Ezekiel presents a vivid image, a valley filled with the dry bones of people long dead. It is a scene such as would be seen on a battlefield, long years later, when animals and the elements have devoured the flesh of the fallen soldiers who were left unburied.
It is a scene utterly devoid of any sense of God’s blessing. These are bones of people who were defeated by a powerful enemy, and did not have even the consolation of their remains being properly cared for. There is no sign of life, not even the possibility of life.
Unless God does something. As in the beginning of Genesis, God – through the prophecy of Ezekiel – forms bodies out of what was lifeless, and gives to them the breath of life. In the same way, the exiled Israelites, feeling cut off from God and without hope, may know that God has not forgotten them and that, by His power, they still have a future as His people.
Some Bible translations use a different word or phrase instead of “flesh” in this and other passages by Paul, to show that the problem is not with the physical body per se but with the sinful things we do with our bodies. (And anything that we do, we use our bodies to do, so this is not just about the kind of sins that we particularly associate with the body, such as sexual immorality.)
Paul uses the word flesh in different ways with overlapping meanings. It is clear in this passage, however, that whatever it means, it refers to a mindset of hostility toward God, and that this is linked to death. In contrast, we receive life from the Spirit and this life is one oriented toward doing what is pleasing to God.
When a close friend is dying, we usually want to be there, to provide what comfort we can and to say our good-byes. We may feel discomfort at Jesus’ choice to deliberately delay going to Bethany when he hears that Lazarus is ill.
Even knowing his purpose, we can relate to Martha and Mary’s immediate response upon seeing Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We know that God has power over all the circumstances of our lives, and we are troubled when our requests for help go seemingly unanswered.
Jesus’ power is displayed very dramatically, however, when he does arrive, and calls Lazarus forth from the grave. Even though we know this return to life for Lazarus was only temporary and that sooner or later he died again, this miracle assures us of Jesus’ power over death. Those of us who believe in him have the assurance that we too, even though we die, will live.