Wednesday, June 28, 2006

the pendulum

My good friend Stuart is teaching through the Minor Prophets during the summer months, and I was blessed to be able to sit in on a Sunday school lecture on the book of Jonah. Other than getting some great insight into the book of Jonah (as well as the prophet himself), I was impressed with a classic flaw in how people understand or think about God.

Now, I don’t want to focus on the part of the story where Jonah is swallowed by the sea-monster and remained in its belly for 3 days, but I would like to look at Jonah’s attitude as well as what may have been the perception of God in Israel and Judah at that time. That being said, I need to mention one thing that drives skeptics, humanists, and even some so-called Christians crazy.

The story of Jonah being swallowed by the sea-monster actually happened. It is a true event. It is not an allegory, nor is it primarily symbolic1, and it is not figurative language used to describe the inner turmoil of Jonah. I want to make a fairly loaded and provocative statement; if Jonah was not actually swallowed by the sea-monster and he did not spend three days in its belly before being belched out to preach to the men of Nineveh, then Christ is not God. It is clear that the actual event of the death and resurrection of Christ is linked to the actual event of the story of Jonah by Christ Himself (Matthew 12:39-41; 16:4; Luke 11:29,30,32). Christ was not telling the Jewish leaders, “Just like the ferry tale of Jonah, I will give you a fairy tail sign.…” It is clear that the Jesus and His audience understood that Jonah’s adventure was an actual occurrence, and so we are to understand it in that way as well.

I guess that the main thing that I took out of that class was in the form of an application to contemporary belief. But to understand what that application is and how I arrived at it, we need to look at the story first. The basic historical backdrop of the story is that Nineveh was a powerful city, and it had been very cruel to Israel, and they were enemies. God told Jonah to go and tell the inhabitants of Nineveh that they had 40 days before Nineveh would be destroyed because of the wickedness of its people. Now, I do not know for sure whether Jonah knew all of those details at first, or not, but that was the final message. Even if Jonah was only told to “go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it,” (Jonah 1:2) because of their wickedness and was not aware of the 40 day timeframe that we see until later (Jonah 3:4), it seems apparent that Jonah knew the heart of God and what the response of the people of Nineveh would be.

The application that I drew is rooted in Jonah’s lament to God after Nineveh repents, “Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.” (Jude 4:2)

Now this may be a bit of a stretch, but bear with me. One of the accusations leveled against Christians by non-Christian skeptics is that God, as portrayed in the Old Testament at least, is barbaric, cruel, and He is vengeful and angry. Leaving aside the fact that this accusation is a very narrow and unfair characterization of God as He has portrayed Himself in the Old Testament, could the opinion of Jonah’s contemporaries have been similarly skewed? What I mean is that the people who lived in Israel and who had heard some of the stories of their religious heritage might have had this same idea about God being simply a conqueror. But, Jonah is a prophet who understood the full revealed nature and character of God. He knew that God is merciful and compassionate. He understood the weight of this so much that it caused him to flea from God so that He wouldn’t have compassion on the wicked people of Nineveh.

I think that it is likely that Jonah understood what another prophet penned what the LORD said in Ezekiel 33:11, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways!” (see also Ezekiel 18:23, 30-32).

My application is two fold.

Application #1: Today, people who have grown up in the United States, or other western nations for that matter, have an idea that God is a big cosmic lover and gentle grandfather who will never do anything that comes close to being vengeful and would never ever be described accurately as being angry at anything or anyone in any way. This god loves all people without any requirements, and would never be judgmental to tell or to show someone that they are sinning. What is worse is that many of the people who believe this call themselves Christians. The fact is that this understanding is so incomplete and so skewed that it distorts and perverts the gospel to the point that this belief doesn’t include the gospel (Galatians 1:6,7), because you cannot have the gospel without the knowledge and conviction of sin. We cannot fall into the trap of modern western Christianity that makes God into a standardless and unjust judge who holds no one accountable for sin.

Application #2: We can almost excuse the laity who have been fed this perverted gospel and distortion of the true characteristics of God as He has shown us in the Bible. God will not hold them to a different standard than other people and so we need to show our pity for them by telling them the truth of scripture, but we can understand their ignorance to the true gospel if no one has told it to them. However, we cannot excuse those preachers and teachers who know the truth about God and who know that He is a righteous and just God who will not look the other way at our transgressions but yet they teach a watered down version of an inoffensive, culturally neutral, and neutered pseudo-gospel. Teaching this perversion is as big of a heresy and a crime against humanity as the heresy of selling indulgences to buy a way into heaven. We dare not be like Jonah and not preach the truth of God’s Word to people when we know what it is because we don’t want to see them saved. No matter what the stated motivation is, the end result is that we don’t want people saved if we don’t preach the gospel of Christ as we are shown in the scriptures. If we know the truth and we do not sound the alarm that God will judge all men according to their sins against Him, then in the words of Ezekiel, “When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die.’ And you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require from your hand.” (Ezekiel 33:8) Let us rather be like the faithful watchman, “But if you on your part warn a wicked man to turn from his way and he does not turn from his way, he will die in his iniquity, but you have delivered your life.” (Ezekiel 33:9) We have the gospel, a true and a beautiful and a saving gospel, and no one can be saved without hearing it and responding to it (Romans 10:14-17)

Let us not swing the pendulum of our concept of God's character to one side or the other and thereby negate the totality of His wondrous love for sinners, His complete and total anger and intolerance of sin, and his righteous justice that must be satisfied. Let us seek to know and worship God in all of His glorious attributes.

1 It is symbolic only in the sense that Christ used this event as a symbol of His death and resurrection, but the original audience understood it, as we should as well, as an event in history that occurred to one peculiar prophet. Any and all direct interpretations or lessons drawn from this story should be from the perspective of the original audience in their original time.

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