Monday, December 19, 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Glad Tidings of Grace and Glory (Luke 1:26-38)

The second message in the Advent Series, "We Hear the Christmas Angels". Audio available here.

The text of this sermon has become Chapter Two in my new book, entitled We Hear the Christmas Angels, available online here.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Cricket for Dummies (or for Americans)

Look at the picture on the left. Do you know this man? If you are an American, you probably don't. If you live in any country that was ever part of the British Empire (besides America and perhaps Canada), then you likely recognize his face and the event that is pictured. His name is Virender Sehwag, and in the wee hours of the morning, while you and I were still asleep here in the U.S.A., he made history. Virender Sehwag is a cricketer on the Indian Cricket Team (winners of the 2011 World Cup), and in a match against West Indies on December 8, 2011, he knocked 219 runs off of 149 balls. In the better part of the world, this athletic feat will be long remembered as one of the most amazing sporting spectacles in history. Americans, meanwhile, won't even know it happened, or what it means.

I'm a fan of obscure sports. Correction, I'm a fan of sports [period]. One of the things I love about traveling and meeting people from all over the world is learning about the games people play in other places. When I was in India and Nepal earlier this year, I fell in love with cricket. It's hard being a cricket fan in America. For one thing, it is never on television, so I have to find feeds on the internet (some of which may be, shall we say, broadcast without express written consent). The games are on in the wee hours of the morning or the graveyard shift at night. During the World Cup, I was going on 3 or 4 hours of sleep (and that thing lasted like 3 months!). And there's no one to talk to about it, except for friends who live overseas and happen to be on Twitter or Facebook at those times of day and night. But I believe that cricket is a great game, it is "the gentlemen's game," and that if more Americans understood it, it could be a popular sport in the USA.

Now, the first thing you have to do in order to understand cricket is to stop thinking that it is anything like baseball. People often say, "Oh, cricket, yeah, it's just like baseball." No, it's nothing like baseball except for the fact that there is a ball and a bat, outs and runs. Just pretend that it has nothing in common with baseball and you will catch on faster. The second thing one can do to understand the game is to sit down and watch one with someone who really understands it. I did this in Nepal with some people I had just met from the UK and Australia. They explained it to me as best they could, and though there is still much I don't understand about the game, I learned enough to thoroughly enjoy it, and I can share a few basics about the game.

1. Each team only bats one time. While a team is at bat, this is called that team's "innings." In that case, a cricket match only has two innings. One team bats until ten of their eleven batsmen are out, or the end of their "overs" (which I will explain below), and then the other team bats. The team that bats second is "on the chase," meaning that all they have to do is score one more run than the first batting team to win.

2. An "over" is six balls. Cricket matches will have different numbers of overs, depending on what kind of match it is. In "Twenty-20" Cricket, there are 20 overs, while in ODI (One-Day International) matches, there are 50. In "Test Cricket" there is no limit on the number of overs.

3. There are two batsmen on the field at all times. Only the one who hits the ball scores the runs. A run is scored as the batsman makes it to the opposite wicket. If a batsman hits the ball past the boundary in the air, six runs are awarded. If the ball rolls or bounces past the boundary, four runs are awarded.

4. There are ten (!) ways a batsman can get out. See the Wikipedia article on cricket for a full list and explanation of them. Four are most common: (1) The ball is caught in the air by a fielder; (2) The bowler (think "pitcher") hits the wickets with his pitch; (3) fielders hit the wickets before the runner reaches the line; (4) LBW ("leg-before-wicket"), meaning that a pitch that would have hit the wickets hit the batsman's leg first.

5. Each batsman stays in the game until he is out. He might get out on the first ball, or (like Sehwag's feat) he might face hundreds of balls. It is considered a great accomplishment for a batsman to attain a "century" (100-runs). To attain 200 in a match is a bizarre oddity (hence the hullabaloo about Sehwag's 219).

Now, there are dozens (at least) more rules and intricacies of cricket that I won't get into here, but these will help you get started. Some of it can be figured out while you watch, and some of it, I think just has to be bred in one's DNA to be understood. But, even without figuring out all the finer points, such as the strategies for using powerplays or the different kinds of bowling styles, one can still enjoy the game thoroughly with a grasp of these essentials.

As a reward for enduring this post, here's a special treat. Watch Sehwag's 200th through 208th run from earlier today in this video. Remember that he went on to score 11 more runs after this!:

And, also, I feel obliged to indicate that as you watch this, and see this stadium filled with people rejoicing, that most of those present in that stadium live amongst people groups that are virtually untouched by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Would you pray that the good news of Jesus Christ would reach them and give them cause for true rejoicing!

Always Winter and Never Christmas

I recently came across a copy of a book entitled The World's Christmas which features stories about Christmas from all over the world. One story in the book, "Gabjir's First Present," takes place in Nepal. This book was written in 1964, a very short time after Christian missionaries were granted access to Nepal in the 1950's. It begins with these words:

"High up in the heart of Nepal--a land where there is no Christmas...."

As I read those words, I was reminded of another book, and another beautiful, snow-covered land that had no Christmas. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis paints an unforgettable literary landscape of a snow-covered country under the reign of a terrible witch. "It is she that makes it always winter. Always winter and never Christmas," Mr. Tumnus tells young Lucy. The very thought of such a condition makes Lucy exclaim, "How awful!" But later, the Pevensie children are told by Mr. Beaver, "They say Aslan is on the move--perhaps already landed." Lewis writes, "At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside." When Lucy heard about Aslan being on the move, she "got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays."

Of Aslan, the Narnians had said,

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight, 
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more, 
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death, 
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

In a brief matter of time, the children meet Father Christmas (or, Santa Claus). He announces, "I've come at last .... She kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch's magic is weakening." And soon the long winter begins to break, and Aslan comes! And when he comes, he conquers the Witch through death and resurrection!

I love that story. I believe that in the whole universe there is only one great story -- the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Every other story that we think is great, or even good, is only so because in some way it strikes a familiar chord in our hearts with that one story. The Narnia tales do that. Aslan is very clearly Jesus!

As I think about Aslan coming to bring Christmas to Narnia after a seemingly endless winter, I go back to that statement about Nepal. "High up in the heart of Nepal--a land where there is no Christmas...." Oh, it is plenty cold, and there is plenty of snow, but no Christmas. A friend of mine lives there. He told me recently, "They actually celebrate Christmas here. OK, well they kind of celebrate Christmas here." Some people exchange presents and decorate, but very few understand the truth about Jesus at the heart of Christmas. In fact, my friend said that in a recent conversation about Christmas, he had to explain to others that Santa Claus was not a biblical figure, and that Christmas was really about Jesus, not Santa. Does that make you feel like Lucy felt when she heard it was always winter and never Christmas? "How awful!"

But, here's the thing. I have it on good authority that Aslan is on the move! King Jesus is advancing His Kingdom far and wide, and will continue to do so until it is consummated at the end of all things. We know this: every tribe, tongue and nation will be represented around His eternal throne. Winter will break and Christmas will come to the unreached peoples of Nepal. Even now, Aslan shakes his mane and bears his teeth. Christ is transforming lives in still small, but ever growing numbers. They understand the truth of Jesus, and for them the Christmasless Winter has come to an end. The holidays are beginning. Multitudes are still snow-bound without hope and without God in the world. Like the stony sculptures surrounding the Witch's palace in Narnia, these who are dead in their trespasses and sins are waiting for Aslan to breathe life into them through His Gospel and His Spirit.

Will you pray for the glorious light of Christ to dawn upon the unreached peoples of Nepal? Will you pray for winter to break, and Christmas to come to Nepal as it did to Narnia? Will you pray for the spiritual strongholds to be broken even as the Witch's power was crushed by the resurrected glory of Aslan?

Monday, December 05, 2011

Lottie Moon Missions Challenge

On December 4, we were so blessed to have a dear missionary friend present with us in the Worship Service to bring our annual Lottie Moon Missions Challenge. In this message, we hear some amazing testimonies of the work God is doing through Southern Baptists around the world, and the great need that still exists. Hear this message here.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What is the Cross?

