Swallowed (Jonah 1:1–3)

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One of the best introductions to the little book of Jonah is given by a fictional preacher, “Father Maple,” of what is hailed by many as the great American Novel, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

“Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah—‘And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.’ Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah.”

Though immersed in nautical terms, though that novel centers on a whale, Father Maple gets closer than many to the true message of the book. Maple was a former whaler and knows more of what Jonah is about than we landlubbers who are preoccupied with the great fish.

Father Maple said Jonah teaches a two-stranded lesson. The first lesson concerns the sin and repentance of Jonah. The second he later says is “to preach the truth in the face of falsehood.” 

Still, Father Maple misses the greatest point of this little book. Greater than Jonah’s sin and greater than Nineveh’s repentance is God’s mercy. God’s grace makes blue whales look smaller than the krill they feast on. God’s grace is so great, a multitude of blue whale-size sinners can swim and live in it.

G. Campbell Morgan wrote, “Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God.” The most astounding thing that happens in this book isn’t that God appoints a fish to swallow Jonah, but that he appoints His grace to swallow sinners. This is a whale of a tale, a big fish story—and it is true. God’s grace really is that big.

Poorly Hung Church Doors (Colossians 4:2–6)

“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison.” —Colossians 4:3 (ESV)

Paul’s “open door” has been installed in many churches incorrectly. This phrase has been hijacked in an attempt to sanctify a horrid way to seek God’s will. In his excellent little book, Just Do Something, Kevin DeYoung quotes a Lark New satire piece,

TUPELO — Walter Houston, described by family members as a devoted Christian, died Monday after waiting 70 years for God to give him clear direction about what to do with his life.

‘He hung around the house and prayed a lot, but just never got that confirmation,’ his wife Ruby said. ‘Sometimes he thought he heard God’s voice, but then he wouldn’t be sure, and he’d start the process all over again.’

Houston, she says, never really figured out what his life was about, but felt content to pray continuously about what he might do for the Lord. Whenever he was about to take action, he would pull back ‘because he didn’t want to disappoint God or go against him in any way,’ Ruby says. ‘He was very sensitive to always remain in God’s will. That was primary to him.’

Friends say they liked Walter though he seemed not to capitalize on his talents.

‘Walter had a number of skills he never got around to using,’ says longtime friend Timothy Burns. ‘He worked very well with wood and had a storyteller side to him, too. I always told him, ‘“Take a risk. Try something new if you’re not happy,” but he was too afraid of letting the Lord down.’

To his credit, they say, Houston, who worked mostly as a handyman, was able to pay off the mortgage on the couple’s modest home.

Do you know how Paul found open doors? He prayerfully tried a bunch of handles. When one opened, he went through.

What are the open doors Paul asks for? Opportunity for the gospel, to declare the mystery of Christ. Upon returning to Antioch following his first missionary journey, we read that, “when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles (Acts 14:27).” The open door for the word then isn’t just the opportunity to declare the gospel, but receptivity to believe the gospel. Listen to the same truth in different garb. In Acts 11 Peter reports of this same open door of faith for the Gentiles. When the church “heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’ ” (Acts 11:18)

Paul desires prayer because He knows the work is the Lord’s. All opportunity and all receptivity for the gospel are gifts from God’s hand. Paul isn’t asking for prayer so that he might know who to marry, where to go to school, or what job to take. Paul’s personal request isn’t that personal at all. Paul doesn’t ask for an open door for himself, but for the gospel.

Why is Paul’s door installed incorrectly in so many churches? Because we are idolatrously bent in on ourselves. The crooked can’t hang straight doors.

Idols Croak (Exodus 8:1–15)

Frogs! Everywhere! That’s funny (when the joke isn’t on you). It’s also meaningful. “In jest, there is truth,” wrote Shakespeare. There is always a grain of truth in humor. This wonder is more than a humiliating joke and contains more than a grain of truth.

By these wonders, God was executing judgment on the gods of Egypt (Numbers 33:3–4). Heqet was a goddess who had the body of a woman, and the head of a frog. She was the spouse of Khnum, the protector of the source of the Nile who recently fell asleep on the job. Together they were responsible for human life. Khnum fashioned the bodies, Heqet breathed life into them. When the Nile would flood, it would teem with frogs, a symbol of the fertility Heqet gave the Egyptians. Frogs thus were a protected species. Protected not like bald eagles in the States, but similar to a brahma cow in India. They were religiously protected. Egypt is made to hold her gods in contempt.

Recall why Israel was oppressed. They multiplied (Exodus 1:7–10). Yahweh multiplies in faithfulness to His covenant to Abraham. Yahweh causes frogs to swarm, and then kills them. Heqet smells like death (Exodus 8:14). Behold a proper monument to the honor of Heqet: a pillar of rot, stench, and death. Yahweh gives life and takes it away. He has multiplied Israel. He will kill Egypt’s firstborn.

All man’s idols are frogs; not one is a prince, and by no magic we can conjure can we make then so. Frogs they will always be. So many of the ancient gods seem ridiculous to us today. We laugh at Heqet, Khnum, Osiris, and Hapi—and they are laughable—but we too are blind, fashioning our own gods. We just think we’re better craftsman.

Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together. The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!’ And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god!’ They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’ —Isaiah 44:10–20

How lame the created god. How awesome the creator God.

