Report from the Field
Grace Life College and Seminary Graduation Message: A Theology of Transformation
One of the main purposes of this journal is to introduce readers to issues in the global church. One of the ways we do this is through the unique contributions of leaders from around the world. Dr. Alloboe's message, delivered to the first graduating class of Grace Life Seminary in Monrovia, Liberia, is a window into one African leader's hopes and desires for future pastors and church leaders in West Africa.
Ezekiel, a priest of Judah, was deported to Babylon in a large group of valiant leaders after Jehoyakin, king of Judah, surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar with his family and court. God called him and sent him to speak to his people, who were in a situation of excruciating distress. In his message, he emphasized the distress of people as the consequence of their hardening sins and announced the restoration that will come from the Lord.
The people were comparable to dry bones in their state of rebellion, but the Lord resolved to give them life. This message is clearly expressed in the passage titled the vision of dried bones (Ezek. 34), a strong image that expresses the consequence of sin and the promise of restoration, which will not only be the work of God's power but also will be the result of the prophet's prophetic mission. We easily detect two parts in the passage after the introduction that sets the scene: the first part (vv. 1–10) presents the image of the vision and the second (vv. 11-14) gives the explanation of the vision.
Figure 1: Vision and Reality in Ezekiel 34:1-14
Some expressions in this passage draw our attention and need explanation if we are to grasp God's intention. Here we will consider the most important of them for our situation because time does not permit us to go into greater detail.
The prophet says, "The hand of the Lord was upon me"; an expression found three times in the book of Ezekiel. In the Bible, it may have the meaning of opposition, protection, or a particular manifestation. In this passage, it signifies the fact that the prophet is seized by God and is entirely at his disposal. Under these conditions, the prophet can be transported to where the Lord wants him to be and do what he wants him to do. The prophet then acts entirely under the orders of God who, at the same time, watches over him while he carries out his mission. God seizing him has a purpose that he wants to accomplish through him. He leads him into a valley, where he discovers what the people to whom God sends him look like.
Once in the middle of the valley, the prophet now becomes aware of a desolate situation: the valley is full of parched bones, something that, at first, arouses all kinds of emotions in him and even causes a crisis. As if to make him see the situation of the bones more clearly and without error, the prophet says, the Lord "led me around them." Behind this movement, we see the idea of a review, a careful and complete observation to appreciate it well. Details are important here to describe the real situation of the people to the prophet. The observation is alarming—the bones have no life. The following is his conclusion: "many were on the surface of the valley and behold, they were dry." The prophet has just seen in pictures the situation of the people who cry out their pain and despair saying, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off" (v. 11). This distress that snatches such a cry from them is described in the book by strong and frightening statements. God has brought upon them painful and horrible situations of which here are some descriptions:
• A great famine that will lead to the drastic rationing of the few commodities available (4:16) and, in the extreme, to eat the human flesh of their children or parents (5:10);
• The plague and famine that will decimate a third of the inhabitants;
• The sword that will also kill a third of the inhabitants;
• The dispersion of a third over the whole earth;
• Their corpses will be cast before the idols they have created for themselves, and their bones will be scattered around the altars (6:5);
• There will be desolation among the people and even in the king's court.
In short, life becomes painful for them; suffering and pain have the upper hand, and no human solution is conceivable in the face of this calamitous situation that snatches cries of pain from one another. The situation can be described as "living without life." It is a drying up of life that the vision of the dried bones reveals in a striking way.
It is the condition of the people who have fallen away from God and thereby fall short of his glory as the prophet saw in Ezekiel 10. Have we not read in the New Testament: "for fall have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23)? "For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it" (Rom 8:20)? Distance from the glory of God is the source of human misery in all societies on earth. The need for restoration is more than necessary and fortunately, God communicates to us his plan of restoration in Jesus Christ.
Continuing to look at our passage, we note the small question–answer dialog between the prophet and God in verse 3. The Lord asks a question: "Son of man, will these bones be able to live again?" The prophet's answer was, "Lord Eternal, you know it." Humanly speaking, the answer to this question is clearly "no" if we look at the descriptions made of these bones above. However, by asking the question, God insinuates that something more exists than the human perspective or possibility, and he wants to bring the prophet to an awareness and conviction of it. The prophet's response also insinuates in return the possibility that there is more than he, as a human, can think. Ezekiel believed that the answer lay with the Lord; the ultimate fate of these bones depends on him. Some translations are accurate in highlighting the emphasis of the Hebrew text saying: "You, you know it." Thus, the idea is that only the Lord knows the fate of these bones, as the New Living translation translates it: "you alone know the answer to that." Ezekiel then insinuates that only God has the solution. Indeed, the Lord, having already decided to revive these bones, did nothing but tell the prophet in verse 4, what he expected of him for this great transformation to be realized; God said to him, "prophesy on these bones."
