Lessons From the Heathen

Have you ever heard the story of Jonah? Probably. Have you ever read the story of Jonah?

Look it up, it’s a pretty short book.

So there’s this guy named Jonah, God meets him and goes ‘I want you to go to Nineveh and give them my message.’

And Jonah runs the other way.

He goes to Joppa and gets on a boat bound for Tarshish. I don’t know if you know anything about middle-eastern geography (I wasn’t always too clear) but Tarshish was basically on the other side of Jonah’s known world from Nineveh, on the other end of the ocean. And bear in mind, this isn’t a Sunday-afternoon drive or a day-cruise or an airplane trip over the ocean, this is a walk–or a pony-ride–and a sailboat trip across the ocean in the opposite direction away from home. When was the last time you made a trip like that to avoid something God told you to do?

jonah_map

The post I borrowed this picture from is title ‘Jonah – The Reluctant Prophet’ But reluctant? I’m reluctant and I stay home. Jonah took a cruise to Tarshish. And why? 

 

We’ll get to that.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.” But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.  – Jonah 1:1-3

He fled to Tarshish, and it seems to me that he left home with the place in mind; this was a pre-meditated venture, not some whim that he decided on when he got to port and found the closest ship to him. He was thinking, ‘What’s the furthest place I can get from Nineveh?’

But the Lord sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up.

Then the mariners were afraid; and every man cried out to his god, and threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten the load.[a] But Jonah had gone down into the lowest parts of the ship, had lain down, and was fast asleep.

So the captain came to him, and said to him, “What do you mean, sleeper? Arise, call on your God; perhaps your God will consider us, so that we may not perish.”

Boom, hurricane. Maybe thunder, lightning, mountainous waves, fury. I’m just guessing here, but a ship’s crew willing to go on a voyage this far, was probably well-seasoned. They were ready for the perils of a trip across the open ocean, and they were getting scared.

And these guys are heathens. They worship man-imagined gods, they all have their own set, and none of them are listening. And where’s Jonah? He’s sleeping in the hold. Sleeping. He’s running away from God’s command and he’s sleeping in the bottom of the boat in the middle of a hurricane. The captain goes down and wakes him up, probably angry and definitely scared because none of the other gods are answering, he demands that Jonah call on his god to try and save them.

And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this trouble has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Please tell us! For whose cause is this trouble upon us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”

So he said to them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.

So they cast lots. They’re heathens, of course they do, right? Let me ask you something; are you superstitious? They believe in that stuff. But something that has really been catching my attention is God answers their heathenish culture. As with Abraham coming out of a culture where child sacrifice was normal, it wasn’t an unusual request for Abraham to hear from God, but it wasn’t just about God testing Abraham’s faith, it was about God meeting Abraham in his heathen culture and turning it inside out because here is a God who provides instead of demands.

God ticks Jonah’s lot. And those heathen sailors immediately demand to know what he did that they are now suffering a storm for. Who are you?

10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “Why have you done this?” For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. 11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us?”—for the sea was growing more tempestuous.

12 And he said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you. For I know that this great tempest is because of me.”

They knew he was running from God, I can just hear their exasperated question, ‘WHY did you do that? Are you crazy? Don’t you know you can’t run away from a god?’ 

And Jonah… he’s just done. And he’s so dramatic; ‘It’s all my fault,’ he says, ‘Just throw me into the ocean.’ The sailors are a little more realistic, but it’s no avail.

 13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to return to land, but they could not, for the sea continued to grow more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they cried out to the Lord and said, “We pray, O Lord, please do not let us perish for this man’s life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O Lord, have done as it pleased You.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord and took vows.

And you know something? I’m really amazed by these guys. Not like it’s really surprising but kind of just an ‘Oh yeah that really makes sense,’ kind of moment. Because these guys are heathens, they’ve each got their own set of gods that they probably carry in their pocket; god is not a foreign idea to them, so they have no problem praying to his God. But as soon as Jonah went overboard the storm stopped. Result. And their fear goes viral because here is a God more powerful and more real than any they’ve yet seen. And here’s the thing: Jonah wasn’t there to see this. The only way we know what happens is that as soon as the boat hit the Tarshish port these guys were talking to everyone in the local pub about what had happened to them out there. Or maybe they turned around an went back to Joppa and spread the story there, seeing as they had thrown much of their cargo overboard anyway. But they were changed, and even though they only saw Jonah’s God from their heathen culture, He suddenly became a reality to them, and I’ll bet you they wanted to find out all they could about this God who had spared them.

