Life and Breath Series – #5.
When our younger daughter was small, she contracted whooping cough. At one point, she had such difficulty breathing that I rushed her to a nearby emergency room.
People often wait hours in emergency rooms before seeing a doctor. That day, as soon as we walked in the door, we were whisked to a room, where Amanda received oxygen and immediate medical treatment.
When someone can’t breathe, it’s time to act. Often, however, the person with the problem cannot initiate action. Strength gone, alertness gone, panic or unconsciousness may have set in. Someone nearby who sees the need must act if the breathless is to breathe again.
Someone nearby who sees
Both the prophet Ezekiel and the apostle John saw people without breath. (See “Breathing problems.”) Both saw, because God alerted them. In each case, the problem was spiritual, making it even more critical.
Ezekiel saw all around him people of God scattered as dry bones across a great valley. John saw God’s people all across a certain city. Though they appeared alive, God pronounced them dead.
In both situations, it seemed death had won. But God alerted Ezekiel and John to desperate need, in order to impart life and to make himself known to his own.
In both cases, God called first responders who themselves had spiritual life. Each saw what God showed him. Neither looked away. Each did what God told him, regardless how foolish or futile it might seem.
Do you see spiritual dryness anywhere you should see the life of Christ?
If you don’t see breathlessness in anyone around you, that does not mean everything’s okay. We in the US church culture have some acute breathing problems. An inability to see the spiritual distress in people near you may signal that you need to have your own oxygen mask firmly in place, before you can help anyone else. You may want to revisit the previous posts in the Life and Breath series.
For all of us, spiritual vigor and insight come as we are being filled with the Spirit and walk by the Spirit – deeply and continually receiving and releasing God’s life.
Once you wake up to lifelessness, powerlessness and hopelessness in people near you who identify themselves as God’s, it’s like seeing a person start choking on his or her food. Your Lord has opened your eyes to a dire situation. He’s calling you to act.
Someone awakened who speaks
In such a situation, what in the world do you do? In a sentence: You listen for God’s instructions and do what he says.
In different eras, when God alerted Ezekiel and John to the dire need of breathless people nearby, he specified different methods, yet told each to do the same thing: Speak up. Cry out.
God the Son told John to write. Indeed, when the risen Christ appeared to John on the isle of Patmos, John heard these words trumpeted first: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” (Rev. 1:11). After identifying himself as “the Living One,” Jesus reiterated, “Write, therefore, what you have seen …” (Rev. 1:19). When Jesus introduced his message to the breathless church, as to all the other six, he repeated the same command: “To the angel of the church in Sardis write” (Rev. 3:1).
God the Spirit told Ezekiel to speak aloud. After leading Ezekiel through a valley filled with dry bones and while Ezekiel still stood in the midst, God said, “Prophesy to these bones” (Ezek. 37:4). As soon as Ezekiel did so, the Lord told him, “Prophesy to the breath” (Ezek. 37:9).
God could have delivered his own messages to the Israelites of Ezekiel’s day and the Sardis church of John’s. Yet in both situations, our Lord counted it vital that his cry to the breathless be echoed and declared by a living, breathing person.
He still counts it vital today.
An astonished John stood, in the Spirit, before the magnificent, risen Christ. John saw Jesus walking among seven lampstands, holding seven stars. Jesus told John the lampstands were “the seven churches,” and the stars, “the angels of the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20).
Jesus gave John a different message for each church. To Sardis, he declared:
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! (Rev. 3:1-2).
Thus, he who “was dead, and now … [is] alive for ever and ever”:
Identified himself. Jesus had already explained the seven stars. But what did he mean when he told the Sardis church he “holds the seven spirits of God”?
The Amplified Bible suggests that he spoke of “the sevenfold Holy Spirit” (Rev. 3:1). Perhaps Jesus referred to the sevenfold description of the Spirit in Isaiah 11:2:
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord (NASU).
The same Spirit who rested on Jesus and empowered his earthly mission indwells all who know Christ, quickening and filling our human spirits. Sylvia Gunter and her daughter Elizabeth explore an intriguing sevenfold aspect of this Spirit-to-spirit interaction in retreats called Ruach Journey (ruach is Hebrew for spirit). The Holy Spirit enlarges our spirits so we can more fully receive and release the seven gifts named in Romans 12: prophecy, serving, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, mercy. The Spirit ignites the one primary spiritual gift each of us has been given, as he also develops within us the other six gifts.
In Scripture, seven is the number of completeness. Like the Father and the Son, God the Spirit carries “all the fullness of the Deity.” Further, the Father, Son and Spirit work together to bring us to fullness (Col. 2:9).
