December 18, 2014.
Yesterday I began a series on the the story of Jonah as inspired by a podcast series I listened to on the way down to Chattanooga. Today I would like to continue the series by discussing four different lessons that I think we can pull from the book of Jonah and apply to our walk with the Spirit. Jonah is a very interesting book to me as the story that we teach our children really isn’t the actual story that’s in the bible (see yesterday’s post for four misconceptions about the book of Jonah). We don’t often direct Jonah as the character he really was. Jonah did not want to do what the Lord called him to do, not because he was scared of the men of Nineveh, but because he hated the men of Nineveh and wanted no part in giving them an opportunity to repent. He fully wanted God to destroy the city in 40 days just as He said He would, and thus Jonah ran away from the task at hand so as to not deliver the message. This leads well into our first lesson.
1. You can’t run from God, and that just might be the best news you’ve heard all day.
The first half of the book of Jonah depicts a man that is running from God.
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.”
Jonah was told to go to Nineveh. Since Jonah is trying to run from the task, he heads towards the furthest place from Nineveh he can imagine, which is Tarshish. The signifigance of this decision (why he chose Tarshish) is made clear by looking at a map.
Jonah was having nothing to do with Nineveh, and in his choice to run from the Lord, he tries to get as far away as possible. But the Lord pursued him. We often consider Jonah to have stopped running after the storm comes and the men figure out what Jonah had done to anger the Lord, but Jonah is still running.
“Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”
When the men ask Jonah what they should do, he should have said “Take me back, so I can fulfill what I was called to do.” If he had decided to stop running, that’s what he would have said. But he didn’t. He would rather die than carry out the will of the Lord to save Nineveh; that’s how deep his hatred ran. He is still running! Remember that Jonah didn’t know that the Lord was going to prepare a fish to save him, this was a death sentence!
But Jonah was unable to run from the Lord. Even when he was thrown overboard, the Lord saved him with through a great fish, and he was spit back up on dry land. God was not taking no for an answer. Remember, God did not need Jonah for this task. He could have called any other of His prophets to go speak in Jonah’s place, or even used a different mechanism entirely. But Jonah needed God. Jonah could not hide from the Lord, and this was to his benefit.
We too are under the same truth. We can reject the Lord, we can run from Him, we can ignore Him- but we will never be able to escape His presence. And this should be encouraging. The Lord does not easily give up on us, even when we are in rebellion. Now, that is not to say that His righteousness will not punish the unrepentant wickedness of man, but God is not about condemnation right now. He is about redemption.
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
(II Peter 3:9)
God doesn’t want anyone to be lost. But He has given us a choice, just like He gave Jonah a choice. Even when Jonah did go to Nineveh to preach, he didn’t seem happy about it. And when they repented and the Lord turned away from His anger as Jonah knew He would, Jonah was not happy at all. The whole book ends on a question because Jonah is still trying to run from God!
But God was still pursuing Jonah.
2. The gospel is for all, even our enemies.
The interesting thing about Jonah that we don’t always see is that Jonah was a missionary… a missionary who hated the people he preached to. As we have said before, the people of Nineveh were evil and gruesome. They were a bloodthirsty people who’s acts towards their enemies (such as Israel) are almost unspeakable. Yes, Jonah hated these people, but he did not hate them without a cause. However, this cause did not justify his hatred.
“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
The men of Nineveh were wicked, but they repented of their sin and God turned away from His anger, just as He has always done. This is a truth that crosses time and culture. Jonah said “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Does that not embody the full character of God throughout the bible? Jonah was sent to preach to a nation who were not God’s chosen people (far from it) in effort that they might repent and be spared. This is the same thing we see in the New Testament.
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We have been given the commission to go out and preach the gospel, baptizing all people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. All nations, all men. That does not only mean America. That does not only mean Latin American countries that are in decent relationship with America. That does not mean only in nations where Christianity is a prominent religion. That means all nations, including those who are hostile towards Christianity. Including America’s enemies.
