Vision

In Paul's second letter to Timothy he writes, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man [and woman] of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16-17) My prayer for this ministry is that by rightly dividing the Scriptures, I might be able to facilitate all those aspects of the Scriptures to the benefit of all those who visit this website.

Mission

The mission of this ministry is to be consistent with Jesus' original command to his disciples: "Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'" Matthew 28:18-20

Personal Disclosure

I am a fellow traveler who doesn't have all the answers and still makes many mistakes. However, I am desperately in love with Jesus Christ, the one and only King of kings, and I am so amazed that he knows exactly who I am and yet still died on the cross for me, then rose from the dead and called me to be His follower!

God's Message To You

"Dear Child,

I wanted you to know just how much I loved you so I sent my only Son, Jesus, to tell you and show you. If you make the decision to believe in Him, then you and I will be able to spend eternity together! I Love You!" (John 3:16 paraphrase)

Method

“Here there is no unanchored liberalism—freedom to think without commitment.

Here there is no encrusted dogmatism—commitment without freedom to think.

Here is vibrant evangelicalism—freedom to think within the bounds laid down by Scripture.”

Dr. Vernon Grounds

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Useless Branches


(Audio Version; Music: "Here v3" (Jobe, Leonard, Jordan), "From The Inside Out" (J. Houston)--WorshipMob HD Cover)


Introduction

            “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”—Thomas Jefferson

            So often we take our liberties for granted here in America. Thomas Jefferson also said he couldn’t imagine a country could go more than 20 years before that tree had to be watered. Our founding fathers, in addition to being a brilliant assortment of men, had a keen understanding about the sinful nature of humanity. Unfortunately, one of the many ugly by-products of sin in all times and in all cultures is tyranny. In some countries tyranny reigns because the government dictates power to the people under its charge by force. It can be an awful existence for the people, especially for Christians in countries where Christianity is prohibited. In many countries in the world, Christians don’t have the liberty to worship freely without severe persecution and even the threat of death. Here in America, however, we have a habit of doing things differently. Here in America we freely give up our liberties at the ballot box all with the help of Christians. Let me give you an example: The residents of the Houston, Texas recently elected an openly practicing lesbian Mayor. Not long thereafter, the city adopted new legislation that allowed transgenders (For those of you who aren’t familiar with that term, a transgender male believes he is a female and a transgender female believes she is a male.) access to public restrooms of the opposite sex. Some pastors in the area have spoken out against the enforcement of the legislation. In response to these pastors, the Mayor had her henchmen subpoena the sermons of all these pastors in an effort to determine what they were preaching from the pulpit. It was a clear attempt by the Mayor to send a message to area pastors specifically and Christians generally that they had better fall in line or else. You might think that this behavior would be an affront to all Americans and especially Christians here in America but sadly it’s not. In fact, many Christians, whole denominations in fact, have embraced homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle contrary to all sound biblical teaching. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Christians participate in electing officials that enact legislation in contravention to God’s word—not just as it relates to homosexuality but to countless other matters that eventually have a direct impact on Christian liberties. Christians are complicit in the election of some of the most ungodly leaders one could ever imagine. Not just Mayors of large and small cities but even officials of the highest offices in the land. Often then, Christians decry the losses of their religious liberties that inevitably ensue. Many parts of the body of Christ here in America are sick and dying. I worry about the Church here in America. So many have wandered so far from biblical truth I doubt they would recognize it if it were standing right in front of them. It’s like they’ve lost their way; like they have no idea what’s right and what’s wrong anymore. I believe Christians in America are at a dangerous crossroad right now. They’ve cut themselves off from God’s truth in Jesus Christ to their own peril. Jesus said that He was the vine and we are the branches and apart from Him we could do nothing. Jesus said that branches cut off from the vine were good for nothing but to be thrown into the fire—just Useless Branches. Like some Christians today, Israel lost its way and was unfaithful to God. Like Christians during the New Testament era, God intended Israel during the Old Testament era to be a signpost pointing the nations to God through their faithfulness, holiness, and righteousness. But when they abandoned their calling, God said they had become nothing more than a useless vine destined for the fire.