Laugh at the idols lest the joke be on you. Ridicule them, mock them, destroy them. Take your cue from Elijah. When the prayers of the challenged prophets of Baal met deaf ears he mocked saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened (1 Kings 18:27).” Elijah then has the offering to Yahweh soaked with water, three times, till the trench about the altar is filled. Fire falls consuming the offering, wood, stones.

Mock the idols. Repentance is sacrilegious. Repentance profanes and defiles the gods of this world. Repentance desecrates the idols as gods, and turns in faith to the one true God.

Curse No More. Kiss, and Be Cursed No More (Psalm 2)

“Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.

Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” —Psalm 2:11–12

When one bows before Yahweh’s Anointed it mustn’t be to conceal a grimace. Reluctant obedience doesn’t qualify as “rejoicing with trembling.” We must kiss the Son, but it must not be with the kiss of Judas. The kiss called for is the kiss of the woman in Luke 7.

“One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.’ And Jesus answering said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ And he answered, ‘Say it, Teacher.’ ‘A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.’ And he said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.’ And he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ ” —Luke 7:36–50

This psalm calls for the wisdom of submission in light of the wrath of God’s Anointed. If, in light of that threatened wrath, you find the kiss hard to offer, ask yourself, where do you suppose one would kiss a king as a sign of submission? Likely his hands or his feet. Now, look at the hands and feet of God’s Anointed. They are pierced hands and pierced feet. The wrath the king threatens, He has borne. Jesus dishes out nothing that he hasn’t taken. The reason there is a refuge in Jesus is because He bears the storm we should be caught up in.

Sin is against the Triune God who is infinitely worthy. The astounding thing isn’t that we insurrectionists, we traitors, we rebels against the highest, most perfect, and lovely of Kings are to face wrath. The astounding thing is that the Father—who infinitely loves His Son above all, the Son we have hated—would give His Son to bear our punishment so that we might love the Son as He does. The astounding thing is that the Son—who has eternally loved His Father perfectly—would die for us sinners who have so blasphemed the Father, that we might see the Father as He does and glorify Him. The astounding thing is that the Holy Spirit—who perfectly loves the Father and Son—would come into our rebellious hearts, make them new, and fill them with love for the Father and the Son.

If you see how big your sins are, and how wondrous the Ruler’s promise of refuge to the repentant is, your kisses will be profuse, and you will hear, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Pronouncing Repentance Correctly (Matthew 27:1-10)

The word used to describe Judas’ “repentance” is slightly different from the normal one. It has the same prefix, but a different suffix. It begins the same, but ends differently. Herein is a parable.

The camera that is intensely focused on Jesus’ trial and crucifixion pans away only twice; in both instances the focus is the failure of one of His disciples. You’re meant to contrast the two. Together, Peter and Judas are the best illustration of 2 Corinthians 7:10, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Douglas Wilson once tweeted, “As you contemplate repentance, be sure to distinguish ice shattering and ice melting.” Judas was shattered, but he was still ice. He was still cold. He was still hard. Peter was melted. Peter changed. Peter repented. Repentance does mean brokenness, but only brokenness coupled with warm faith.

Judas’ repentance is like that of Esau, Pharaoh, and Saul. It is, as Spurgeon quipped, “a repentance that needed to be repented of.” The prefix was pronounced perfectly, but the suffix was garbled. Pharaoh’s pronunciation of repentance sounded good at first, “This time I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Plead with the LORD, for there has been enough of God’s thunder and hail. I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer (Exodus 9:27-38),” but he muddled the rest of the word, “But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses (Exodus 9:34-35).”

In Judas, Esau, Pharaoh, and Saul we see sorrow, conviction, grief, and remorse, but we do not see repentance, and one way in which we do not see repentance is that we do not see faith. Repentance turns from sin, to Christ. Judas ran to the priests seeking to make things right. If he had the eyes of faith, he would have cried out to the only one who could make things right. Instead of trying to pay back, He would have looked to the one who was paying. Instead of finding priests who care nothing for his troubled conscience, he would have found the great High Priest who alone could purify his conscience (Hebrews 9:14). Worldly grief leads to death. When you are truly aware of your sins, if you have not faith in Christ, your only other option is the deepest despair. Hung on a tree, Judas was cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

And here is where another, surprising, but comforting contrast pops out at us. We are not merely to compare Peter and Judas, but Jesus and Judas. Two men would hang on a tree this day. Both would be cursed of God. But whereas Judas was cursed for his own sins, Jesus was cursed for the sins of others. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24).”

Let your despair, let your sorrow, let your guilt drive you to a tree, to a place of execution, to a cursed place of darkness, to a place of wrath and judgment. And may it be your sins upon that tree, but may it not be you. May it be Christ. Look to the cross of Christ and you will see both the ugliness of your sins, and the beauty of redemption. This is the only sight that can produce true repentance, because it is the only sight that can produce true faith.

The Pilgrim: Confession of Sin, not Commendation of Self

The Pharisee, therefore in commending of himself, makes himself never the better. The Publican also, in condemning of himself, makes himself never the worse. Nay, contrariwise, the Pharisee by commending of himself makes himself much the worse (v. 14). And the Publican, by condemning of himself, makes himself much the better. ‘I tell you, (says Christ) This man went down to his house justified rather than the other: For every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.’ —John Bunyan, The Pharisee and the Publican