Reading the background material on John in D. A. Carson's commentary in the Pillar series, I am awestruck by this statement:

" ... the cross was there from the beginning of Jesus' ministry (Jesus is early announced as the Lamb of God, 1:29), and ... the cross is at one and the same time nothing less than God's own plan, the evidence of the people's rejection of their Messiah, the means of returning Jesus to his Father's presence, the heart of God's inscrutable purposes to bring cleansing (Jn. 13) and life to his people, the dawning of the promised eschatological age, God's astonishing plan to bring glory to himself by being glorified in his Messiah." (p94)

"The cross is not merely a revelatory moment ...: it is the death of the shepherd for his sheep, the sacrifice of one man for his nation, the life that is given for the world, the victory of the Lamb of God, the triumph of the obedient Son who in consequence of his obedience bequeaths life, his peace, his joy, his Spirit." (p97)

Yes. That is what the Cross is. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Brian Davis Preaching on Psalm 115

We were very glad to have our intern, Brian Davis, in the pulpit on November 20. He preached a wonderful message on Psalm 115 dealing with Living for the Glory of God. I was particularly fond of his sweater vest. The audio of his sermon can be found here:

Looking at Christ through the Bread and the Cup

On November 13, we were blessed to have our Pastor Emeritus, Dr. Paul Early, and former Pastor Larry Thompson in worship with us. As we celebrated the Lord's Supper, I had these men join me at the table as we served the elements. It was a joyous time.

The audio file of the message I preached can be found here:

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Jonah: An Expository Commentary .... Now Available

I am delighted to announce that my book on Jonah has been released today. You can order copies of it here: The book consists primarily of my sermons on Jonah which I delivered at Immanuel Baptist Church from May through November, 2011. In the book, they are "expanded" ... well, not really "expanded." Actually, they are in their original form, which gets shortened significantly for the pulpit. The book also contains a background study on Jonah dealing with issues of authorship, date, genre, history, etc.   

It is a humbling thing to put one's ideas into print. After reviewing the "proof" copy, I was embarrassed by all my typographical errors! Efforts have been made to correct them, but there may still be some in the book. If you should discover any, please feel free to contact me and I will make necessary corrections for upcoming printings. That's a nice thing about self-publishing. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Watching Harry Potter to the Glory of God

Recently, my wife and I decided to begin watching the Harry Potter films with our children. We had not forbidden Harry Potter in our home like some have done, but neither had we encouraged it, and our children had never asked about it. We decided that it would be good for us to watch them together as a family and discuss them according to our Christian worldview and biblical convictions. It was not long after we began watching the films that I was given an opportunity to read an advance copy of Jared Moore's Harry Potter Bible Study. I am so delighted that I did.

Jared’s book is well-written, thoroughly biblical, and interacts intelligently with the final four Potter films. He does not try to “spiritualize” the movies and pretend that their message is something different than the author intended. Neither does he attack the films and offer endless criticisms of their content. While there are plenty of books available that do one or the other, this one supersedes them. Jared Moore allows the films to speak for themselves, and then interacts with them by isolating themes and issues, asking probing questions, and bringing the light of Christian Scripture to bear on the matters.

This book is a great guide for families, as it contains information that all ages will find appealing. As we used the book during family devotions after watching each film, my youngest child was able to discuss the questions of morals; my older child was able to discuss several of the biblical and theological themes; and my wife and I were challenged by some of the weightier questions and issues. At one point, my youngest child said, “It’s almost like the movies were made so we could talk about this book!” My older one is anxious for the author to release a “prequel” dealing with the first films in the series.

So, in conclusion, I highly recommend the book to Christians, and to Christian parents in particular. For those who have some concerns about allowing their children to watch the Potter films, I believe that watching them together as a family with this trusty guide at hand will do much to help your children analyze the films’ themes through the lens of Scripture and the Christian worldview. Not only this, the book also helps to equip believers to engage and interact with media in an intelligent and responsible way. Following Moore’s lead, believers could learn to ask questions and analyze themes in any film, book, show, or music. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Refreshing Dose of Biblical Faithfulness

In preparing to preach through the Gospel of John, I am reading the background material in numerous commentaries and reference volumes. Thus far, I have been blessed beyond measure by the massive volume in Baker Exegetical Commentary series written by Southeastern Seminary's Andreas Kostenberger. In his background material, he offers this refreshing dose of biblical faithfulness:

"The present commentary is written in the conviction that although presuppositionless exegesis is an illusion, presuppositions do not necessarily preclude the kind of engagement with the biblical text by which the interpreter's understanding may be corrected by the scriptural message (Osborne 1991). What is more, an active, born-again faith in Jesus Christ as Lord is unashamedly acknowledged as the vantage point from which exegesis is undertaken (Schlatter, in Neuer 1996:211-25). Rather than being a liability, this faith--together with the enabling work of the Holy Spirit in interpretation, if tempered with humility, exegetical work, and openness to the findings of others--can be a great strength."

Often, when one reads academic works on biblical texts, there is a subtle assumption that the opinions of critical, liberal, and even unbelieving scholars is more credible because it is supposedly "unbiased." Kostenberger rightly calls this fallacy as it is, noting that there is no such thing as "presuppositionless exegesis." Why then should the presuppositions of those who have no spiritual regard for the text be considered superior? I am so blessed to read these words of Kostenberger, whose academic prowess takes a backseat to no one, insisting that priority should perhaps be granted instead to the one who possesses a "born-again faith in Jesus Christ as Lord," and who is enabled in the task of interpretation by the indwelling Holy Spirit (the ultimate author and inspirer of the text).  

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

How Great Is Our God? The Abiding Lessons of the Book of Jonah

Jonah is one of the smallest books of the Bible, at just four chapters and 48 verses, yet as we have seen and hopefully experienced, it makes a large impact on those who read it. We’ve spent six months and 20 sermons going through it, and I can testify that I have been comforted, challenged, and convicted by it. What do we take away from it after this lengthy study? I hope that you never look at this book again as being the story of a man and a whale. G. Campbell Morgan said that, when it comes to studying Jonah, “some people are so busy with a tape measure trying to find the dimensions of a whale’s belly that they never see God at all.”[1] And this is a terrible shame. More than a book about a fish, or a book about a prophet, the book of Jonah is a book about God.

The writer of Jonah characterizes many things in the book as being “great”: the city of Nineveh (1:2; 3:2-3; 4:11), the wind and the storm on the sea (1:4, 12), the fear of the sailors (1:10, 16), the fish (1:17), the leaders of Nineveh (3:5, 7), and the emotions of Jonah (4:1, 6). But the greatest element of the story of Jonah is God Himself. God is the main character, the primary actor, and the hero of the story. Like that treasured hymn, Jonah proclaims “How Great Thou Art!” Like the popular contemporary worship song, it asks and answers the question, “How Great is our God?” And it provides for us four specific responses to that question.

I. God’s love is greater than our circles of concern.  

When I was a student at Fruitland, our dean announced in chapel that the Badlands Baptist Association in South Dakota was seeking pastors for several churches in the area. I can remember praying several times in those early years of ministry preparation, “Lord, send me anywhere to serve You. Anywhere, that is, except Badlands, South Dakota! Please don’t send me there.” Some time after that experience, I was in a worship service at my home church in which the guest speaker challenged us to go anywhere, any time for the service of the Lord. I prayed at the altar during that service, “Lord, You name it! I will go anywhere, anytime, just let me serve You! And if possible, can I request that it not be in Badlands, South Dakota?” The next Sunday, I walked into church and was greeted by a dear friend who said, “Russ, I have had to back out of a mission trip to Kenya, and I want you to go in my place. In fact, I have already paid for it in full. I want you to go.” I said, “Wow! Africa. I don’t think I can go to Africa! Maybe you can find someone else.” As I walked away, the Lord reminded me of my prayer that I would go anywhere, anytime. The Holy Spirit convicted me, as if to say, “Russ, you say you will go anywhere, anytime, but you won’t go to Badlands and you won’t go to Africa, so where will you go?” That afternoon, I called my friend back and told him I would go to Kenya, and that experience changed my life. Had I not learned that lesson early on, I would have probably never gone to Conowingo, Maryland, to serve as a pastor, and would not have traveled to Eastern Europe, West Africa, and South Asia for short term volunteer missions projects. In fact, when the opportunity arose to return to serve the Lord near my hometown in North Carolina, it took much prayer and providence to convince me that the Lord was in that move. I had learned the lesson so thoroughly that I just assumed that the Lord would always lead me away from my comfort zone to serve Him.

