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Amen. Nathan, thank you for that hymn. That’s one of my favorite hymns. I love the way that summarizes so much of God’s Word. Thank you, Christ Covenant, for the warm reception you’ve given me, yesterday and today. It’s been good to be with your pastor, with some of your elders and other ministers, with other friends here in the congregation. I’ve enjoyed the time the Lord has given me with you and appreciate the witness the Lord has given you in this city and beyond.
The topic of my sermon for this evening is strange in too many of our churches. Most sermons today seem to be over how to have victory over too much sin in your life or weight on your body or over too little money in the bank or too little self-esteem in the heart. In the last few months I’ve even heard sermons on how to have victory over Republicans or Democrats. Sermons on family life are common. Sermons on personal wellness, sermons on how to do friendships, sermons on loving yourself or managing your money, sermons certainly on politics and government. But as I say, I have an unusual topic for us to conclude our time together this weekend with tonight, and I think one that’s more needed even that it is unusual. I want to us to consider this evening the question, “What is God like?”
To do that I want us to turn to one of the most vivid records in the Bible of a vision of God. I’m appreciative of the text we just read from the Old Testament and the New, from Exodus and Revelation, but let’s take our Bible and open up to the Old Testament to Ezekiel, chapter 1, Ezekiel, chapter 1.
While you’re turning there, let me just remind you from perhaps Sunday school or from the last time you would have read this, Ezekiel’s situation is a very interesting one. Ezekiel himself was an Israelite forced into exile. He’s a young man, we think of about 30 years old, recently relocated to what at the time was the most powerful city on earth, and God required him to begin preaching to his people.
Now in all honesty, I have to tell you that Ezekiel was far from an ordinary individual. W.F. Albright described Ezekiel as one of the greatest spiritual figures of all time in spite of his tendency to psychic abnormality, a tendency which he shares with many other spiritual leaders of mankind.
Well, whatever you may think of W.F. Albright and his thoughts, the book Ezekiel produced has struck many as rather strange and difficult. In fact, so much so that there was a tradition among the Jewish rabbis of not letting young men read Ezekiel until they were 30 years old lest they become discouraged at how the Scriptures would be to understand and so despise them.
But as strange as the early parts of the book may sound at first, I don’t think they’re that hard to understand, and they are rich in meaning.
So here we go. Listen for a moment about God from Ezekiel. Here’s the first part of his record of an amazing vision that God gave Ezekiel one day. I’ll let him tell it to you in his own words. Ezekiel, chapter 1.
“In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the Lord was upon him there.”
“As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: They had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: Their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning.”
“Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: Their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. And their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”
“Over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal, spread out above their heads. And under the expanse their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another. And each creature had two wings covering its body. And when they went, I heard the sound of their wings, the sound of many waters, like the sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army. When they stood still, they let down their wings. And there came a voice from above the expanse over their heads. When they stood still, they let down their wings.”
“And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.”
“Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.”
Now at this point I’m tempted just to keep reading, because I want to hear now what he says, but there’s so much in this first chapter that I think I’m going to talk to you about the first chapter and then when you go home tonight go ahead and read chapters 2 and 3. You can tail it off at the end of chapter 3, that will work as a unit. Just read chapters 2 and 3 and see what happens.
But in this first chapter I want us to note five things from our text that we learn about God. The first couple of things which this vision clearly teaches us would have been no news to them, but I think today we need to notice this and pay attention to them. The most fundamental, maybe the most obvious, is this.
Number one – God is not like us. God is not like us.
We read in Psalm 50, verse 21: You thought I was altogether like you.
Friends, there is a problem that we need to admit. People tend to think of God as like us. Some religions even teach that. Mormonism teaches that God was once a human being like us, but that He grew. As man is, so once God once was; as God is, man may become.
I remember talking to a Mormon in London once and quoting this doctrine to him, and he admitted it and I said, well, you know that’s actually in the Bible, and he seemed heartened because he could tell I was a Bible-believing Christian and was not going to be agreeing with him, so when I said that was in the Bible, he was very encouraged. Then I said, “Yeah, it sounds like the very first words with which Satan tempted the first woman, you will be like God if you take the fruit.”
People tend to think that we’re like God not only in His being but in His character. Again, I remember a time when I was in a demon seminar at a seminary, listening for some member of the seminar talk for about 10 minutes, talking about how he liked to conceive of God, and after about 10 minutes I said, “Bill, thank you so much for telling us so much about yourself. We’re here, though, wondering about what God Himself is like.” What you or I may like to think of God as being like is not necessarily reliable guide.
