Understanding the concept of "conversion" is truly a "then" and "now" consideration. ["Then" was in the first century and "now" is today.] When we assume "conversion" is a simple process with "now's" concerns being the same concerns that existed almost 2000 years ago, our assumption will deceive us. "Conversion's" issues should be similar. "Conversion's" objectives should be similar. However, our "conversion" concerns and their "conversion" concerns are not the same. Too often first century "conversion" concerns and today's "conversion" concerns are not God's "conversion" concerns. The concept of "conversion" must come from God, not us.
Remember prior to Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, Christians did not exist. Christianity existed from Acts 2 forward when the resurrected Jesus was presented and accepted as Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36-42). The Christian individual and Christian community [the church] exists in fulfillment of God's intent and promise. God set His intent and promise in motion with Abraham in God's assurance to him that through him all nations would receive a blessing (Genesis 12:3).
Israel's primary purpose before Jesus' crucifixion was to allow God to work through that nation to bring all people the blessing of the Messiah [the Christ]. The Messiah would make God's blessing [salvation] available to all nations, not just Israel. Israel was God's means of bringing the Messiah. The Israel of Bible times [both before and after Jesus] did not see themselves as God's vehicle. They thought their long-standing relationship with God made them special. [This attitude can be seen in Romans 3:1.] Israel felt they had an "advantage" and circumcision produced unique "benefits." To them, merely being the vehicle through whom God worked did not and could not declare their significance.
For Israelites in the New Testament, "conversion" involved incredible changes. The converted Israelite changed his concepts in fundamental ways. He or she changed his or her concept of:
God's love and concern for those who were not Israelites
The Messiah's mission
God's family [God's community; God's church]
The meaning of righteousness
His [or her] concept of forgiveness
Those are enormous changes! They do not occur instantly. They require time, growth, and maturing. They begin with this life transforming realization: Jesus is the Christ; the fulfillment of God's promise to Israel; God's accomplished intent that began the moment evil entered human reality.
These changes required a new understanding of "who I am" and "what my needs are." The converted Israelite saw Israel as God's means of bringing Jesus to the world. He or she saw God's love for all people. He or she understood the Messiah had a much greater purpose than liberating the nation of Israel from domination and oppression. He or she understood atonement, redemption, sanctification, and forgiveness in terms of Jesus' death instead of the death of an animal. Jesus' cross and the resurrection changed everything!
All these changes began with the understanding that Jesus was the Christ. They often involved struggle [frequently revealed in the New Testament's epistles]. For many Israelites, "conversion's" transition was demanding and traumatic. Accepting Jesus as the Christ was not simple for the Jew!
To first century Israelites, "conversion" required accepting Jesus as God's promised Messiah. "Conversion" meant a redefinition of God's people. "Conversion's" basic issue was this: is Jesus the Christ? Faith in Jesus as the Christ was not merely accepting a fact. It was faith in a truth that redefined self, Israel's purpose, and relationship with God.
Today Christians are more likely to be familiar with first century Jewish "conversion" issues than "conversion" issues facing people who were not Jews. Before the close of the first century, the majority of Christians were not Jewish. Remember, if you exclude the Godfearers and the proselytes, other Christians who were not Jews knew little or nothing about:
Significant Israelite people in past ages
God's redemptive work through Israel
The Jewish concepts of the Messiah
"Conversion" issues for Jewish people and "conversion" issues for these people were not the same issues. These people viewed the world, life, spirituality, religious responsibility, worship, civic responsibility, and social responsibility through an idolatrous background. Their questions about Jesus being the Christ were different from Jewish questions. Jewish questions focused on their concepts of the Messiah. These people's questions focused on resurrection and deity.
For these people to accept Jesus as the crucified and resurrected one sent by God, they had to change their concepts of deity, life, existence, the way the world functioned, and human response to deity. Their understandings of the gods were significant factors in those concepts. Accepting Jesus as Savior often meant changing basic understandings of moral behavior, ethical responsibility, and the "rights and wrongs" of daily life. Christianity commonly expanded Jewish understandings of morals and ethics. Christianity commonly transformed the understandings of morals and ethics of people converted from idolatry. For example, expectations concerning sexual conduct in Judaism and Christianity were similar. Expectations concerning sexual conduct held by some forms of idolatry distinctly differed from Christianity.
At the core of first century "conversion" were these understandings: God sent Jesus to be the Christ. Jesus' crucifixion atoned for human sin and made divine forgiveness possible. Jesus' resurrection assures life with God after death to all who place their obedient trust in Jesus.
Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 2, Lesson 11
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