Faithful

An unlikely Old Testament hero—the African eunuch,
Ebed-melech—offers us a model of courage.

 
rf-132x132We first meet him in Jeremiah 38 when he rescued Jeremiah. The prophet was in trouble—discarded to die in a muddy cistern—until Ebed-melech acted. In the rescue this African’s faith invites admiration and imitation. And through his story we gain another facet in knowing God.
But before taking up any lessons let’s review the episode.
First, who was Ebed-melech? We don’t know him apart from Jeremiah. His name in the text seems to be a title rather than a personal name. It means “servant of the king.” And so he was: one of the palace staff for Zedekiah, King of Judah. This raises a related question. Was he a free man? Probably not. He was an Ethiopian and a eunuch. Men don’t volunteer to be eunuchs and as an Ethiopian—an African—he was almost certainly a black man serving in a non-African setting. This is the profile of slavery.
Second, who was Jeremiah? God’s iron-like prophet in a nation of balsawood characters. He spoke on God’s behalf to warn Judah, a nation miraculously rescued from an Assyrian invasion only a few decades before, of coming doom. Judeans, with the earlier rescue, felt they were bulletproof because God lived among them in his Jerusalem temple. And with that they were spiritually faithless as this citation reveals, among many, from Jeremiah 18:11-12.
Jeremiah speaking—“Return, every one from his evil way, and amend you ways and your deeds.”
The answer—“But they say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’”
The Judeans soon wanted to kill this messenger for exposing their sin. Jeremiah, we should add, was an equal opportunity prophet. His targets included almost everyone: the people, other prophets, the priests, and the kings of his era. Even his own family wanted to kill him. So he was, to say the least, a lonely voice.
Yet Jeremiah was reliable.
Whatever God told him, he told the people—and whatever he said came true. So when we pick up the cistern episode the local disaster was nearly at a crescendo. Jeremiah warned that the Babylonian Army would soon defeat Judah; and the Babylonians already had Jerusalem—Judah’s capital—under siege.
Jeremiah was imprisoned at this stage but still safe. The question—given the hostility towards him—was how long this would last. Eventually a group of officials came to King Zedekiah and asked for permission to kill him. The king gave his passive approval—“[I] can do nothing against you”—and Jeremiah was soon in the cistern.
Cisterns—emergency water tanks carved into bedrock stone—didn’t have outlets; so any dirt or debris that collected on roofs and in rain channels were washed into the tank and settled to the bottom over time. With Jerusalem under siege—and her main water springs located outside the city walls—all the free water had already been drawn out of this cistern. All that remained was deep mud. The only way out was by the mouth of the tank and that was beyond Jeremiah’s reach. He was without food and the suffocating ooze would drown him if he tried to sleep. Jeremiah was doomed.
Jeremiah RescuedThat’s when the African servant had enough. He went to the king and called for a moral reversal: “My lord the king, these men have done evil!” His stunning charge either cowed the king or stirred his conscience—or both. Zedekiah quickly gave new orders, this time for Jeremiah to be rescued and Ebed-melech led the effort. This part of the account was uniquely specific: a looped rope was lowered and Ebed-melech told Jeremiah to use rags to pad his arms against the rope as he was drawn out of the thick muck. Jeremiah survived and was then protected to the end.
The story of Ebed-melech didn’t end with the rescue. It concludes later, in chapter 39:16-18, with another rescue, this one from God who spoke to Ebed-melech through Jeremiah when the Babylonians finally conquered Jerusalem: “For I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword, but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have put your trust in me, declares the LORD.”
We leave the story with some final reflections.
First and foremost, Ebed-melech was not passive in the face of evil. Even though he was virtually powerless—an African slave—he stepped out to stir the king’s conscience. God also spoke of Ebed-melech’s conduct as his “trust in me.” By this trust he refused to be intimidated by powerful men. And this, in turn, gives us the source of his courage: a vision of God that matched Jeremiah’s at a moment when it counted most.
This is what faith in God can and should produce: courage and action whenever it’s needed.
~ Ron

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo UK
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

Conversion as Conversation

Do all true conversions come
by way of a conversation with God?