So we need to ask a distinct question, what has God said about Himself? We have to be very careful not to simply assume what God is like. He is unusual. The Bible calls Him holy, not merely that God possesses holiness but that He is holy.
You see the kind of reverence that Ezekiel shows Him throughout this vision. The vision is building throughout, isn’t it?
Those of us who are older will know the movie The Wizard of Oz and you know when Dorothy and her company go into the Emerald City and when they first go to approach the wizard there is this increasing hall and then it turns and it’s long and there are flames out both sides of the big curtain up front and all of it is there to increase the awe.
That’s what happens throughout this vision. We have these creatures described in an awesome way and then our attention is directed to the expanse above and then there’s a throne above that and above that the One on the throne, and in the whole thing there’s this building amazement, that we see God is entirely different than us.
Ezekiel, even after all of his theological training, what does he do when he actually encounters this vision of God himself? He doesn’t speak confidently of God and quote some of his favorite passages of Scripture. He falls face down in front of Him. Just like Job did at the end of Job.
Friends, for us and for our congregations, more for God’s name’s sake, we need to know that God is not the old man upstairs. He’s not merely a kindly grandfather or a friendly neighbor, a pal or a chum. He is the utterly unique holy One.
But let’s note a second thing. God is not like us, that’s number one. Number two, God is all powerful and all wise. This vision shows us the power and the omniscience of God.
Now again, the Israelites gathered with Ezekiel would have assumed that, but if you look at these verses, you see the way this is depicted here. In verses 4 to 24, you see this strange description. You might try to put it together like you would for a visual poster in vacation Bible school or something, but I don’t think that’s going to really help you very much. You see essentially two descriptions here, verses 4 to 14 there’s the description of the living creatures, and then verses 15 to 24 the description of the wheels.
So the living creatures there in verses 4 to 14, he describes their faces and their wings, and you realize what that depicts for us. The faces are pointed in which direction? Every direction. What does that mean? You can’t do anything behind God’s back that he won’t see. He knows all. Nothing escapes his notice.
What about those wings? Well, those wings are symbols of His power, which can transport them, it seems like immediately in every direction, so that’s showing something of the unending-ness of God’s power.
When we come to the section on the wheels in verses 15 to 24, you have the same two things. You have the eyes on the wheel. Didn’t you think that was strange? But of course, since those wheels are on all four sides, the eyes are what? They’re on all four sides. They’re faced in all four directions. He’s making the same point yet again. That all be seen, all will be known, and the power as they lift and go in any direction.
Now I say this idea that God is all powerful and all-knowing would be no news in Ezekiel’s time, but it is to many today. In Freud’s books Totem and Taboo he said at bottom God is nothing more than an exalted father. I am aware that there is a longing for a parent figure, of authority, for approval, for meaning.
But why do you think that longing is there in so many people? Could that longing be there not merely of your own making, but couldn’t it have been put in you exactly to be filled?
Friends, there are some even in churches today who will deny that God knows everything or that He has all power. But I would encourage you to look here at this vision and understand what Ezekiel is saying, more what God revealed of Himself to Ezekiel in this vision, and see that there is a God here who not only knows the present, but whose eyes look into the future as easily as into the past. If this is true, we should be humbled before Him. As the hymn we just sang says, we should trust Him.
I know that I can follow God more easily when I realize that God loves me more than I love myself. He knows what’s best for me. He’s more able and powerful to bring about His good pleasure than I would ever be.
So our churches should be filled with hymns and readings and prayers reflecting our reverence for this great God and our trust in a God who is omniscient and omnipotent.
Now the third truth, the next truth about God that I want to point out to you, I think is the point of this passage for Ezekiel. These first two are true and they’re there, that’s what it means, but I think all the Israelites who heard it would have accepted that and expected that in a way maybe some Christians today would not.
This third one, I think, was the news for them. It was the point of God giving Ezekiel this vision, and it is this – that God is not limited by circumstances. God is not limited by circumstances.
Very particularly, what that meant for them is that God was not limited to Jerusalem. The fact that this vision of God shows that God could move, this sort of heavenly chariot, shows that God was not bound to a place. He wasn’t bound to Jerusalem.
You realize what meant for these exiles. They must have wondered in losing their land, had they lost God? Now when God appears to Ezekiel in this vision and tells him to share this vision with the people, He’s saying to His people, “No, you have not been lost to Me.”
The chariot that’s described here in some ways reminds you of the ark of the covenant. This is almost a picture of a sort of mobile ark, a sign that God needed no temple. Even the rainbow there in verse 28, I think it was to recall to their minds God’s universal concern, like we see in the rainbow appearing after the flood.
