Thursday, October 2, 2014

"The sign of Jonah …"

Day #279:  Daily Bible Reading Plan - October 3rd

Scripture Reading:  Jonah 1 - 4 …

Historical events have significance only when seen in the light of God's purpose to make Himself known and to call some to believe in Him and to be saved from His just judgment.  Everything that is going on in our world today plays a part in this soon-to-be-concluded chain of events leading up to God's final judgment and to the deliverance of all who have received His grace and believed in Jesus Christ.  The meaning of the events recorded in the book of Jonah were not clear at the time, but can be understood only in the context of Jesus' coming and His death and resurrection.

First, we need to look at the events themselves.  Jonah received the word of the LORD several decades before the Assyrians defeated the northern kingdom of Israel.  Idolatry had become the hallmark of this kingdom from its beginning.  These descendants of Abraham occupied the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants, but they had built their own altars and established their own religion … a mixture of the worship God had commanded and of the worship of the gods of the nations around them.  God will not share His glory!  He sent prophets to warn His people and to call them to turn from their sin, but they ignored the prophets, putting some of them to death.  It would not be long before they suffered the consequences.

God came to Jonah and told him to go preach in Nineveh, a heathen city that was for a time the capital city of the new Assyrian Empire … the largest city in the world at the time.  It was not to Israel that Jonah was sent, but to a people who did not know of the God of Israel, the one true God.  They worshiped idols, or they worshiped nothing at all, not unlike many today.  God did not send an army to deliver His message, but one lonely prophet … and a very reluctant one at that.  Who could blame Jonah for being afraid?  The message God gave him was not sugar-coated:  "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me" (1:2).

What would happen to a prophet who went into a foreign country and called them to repent and to believe in the God of another nation?  One can only imagine.  So "Jonah ran away from the LORD" (1:3).  How often do we run away from the call of God to preach against a world that has rejected God and the Savior He has sent?  It's not politically correct today to tell anyone that they are worshiping a false God, that they are believing a lie.  Everyone is "entitled" to their own beliefs - so the world says and thinks and believes.  What could possibly be gained by doing such a thing?  Jonah does what seems sensible from a mere human perspective.

But God doesn't take his "No!" for an answer!  You probably know the story:  Jonah gets on a ship, God sends a storm, the sailors reluctantly throw Jonah overboard and as Jonah sinks into the raging waters God sends "a great fish" (1:17) to swallow him up.  Jonah remains in the fish for three days and three nights.  Then God commands the fish to spit him out onto dry land and "the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time:  'Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you'" (3:1).  This time Jonah decides it would be prudent to do as God told him to do, so he takes God's message and heads for Nineveh.  Once there, he delivers the message:  "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned" (3:4).  That was it.  Judgment was coming.  They were wicked, God saw their wickedness, their time had come.

But wait!  "The Ninevites believed God.  They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth" (3:5).  Can you imagine a prophet going to, let's say, Moscow … (there are more believers there than were in Nineveh) … and the prophet declares that in forty days God is going to destroy the city.  Then imagine that President Putin declares a fast and says, "Let everyone call urgently on God.  Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.  Who knows?  God may yet relent and with compassion turn from His fierce anger so that we will not perish" (3:8-9).  Sound far-fetched?  That's what happened in Nineveh.

Was there ever a more "successful" prophet?  Had there EVER been such an amazing response to a preacher's brief, but apparently powerful message??  So how did Jonah react?  "Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry" (4:1).  Why?  What was his problem?  God had sent him to Nineveh with a message of judgment and they had repented and believed and God had spared them.  Why was Jonah so angry?

Now the truth comes out about why Jonah did not want to go in the first place.  God had sent prophet after prophet to Israel and they had NOT repented from their idolatry.  Anyone who believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who had revealed Himself for some 1500 years to these people, would know that judgment was just around the corner.  God would not allow them to reject Him forever; it was a matter of time.  Jonah must have asked himself why God would send him to Nineveh, and in his anger he reveals why he ran in the first place.  Jonah "prayed," he talked with God in his anger and said, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home?  That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity" (4:2).

It's truth time:  Jonah didn't WANT the people of Nineveh to repent and believe!!  He wanted God to judge THEM, as He was about to judge Israel.  In other words, he thought he was wiser than God!!  But God was doing something Jonah could not possibly understand.  Jonah was right about one thing:  God was acting according to His character.  God IS "a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity."  God speaks through the prophet Ezekiel and says, "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? … Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?" (Ezekiel 18:23).  God knows better than we do that ALL people deserve His judgment, yet in His love and grace He has decided to save some, and it is up to HIM who these will be!

Jonah wanted it to be people from Israel, but God desired at this moment to show His grace and compassion to future generations who, following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the pouring out of His Spirit, would become part of the Church … those from every people, tribe, nation and tongue who would be gathered together to praise the God of grace!  In his rebuke of Jonah, God shows him through the illustration of the plant that PEOPLE are important to Him and that He does not find pleasure in bringing His judgment upon them.  Whether people from Israel or Nineveh, the only possibility of salvation is grace … the undeserved favor of a holy God.

But there's even more to this story … a lesson that would be uncovered and taught only by Jesus Himself.  To those who would say that the events recorded by Jonah did not really happen, Jesus says otherwise.  In Matthew 12, verses 39-45, Jesus uses the story of Jonah as an illustration of His own death and resurrection and equates the wickedness of the generation that lived during the time of Jesus with that of previous generations who faced His judgment because they rejected God's Word.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law in Judah wanted Jesus to do a miraculous sign, but Jesus answered them, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign!  But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:39-40).

Jesus then goes on to pronounce God's judgment on that generation, saying that "One greater than Jonah is here" (Matthew 12:41).  The Gospel of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed through the earth for nearly 2,000 years.  There is virtually no place on earth today that does not have access to God's Word by one means or another.  Through this message God is gathering those who believe, who have been born again by His Spirit and who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ.  God is no respecter of persons.  In this "day of salvation" God offers His grace and compassion and mercy to all, knowing that none will come unless His Spirit moves them to do so.  Jesus said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:44).

The book of Jonah is much more than a story … it is a sign pointing to Jesus, to the One who was sent by God to bear the burden of His wrath and judgment for all who would believe, throughout the generations.  The message begins with judgment, for all deserve God judgment to fall upon us.  Yet God IS a God of mercy and love, of grace and compassion.  If you hear His Word and believe, humbling yourself and turning from sin, you can know that it was GOD Himself who gave you His Spirit and drew you to place your hope in Jesus.  That's the way God works.  He points you to the sign of Jonah and calls you to believe in His Son and receive His gift of everlasting life!

"My Father and my God, in Your wisdom You have revealed pictures of Your plans for the future and Your plan of salvation for those who believe in Your Son.  Thank You for the continuity of Your Word and for the truth that points us to Your grace and compassion and forgiveness, for apart from the power of the Gospel, I would have no hope of escaping from Your just judgment.  To You I come and to You I give my life, in Jesus' name, Amen"

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