God, Jonah, and the City (Part Three)

Jonah 1:3-4

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up (1:4 NIV).

We see in the book of Jonah God’s awesome compassion for people everywhere. This includes cities of people, cities where we might encounter much wickedness. This is not because city people are more wicked than suburban or rural people. Humans are sinful wherever we live. I have observed great wickedness in the burbs and the country. We see much wickedness because there are many people in the city, who take pleasure in each other’s sin (cf. Romans 1:32). An avalanche of sin can more easily occur. Yet in his mercy God chose to show his matchless mercy to wicked Nineveh.

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish (1:4 NIV). Jonah will later explain his reason for his disobedience (4:2). It was a terrible reason, and we will look at it in a later post. Now, let’s concentrate on the facts of his defiance of God’s word. In doing this, we seek to learn from his errors. Our sins tend to develop in patterns. They start from our hearts, and then we do similar actions.

When we sin, we seek to avoid God’s presence. Jonah ran away from the Lord… He wanted to flee from the Lord. We see this pattern as early as Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:10). The pattern is sin, guilt, fear, and hide. When we feel guilty, we don’t want to be in God’s presence or with his people. If someone begins to be absent from your local gatherings, they could be working or ill or caring for someone or other legitimate reasons. However, their absence could indicate that they are running away from the Lord. Let’s reach out to one another if we see this happening.

When we sin, we find circumstances that are favorable to our flight from the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the Lord’s presence (1:3 CSB). Jonah was intent on one thing, though it was the wrong thing. Being focused and zealous is good, if you are headed in the right direction. Otherwise, you simply run farther and farther from where you ought to be. Jonah went to a port, where he could find a ship that was going in the opposite direction from Nineveh. And surprise, he found one! Too often we hear of people praying for something that is contrary to God’s word, and when they find circumstances that aid their rebellion, they piously claim, “I prayed about it, and God answered my prayer!” Please don’t play such games with God and his people. The Lord knows what you’re doing, and wise Christians living in obedience do also. Also, when we find the circumstances we want, we will pay the price to pursue them. Sin can be a costly endeavor.

When we sin, God will pursue us (1:4). When he comes after us, there is no predicting what he will do. Yes, this ought to scare us. Think of the warning connected with the Lord’s Supper. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.  But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world (1 Corinthians 11:29-32 ESV). The Lord will discipline his genuine children (Hebrew 12:4-11). No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful (Hebrews 12:11a CSB). We should rejoice greatly, because often the pain of discipline received is far less than we deserve. But none of it is enjoyable. God cares about us. He cared about Jonah and his mission. The Lord sent a great wind. The true and living God can use all creation as sheriffs and marshals to go after his wayward people.

Let us learn from Jonah. God cares about the people set apart to his glory. He will not let us remain comfortably in our sin. He wants us involved with him on his mission. What is God now doing in your life to get you involved?

Grace and peace, David

God, Jonah, and the City (Part Two)

Jonah 1:1-3

God sent Jonah to preach against Nineveh, the leading city of the Assyrian Empire, because of its wickedness. This was a difficult mission, and the rest of the book presents Jonah’s reluctance and God’s perseverance in this task. God told Jonah to call out Nineveh for its sin. They were cruel, violent, and oppressive. They had made life miserable for God’s people. It was not something that would have been easy to do. It was not what Jonah wanted to do. We need to evaluate ourselves. Are we reluctant to fulfill our mission of making disciples of all nations? What are we currently doing?

Like Jonah, we can invent alternatives to what God wants us to do about the city. Jonah’s alternative was to run away from the mission God gave him. Here are some unhelpful alternatives that Christians take in our time.

  • We set up our own little sub-cultural fortress. We protect ourselves from the city because it is evil. Once every twenty years, we might go out on a mission trip, hurl our “gospel grenades” into the city, complain that they are hardened in sin because they don’t respond to unloving methods, and quickly retreat into our safe little Christian hiding places.
  • We can forget the wickedness of the city and become part of it. In trying to reach the city, some have become enamored by its ideas and practices. Only a life committed to the centrality of the cross of Christ can help you avoid this, if you venture into the city. Evil is powerful, and we need the expulsive power of a great desire to resist it. That greater desire is Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:2).
  • We can use the city to satisfy our desires, avoiding its more repugnant evils, but forgetting what we’re supposed to be doing in the city.

The Lord wants us to live among the people of rebellious cities and preach against their wickedness. To do this, we must be living among them, so that we know how evil is ruining them, and being close to be able to give them hope in Christ (1 Peter 3:13-16).

Here are eight ways to start to influence the city:

  • Eat with non-Christians – invite them to your home or go out to dinner with them
  • Walk, don’t drive – walk around your neighborhood; be seen by people and talk to them as you have the opportunity
  • Be a regular – go to the same places and get to know people there
  • Share a hobby or activity with non-Christians – check your local library for information
  • Talk to your coworkers – how hard can this be?
  • Volunteer in non-profit organizations – this is a natural way to help people in need and partner with others at the same time
  • Participate in community activities – some communities have little happening, but perhaps yours does
  • Serve your neighbors – keep your eyes and ears open

Please think about the following. Jonah disobeyed the Lord by running in the opposite direction from Nineveh. In the process, he went away from the presence of the Lord (3:3 ESV). I boldly suggest that if we’re not doing one or more things on the above list, or activities like them, then we are running from “our Nineveh” just as Jonah did from his.

Grace and peace, David

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