Mighty Acts of God

Acts 2:1-21

The scene. 

120 of Jesus’ followers were gathered in the Upper Room. What were they doing? Exactly what Jesus told them to do. Wait. But this was not a sit still, do nothing, kind of waiting. No. They were actively praising and worshipping God through Jesus Christ. Why? Because they knew the power of God from Jesus being raised from the grave.

Imagine the scene. Imagine the joy. Imagine the confusion? Confusion because they were told to wait for the coming of the power, of the Holy Spirit, to be witnesses of Jesus in all the world. What were they looking for? Anything special? How would they know when the power came in them?

I think this is a question many people ask today: how do you know when you’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit? How do you know when you are supposed to do and go? Will you be any different? Or do you just go by faith? The answer, of course, is yes.

Here’s what happened.

50 days after the Passover, the Jewish custom was to have the Feast of Weeks. This was the day the Jews thanked God for the grain harvest AND to remember God giving Moses the law on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 20 – the end of the book). We know this festival as Pentecost (Penta – 50). So there would have been thousands upon thousands of Jews (and converts to Judaism) in Jerusalem.

Suddenly, the house where the Jesus followers were was filled with the sound of a violent wind and, what looked like, tongues of fire that rested upon each head. Every person, in the room, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages.

Now that would have been a pretty cool scene to witness. Just imagine a loud, violent, sound going through your house, not knowing where it came from or how long it’ll be there. Then, imagine seeing fire inside your house. What would you do? What would your reaction be?

Now, imagine you were on the outside of the house and heard a commotion. You see these people begin acting crazy. Do you call the police? Do you find the nearest mental hospital? What do you do?

You do like people today do. You pull out your phone and video the scene so you can publish it to social media and hope your video of these crazy people goes viral and around the world. Everyone needs to know how out of their mind these Jesus people are. They need to see why following this Jesus makes you act in a weird way.

The crowd stayed. The 120 followers began to speak. Jews, from all over the known world, were present in Jerusalem specifically for this Pentecost festival. Not all of them would be speaking the same language. But when they got the video footage on their phones, and heard about the commotion, they just had to come see for themselves what was going on. Suddenly, an Egyptian yelled out in the crowd, “Quiet! Their speaking Egyptian!” Then Romans here them speak Latin. Then all of the other 13 countries heard their own language. What was going on? What does all of this mean?

Like a good human, people began to make fun of the disciples because the scene wasn’t understood. So some began to say “they’ve been drinking too much wine!” It seems as if some in the crowd thought the disciples were worshipping with wine (as other pagan customs would do).

From out of the observed chaos, this guy comes center stage and begins to speak. We don’t know if he spoke in different languages, or if he spoke in Aramaic. But we do know when Peter spoke that day, all the people heard and understood the message.

So what was Peter saying? He was declaring the mighty acts of God! 

We can sit back, today, and go, “okay? So Peter was telling a large crowd about Jesus. What does that have to do with me today? You’re not asking me to go out in front of people and begin to speak about Jesus. We don’t do that today. It’s impolite and offensive to ‘force’ Jesus’ name down people’s throats.”

I know that sounds a little facetious, but there is truth in that last statement.

So, what does Pentecost have to do with us today?

Remember this was the beginning of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Another term for this is being baptized with the Holy Spirit. Keep in mind when your life belongs to Christ, the Holy Spirit fills your being. So, the Pentecost event (in some shape or form) is still happening today. When people are filled with the Holy Spirit, their entire life focus changes and there is something visibly different about their life. The person is changed and transformed completely, from the inside out.

On that first Pentecost Day, the crowd would have seen something different about the Jesus people. They, especially, would have noticed these unlearned people, who have probably never left their home region, began to speak in different languages. Now, Rosetta Stone software, would not have been that good yet, so this would have been impossible to learn a new language, especially that quickly.

When the Holy Spirit fills us, our communication changes. In Matthew 10, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit gives his people the words to speak when they’re needed. Throughout the historical narrative of Acts, the Holy Spirit empowers the people to speak to the crowds and groups. So what it is the Holy Spirit empowers his people to speak?

The wonderful acts of God. The mighty acts of God.

The Holy Spirit enables his people to speak about and point toward Jesus. That is his mission. So now we have to ask: “what are the wonderful or mighty acts of God?”

We have to be careful of thinking we have to witness something big, we have to see or do something big. So often we stop because we believe our excuses. Know this, “excuses only satisfy the ones who make them.” When this happens, when we think that way, we end of thinking we have to wait to have everything in order and perfect before we can step out “in faith.” But the reality is we have already been give the power (Greek dynamos) which simply means “the ability to do.”

God has given us himself, which means we have the ability to do the works he has given us. The reality is we do not need more machines, more technology, more programs, more or better anything. What is needed are groups of people to step out in faith, people not afraid to pray, people who live fearlessly into their giftedness and do the work of God in this world. The world needs people of faith to trust the abilities God has given them to do things the world thinks is impossible.

There is a sign in the library of Asbury Seminary in Florida that says something I can’t get out of my head: “Attempt something so big that, unless God intervenes, it is bound to fail.” Now that’s a statement. Can you imagine the people of Godattempting anything even though there is a chance of failure? Would you try anything today is there was a greater chance of failure than there was of success?

But that is what happened on that Pentecost Day. Peter, with the great chance of failure, began to speak to the crowd of thousands. Peter had a chance of getting stoned, humiliated, thrown of out town. His reputation, as a laughing stock, wouldhave been sealed that day. Oprah could have done a sob story on Peter.

But Peter had been given the ability to speak to the crowd and he sensed it was the right time, so he just did it. Sweaty palms, mind racing, his notes getting out of order. Peter does the only thing he can think of—he speaks about Jesus. That is a sign of the Spirit. 

The Spirit gives signs of his presence.

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave the signs of wind(the presence of God, see Genesis 1 as an example), and tongues of fire (fire represents covenant and God’s promises kept (see Abraham covenant Genesis 15).

The point? God uses ordinary things to show his extraordinarypower and presence. If God can use ordinary objects to reveal his presence and his power, imagine what God can do through ordinary, seemingly insignificant, nobodies!

At the end of Peter’s “sermon” that day, 3,000 people accepted faith in Jesus Christ. That means the crowd was large! But there is a number specified as to how many responded. Every time we speak about Jesus, there are always people who do not respond favorably. With this logic, how many people turned down the message of Jesus and just walked away? Think about it.

The mighty acts of God were proclaimed and people still turned it down. What are the mighty acts of God? Life changes and world changers. 

Even when people see this first hand, it is still difficult to believe. But the Holy Spirit still empowers his people to proclaim Christ. We, as his people, just have to be careful not to quench, or put out the fire of the Spirit.