So Jonah goes into the water, and he sinks down into the depths. Maybe he’s almost out of breath when the fish comes, he’s probably starting to panic and think ‘Well maybe this wasn’t such a good idea…’ 

17 Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

[2] 1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the fish’s belly. And he said:

“I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction,
And He answered me.

“Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
And You heard my voice.
For You cast me into the deep,
Into the heart of the seas,
And the floods surrounded me;
All Your billows and Your waves passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight;
Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’
The waters surrounded me, even to my soul;
The deep closed around me;
Weeds were wrapped around my head.
I went down to the moorings of the mountains;
The earth with its bars closed behind me forever;
Yet You have brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord, my God.

“When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the Lord;
And my prayer went up to You,
Into Your holy temple.

“Those who regard worthless idols
Forsake their own Mercy.
But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay what I have vowed.
Salvation is of the Lord.”

10 So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

He’s repentant–that is, he’s changed his mind. And why? Because he saw God’s mercy for him in the midst of his disobedience. He knew he was done for–but God saved him by a fish. And there’s something worth noting in the last few lines of his prayer. He says, ‘Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own Mercy. But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.” He saw first-hand the worthlessness of the heathen gods displayed before him, there wasn’t a one that could calm his God’s tempest. He’s gotten a fresh revelation of the raw awesome power and the Mercy of his God, and after three days in the belly of the fish he’s ready to do what God asked.

[3] 1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey[a] in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

Now, we’re going to get to this real quick but Jonah knows that the Ninevites are bad people; they have a reputation, and the fact that they aren’t Jews but they’re Assyrians (and Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, what’s more) is already a tick against them because hey, these are gentiles. So Jonah is probably coming into this city expectant. He’s probably heard stories from his childhood about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, considering how such stories had always been passed down through the generations. Maybe he was imagining the fire and brimstone already because hey, these guys are heathens and Jonah wants retribution because he’s a faithful Israelite.

So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying,

Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?

10 Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.

There’s a common theme you can begin to see in the story of Jonah; heathens believing God and repenting–changing their minds and their ways.

And growing up in a performance-based church my temptation was always to say ‘Well, this is what God responded to, so this is what I have to do to get God to respond to me,’ but you have got to realize again that these people were heathen. If they believed in any god it was a radically different god than Jonah’s God, and even if they didn’t believe in any gods, the widely available examples were still radically different. So they responded in a way that was familiar to them culturally. 

And God responded. He didn’t respond because they fasted, sat in ashes and dressed up in old potato bags. He didn’t respond because they had the idea to make the animals fast with them. He responded because he was longing to respond to them already. He sent Jonah to point to their inherent evil problem not because he wanted to destroy them–they were already destroying themselves inevitably–but because he was longing to redeem their city and be their God and Father them.

And Jonah got mad. He gave God an ‘I told you so!’ speech, and we see the real motivation behind him fleeing:

[4] 1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. So he prayed to the Lord, and said, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”

And still as dramatic as ever; ‘it is better for me to die than to live!’ But it just blows me away the knowledge Jonah had of the immensity of God’s goodness! Jonah’s God was so good, and Jonah inversely was so intent on retribution on Nineveh…

But he knew that this message of wrath was going to transform into a message of mercy. He knew a slow-to-anger God wasn’t going to destroy a city which repented; he knew his God was abounding in loving kindness and he knew he was going to have to be that guy, that Israelite who screwed up his nation’s chance at getting their enemy’s capitol burned to a crisp with Sodom-and-Gomorrah-reminiscent retribution. And he was angry about it.

But God, in his infinite merciful loving kindness and endless patience… Oh I love that guy.