Remember, too, the Greek word for spirit literally means “breath.” Pointedly, Jesus identified himself to a dead church as the one who alone gives fullness of Breath. He is the Living One who quickens and revives.
Identified the people’s problem. Without mincing words, Jesus exposed their dire need.
Called them to act. In the final post in this series, “God’s cry to the breathless,” we’ll look further at what Jesus told the believers in Sardis to do to breathe again. For now, realize: Jesus entrusted his cry to a person. For any number of reasons, that person might have balked at writing what Jesus said.
John may have considered harsh or extreme Jesus’ pronouncement that the church was dead. John may have worried the Sardis Christians would become angry or reject him if he shouted, “Wake up!” to those who counted themselves alive and alert. John may have felt that people who had chosen such a path would not change course now.
Regardless whether the Sardis Christians responded, the same Lord who showed John their breathless state held John accountable to sound the warning and to tell them the way back to life.
Prophesy to the bones
In an even earlier era, Ezekiel stood in a valley full of very dry bones. There, the Lord told Ezekiel:
Prophesy to these bones and say to them, “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord” (Ezek. 37:4-6).
Imagine yourself in Ezekiel’s place. As far as the eye can see, you’re surrounded by bones. No living people. Not even a dead body in sight. You know the cause of this catastrophe: God’s people have stiff-armed the Spirit for generations.
After showing you this grim scene, God tells you to speak … to bones. He tells you to call them what they are: “Dry bones.” But the rest of his message isn’t one of judgment. Nor is it a cry to the scattered and broken to “get up and get moving.” From first to last, it’s a message of promise – God’s promise to restore and revive his hopeless, lifeless people: “I will make breath enter you … I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you …”
What a promise! The breath of God will give you life. The Lord will breathe into his breathless people, and they will again know him by his personal, covenant Name. They will reawaken to profound Spirit-to-spirit intimacy and deep reverential awe.
Standing in that valley, what do you do? Do you decide the whole thing is just too weird? The assignment, futile? Do you balk at speaking life to the consummately stubborn, now reaping what they’ve sown? Do you cringe at the thought of calling God’s people, “dry bones,” to their face?
Standing in that valley, Ezekiel obeyed God. The results were immediate and stunning.
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them (Ezek. 37:7-8).
As Ezekiel spoke, the miraculous happened. All across that valley, dry bones were reconnected and covered with muscles, tissue, skin. Before Ezekiel’s eyes, the dry bones were transformed … into dead bodies.
God had begun what he had declared. Yet still, the people lacked the one thing the Lord had promised first and last, the one thing essential to life: his Breath.
Prophesy to the breath
If you think speaking to bones is weird, imagine being told to speak … to breath.
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army (Ezek. 37:9-10).
When Ezekiel found himself surrounded by people utterly “dried up,” he didn’t condemn them. He didn’t give up on them. He did see and say what they had become. He challenged them to hear the word of God. He cried for them to receive the breath of God. Then, he cried for the breath to come.
As a result, the Spirit of the Lord swept in, raising dry bones to new life. As incredible as that is, there’s more! With his life, God imparted to his people new wholeness, new purpose, new unity and new (and exceedingly great) strength.
God’s call to first responders
Again today – as the Spirit of God moves across the world, but the Western church languishes – God is raising up first responders in our midst. He calls:
Breathe! Learn what it means to live before your God, Spirit-to-spirit. Moment by moment, make sure you yourself are deeply inhaling and freely exhaling.
Watch! Don’t judge by what your eyes see. Let your Lord show you where the life is being sucked out of his people. Let him reveal where the outward appearance differs dramatically from the inward truth. Look where he points. When what you see disturbs you, refuse to look away.
Trust! Wait for the Lord to make clear what to do about what you see. When God wants you to take action quickly, he will not leave you guessing what it is. If he calls you to deliver a wake-up cry, he will make clear to whom to speak, how to deliver the message and what to say. It’s crucial that your heart echo God’s heart before any words come out of your mouth. Finger-pointing and judging are different things entirely from crying out to save someone’s life.
Speak! Declare the living, life-giving words of the living, life-giving God to people who need to hear them. Speak up, at God’s call, even if you think there’s about as much chance of people’s responding as of dry bones coming to life. But don’t stop there. Speak to the Spirit. Call to the Breath. Cry out for him to come.
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Breath of God – the essence of all six Life and Breath blog posts in one article, with links to all the rest. Breathe deeply, beloved of God.