Our nation is experiencing some tense times internally. Battles have been and are still being waged over same-sex marriage laws and all the implications of it. Dust-ups over religious liberty and abortion rights land on news websites every day. As a pastor, moments like these are opportunities to remind Christians of the bigger picture. Sometimes I think we forget what that is.
While I would love to see sins, in any form, eradicated, God has a larger objective: to eradicate the sin beneath sins. Underneath the sins of same-sex sexual intimacy, abortion, and coercive religious prejudice is THE sin of being “separate from Christ” (Eph. 2:12). It is our sinful nature that produces the sins of sexual immorality, murder, and persecution. God’s larger objective is to see people be united with Christ (Rom. 6).
Let me put it bluntly. There are people who believe in the goodness of marriage between one man and one woman who will spend eternity separated from God in hell. There are people who believe abortion is wrong who will spend eternity separated from God in hell. There are people who believe in the rightness of religious liberty who will spend eternity separated from God in hell. Believing in heterosexual marriage, sanctity of human life, and religious liberty saves no one!
To paraphrase Jesus, “What does it profit people to believe in heterosexual marriage, but lose their souls?” Don’t be fooled by culture war victories. Our enemy would love nothing more than to dupe us into stopping "Great Commission" ministry once Roe v. Wade has been overturned.
Jonah is a biographical account of a man who is deeply religious, but has an incredibly faulty view of God. This faulty view of God leads Jonah to demonstrate some pretty destructive attitudes and behaviors. Additionally, it becomes apparent Jonah’s view of God prevents him from keeping in step with the mission of God. The book of Jonah was meant to be studied by church people. To be brutally honest, there are religious people, like Jonah, in every church in America. As we’ll see, the author of Jonah is trying to accomplish something; he’s trying to get something done. He’s trying to expose and expel the religious person that resides within every one of us.
Based on Jonah 1, we can consider the following:
1) Who religious people avoid
2) What religious people are indifferent to
3) How religious people are formed
4) How religious people can be transformed
1) Who religious people avoid
During Jonah’s time, Assyria, whose capital was Nineveh, was the bully on the block. At the time God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against it, no Israelite would have had a neutral emotional reaction at the mention of Assyria. The mention of Assyria was an ominous memory in the collective conscience of Israel.
One Jewish commentator vividly captures the sentiment many in Israel would have had towards Assyria. He writes: “The Assyrians were the Nazi storm-troopers of the ancient world. They were the pitiless power-crazed foe. They showed no quarter in battle, uprooting entire peoples in their fury for conquest. For Jonah, Nineveh was no ordinary city…it stood as a symbol of evil incarnate.”
Nonetheless God comes to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh and preach against them. The way in which the narrative is written makes unmistakably clear, Jonah didn’t hesitate one bit. As soon as God finished speaking, he got up and went in the opposite direction. He didn’t deliberate over it. He didn’t seek counsel from friends about it. He didn’t pray about it. He got up and went 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
Jonah’s actions are unprecedented. He’s a prophet in Israel. He is Israel’s pastor. He is Israel’s preacher. He is Israel’s spiritual counselor. And in response to a command from God, Jonah is running in the opposite direction. Why?
We have to wait until chapter four to discover Jonah isn't running because he’s afraid of what the people of Assyria will do to him. He’s not running out of fear. He’s running out of hate. Jonah despises these dirty pagans. He runs because he knows God is going to show them grace.
To Jonah, the Ninevites are “those people.” Do you know I mean by that? To Jonah, the Ninevites were “outsiders.” The Ninevites were a different race. They were a different religion. They had a different worldview. They were a different nation. Jonah doesn’t believe “those people” should be recipients of God’s grace.
Jonah’s national pride, racial pride, and religious pride, prevent him from being a messenger of God’s grace to people who are “other” to him. Religious people will often avoid being instruments of God’s grace to those who believe and behave differently than they do.
2) What religious people are indifferent to
Jonah’s attitude towards those of different nations, races, and worldviews is just beginning to get exposed. The text says he contracted a ship to set sail in the opposite direction of Nineveh. The sailors are not Jewish. Most likely, they are Phoenician. They are polytheistic. They are a different race than Jonah. So while Jonah is running from the Ninevites, he’s running towards a different group of people who are of a different religion, nation, and race. Why? Well, as is the case with many religious people, Jonah is quite willing to associate with them while it benefits him, once they become useless to him, he will discard them.
God sent a storm on the sea. It was nasty. Even the professional sailors are crying out to their respective gods to save them. Where is Jonah in this crisis? He went below deck. While they are useful to him, he doesn’t want to have to associate with them anymore than is necessary. These sailors, like the Ninevites, are “those people.”
The captain goes below deck, finds Jonah, and frantically asks him: How can you sleep? Speech in OT stories is always important to pay close attention to. This question is revealing even more about Jonah’s attitude towards those of a different nation, race, religion, and worldview. Not only does Jonah not care about the spiritual well-being of the Ninevites. He doesn’t give a rip about the physical or emotional well-being of the sailors. Jonah is quite content to take the sailors down with him. He is completely indifferent to their plight. This is notoriously true of religious people.
What are religious people indifferent to? Religious people are indifferent to the plight of “those people.” Religious people are indifferent to the physical and emotional well-being of other nations, races, political parties, sexual preferences, and worldviews.
