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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:A New and Nearer Presence
Text:Ezekiel 36:27 (View)
Topic:The work of The Holy Spirit

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 1:1,2,3                                                                                          

Ps 143:1,5,6

Reading – Ezekiel 36:16-32; John 16:5-15

Ps 51:3,4,5

Sermon – Ezekiel 36:27

Hy 50:1,2,3,4

Hy 48:1,2,3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, when God poured out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there were instant results! The book of Acts describes healings, prophecies, visions, speaking in tongues, casting out of demons—all to serve the one purpose of growing the church of Christ. In those early years, it was clear: God was at work in a powerful new way.

And today, God the Holy Spirit is no less busy, for daily He shows his power. The Spirit teaches us the truths of Scripture. He gives us gifts for service. He transforms us into the likeness of Christ, and the Holy Spirit even intercedes on our behalf before the Father. When we read the New Testament, we see the Spirit moving on almost every page.

Having this full knowledge of the Spirit—both from Scripture and from our experience—Christians have sometimes wondered, “So where is the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament? What did the people of God ever do before Pentecost, and all its amazing results?” I have heard it said that the Holy Spirit wasn’t even at work in most of God’s people back then—generally, they were un-Spirited people.

So this morning let’s consider the Holy Spirit’s Old Testament ministry. And we’ll see that God has always given his Holy Spirit, to build up his church and to purify his believers. In Ezekiel 36:27 God speaks of this,


God promises to put the Holy Spirit within his people:

  1. the enduring need
  2. the unfailing work
  3. an increasing glory


1) the enduring need for the Spirit: Thinking about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, you may remember how He clearly entered certain people, for certain tasks. One example is how the main craftsman for the tabernacle was filled with the Spirit, so that he could have wisdom and skill in building a beautiful house for God. Or there is the example of Samson, who was repeatedly empowered by Holy Spirit to defeat the Philistines. The Spirit of the Lord also came upon David as a young man, and as king of Israel. Prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah were inspired by the Spirit too, so that they could speak the words of God.

So we do read of the Holy Spirit being active among the Old Testament people of God. However, when it says that God the Spirit actually enters a person, it is only in the case of certain office bearers. And then it is only for a particular task. Even for the judges, prophets and kings who did receive him, the Spirit seemed to have a temporary presence—He would come for a time, but then He would leave once the job was complete, or once someone stopped being faithful. Like King Saul who had the Spirit—and then he didn’t.

And what about everyone else? What about the common folk in Israel, like the nameless farmer from Naphtali, or the young mother from Beersheba, or even the Levites working at the temple? The Scripture doesn’t say that the Holy Spirit entered them, like He enters us. So that conclusion could seem valid: “The Old Testament people were a Spirit-less people. The leaders might’ve received the gift of the Spirit, but no one else did.”

But if you accept that, you would have to arrive at a second conclusion: namely, that the vast majority of the Israelites didn’t actually serve the LORD with true faith and sincere love. Instead, it was all about external things and outward activity. The law said that God wanted sacrifices from them. And so as long as they killed the animals in the right way and brought the right gifts, they were fine, for the LORD accepted them. If that’s all God wanted, why would they have needed the Holy Spirit?

But think of David’s words in Psalm 51, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart…” (vv 16-17). You can hear that David knew God wants more than outward show, more than boxes ticked—He desires an inner zeal.

Or recall the LORD’s words in Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” God wanted much, much more than a mindless carrying out of the laws of ritual. From his people He wanted true faith and genuine love, repentant hearts and pliable spirits.

So was that possible without having the Holy Spirit? Could the Old Testament people repent by their own free will? Were they able to draw on some inner resource, and so make a true acknowledgement of God, or have a living mercy for other people?

Of course not. All of them were complete sinners, and they were born like us: spiritually dead. In their sin they confessed to God, “All of us are unclean…” (Isa 64:6). God himself confronts them with their inability, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer 13:23).

The Old Testament people were sinners, just like we are, yet God called them to repent. By nature they were unbelievers, yet God called them to believe on his name. So how could they ever do such things? Faith is only possible when there is a new heart and purified spirit!

Such gifts can come only from God. God must send the Holy Spirit, or his people have no hope! And this is what God did. Isaiah 63 says that the LORD “set his Holy Spirit among them” (v 11). The Spirit was among them and moving. And this is why after his sin with Bathsheba, David pleads with God: “Do not take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit” (Ps 51:11-12). He knew that the Holy Spirit hates to be near a wicked and adulterous heart like his, yet this same Spirit is the source of whatever holiness David might have. So he asks for the Spirit to stay with him, to cleanse and renew him.

That was King David, but it wasn’t so different for the other Israelites. If they would ever bring delight to God, then they needed to obey him willingly and trust in his name. Therefore David sings to God, and all Israel sings with him, “May your good Spirit lead me on level ground” (Ps 143:10). They sought the Spirit, because they all needed the Spirit!