The power that was demonstrated on that first Pentecost is still available today. The Holy Spirit still speaks and empowers his people to do and say the message of Jesus. You have been gifted and empowered with that ability.

What wonderful/mighty acts of God can you communicate today?

Vitality of the Christian Faith

On July 2, 1789, John Wesley wrote a sermon called, “Causes Of The Inefficacy Of Christianity”. Click here for the full sermon.

This is a powerful, convicting, sermon on how Christianity can be more transformative in our world. Here is a summary and application for this important sermon:

Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity

Jeremiah 8:22 “Is there no balm in Gilead: is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?”

​“Why has Christianity done so little good in the world?” Why does John Wesley begin this way? He notices a “failing” of the people who call themselves Christians to bring about real and lasting change in the world. One of the biggest reasons for this is because of the deep corruption of human nature. Humanity is flawed and fallen, so this means there is a vast amount of work to do in the world.

Even with the reality of so much brokenness, all around us, Wesley says Christianity was supposed to be the remedy from our Creator. But he also laments because it is not known well and the Christian faith cannot do good where it is not known. He can say this because of the vast amount of Christians who do not seem to be doing their part to be part of the transformation of the world. The lack of “action”, to Wesley, is an indicator that few Christians know what Christianity means and are ignorant of how they are supposed to live out their faith.

But Wesley also notes there are some people who understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. They have laid their lives down to “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus” This is the key, according to Wesley. Followers of Jesus Christ should pay attention to how their lives are lived so the glory of God will be demonstrated and revealed in the world.

All parts of our life, especially what we do with our money, should serve the kingdom of God. Wesley emphasizes how Christians should be gathered, in community, for worship. He also said how important it is to practice and deepen their faith through prayer and fasting. This, for Wesley, is what it means to be a Bible Christian.

Relevancy For Today

Now we get to the question, “Has Christianity done good in the world today? In some areas, yes. But there are still many issues all around us. According to Wesley, if all Christians lived out their faith, as it says in scripture, we would be able to see and live in a more peaceful place where there are no poor, or problems.

As in Wesley’s time, there seems to be a disconnect between faith and practice. Christianity is more than a status symbol, it is about life transformation. The transformation of one’s life happens when we deny ourselves, meaning we think of other’s interests above our own and we put the work of God ahead of everything else. Even in our day to day jobs, we still do everything for the glory of Christ by doing our best in all we do.

What’s interesting is that the same things Wesley says were the “failures” of Christians as well as how Christians should live, is the same principle that applies today. It seems as if we still have to guard against the notion of Christian being a status symbol to get a certain position. Instead, we should view our lives as humble, obedient servants willing to do everything necessary to be a sigh of relief to a hurting and broken world in separate need of God’s forgiving and healing touch. Christians would need to know this personal presence of God, on a deeper level so we can be his instruments in the world.

Yes, God is big enough (and smart enough) to find ways for his work to go on in the world; but there is so much that we Christians can miss out on by living solely for ourselves, or solely for what “rewards” we’ll receive “in the end.” There is great joy, hope, peace, and love we can experience here and now because of the presence of God working in us and through us. We can bring the healing and the presence of the kingdom of God wherever we go and in whatever we do. But it all begins with taking heed to the commands and guidance of Jesus.

So what should we do today? We should not neglect meeting together for worship. We should be involved in prayer and fasting. We should “earn all we can, save all we can, and give all we can” so we do not allow money to become a god in our life. Above all, we should practice what we preach. Then we just might see a change in this world.

God’s Story, Your Story: The New Testament

If you could sum up the Bible in one word, what would it be?

This may be tricky for some. Some may be thinking we can’t sum up the Bible in one word.

I think we can sum up the Bible with the word, JESUS. After all, in Luke 24, Jesus tells the disciples on the way to Emmaus that all of scripture points to him. Paul, in Colossians, says that all things are held together in him. So as we read scripture, even the Old Testament, we should be able to see Jesus in everything.

As we take the time to talk through the New Testament, remember how the storyline of the Biblical narrative goes:

Act 1: Creation, Fall, Israel

Act 2: Jesus, Church, New Creation

Last week, we saw the 39 books of the Old Testament are divided up into categories:

Pentateuch (Torah), History, Writings/Poetry/Wisdom, Major Prophets, Minor Prophets

The New Testament is divided up into categories as well:

Gospels of Jesus, History (Acts), Paul’s letters (longest to shortest), General letters (longest to shortest), Apocalyptic

So the way to think about the layout of the New Testament is like this:

Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension 

The spread of the message (Acts)

Living out the Christian life through the empowerment and presence of the Holy Spirit (the letters and Revelation)

Now, if the whole Bible could be summed up with JESUS, can we think of key passages that help explain the gospel and the way the Christian is supposed to live in the world?

Many know John 3:16 (For God so loved the world the he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.)

Unfortunately, this is where many people stop—at the point of gaining their own salvation. But the Christian life and faith is so much richer and deeper than simply personal salvation—it’s about being in community, sharing life together, and laying down our lives for the sake of others.

The second part of the gospel we need to hear, and live out, is 1 John 3:16 (This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.) This is why we follow the command, and example, of Jesus to take up our cross and follow him. We follow him even though we, as believers, will have challenges and suffering in this life. We follow him because he is the only source of hope and life.

So many people think the Christian life is just for them—it’s become what can Jesus do for me here and now? How can my life get better? But see how we miss out on the power of the gospel? The power of the gospel is found when we live our lives in community, when we seek to bring new people into the family of God (this is kingdom growth not just numerical growth). The power of the gospel is found when we live our lives for others instead of ourselves.

This is why there is so much emphasis on not judging, gossiping, slandering, anything that destroys or devalues another human life. The emphasis is on love—a word that has honestly lost it’s meaning because we over use it. (I love hamburgers, I love my spouse, I love (pick your favorite sports team).) Love in the Bible is not a feeling, or even how we feel in the moment. Love is the way of life. Love is at the core of who God designed us to be.

A little pastoral care moment: When we “speak truth in love” our goal is never to belittle the person but to build them up and encourage them. So often we attempt to speak, what we call, truth and end up having anger in our hearts towards the person. This is not the example of Jesus at all.

Christ followers are to emulate and imitate Jesus in their everyday lives. This is the point of the epistles (letters) from Paul, Peter, John, Jude, James, the author of Hebrews. What’s incredible is how the Spirit continues to speak through these words today—with the intention of building up the community and growing the kingdom of God (God’s rule and reign in the world).

Then we come to the book of Revelation. This is a book that has been misunderstood and misapplied for the last 200 or so years. We’ve said it before, the point of Revelation is to show how God’s people can and should stand firm in their faith even when everything is going to pot. 

The ancient readers would have understood this was a letter, written in code, so they could understand what’s happening in the world to them at that time. We do know that Christ will come again and set things right (true justice not revenge). That is why we can live in hope and joy—we know the end of the story.

