DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU…
I am not really into shock value. There won’t be any of that in this article, at least not by intent. But at the same time, due to the nature of the content, I must warn you that this article will not be for the faint of heart. It’s not my intention to offend but to interpret and apply the Bible. But if sexual language offends you, you may not want to read further. I am not going to use any bad words. I am not going to say anything vulgar, beyond what the Bible actually says in Ezekiel 16. But to explain grace in the Bible, you have to understand the circumstances in which it is offered. And in Ezekiel 16, as well as many other places in the Bible (and in modern real life) it’s not G-rated. It’s not PG or even PG-13. A lot of what the Bible describes would be rated R if put into media. Or even NC-17.
And when we understand sin in these movie rating terms, it enables us to understand grace in the way God intended. If we see the things we do and think the way God sees them and describe them as God describes them–as the offensive, disgusting, abhorrent, horrific acts they are–then and only then can the sacrifice and depth of grace be appreciated biblically. The darkness of sin illuminates grace. The pain in betrayal sin causes only magnifies the power of grace.
If we see the things we do and think the way God sees them, and describe them as God describes them–as the offensive, disgusting, abhorrent, horrific acts they are–then and only then can the sacrifice and depth of grace be appreciated biblically.
THE BIBLE IS RARELY AMBIGUOUS
Sometimes, when the context is right, we need to go beyond “Yeah I struggle with sin” and start talking about what that means exactly. Yes, a lot of that should be done in private with a pastor or accountability partner/small group or counselor. But there are times things need to be spoken to publicly. Ezekiel 16, in all its profane glory, shows us that God is not afraid to be publicly vulgar in describing idolatry. This is our canon of truth, after all, written for every people group in the world for every time in history. And in allegory form, God offends our ears with the truth of how he sees unfaithfulness.
GOD’S SIDE OF THE STORY
The story begins with God telling Jerusalem that she was like an abandoned, despised, unwanted infant who was going to die a helpless death alone. And He comes along and gives her life and takes care of her and allows her to grow and mature and become a beautiful young woman ready for love and covenant marriage. So God enters into covenant with her, showers her with affection and gifts, cares deeply for her, makes her beautiful, and treats her as a perfect husband would.
But then the allegory turns graphic, at least by some modern cultural standards. God says that she began to find confidence in her beauty and used that to prostitute herself to other people, illustrating the way God feels about his people worshipping other gods. Ezekiel 16:25 says it most plainly: “You spread your legs to every passer-by”1. That’s about as blunt and vivid as you can say it. Yet God continues on, verse after verse, chronicling the repulsive yet repeated behavior of Jerusalem in her harlotry. He accuses her of not being grateful, of having an insatiable whorish sexual appetite, and even goes as far as to say that she was worse than a prostitute because prostitutes make money but she was giving it away for free. I’m not being flippantly crass but trying to show that this is exactly how God saw it and how he described it in Ezekiel. It’s not for General Admission audiences.
Ezekiel 16:25 says it most plainly: “You spread your legs to every passer-by”. That’s about as blunt and vivid as you can say it. Yet God continues on, verse after verse, chronicling the repulsive yet repeated behavior of Jerusalem in her harlotry.
And as if all that were not enough, God eventually concludes in this prophecy that Jerusalem during the days of Ezekiel was worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. Think about that for a second. How often do we, some 4,000 years later, still associate the worst sexual perversion and God’s terrible judgment fire from Heaven with Sodom and Gomorrah? And yet Jerusalem, at least at this time, was worse. According to God himself.
KINDNESS LEADS TO REPENTANCE
The point could be belabored because in Ezekiel it is. Chapter 16 is one of the longest in the Bible with 63 verses. But the point of this article is not to belabor it but to talk about how the chapter ends. In the last section, God says after all of that, after all the countless examples of revolting, abominable, spiritual adultery, he will still remember his covenant with her and He will forgive (or make atonement for) her sins. Incredible. Is there any human that could or even should express that kind of love? That kind of forgiveness? That kind of grace? The kind that endures the most R-rated betrayal – repeated times – a human can throw at it and still stand firm to its covenant promise? I feel obliged in light of interpretative honesty and the climate of the “God just wants to love you” American church to point out that God did punish Jerusalem. He did provide a searing rebuke. He did manifest his holiness and justice. But he did not end with that. He ended with covenant promise grace. At some later point, God had enough and had to unleash his fury on his people. But God’s grace goes far beyond anything a human can comprehend and Ezekiel 16 proves this in the most visual and descriptive way possible.
So I didn’t just tell that crowd that I “struggle with sin”. I told them that I have committed adultery through porn and other forms of lust hundreds of times, thousands of times in my life – even as a Bible College student and even as a pastor in Chicago. I told them that I am not above any sin and that includes adultery, child abuse and homosexuality.
I AM EZEKIEL 16
Before we allow this to become an example simply of God powerfully forgiving a group of people millennia ago, let me try to bring it home to today. As I said, I have heard so many times in my life preachers and people in Sunday School classes say, “I struggle with sin”. But often we hide behind the ambiguity of that in a way that Ezekiel 16 does not. I’m not here to tell you all of my skeletons or all of my dark secrets. I have a wife and a church to consider when speaking of myself. And there has to be some kind of filter in most communication. But I will tell you this. When I was asked to speak at the National Youth Conference of the Free Will Baptists in Little Rock, AR in 2007 I decided I wasn’t going to hide behind ambiguity. I wanted to make an Ezekiel 16-type statement, yet in an appropriate way. So I didn’t just tell that crowd that I “struggle with sin”. I told them that I have committed adultery through porn and other forms of lust hundreds of times, thousands of times in my life – even as a Bible College student and even as a pastor in Chicago. I told them that I am not above any sin and that includes adultery, child abuse, and homosexuality. Preaching from Isaiah 6, I used the first few verses to talk about what “I’m a man of unclean lips” means in my personal, everyday, real life. I’ve taken something as holy and pure as sex and reduced it to something cheap and dirty and easy and self-gratifying. And that is just one thing in a long list. I am no better than Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16. I am not. The grace they needed is the grace I need. My sin isn’t vague and it’s certainly not G-rated. It’s gross. It’s unsettling. It’s abhorrent. It’s rated R.
THE LOVE OF GOD IS, INDEED, GREATER FAR
After thinking about Ezekiel 16 a few years ago I wrote this in my journal: “Grace isn’t amazing if the sin isn’t tragic”. That is what I want people to know. It’s only when I see myself in Ezekiel 16 that I can begin to truly react well to grace, whether through song or meditation or prayer. And I want to close with one of the verses to the classic hymn “The Love of God” which, thanks to my pastor in Chicago, I have heard many times over the years:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
Think about that today. Think about it next to what we read in Ezekiel 16. Think about it next to the deepest, darkest sins in your heart. Because no matter how deep, no matter how dark, God’s grace reaches it. It overwhelms it, consumes it. It blots it out. It forgives. It loves. Over and over and over. It’s too much to take in at times. If there’s anything that is truly shocking about the R-rated parts of my life, it’s God’s response. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and profound is the love of Christ–To God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever, Amen.
- That is exactly how the NASB version, a version that strives to be literal as possible, says it ↩