Monday, May 9, 2011

Jonah, Nineveh, and Repentance

There are many misunderstandings about the book of Jonah. Some wish to claim the book is not to be taken literally, since it included the miraculous story of a man being swallowed by a giant whale or fish and surviving after three days’ time. Others give a misguided attempt to show it is possible for a man to survive 72 hours inside of a whale or fish.[1] Still others do not understand that the book is to be understood as an undifferentiated whole. That is to say, it is one story: the story of redemption.

The Ninevites were an evil people. They were considered to be cruel (cf. Nahum ). The story of Jonah is quite famous. Jonah is called to go to Nineveh in 1:1-2. I have heard preachers say from the pulpit that Jonah was afraid, and so refused to go. However, it seems they have not taken into account 4:1-2, which say, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful…” Essentially, Jonah did not want these people to experience redemption by repentance. He was telling God, “Didn’t I tell you this would happen!?”

The message of the book of Jonah is that God loves all people, not simply the “good ones” or the “chosen ones.” Jonah 3:5-10 show a detailed and thorough repentance. It was thorough in its scope: everyone from the king to the least of all the people turned from their evil ways. It was thorough in its aim: it turned from its evil ways unto the God of Jonah (the true God).

What most people tend to miss is that the repentance did not only avoid judgment. What does it take to be saved? Believing God (cf. Romans 4). When Rahab was spared judgment it was because she had been accepted by God![2] The people who turned from their sins not only received mercy from God in avoiding judgment, but its attendant grace as well. What a thought! The God of the universe isn’t just interested in our physical lives, but our spiritual ones as well. God knew under what precise set of circumstances national revival would take place; and it was Jonah’s preaching that God used.

How do we apply this to apologetics? First, we explain that our God loves every person and wants all to be saved. Even the “bad guys” of the world; even Osama bin Laden. Second, we explain that God wants Christians to be concerned about all people of the world.

There is a view of Jonah 4 that claims God’s sovereignty is in view, and thus the lesson for Jonah is that just as he should not care whether or not God creates the gourd or destroys it, so he should not care whether God chooses to save the Ninevites or not. Such a view seems totally at odds with verses 10-11 of that chapter. God’s point is that Jonah felt bad about the gourd, even though he did nothing to raise it up and it was only around for a night. By way of contrast, there are people (for whom God labored [see the rest of the story at the very least] and who have been around a while) that need to be saved—specifically those who are mentally disabled and children. So, on the one side, we have a plant that Jonah did nothing for lasting for one night versus children and the mentally handicapped on the other. Just in case Jonah still thought this was a contest, the verse (and the book) ends with this comment: “and also much cattle.” Jonah, at least care about the valuable livestock involved!

It is interesting the book ends here. There is no response from Jonah. I like to think the issue is that God has the last word, and Jonah is ashamed at his attitude. He is probably the one who passed along this story until it was written down. In apologetics and evangelism, we need to communicate the truth that God wants every man, woman, and child to be saved. He wants them to turn from their sins. He wants us to repent as well; he wants us to love as he does, no matter who it is.

                [1] This is misguided for two reasons. First, it is not necessary to view Jonah as in the belly of the whale for 72 hours. He need only have spent a full day and parts of two others in order to fulfill this requirement. Second, the story is intended to be one of divine action; therefore, we should not be troubled if the event is not physically possible; nothing precludes God from doing it.

                [2] This was true even to the point of Rahab’s inclusion in the Messianic line!

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