Breath of Life

Focus Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14

To enter the Kingdom of God, you must be born again. While I remember hearing these words from the time I was very young, I didn’t start to understand their meaning until recently when I began to reflect on the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus is a Pharisees who has acknowledged the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings. In response to Nicodemus’ profession of faith, Jesus explains that no one can enter the kingdom of God (v 2) unless he is born again. This kingdom will be ruled by Jesus (1:49), it will not be of this world (18:36), and to enter it (v 5) one must be born from above (v 3). Hence Jesus explains that being born from above entails being born of water and Spirit (v 5). In this declaration, Jesus has hinted that the rebirth is both physical and spiritual – in other words, being born again involves being cleansed with water and receiving new life from the Spirit of God. I submit to you that being baptized and being born again are two different phenomena that may or may not occur simultaneously.

What is baptism? In general, the word baptism means the rite of washing with water as a sign of religious purification and consecration. In the New Testament, baptism was equated with repentance and forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). John the Baptist, for example, performed the rite as a way of getting people to acknowledge their sins, this done in preparation to receive forgiveness through the profession of faith and the coming of the Messiah. Baptism means many things to various people. Since the times of the ancient church, baptism has served as a rite of initiation into the community of faith. One becomes a member of the church by being baptized (Senn 2006, 29). After baptism, Christians are permitted to receive the Eucharist, which puts them in communion with the church and other members of the body of Christ. In another sense, baptism represents a way for Christians to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom 6:1-11). In this regard, baptism points to salvation and the eschatological expectation of everlasting life (Jn 3:16). Moreover, baptism represents the boundary between being an “outsider” and being an ‘insider” in the Christian community (Senn 2006, 30). What are the components of baptism?

Baptism by water is necessary. Water is associated with baptism in a statement made by John the Baptist in the first chapter of John’s Gospel: “…I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel” (1:31), the Baptizer says. Water is also associated with baptism in the Old Testament, especially in Ezekiel where the prophet talks about the renewal of Israel.  In both of these instances, we can see that water represents cleansing and purification.

But the text tells us that water is not enough – you must be born again. What does it mean to be born again? The Prophet Ezekiel offers some clues (Ezek 36:23-27). God has directed Ezekiel to inform the people that “the nations will know that I am the Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes” (v 23). This revelation, according to the Prophet, will involve separating the people from idolatrous nations and gather them back into their land (v 24). For purposes of this discussion, the setting apart of the people will be compared to baptizing as a way of initiating people into a new nation or a new family of God. Ezekiel clarifies this initiation rite by telling the people that God will “sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols” (v 25). After such cleansing, the people will have a “new heart” and a “new spirit” (v 26). Furthermore, God promises to remove from the people “your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (26). As a result, God promises through Ezekiel to give the people a new Spirit and to compel them to follow God’s decrees and be diligent about keeping God’s laws (v 27). Although the presence of the Spirit is mentioned here briefly, it is described in detail in the next chapter of Ezekiel.

In Ezek 37:4-6, the Prophet has a vision of the valley of dry bones. In this vision, Ezekiel describes the Spirit’s restoration of the people and equates the act with bringing the dead to new life.

“Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” (Ezek 37:4-6)

These dry bones have been given new life with a breath from above. “New life”, then, suggests a change in behavior or outlook. And this change in perspective is a product of God’s grace, something initiated by God and not by us.

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