This is the New Testament, in a brief nutshell. 

One more thing to consider. There really is nothing new in the New Testament that is not in the Old Testament. In fact, what we see is an expansion of the thoughts and teachings from the Old Testament. (Think Sermon on the Mount which we’ll begin next week.)

This is why it is so important to study and read through the Old Testament. There are many resources available to help us study to learn the history, traditions, and context of the Old Testament. When we better understand the OT, we will begin to see more of the beauty found in the New Testament.

Jesus is the point of the Bible. Jesus is the point of the Christian life. How we live, in this life, matters and it has eternal consequences. I challenge you to read through at least one Gospel, a few letters, and Revelation this week. Ask God to reveal himself to you. The best picture of God is found in the person of Jesus Christ. 

Then, ask God to mold you into the likeness and image of his Son and give you the grace to live out the Christian life in community and help you be a person to build people up and work with God to grow the kingdom of Heaven.

Whose Side is God On?

There is so much that divides us, as people—politics, race, social economics, and so much more. We often try to get people to be on “our side.” One of the challenges we face is we often question who is God fo? Who’s side is God on?

This video is some of my thoughts on the question at hand, whose side is God on? Be sure to take and tackle the question at the end!

Let me know your thoughts.

No Perfect People Allowed

Note: This was the sermon preached on Sunday, July 5, 2020.

Today, we move into a series to see how God uses people no one else would expect to carry on his mission in the world. We‘ll take a few examples of people from the Bible so we can know God better through his people. Remember, the point of the Bible is to know God. We know God, through Jesus Christ, when we read his words in scripture and we open our ears and our hearts to the empowerment and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Normally, the first Sunday in July I would do a “State of the Church” message and cast the vision for the next 12 months. The reality is, we can see the state of the Church all across America. It used to be that everyone around us would label themselves as Christian. But the reality is that in 2019, only 65% of Americans who were polled would identify as a Christian. This is down from 75% in 2015 and 84% in 1990. Protestantism is still considered the majority, however, this number is down to 35% in 2018 from 69% in 1948. People who identify themselves as atheist (do not believe in God) have risen from 2% in 2009 to 4% in 2019.

Something else, we also see that in 2019 more Americans identified as religiously unaffiliated, meaning they did not profess belief in any religion. The rise of the “dones” (those just “done” with church) is growing as well. What do all of these numbers tell us? 

For one thing, no longer can we assume everyone around us is Christian. I’ve said it before, if the only people we are around are Christians, we should expand who we interact with.

Secondly, it means this means there is plenty of opportunity to show the world true Christians and what a life converted to Jesus Christ looks like.

Thirdly, maybe we, as the Church, need to understand what it means to be the church in the world today.

Fourthly, realize the Bible is full of stories where the surrounding culture did not believe in YHWH (God) but were polytheistic (belief in many gods). Believe it, or not, this is the world we continue to live in. The only thing that has changed is the lifestyle of society.

Finally, it is more vital than ever to give Christ glory in all parts of life. This is true when reading the Bible. Christ is the hero, not us, in the scriptures. When we take the time to see Christ as the hero, we realize we aren’t, but we also see how God uses ordinary nobodies to be somebodies for His Kingdom work.

Now, how does this sit with you here and now?

Church, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I believe God is calling His people to rise up and show the world the Kingdom of Heaven like never before. There is so much trying to hold the Body of Christ from expanding that we, as Christians, need to walk in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and step out in faith, trusting that God will provide and show us what to do and who to reach.

So, now the question becomes, not what do we do, but who do we seek after? There are many people all around you and I who do not know Jesus Christ, some people you probably already know. Then the question becomes “are you willing to worship in the same building as ‘those’ people?”

What about if the person was a drug dealer? Porn addict? Stripper? Murderer? These are real people who need the grace and life changing power the Holy Spirit offers through the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Yes, I am saying we need more “imperfect” people in the church. We need people to know they are broken and incomplete without Jesus Christ. We need people to turn their lives completely over to Christ and witness a complete life change.

So, to be Christ’s church we constantly seek the people Jesus did. Luke 19:10 Jesus came to “seek and to save the lost.” We are sent, like the disciples in Matthew 10, Luke 10 to those around us. Genesis 12:1, Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8 and many other passages send us out into the world, for the mission and purpose of God to be lived out—bringing people to the throne of grace so all people can be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).

This will bring people in who can and will probably ruin our reputation if we are seen with them. But, in the church “no perfect people” are allowed. The only perfect person is the one who died on the cross for you and I, and the world, and he is the head of the church (Colossians 1:8).

So, what is the church? Theologian Thomas Oden talks partially about the church this way: The church is…

“ The Christian church is the community through whom the Holy Spirit administers redemption and distributes gifts, the means in and by which God makes the reconciling work of the Son vitally present to humanity. The church is the extension of the work of the Incarnate Lord as prophet, priest, and king. The church is called from the world to celebrate God’s own coming, and called to return to the world to proclaim the kingdom of God…. Pentecost was not an event in which the Spirit was poured out upon wholly separable isolated individuals. Rather it was a community already gathered for a liturgical event in whom the Spirit came to dwell. A community was created by the Spirit in which the embodiment of Christ’s mission continued corporately after his ascension, as a household, a family, a koinonia… The church is local in its universality, and universal in its locality. This means that wherever the church exists locally, it bears witness to the whole church. And wherever the church is said to exist universally, it is known to be such in its local manifestations… The reign of God is present wherever God’s will is done. There God rules… The church is the arena in which the coming kingdom is being proclaimed and actively expected. The church is the place in the world where the coming kingdom is already beginning to happen… The church is subject to the infirmities and temptations that accompany all finite existence. Yet it resists those impediments that appear as obstacles to the coming kingdom. The Spirit is given to cleanse these corruptions and guide the gathered community toward the fullness of truth.” (Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity)

The church is all about proclaiming and demonstrating the presence and works of God in the world. Think about the carefully. How has the church been doing at this mission lately, in the world?

The great news is that God still uses imperfect people to carry out his will and mission in the world. You and I are part of those imperfect people God uses and this means we get to walk in the world without condemning others because, as 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 says, “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

See, aren’t you glad God has paid the price for you and I to enter salvation here and now because of the work of Christ on the cross? We should not have been offered this grace of God, but we have been. Our lives are on a better trajectory because of Christ. Christ is the one who makes us into new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). Whatever we do, in this life, we always do for the glory of God (Colossians 3:17).

Just sitting in these seats today, means we realize we have been granted the grace and the freedom to worship God freely. God is doing great works in the world. All he asks us to do is join Him, imperfect as we are, so the world will know He is God and worthy of all praise.

