The visions of God take us to a "very high mountain" (Ezek. 40:2). As soon as these were changed from dry bones into a living people, it was said of them, "I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel" (37:22). There are mountains of purpose, mountains of opportunity, mountains of blessing, mountains of glory. But dry bones cannot reach the mountains. They are powerless to rise out of their low-level valleys.
This, then, represented the Spirit's problem. "Can these bones live?" It is an up-to-date problem. It is the problem of how what we are by nature can become what we ought to be in the will of God.
The Spirit's Answer
The Spirit has, of course, an answer to this problem. It is the answer of resurrection. But we must never be glib or superficial in our consideration of the power of Pentecost. For the task which the Spirit has taken in hand - nothing less than that of changing a valley of dry bones into a living effective instrument of the will of God - is truly stupendous.
In the work of God there is no alternative to the Holy Spirit. Men invent alternatives, and try to run the work of God by means of them, but the result is doomed to failure. Organization is often used as a substitute for the Holy Spirit. Now, organization may have its place; indeed, the term "an exceeding great army" (v. 10) indicates that there had to be arrangement and discipline. Let us note, however, that they were not organized into Life. That cannot be done. The bones could have been gathered together, arranged, grouped, classified, man-handled, but they would still have been bones. And they would still have been "very dry". We cannot manipulate or fuss people into spiritual life or growth; it must take place by resurrection Life from within.
Not infrequently instruction and teaching are used as alternatives to the Holy Spirit's inward working of Life. There was all the difference in the world between Ezekiel's words of prophecy (verses 4-10) and human attempts to reason or persuade. Teaching would have been wasted on dry bones, though it would doubtless be very helpful once they were quickened into life. No, instruction or mental enlightenment is no substitute for resurrection Life.
The same is true of every effort which is only human, however well-intentioned it may be. Enthusiasm, exhortation, confessions, even praying; all this, although right enough in its place, is pitifully inadequate to meet this great challenge of spiritual death. The 'noise', or 'thundering' (v. 7, mg.), which followed Ezekiel's prophesying was not the sound of human effort or zeal, but the sign of God's moving in response to his words. (Compare Psalm 18:7,13.)
Inward Life an Act of God
In God's first speaking about this mighty change, He passed over all the preliminaries of the sinews and the flesh and the skin, coming straight to the essential matter: "Behold, I will cause spirit to enter into you, and you shall live" (v. 5). That is what God will do - what He alone can do: He will put new life within by the breath of His Spirit. There was a double element about Ezekiel's ministry: he prophesied twice - first to the dry bones and then to the Spirit of God. It pertains to the true ministry of a prophet to pray as well as to preach, and to do both so effectually that, by an inward Divine miracle, the issue is Life from the dead.
Some may ask why, in spite of all their prayer and study of the Word, they still lack this mighty answer of Life. May not the answer be that the Lord Himself has to wait until there is, literally, no other hope? Those who still have some hope in themselves, or who are trying to bring over some vestige of the old nature into the new realm, are obviously delaying the full work of the Spirit, which must be on resurrection ground. If a man refuses to identify himself as the driest of the dry bones, or if a group cannot concede that before God this valley vision truly describes their state, then they cannot complain if the positive side of the vision also eludes them. The two go together. The 'answer of death in ourselves' (2 Cor. 1:9) gives the Spirit the opportunity to provide the answer of life, resurrection Life, in Christ.
The Spirit's Instrument
We need to consider the prophet himself more closely, for it is clear that he played an important part in this mighty resurrection movement. He could not have had less promising material, yet he experienced, as few other preachers of the Word can have done, the amazing effect of the power of the Word of God. Nevertheless, it was not done apart from Ezekiel and from his own personal experiences with God; he had a resurrection ministry because he was a resurrection man.
This means that he had been weakened in himself, smitten, as it were slain. Indeed, that is the word used of the dry bones: "O breath, breathe upon these slain" (v. 9). Only those who have very real experiences of death with Christ can expect to know the true power of His resurrection.
He had been brought low by meeting the glory of God. "And when I saw it, I fell upon my face" (Ezek. 1:28). It was from that place of absolute emptying of all merit or strength that he was raised up for his ministry. "And the spirit entered into me... and set me upon my feet" (2:2). Such complete and conscious natural emptiness, and altogether Divine raising up, are essential for a ministry of the Spirit in power. He was also brought very low by the sufferings of his ministry. He was not an unbroken man preaching down at the people from the heights of his own superiority, but was himself a sign of the words he spoke; he had to go through all the painful experiences himself before he could minister about them. Moreover he suffered in his private life. It is amazing how the Lord makes use of His servants' home life and domestic affairs to bring them into new experiences of their need of Him. Ezekiel lost his wife (24:16-18), and in that loss had a further experience of the Cross working in him. He must have suffered greatly by being kept dumb (3:26; cf. 24:27; 33:22). He who so burned to proclaim the message was forbidden to preach for a time. His eloquence was a byword among the people; he was the most popular orator of his day. From far and wide the people invited one another to come and hear the beautiful words of this golden-mouthed speaker (33:30). "Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument" (v. 32). It could have been no easy matter for such a man to refrain from preaching.
This all fits into a pattern. Whether in his communion with God, his home, his ministry, his ambitions or his joys, he became a man who from a human point of view was frustrated, disappointed, emptied out, cast down to the depths. But in this lay the secret of his powerful ministry. In all this he first proved for himself the mighty power of resurrection, and then became the mouthpiece and minister of that same power.
The Spirit's Objective
Why should the Lord handle His servant so roughly? Only because of the ministry to be released through him. And why should He deal with His people as He did with Israel: why bring them so low, and indeed, since they were so unworthy, why trouble about them at all? The answer is that He had the world in view. He wanted the nations to know the power and glory of His great Name, and He intended to use Israel as His witnesses to them. He intended thus to work mightily in them, not for their own good or comfort merely, but to provide a universal testimony to the greatness both of His grace and of His power. "And the nations shall know..." (36:23). That is always the end which the Lord has in view when dealing with His own.
How could the nations know? Only by Israel themselves first knowing: "And you shall know..." (37:6,13). This is not head knowledge; it is nothing superficial. The vision has shown us how deep and radical is such an experience of 'knowing' the Lord. And the Lord's principles have not changed. They are as true for us as they were for those in Ezekiel's day. There is to be a testimony to the Lord's Name in the fulness of the Spirit in us, but it can only be as we first know for ourselves the working of the mighty power of resurrection... The true testimony in the Spirit's fulness is essentially a testimony of "the power of His resurrection".
"...That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death..." (Phil. 3:10).