Every now and then I encounter people who have yet to learn that lesson. A pastor emailed me recently to say he was looking for a new church to serve, and would consider any opportunity, as long as it was in North Carolina. I’ve had many people say to me that they want to be of service to the Lord and His Kingdom, but they don’t want to go overseas on a mission trip; they want to do it here at home. There’s nothing wrong with serving the Lord here at home, but many times, we are just offering excuses to not serve the Lord at all. One of the lessons we learn in the book of Jonah is that God’s love is greater than our circles of concern.

To Jonah’s credit, we can say that he was not in objection to serving the Lord. In 2 Kings 14:25, we read of how this prophet was already engaged in ministry in Israel. But when the call came for him to leave his home country and go outside of his own comfort zone to Nineveh, he ran away. Morgan says that the book of Jonah is “supremely” one of “missionary teaching” which reveals “the attitudes and activities of God toward the nations, and toward His own for the sake of the nations.”[2]

Several times throughout our study of Jonah, we have pointed out that God’s commission for Israel, from the very beginning of their existence as a people, was to be a light to the nations. The purpose of God’s choosing Israel as His own people was never that Israel alone would be only people of God in the world. They were to be God’s missionary people to all nations. But time and time again, Israel retreated into a “holy huddle” of exclusivism in which they sought to keep God to themselves. No individual illustrates this attitude more than the prophet Jonah who refused to follow God’s calling to Nineveh, and who became angry when God performed His saving work among them. All that Jonah experienced throughout these four chapters took place to teach him, to teach all Israel, and to teach us today, that God’s love is greater than our circles of concern: it extends to all nations.

The Gospels and Acts make it clear to us that Jesus’ final command to the church before He ascended into heaven was to take the gospel to all nations. We read it, among other places in Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 24:46-47, and Acts 1:8. Yet, the early followers of Jesus still struggled to comprehend the universal scope of God’s love. In Acts 10, we find Peter praying, unaware that a group of Gentiles was coming to meet with him in order to learn about Jesus. In order to prepare Peter for this meeting, God gave Peter a vision that intended to teach him that God was concerned for all people, and not only the Jewish nation. Now, do you remember what Peter’s full name was? In Matthew 16:17, Jesus calls him “Simon Barjona,” meaning, “Simon son of Jonah.” Now, it is not necessary for us to believe that Peter was a descendant of the prophet, but it is ironic that his father’s name was the same as this prophet’s. Like Jonah, Peter was reluctant to embrace the Gentiles in the mission of God. And where did this episode in Peter’s life take place? It took place in Joppa (Acts 10:5), the same place where Jonah the prophet boarded the ship to flee from God’s calling. God was teaching Peter, just as he taught Jonah, that His love is greater than our circles of concern.

As we look at the world today, we find that of 11,545 specific people groups in the world today, 6,672 of them are less than 2% Christian, and 3,575 of those are virtually isolated from any gospel witness![3] It would seem that we have, by and large, not learned the lesson of Jonah. It seems that like Jonah, we have been content to stay in the confines of our comfort zones, content that we have the gospel, and we have the church, and we have our basic needs met, while much of the world does not. If we would learn the abiding message of the book of Jonah, we would see that we serve a great God, and His love is greater than our circles of concern. His love extends to all nations! There are entire nations out there, like Nineveh, who may quickly turn to the Lord in repentance and faith if only someone would come and share the good news of Jesus with them. So what are we waiting for? Why are we running from our calling to take the good news to the nations like Jonah did? Through the book of Jonah, the Lord may be saying to us, “Arise, and go into all the nations, beyond your comfort zone, and tell them the good news about Me. Tell them of My glorious greatness and the great love I have for all people and every nation.”

II. God’s power is greater than our circumstances.

Throughout the Bible there are frequent reminders that God is able “to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20, KJV). As the prophet Jeremiah exclaimed, “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You” (Jeremiah 32:17). We find this point illustrated and reinforced throughout the book of Jonah. Nothing is too difficult for “the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). We see this in Jonah by the power of God to “appoint” whatever is necessary to accomplish His purposes.

The Lord first appointed His prophet to go to Nineveh, whose circumstances were troubling (to say the least). Jonah is sent by the Lord to announce that a destruction is coming because of their sin. Contained within that message was an implicit condition that if they would turn to the Lord in repentance and faith, they may be saved! Their circumstances were troubling, but not beyond the power of God, who in His sovereignty could appoint a prophet to deliver His message to them.

Jonah refused to go initially, going instead to Joppa where he boarded a ship bound for Tarshish. Once on the ship, Jonah fell into a deep sleep hoping that he had escaped the Lord and His calling for good. But God’s power is greater than our circumstances! He “hurled a great wind on the sea” which produced “a great storm” that threatened to destroy the ship, the sailors, and the prophet. As the captain urged him to wake up and pray, Jonah began to face the firing squad of interrogation from the sailors. As he answered their questions, he testified to his faith in the Lord, and as a result the sailors went from fearing the storm to fearing the Lord. Note this: Jonah was running from God’s call to reach Gentiles with His message, but in God’s power, He used a storm to awaken Jonah and reach Gentiles anyway! The sailors, freshly converted to faith in the one true God, threw Jonah overboard at his own request, and the sea became perfectly calm for them. God’s power was greater than all of their circumstances.

In Chapter 2, Jonah reflects on how it felt for him to sink beneath the waves, certain that he was going to die and become entombed on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea. But the power of God was greater than Jonah’s circumstances. He sovereignly appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and within the belly of that fish, Jonah was saved and preserved alive for three days and three nights. The fish carried him back to shore where he was once again presented with an opportunity to obey God’s calling.

In Chapter 4, we find Jonah after his mission trip to Nineveh, sitting out in the desert. Physically, he is in discomfort. Emotionally, he is angry. Spiritually, he is still hard-hearted toward the purposes of God. Those are not good circumstances to be in, but the power of God is greater than his circumstances. To save him from his discomfort, the Lord appointed a plant to grow up over him to provide him shade from the sun. But in order to deal with Jonah’s emotional and spiritual circumstances, the Lord also appointed a worm to destroy the plant, and a scorching east wind to bring Jonah to the end of himself.

All of this speaks to us today because we are so prone to focus on the unpleasantness of our own circumstances rather than on the all-surpassing greatness of God’s power. Do you feel like you are drowning in your present circumstances? You must not forget that God’s power is great enough to send His divinely appointed fish to rescue you. Do you feel like you are sweltering in the heat of your season in the desert of life? Remember that God is able, in His great power, to appoint a plant to grow up over you to give you shade and shelter. Do your present circumstances reveal a heart of disobedience or indifference to the Lord? Well, He can also do something about that. He can send storms your way to turn you back to Him. He can send His divinely appointed worms and winds to bring you to the end of yourself and turn your heart back to Himself! What we see in the book of Jonah is that God is powerful and sovereign over all creation. He can make  people, plants, animals, and even the weather to become His servants for His purposes. And so Jonah teaches us this abiding lesson: that God’s power is greater than our circumstances.