It may seem as if the church is losing ground, but maybe God is waiting on HIs people to step out to join Him? After all, God is calling His imperfect people to reach imperfect people to extend the grace and mercy He freely gives.

Hope has always been here. God has never stopped working. There is a countless number of people who are primed and ready to hear and witness the life changing presence of Jesus Christ. As John 4:35 says, “Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.”

What an incredible time we’re living in! Church, look around for the people God is working on and leading you to. Pay attention to the incredible Kingdom of Heaven all around us. Trust that Christ will continue to build his church and keep the faith he is calling you to be part of his work in the world, and in history.

*Statistics from: https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/

The Problem of Evil

A perfectly good God exists, and evil exists. This is a challenging enigma to contemplate and understand. After all, a good God would stop all evil and suffering from happening, so we would not have to experience it, right? This is where we need to pause and consider some of the characteristics of God and consider how God works in the world.

God is omnipotent. This means that God is all-powerful. Wouldn’t it make sense that an all-powerful God would be able to eradicate all evil in this world? But there is still evil, and many use this as an argument against God, or his goodness. This argument comes in because we have a misconception about the concept and reality of real power, mainly how God uses his power.

Real power is not coercing and forcing your will and desires on other people or situations. Real power comes from restraint, as well. Underlying the all-powerful nature of God is that his nature is of love. God can, and maybe sometimes does, prearrange circumstances to make sure things turn out as he intended, but this does not mean this is how God acts all the time.

Real power also comes from restraint. Since God is all-powerful, he can do anything he wants. Since God is loving, he does not desire his creation, us, to follow and serve him out of anything but a desire and a sincere love for him. Everything has been set in motion and is perfectly aligned and created to make life habitable here on earth for humanity. If there were one, seemingly insignificant part out of correct alignment, life as we know it would end. For example, if the core temperature of the earth was a degree hotter, or the earth’s axis was off by .01, life would not be sustainable. This is true even if the moon was an inch closer to earth. Everything is placed in the proper placement and, therefore, has been given natural laws to run so life can continue. Even though J.L. Mackie says the argument that God limits himself in our world takes away from the teaching God is omnipotent (all-powerful), this is one of the best ways to describe what’s going on.

Another aspect of God’s restraint from merely taking control and erasing evil comes from his great love for the created order, especially humanity. If God wanted people to follow him, no questions asked, he would have robotic slaves. This is not what God desires. God desires a relationship with his creation. Because of this, God has given humanity the “gift” of free-will.

Free will has been a blessing and a curse for humanity. It has been a blessing because we have been allowed to learn, to make our own decisions, and to choose what we believe. It has been a curse because we have also been given a chance to do good or to do evil. There is much evil because people have exercised their freedom to bring evil into the world, maybe even into our situations. This is called moral evil.

Moral evil does not explain all that is wrong in this world because there are things that happen that occur because we live in a world where sometimes things happen beyond our control. We cannot stop the destruction of natural disasters. We cannot always prevent illnesses and diseases that take life. We cannot stop people from making the wrong decision. We cannot stop the consequences from the actions of others affecting us (i.e., Enron or financial systems doing what they believe is right). This is called natural evil.

This brings us to the next question, “did God create evil?” Saint Augustine argued that God only created/creates good things. And since the whole universe is God’s, it is fundamentally good. He also says that evil is not a created thing; it is an entity and, therefore, evil is the lack of good. God is all-powerful and has created an incredible world and universe. He is also unchanging and eternal, but the created order isn’t. Creation is mutable and changeable and, therefore, is corruptible to manifesting as evil. This lines up with the account of the fall in Genesis 3-11. Creation, humanity, rebelled against God, and brought evil into the world.

Bishop Irenaeus taught something a little different from Augustine. John Hick has his rendition of this teaching—Adam and the original creation were innocent and immature but were offered the opportunity to do good by loving God and people. He goes on to say that evil is here because this is an “inevitable stage in the gradual evolution of the human race.”

There is an argument that we cannot know good without knowing about evil. J.L. Mackie argues this with a few points: evil is a necessary counterpart to good, evil is a necessary means to good, and the universe is better with some evil. One of the issues with this kind of thinking is that it implies God is the One who created and brought about the evil and suffering we experience in this life. There is evidence to support this thought in scripture, but we also have to understand people are going to do what they are going to do.

To know evil means we have the opportunity to know good. To identify good means we know what is evil. And this is precisely why we were given the Law in our Bibles—to understand how we should live, so we do not end up living an evil life and corrupting the world even more. The created order is designed to do what God set in motion through natural laws. Humanity is the only part of the created order that has been given the gift of knowing right from wrong. God must have known we were going to make the choices we made and still make today, right?

Many theologians believe that God knows everything—past, present, and future—and lives within the space of being able to see and know all possible outcomes and scenarios (probable and factual). This means that God knows every possible way we could act or think. Some argue that this way of thinking about the knowledge God has means humanity does not have free will if God knows what we are capable of doing and do what we want. Scripture teaches God works all things together for good—meaning, God has a plan in place for every situation we might choose so his perfect will is done here on earth, even amidst the evil that surrounds us.

The biggest thing we have to wrestle with is not, why has God not eradicated evil, but what do we believe about God and what do we believe about how God works in this world and yours and my life. Sometimes faith has to go beyond the intellectual level and go into the heart level. This means there are some things we are going to have to be okay not being able to reconcile, and we have to trust that God is working for the good in this world. If we believe this about God, we can put simple trust that what the book of Revelation says about a new heaven and new earth are real, and God’s goodness will win in the end. The question now is, how will you and I choose to live?

On Miracles

Question:   Can a modern, educated person rationally believe in miracles?

I believe a modern, educated person can rationally believe in miracles if they have faith miracles can happen. If a person, any person, does not have faith, miracles can happen, then they would not be able to know if it was a miracle. Belief in miracles depends on the person’s worldview: do we live in a world where God can intervene, and we have personal religious experiences?

There seem to be different understandings of what a miracle is. Some people describe a miracle as an unexpected event or occurrence. Most often, a miracle is defined through the lens of religion, primarily because of the result of divine activity. Two types of miracles are violation and coincidence miracles. Violation miracles are those we tend to think of the most—God stopping a natural disaster, terminal disease cured, a person saved from a horrific accident unharmed. These are the miracles that give the best stories. If religious experiences people have are challenging to examine or prove, then violation miracles could be challenging to prove as well. Coincidence miracles are those events that seem unlikely to occur, though they do not violate any laws of nature (i.e., a candidate gets a job they were not qualified for, etc.) In these miracles, the eyes of faith can see God working.

Throughout history, there have been unexplained events that make no sense unless they are described as miracles. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most significant one people still grapple with today. Had this not been a miracle and real event, the early disciples and followers would not have been so bold in their faith, their testimony, or even to be willing to die for the message Jesus Christ lives.