If the Lord has made the prophet note the alarming disaster that the people are experiencing, then it is not for nothing. He wants to insert the prophet into his restoration plan. What should the prophet do? He must prophesy. Let me point out at once that what is asked of the prophet is not to repeat "I prophesy about you" every time as many preachers do today. Rather, it is a matter of communicating an intelligible word, which has meaning for those who listen to it and welcome for the restoration of their lives. "To prophesy" in biblical thought in general is to communicate to a group of people a message received from God. It is not primarily a question of predicting the future, but of telling the people in view of God's plan to bring them into that plan. Looking in the book of Ezekiel, we can know through certain statements and expressions who the prophet must be and what his mission is. For the sending of the prophet to the people is done in clear terms and with a specific mission. The references are unambiguous in the book:
• Son of man, I send you to the children of Israel (2:3);
• You, son of man, listen to what I am going to tell you! Do not be rebellious, like this family of rebels (2:8). Receive in your heart and listen to your ears all the words that I will tell you! (3:10);
• Open your mouth, and eat what I will give you... a scroll book (2:8-9);
• But when I speak to you, I will open your mouth, so that you may say to them: Thus speaks the Lord, the Lord (3:27);
• I establish you as a sentinel in the house of Israel. Thou shalt hear the word coming out of my mouth, and thou shalt warn them from me (3:17);
• What I want is not for the wicked to die, it is for him to change his behavior and live. Come back, come back from your wrong way and why would you die, house of Israel? (33:11).
The prophet is therefore commissioned by the Lord. He should also demonstrate a character of total obedience to the law and the Lord's instructions. He must listen and understand, and then communicate the message that the Lord entrusts to him for the people so that they return to the Lord. In the scene of the vision of the parched bones, God gave the content of the message that Ezekiel must address to the people (vv. 5-9), and Ezekiel only has to communicate it as it is specified: "say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord." This is what Ezekiel did as we read it: "So I prophesied as he commanded me." (vv. 7, 10). What was the result?
The result of his prophecy was not long in coming: the bones drew closer to one another to form normal skeletons, nerves appeared on the bones, the flesh covered them, the skin fell into place, and then breath came into them; it was a biological process of revitalization unimaginable by men. A large army arose in the valley in place of the bones. God thus showed his prophet what he will do in the future of the people of Israel—revitalize them with his Word and Spirit in the time he has planned. The word of God communicated and received revives the parched bones that otherwise will never have come back to life.
Eventually, as Paul explains in his epistle to the Romans, Israel will change its content and will no longer be a people composed of Abraham's biological descendants, but a people comprised of Abraham's descendants by faith. This is the new Israel whose sons are those who have listened to God's word and accepted it by faith. Is this not what began on the day of the first Pentecost after the ascension of Jesus? Men and women from all over the world at this time have listened to Peter's preaching, accepted the truth, and formed the first community of the new Israel, that is, the church. Is this not what happened in Samaria when Philip preached the gospel to the Samaritans who believed and were saved? Is this not what happened at Cornelius the Roman Centurion's house where pagans gathered to listen to Peter's preaching and were regenerated? Is this not what happened when Paul and his companions preached the gospel from city to city in the Roman Empire, resulting in the birth of several Christian communities in cities? Is it not this well-understood, assimilated, and practiced word of truth that enabled Christians to resist the most atrocious persecutions of Roman emperors during the first centuries of Christianity? Is this not what happened with the global mission that brought the gospel to the most remote corners of the globe, resulting in the creation of multitudes of churches on every continent, especially in Africa? The army of the kingdom of God is set up through the preaching of the gospel into the truth.
3. Transformative Theology in Africa
Finally, I provide here four characteristics of a transformative theology from the study of the vision of dried bones. I want to share with you first a quote from the Introduction to the book of Ezekiel in the Africa Study Bible: "Our modern life of poverty, conflicts, ethnic clashes, pains, and tears is much like a life of exile. Africa needs prophets who will warn us and call all people to repent and obey God (John 14:24) with transformed hearts." The theology that will realize this agenda is what I call a transformative theology, the four characteristics of which are listed below.