III. God’s grace is greater than our sin.

A favorite hymn of many that is commonly sung today is Julia Harriette Johnston’s “Grace Greater than Our Sin.” Throughout the hymn, she speaks of the misery of sin. In the second stanza, she writes, “Sin and despair, like the sea waves cold,
threaten the soul with infinite loss”; in the third she says, “Dark is the stain that we cannot hide. What can avail to wash it away?” But the song lifts our gaze beyond the cold waves and dark stains of sin. Throughout we are pointed higher to the “marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt.” And in the refrain, we sing repeatedly, “Grace, grace! God’s grace! Grace that will pardon and cleanse within! Grace, grace! God’s grace! Grace that is greater than all our sin!” This song could be the theme of Jonah’s life and of Nineveh’s experience.

We find God’s grace displayed toward Jonah the prophet. In his stubborn rebellion, he flees from the Lord and is eventually thrown into the ocean to drown. Sin and despair, like the sea waves cold, threaten Jonah’s soul with infinite loss. But God’s grace is greater than Jonah’s sin. As a just Judge, God has the full right and ability to administer perfect justice. He can see to it that everyone, including Jonah, gets what they deserve. He could let Jonah sink to the ocean floor, and die a miserable death. If Jonah dies in Chapter 1 or 2, we would have to say, “He got what he deserved. God is just.” But although God is just, He is not only just. He is also abundantly gracious. And in His great grace, He saves Jonah from drowning, and brings him back to shore by means of the fish. But there is even more! In 3:1, we read, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time.” He is the God of second chances, and in His grace He gives Jonah a second chance. Did he deserve this? No, of course he didn’t. But instead of justice, Jonah received grace! He received a grace from God that was greater than his sin.

Nineveh, the great city of the Assyrian Empire, could also say that they had experienced the marvelous grace of our loving Lord. Dark was their stain, and it could not be hidden. In 1:2, the Lord said, “their wickedness has come up before Me.” He knew of their evil deeds. We recounted some of them in our study of the book—how their own historians boasted of their ruthless and vicious torture of the inhabitants of other lands. Surely God knew of all their wickedness. It had arisen before Him; He was aware and took notice of it. And He promised to also take action on it. His message to Nineveh through Jonah was one of justice: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” But this message moved the people of Nineveh to repentance. They acknowledged the wickedness of their ways, and turned from the violence which was in their hands (3:8), and God “relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (3:10). Nineveh found the grace of God which was greater than their sins!

As you and I read this book, we may be like the king of Nineveh, who was “struck” by the word of the Lord, as we see our own sins. We may wonder, like he did, if God may “turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish” (3:9). We may be like Jonah, who said, “While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to You in Your holy temple” (2:7). And if we are struck in this way concerning our sin, and we turn to the Lord in repentance and faith, we will find that His grace is greater than our sins. We will find that He is a God of second and third chances. And this is so, not because of what we do about our own sins, but because of what God has done about our sins. Jonah recognizes that “Salvation is from the Lord” (2:9), and it is the Lord who has dealt with our sin fully and finally in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s great grace does not merely overlook our sin; it faces our sin, and fights it, and destroys it in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, Jonah and Nineveh are saved by a great grace of God that was yet to be revealed in its fullness. You and I can see that grace demonstrated vividly, perfectly, and fully in the substitutional sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. This grace was, as the hymnwriter says, “yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured, there where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.” “Look!” the hymn-writer says, “there is flowing a crimson tide!” And in that crimson tide of Christ’s blood we are washed, cleansed of sin and forgiven. We see God’s great grace portrayed in the story of Jonah. Yet, it is in the cross, and only in the cross, that we see most clearly that the grace of God that is greater than our sin most clearly and most vividly! And this brings us to the final abiding lesson of Jonah, one that the Lord Jesus Himself made.

IV. God’s Son is greater than Jonah.

Recently, the noted atheist Richard Dawkins launched yet another attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular when he said, “Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today.”[4] Obviously, Dawkins thinks he has access to more information than Jesus, that he is smarter than Jesus! What an arrogant and audacious claim! Yet Dawkins is not the first to claim that he knows more than Jesus, and he undoubtedly won’t be the last. When it comes to the book of Jonah, there have been many who have claimed to know more than Jesus knew. When critical scholars say that there is no historical truth being told in the book of Jonah, they seem unaware or unconcerned that Jesus spoke of the story of Jonah as if it was a historical fact.[5]

Jesus said to the people of His generation, “The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41; Luke 11:32). He refers to Jonah and to the people of Nineveh as real, historical figures, and He speaks of Nineveh’s repentance and of the preaching of Jonah as real, historical events. But more importantly, He says that the people of Nineveh will testify against the people of Jesus’ generation because, although they repented at the preaching of this severely flawed prophet, the people of Jesus’ generation had not repented even though one greater than Jonah was among them.   

This leads us to ask the question: How is Jesus greater than Jonah? We can point first to Christ obeying His calling. When Jonah’s call came to him, saying “Go!”, the prophet’s response was a resounding, “No!” Aren’t you glad that the Lord Jesus didn’t say “No!” to the call of His Father to redeem a lost and dying world? Paul explains it this way in Philippians 2:6-8:

Although He [Jesus] existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 
He is greater than Jonah! We can point secondly to Christ calming the storm. As we read the account of Jonah asleep the boat while the storm rages upon the sea, we are reminded of another storm on another sea. In Mark 4 we read about the Lord Jesus and His disciples encountering a great storm on the Sea of Galilee. Like Jonah (Jonah 1:5), Jesus was asleep in the stern of the boat (Mark 4:38), undisturbed by the raging storm. Jonah’s traveling companions woke the sleeping prophet and compelled him to pray, saying, “Get up, call on your God. Perhaps your God will be concerned about us so that we will not perish” (Jonah 1:6). Jesus’ companions similarly woke Him up saying, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). But here is where the similarities end in these two accounts. Unlike Jonah, who could only suggest that the sailors throw him overboard that the sea may become calm for them, the Lord Jesus “got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Hush, be still’” (Mark 4:39). Immediately, “the wind died down and it became perfectly calm.” Jesus’ companions were saying, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mark 4:41). Jesus shows that He is greater than the prophet Jonah. While Jonah was on the receiving end of God’s power to appoint the wind and seas to do His bidding, Jesus had the power to command the wind and seas to obey Him.
Thirdly, we can point to Christ conquering the grave. When Jesus was asked by the scribes and Pharisees to produce a sign that would convince them that His claims about His divine nature and His mission of redemption were true, Jesus said, “no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-40; cf. 16:4; Luke 11:29-30). Of course, by this, Jesus was referring to His death and burial, in which He would be three days in the tomb. But the glory of Jonah’s experience in the belly of the fish was not that it swallowed him, and not that he was preserved alive within it for three days. For Jonah, the glory of that ordeal was that, at the command of the Lord, “the fish vomited Jonah up on the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). And Jesus is greater than Jonah. He was swallowed by death. His body was prepared and wrapped for burial and He was sealed in the tomb by a massive gravestone. But on that third day, just as Jonah was vomited by the fish, so the Lord Jesus was vomited from death, alive in resurrected glory. Repeatedly, Jesus told His disciples that He would suffer and die, and that He would rise on the third day (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; et al.). Those statements would be utterly ridiculous, unless He could actually do it. And His resurrection from the dead is the sign that validates His claims that He was the divine Son of God who had come to save humanity from sin.

Finally, we point to Christ proclaiming salvation. Jonah came into Nineveh preaching a very short sermon: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4). His message was one of judgment and condemnation. But, “God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17). Jesus came to us preaching good news, the Gospel (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:18; 20:1). Jonah offered salvation only by an implicit and unstated condition. Jesus’ message of salvation was explicit, clearly stated, and offered freely as an alternative to the condemnation that our sins deserve. The promise of Jesus was that “whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And while He made no bones about the fact that those who do not believe will be condemned, He made it clear that He had come on a mission of redemption to reconcile men to God.