rf-132x132My life-changing response to God’s love—my conversion—came through a conversation with Christ. I was a young skeptic—ready to dismiss my Sunday-School charade of faith—when a chain of unlikely events caught my attention. Was God at work? Did he actually exist? Or, more to the point, if he did exist was he trying to catch my attention?
What came next can be compressed to this: I picked up a Bible and began reading the Gospel of Matthew. When I reached the Sermon on the Mount the reading turned into a conversation. What Jesus said had personal impact: as if the writing was meant for me.
What were the key features? When Jesus spoke about sin in chapter five I recognized myself as a sinner. Then I asked—inwardly but in fully formed thoughts—what he expected of me. He answered in what I read next: perfection! This back-and-forth was repeated as I raised follow-up questions, each of which was addressed just a verse or two later.
Conversion as ConversationWhen I reached Matthew 6:33 he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” I took it as a personal invitation and responded with an unconditioned, “Yes, Lord, I’m yours!” That exchange continues to define my life.
One impact is that I still come to Bible reading for my ongoing conversation with God. I bring my questions and concerns to Bible reading and I find his presence there, still answering and stirring new questions.
My experience raises a question: do all true conversions come by way of a conversation with God? Did my personal encounter reflect a necessary feature of salvation, or was it one option among many—or, perhaps, an exception to the rule?
If it depends on what I hear from others it seems to be exceptional—but should it be? We usually hear of two other approaches to conversion. One has been called “decisionism”: as people are invited to make a “decision for Christ.”
The assumption here is that a person’s mind and will are engaged by the speaker’s reasonable and compelling case for the gospel. Faith, then, is the listener’s agreement with gospel claims that includes a practical embrace of those claims—the “trust and obey for there’s no other way” portrayal of faith.
A second widespread approach to faith is the educational—“catechetical”—model. It usually starts with infant-baptism in the believing community. God is understood to be present both in extending needed grace to the infant through baptism, and then in supporting the child’s progression to adult faith with Christian education as his means of grace.
It’s worth noticing that both the decision and catechetical forms of faith are cooperative: divine and human actions are required. The decision model focuses on the adult choice to believe the gospel; and the catechism model relies on church training and the student’s eventual expression of agreement in order to be confirmed in the faith.
Yet something may be missing in both models. In each case the symmetry between God’s efforts and the person’s efforts are based on knowing and choosing: God informs and we choose.
What isn’t addressed is a changed heart—something only accomplished by the Spirit’s ministry. We can think of John 3 here.   And the first fruit of the Spirit is a transforming love. That’s not to say that decision-based or training-based models of faith preclude an encounter with God’s Spirit and his love poured out in our hearts. Yet in many settings that love isn’t portrayed as God’s basis for awakening faith.
In James 2:19 we’re reminded that simple knowledge isn’t the sole basis of faith: even demons believe in God. And the Jewish religious leaders in the New Testament were premier representatives of an educational and decision-defined—behavioral—form of faith. What was missing? Jesus told them in John 5:42, “you do not have the love of God within you.” In other words, the calling of Matthew 22:37 to love God isn’t a passing thought. And we’re aware of 1 Corinthians 13—of faith, hope, and love—as well.
It might be argued, of course, that love is equated with obedience in John 14:21 so that love is just another word for self-determined obedience. But even a cursory reading of the context tells us otherwise. The metaphor Jesus uses in the next chapter—the vine-branch-fruit imagery—presents love and obedience as borne out of our abiding in his love, so our love is a fruit of his love and not the other way round.
So what of the conversion-as-a-conversation model of faith? The central premise is that a once-deaf—or a once-blind—heart is now able to hear and see. In Paul’s expression of Ephesians 1:18, “the eyes of our hearts” are enlightened by the grace of God. The former “hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18) that once supported alienation and ignorance of God is now undone.
All we do is listen and respond.
“Respond to what?” some might ask.
To his self-giving—as the Word of God—and to his Spirit-generated Scriptures that tell us of himself. In effect he invites us into a conversation he’s had with the Father and the Spirit from eternity past and that will continue into the eternal future for all who know him.
~ Ron

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo UK
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

Catching the Spirit of Romans

What is the proper place of the Holy Spirit today?