First, transformative theology is based entirely on God's word. It is the word well assimilated and communicated faithfully.
To revive our calamitous and dead world in its sins, God wants his word to be preached to this world. Men have demonstrated great intelligence through science. We are amazed by all that they have been able to discover, explain, and invent. You cannot go to school without hearing names such as Pythagoras, Thales, Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein, Pascal, Peter and Marie Currie, and Louis Pasteur. We benefit from these scientific discoveries, but neither they nor the theories that underlie them they can bring the world back to life. Life comes from God's word, which we have in the Bible and which is his revelation. This word, when well-studied and understood, is the truth that gives life. Anything that contradicts it is a lie, a source of death. This is why Jesus said, "Man will not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God" (Matt 4:4). What is the relationship between theology and God's word?
Theology is the activity of carefully reading the Bible, studying it to understand it, and then applying it to our realities in order to walk according to and not against the will of God. Theology then seeks to correctly assimilate the written word in the Bible and to communicate it in all its fullness and truth. Theology is ultimately only the fact of saying in an intelligible way for our contemporaries the "already said of God," which is in the Bible. It requires that theologians have the assurance that God speaks to us through the Bible and that the content of the Bible is error-free, capable of leading unto new life the one who listens to it and receives it as such. This assurance pushes theologians, pastors, and evangelists to a laborious, assiduous, and organized study to understand what is written, to put it into practice, and to communicate it. It is this type of theologian modeled on the portrait and mission of the prophet, as we have seen, who can be an instrument in God's hand for the transformation of hearts for new life.
In the end, it is neither theologians nor pastors who have something to say to their contemporaries, but the Lord himself; theologians and pastors have no solution to the calamitous situation of the world, it is the Lord who has it; theologians and pastors cannot give life to the dead in their sins, it is the Lord who can and wants to restore men to life.
Second, transformative theology considers the realities of the people for whom it is intended. The promise of God's new life is for all families on earth according to the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, that is, for all nations according to the Lord Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28:19. These families or nations live in different environments and have different realities. They are culturally located. Theology must be relevant to them through the language in which the word is communicated to them and through the themes or subjects treated. Thus, theologians must have a real knowledge of the sociocultural realities of their recipients to avoid making speeches that tell them nothing and wasting time on subjects that do not really have a stake for them. John Calvin said that to do theology well, one must begin with the study of the religions of the people and frame one's theology accordingly. Every culture needs the word of truth.
Third, transformative theology is community theology. A community evokes the fact of being together, of sharing the same realities, of supporting one another, of recognizing a common destiny. That is, theology must be done as part of a community if it is to transform. The driving force that makes living with others possible is love that seeks the interest of the other and that makes solidarity with the sufferings, worries, fears, joys, concerns, weaknesses, and strengths of the other. Being with others and dialoguing with them, we can reach out to them with the heart concretely, and not throw them learned speeches in which they do not find themselves. Theology must be a witness or a manifestation of love to transform. It offers something that we share and eat together: the life that God gives.
Fourth, transformative theology is a theology of hope. Africa is depicted as the black continent not only because of skin color but also and above all because it is seen as the place par excellence of suffering, misery, weakness, hunger, fratricidal war, genocide, and death. It is the place where what wants to destroy life finds fertile ground in a visible and sometimes popular way. She is dark and her sons flee her to find a good life elsewhere. She needs the hope that God's word gives, and our theology must communicate it to her. Africans, similar to all other peoples, need to put their hope in God, knowing that they are an integral part of his plan. They must live for God, expecting from him the true happiness he has promised, the definitive end of calamities. This hope is far from leading to a resignation vis-à-vis the commitment to the improvements of conditions in which we live. Rather, it leads us to become actively involved in the good works that promote life and fiercely fight everything that contradicts life. Hope is the completion of the work of transformation that God is already working in us by accepting his word.
To conclude, we say that through theological formation, we are prepared to be workers of revelation who must penetrate the hamlets, villages, cities, and hearts of Africans to bring the transformation that no science, however elaborate it may be, can accomplish. It is God's revelation that can bring about this transformation. For this, we must practice the following:
• Let us listen carefully to God's word.
• Let us study God's word assiduously.
• Let us apply God's word without reservation.
• Let us communicate God's word faithfully and in a relevant way.