In Jonah 2:9, the prophet exclaims, “Salvation is from the Lord!” In the Hebrew text, that word salvation is the Hebrew word yeshua. This is same word from which we get the very name of Jesus. And when His birth was announced to Joseph, the angel said, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus did not merely come proclaiming salvation. He came as salvation from the Lord, and in His death, burial and resurrection, He accomplished that salvation for those who believe upon Him. Salvation was His name, His message, and His mission, and in that, we see that Jesus is greater than Jonah.

And so as we close the book on Jonah, it seems that all we have encountered here in these pages over these several months is pointing our eyes upward so that we can gaze upon the greatness of our God. His love is greater than our circles of concern. His power is greater than our circumstances. His grace is greater than our sin. His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is greater than Jonah. So, if this is the abiding message of the book of Jonah, how do we know that we have learned the lesson?

1. If we have comprehended the greatness of God’s love, we will enlarge our circles of concern to encompass every nation and all peoples. We will be compelled by love for the Lord to be involved in His task of proclaiming salvation to the ends of the earth.

2. If we have comprehended the greatness of God’s power, we will understand that our circumstances are never beyond His ability to intervene by any means necessary to accomplish His will. We will rest in the assurance that all creation can be summoned in an instant to do His bidding. If we are walking in faithfulness with the Lord, this will be a great and precious comfort for us. But if we are in rebellion like Jonah was, this truth should cause us to tremble and repent before the Lord, knowing that we will never escape Him or His purposes for us.

3. If we have comprehended the greatness of God’s grace, we will be quick to turn from our sins and quick to forgive others of theirs. We will not envision ourselves as better than others or more deserving of God’s favor, but will understand that none of us are righteous; none of us deserve the blessings of the Lord. But because we have received God’s grace which is greater than our sins, we will readily give it away to others when they sin as well.

4. Finally, if we have comprehended the greatness of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus, we will turn to Him in repentance and faith, calling upon Him to save us from our sins according to His promise and His atoning work. And once we have called upon Him as our Lord and Savior, we will seek to share the good news of this great salvation and point others to Jesus.

When we have seen beyond the fish, beyond the storm, beyond the plant, the worm, the wind, and even beyond Jonah and Nineveh, we will see the greatness of God through the pages of this book and we will exclaim with joyful adoration:

O Lord, my God, when I, in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to Thee: How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing, sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in: that on the cross, my burdens gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin. Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to Thee: How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

[1] G. Campbell Morgan, The Unfolding Message of the Bible (Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1961), 188.
[2] Morgan, Bible Survey, 299-300.
[3] This information was current according to the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, November 2, 2011.
[4] Billy Hallowell, “Richard Dawkins: ‘Jesus Would Have Been An Atheist if He Had Known What We Know Today.’” Accessed October 27, 2011.
[5] For more on this discussion, I would commend the background study at the beginning of this volume. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Lesson in Right Affections (Jonah 4:6-11)


A portion of this final section of Jonah was at the center of an infamous fight between two remarkable Christian leaders in the late 300s and early 400s. During that time period, the two most well known Christians were Augustine and Jerome. Both left indelible marks on the church that are still evident today. In 390, Jerome began to translate the Old Testament into Latin directly from Hebrew. Prior to that time, Latin Old Testaments had been based on a Greek text, the Septuagint. Augustine feared that Jerome’s version would create confusion and controversy because the wording of some familiar texts would undoubtedly be changed. This was somewhat like more recent situations in which newer Bible versions depart from the familiar wording of the King James Version. When Jerome’s version began to grow in popularity and common usage, a twelve year war of letter writing took place between the Jerome and Augustine over the issue. At the heart of the debate for some period of that time was the identification of the plant found in Jonah 4:6. The existing Latin Bibles of the day, based on the Greek Septuagint, had identified the plant as a gourd. When Jerome translated it from Hebrew, he used a word that means “ivy.”

In a letter to Jerome in 403, Augustine tells that a certain pastor had begun to use Jerome’s version, and in the course of expounding the book of Jonah, he came upon this word, which in Augustine’s words, had “a very different rendering from that which had been of old familiar to the senses and memory of all the worshippers.” Augustine relates, “Thereupon arose such a tumult in the congregation, … correcting what had been read, and denouncing the translation as false,” that this pastor, “was compelled to correct [Jerome’s] version in that passage as if it had been falsely translated.” Had he not done this, Augustine assured Jerome that the pastor would have been terminated from his position.[1]

In John Calvin’s reflections on this embarrassing episode in church history, he states that Jerome had been slandered and accused of sacrilege over the translation of this plant.[2] It is interesting that today most Bible commentators are content to say that we do not know, nor does it matter, what species of plant this was. Calvin says concerning the entire affair: “Those men were certainly thoughtless and foolish who were so offended for a matter so trifling.”[3] So much emotionally fueled rhetoric, and for what? A plant!

That is not only the point of the debate concerning the translation of the word referring to the plant; it is also the point that God sought to teach Jonah by way of the plant. He might well be saying to the prodigal prophet, “Jonah, you are certainly thoughtless and foolish to be so offended for a matter so trifling.” Like those who would argue vehemently about the identification of the plant centuries later, Jonah had some raw emotions on display concerning the plant. Through the entire ordeal, God was seeking to teach Jonah a lesson in right affections. Jonah is a man who is driven by his emotions, from the beginning of this book until its end. But thus far, his affections and emotions have not corresponded to those of the Lord. What brings joy to the Lord brings anger to the prophet. God desires to transform Jonah. He doesn’t just want Jonah to do the right things; He wants him to have the right heart—to love the things that God loves and to share in the compassion of the Lord.

Like Jonah, we also need to have our affections shaped by the Lord. We need to learn to be angry at what angers Him and to rejoice over what brings Him joy. So, if Jonah’s experience with the plant and the lesson God sought to teach him there can inform us, we may avoid having to learn the lesson through more direct and personal ways. It would be better for us to learn the lesson in right affections through his ordeal than through our own!

 I. We must beware of misguided affections.

Emotions are part of what makes us human. We all have them and we cannot escape them. They are the gifts of God, and they can serve as important messengers for us. Emotions are powerful motivators in our lives. They lead us to do certain things and to think certain ways. But our emotions are corrupted by our sinful nature, therefore they cannot always be trusted. Just because something feels right to us, that doesn’t mean we should do it. Just because something prompts anger within us, for example, this does not mean that our anger is the right response to the situation.

Back in June of 2003, we went to Phoenix for the Southern Baptist Convention. I had reserved a rental car on the internet, and I went to the agency’s counter to pick it up only to have the agent tell me that they didn’t have any more cars. Now, I thought this was a joke. I had seen this bit before on Seinfeld, so I played along. I explained to the agent the meaning of the words “reservation,” and “confirmation,” but I was assured that there was nothing they could do for me. I could feel the anger rising up within me. I did what many other Christians would do in that situation: I took a deep breath, looked around to make sure there were no other preachers I knew nearby, and then I absolutely uncorked it on the agent. After a few moments of my unbridled fury, I noticed someone trying to get my attention. I looked slightly to the right, only about five feet away, and there was an agent from another company pointing to the sign on his counter that said, “We have cars available.” I did one of those hard swallows, the kind you do when you are trying to get all of your pride down in one gulp, and I walked over to that counter where I very politely asked if I could rent of their fine vehicles.

Later on that night, I became so convicted that I cared more about a stupid car than I did about the soul of that rental agent. No need to wonder what she thinks of Christians and Baptist preachers after her run-in with me! Instead of unleashing my anger on her, I could have helped her through what was obviously a very difficult shift by telling her the good news of Jesus Christ! But my emotions were misguided. Do you want to hear more stories like that? I have a whole bunch of them I could tell! See, I have been learning the hard way for many years that my emotions are not to be trusted, and when I forget that, I begin to be led astray by them.

That is the lesson that God is trying to teach Jonah here in this passage. He teaches him this lesson by three divinely appointed instruments. He “appoints” a plant, then a worm, then a scorching east wind. All of them do exactly what God appointed them to do, just as the “appointed” fish did previously. In fact, in this entire book, only Jonah refuses to do that for which God has appointed him.