I think the most significant aspect of miracles that make them difficult to believe in is that they force people to look beyond themselves as the center of the universe. Meaning, we have to open ourselves up to the possibility there is a higher power (God) that created the world and is still working within this world and the lives of the people, whether they know he is nor not. Yes, this is a challenging thought and concept. But what if we took the wager of Pascal and began to seek to have faith in God just for the outcome of experiencing joy and seeing everything around them in a new way?

For me, I do believe in miracles. This past summer was one of the hardest of mine and my wife’s life. She was pregnant and had a very, very difficult pregnancy. It was so complicated that we were not sure if the baby was going to live outside the womb or not. We also were not sure my wife was going to make it either. We recently had our baby boy baptized. So every day, I believe I am looking at a miracle when I look at my baby boy and wife.

For an intelligent, modern person to believe in miracles, we have to go back to the questions at the beginning, do you think we live in a world where God can intervene, and we have personal religious experiences?

Discovering God through the Book of Jonah (Part 4)

THE BIGGER PICTURE

“But the Lord replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?” ~Jonah 4:4 NIV

What do you see in these pictures?

full frame abstract microscopic shot showing the cellular structure of a red rose petal

What do you think? I bet these pictures are not what they seem to be. Here is what they are, from a zoomed out view:

Part of the issue with the fallen state of humanity is we often do not look beyond our own circumstances. We even often do not think big enough about God. When we read the book of Jonah, I hope we can get a big picture of who God is.

Remember a question we started this series with: “If you only had the book of Jonah, what could it teach you, and what could you teach others about who God is?”

REVIEW WHAT WE KNOW OF GOD THROUGH JONAH, SO FAR

  1. God knows our hearts; yet he still calls us
  2. We cannot hide from God. God never leaves us
  3. The Lord is the One who created everything à even you!
  4. People come to know God through our lives
  5. God offers grace and desires life for people
  6. God answers prayer
  7. God has not abandoned you or forgotten you
  8. God relentlessly pursues you and I so we can reach the people we’re called to reach
  9. God desires holiness from all because he is holy
  10. God even cares for our enemies

Jonah 4

Jonah has left Nineveh after reluctantly obeying God and warning the people of coming destruction. Chapter three ended with Jonah seeing that God did not bring the destruction that was foretold. This made Jonah angry. Do you know why he was angry?

First of all, we have to understand anger is not a primary emotion. Anger comes from another emotion/feeling that has grown. Most of the time it is because of being hurt. When we get hurt, we can easily nurse that wound (emotional or physical) until we get into a place of anger toward something or someone else. The reality is, we are really just upset because of another cause.

Look deeper into who Jonah is. Remember prophets were only considered authentic and valid if the prophesies they gave actually came true. From what we have learned about Jonah, both in this biblical book and in 1 Kings 14, we see Jonah has not seemingly done very well. This could have been eating away at him. When he gave the message Nineveh will be overthrown, he went and sat down to make sure it happened. When Nineveh was still there, imagine how he felt about himself being a prophet.

There is a good chance Jonah was realizing people would view him as a false prophet which would make his life much more difficult because people would no longer listen to him. This would be a valid concern if the prediction he gave (from God) did not come true. I am sure the anger he was beginning to feel came from not tending to the deep emotional hurt he was feeling.

Let’s pause for a moment and ask the question, “Why was Nineveh not overthrown (destroyed), or was it?” Jonah had it in his mind Nineveh would be wiped clean from the face of the earth.

But from what we have learned about God, through this short prophetic book, we learn, even more, how God does not work like we work and think like we think. Jonah had one end goal vision for Nineveh – to be destroyed. But remember in chapter 1, God tells Jonah, “it’s wickedness has come up before me.”[1] This was God’s concern the whole time. So, when the text says Nineveh repented, God relented from destruction.

Anytime people turn away from wickedness, sin, self-love, self-pity, and turn to God, that person (that city, culture, country) has been overthrown by grace. So, Nineveh would have been overthrown, just not how Jonah was thinking it would be.

After we understand this, now we can look at what Jonah says to God. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, and abound in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”[2] What is amazing is that Jonah says that God is good. He names the good attributes about God. This is part of what God says about himself to Moses in Exodus 34. What amazes me is how Jonah knows the incredible goodness of God, yet is still angry at God.

This is the part of the story where we get to witness Jonah throwing a hissy fit and a temper tantrum. He says this is why he tried to flee from God, because he knew God would not bring the destruction as promised. He was viewing his mission, and life, like this:

When God desires he/we look at the world with a much bigger picture, such as this:

This is one of the things I love about reading scripture. Every time I read it, I see a much bigger and deeper view of God than I had before. I also see how much God is working in and through humanity. We see a picture of just how far the journey is to, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”[3] Showing this kind of love is difficult because 1) we are not God and 2) humans, in our fallen state, love conditionally (i.e. if you treat me good then I will love you; if not, I don’t like you).

When things to do not go our way, it is easy for us to throw a fit and get angry at God when the reality is we are really upset because we realize we are still so far from perfect. God has not even placed earth as the center planet. Our solar system is not even in the middle of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The weight of this realization is too much for us to bear at times, so it will manifest in anger and self-loathing. This is why the concept and truth of God’s grace is so important for us. We have the opportunities to remember we are not the center of the universe.

Fast forward to the New Testament, Jesus never says “get your life in order and then follow me.” He simply says, “Come…Follow me.”[4] This is an incredible picture of grace. The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.[5]

We can get to a place where we understand and praise God for the grace that we did not earn. We can begin to follow Christ, but we also have to battle constantly with the urges we have (deep within us because of Sin) to not retort back to our fallen nature.

Jonah was a prophet of God. He knew the goodness of God. Jonah knew how merciful God is. Jonah still wanted to see his enemies go down. This is what we have to be careful of. There are people we don’t like. There are people who don’t like us. Yet, through it all, God is for all the world, not just you or I. If God can save you, through Jesus Christ, why do we forget God can save the people overseas? The people in the slums? The people in the White House? The people coming to our borders? Why do we still allow our anger to burn against other people, that God is also for (as we saw in the last chapter)?

Jonah was allowing his prejudice to creep in and take over. He was allowing his desire for revenge to be demonstrated. Remember, this book was written during the time of the Jewish exile to Babylon, where Nineveh was. These people took away the livelihood and freedom the Jewish people had in Israel. For them, this book would have been really close to home. Why wouldn’t God take care of and destroy our oppressors when they did this to us? Remember that God is still trying to work on, even the oppressors too.

What we have to be careful of is not allowing our prejudice and our stereotypes of other people groups to be the lenses with which we view the world. When interviewed about the future of planet earth, God skeptic and physicist, Stephen Hawking had something interesting to say. “When asked what human trait he’d like to change, Stephen Hawking replied, ‘Aggression.’ He said it could lead to irrational behavior, like sparking nuclear war and ending the world.”[6] This is why what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount is so important.

