Today I want to know your thoughts on something, because I have a question that I am not entirely sure I know how to answer. This morning I was reading through Ezekiel (and fyi, if you ever want a light, encouraging read, Ezekiel is not it), and if you’re not familiar with the book, it is basically a long string of severe judgments against Israel’s unfaithfulness. And I mean severe–it almost hurts me to read it. Over and over again God condemns their unfaithfulness and metes out terrible punishments for their actions. If you want a picture of God’s wrath, this is it–it’s seriously frightening.
But what I found to be interesting about this book is the way in which God concludes His descriptions of these awful judgments. He will describe these gruesome ways in which Israelites will suffer and die, and then He will say, “Then they will know that I am the LORD.”
I find this statement to be quite baffling. Israel is God’s chosen people, so they are the ones through whom God has promised to to bless the world. With that in mind, one would assume that the world will know God is Lord when He causes the Israelites to thrive, not suffer and die. After all, israel lived during a time when a deity’s power was judged by a nation’s prosperity, so if anything, Israel’s suffering would seem to indicate to the world around them that their God was not powerful enough to help them, or that they had no god at all. This statement that the world “would know He is Lord” by Israel’s hardship seems counter-intuitive.
What I think this statement is getting at is that the world will know God is Lord by his justice. God will not sit idly by and let His own people defile His temple and desecrate His name. Oh no, He will be swift to defend His glory. Any nation that crosses God will inevitably lose, and it is for that reasons that, through the punishment of Israel, we know He is truly Lord.
But here’s the question I am left wondering–would God ever do this to the Church? If God would punish Israel, His chosen people, so severely, and we are the New Israel, could a similar forsaking happen to us if the Church were to engage in widespread unfaithfulness? The book of Ezekiel is not written to individuals, but to a group of people, so instead of reading it as warnings against individuals, it seems that in order to be faithful to the context, we must read it as a warning directed agains a group, and more specifically, God’s chosen group, which in today’s context would be the Church.
There are several issues that make this question difficult to answer. The first is distinguishing between the Old Testament and the New Testament withouth making the Old Testament irrelevant. On the one hand, we are the new Israel, so we are the continuation of the promises God made to Abraham. On the other hand, the way God talks about “punishment” in the Old Testament and the New can be very different. In the OT, punishment almost exclusively refers to temporal punishment; in the NT, punishment almost exclusively refers to eternal punishment. What makes this distinction important is Christ–as Christians, Jesus has already suffered our punishment, so for God to punish us even more would indicate that Christ’s sacrifice is somehow incomplete. For this reason the NT speaks of “discipline” for Christians, but not punishment. And with that in mind it would be theologically problematic to read this passage as a warning against God “punishing” the Church, as opposed to disciplining the Church.
A second difficulty in interpreting this passage is how the Church’s identity as the Body of Christ plays in. On the one hand, the Church is composed of millions of fallen individuals, so churches make mistakes all the time that warrant discipline. But on the other hand we must be wary of referring to the Church as being itself fallen. The Body of Christ is not fallen, though members of the Body are. It would therefore seem possible to read this passage as a judgment against individual members of the Church, as opposed to the Church as a whole, unfortunately that is not the context of the passage. It is spreaking to a group, God’s chosen people–they are collectively responsible. To read this passage individualistically would more likely be a reflection of the fact that we don’t understand the concept of corporate sin than it would be an accurate interpretation of the Scripture.
So I am left wondering–how are we to read Ezekiel, and what implications does it have for the Church? I look at the Church in Europe and think that is a good example of what happens when we are unfaithful to God–perhaps God does not smite us, but He takes away our power and effectiveness. But even that conclusion seems to undermine God’s promise to work through the Church as one of His primary means of grace in the world. Then again, in the interest of defending His character, God must show the world that He will impart justice if the Church is doing injustice. Perhaps by severely disciplining the Church when we go astray, God will be declaring to the world that He truly is the Lord.
No matter how we read this passage, I think it serves as some sort of warning for us all, but the question is what kind of warning. Does wrath await the Church that forsakes God, or merely discipline? Would God nearly destroy the Church that is unfaithful for the sake of defending His justice, or do churches naturally die when they stop preaching the Gospel, so God’s wrath is unnecessary? How are we to read this passage in a way that is both faithful to its context and to ours? I am not entirely sure, so I would love to hear your thoughts…