The first thing the Lord appoints here in the text is a plant. What kind of plant was it? What do you want to do, start another war in the church? It doesn’t matter what kind of plant it was! One commentator has said that it was a castor-oil plant, and that is what Jonah needed: a good dose of castor oil![4] Like the fish that swallowed Jonah, it is futile for us to debate the meaning of the Hebrew word here. The point is that God appointed the plant, and it grew up miraculously (“overnight”, verse 10) and provided shade for Jonah. You can buy this product called “Miracle-Gro,” but it doesn’t work like this. This is real miraculous growth. The shelter he had attempted to construct for himself was insufficient to provide him comfort. In the loving providence of God, He graciously provided Jonah with a better shelter “to deliver him from his discomfort.” And this delighted Jonah. For the first time in the whole book, Jonah is a happy man!

Now, here comes the hard question: Was Jonah happy in God, or was he happy in God’s gifts? The average person will say, “What does it matter? If he was happy, that is all that matters!” No, that is not all that matters. To be happy in God’s gifts without being happy in God is idolatry. It is an inversion of true Christianity which focuses on seeking the blessings of God rather than seeking God Himself. This is why God’s people have engaged in fasting throughout the centuries. In fasting, we give up the gifts of God in order to attune our affections toward the Giver; to seek the glory of God’s face rather than the gifts of God’s hands.

So, which was it for Jonah? Was he happy in God or was he happy in God’s gifts? There’s really only one way to find out – take the gift away. After Jonah had enjoyed a full day of joy in the shade of the miracle-grow plant, God took it away. He appointed a worm, and before the sun came up the next day, the worm “attacked” the plant and it died. How does this expose whether Jonah’s joy is in God or in His gifts? If his joy is in the Lord, then he will say what Job said. He knew what Job said; he had that book of the Bible during his lifetime. Job said, when all that was precious to him in this world had been taken away from him, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).  Jonah didn’t say this. He didn’t say anything, at least not yet.

The next thing that happened was that the Lord appointed a “scorching east wind” to blow. In addition to the blast of the wind, the heat of the sun began to beat down on Jonah’s head. The Hebrew word is the same for what the sun did to Jonah’s head as for what the worm did to the plant. The sun attacked his head. So intense was the burning heat of the sun and the hot blast of the wind that Jonah became faint and delirious. Some have speculated that the wind appointed by the Lord may be the same kind of wind that blows in the Middle East still today which is known as a scirocco. Stuart writes that the scirocco wind blows with “constant hot air so full of positive ions that it affects the levels of serotonin and other brain neurotransmitters, causing exhaustion, depression, feelings of unreality, and, occasionally, bizarre behavior.” In some Islamic countries, he notes, “the punishment for a crime committed while the scirocco is blowing may be reduced at judicial discretion, so strongly does the prolonged hot wind affect thinking and actions.”[5] This may be why Jonah begins to beg with all his soul to die, saying, “Death is better to me than life.” He might have literally been “crazy from the heat.”

What is it with this prophet and his recurrent death wish? He became suicidal on the ship when he asked the sailors to throw him overboard. When Nineveh was spared from destruction, again he asked for death in 4:3. And now that God has taken away his little plant and let him feel the heat of the desert with full intensity, again he pleads for death. This brother has got some issues! Remember that he didn’t even have to be out in the desert in the first place! He could have stayed in Nineveh and enjoyed a hero’s treatment. He could have labored there, training the people in the ways of God. He could have gone home to Israel and reported the amazing work of God to his countrymen. But he chose to pout in the desert, and now he is mad because God is making him feel the heat. Have you ever done that? Have you ever wandered out into the deserts of life on your own volition, and then cursed God because it was hot?

As in the previous cases, it is a demonstration of grace that God doesn’t grant his death wish! Rather than just zapping the prophet, God asks him with tenderness, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And Jonah responds, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” In other words, “Yes, I am angry enough to die! I will die for my right to be angry about this!”

Now the scab has been ripped off so we can see the cankerous sore on Jonah’s soul. He has misguided affections. He has found delight in the gifts of God without delighting in the person of God. He has rejoiced over a plant – a plant! – that he did not plant, did not tend, and did not cause to grow. He thinks he has every right to be terminally angry about this plant, but obviously he does not. Through this little object lesson, God has shown Jonah that he is just an angry little man. He started out being angry at God because he didn’t get his way, and now he is angry about a plants and worms.

Misguided affections lead us astray like this. We begin to think they are trustworthy guides, and we allow them to direct our thoughts and actions. How many of us have ever been mad at one thing, which we may have had the right to be angry about, only to find that we are then getting mad about everything? James Boice describes the process:
First we are angry with God. Next we express our anger at circumstances, then minor circumstances. Finally, our shoelace breaks one morning, and we find ourselves swearing. God was showing this to Jonah, saying, in effect, ‘Look where your anger has taken you, Jonah. Is this right? Is this the way you want to live? Do you want to spend the rest of your life swearing at petty annoyances?[6]

This is not the way Jonah wants to live. In fact, it seems that it is the way he wants to die. He seems more willing to die like this than to change his heart and live a different way. What about us? Do we want to live this way, being led up and down a tumultuous rollercoaster by our unbridled emotions? Rejoicing one moment because we have received something good, only to wallow in misery the next because it has broken, or been lost, or been taken away? If our joy was in the Lord rather than in the gifts He gives, there would be more constancy in our affections for He is unchanging. If we are in right relationship with Him and He is the object and source of our joy, then we get off the rollercoaster of emotional ups and downs and we begin to find joy in the ordinary things of life here on the flat ground. I don’t know, maybe you like living on the rollercoaster? I doubt it, but you may say that you do anyway. And given the chance to get off the rollercoaster of misguided affections, will you accept it, or will you insist on staying on through the rest of your life and even unto death?

There is a lesson here in Jonah’s predicament concerning misguided affections. We can learn it from his experience, or we can learn it from our own. But be sure, God will have us learn it in life or in death. He desires to move our affections away from the things of this world and place them where they belong – in the only place they can be satisfied – in Him. When that happens, we can say when our loved one dies, “My joy is in Christ.” When the doctor says we have cancer, we can say, “My joy is in Christ.” When the house burns down, we can say, “My joy is in Christ.” When the cellphone dies, or the car crashes, or the stockmarket plummets, “My joy is in Christ, and He is enough!” And once He becomes the object of our delight and joy, our misguided affections begin to be transformed to reflect His affections.

II. We need transformed affections that reflect the heart of God

Rumors concerning the death of Muammar Gadaffi began to circulate early on the morning of October 20, 2011, and by midday it was confirmed. One comment on Twitter summed up the emotions of many people around the world. It said, “Hell has been busy this year.” Now, before you say “Amen” to that, let me remind you that hell is busy every day. And the big question we need to ask is not “How does this make us feel?” The big question is “How does this make God feel?” The death of a ruthless tyrant is good for the world and good for the people who have suffered under his violent and oppressive regime. Therefore, the end of his reign is the cause for some measure of rejoicing. But if our rejoicing is not tempered with another reality, then we have not understood the affections of the God who said, “As I live! … I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). If our affections are undergoing transformation to reflect His, then there is a gravity in our emotions – a joy for the opportunity of the people to live in a freer society and for the world to be a safer place, mixed with the real horror that another lost soul has joined the population of hell for eternity. You may say, “Well, he got what he deserved!” But, please remember, you also deserve it, as do I. If you think that you are not as great a sinner as Gadaffi or any other ruthless tyrant in the world, then you have not grasped the sinfulness of all of our sin and how it is viewed in the affections of a just and holy God.