Then the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Does this make sense, Jonah? You know this is who I Am. So God creates another scenario:

So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city. And the Lord God prepared a plant[a] and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered. And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah goes outside the city–because, you know. Maybe it’s fake. Maybe the repentance won’t last and God will destroy the whole place after all. He builds himself a shelter somewhere just far enough east to keep his toe-hair from being singed but still close enough to toast his gelatin-free marsh-mellows and he waits. And God sweetens the deal with a plant that grows up over his shelter and shades him from the growing sun.

But the next day God sent a worm, it kills the plant. To top it off, the wind starts to blow, and this isn’t a cool, playful breeze, this is a harsh–vehement even–east wind blowing across miles of desert heating up with the morning sun.

And I just want to say go home, Jonah. Just go home.

But he doesn’t, he gets angry again–again to the point of suicide. And he’s just burning up with rage.

Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

And he said, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!”

This is one of those stories where the moral is pretty clear, but it blows me away because we’ve all heard the story but have we ever really understood what it meant? I never did.

Here’s Jonah. First he’s running because he doesn’t want to go to Nineveh to begin with. And he has his repentant moment in the fish but he still came out hungry for retribution, and bitter because he knows he’s going to have to go deliver this message and God is probably going to have mercy on the people because Jonah’s got enough hostility and wrath behind the message to scare them all straight. And he’s right, God takes pity. Jonah’s still hopeful and he goes outside to wait and watch (because he doesn’t want to get caught up in the brimstone and maybe God’s holding back because he’s still in the city). But God has a plant up his sleeve and he actually gets Jonah deliberately angry to give Jonah His perspective on Nineveh:

Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

And he said, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!”

10 But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?”

Jonah knew it wasn’t just to destroy that plant, there was nothing that plant had done to deserve being destroyed. But in His immense mercy and love and compassion God looked far beyond what was ‘just’ for the people of Nineveh – He knew they didn’t know any better; they didn’t even know their left hand from their right. A hundred and twenty thousand people, plus livestock.

…gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.

One who relents from doing harm.

And the result? An entire city turned to the mercy of the true God, and not only a city,  but the capitol of an entire nation. 120,000 people testifying in the heart of a heathen nation of the mercy of the God of Heaven? Culture-shaking. Gracious and merciful. Slow to anger. Abundant in lovingkindness. One who relents from doing harm.

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An Unlawful God

Christianity is not about law.

This post is going to collate a few things that have been running through my head lately which culminated a while back for me over the course of Baxter Kruger’s book Jesus and The Undoing of Adam (which is a wordy-but-wonderful short book that sums up the gospel as believed by the early church, and following through with Saints in the Arms of a Happy God by Jeff Turner (a much longer but also very good book as far as I have read).

One of Kruger’s main focuses is, of course, that Christianity is not about legality – the plan of salvation was not a court room drama. And he speaks so brazenly about the fact that today’s Christianity has got God so wrong. 

(It’s a good book, you should check it out)

And it only continued to confirm what I’ve come to believe – that Father is not really all that interested in law and retribution, that the gospel message was not about Jesus taking our punishment primarily and sin didn’t put us out of legal standing with God that we had to be atoned for before God could have an interest in us again, but that the gospel message is about a God who met us where we were, made himself vulnerable to the weight of the wrath of our sin, buried it in the grave and took his life back up to lift us up with himself to Father’s right hand.

The heart of the Father has always been relationship. The primary goal of the Father has always been to adopt us in to the relationship He shares with Jesus and Holy Spirit, through what Jesus did at the cross. It was planned from the beginning, before the beginning, before Adam was even a twinkle in Father’s eye, Father said ‘Let’s make man…and let’s invite him into our relationship.’

And then Adam fell.

