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The Call to ConversionWhy Faith Is Always Personal but Never Private
By Jim Wallis
The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned. From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
Matthew 4:16 - 17
Just as light breaks into the darkness, the kingdom of God has arrived. That is how the prophet Isaiah, quoted here by Matthew, said it would be. The times into which Jesus came were dark indeed. Political domination at the hands of Rome, economic oppression by the rich, and human sinfulness on every side - these were the experiences of the common people. But where there was no light, God's new order would shine for all to see in the person of Jesus Christ. No wonder the word gospel means "good news"! The people had been waiting a long time.
Jesus inaugurated a new age, heralded a new order, and called the people to conversion. "Repent!" he said. Why? Because the new order of the kingdom is breaking in upon you and, if you want to be a part of it, you will need to undergo a fundamental transformation. Jesus makes the need for conversion clear from the beginning. God's new order is so radically different from everything we are accustomed to that we must be spiritually remade before we are ready and equipped to participate in it. In his Gospel, John would later refer to the change as a "new birth." No aspect of human existence is safe from this sweeping change - neither the personal, nor the spiritual, social, economic, and political. The kingdom of God has come to change the world and us with it. Our choice is simply whether or not we will offer our allegiance to the kingdom.
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matt. 4:18 - 22)
Jesus called people to follow him. The first disciples took him quite literally. They were young Jewish men with established occupations and family responsibilities who nevertheless left everything to follow him. Jesus called them to himself, and he called them to a mission. "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Their calling was not just for their own sake. From the outset, Jesus's disciples were - and are - called for a purpose.
To leave their nets was no light choice for these Galilean fishermen. Their fishing nets were their means of livelihood and the symbol of their identity. Now Peter and the others were leaving not only their most valued possessions; they were leaving their former way of life. That is what it meant to follow Jesus. Old ties were broken, former things left behind. Peter said, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you" (Matt. 19:27).
Four simple fishermen heard the call of Jesus. They were the first to obey and follow. They would not be the last. Others too would forsake all previous commitments to join Jesus's band. They would become his disciples and share his life. From then on they were bound to Jesus and to his kingdom; nothing would ever be the same for them again. They had made a clear choice with very real consequences. Jesus told potential converts to count the cost:
As they were going along the road, a man said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." But he said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:57 - 62)
In the Bible, conversion means "turning." "To convert" in the King James Bible is translated "to turn" in the Revised Standard Version.
The Hebrew word for conversion (shub) means "to turn, return, bring back, restore." It occurs more than one thousand times and always involves turning from evil and to the Lord. The prophets continually called Israel to turn from its sins and worship of idols and return to Yahweh, the true and living God. This call to conversion was both individual and corporate in the Old Testament. These people of God were much like us, always falling away from their Lord and getting themselves into trouble. Conversion meant to come back, to come home again, to wander no longer in sin, blindness, and idolatry. To convert meant to be again who you really were and to remember to whom you really belonged.
The Greek words for conversion (metanoein and epistrephein) mean "to turn around." Turning around involves stopping and proceeding in a new direction. The New Testament stresses the necessity of a radical turnabout and invites us to pursue an entirely different course of life. Thus, fundamental change of direction is central to the meaning of the words. The assumption - from the preaching of John the Baptist through Jesus to the first apostles - is that we are on the wrong path, moving away from God. The Bible refers to our self-determined course as walking in sin, darkness, blindness, dullness, sleep, and hardness of heart. To convert is to make an about-face and take a new path.
Excerpted from The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis Excerpted by permission.
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