Let me throw out another case study. Most of us remember Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer whose grisly and perverted crimes tallied seventeen murders from the late seventies to early nineties. To read of the things that this man did to his victims is gut-wrenching. At some point during his imprisonment, Dahmer testified that he had become a born-again Christian. The pastor who baptized him in the prison has stated repeatedly that he is sure that Dahmer’s conversion was sincere and genuine. If that is true, then when Jeffrey Dahmer was brutally beaten to death by a fellow inmate, he went to heaven. How does that make you feel? How do you feel when you think that Dahmer might be in heaven, but your neighbor who is a nice and friendly unbeliever will go to hell? Are you more outraged that Dahmer could be saved, or more sorrowful that your neighbor has not been saved?

We’ve migrated into the crevasse of weighty issues here. This is visceral stuff, but these kinds of questions are exactly the kinds of questions that God was asking Jonah to teach him about right affections. He asks, “Jonah, do you have a good reason (or a right) to be angry about the plant?” God caused the plant to grow with no help or permission from Jonah. God didn’t need Jonah’s permission to take it away. He gave, and He took away. Was Jonah able to bless His name? No, he was wrongfully angry.

Jonah’s emotions are the same concerning the plant as they are concerning Nineveh. He was terminally angry about the repentance and salvation of Nineveh as well. God had already asked him in verse 4, “Do you have good reason to be angry” about what took place in Nineveh? Jonah didn’t answer that time. But the answer he gave concerning the plant exposes the fact that Jonah felt like he did have a right to be angry about Nineveh. In fact, Jonah’s tirade against God and his silence in the face of God’s questions indicate that Jonah felt that God had no right to spare Nineveh. Now God has Jonah in the place where He wants him to teach him a lesson about right affections.

“Should I not have compassion on Nineveh?” Unlike Jonah’s cherished plant, God had a good reason and a right to have compassion on Nineveh. He “planted” this seed. This city was filled with human beings whom God had created, and as such they bore His divine image. They were the objects of His love – the love of a Creator for His creation. Should He delight in their destruction, or does He have the right to spare them if He chooses?

If Jonah is unwilling to acknowledge God’s right to have mercy on the adult population of Nineveh, many of whom (but certainly not all) have been guilty of heinous crimes against humanity, would he object to God sparing Nineveh’s children? These may be the ones God is referring to when He speaks of more than 120,000 who cannot tell the difference between their right and left hand. If He wipes out the whole city, it will include these children who have committed no crimes against Jonah or Israel. Should God have mercy on them? Many commentators believe that this statement does not refer exclusively to the children of Nineveh, but to the entire population of the city. Not knowing their right from their left might speak of their moral and spiritual ignorance. Nineveh has been wicked because they didn’t know any better. If that is so, should God not have mercy on them now that they have repented of their sin and turned to the Lord begging for mercy? And what of the animals? What have the cattle or flocks of Nineveh ever done to Jonah? If fire and brimstone should fall on Nineveh, they will be destroyed as well. Does God not have the right to spare Nineveh, if for no other reason than to spare these animals? Does God, or does He not, have permission to have mercy on whom He will have mercy and to show compassion to whom He shows compassion (Romans 9:15; Exodus 33:19)? Does God need Jonah’s, or anyone else’s, permission to save the lost wherever they may be found?

“Should I not have compassion on Nineveh?” the Lord asks. And then the story ends. Jonah gives no answer. If he wrote the book, or provided information to another writer (as he must have done unless he wrote it himself), then we know that he didn’t die there. He lived long enough to record the ordeal or provide the information to one who did, but we do not know how he answered the Lord, or if he ever did at all. Did he learn this lesson of right affections? I guess we will find out when we get to heaven.

There is a sense in which we really don’t need to know how Jonah answered. What is more important for us is whether or not we have learned this lesson. What is our response? Does God have the right to save whosoever He desires to save, wherever and whoever they are? Does God need your permission or mine to do what He desires to do? Does He have the right to give and to take away, and shall His name be blessed when He does? If our affections are misguided, we will be angry at the Lord about things that should cause us to rejoice. We will be happy with His gifts when we receive them, but envious and angry when others receive them. But if our affections are being shaped to reflect the affections of the Lord, we will be angered by what angers Him, and we will rejoice over what brings Him joy. If there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Luke 15:7), then is that reflected in our affections? If so, it will be manifest in how we conduct ourselves in this world. We will be zealous proclaimers of the Good News of Jesus, and we will be glad when even the worst of sinners finds the saving mercy of God. We will be burdened when anyone departs this life without the hope of heaven that is found in Jesus. It will trouble us deeply that a significant percentage of the world’s population has no access to the message of Jesus! And we will acknowledge that God is God, and God is good, and it will be our delight to join Him in His mission to spread His fame to the ends of the earth!

Jonah was not the first to wrestle with the question. And he won’t be the last. Someone here today may be wrestling with it even now. Thomas Carlisle’s poem “You Jonah” concludes with these words:

And Jonah stalked
to his shaded seat
and waited for God
to come around
to his way of thinking.
And God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs
in their comfortable houses
to come around
to His way of loving.[7]

He is waiting patiently for you. He longs to transform your affections so that they will reflect His. If you are struggling with the same burden that Jonah was, call out to the Lord and offer Him all of your misguided affections that He might transform it for His glory.

But maybe you are struggling with the burden of Nineveh instead. Convicted of your sin, turned off by a host of hypocritical Jonahs you have known in life, you wonder if there may be any hope. The Gospel tells us that there is hope, and it is only found in Jesus. He is the One who is greater than Jonah (Matthew 12:41). He has taken your sin upon Himself and carried it to the cross where He received your penalty in Himself and He has conquered sin and death through His resurrection. He is alive today and will save you if you turn to Him. He is a God of mercy, and He will show it to whomever He chooses. He has announced that He will show His saving mercy to all who come to Him through repentance and faith in Jesus.

[1] Accessed October 20, 2011.
[2] John Calvin, Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Jonah, Micah, Nahum (trans. John King; reprint, Forgotten Books, 2007), 104.
[3] Calvin, Jonah, 103-104.
[4] Sinclair Ferguson, Man Overboard! (Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth, 2008), 81.
[5] Stuart, 505-506.
[6] Boice, 309.
[7] Quoted in John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! (Second Edition; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 175. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Good Advice from Spurgeon

"Brother, if you preach God's Word as He gives it to you, you have nothing to do with the consequences that come of it. God will justify His own truth; and even if it should seem that the worst rather than the best consequences ensue, it is for you still to go on in the name of Him who sent you. Whenever you and I begin to try to manage God's kingdom for Him, we find the divine scepter too heavy for our little hands to hold."

- From Spurgeon's Exposition on Jonah 4. 

Thursday, September 08, 2011

What We [Should] Have Learned Since 9/11

Earlier this week, I sat down with a legal pad and wrote across the top of it, "What have we learned since 9/11?" After a lengthy period of time, I stared down at the page, still blank, and decided to start another list: "What should we have learned since 9/11?" Then, the ideas started rolling. As I look at our nation, the church, and the world, I am not sure that we have learned much since 9/11. But when I think about the lessons that we could have learned, indeed the lessons we should have learned, the list is long. Some of these things are hard for me to think, harder for me to write, and will be harder for you to read. Some of them require more explanation than I have space or time to give them here. And of course, any list such as this is partial at best. But here goes:

1. We should have learned that God is not obligated to bless or protect America.

For too many people, patriotism is considered a fruit of the Spirit. While there is nothing wrong (and a good deal right) with a certain degree of patriotism, unbridled nationalistic fervor causes us to blur the lines between our two citizenships. We make the mistake of Old Testament Israel who took the blessings of God for granted and assumed that because they were Israelites, God was obligated to bless them. They took no consideration of the fact that they had violated their covenant with God. Their security was not found in Him, but in their "patriotism". Israel is unique among the nations, for never before and never since has God made a covenant with an entire nation. Contrary to popular opinion, America never struck this deal with God. We have experienced unusual blessings of God's common grace in this country, but they were never deserved. God is not beholden to America to always provide abundantly or to protect from disaster. If other countries of the world are subject to the ravages of sinful humans and terror plots, Americans must not think that we possess a divine right of immunity.