A good way to test this in ourselves is to note how we respond to the plight of those who believe and behave differently than we do. When the people at the Pulse gay night club in Orlando got shot up and 49 people lost their lives and another 53 were wounded, did your heart respond with compassion? Or did a part of you think “they got what they deserved.” How we react to something like that says a lot about how similar or dissimilar we are to Jonah.
3) How religious people are formed
How did Jonah become this way? How do we get this way?
In v. 8, the sailors ask Jonah a barrage of questions: Who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work to you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?
If you’re Israel’s pastor who has been sent on an evangelistic mission, what would be the first words out of your mouth? Maybe something to do with God?
Jonah says, “I am a Hebrew.” Why does he highlight his nationality first?
Dan Timmer in his study on Jonah writes, “Since Jonah identifies himself first ethnically, then religiously, we may infer that his ethnicity is foremost in his self-identity…”
Jonah is very proud of his country. He is very proud of his nationality. He is very proud to be a Jew. How much credit can Jonah take for being a Hebrew? How did Jonah become a Hebrew? Not by his own doing, but through the sovereign grace of God. He’s not a Jew because he made it happen. He’s a Jew because God made it happen. Jonah is taking way too much credit for something he had no power over.
Look at the next part of his response in v. 9, “…and I worship the Lord…” Really? He’s in open rebellion against this God he says he worships. Jonah is taking too little credit for his sin that has caused this mess.
Religious people are formed when they take too much credit for something they had no power over and too little credit for the sin they contributed.
Let me put this differently: religious people are formed when they diminish their sin and under-appreciate God’s grace.
When I diminish my sin and under-appreciate God’s grace, I will be prone to looking down my nose at people I perceive to be morally inferior to me. When I diminish my sin and under-appreciate God’s grace, I will be prone to looking down my nose at people who don’t believe and behave as I do. When I diminish my sin and under-appreciate God’s grace, I create “those people.” At that point, I will come to a crossroads. I’ll either separate myself from them or destroy them.
Jonah demonstrates this clearly. He separates himself from the sailors. He would have gladly gone to Nineveh if he knew the Ninevites would have been destroyed, but because he knew God would have compassion on them, he separated himself from them.
Religious people are formed when they diminish their sin and under-appreciate God’s grace.
4) How religious people are transformed
Jesus says the Old Testament is about him. So how is Jonah 1 about Jesus? Years after Jonah, the call of God came to another prophet, Jesus. The call was for Jesus to leave his homeland and go to Nineveh. This was not Nineveh in Assyria. This is Nineveh as in humanity. Nineveh as in Ozaukee County. Contrary to Jonah, Jesus heeded the call of God to go and obeyed.
Jonah refused to go because he perceived the Ninevites to be morally inferior to himself and therefore not worthy of God’s compassion. Of course, Jonah was all wrong about that. We in Nineveh of Ozaukee County are genuinely morally inferior to Jesus Christ, but in spite of this he still went out; he still came to us “Ninevites" to be an instrument of God’s compassion. Jesus could have justifiably looked at us said of us, we are “those people.” But instead, what did Jesus do for “those people”?
Like Jonah, it is our sin that has created the storm now crashing over the bow of our boats. It is our sin that has put our lives in jeopardy. It is our sin that should prompt God to throw us into the deep. But in heeding the call of God to go to Nineveh in Ozaukee County, Jesus, even though morally superior, throws himself into the deep to save us who are to him “those people.”
The only way religious people are transformed is by seeing they themselves are Ninevites. To God I am one of “those people.” But in the gospel of Jesus Christ, God did not respond to me like Jonah did to Nineveh. Instead, God out of his infinite mercy and grace sends Jesus as an instrument of compassion to be thrown into the deep for our salvation.
I am a Ninevite. You are a Ninevite. To God we could be called “those people.” We are more sinful, flawed, and messed-up than we can possibly imagine. But in spite of this, God lavished his mercy and grace on us when Jesus hurled himself into the deep for our salvation. This is how religious people are transformed. Religious people are transformed when they take a glaring look at the vileness of their sin and an equally scrutinizing look at the grace of God lavished on us in Jesus Christ. Religious people are transformed when God’s Spirit works in our hearts as we’re given multiple exposures to the happy news of the gospel from one end of the Bible to the other. When God’s Spirit works in and through the gospel, religious people are transformed into people who like Jesus, are willing to answer the call of God and to go invest in the spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being of those who believe and behave differently than they do.
The term 'Christian' is now a voter bloc. Did you know that? This is another example of how people can come to a faulty understanding of what a word means. Because 'Christian' has been absorbed into the political parlance, there are many folks who think they know what being a 'Christian' is, but sadly, the definition they're operating under is a bad one. So my appeal is simple: please make sure you understand the correct definition of 'Christian'. If you're not sure, take the time and energy to investigate it. Why?
Imagine you get a letter from the IRS saying they owe you a million dollars in back-taxes. At the bottom of the letter, the IRS has given you instructions on how to claim your money. What are you thinking? If you're anything like me, you're thinking, "I haven't paid a million dollars in taxes, so why would they owe me that much?" I would probably assume they either made a mistake or someone is playing a cruel joke on me. But I'm pretty confident there's one thing I wouldn't do with that letter: I wouldn't shred it. Why? The magnitude of the claim the letter makes is too big for me to take that risk. What if the letter is legit? If I shred it, I will have lost out on a million bucks!
The magnitude of the claims Jesus makes are too big for you to assume you understand what being a Christian means. The magnitude of the claims Jesus makes demand you spend some quality time and energy investigating who Jesus is, what he's said, and what he's done.