Unity (June 18, 2023)

In Ezekiel 37:15-28, the prophet foretells the divided tribes of Israel being united again by God. What lessons can our modern church take from this passage?

Outlook Standard Lesson for June 18, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Ezekiel 37:15-28

As we continue our journey through the prophets, we are given different visions of the “Righteous Reign of God.” In last week’s lesson, we considered and reflected on the promise of God’s new creation in Isaiah. This week’s text focuses on God’s promise of restoration and unity for God’s people as depicted in Ezekiel.

From division to unity

Imagine a school with two principals, each with a different vision of education and learning. We can reasonably conclude that the effectiveness of the school would be greatly diminished. Is the church any different? Both in the context of many local congregations and on a broader scale, the church is divided — on theology, polity and politics, on mission and models of ministry. It’s hard to quantify how much this division diminishes the church’s effectiveness. (If we can even agree on what effective looks like.) It can leave us wondering: is there hope for the church and for the church’s witness?

God has something to say about unity through the prophet Ezekiel. In today’s text, God instructs Ezekiel to put two sticks together, symbolizing the rift among the 12 tribes of Israel. One stick represents the northern kingdom of Israel, and the other stick represents the southern kingdom of Judah (vs. 16-17). Why? God’s explanation paints a picture of reunification (v. 22). What was once broken is being mended. The unified kingdom will not be marked by the sins of idolatry and backsliding. It will be marked by cleansing and a relationship with God (v. 23). It will have a single ruler in the line of David fulfilling the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7). It will be a place where God’s laws are followed (v. 24). This is not a temporary situation, but a permanent one, where generations will live in the land forever, marked by God’s eternal covenant and presence (vs. 25-27). Furthermore, God’s purposes here extend beyond Israel. The unified kingdom will be a witness to the nations of God’s sanctifying presence among God’s people (v. 28).

Hope for the church’s unity

In biblical interpretation, it is important to carefully consider Scripture within its context. The focus of God’s promises here is the future of the nation of Israel. In this respect, we would not do justice to the text if we said that Ezekiel is simply speaking allegorically about the church. At the same time, the theological tenor of the passage has a richness that can speak hope to our present disunity.

We cannot read this text without noticing the overwhelming emphasis on God’s presence with God’s people (vs. 23, 26-28). When God rejoins the kingdoms of Israel, there is wholeness and peace marked by God’s own sanctuary among them. Unity and God’s presence are inexorably connected. Can we imagine, for a moment, a church unified in fellowship where God’s presence among God’s people is overwhelming? How might this transform our worship and mission? A mark of a healthy and unified church is the experience of God’s presence among them.

This text also reminds us that unity is God’s work. “I will make them into a single stick of wood … I will gather them … I will make them one nation … I will save them … I will cleanse them” (vs. 19, 21-23). Sometimes, we think that unity in the body of Christ is something we can manufacture if we have enough meetings and ecumenical councils or want it bad enough. Ezekiel gently reminds us that unity comes from the hand of God. Can we imagine a church committed to prayer for unity, waiting on God’s supernatural work to see it through?

The text further reminds us that unity is marked by true worship and an ethical grounding. A unified Israel will be marked by freedom from idolatry, backsliding and other sinful offenses (v. 23). As Christians, we hopefully aren’t worshiping any graven images. And yet, the lure of idolatry and sin is much more subtle than that. Perhaps we are worshiping power, status, money, greed, lust or materialism. All these things can lure our hearts away from the Lord and from our worship of the one true God. What would it look like if the body of Christ sought to be cleansed by the Lord so that it may follow God’s laws and live and worship righteously? What would it look like if we were unified in our worship and ethical witness?

Finally, the text points to a missional purpose for unity: “Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever” (v. 28). When the church is unified in its worship and witness and is marked by God’s presence, the watching world will take note.

Questions for discussion

  1. Will you commit to praying for unity?
  2. Where do you see God’s unifying work taking place in your congregation?

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