2. We live in a fallen world where sin produces evil and suffering.

That seems obvious, but sometimes in our words, thoughts, and deeds, the understanding of this truth is lacking. I've written on it at length elsewhere, and my sermon this coming Sunday will deal largely with it (so stay tuned), therefore I will not go into this at great lengths. Only to say this -- because of the presence of sin and its effects in the world, we must expect the unthinkable to always be a possibility. The things we see happening around us are not the problem. They are symptoms of a problem. The problem is sin. And God has not dealt with the symptoms apart from the root issue. Jesus Christ has dealt with the root on the cross. But the effects and symptoms will always be present while we endure in this fallen world. A better day is coming, but we are not there yet.

3. War and politics are not simple solutions.

Once upon a time, war was a relatively simple solution. One country or regime declared war on another. They wore uniforms and flew banners. They marched in straight lines and stood face to face and shot each other. The side with the most men left standing won. Though war evolved greatly over the centuries, even up until World War II, war remained rather simple. It came to an end when one side possessed a weapon more powerful than the other side had. But, the world's leaders have agreed (thankfully) that the use of those weapons is not good for humanity. They kill innocent people and cause excessive destruction. We agree. But, if you are going to fight a war, you have to fight it knowing that you can win. And ever since World War II, that has been difficult to determine. The enemy does not always wear a uniform or fly a flag. They don't always play by the rules of war. And because the present war is not a nation against another nation, there are few limits on who can join up to fight. That makes it difficult to know if victory, or even ceasefire, is ever possible.

When it comes to politics, there is always the expectation that new leaders can bring needed change and quick solutions. History proves this to be impossible. Many people voted for Obama thinking that he would immediately withdraw our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and bring an end to what was being called "Bush's War." But it hasn't happened yet. And in some ways, the war has gotten worse. It certainly can't be said to have gotten better. And now a new barrage of rhetoric is in the air as we approach another election year. Someone will promise to end the war, to bring the troops home, and to conquer terror in the world. We must not believe it. Those kinds of promises can only be kept by one Person -- the Lord Jesus.

3. The Gospel is the only hope we have.

Since Christ alone is able to bring in a Kingdom of peace and righteousness and perfect justice, then we must seek to become citizens of that kingdom. But we are all spiritual exiles, barred from the borders because of our sin. The good news is that the King has come on a mission of mercy and reconciliation. He has suffered in Himself for the sins we have committed against Him and conquered through resurrection glory. By faith in King Jesus, we can become citizens in His Kingdom and know the comfort and hope of His promises of eternal life. This means that the worst that this world can do to us is kill us. But we have life that cannot be ended by death. So let the world bring what it may to the one who has been rescued by the Gospel. We have a hope that exceeds all the dangers, toils, and snares of this fallen world.

Related to this, the Gospel is not only our only hope. It is also the only hope of our earthly adversaries. The politicians repeatedly say that this is not a war against Islam. And it would be a tragic mistake for us to think that it is. We cannot triumph over a religion by bombs and bullets. Though not all Muslims are terrorists, and not all terrorists are Muslims, there is a movement of Islamic terror. It is utter folly to deny that. And as long as there are people willing to believe the claims of this movement, they will continue to join up and kill and die for it. What hope do we have? What hope do they have? The only hope is the Gospel. It is "the power of God unto salvation" (Romans 1:16). What that Islamic terrorist needs more than anything is Jesus. So, what we should have learned from 9/11 is that the military cannot accomplish what the missionary can. The Christian witness has the potential to lovingly share the life-changing truth of Jesus with unbelievers of whatever stripe, and the Holy Spirit uses that witness to draw the unbeliever to Jesus. Then there begins a transformation of heart and life from the inside out. War, politics, diplomacy, etc. cannot accomplish this. The Gospel can.

4. There is such a thing as divine judgment.

Immediately following 9/11, there were some preachers saying that it happened because of God's judgment on America. They were pressured by PR firms and image consultants into retracting those statements and issuing apologies. Two things about that: (1) None of us should ever claim to know for certain that a specific act is a judgment of God. Some things happen simply because we live in a fallen world. The conditions of a fallen world are, to be sure, rooted in the judgment of God, but they affect us all every day. To claim that a specific event is a specific judgment of God on a specific sin of a specific country is to speak in ignorance. We simply have no revelation to validate that. (2) On the flip side, based on the revelation we do have, neither must we assume that this is NOT what is happening. God brought judgment on Israel repeatedly in the Old Testament by the use of pagan nations. Though those nations themselves were wicked and idolatrous, God used them as agents of judgment on His own people. Could God use Al Qaeda to bring His judgment upon America? It would not be unprecedented. But when God did this to Israel, He announced it to Israel. He is not making these kinds of announcements today. Revelation is completed in the Scriptures and the person of Jesus Christ. So we cannot claim it with confidence, but neither can we dismiss the possibility.

Now, I am not saying that 9/11 was a divine judgment against America. I am saying we don't know that it was, but we also don't know that it wasn't. Now, let's pretend for a moment that it was (and it may have been). Our first reaction as a nation was to fight a war. If God was behind this, then are we not declaring war on God? And how can we ever win? Impossible! But if a nation is under the hand of God's judgment, what should the response be? It should be a taking of inventory: "Wherein have we sinned against God as a nation?" And once those sins are discovered, there should be a call to repentance and prayer and a seeking of the face of God! Now, again, I am not saying that 9/11 was judgment (I have to keep reminding you of that), but IF (IF, IF, IF) it was, what are the sins that He may be condemning in us as a nation? I won't list them, you know many of them, and all of our lists would be different to some extent. But the point is this: since 9/11, how much has changed regarding these sins?

5. There is a growing need for Christians to distinguish their faith from their nationality.

I have already touched on this in point number 1. I am going further with it now. It is not impossible to be a faithful Christian and a patriotic American. Many exemplify both of these traits. And while our government says that this war we now fight is not America vs. Islam, and the Church says that it is not Christianity vs. Islam, that is not what the other side is saying. The other side is saying that this war IS about Islam vs. "The West," and by "the West" they mean the Christianized nations of the world. So, 9/11 was, in a sense an attack on Christianity. But only Christians understand that it was misguided. Sure, many of those who died in the attacks were Christians, but many more were not. Christians have got to get to the point where we say to Muslims, "We are not the ones shooting at you! We are the ones who are praying for you and who are seeking ways to love you and show you how our God has revolutionized our lives!" And we have to get to the point of saying, "The things you hate about America are not Christianity! In fact, many of the things you hate about America are things that we hate too!" And we have to get to the point of saying, "If you hate Christianity, then stop killing and terrorizing so many Americans who aren't Christians." [Note, if you don't hate me already for saying these things, then this one is really gonna get you] We have to get to the point of saying, "Look, if you want to attack Christianity, leave the Pentagon and the Trade Center, and all these other places out of it. Bomb us while we are in our churches worshiping our God and praying for your souls. We would rather die and go to meet our Savior than for you to kill our fellow Americans who do not have that hope!" [read those words repeatedly and prayerfully before passing judgment on me please]. It may be that in separating our Christian faith from our American identity (rather than combining and intertwining them) that we actually become able to be both the most faithful and the most patriotic.

These are hard words. They are hard for me to think about, hard for me to write, and hard for you to read. They are born from a lifelong journey that isn't over yet. I will be the first to admit that my mind may change on any of these things. I have been on a pilgrimage that included being a zealous patriot who loved America and hated Christ, to being a zealous Christian who loved Jesus and hated America. I'd like to think that maturity has landed me somewhere other than those extremes. I am aware that there have been changes in my life, changes in our country, and changes in the world during the course of my life. I am a citizen of America. I am a citizen of the world. I am a citizen of God's Kingdom. The same is true for any of you who follow the Lord Jesus. Our challenge in these post 9/11 years is to settle firmly the matter of prioritizing these citizenships and our allegiances to them.

So, for what its worth, these are a few of the things I think we should have learned since 9/11.