Dead Bones Rising

Dead Bones Rising

Ephesians 2:1-10


“The first time I visited Rwanda, I went looking for monsters, albeit a different category of monster—the kind that isn’t relegated to B movies,” says Kay Warren, wife of pastor and author Rick Warren. “I had heard about the 1994 genocide that had left one million people dead—tortured, raped, viciously murdered—and somehow I thought it would be easy to spot the perpetrators. I naïvely assumed I would be able to look men and women in the eyes and tell if they had been involved. I was full of self-righteous judgment. What I found left me puzzled, confused, and ultimately frightened. Instead of finding leering, menacing creatures, I met men and women who looked and behaved a lot like me. They took care of their families, went to work, chatted with their neighbors, laughed, cried, prayed, and worshiped. Where were the monsters? Where were the evildoers capable of heinous acts? Slowly, with a deepening sense of dread, I understood the truth: There were no monsters in Rwanda, just people like you and me … Before that trip, I can’t tell you the number of times I reacted to evil I read about or witnessed by saying, ‘I would never do that!’ But thousands of years of bloody human history prove differently. Fifty-four years of my own history prove differently. We are all proficient in our ability to conceive, plan, and execute evil. Of course, we don’t call it evil when we’re the ones involved. But it is. As one French writer observed, ‘There is hardly a man clever enough to recognize the full extent of the evil he does.’ You might as well face the shameful truth: You and I, put in the right situation, will do absolutely anything. Given the right circumstances, I am capable of any sin. I’ve grown more afraid of the monster lurking in the dark corners of my soul than of any monster lurking in the dark corners of my house.”[i] “Oh, not me pastor. I could never do something that evil.” No way!” Sadly, the research tells a different story about human nature. About your nature. About mine too.


In 1971, Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford University psychologist, recruited 24 college students to pose as guards or inmates in a mock prison. The experiment was to last for two weeks, and during that time he gave them few orders and little supervision. Quickly, the guards, regular, everyday college students at Stanford, became more and more abusive. When Zimbardo was gone, guards put bags over inmates’ heads, stripped them of clothing, and told them to simulate sex acts. They psychologically and physically abused their own classmates. Finally, after several inmates suffered emotional breakdowns, Zimbardo stopped the experiment after six days.[ii]


In the United States, just 80 miles separates the lowest point in the country from the highest. At 280 feet below sea level, the aptly named Death Valley is the lowest point in this country. And just 80 miles northwest, soaring to 14,495 feet is the peak of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in this country. In Ephesians 2, St. Paul takes us on a journey from death valley to the highest of mountains; from the depths of human misery and despair to the heights of ecstasy and wonder at the grace of God. He begins in the depths, forcing us to look squarely and intently at the death from which we have been saved. Look at Vv. 1-3.


Paul doesn’t mince words. He calls us dead folk walking. “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked …” Trespasses and sins. Paul is piling up words here to make sure we get the point, but he’s doing something else too. Trespasses gets at willful sin – things we do that we know are wrong but do anyway. Sins gets at things that we don’t do that we should, and is also much more passive. Sins includes not just my willful rebellion, it also includes my mistakes. Apart from Christ, I am both a rebel and a failure.


Paul uses three words to describe life apart from Christ. The first is this world. “The course of this world.” We often think of following Jesus as going against the flow, swimming upstream, or something like that, and that’s a great analogy. The course of this world is the way that this world, its cultures, its systems of government, its economic systems, in its fallenness flows. We’re being carried along with the current, so to speak. Pete Seeger was a great songwriter. His song “Little Boxes” paints a vivid picture of what Paul is talking about here. Watch this video. And in Romans Paul says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Apart from Christ, we’re just being swept along in the currents of culture, oblivious, unaware, dead folks walking.