“Don’t you see that whatever goes into the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, slander. These are what defile a person…”[7]

And what the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 4, Galatians 5, and Titus 3:

29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.[8]

18 But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. 19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry,21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.[9]


Remind them to submit to rulers and authorities. They should be obedient and ready to do every good thing. They shouldn’t speak disrespectfully about anyone, but they should be peaceful, kind, and show complete courtesy toward everyone.[10]

What does this teach us about God? It all goes back to being holy which means being perfect in love. Which means we have to look beyond ourselves and our families and friends to try to grasp the bigger picture—God is working toward remaking (not destroying) the world. Redemption is God’s plan.

God continues to show his creative nature with what happens next with Jonah.

Jonah goes east of the city. He finds a place, makes a shelter, and waits. He would have waited at least 38 days in this spot. (He walked one day journey into a three day journey length of Nineveh. This meant he would have 38 days until the destruction of the city.) It’s easy to imagine the scene. We do it all the time when we’re watching our favorite movies and television shows with a character that is supposed to have something bad happen to them. We get our popcorn and drink, sit back, relax, and wait in anticipation (sometimes happiness) that the character will get what’s coming to them.

But God is not one to be mocked, or break from his character. While Jonah is (patiently?) waiting for Nineveh to be destroyed, God causes a plant to grow which helps produce shade for Jonah. Oh, Jonah likes this. Not only does Jonah get to wait for the destruction of the city, but God was so good to him that a plant was provided for his own comfort. (Sense the humor here?)

But the very next day, God created a worm (irony) that ate the plant. Jonah’s anger continued to burn, this time more so at God. Not only does God send the worm, but God also sends a “scorching east wind.”[11] Imagine how Jonah was feeling now? Did he finally repent of his actions and attitude? Nope!

Jonah continues to have the gall to be upset with God. This time he stays mad because God provided and took away the comfort and shade. Jonah uses the excuse he does not want to live anymore because, as Jonah says, God is too good and compassionate.

Does God deal harshly with Jonah? Not really. Instead, God asks some real important questions about how Jonah’s view of the situation and the world needs to change. This is where the book of Jonah ends:

God asks Jonah, “should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from the left—and also many animals?”[12]

Not only does God ask this of Jonah, but God also asks us this same question today.

So, I have to ask, where is your heart toward God? I’m sure I would hear that our hearts are great with God. This is definitely something we all desire. Now, where is your heart to the people of the world? The person who cut you off in traffic? The boss who isn’t fair? The person who harmed you or stole something of yours? Where is your heart toward the judge who did not give a strong enough sentence to the defendant? This is where it gets difficult.

I sure hope the book of Jonah has come alive to you in a different way than before. I hope you are seeing new aspects that were not visible before. Above all else, I hope we all come away with a much larger picture and view of God than we had before.

God is big enough that we can be mad at him, yet he still seeks to offer grace. This is where the picture and person of Jesus Christ comes clearly into focus.

Not only did God create the universe, create the world, create each and every individual person, God decided to come down and live life here on earth, as a human, for a time, so he could live and dwell among us. High and powerful people did not like Jesus Christ, still don’t, and had him put to death. But catch this. Jesus willingly went to the cross. He willingly was humiliated, tortured, wrongly convicted, wrong executed. With his arms outstretched on the splintery cross, Jesus said, “forgive them.” He demonstrated his incredible compassion and love for all of humanity (past, present, and future). What an incredible picture of God’s compassion, love, and mercy for you and I today.

May we continue to seek to live in true peace with each other. May we continually repent and turn our lives toward God. May we constantly praise and glorify God, even when we do not get what we want. Above all, may we seek to know and love God, and God’s people, more and more each day.

Amen


[1] Jonah 1:2b NIV

[2] Jonah 4:2b NIV

[3] Matthew 5:48 CEB

[4] John 1:39a, 43b

[5] Ephesians 2:4-10

[6] https://nypost.com/2018/03/14/heres-how-stephen-hawking-predicted-the-world-will-end/

[7] Matthew 15:17-20a NIV

[8] Ephesians 4:29,31-32 CEB

[9] Galatians 5:18-21 CEB

[10] Titus 3:1-2 CEB

[11] Jonah 4:8a NIV

[12] Jonah 4:11 NIV

Discovering God through the book of Jonah (Part 2)

HEAR OUR PRAYER

“From inside the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.” (Jonah 2:1 NIV

Many of us attend worship each week with hidden concerns, hidden feelings, harboring resentment, coming with doubts about your faith. The challenging thing is how do we allow the message of God to shape us into who God is making us to be?

One of the biggest doubts we seem to face is whether or not we believe God is done with us. Now, this can take on a variety of characteristics. One can become controlling to try and make sure things get done in the order and manner you want. One may stop trying to do anything new. One may begin to pray only at meal times, because this is when we are supposed to pray.

If we fall into these, or any other similar categories, it becomes harder to go to scripture. Why is this? I have learned that when we go to scripture, we tend to focus on what we know (or think we know) and disregard the rest. It is easy to go to verses that give us the good feels like Philippians 4:13, John 3:16, Psalm 23, Jeremiah 29:11, Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8, etc. I bet you even know what these (or most) verses are.

The point is, we like to have the Bible tell us what we want. We’ll even read our own ideas, our own culture into the scriptures. As we said last chapter, remember the point of the scripture is to teach us who God is and who we are now, and who we will become.

I can hear it now, I learn most of what I know about God through nature. That is true. The Apostle Paul writes to the people in Rome, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what was made.”[1] The issue with this thinking is that we believe we learn about God just through nature (or other people) and the Bible is our manual for how to get into heaven.

As we dive into the scriptures we can see the main point is not for us to go to heaven. The main point is to love God and love people which brings heaven to us. This means, as we read, study, and pray the scriptures, we learn God is telling us so much about who he is so we can learn more and more about our own character.

One of the fascinating things about scripture that I love is how we can see something new each and every time we read and meditate on the passages. The same thing is true for the book of Jonah. 

Maybe viewing the purpose of the book of Jonah is to tell us about the nature of God is a new or different concept than you have been taught before. That is good. The more we study scripture, the more layers we find. This reminds me of the movie Shrek. The donkey and the ogre are on their to rescue Princess Fiona from the dragon. Donkey is upset Shrek did not do more damage to Lord Farquaad’s castle and knights.

Shrek is telling Donkey how there is more to ogres than people realize. He gives the illustration that ogres are like onions. There are many layers to peel back before you can understand what an ogre is about. We also have to remember that scripture is the same way. 

Scripture has many layers, the more we read, the more we study, the more we hear God’s voice speaking, the more we begin to understand about what the text is teaching us about humanity, what we should learn, but also what we should learn and know about God.

