A Picture of God
5 Nov 2005, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
A PICTURE OF GOD
There are a number of reasons not to mess about with the logic of children.
The story is told of a kindergarten teacher who was observing a classroom of children while they were given the task of doing some drawings. Occasionally she would walk around to observe the work that each child was doing and as she got to one little girl who was diligently working away, she asked what she was drawing. The girl replied, 'I'm drawing God.' The teacher paused and then said, 'But no one knows what God looks like.' Without missing a beat or looking up from her drawing, the little girl replied, 'They will in a minute.'
The story is also told of another little girl talking to her teacher about whales. The teacher was explaining that it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human, because even though it was a very large mammal, its throat was very small. The little girl then stated to her that the Bible says that 'Jonah was swallowed by a whale'. Feeling a sense of irritability, the teacher reiterated to her that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible. In response, the little girl said, 'When I get to heaven, I will ask Jonah'. 'What if Jonah went to hell, the teacher asked. The little girl replied, 'Then you ask him'.
We should never mess about with the logic of children.
Today, there are still many who do not accept the historical interpretation of the Book of Jonah even though this traditional view is shared by other mainstream Christian commentators. It is one of those books, like the Book of Genesis, that some expositors would prefer to see placed within the realms of the legends, myths, parables or allegories of history.
We need to recognise that for those of us who believe in miracles, this method of interpretation by those expositors is both unnecessary and pointless (Nichol, 1955: 996). These types of approaches also ignore Jesus' own literal interpretation of the book. In speaking of His own death and resurrection, Jesus declares in Matthew 12: 40 that '…as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth'.
Even Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived around the time of Jesus, viewed the book of Jonah as an historical work and, as such, incorporated the story into the history of the Jewish people.
However, with the rapid advances of science during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, many people were to turn their backs on anything that was believed contrary to reason, to common sense and to rational thought. It was during this changing period of world history that Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States of America, took on the task of editing the Gospels and expunged those texts that, he believed, went against common sense and reason. The result was the Jefferson Bible, a version of the Gospels in which the virgin birth, the miraculous healings, the raising of the dead, Christ's claims to divinity, the resurrection and the ascension to heaven, among many others, were left out. If we were to limit ourselves in this way we would have no Bible left and we would never come to a full understanding of the ways of God (Goldstein, 2003: 14).
The book of Jonah becomes one of the test books of the Bible. Among other things, I believe it has been placed there to challenge our faith. Our attitude towards this book will ultimately reveal our overall attitude towards God and His Word. In reading this eventful story, we need to decide whether we are looking at mere naturalism or supernaturalism? It is on this point that we either stand or fall (Mears, 1983: 296).
As we study the book of Jonah we will soon begin to realize that the focus of this book is not on the great fish that swallowed Jonah alive, but on the great God who prepared that fish.
Let us introduce our time together this morning by reading a number of texts found in the book of Psalms. The verses in Psalms 139:1,2,6 provide us with a special insight into the relationship God has with His people. (Paraphrased)
V.1 'O Lord, you have searched my heart and know me inside and out.'
V.2 'You know my comings and goings and discern my thoughts before I think them'.
V.6 'I can't comprehend it. It is so wonderful that no matter how hard I try to understand, I can't grasp it all.'
The book of Jonah is a wonderful study on the grace of God. A study of His marvellous grace toward wayward, erring people, even wayward prophets such as Jonah, AND as the text suggests, God knows the most intricate details about all of us. This book gives a wonderful picture of God.
We learn in this book that:
GOD is a personal God. He cares about you and me and He is intimately involved in every aspect of His creation.
God's judgement comes from a desire to save us and we can trust that it will be fair and just. He extends it to all nations along with His mercy, justice and love. His judgement also reveals that He is concerned about the evil that has brought so much suffering, pain and havoc in this world.
We also learn that God is no respecter of persons. This is confirmed again in Acts 10: 34,35. NIV It is here the apostle Peter is recorded as saying: 'I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what is right.'
Prophet's are human. They too are touched with fears, insecurities and doubts.
Jonah 1: 2 tells us that Jonah decided to run away from the Lord and go to Tarshish. This place was about as far to the west as he could go and was believed to be somewhere in Spain or North Africa.
We also learn in this story that God controls nature and all of its elements.
We learn that tragedy often helps to put things into perspective
We also learn that salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2: 9).
Well, what do we know about Jonah and the times in which he lived?
We are told he was a Hebrew prophet and came from a little village called Gath-Hepher in Galilee not far from Nazareth in the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 14: 25).
He was the son of a man called Amittai. It is here that we need to recognise that names in the Bible are very important and in this case Amittai meant 'My Truth or Faithfulness'. As such we all need to be sons and daughters of Amittai - sons and daughters of truth. This was not to preclude Prophets of God.
Jonah's story takes place in the 8th century BC in the twenty years somewhere between 780 and 760 during the reign of King Jereboam II.
2 Kings 14: 26,27 tells us that this was a time of great national distress. There were terrible things happening in Israel and Jonah was right in the middle of it.
The kings of this nation-state were doing evil in the sight of the Lord and it was inevitable that a national judgement was to be fast approaching.