Through the centuries the Church’s perception of the Holy Spirit has often been overstated or understated.
The Montanists, for instance, stirred a strong reaction by their claims of immediate Spirit-direction. And centuries later Joachim of Fiore mistakenly posited a new Age of the Spirit to displace the presumed passing of the ages of the Father and the Son. Many followed his lead, to the growing concern of church leaders.
Catching the Spirit of RomansThe 17th century Puritans were then equally errant—in the face of cultic Spirit groups like the Familists—by reducing the Spirit’s role to the invisible “doctrine of means”: holding that he only works indirectly, through “means of grace” such as preaching, praying, Bible reading, and the like.
So what is the proper place of the Spirit in the Church for today?
The answer, of course, is: Whatever God wants it to be. And he gives us some clear indications in the Bible. The book of Acts, for instance, tells us how the Spirit was the overt director of early Church growth. His activism was powerful and pervasive.
Yet there are arguable hesitations in treating all the descriptions in Acts of the Spirit’s activism as normative for today. So in asking how the Spirit means to minister today, especially given the historic cycle of abuses-and-suppressive reactions, we look for guidance from the Bible.
And the New Testament epistles offer as much as we need to know about the Spirit’s work. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, for instance, we have crucial coaching on the Spirit’s role in forming faith. Paul’s Spirit-rich ministry was described in Acts; then in Romans Paul presents the Spirit’s work with special care. So let’s go there.
In an overview reading of Romans we find what might be called Spirit-bursts among longer stretches of relative silence. The epistle starts with a reference to the Spirit in Paul’s introductory remarks. Following that are one-off references in 2:29, 5:5, and 7:6. Chapter 8 then explodes with 21 references—the greatest concentration in the Bible—followed by notices in 9:1, 11:8, 12:11, and 14:17. And, finally, Paul ends with a micro-burst of 4 references in chapter 15.
References to the Father and the Son, by comparison, are much more common and evenly distributed. And that raises a question: is the Spirit’s role diminished by Paul’s relatively localized references?
No. The same pattern is found in the Gospels and elsewhere in Scripture. John, for one, has his own major Spirit discussions in chapters 3 and 14-16. Even the Old Testament has concentrations as in Isaiah 63 and Ezekiel 36-37.
Reasons for this pattern grow out of the Spirit’s unique role—his ministry in the “economy” of the Trinity. The Spirit, in very simple terms, has the role of facilitating fellowship or communion both within the Godhead and in our union with Christ. The Father, for instance, planned our salvation; the Son accomplished it; and the Spirit applies it. Each role is crucial but the narrative discussion of the planning and the accomplishing has the most print.
With that in mind, let’s trace the Spirit-in-Romans in a very brief overview. We’ll need to read between the lines at points and I invite each reader to take a look for himself or herself.
Paul launches the epistle with a Trinitarian reference to the Son’s human heritage in King David and to the Holy Spirit in his deity—the latter being witnessed to by the power evidenced in Christ’s resurrection (1:4). The text is cryptic—reflecting some assumptions we need to chase elsewhere.
Paul’s concern in writing to the Romans features a disturbing tension between one or more of the Jewish Christian house-churches—a group still devoted to Jewish practices—and the Gentile-Christian (with some Jews involved) house-church. The former presumably saw Jesus as the Messiah who came in a Jewish context—with Gentile Christians then expected to take up Judaism in expressing their faith. In chapter 2 Paul dismisses this vision and, with that, he reminds these Jews that their own spirituality lacks moral credibility.
The Gentile-Christian house church—certainly the community led by Aquila with his wife Priscilla (16:3-4)—offered a healthy contrast to the unhappy Jews. The Gentile Christians had an exemplary spirituality (2:14-16). Paul attributed the success of their genuine spirituality to the Spirit’s work of circumcising the heart—of aligning the heart to God’s ways by inner reformation (2:29).
The key text in Romans for understanding this inside-out change of heart was then offered in Paul’s call for hope in the face of external persecutions: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5).
Love, then, is God’s power for change. The sin of self-love or pride can only be dissolved by a greater love. And the Spirit—the Trinity’s agent of fellowship—carries God’s love to the soul. Paul—without losing sight of this truth—then called on Romans to embrace this grace of love—“that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (5:8)—with a new sense of freedom and power.