We’re also under the influence of the devil. Now, we have to be careful here. C. S. Lewis, in the introduction to his book “The Screwtape Letters,” a collection of fictional letters between a tempter demon and his uncle and supervisor, said “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” But Paul does make very clear to us that there is a spiritual realm that is every bit as realm we inhabit, and that spiritual realm does have influence here in this realm. Even when it appears that our enemies are very real flesh and blood human beings, he wants us to understand that “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). We are in a struggle not with other human beings, but with spiritual forces. But Paul also wants us to understand that Jesus Christ is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21). Yes, there is a very real spiritual power, but it is not a fair fight, and in Christ we have the authority and the power to resist that spiritual power, which the Bible calls the Satan, or the adversary. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil,” writes St. James, “and he will flee from you” (Jam. 4:7). Why? Because “… you are from God and have overcome them,” writes St. John, “for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).


Apart from Christ, we were under the influence of this world, the devil, and also our own, fallen sinful natures, which Paul calls “the flesh.” In our culture, we tend to think of the flesh or fleshly desires as being sexual in nature. But that isn’t what Paul means. In fact, sexual desires properly directed toward one’s spouse are a good thing, created by God for our enjoyment and for a purpose. When Paul speaks of the flesh, he’s speaking of our own, innate, inherent propensity to sin. He’s speaking of that which Philip Zimbardo stumbled upon in his research at Stanford, the sin and evil that resides in the human heart. And Paul tells us that because we were dead in our trespasses and sins, we were “children of wrath.” In other words, we were subject to the wrath of God. Now, no one likes to think about the wrath of God, and it isn’t in vogue these days to believe in it. But Paul pulls no punches. Dead in our sins, we are subject to the wrath of God. We do have to understand the wrath of God, though, because it isn’t like human wrath. Human wrath is unpredictable by nature. But the wrath of God is God’s fixed orientation toward evil, toward sin. And it is a characteristic of God’s love, believe it or not. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a God who turns a blind eye toward sin and evil, who ignores it and lets it go. The wrath of God is God’s promise that he will deal with sin and with evil. Evil will not go unpunished. But that includes the evil in me. Paul’s purpose here isn’t to depress us, but that is sort of the effect. And if you think these three verses are dark, you should read the first three chapters of Romans, for these three verses summarize those three chapters. But for those in Christ, those who follow Christ, that was then. This is now. Paul changes his gaze from all that we were apart from Christ, dead folks walking, to all that we are in Christ. He takes us from the depths of death valley to the heights of God’s grace.


Look at V. 4. “But God.” Those are the two most beautiful words in all of Scripture. They’re the most beautiful words you’ll ever hear. If you’re into highlighting or underlining or marking up your Bible, you need to circle those words, and then highlight them. And underline them. And put a star next to them. And memorize them. Just those two words. “But God.” In fact, say them with me now. Are you ready. One, two, three: “But God.” Say it with gusto! “But God!” Those two words contain within them the entire gospel, all of the news about Jesus Christ. “Apart from Christ, you are dead folk walking, doomed … but God.” Now, look at all of Vv. 4-9.


I have been saved. That means more than “I have been forgiven.” Oh, it includes forgiveness, but it is so much more than that! It is deliverance from the wrath of God. It is authority and power to resist this world, the devil, and my sinful nature, and forgiveness when I do not, either willfully or by mistake. And I have been saved because of the richness of God. When we think of the wealth of God, we often picture God seated on an ornate throne with streets of gold and buildings of crystal. We think of unlimited human wealth, unlimited resources. Or we think of God’s wealth of power and ability. And both of those are true. But that isn’t what Paul is talking about here. He is talking about the richness, unlimited nature of God’s mercy and love and grace and kindness. You see, the wrath of God is God’s fixed orientation toward sin, a result of his love for us and disdain for all that separates us from him. The wrath of God is evidence of his love. But because our sinful natures are so much a part of us, we must shed them in order to come into God’s presence. And we cannot do that. Not on our own. So we’re screwed. God’s holiness would destroy us by nature. But God. In the richness of his mercy, and love, and grace, and kindness toward us, God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sent the Son to be like us, and to die for us, as the once for all sacrifice for our sin. That’s grace.


Now, look at what Paul does. He says that in Christ, God has “made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Resurrected. Ascended. Seated. The same words he used in Ephesians 1 to describe what God did to Christ. Apart from Christ, we are so identified with sin, with evil, with our sinful natures, under the authority of the evil one, that we are subject to the wrath of God. But in Christ, we are so closely identified with Christ that what happened to him, God says has also happened and will happen to us. And I receive that through faith. In the last 200 years or so we’ve really gotten off-track in our understanding of what faith is. We’ve made it simple intellectual belief. So if I just agree with everything the Bible says about Jesus, I’ll be saved. And that makes my salvation dependent upon my state of mind and ability to think. I earn my salvation by my faith. Fortunately, Paul makes it clear that salvation is completely and totally a gift from God to us. And it is completely and totally undeserved. It is a gift of grace. You see, faith is not the means by which I earn grace. It is the means by which I receive it.


In the 1900s, Jean Francois Gravalet, better known by his stage name, Blondin, was a world famous acrobat.  He was known throughout Europe and America especially for his tightrope walking. In London he once played the violin on a tightrope 170 feet off the ground and then did a somersault wearing stilts. His most spectacular feats were his crossings of Niagara Falls on a tightrope 1,100 feet long and 160 feet above the water. On one occasion he took a stove onto the tightrope and cooked an omelet above the roaring falls. On another he pushed a wheelbarrow across while blindfolded. Once he stood on his head on the precarious wire. That is why today in London there are Niagara and Blondin Avenues. But once, in an unusual demonstration of his skill, he carried a man across his Niagara Falls tightrope on his back. After putting the rider down he turned to the large crowd that had gathered to watch and asked a man close by, “Do you believe I could do that with you?” “Of course,” the man answered. “Hop on,” said Blondin. “I’ll carry you across.” What do you think his answer was? And I quote, “Not on your life!”[iii] Faith doesn’t just believe that God can. It agrees that God will, and climbs on up, letting him carry you.


So why has God done all this? Look at V. 10. Each person who is in Christ, each follower of Jesus, is God’s workmanship. God’s masterpiece. Paul isn’t talking about you as a created human being here. A “God made you perfect just the way you are” kind of think. God’s masterpiece is Christ’s life alive in you by the grace of God. You in Christ and Christ in you. That is God’s workmanship. And you were made alive in Christ to do good works. We don’t do good works to earn our salvation. We do good works because of what God has done in Christ. We have been forgiven, so we forgive. We have been shown mercy, so we show mercy. We have received the undeserved favor of God, so we show grace to others. We have experienced the love of God in Christ, and so we love one another, and others outside the body of Christ, whether we agree with them or not. As followers of Christ, beloved children of God in whom Christ dwells, we do those things that reflect the character of God alive in us, and those good works mark our way of living.


In his best-selling book The Reason for God, Tim Keller, at the time pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, shares the story of a woman in his congregation who was learning how the grace extended to us through Christ’s work on the cross can actually be more challenging than religion. He writes: Some years ago I met with a woman who began coming to church at Redeemer and had never before heard a distinction drawn between the gospel and religion [i.e. the distinction between grace and what is often a works-based righteousness]. She had always heard that God accepts us only if we are good enough. She said that the new message was scary. I asked why it was scary and she replied: “If I was saved by my good works then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with “rights”—I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if I am a sinner saved by grace—then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me.” She understood the dynamic of grace and gratitude. If when you have lost all fear of punishment you also lose all incentive to live a good, unselfish life, then the only incentive you ever had to live a decent life was fear. This woman could see immediately that the wonderful-beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace had an edge to it. She knew that if she was a sinner saved by grace, she was (if anything) more subject to the sovereign Lordship of God. She knew that if Jesus really had done all this for her, she would not be her own. She would joyfully, gratefully belong to Jesus, who provided all this for her at infinite cost to himself.[iv] Dead bones rising in Christ to do good works as testimony to the limitless grace of God.

[i] Kay Warren, “The Only Hope for Monsters,” Christianity Today magazine (October 2008), p. 98

[ii] Karen Peterson and Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Abuse Less Shocking in Light Of History,” USA Today (5-13-04)

[iii] R. Kent Hughes, “Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ,” Wheaton: Crossway, pp. 77-78.

[iv] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (Riverhead Books, 2008), pp. 189-190