Jonah had not always been a reluctant prophet because God had previously predicted, through him, a return of national strength for Israel even though there was still much evil around him. It was thought by some commentators that God, in making this prophecy, might have been trying to induce the nation of Israel to return to God.
Among all of these continuing problems at home God now speaks again to Jonah and we can read His fateful words that were to literally turn the prophet's life upside down. Jonah 1: 1. NIV says that:
'The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai. Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.'
To understand Jonah's negative reaction to this command, we need to know something about the race or nation of people that populated this particular area.
What do we know about them?
The Assyrians were staunch political enemies of Israel and had committed terrible and unspeakable atrocities against them. Their cruelty and brutality was well known. History records that they skinned people alive and made pyramids of human skulls from their conquests to advertise their victory.
They put fishhooks in the jaws of their captives so they could chain them all together so as to lead them away into slavery (www.dyeager.org/articles/jonah.php: 2003:1).
They vandalised and burned cities. They impaled victims on stakes, burnt children alive in front of their families, beheaded and chopped off hands. Remember that God is asking Jonah to go to this terrible place. From a human point of view, no wonder he was reluctant. How would you respond?
We also know that they worshipped a multitude of false Gods and, as such, they were shunned by the Jews as pagans and outcasts. Hence, the Israelites traditionally wanted nothing to do with them.
What do we know about their worship?
Much of their worship involved the veneration of nature. They believed that every part of the natural world, whether it be the sun, rocks or trees, was possessed by a spirit (www.dyeager.org/articles/jonah.php: 2003:1).
Ancient beliefs always seem to have the habit of reinventing themselves and we have seen this in the radical views of John Harvey Kellogg, a Seventh-day Adventist, who played around with the pantheistic idea of an impersonal God diffused through nature. He believed God was in everything around him. At the time, he was superintendent of the huge Battle Creek Sanitarium in the USA during the early part of the 20th century. These same extreme pantheistic views have resurfaced again under the cover of the New Age movement that is now sweeping the western world.
Jonah is now instructed by God to go and preach to the Assyrians at Nineveh. In fear, He refuses and goes in the opposite direction (Jonah 1: 3).
What do we know about Nineveh? Where was it located in reference to Jonah's village?
If you look at our map, it was in the very heartland of enemy territory.
It was the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire and was believed to have been built about 5-6,000 years ago. Jonah 1: 2 refers to it as 'that great city'.
It was built by Noah's great grandson Nimrod who is mentioned in Gen 10: 8-12 as a great hunter before the Lord. Nimrod was the grandson of Ham and the son of Cush.
Nineveh was founded on the fertile east bank of the Tigris River soon after the dispersion from the tower of Babel. We are talking here about a very ancient city.
It was located about 230 miles or 370 kms north of the present city of Baghdad in Iraq and its ruins lie opposite the present day city of Mosul that we have heard so much about in recent times (Goldstein, 2003: 27).
History records that the city was surrounded by a circuit wall almost 13 kms or 8 mile long.
As noted in Jonah 4: 11, it had an area sufficient to contain approximately 120,000 people.
A days journey would have been needed to reach the city centre and Jonah 3: 3 tells us it would take three days to walk it's streets.
It had become the royal residence of the Assyrian kings.
Archaeologists have discovered information describing its beautiful parks and botanical gardens that included a large zoo containing a wide variety of exotic birds and animals. Huge aqueducts were built to harness water and bring this much-needed resource into the city.
We know it was a heathen city without the knowledge and worship of the true God.
To Israel, the name Nineveh was a byword for luxury and dissipation.
It had become a centre for crime and wickedness. In reading Jonah 1: 2 we discover that the wickedness of the people had come up before God.
The prophet Nahum in Nahum 3: 1 describes Nineveh as:
- A city of blood
* A lying and a murderess city
* A city of plundered and stolen wealth.
This is not a pretty picture. It is how Jonah would have seen it, but how did God see it?
Ps 33: 13 and Job 28: 10 tell us that God sees all the Sons of Men and sees every precious thing.
He saw many in that city reaching out after something better and higher and, if given the opportunity, would put away their evil deeds and worship Him.
God needed to reveal himself to those people - to give them a picture of who He really was, so who does He turn to?
The honour of this call was to fall on Jonah, son of Amattai, whose name, interestingly enough, meant 'Dove', signifying peace, truth and faithfulness.
Something we all need to have.
Was it an honour to be called? Jonah may not have thought so at the time but, from God's point of view, it certainly was. Jonah was now being entrusted with a heavy responsibility.
After all we have heard about Assyria and its people, could you even attempt to imagine what must have been going through Jonah's mind?
Jonah was looking at the seeming impossibilities of this commission and it unfortunately tempted him to question the wisdom of this God given call.
From Jonah's human standpoint it would seem nothing could be gained by proclaiming such a message of repentance in that proud and wicked city.
On what dangerous ground was Jonah now placing himself? It would seem that it was where the Devil could take full advantage?
- His major mistake was to doubt God.
- He forgot for the moment that the God he served was an all-wise and all-powerful God.
- Satan then seizes the moment and overwhelms him with discouragement.