The book of Jonah is no different. Take some time, right now, to write down anything you have learned about God so far in this short book of the Bible.

In the last chapter, we left Jonah in the belly of the fish. He has been in the fish for three days and three nights. Remember we said this was actually grace because God did provide a way for Jonah to live. 

You are probably going through something right now that makes it seem as if you are in the belly of a fish. The circumstances and situation you are in are not what you expected them to be. You are living with a diagnosis. Maybe you have gotten away from an abusive situation. Maybe you are running to find out who you are. Maybe, just maybe, you are in a situation you believe you don’t deserve to be in and are angry about it. It is in moments like this we find people may not be as open as they say they are, or we find it difficult to know where to turn.

One thing I can promise is this: God has not forgotten you. God still is with you and is doing a great work in, and hopefully, through you. It may seem as if you are all alone, but God has not left you. 

Jonah was in the fish for three days and three nights before the fish ejected him onto the dry land. I’m sure there were times he felt as if his prayers did not get past the scales. There are many times I pray I feel as if the words, or thoughts, do not get past the shingles. But, as we read Jonah chapter two, we learn something about God.

GOD ANSWERS PRAYERS

This is huge. God will give an answer to our prayers. Sometimes the answer is “yes”. Sometimes “no”. Sometimes “not yet”. Sometimes it’s a combination of “not yet because you haven’t done what I’ve already told you to do.” God will answer prayers. The question now is, are we ready to pay attention for the answer.

Back to Jonah. He has been in the fish for three days and three nights. The scripture does not say when this prayer was prayed, just that he prayed. What is interesting is what it was Jonah prayed: 

“In my distress, I called to the Lord…” (v 2)   Did he really?

“yet I will look again to your holy temple.” (v 4b)   Has he done this already?

“When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord,” (v 7a)   Interesting…

“But I, with shouts of grateful praise…” (v 9a)    Has he done this before?

“What I have vowed, I will make good.” (v 9b)   What did he vow?

“I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’” (v 9c)  Has he said this before?

The reason we should look closely at the prayer Jonah “prayed” is that it doesn’t seem consistent with what we have read so far about this prophet of God. It almost seems as if he is praying the prayer from memory because he has not lived the life the prayer suggests.

Besides looking at the life of Jonah to get the clues as to whether or not he believed this prayer, we can look at verse 10: “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” 

Notice the word vomit. “The verb vomit, which returns him to dry land…evokes negative connotations. Rather than using a delicate word for ejection, the narrator uses a distasteful image. The fish does not stomach Jonah.”[2] Based upon this, and of course Jonah’s past actions, according to the text, even the fish cannot handle Jonah’s behavior and sarcastic prayer.

As we have seen, Jonah was not having his attitude adjusted. He was most likely mulling around in the fish’s stomach upset because he did not get his way. What does he do? He “prays” this prayer, maybe trying to get God to do what Jonah wants to do—run away from doing what God wants.

The interesting thing is that, maybe Jonah though his life was over in the fish and his prayers did not go past the scales, but God delivered Jonah by having the fish dump him on the dry land.

Yes, Jonah’s prayer may not have been sincere for him; but this teaches us God cares enough for his people that God will answer our prayers, even when our heart is not tuned toward God. Look at what Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him![3]

As we learn about the nature of God, we also learn more about the condition of humanity. Jonah is trying to make himself look good by “praying” to God and saying the “right” things in the prayer. This is something we all try to do. 

We know that we cannot make God do anything by saying the right words in the prayers we pray, but we also try to keep ourselves looking good in the presence of God. Jonah is still trying to hide who he really is by praying this Prayer of Thanksgiving. It is possible that he is recalling the only prayer he could think of in that moment.

From Jonah we learn that humanity tries to cover sin up by attempting to make ourselves look good in the presence of God. It is difficult to reveal our true nature because we do not like it when people look down on us, especially God. But remember the words in the book of James:

“Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” [4]

And also hear the Apostle Peter’s words: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.”[5]

What we have to understand is God knows who we really are on the inside (see chapter 1). God knows the condition and state of our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7, John 2:25) So we should be completely open and honest with God. This vulnerability reminds us of God’s unconditional love for you and I. We also remember that God never expects us to be perfect, humanity is not perfect; therefore, we come to God as we are.

There are times we will try to hide who were really are because we do not want to face the reality of God humbling us. But we also try to hide who we are by pretending everything is okay with our lives, even though we do not believe everything is right.

Through all of this, no matter what situation or life circumstance we find ourselves in, part of the nature of God we see in Jonah is: providing an answer to prayer.

When a mother has a sick child, it is marvelous how quick her ears become while attending it. Good woman, we wonder she does not fall asleep. If you hired a nurse, it is ten to one she would. But the dear child in the middle of the night does not need to cry for water, or even speak; there is a little quick breathing—who will hear it? No one would except the mother; but her ears are quick, for they are in her child’s heart. Even so, if there is a heart in the world that longs for the things of God, God’s ear is already in that poor sinner’s heart. He will hear it. There is not a good desire on earth but the Lord has heard it.[6]

Jonah’s prayer was trying to get him out of that situation, whether he meant the words he was praying or not, God still heard the prayer.

God has not forgotten you. God will answer your prayer. The answer may not be what we are expecting, or coming from where we want, but God answers every prayer offered to him. 

No where, in the text, has Jonah proved he has done or said anything he has prayed. He was running away from God. The sailors had to ask Jonah to call on his God to help them (Jonah 1:6) but Jonah still sent to sleep instead of being concerned about the safety of the other sailors.

Now, let’s look at our own prayer lives.

I find it interesting the only thing Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them was how to pray (Matthew 6:5-14, Luke 11:1-13). When was the last time you or I asked another person, or Jesus for that matter, how we should pray.

Yes, there are many formulations on the best type of prayer. We can pray spontaneously, read prayers from the past, pray the Psalms, and more. But God is more interested in what is the state of our heart.

There are times we do not know what we should pray, and God has this covered as well. The Apostle Paul writes, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself interceded for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our own hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” [7]

It is because of God’s grace the Spirit he has given us prays to him. Too often we can neglect our prayer life and try to do things our own way. We try to do things on our own because, as I have heard many people say through the years, “I don’t want to bother God with this small situation.”

See, it is in the midst of difficulty that we learn how deep our prayers can be. We learn if we’re just focusing on ourselves and our own situation, or if we are truly trying to seek out and accept the will of God for our own lives. 

Jonah stays inside the belly of the fish for three days. You and I may in the situation we’re in longer than we want, but there will come a time when we will be set free.

Every request we make to God is heard and answered. God had the fish spew Jonah onto the dry land. This signifies Jonah given the chance to begin anew.