Then when we reach chapter 8 we find that, despite Paul’s silence about the Spirit’s presence and fellowship in chapters 6-7, his presence was still seen as the basis for transformation. Once again this is accomplished by the Spirit sharing God’s love with his chosen ones: “[Nothing of any sort] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). In other words the Spirit is forever pouring that love out in our hearts and that sets up the security we need!
There’s much more to be said but I’m out of space. Let me just say that later texts like chapter 12:1-3 call for rethinking everything in life on the basis of this love. We see this link to love in later references—“Let love be genuine” and “love is the fulfilling of the law” (12:9 & 13:10)—and in the summary of 15:13 we return to the Spirit’s work of producing hope: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
So how does the Spirit change us? By dramatic signs and wonders on the one hand? Or by disappearing and leaving the task of faith to us, on the other? Or—as in Romans—by living in us, and forever speaking into our hearts: “The Father loves you and he wants you to call him Daddy! Come with me and let’s enjoy him as much as the Son does!” Read Romans and see for yourself.
Spirit’s unique role—his ministry in the “economy” of the Trinity. The Spirit, in very simple terms, has the role of facilitating fellowship or communion both within the Godhead and in our union with Christ. The Father, for instance, planned our salvation; the Son accomplished it; and the Spirit applies it. Each role is crucial but the narrative discussion of the planning and the accomplishing has the most print.
With that in mind, let’s trace the Spirit-in-Romans in a very brief overview. We’ll need to read between the lines at points and I invite each reader to take a look for himself or herself.
Paul launches the epistle with a Trinitarian reference to the Son’s human heritage in King David and to the Holy Spirit in his deity—the latter being witnessed to by the power evidenced in Christ’s resurrection (1:4). The text is cryptic—reflecting some assumptions we need to chase elsewhere.
Paul’s concern in writing to the Romans features a disturbing tension between one or more of the Jewish Christian house-churches—a group still devoted to Jewish practices—and the Gentile-Christian (with some Jews involved) house-church. The former presumably saw Jesus as the Messiah who came in a Jewish context—with Gentile Christians then expected to take up Judaism in expressing their faith. In chapter 2 Paul dismisses this vision and, with that, he reminds these Jews that their own spirituality lacks moral credibility.
The Gentile-Christian house church—certainly the community led by Aquila with his wife Priscilla (16:3-4)—offered a healthy contrast to the unhappy Jews. The Gentile Christians had an exemplary spirituality (2:14-16). Paul attributed the success of their genuine spirituality to the Spirit’s work of circumcising the heart—of aligning the heart to God’s ways by inner reformation (2:29).
The key text in Romans for understanding this inside-out change of heart was then offered in Paul’s call for hope in the face of external persecutions: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5).
Love, then, is God’s power for change. The sin of self-love or pride can only be dissolved by a greater love. And the Spirit—the Trinity’s agent of fellowship—carries God’s love to the soul. Paul—without losing sight of this truth—then called on Romans to embrace this grace of love—“that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (5:8)—with a new sense of freedom and power.
Then when we reach chapter 8 we find that, despite Paul’s silence about the Spirit’s presence and fellowship in chapters 6-7, his presence was still seen as the basis for transformation. Once again this is accomplished by the Spirit sharing God’s love with his chosen ones: “[Nothing of any sort] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). In other words the Spirit is forever pouring that love out in our hearts and that sets up the security we need!
There’s much more to be said but I’m out of space. Let me just say that later texts like chapter 12:1-3 call for rethinking everything in life on the basis of this love. We see this link to love in later references—“Let love be genuine” and “love is the fulfilling of the law” (12:9 & 13:10)—and in the summary of 15:13 we return to the Spirit’s work of producing hope: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
So how does the Spirit change us? By dramatic signs and wonders on the one hand? Or by disappearing and leaving the task of faith to us, on the other? Or—as in Romans—by living in us, and forever speaking into our hearts: “The Father loves you and he wants you to call him Daddy! Come with me and let’s enjoy him as much as the Son does!” Read Romans and see for yourself.
~ Ron

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo UK
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog