Agonizomai: Jonah 3:3-4 - Hard Truths and Loving Hearts

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Jonah 3:3-4 - Hard Truths and Loving Hearts
3-4 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he cried, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

This time God spoke and Jonah obeyed. He obeyed because God brought him to obedience through loving chastisement. As we shall see, his heart was not utterly in it all, but God was teaching Jonah (and all who have ears to hear) what preaching the truth in love is all about. Jonah is, at the moment, happy to preach hell and damnation to the Ninevites because that is what he hopes will be their end. It is an ugly motive, but let us hold up the mirror to ourselves before we judge ugly motives in another. Remember, God is concerned with the heart, and with forming Christ in His people.

So in God’s dealing with Jonah He is teaching and actually forming compassionate and non-judgmental attitudes. But don’t confuse what God is doing in Jonah with what God is doing in the Ninevites. In other words, speaking the truth in love must be the motive of all good preaching (and Jonah presently lacks the love part) – but the Truth is precisely what the Ninevites need to hear – and the Truth often sounds hard and unloving.

At various times preachers have wandered into one error or the other. Either they speak only the love of God and sell the truth short, or they delight a little too much on the hard consequences of rejecting the truth and neglect compassion and mercy. If we have ears, even as we ourselves preach the Word, God will speak to our own hearts, just as He uses our deeds though they be wrought out of flawed motives. This is grace upon grace, and is not to be presumed upon. All who open their mouths ought to be taught out of them.

But we have gone on ahead. Jonah is preaching the dire consequences of sin to the Ninevites - and quite rightly so! They are sinners under the condemnation of God and under His wrath are liable to His judgment. It needed to be said and it even needed to be said in the way it was said. They were so far gone that they simply would not hear the gentle voice. They had hardened their own hearts. Though God will never break a bruised reed nor quench a smoking flax there must first be both bruising and smoke. If there is not fire at all, then no amount of fanning will produce flame. There can only be smoke where there is first fire.

Like Jonah, we need to say the hard things to some people - especially the lost, but unlike Jonah we need to say them out of a heart of love, mercy and grace. We need to examine ourselves. Are we so caught up in love that we neglect to scream "Fire!" when it is called for? Or are we so looking forward to a bonfire that there is no love in hearts as we give the warning?

Though Jonah’s inner motives are not pure, yet his obedience to God has been strongly formed. He is about to deliver a message that might well result in his own demise but he goes a whole day’s journey into the city before speaking the Word. There will be no possible escape if things go sour. He will be surrounded by hostility. This face of faith is wonderful. "Though he slay me yet will I trust Him!" "We must obey God rather than men." "Fear not those who kill the body - rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

Of course we have no real record of what Jonah was thinking. He might have gone so deep because he was afraid that he might run, and so he cut off his own escape deliberately. He might have wanted to reach as many as possible with the message. We don’t know because the Bible doesn’t say. What we do know is that he did it.

I suppose that for some the question will arise as to whether God actually changes His mind. Some might just accept that He does based on passages like this, that seem to state that fact clearly. If that’s all you have and all you can accept then I won’t stand in judgment on it. But for me Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the Lord Who changes not. He is the God Who will accomplish all that He purposes to do. I don’t believe that God changes His mind in the same sense that we do, and I don’t believe the Bible taken as a whole actually teaches that. We are bounded by sequential events in time. But God IS the Alpha and the Omega. He knows the end from the beginning because He is both.

Here is a deep question, "Why preach at all - why warn people at all - if God is going to save Whom He wills anyway, and if His mind is already made up?" Paul’s advances such questions hypothetically in Romans Chapter 3, to which I refer you for study. Jonah has been nursing a similar question, which is soon to be revealed in Chapter 4. But the main thing to recognize is that preaching is the main means which God has ordained by which people will be saved. Those who belong to Christ come to Him through the preaching of Christ. Repentance comes upon the warning of punishment, which produces the fear of God in some. That fact testifies to our own hard and sinful hearts much more than to any hardness in God.

So when Jonah preaches that Nineveh will be overthrown in 40 days you might think that it is implied..."unless you repent..." But it doesn’t say that. Perhaps the very lack of any hope given up front is what actually drives the Ninevites to humility before God. Again, we don’t know. But like Jacob sending flocks ahead in the hope of appeasing Esau that "perhaps he will accept me" {Ge 32:20} so men in fear of God and realizing that they are already under condemnation may cry out for the only salvation there is and which is found only in the grace and mercy of God. The hard preaching – the fear it engenders – is the very thing that produces the tender and humble heart that is ready to accept God’s salvation on God’s terms. By grace alone, through faith alone, in God the Saviour alone.

In other words - it looks to us as though God changes His mind, but it is actually God changing our hearts through the preaching of the Word that adjusts our perception. It seems to us that the preaching of hard truths is not loving, but they are the means by which the true love of God is opened up to stony hearts. God thunders from mount Sinai but He bleeds and saves from mount Calvary.

My moniker - that's John Hancock to Americans

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