Nineveh was a wicked nation. Jonah and no reason not to believe that he would be killed in a gruesome way as soon as he stepped foot in the city and told them they were all going to perish. That was not an easy message, and he was sent to one of the toughest crowds that you could imagine. But this message was for Nineveh, for God was offering His grace. Today, the message is for all. We would do well to remember that. God doesn’t need us to accomplish His will. But He does want us.
3. You can preach the truth, but still be in the wrong.
“And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.”
Jonah was very sound theologically. He knew who God was, he had a relationship with God and he was a prophet of God. When the men on the boat ask him which god he served, he laid down an authoritative answer that was completely true. When he was in the belly of the fish for three days, his prayer was composed of verses of the psalms. And when he arrived to Nineveh, he preached the message of the Lord, and they repented. Yet in all these things, Jonah’s heart was never in the right place. Sure, he preached the truth, and people even responded to the truth that he preached, but Jonah himself never responded to the truth.
Today, we need to be careful to examine ourselves that we are right on the inside, regardless of how right we are on the outside. Your theology can be completely and utterly true, but if your heart isn’t in the right place, it does you no good whatsoever. If you don’t preach the truth in the right way, what have you gained? Probably nothing. Consider the words of Paul.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
(I Corinthians 13:1-3)
Sometimes the next section of this passage is what the focus is for many sermons and lessons, but these first three verses are absolutely vital. Paul is saying that it doesn’t matter where your faith is or how strong your theology is, if you don’t have love, it is all worthless. Vain. Meaningless. Nothing. Period. Think about that!
There is more to theology than just being right. Yes, having a sound theology is important. But if your heart is not in the right place, it means nothing.
4. There is power in the word of God.
As I was listening to the series, the preacher brought out a point about Jonah’s message that I had never really thought about before. Notice what Jonah preaches to the men of Nineveh:
“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth.Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.”
“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That was it. Or at least, that’s all we know about. There was no call to repent. There was no talk of God being a loving God. There was no hint that the people of Nineveh still had a chance. This is made evident in verse 9 as the King of Nineveh says “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” It seems that Jonah didn’t imply such. This wasn’t because Jonah was ignorant to the fact that God was merciful. We know that he knew what God would do if Nineveh repented. But he didn’t tell them what God would do. This makes complete sense, because Jonah hated these people and didn’t want them to repent, even when he was preaching to them. He wanted them to perish.
But then something amazing happened. The men of Nineveh repented. Not because Jonah used flattering words. Not because Jonah was even a good preacher (he might have been, but I don’t think he would have tried all that hard at this occasion). Not even because the message was pleasing to the ears. But it was the word of the Lord.
I think we underestimate the power of the word. I was talking to a good friend of mine who is a preacher in Chattanooga, and he told me about a story where an atheist was converted through his work. What did he do? Nothing, except just go and read the bible. I think they started in Matthew and just read. On the first few occasions, the man would say things like “well, how do you know that this is real? How do you know that this happened,” and all the preacher would say is “let’s just keep reading.” This went on for some time, and the man’s questions turned into the likes of “Where does it say that in the bible?” Eventually, the man believed and another soul was rejoiced over in heaven. What power is there in the word! The men of Nineveh believed the word of the Lord. The same will happen today, because it is truth.
“So there was a division among the people over him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!”
God doesn’t need us to defend Him in the sense that we must convince someone that He is real or else He isn’t. God is. Period. And He has the full means of defending Himself. We are given the privilege to spread the message of good news, and one of the best ways to spread this message is through His words and not our own. There is so much power in the word of God, and we need to recognize it and utilize it in our evangelism efforts. We will not be disappointed if we do.
I hope these few lessons have sparked something in your walk of faith that will push you to go out and proclaim the good news. Jonah was a preacher and missionary that didn’t want to do what he was called to do. We too will likely be called to a work that we might not actually want to do, but this does not relieve us of our calling. May the Lord use us in the strengths He has given us to lead other to Him. To Him be the glory and power forever, amen.
Suggested Daily Reading: Jonah 1-4, Matthew 28, I Corinthians 13.
The Lord will provide.