Ancient Israel passed through phases, if not one long lasting phase, of infidelity towards God. At times the nation surpassed the pagan world in depravity and superstition and there was no barrier against the corrosion of faith and morals, no witness to truth and righteousness. By and large the church in our era seems to be beyond hope of recovery. It sinks further and further into irreverence and irrelevance. The peoples of the world stumble in darkness and the masses are lost. Every nation wrestles with its dilemmas and throws up its horrors. The ground that believers thought themselves to have occupied is receding. Influence wanes. Mockery and ridicule wax strong. Our duty as believers will be increasingly daunting and our hearts will be faint.
The prophet Ezekiel faced such a situation of hostility and hardness of heart. Even though the great glory of God was revealed to him, and the guardianship of God was pledged to him, his spirit was still shaken and overwhelmed by the calling assigned to him. The obstinacy of the people to whom he was to preach a word of warning terrified him. He was armed with the authority of the divine word but afraid of the reaction and the seeming hopelessness of his mission. To survive the ordeal thrust upon him God assured him, “I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them, though they are a rebellious house” (Ezek 3:8-9).
By nature and necessity the spokesmen of God are usually folk of sensitivity. There is much fear of the words they are commanded to declare for these are not congenial to the human mind. They shrink from the orders they have received and are strongly tempted to trim what they are given to say. It takes the strength of God to embolden them and disregard the enmity or indifference aroused. Their resolve has to be stiffened though the pain remains. Secret battles are often fought between God and his prophets and preachers. Subtle escapes from disapproval and unpopularity proffer themselves. Ezekiel was enabled to stand his ground though greatly outnumbered by those who would block their ears to him and scorn his speech and actions. Only when judgment is fully announced can the word of hope be expressed.
The Lord Jesus was constantly assailed by his opponents. Their plotting was always apparent and Jesus’ prowess in outwitting them was always obvious (e.g. Matthew 21: 23-27). They became more and more furious and their hatred ominous. But Jesus always firmly stood his ground. The animosity and trickery of the Jewish leaders could not trip or topple him. His human sensitivity may have been stung but his prophetic song of servant-hood to the will and word of God reveals that his resolve was never overcome. “The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. There fore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near.” (Isaiah 50:5-8a).
Ezekiel and Jesus were flinty folk, unmoveable in standing their ground and contending for truth. Martin Luther was a man of similar character. Neither threats nor rewards would silence him. He was brave but not without fear and apprehension. Often tired, and sick, overburdened with concern and wearied by conflict, he must have had his moments of weakness and anger. The turmoil of his ministry and times must have been overwhelming and difficult for any normal human being to bear. But Luther held out on many occasions. His reputed watchword is so apt: Here I stand! Luther stood his ground. And so, too, did the leaders of the English Reformation.
John Bradford was one of the dearest and most devout of the Protestant martyrs, and among the most able as preacher and theologian, held in high esteem by his peers. He went bravely to the stake in 1555 at the age of 45. He withstood the unpopularity of the people and their leaders, and stood his ground.
“But, alas! it is to be pitied, it is to be lamented: we ought to fear the plagues of God hanging over our heads. For notwithstanding God’s most abundant mercy upon us, which should provoke us to repentance, when or where was there more security, and less fear of God, than is even in this realm of England at this day?”
“ . . . whoso truly understandeth (the law and gospel), cannot by man’s doctrine be seduced from truth, or read the Scriptures but to edify both himself and others: whereas he that is ignorant of the same cannot, though he were a great doctor of divinity, and could rehearse every text of the Bible without a book, but both be deceived, and deceive others . . . . For how can it be, that such as find no terror of conscience, and see not their just damnation in the law of God, which commandeth things impossible to man’s nature and power; how can it be, I say, that such could find sweetness in the gospel of Christ? How can the benefit of Christ show itself to him that needeth it not?”
John Bradford joined the ranks of those fortified by God-given resolve to endure the hardness and stubbornness of those who oppose and defy the Word of God. His reputedly sweet nature must have suffered under the opposition he endured. He was a flinty man also. The people of God must become flinty in our time. We can see that many in high places of position and authority in church and state have become hardened and unyielding. We can see that society in general cares nothing for the Word. We must stand our ground for the honour of God and the welfare of men.