A letter from Dustin Ellington in Zambia
August 22, 2012
Greetings from Zambia. I try to keep my eyes and ears open for inspiration, and certain stories, images, and ideas catch my attention from time to time. One image has done this for me lately, and I would like to share it with you. It’s the way that Luke, John, and Paul use the Greek word for “press upon” (epikeimai) in the New Testament, and it’s loaded with meaning for the work of training pastors here at Justo Mwale Theological University College.
I like how some versions of the New Testament translate Luke 5:1 literally: “the crowd was pressing in on Jesus to hear the word of God.” The verse is found in a passage in which Simon Peter hears Jesus give him a small command to move his boat a little, followed by a harder command to go back out into deep water after a whole night of catching nothing. This is followed by a magnificent catch of fish. Then Jesus explains that Simon Peter is now to fish for people, and Peter leaves everything to follow Jesus. It’s a rich passage for learning about discipleship, yet we often tend to miss the first couple of verses that set the stage. I am learning not only from Jesus and Peter’s interaction, but also from this crowd at the opening of the story: They press upon Jesus to hear the word of God.
Too often seminary professors and seminary students spend a great deal of time studying and talking about the Bible and theology, but still miss what this crowd experienced: pressing upon Jesus to hear the word of God. When our students asked me to speak at a recent all-night prayer meeting, I shared that I hope this crowd can be a model for how we approach education at Justo Mwale. Learning to study and think about Scripture is so much more than an academic exercise. We need to meet and keep meeting Jesus, we need to lean upon him, and we need to hear a living word spoken to us and to those we minister to.
The way John 21:9 uses the same Greek word for “press upon” also piqued my curiosity. Interestingly, John uses this word to describe fish and bread that are lying upon, or pressing upon, a charcoal fire. That made me think about what happens when fish and bread lie or press upon a fire. The heat seeps into, and spreads throughout, the fish and the dough. The fish change, and the dough is transformed into bread.
Which brings me back to seeing the crowd as a model for how we approach Scripture: we can press upon Jesus to hear the word of God. And the voice of Christ through the Scriptures is like a hot charcoal fire. Just as fish and dough upon the fire are changed by the heat, when we press upon Jesus and his word, something happens to us. The heat, light, and energy of the word press back upon us. The heat enters us. It fills us. And we change. We’re transformed into disciples who are on our way to joining the work of our master.
The apostle Paul, too, uses this word for “press upon” in an intriguing way. In 1 Cor 9:16 he says, “A necessity (or urge) presses upon me.” And the verse goes on to say that the necessity/urge that presses upon him is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The result is that he has a message he simply must share with others.
We believers can go through a similar “press upon” experience. By pressing upon Jesus and the Holy Spirit with our attitude and heart when we open Scripture (whether it be alone in our homes, in a small study group or Sunday School class, or during a sermon), we can allow the word to speak to us afresh. And as we press on Jesus, his word begins to press upon us. That changes us, and the result is that we have something to share. We have something we feel we must share with others. But it all starts with us being like the crowd of Luke 5:1—pressing upon Jesus to hear the word of God.
My students have experienced all of this for themselves, and that’s why they’ve been chosen to come to our theological college. It’s a place where students can learn a lifelong habit of opening Scripture to lean on Jesus and hear his word. They have the opportunity to interact deeply with books, with each other, and with the faculty—all for the sake of learning to hear the transforming word of Christ, spoken to them and their African context.
As you think of us, please pray that we’ll receive the crowd’s signal from Luke 5:1. Pray that each bit of our academic work at Justo Mwale will help us to lean upon Jesus to hear his word. May we never settle for information alone. Pray that our faculty and students won’t miss the heat, energy, and light of the word of God, so there won’t be a gap between our study of theology and our practice of the Christian life. Your prayers can help our students get this foundation they need for future ministry in Africa.
Finally, this letter comes with a word of gratitude to all of you who pray for and support our ministry financially (to give, go to http://www.presbyterianmission.org/give/E200478/—or use the link below). I also pray that God will give you all that you need to be able to open Scripture, press upon Jesus, and hear the particular word he wishes to speak into your life.
Yours in Christ,
Dustin (and Sherri) Ellington