Subject Text

Ezekiel 15:1-8

            1The word of the LORD came to me: 2“Son of man, how is the wood of a vine better than that of a branch on any of the trees in the forest? 3Is wood ever taken from it to make anything useful? Do they make pegs from it to hang things on? 4And after it is thrown on the fire as fuel and the fire burns both ends and chars the middle, is it then useful for anything? 5If it was not useful for anything when it was whole, how much less can it be made into something useful when the fire has burned it and it is charred? 6Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: As I have given the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest as fuel for the fire, so will I treat the people living in Jerusalem. 7I will set my face against them. Although they have come out of the fire, the fire will yet consume them. And when I set my face against them, you will know that I am the LORD. 8I will make the land desolate because they have been unfaithful, declares the Sovereign LORD.”

Context

            Ezekiel was an Old Testament prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah. He was a younger contemporary to Jeremiah. Our Subject Text contains a dire prophecy about Israel’s future. Let’s take a look at a bit of history to get a better understanding of what was going on during Ezekiel’s ministry. The Book of Ezekiel was written around 571 BC. The 6th century BC was a tumultuous and bloody time for Israel and Ezekiel was a first-hand witness to the devastation of Israel. Unfortunately for Ezekiel, he found himself ministering to Judah in the midst of the Babylonian onslaught. King Nebuchadnezzar extended the Babylonian empire’s control west and invaded Judah in 605 BC. From there, Nebuchadnezzer set his sights on Israel. In 597 BC Ezekiel was taken captive and exiled to Babylon along with many of the Jews. A few short years later, in 593 BC, Ezekiel had his first prophetic vision during the fifth year of what is known as the Babylonian exile. In 588 BC Ezekiel predicted the fall of Jerusalem and in 586 BC Nebuchadnezzer burned the temple and every other major structure in Jerusalem to the ground. For 22 years Ezekiel was street preacher in Babylon telling anyone who would listen not just about God’s judgment but also about God’s salvation. Ezekiel’s number one goal; the thing God called him to accomplish was to shine a bright light on Israel’s unfaithfulness and call them to repent and obey. Ezekiel’s ministry was to guide Israel back to faithfulness in spite of their exile. Remember this: Faithfulness to God did not require liberty from Babylonian captivity.

Text Analysis

1The word of the LORD came to me: 2“Son of man, how is the wood of a vine better than that of a branch on any of the trees in the forest?

            Before I go too far into trying to explain v. 1-2 of our Subject Text, I want you to see something that is the key for all ministers of God’s Word—it comes from God. One of the biggest traps for pastors in all ages is wandering away from God’s Word into the murky waters of personal opinion. In seminary we were taught to hold on tight to what God says is right and true and what God says we should do and hold on loosely to what we think is right and true and what we think people should do. Ezekiel wants to make clear in v. 1 that what he is about to say comes directly from God. V. 2, however, is less clear. V. 2 is the first in a series of questions at the beginning of our Subject Text that create a trajectory for God’s instruction given to Israel through Ezekiel. We think the answer to v. 2 is easy but only because we know the rest of the verses. But what if you didn’t. What if you didn’t know the whole story of Ezekiel and Israel and I were to ask you, ‘How is the wood of a vine better than that of a branch on any of the trees in the forest?’ You might not know or you might say there’s no difference or you might say, ‘That depends on what its intended use is.’ That last response seems right to me because it takes both of the other two responses into consideration. However, what if the vine can’t or won’t serve its intended purpose? Well then the answer is pretty simple isn’t it? There is no difference between the two and that seems to be the point of the question isn’t it? Israel had a specific purpose but they refused to fulfill that purpose. The vine represents Israel and the branches of the trees in the forest represent the other nations of the world. Israel was supposed to be different; a holy nation set aside as a symbol of God’s righteousness. Israel was supposed to be an example for the way the nations were supposed to live, relate to, and worship God. Instead, they became just as unfaithful and corrupt as the surrounding nations. As a result the vine has become no different than the branches of the trees in the forest. “Ezekiel’s use of this parable was an answer to those who thought that the vine, that is Israel, was sacred and indestructible. The only purpose of a grapevine is to produce grapes. Otherwise it is useless except as the fuel to burn. Israel was punished because it had abandoned that purpose that gave it value, the bearing of fruit.”[1]

3Is wood ever taken from it to make anything useful? Do they make pegs from it to hang things on?

