God, Jonah, and the City (Part One)

Jonah 1:1-3

In God’s Word we have his message about God himself, who we are, and how to live in his presence and with one another. This message tells us how to be right with him, how to fulfill our purpose of glorifying God by enjoying life with him, and how to live with each other in God-honoring community. Please guys, when you hear the word community, do not think of sitting in a living room sharing a collection of warm fuzzies. Think of sharing life with some good friends while hiking in the mountains! I hope you know the satisfaction of sitting down at the top of a mountain after a long hike and being glad in what you accomplished together. Our lives should be like the adventure of a strenuous walk with the living God. One of our challenges in our time is to restore a proper experience of community, in which God-created manhood and womanhood are honored.

God cares about community, so much so that his goal for renewed human is a city in which he lives forever with his people. But we are not talking about that final city in this series of posts. Our subject will be the present cities of humanity and our relationship to them. This subject is of interest to me, since I live in either our nation’s seventh largest metropolis or the largest megalopolis (New York and Philadelphia and all their burbs), whichever you prefer. The Lord speaks to this theme in various places in the Bible. One of them is the book of Jonah.

Most people know about Jonah because of “Jonah and the whale”. This displays a common level of Biblical ignorance, because the book does not mention a whale, but that “the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah” (1:17 NIV). This understanding avoids needless controversy and wasting time and leaves the matter where it should be—with the sovereignty or ruling power of God. That is one of the themes of the book of Jonah. Other key ideas are: Jonah as a type of Christ’s death and resurrection (cf. Mt 12:38-41), God’s purpose of evangelism of all peoples, and the sin of racism or ethnic hatred. The first two are commonly discussed in most churches that claim to be biblically based, though many of them do not like to hear about the sovereignty of God in salvation. The third theme was politely redefined and a special group of Christians (missionaries) invented to “deal with it”. Yet the third and the fourth go together, and the fourth is avoided like the plague. May this article help us to reenter the discussion on all of these!

The Lord evaluates the conduct of the city. Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (1:1-2 ESV). God does observe the wickedness and evil that people commit. Everyone and everything is fully visible to him (Hebrews 4:13). At this point, we must maintain a biblical viewpoint about cities. A city is not something inherently sinful, because God himself is preparing a city to share with us (Hebrews 11; Revelation 21-22). A city can be for the glory of God. Tim Keller pointed out that a city provides certain advantages:

  • It is a place of refuge and security. People who have various disadvantages can find help in a city that they cannot find in other places, for example, good medical care. They can more easily find others who can understand their problems.
  • It is a place of human development. God created mankind to subdue the earth, and in the eternal city we read of people bringing the glory of a renewed humanity into it and serving God there.
  • It is a place to meet God. He brings people from all backgrounds and ways of life into cities to meet him. A study of the book of Acts shows the plan for urban ministry. Most of the people who were Christians in the time of the early church lived in the cities of the Roman Empire. In 1900 the world’s five largest cities at that time (London, New York, Paris, Berlin, and Chicago), were in the western world and centers of evangelistic activity. But in the twentieth century Christians left or lost the city, and the rest as they say is history.

However, a city can be a place of great wickedness, as was the case in Nineveh. The passage of time has removed the chief city of the Assyrian Empire from our vocabulary of terror. If you can think of the centers of genocide in the twentieth century and terrorists in the twenty-first century, you will have some feeling of the revulsion that the typical Jew in Jonah’s time had for Nineveh. As Tim Chester points out, “There is a flipside to the potential of the city. Human rejection of God spoils cities.

  • A place of refuge becomes a place of escape from social constraints and escape from God
  • A place of influence becomes an influence for evil
  • A place of opportunity becomes a place of exhaustion and pressure as we all try to make it or hold on to what we have”

When I moved to my present area over twenty-two years ago, the suburb I then lived in was on the very edge of the metro area. Now, it is well beyond it. My present suburb is gradually becoming more urbanized, like it or not. The city is coming your way, too! Therefore, we must grow in our understanding of the benefits and problems of living in a city. We should run toward, not from, the new opportunities that cities present followers of Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace, David

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