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

John and His Message (Part Two)

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Luke 3:7-9

He then said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. And don’t start saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (CSB).

John the Baptist did what the Lord called him to do. He went out in the desert and proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3 CSB). It seemed like an unlikely and unpromising place to start a great work of God, such as the coming of the Messiah was promised to be (cf. Isaiah 35.) However, God’s ways are not our ways (cf. Isaiah 55:8). Who would go out into the desert to hear a preacher? The Lord did everything to make sure that John’s ministry would not rest in the power of man but the power of God. This is what most contemporary churches need to hear, because their “back door is as big as their front door.” Human schemes are no substitute for God’s word, prayer, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Some churches will do some sort of “40 Days of Prayer” program, be excited during it, and then… “We prayed for forty days, revival didn’t come, so let’s try something else.” That was not what John the Baptist did. He went out to the desert, preached the Lord’s message, and God sent the people. Crowds came to be baptized by him with a baptism of repentance. So then, what were John’s sermons like?

He did not try to please people (3:7). You do not please people by calling them a brood of vipers! Imagine entering any contemporary church and being a viper, which is clearly symbolic of being an evil person. The crowds in our time would not stay; they would walk out. Contemporary churches are ashamed of sin and afraid to call people sinners. They want everyone to feel comfortable. They want to be thought well of in their local community. They want everyone to like them. John the Baptist lacked such concerns. Please listen carefully. I am not talking about being rude and obnoxious. We ought to welcome people with joy. But that must never obscure the truth of the sinfulness of all people everywhere. We must tell people who they are in the presence of the holy God. That is what John was doing as he preached to his people. He was not afraid to challenge people “in his church” that they might actually be a brood of vipers! How would you react if your pastor dared to say something similar in your local church this Sunday?

He told people to change (3:8). Repentance is a change of mind, as we said in our previous post in this series. Repentant people think differently in their hearts about God, themselves, sin, Christ, and the way of salvation. This inward turn produces changes in people, both internally (ideas, attitudes, expectations, etc.) and externally in the behavior. The repentant person changes the way they walk and talk. By the way, many professing Christians need to stop using the substitute obscene and profane language they use to color their speech. So that no one misses the point, I mean all the substitute “F” words and “bathroom” words. Consider Ephesians 4:29; 5:4; Colossians 3:8. Crude speech is not the right means to lead others in godly ways. The fruit of repentance is godliness, the character that shows that a person is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (Colossians 3:10 NIV). It is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and “the new clothing” of the new person (Colossians 3:12-17). It is what we add to our faith (2 Peter 1:5-8 NIV).

He turned people from false hopes (3:8). As the last of the old covenant prophets and the forerunner of the new age, John warned the people not to trust in their ethnic heritage. Far too many rely on their descent for assurance that God accepts them. The people of God in the new covenant are only repentant believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Your physical heritage counts for nothing in God’s sight (John 1:11-13; Romans 2:9; 3:23; 9:6-8; Colossians 3:11). What does count is the grace of God freely given through Jesus Christ. In him, you can be part of the people of God!

He warned them of the wrath to come (3:9). Yes, John did not make people feel comfortable. He wanted all outside of God’s grace to feel very uncomfortable! Again, the contemporary church doesn’t want to offend anyone. Political correctness rules the day, unless it is something distasteful to their own political agenda, but that is another subject. People do not want to hear of the fires of the wrath of God. They are like people whistling as they pass a cemetery, but in this case, it is not a cemetery but hell itself. The are like toddlers playing “peekaboo”, assuming that if they don’t hear about hell, it doesn’t exist. John told the crowds the truth. We do not help people by failing to tell them their very serious problem before the throne of God.

John the Baptist was faithful to his mission. May we be faithful to the mission the Lord Jesus has given us (Luke 24:45-47).

Grace and peace, David