- Jonah is then filled with fear and, in doing so, turns away from God.
As a consequence of his actions, Jonah is now forced through a series of trials and strange providences before his confidence in God's power to save, is revived.
The Scriptures tell us that in attempting to flee from God by boat, a violent storm overtakes them and Jonah is consigned to the deep. It was here that God was to begin His work on Jonah. In Jonah 1: 17 we are told that '…the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights. It is here inside the fish that Jonah calls on the Lord in his distress and he says in Jonah 2:1 that '…He answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help and you listened to my cry.'
After Jonah's prayer inside the fish and his recognition of God's saving grace for him, Jonah 2: 10 tells us that '…the Lord spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah up on the beach.'
Well, what can we learn from Jonah's experience?
If Jonah had responded and obeyed without question, he would have been spared these many bitter experiences and God would have blessed him abundantly. We need to think of our own experiences in this regard.
We need to remember that God's way is not our way.
We also need to understand that during Jonah's despair, God did not desert him.
When the call of God comes, we become accountable to respond. The experiences of other reluctant prophets such as William Foy and Hazon Foss in 1843 should be a lesson to us all. In the case of Foss, when he refused God's call, he was to eventually lose all interest in religion and, in his own words, was to die a lost man. Disliking the mission may separate us from God's service and ultimately we may lose out on the Kingdom.
We need to surrender our will to the will of God.
It is important for us to realise that when God places a burden on men and women, he gives them the strength to bear it. With every divine command, there comes the power to fill it.
It is through adversity that we learn to accept and call upon God for help.
Sometimes it is only through adversity that professed believers come to accept God's command.
Jonah is now given a second chance. Let's read Jonah 3: 1,2
'Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.'
This is a small object lesson of what God has done for you and for the world at large. We are all given more than one chance. In many ways every new day provides us with a chance to begin again. God through Christ offers us life every day.
What does this tell us about God?
What sort of picture do we have of Him?
I can tell you that:
We serve a loving God
He is a forgiving God.
A patient God.
A God of love and mercy
A God full of compassion for you and me.
Let me tell you that God will not turn His back on you. The God we serve is a God that believes in second chances. Let's read Jonah 3: 1,2 again.
'Then the Lord came to Jonah a second time. Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.'
This verse is one of the most important in this book. This is God's special charge to Jonah.
What is it? What does it involve?
God says '… proclaim the message that I have given you.'
This command is applicable to every preacher of the Word.
Only the Word of God is to be proclaimed from the pulpit and not the word of man. This is reinforced in 2 Tim 4: 2 which says: 'Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction.'
In our troubled world today people long to receive the counsel of God and not the vain reasonings and philosophies of fallible men and women like themselves.
However, we need to recognise that God's message through Jonah changed a whole city. A miracle of God's saving grace for a people who looked as though they were beyond help - The people of Nineveh, that wicked city, came to believe in the God of heaven. However, we need to remember that while Jonah was the instrument, it was the spirit of God that was responsible for pressing home the message to every heart.
Well, what are some of the lessons that we have learnt from this book this morning? Let's summarise our thoughts together.
God desires that we respond to His call with nothing less than our free wills.
God can still use people who do not want to be used by Him.
Even while Jonah was resisting God, his message to the people of Nineveh still struck a responsive chord. This helps us to understand that revival and repentance are the work of the Holy Spirit.
God desires to show mercy and grace to all peoples of the world, even in the heartland of the enemy.
No one nation or group can claim exclusive rights to His love.
If the Lord was prepared to continue to work with someone who has squandered privileges and ignored the light they were given, then there is hope for us too.
Grace is at its most gracious when bestowed upon those who know better, but do wrong anyway. I am sure we can all relate to that.
While God gives many chances, we must remember that God is not mocked. Those who presume upon the grace of God are in danger of facing His wrath and His judgement.
The Lord has a purpose for our lives and when we let Him take charge He fulfils that purpose.
Ultimately His plan is to save us and to lead others to Him through us. He does not want anyone to be lost.
The Book of Jonah reveals a great God, indeed, a God who is willing to forgive His erring servants through the merits of one dedicated faithful Servant. What a wonderful picture this gives us of God. Through Jonah, as through Jesus, we hear the words in John 10; 16, 'other sheep I have, which are not of this fold.
We need to be prepared to humble ourselves before God and do the work He has given to us because we have a special message for a dying world.
God loves the unlovable s o trust Him and accept the grace and forgiveness He gives us all today.
BLANCO, J. (1994) The Clear Word Bible : An expanded paraphrase of the Bible to nurture faith and growth. Hagerstown: Review & Herald Publishing Association.
GOLDSTEIN, C (2003) Jonah : Adult Sabbath School Guide Oct, Nov, Dec. Warburton, Victoria: Signs Publishing Company.
MEARS, H. C. (1983) What the Bible is all About. Ventura, California: Regal Books
NICHOL, F. D. (1955) Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary. Vol. 4. Washington DC: Review & Herald Publishing Association.
(www.dyeager.org/articles/jonah.php: (2003). Jonah: Lessons from the Book of Jonah.
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