Let’s head over to the New Testament. In John 3, Jesus meets with Nicodemus the Pharisee. And He tells him that it’s only when we have new life from the Spirit that we are able to see God’s kingdom. Nicodemus asks how this can happen, how someone can be “born again.” And Jesus replies that everyone must be born of the Spirit.

Nicodemus didn’t get this, so Jesus rebukes him, “You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things?” (3:10). In other words, you don’t know why it is necessary to be regenerated? You don’t know why the Spirit is so essential? That’s like us looking at a party balloon lying on the kitchen table, flat and shriveled, and saying you don’t know if it needs air. Of course it does! From the law and prophets, it should have been obvious, especially to a teacher like Nicodemus. We need to be filled with the Spirit!

Also when Ezekiel prophesied, the need for the Spirit was obvious—perhaps more obvious than ever. Ezekiel spoke from Babylon because he was part of the first “shipment” of exiles from Judah. His central message was God’s fearsome but just punishment on sin. Yet Ezekiel is also allowed to foretell a return, a rebuilding of the temple and a restoration of Jerusalem. In this renewal, God will get to the root cause: the sinful human heart. Because even if God allowed the exiles to return, could they stop disobeying? Can they avoid more punishment in the future? No, they still wouldn’t get anywhere.

So God will change them! In verse 25 He declares, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean.” He will forgive them, and He’ll wash away all the stain of their sin from years of idolatry and unbelief. Maybe you’ve done laundry before. They tell me that you might clean the grass stains and fruit juice out of a child’s nice white shirt, but you know what happens the very next day: another stain! If only you could permanently lock in the cleanness.

This is what God will do. More than forgiving his people, removing the stain, He’ll renew them. By renewal, the pollution of sin will be resisted more and more. He promises, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (v 26).

If you have a heart of stone, God’s words will never penetrate. If you have a heart of stone, you can sit in church, or have an open Bible, and you can hear and read many fine words, but that’s all they are: words. They don’t register. They don’t move or inspire you. But if you have a heart of flesh from God, the words can sink in.

And this is how it’ll happen, says the LORD, “I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes” (v 27). He’ll renew the gift of the Spirit among his people. Yes, He had given them his Spirit, but God planned to send him in fuller measure. And when the Spirit came, He would have an even more powerful effect.

Beloved, remember that we’re not so different from Israel. Left to ourselves, we have no hope of breaking our bad habits. By ourselves, we won’t believe God’s Word. Without the Spirit’s help, we’re not able to worship in a way that is sincere, or to fight sin, or to be patient or content. This has always been true: there’s no people of God without the Spirit of God.

So pray for the Spirit, and seek his presence in your life. When we see who we are—seeing how far we are from faithfulness to God, seeing how weak our faith can be, seeing how our inconsistent our love is—then let us pray for the Spirit more and more! We have an enduring need, but the good news is that his work is unfailing.


2) the unfailing work of the Spirit: Do you know when the Spirit is first mentioned in the Bible? Already in Genesis 1:2 He is “hovering” over the waters—and we see him many times thereafter. Because He’s always been at work! In the first 39 books of the Bible we don’t read explicitly of the Spirit changing this heart or working faith in a person. But consider the beautiful results of the Spirit’s labour already then.

There was Noah, “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time.” There was Abraham, a mighty man of faith, who “believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Or David, whose heart was fully devoted to the LORD his God. These people weren’t righteous or faithful in themselves. We know about Noah’s failures with wine. We know of Abraham’s doubts and self-reliance. We know of David’s transgressions as king. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, dead sinners were brought to life. These people who were inclined to trust in themselves were made strong in their faith in God. Consider the whole cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11, and the many more who go unmentioned—they all testify to the unfailing work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of his people, because they all “lived by faith.”

To those lost in the ugly aftermath of their sin, Ezekiel prophesies a marvelous renewal. God says He’ll again put his Spirit in them—with guaranteed results, “[I will] cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my judgments and do them” (36:27).

To those who knew the Israelites even a little, these words must have seemed a joke: “Israel follow God’s decrees? Keep his laws?” The pattern was so ingrained. They were in exile—that’s how rotten they were! Could God’s Spirit possibly get anywhere with these people? “I will cause you to walk in my statutes.”

This promise can sound hollow at times for us too. You might be aware of your deep inability to stop sinning, or you might be sensitive to how you fail to truly trust in God’s Word. And so you might wonder if the Spirit is really near. Is He really changing us? Every Sunday God blesses us in the name of the Holy Spirit, yet immediately after the service we’re back to our complaining and worrying. Or during the week, one moment we might pray for the strength of the Spirit, yet a few minutes later we give in so feebly to the devil’s old tricks. At times we might even wonder, “Where is my faith? Where’s the Spirit of God? Is He really with me? It doesn’t feel like it.”