Which means sin was only ever a side-note on Father’s already-eternal plan to adopt us, and Jesus’ primary goal has always been to raise us up to the Father’s side with him. That happened when he himself ascended to Father’s right hand – and he rewrote Adam’s history to bring us back from our anguished separation and into the family. There was no holy standard standing in our way, no wrath or vengeance, no anger, no; Jesus didn’t come to set our legal record straight or change Father’s attitude about us, he came (indeed, Father himself came in Jesus) to change our situation as Adam’s sons so that we could be adopted–so that our hearts would once more cry out “Abba! Daddy!” And maybe you don’t think that’s such a big deal but you’re living post-cross post-Adamic nature and Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh which means your heart has already been turned toward Father; imagine having only total animosity in your heart and inherently believing you are an enemy of God and God is an enemy of you. It’s always been about restoring relationship by restoring the heart for Father we were created with–a heart which sees only the eternal proclamation, “It is Good!” over all creation. It is good, there is no evil but that which we created in our perceptions as soon as we ate the fruit that told us there was such a thing as ‘not good’.

And you know, I grew up with a legal-based view of God. I always had some kind of idea that when the prodigal son spent his inheritance, that was it, there was nothing else for him–I mean, how could there be, really? Legally it would’ve been a mess, everything left should have gone to the older brother. (Maybe that’s part of why he was so ticked when little brother came home – you mean now I have to share what’s left with this boy?) And who really knows, I mean it was a hypothetical story, after all. But it wasn’t really about the physical inheritance, was it. It was about the inheritance of the Father’s love for his children. It was about his deepest desire being to have his boys with him, to give them everything he had. There simply wasn’t any place for a legal reconciliation when that boy appeared on the horizon because Father’s attitude toward his son had always been for him, and for relationship, and for his son’s homecoming. And so the son was reconciled to his father; he was welcomed with open arms back into his place within Father’s household.

And I know I said that story wasn’t about salvation–the more I mull it over in my mind the more I’m convinced of that because there was no re-adoption when the son came home, he was already a son – so maybe that isn’t as good an example. But what about the lost sheep, or the lost coin? They were never about anything remotely legal; the good shepherd didn’t bring his lawyer along looking for his lamb. He didn’t bring his little boy along to kick in his anger so he wouldn’t kill that lamb with his wrath. Was there a transformation required after Adam? Absolutely. But it wasn’t about a legal dispute, or Father dishing it out on the Son. I find the idea so twisted that a just God would kill his innocent son to satisfy his anger for us. “Why would a god do that?” Young Piscing Patel asks, “Why would he send his only son to atone for the sins of the whole world?” A just God would put us all on death row and start over, but Father is not only just but he is intimately in love with us–with you–the crown jewel of his affection, and justice is wrought differently out of love.

I mean…read 1 John. It’s all about love. Love. Love… God is love and we know we are his children if we love others because there is no love outside of Father. Do you love? Then you are a child of God, it’s that simple because He did it all so that now our nature is his nature. He is over all and in all and through all. [ephesians 4] Love. That’s why the good news is so good! 

And so Jesus (and Father in him) not only laid his own life down for us, he laid it down before us and let us dish out our wrath on him. Because remember, in our minds, we were enemies. He let us dish out all the animosity and wrath sin had nurtured in us to the point of his brutal death–and in the midst of it all, he forgives us.

If you read my last article, maybe you remember that God took pity on Nineveh, 120,000 people who he said didn’t know their right hand from their left. He opted not to destroy them. Jesus, before he died said ‘Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.’ The irony of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is that it left us even more clueless. But Father forgave, the last thing we expected.

And all those people, God didn’t throw down his stone tablets on their heads in divine wrath. It is so easy to ignore what Jonah knew all along–that Father is merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, eager to turn away from even a justified wrath, abounding in love for people. In fact, I never once heard that part of the story when I was growing up. No one ever talked about the motive behind God’s unwillingness to destroy Nineveh. And so I was left with a picture of a bi-polar God, angry and vengeful one moment, loving–or perhaps more accurately, tolerating–the next with little a care to the woes of man, merely bent on insuring that evildoers repent or die. But Jonah was sent on a mission of mercy, and he knew it.

And it’s re-emerging. Knowledge–revelation–of who Father truly is, what the gospel is really about, the true values at the heart of Christianity as it was at its birth. A generation is rising up that won’t be satisfied with the inconsistencies of Christian culture both new and old versus the truth. And I can only wait in expectant imagining how this revolution will change the world.