            God takes it a step farther in v. 3. The implication is that Israel had one purpose like a grape vine has one purpose. If that purpose is not fulfilled, it can’t be repurposed to take the place of the purpose of something else. All people and all things have their purpose in God’s created order. It is not anyone’s place to repurpose what God has purposed. “yātēd [Heb. ‘peg’] also designates a peg inserted into a wall, from which on hangs household implements. Ezek 15:3 observes that one cannot make a peg that would support a vessel from the wood of a vine…The peg would then give way, and the load would be shattered.”[2]

4And after it is thrown on the fire as fuel and the fire burns both ends and chars the middle, is it then useful for anything? 5If it was not useful for anything when it was whole, how much less can it be made into something useful when the fire has burned it and it is charred? 6Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: As I have given the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest as fuel for the fire, so will I treat the people living in Jerusalem.

            God seems to continue along the same line of His initial questioning to demonstrate the uselessness of a vine, this time after it has been charred by fire. Specifically, if a vine is useless for anything other than supporting fruit, how much more useless would it be after it is thrown in the fire? Vv. 4-6 seem obvious but God is revealing something else in these verses—Israel’s destiny. Israel would suffer the wrath of Babylon in part first in 605 BC, then be defeated in a second wave in 597 BC that resulted in the exile of its inhabitants and finally Israel would be burned to the ground in 586 BC. The point being that a partial destruction of Israel wouldn’t suffice to bring Israel back to faithfulness. Although the temple would be rebuilt under Persia’s King Cyrus in 516 BC, Israel’s cycle of unfaithfulness would reach its pinnacle with the crucifixion of Jesus in AD 30. Forty years later, in AD 70, the Romans would completely destroy Jerusalem leaving only one wall, the Western Wall, standing. The Temple would never be rebuilt after that. “Jerusalem is like that vine wood, and its fate is therefore (inevitable) going to be that of half-burnt vine branches, fit for nothing but to be thrown back onto the fire and consumed completely. Just as the Lord has ‘given’ vine wood to be burnt because of its uselessness, so also the inhabitants of Jerusalem have been ‘given’ by the Lord. This implies not only a comparable divinely determined fate (burning) but a comparable divinely determined assessment of value (useless)…The initial defeat of Judah in 597 BC and the first exile, has not achieved a redemptive purpose: The people have not been made any more fit for God’s purposes, but on the contrary even more useless than before…Back into the fire they will go, for they are fit for nothing else, and this time the destruction will be complete.”[3]

7I will set my face against them. Although they have come out of the fire, the fire will yet consume them. And when I set my face against them, you will know that I am the LORD.

            We have to remember that Ezekiel didn’t speak of a coming flame when he revealed God’s intended destruction of Israel, the fire was already smoldering and it would only be a matter of time before it became an inferno that would consume them. Think about this for a moment—what’s the first and maybe the only thing you can think about when you’re faced with a difficulty in your life? ‘What do I have to do to get out of this mess?’ Although we don’t really know, I have no doubt that there were at least some people that came to Ezekiel and ask something just like that—‘What do we have to do to get out of this mess?’ ‘What do we have to do so God won’t be mad at us anymore?’ Unfortunately, Israel’s destiny was set. Clearly God knew that they would never fulfill their purpose of being a royal vine that would bear the fruit of turning the nations toward God. The people are about to learn the hard way that God is an immovable force against which they would smash their sinful lives. At some point God’s patience with unfaithfulness will wear thin and his righteous judgment will rain down on all those who believe they can rub their sins in God’s face without suffering any consequences. “Where God begins to put the question about the true nature of his people, then fearful depths open up. God’s word affirms of his people that they are useless; and this not simply on account of a passing defect which will quickly disappear. On the contrary, by its very nature it is useless. Again and again therefore it fails on account of its sinful human nature…Wherever God’s people think that the can dodge this divine judgment, by whatever form of piety they attempt to do so, then they are deceiving themselves. Gods word summons the community to accept this judgment upon itself and to recognize that under the revelation of the living God all its honor will be turned into shame and all its righteousness…will be destroyed.”[4]

8I will make the land desolate because they have been unfaithful, declares the Sovereign LORD.”

