This weekend I read through the book of Jonah in my Bible reading plan. While I was reading it I noticed a few things that stood out in stark contrast with some of the prevailing notions amongst Christians in the affluent West. The book of Jonah is quite brash. It is short and holds back few punches. Moreover, it is very tactile. In our secular age we usually tend toward gnosticism and would rather interpret a story like Jonah “metaphorically” than accept what is actually happening. This is why it is always important to allow the Bible to influence the way we perceive the world rather than allowing our perception of the world to influence how we read the Bible.
The first thing that stood out to me in the book of Jonah was the physicality in which he was chastened by God. Proverbs teaches us that God disciplines those whom he lives “like” a father disciplines his son (3:12). Hebrews, likewise, teaches that “The LORD disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” (12:6). When Jonah fled from God he was chastised. Our tendency is to think that, because God is a God of grace, he would never physically chastise those whom he loves. But this is exactly what the Bible teaches and exactly what The LORD does to Jonah; God caused the sea to become tumultuous (Jonah 1:4). The Bible teaches that it is those whom God does not care for whom he does not reprove; likewise, a parent that does not discipline shows no regard for their child. God loved Jonah and the people of Nineveh too much to allow Jonah’s fleeing, therefore he physically chastened Jonah toward obedience.
Fire & Brimstone
The next thing that stood out to me as I read through the book of Jonah was the way in which he evangelized to the people of Nineveh when The LORD had finally brought him there. In our day, we believe that all evangelism should be “relational”. First you must become friends with someone you want to evangelize to, then you must invite them to a “relevant” worship service that “meets them where they’re at” and then hopefully, one day, when all their guards are down, you can tell them about the Gospel. Jonah’s approach was entirely different. When Jonah got to Nineveh he preached what we would call a “fire & brimstone” sermon. “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3: 4). That was it, that was his sermon. There were no lights, no drums, no conversational dialogues, just a proclamation of the word of God that judgement was coming. This will most definitely rub many modern day Christians the wrong way, but something the “relevant” church has woefully misplaced is the declarative nature of the Gospel. The Gospel is not a “dialogue”, it’s not a “conversation”. The Gospel is news and it can only be told, in fact the Bible teaches that it is to be “declared”. This is what Jonah does and the results will surprise you, all Nineveh is brought to repentance.
Separation of Church & State? Not in Nineveh!
The last thing that really stood out to me as I read the book of Jonah was how public and political the repentance of Nineveh was. When Jonah preached his fire and brimstone sermon the response of the people in Nineveh was clean sweeping! The king of Nineveh decreed that a fast should go throughout all the land and that people should put away all the evil which they had been working and cry out to God in repentance. Our modern sensibilities do not connect with this. Where’s the separation of church and state? Isn’t religion a private matter that the government should stay out of? What right does the king have to tell the people of Nineveh how to worship? You see, the Bible never teaches any of these things. Instead the Bible shows that when the ultimacy and immanence of God is seen then there is no area or institution (including governments and politics) that does not submit! We are grand compartmentalizers in our modern, secular culture, yet the Bible does not agree with us.
I have not said nearly all there is to say about the book of Jonah. It’s ending is not something we would like either, Jonah is continually reluctant in his message to the gentile Ninevites and it is not really resolved. Yet these three points are what I wanted to highlight here today!
Food for thought!
Sources: Two influences on my thoughts on the book of Jonah as a whole are Tim Keller’s book “Counterfeit God’s” and Steven Jeffery’s sermon “The Heart of an Evangelist”.