While much of the talk is of bunkering down in the face of a coming cultural exile for the traditional church, we might just be in for a surprising gospel harvest at the same time.
Not a harvest instead of exile.
Nor in spite of.
But because of.
Amidst the scandals of rotten in churches that say one thing and do another; amidst the scandalon of the gospel proving to be too much for denominations seeking culture relevance, there’s a growing and genuine interest in the gospel that is translating to people actually becoming Christian.
And they’re not doing so because it’s convenient, or because all their friends are rushing to sign up and they’re getting caught in the hype, or because the media has a love-in with the church. In fact it’s quite the opposite. To remain a Christian today is quite a challenge in the West. To become one, well that’s another thing altogether.
Yet that is what I am seeing. That’s what our network at Providence is seeing, as Rory Shiner reports on The Gospel Coalition site.
In our small church alone we have seen several people become Christian this past few months; one a long time church attendee who was not converted. Another one who was saved out of the blue from an atheist background after starting out on a spiritual search through reading the book of Numbers of all things!
And about five or six young people asking us for baptism. And all in the face of a peer group outside the church that is increasingly suspicious – hostile even – towards their faith.
Yes I do think we’re headed towards cultural exile at a rate of knots. Yes I do think that the Benedict Option is a good long term strategy. But in the midst of all of that God is still saving people, still carrying out his intentions to bless the whole world through the covenant made with Abraham and completed in Christ.
It reminds me of the story of Ebed-Melech in the dark, desperate days of exile and ruin for Jerusalem. Babylon is in the process of dismantling the city, the temple and God’s people. More than that, it seems like God is in the process of dismantling His promises to bless Israel and the whole world through her.
And Jeremiah, the weeping, mournful prophet who vainly calls God’s people to turn from their desperate attempts to find security in anyone but God in the midst of it all, is shunned and disdained. Eventually he’s thrown into a well. Left to die.
And then we read this in Jeremiah 38:
When Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch who was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern—the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate— Ebed-melech went from the king’s house and said to the king, “My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they did to Jeremiah the prophet by casting him into the cistern, and he will die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, “Take thirty men with you from here, and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.” So Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe in the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes. Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.” Jeremiah did so. 13 Then they drew Jeremiah up with ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.
Did you get the idea that Ebed-Melech was an Ethiopian? It reminds us three times. Oh, and a eunuch as well. He’s not ticking too many of the boxes is he?
Yet right at the nadir of Israel’s life, God, through this Ethiopian eunuch, points to the fact that His salvation purposes of blessing the whole world through Abraham’s descendants are still at work.
Someone not of Israel living as a true Israelite, and indeed saving an Israelite from certain death from the hands of unregenerate Israel.
A prototype Good Samaritan perhaps, while Jeremiah’s countrymen not only walk by on the other side, but inflict his wounds.
And a precursor to another Ethiopian eunuch on the other side of the cross, who hears the good news about Jesus from Philip the evangelist, even in the midst of persecution of God’s people by faithless Jerusalem leaders once again.
In Jeremiah 39, when things have gotten worse in the capital, we read this:
The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah while he was shut up in the court of the guard: “Go, and say to Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will fulfill my words against this city for harm and not for good, and they shall be accomplished before you on that day. But I will deliver you on that day, declares the Lord, and you shall not be given into the hand of the men of whom you are afraid. 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.’”
Here is a true Israelite, as Paul would say in Romans 6. One circumcised of heart, not just body. Ebed- Melech finds salvation in God, even as the city is about the be handed over to the Babylonians one final time, and exile proper kicks in.
It’s a gospel moment. Ebed-Melech is not commended by God for taking Jeremiah out of the well, but for trusting in the LORD. It was his trust in the LORD, in fact, that led him to taking Jeremiah out of the well. Here is a picture – albeit a small, fractured picture, of the nations putting their trust in Israel’s God, even in horrendous times, with a faltering witness from Israel, and a looming exile in Babylon.
So both my experience and my theology are demonstrating that something good is going on, not instead of something difficult (a cultural exile will indeed be hard for many Christians), not in spite of something difficult (as if this is pattern is an upset for the books), but because of it of it.
We’ve talked a lot about how God is doing a purifying work in these hard, secular times, burning off some of the dross. We’ve talked about how this thing has not bottomed out, and that there’s still a falling away to come for many who love the praise of humans more than the praise of God. We’ve talked about how some of our church growth is simply because people are swimming away from sinking life boats and scrambling on to ours.
And that’s all true.
But at the same time God appears to be taking away, He’s also adding. Adding people to His kingdom His way. And many of them are looking at the difficulties that the gospel will bring to their lives, and deciding that for the joy set before them it will be worth it.
I’m looking forward to meeting Ebed-Melech in the new creation. For he is a prototype of all Gentiles such as I, who although not “cut off” physically, were indeed cut off spiritually from the hope of God, but who through Christ are being brought in at a surprisingly healthy rate of knots, despite our present cultural exilic circumstances.