Friends, you see what this means. God is not limited to where you last think you spotted Him. Now this can be troubling or encouraging, depending on how you’re feeling tonight. It’s troubling if you thought you’d escaped Him. But it’s great news if you thought that you were beyond His care.
John Bunyan has a wonderful section on this in his little treatise on Ephesians 3:18-19, The Saints’ Knowledge of Christ’s Everlasting Love. Bunyan writes: Sometimes a man as he apprehends it is so far off from God that they think themselves beyond the reach of God’s mercy. But when we think His mercy is clean gone, and that ourselves are free among the dead, and of the number that He remembereth no more, then He can reach us. This should encourage them that for the present cannot stand but that do fly before their guilt. Them that feel no help nor stay. I will say before them, I pray they hear me, O the length of the saving arm of God. As yet thou art within the reach thereof. So not go about to measure ams with God. I mean, do not thou conclude that because thou canst not reach God by thy short stump, therefore He cannot reach thee with His long arm. Look again. Job 40, hast thou an arm like God? It becomes thee, when thou canst not perceive that God is within the reach of thy arm than to believe that thou art within the reach of His, for it is long and none knows how long.
Brother or sister Christian, isn’t this a rebuke to our impatience? When circumstances are not as we had imagined they would be or hoped they would be? Isn’t this a rebuke to our wrong attachment to some circumstances? We can’t be too dependent on particular means, whether it’s an author we really like or a speaker or a preacher or a certain way that the church looks or a certain style of our meeting or a certain friend or a certain job or a certain hope.
Brothers and sisters, have hope. If you are separated in time from circumstances which in the past brought you great blessing from your Jerusalem, realize the truth that Paul learned. He says in Romans 8:38 for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Praise the Lord. Things don’t have to always be exactly the same in order for God to find us and to bless us and to use us. God is not limited by circumstances.
There are a couple more things about God that are not expressly taught in this passage, but which this passage gives us examples of, which are typical of the God of the Bible as He’s revealed Himself to us, and which I think are important for us to notice.
So let me mention these two. This will be the fourth thing we see about God in this vision – it’s that God initiates. God initiates.
They assumed this, of course, at the time, but I think they were surprised that it could happen there. You see, you look throughout our passage, it’s not that Ezekiel was out fasting and praying and in his piety he reached up and ripped open the heavens. No, you look in verse 1, it says the heavens were opened. That passage is assuming it’s the action of God.
Verse 3, the Word of the Lord came. Verse 4, it came. Verse 25, a voice came. Verse 28, one speaking, like Moses in exodus was not out looking for the burning bush. I think the way the Lord appeared to Isaiah in the temple, or like Paul on the road to Damascus, God took the initiative.
Friend, if you are here tonight and you’re not a Christian, I am surprised you’re in church on a Sunday night, but you’re very welcome here. Every time this church gathers, you’re welcome to come. I want you to know that the reason there are literally hundreds of us here on a Sunday night is because of the amazing thing that God has done for us in Christ. The initiative that He’s taken. When we understand that we’ve all sinned against God, and because God is good He will punish us, He will draw a line under injustice and say, “Enough.” He will cause there to be justice. But in His great mercy He sent His only Son to live a life of perfect trust in Him, a perfect holiness and obedience. God gave Him as a sacrifice. The Lord Jesus yielded up His own life, having no reason in and of Himself to die except for His people. He died on the cross as a sacrifice, bearing God’s punishment for all of us who would even turn from our sins and trust in Him and God raised Him from the dead. He ascended into heaven and presented His sacrifice to his heavenly Father and He calls each one of us, He calls every person, every person who can hear my voice, to repent of your sins and to trust in Him. He will forgive you and bring you new life, of relationship with God as your reconciled, loving heavenly Father. That’s the good news that we have.
God does care about individuals. Be responsive to initiatives that God takes towards you, even in bringing you to church to hear a message a day ago you hadn’t been planned to hear. Cherish any inkling of the truth that comes across your path. Make a decision to follow Christ, even if it’s a costly decision. Weigh it up carefully. It’s all so urgent, because God is not always initiating in the same way. Cherish God’s initiatives. We are utterly dependent upon Him and our response is to be one of grateful praise and humble prayer.
One more thing I want us to notice about this God. There’s no doubt that creation can speak beautifully of the Creator. Driving around in North Carolina you notice that, whether it’s the mountains or the Outer Banks. Psalm 19 is clear about that, the heavens declaring the glory of God.
I think one of the most glorious things my eyes have ever seen is the sunsets in Ullapool, Scotland, in northwestern Scotland on the coast. The sunsets seem almost supernatural. This couldn’t be real, the vividness of the colors.
All of the things that we see in this creation of beauty, of awe-inspiring creativity, all of them reflect the Creator Himself, but all of that alone does not do justice to the vision of God that He presented to Ezekiel here in chapter 1.
The fifth and final thing that we note about God tonight from this vision is that number five, four was God initiates, five, God communicates. God communicates.
It’s interesting that Ezekiel’s vision, that is something he’s seeing, climaxes in a voice. You notice the order here in this vision. First there’s sight and then there’s sound and then finally at the end of the vision, just transitioning into chapter 2, there is speech.
You see what this tells us – that God wants not mere adoration from a distance, like the awe you might feel before the Grand Canyon, but this God wants a personal relationship. He wants to know and be known. He’s not looking for mere encounter and sensation, but covenant love in which He has explained who you are and who He is and how it is that a holy God could relate to a sinful human like us in gracious love.
Friend, whoever you are here tonight, do not be satisfied with mere sensation, with mere religious feelings. This vision is an example of how verbal communication is essential for relationship.
Now some of you may object to this. Some of you may say, “Well, Mark, maybe you’re a bit of a scholar. I know you’re one of Kevin’s friends. You have a Ph.D. so maybe you are a little overblown on this verbal thing. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a relationship with my dog. He doesn’t talk but he has to be my best friend. He’s the most faithful, the most understanding. He’s just wonderful. So all this thing about verbal communication being essential to a good relationship, you haven’t met my dog.”
Let me say as a real dog lover, I appreciate your concern, but I just want to insist, politely, that were you to go home tonight and your dog were to look up at you and say, “How was church tonight?” that would change your relationship with your dog, just intervention.
So as good as your relationship with your dog may be, there is a whole aspect to it that verbal communication would add that is not there without it.
Friends, superstition is mere mute religion. The religion we see in the Bible is not reverence to a mute god but our encounter with and worship of the God who speaks, who tells us the truth about Himself and about us. Never forget, friends, the centrality of the Word. Never underestimate the seminal power of the Word of God.
I know Kevin had this pulpit made because he’s tall, but I like that it’s just so big. I like that it’s at the center of the room, that it’s placed here. And I like that not fundamentally because I’m a preacher, but because I’m a Christian and I understand that my only hope as a sinner of knowing the perfectly God is if He comes and reveals Himself to me. He has done that supremely through His Word.
What I want when I gather with God’s people is to have God’s Word open and read and explained and taught. People asked Luther how he did the Reformation. He explained, “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And when while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my [friends] Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a price or emperor inflicted such damage upon it… The Word did it all.”
We who believe in the sovereign God of Romans 9 must also believe in His means in Romans 10, of His Word going out to accomplish His purposes.
So friends, when you and I hear His Word, we want to hear it with an attitude of heart obedience and prayer. That’s why we never want to be satisfied in our churches with worshipful experiences. We want prayer and we want preaching of God’s Word.
Have you ever had a friend that says he’s your friend but he’s so busy he just won’t listen to you and won’t talk to you? It takes a toll on the relationship, doesn’t it? Imagine Christians who won’t take time to pray. Won’t take time to read God’s Word or listen to it preached. No, friends, that God that is revealing Himself here to Ezekiel and to His people is a God who communicates.
Well, let’s review these five points. It’s the end of the day, but I think you can handle five points. You’re a Presbyterian church.
Number one – God is not like us.
Number two – God is all powerful and all wise.
Number three – God is not limited by circumstances.
Number four – God initiates.
Number five – God communicates.
Will Rogers said it’s not what you don’t know that will get you in trouble, but what you know for certain that just ain’t so.
This God is the One we worship, and no other. The very essence of what it means to be a Christian is to know and to love this God.
A.W. Tozer in the first chapter of his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, wrote that what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. “The gravest question before the Church is always God Himself. The most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.”
Friend, if you have any hesitation about the truth of that statement, just go down the list of things we’ve said this evening. What difference does it make if you think that God is just like you? If you don’t think that God is wise or able? If you decide that God is limited to this place or that situation? If you think He simply stands and waits for your initiative? Or if you think He’s mute? If you think there’s no way that you can know what God thinks about you and life and the universe?
What difference does it make? It makes all the difference in the world, and more.
Let’s pray together. Lord God, we thank You for this vision You gave to Ezekiel and to all of Your people. We pray you’d give us understanding of Your Word, give us a desire to read of You in Your Word, and give us understanding. Bring us to love and fear and trust and obey You as we should. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.