The good news is that the Holy Spirit isn’t a changing wind, here and then gone. He’s not subject to our ever-shifting moods and feelings. For the Holy Spirit is God himself! Which means his work in us is unstoppable, and his power is unchangeable! All of us are right in the middle of being sanctified, and you can see that. We’re not done yet, for we still have so much to learn about trusting God and loving others. But the Spirit is at work, and He will remain at work.

Beloved, I encourage you to look carefully in your life for the Spirit’s work. See how even in the middle of your earthly troubles and cares, the Spirit gives peace and hope. Or see how the Spirit works in you a hatred for the vile ways of sin and a growing love for what is right. Notice how the Spirit give you joy in drawing near to God. Think of how we’re normally indifferent toward other people, but by the Spirit we can begin to move toward them with genuine love. If you look for it, the evidence is there that the Holy Spirit never leaves a child of God unchanged. His work is unfailing.

The next chapter of Ezekiel is the memorable scene of the valley of dry bones: a whole valley filled with skulls and rib cages and leg bones. This was Israel: a dead nation. But then there is a tremendous rattling, and bone joins to bone, and sinew and flesh, until a vast army stands on their feet. Finally they are filled with God’s breath, and they’re ready to go.

So strikingly the LORD explains it: “I will open your graves and cause you to come up… I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live” (37:12,14). That is a spiritual resurrection, what Jesus meant by being born again. God promised it, and that’s what He started doing when He brought them back to the land.

It’s the same thing God does today. Be encouraged when you see the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, but also be exhorted. Because Scripture says that the powerful work of the Holy Spirit can either be stifled in us or promoted; his work can be subdued in our life or supported. Like Israel found out, the Spirit can be frustrated through the way we live, or by the things we neglect. This is why God warns us: Don’t resist the Spirit, grieve him, or quench him.

Consider then: Are you promoting the work of the Spirit? By the way you live, and the habits you have, and the attention you give to the Word, are you helping the Spirit’s work in you? Are you progressing in sanctification or are you falling into stagnation? Let’s not fail to walk by the Spirit each day. Then we’ll share in his increasing glory.


3) an increasing glory through the Spirit: The many prophecies of Ezekiel end with the words you sometimes see: “To be Continued.” There’s more to come! Past the day of Israel’s return from Babylon, God was looking far into the future. Ezekiel, like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Joel, spoke of a time of greater outpouring, even a time of a new covenant. As we said, the Spirit had always been sent to God’s people so that they could know him. But one day the Spirit would be sent in a new nearness and fullness.

This is what the Old Testament was all about: it was a time of preparation, a time of being in the shadows, but with a gradual movement toward the light. So what do we have that the Old Testament church did not? Today the Spirit’s work in us is far greater and far closer, for one principal reason: his message is far richer. Because now the Spirit’s message is all about Christ!

Israel always knew that Christ was coming. But now He has appeared in the flesh, and He has lived and died and He lives again. And the Holy Spirit shows us his completed work. We’re allowed to know the Saviour by name. We’re allowed to see his mighty works. We have promises straight from his mouth.

When Christ speaks in John 16, He tells his disciples how someone called the Counselor would come after him. Jesus said about the Spirit, “He will glorify me, for He will take of what is mine and declare it to you” (v 14). Here is the increased glory of the Spirit. For the Spirit takes the full gospel of the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Christ, and He makes it known to us! The Holy Spirit reveals to us just how sure our hope is in Christ. The Spirit confirms how Christ has redeemed us from sin and He renews us through his power.

The Spirit shows how God now dwells within us, even as He used to live in the temple. If the Old Testament said that God set his Spirit among his people, the New Testament says that God sends his Spirit within his people. The almighty God can be right here in our hearts, through his Spirit—closer than ever before, more involved than ever before.

He is with us, to guide our steps. He is with us, to give boldness. He is with us, to teach wise and true words to say. He is with us, to nurture thanksgiving in our hearts. Right now the Spirit is busy, conforming us to Christ and his image so that we become like him in his holiness, in his faith, in his love and goodness.

When we think about the Old Testament believers, we see how very blessed they were. They were redeemed from their sin, and invited into fellowship with God. The LORD had mercy on them, and He restored them, and gave his Word. In many ways, their story is exactly the same as ours: miserable sinners, redeemed by grace, renewed in strength, and promised a glorious future in God’s presence.

But through Christ and his Spirit, we receive salvation that is greater than has ever been seen or known. The day that Abraham rejoiced to see, even from a great distance, is a day that we’ve seen up close. What all the ancient prophets searched for so intently is a treasure God has revealed to us! What even the angels long to peer into, you and I may behold with the eyes of faith: the gospel of the full forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ.

Beloved congregation, this puts us in front of a great responsibility. God has told us the whole story! God has revealed the astonishing gospel of his love and power. It’s all ours, in Christ and through his Holy Spirit.

So embrace it. Treasure it. Know yourself to be greatly blessed, and then give to God your constant worship and thanksgiving, in the power of the Spirit!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2020, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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