            As has always been the case, the people and the “land” are inseparable. Canaan, the land that was given to Israel after they were delivered from their Egyptian bondage, is part of their inheritance and a source and symbol of God’s blessing. It was described as a land flowing with milk and honey. We learn in v. 8 that the land will not escape the judgment resulting from the people’s unfaithfulness. A royal vine planted in a land flowing with milk and honey has become fuel for the fire and the land will become nothing more than a wasteland. Nothing escapes the reach of God’s judgment—not even the inanimate object that is the land. “When the Lord threatens to make the land a ‘desolation,’ the land receives the threat, so that both the soil itself and the inhabitants of that territory stand under judgment.”[5]

Application

            What I usually get after a lesson like this one is something like: “Yeah, yeah but we live in an age of Grace so this doesn’t really apply to us.” Well it is true that Ezekiel lived during the age of the Law and we live in the age of Grace. However, God has been and will remain the same during all ages! Here’s the real question that I’d like someone to answer: When did the age of Grace become an age when God could be openly mocked without consequences. In my introduction, I told you about Thomas Jefferson’s ideal with respect to liberty. Jefferson believed that liberty was essential for humanity to be all God created it to be and that liberty was the fertile soil in which religious expression could grow and prosper. However, what Jefferson perhaps failed to consider was that faithfulness to God does not require liberty. It would probably be less painful and dangerous but it’s not essential. Israel had no reason to be unfaithful to God who provided everything for them. Instead, they began to adopt the ungodly practices of the surrounding nations. It wasn’t something that happened all at once but eventually God’s patience ran out and judged Israel to be like a vine that didn’t bear fruit—worthless!

            My greatest fear for the Church in America is that we have squandered our gift of religious liberty. Christians live in the perfect environment to be faithful to God. We have been called to be a light in a world filled with darkness and are supposed to be free to be able to do so without obstruction or persecution. And what have many Christians done with their gift of religious liberty? They’ve elected officials to enact legislation in direct contradiction to God’s Word. To make matters worse, some of those same Christians have not only adopted the sinful behavior of the surrounding culture but have invited it with open arms into their churches! If we lose our religious liberties here in America we will have no one to blame but ourselves. I’d like you to think about something: 80% of Americans claim to be Christians. It would be better if that number were grossly overstated because if it is true then how is it possible that we have elected so many officials who enact such ungodly legislation? How is it that so many of our religious leaders have not just closed their eyes to sinful behavior but welcome it through the doors of their churches? In a nation with unprecedented liberties claiming a population of 80% Christians, how do 50% of Christian marriages end in divorce? How have we had more than 56,000,000 abortions since 1973 when a “Christian” nation first gave its consent to infanticide? Lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals, and transgenders represent less than 3% of the entire population of America. If 80% of Americans claim to be Christians, how is it possible that Christian businesses are being forced out of business because they refuse to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage ceremony? How can homosexuality be accepted as an alternative lifestyle inside the Church? How can Christian pastors be threatened with incarceration for refusing to perform same-sex marriages? Do you want to know how religious liberties are lost here in America? By being unfaithful to God. We live in an age of Grace but there has never been, nor will there ever be, an age where God can be openly mocked by His people indefinitely without consequences.

            Thomas Jefferson may very well be right that the tree of liberty must be watered occasionally with the blood of patriots and tyrants, I don’t know. But faithfulness to God is not dependent on liberty as so many Christians around the world have demonstrated by their faithfulness to God in the face of severe persecution and threat of death because of their faith in Christ. Conversely, liberty does not produce faithfulness to God as America’s 200-year history demonstrates. Like Israel, the Church is called to be salt and light to a lost and dying world. Again, I believe the Church in America is at a crossroads. We can either commit or recommit ourselves to being faithful followers of all of God’s Word or, like Israel, be judged by God to be Useless Branches good for nothing but fuel for the fire.





[1] Lamar Eugene Cooper, Sr., Ezekiel—The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group), p. 166.
[2] Willem A. VanGemeren, Gen. Ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, Vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), p. 569.
[3] Iain M. Duguid, Ezekiel—The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), pp. 200-201.
[4] Walter Zimmerli, Ezekiel 1—Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1979), pp. 320-321.
[5] Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville, Eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), p. 844.