Maybe you and I are given a chance to renew our commitment to Jesus, or even begin our calling, our mission, our life with God through Jesus Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit anew this day.

Think about that, we are given a new opportunity to do what God has called us to do. Live with that grace, accept this incredible gift from God, called life (here and now and in the life to come). 

You have been given this incredible gift of God through the presence of the Holy Spirit within you. God has not forgotten nor abandoned you just like God never abandoned Jonah.

Let our cry to God, each day, simply be “Lord, hear our prayer.” Then, look earnestly for the answers that will come.


[1] Romans 1:20a NIV

[2] Tribble, Phyllis. New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes Volume 7. (1994). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. Page 504

[3] Matthew 7:7-11 NIV

[4] James 5:16 NIV

[5] 1 Peter 4:8 NIV

[6] Flashes of Thought: 1000 Choice Extracts from the Works of C. H. Spurgeon, Charles Spurgeon

[7] Romans 8:26-27 NIV

Discovering God through the Book of Jonah (Part 1)

A WORD FROM GOD

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai:” (Jonah 1:1 NIV)

Take some time to read the first chapter of the book of Jonah in you Bible.

I recently told my congregation, there are two things to know about me, right off the bat. Number one, I am a really smart guy. Now, I know I do not always do things that make it seem like I am smart, but I do work really hard. I also had to tell them, I promise I am safety conscious. This was really important because the weekend before, I had gotten the church’s zero-turn lawnmower stuck in a ditch. It would have been funny if this had been a one-time incident, but alas, it was not. 

See, the parsonage has a few inclines that would make mowing them challenging. If you did not go at the right angle, I learned, the mower will slip back down the hill. And that is what got me caught in the ditch, the first time. Don’t worry, we were able to get the mower out easily and I was able to finish what I needed to for the day.

This might be a good point to say this is my first time using a zero-turn lawnmower. Over the course of three mowings, I was able to get more confident and do more of the yard safely.

The next day, I decided I needed to finish an area of the yard that had not been able to be mowed because it had been real marshy and I needed that to dry up. The time had come. I put on my rain boots, walked through knee-high grass, and found the ground was dry enough for me to finish this patch of grass. I was excited!

I got the mower out, put in my headphones and turned on Pandora Radio on the Contemporary Christian station. I was getting more and more of the yard mowed, and it was looking good! At this point, I felt myself getting prideful and decided to go up a hill, close to the driveway, so I could easily go back and make another pass. This worked great, until…there was a little culvert ditch I did not see until it was too late. This time, the lawnmower had been backed up into the ditch.

Most of the time I am not easily embarrassed. When people drove by and saw the mower, and then the vehicle pulling a rope (that kept breaking), I felt I just needed to laugh at this situation. Then, a friend came by, called his son, and they were able to get me unstuck.

The other thing I told the congregation they needed to know about me was that I do not like to be told something is too much of a challenge, or it is impossible. I have had this character trait verified on multiple occasions. My wife says this is one of the reasons we are married. J

I do not believe there are impossible situations. There is always a way out and people who can and will be there when needed. Because of this, I was able to get the yard mowed before rain started the next morning. Every time I drive up to the house, I am thrilled to see the yard mowed! Mission accomplished, this time.

Now many people, including me at times, when faced with a seemingly impossible situation, will try to run and hide until the problem goes away. We see this all the time. People will run to drugs, alcohol, the arms of someone who is not their spouse, and more, just to try and run away from the situation for the moment and not think about it. 

It really is amazing what people will do to get out of doing something or face a situation or issue without really dealing with it. Most of the time, when the situation is faced and worked on, it turns out better.

As I study the scriptures and get older, I am understanding more and more how important it is to know who God is and what God’s nature is like. If we do not understand this, we do not clearly or fully understand who we really are. (I’m not talking about who we think we are. I am talking about who God created us to be.)

Now we get to the biblical book of Jonah.

There was something my Old Testament professor, in seminary, said. Think about this. “If you only had the book (or passage) of __________ from the Bible, what could you tell people about God from the text?” This is essentially what we get to do and experience from the Bible. We get to learn more about the nature of God. Yes, we learn about human nature, but as we learn about human nature, we also learn about who God is and how God interacts in this world and with flawed humanity. The book of Jonah is no different. 

As we take this time to study this short book in the minor prophets, take time to go to a new level of looking at the Biblical text. Take the time to see what the text is saying about who God is and what God’s nature is. This is something important for us to do because we can miss out on knowing God through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit if we’re only looking for what peaks our interest or what makes us feel good.

Enter Jonah.

The prophet. The whale. The story many have heard from childhood. This is a book that has captured the minds and hearts of many throughout the centuries. So much so that many stories and movies have used something from this short book of the prophets. In 48 verses, Jonah gives us a good picture of what happens when we try to run from God and how persistent God is to get us to do what he wants.

The story, we know, goes like this: Jonah hears from God to go to Nineveh to get them to repent. Jonah says no and decides to get on a boat to try and run from God. A storm hits the sea and the sailors are scared. When they figure out Jonah is the cause of the storm, they throw him overboard and he gets swallowed by a whale (though the text just says big fish we tend to still think whale). He spends three days in the belly of the fish and then gets spewed out on the land. Jonah hears God again and this time he goes to Nineveh. While he is walking through the city, Jonah proclaims the message of the Lord and the people are scared so everyone, including the animals, put on sackcloth as a sign of repentance. God does not destroy the city. Jonah throws a fit. The end.

That pretty much sums it up, right? But, since this is one of the books in the Bible, we have to understand there is always something beneath the surface. There is something God wants us to know through this inspired story, this inspired word. 

This really is a fantastic story. It is easy to try and say this book is about how we should not try to run from God. It is easy to say this book is about God’s compassion for the people. It is easy to say this book teaches us about the human condition. But, if we take time to read and understand this story, we can see this book, like the rest of the Bible, is teaching us about the nature of God.

Our task, over the next four chapters is to see how, if we only had the book of Jonah, we could still teach about the incredible nature of the God who created the universe, including each individual person.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai.

Before we go any further into this story, we have to pause and think about who Jonah is. The only other time we learn of a prophet named Jonah is in 2 Kings 14:25, which says, “[Jeroboam, king of Israel (Northern Kingdom)] was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea,[a] in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” (NIV) There really is not much about this guy. Even though we do not have much information, we do know who Jonah was supposed to be, a prophet of YHWH. 

Look at his name. Have you ever thought about Jonah’s name before? Jonah son of Amittai. “The proper name means ‘Dove son of Truth (or Faithfulness).’”[1] Can you sense the irony and humor right off the bat? Jonah is supposed to be a faithful prophet of God, yet he does something very unfaithful and runs away from his assignment. We are not told why he does this in the first chapter, but he tries to run from God and hide.

When else have you heard about people who tried to hide from God, in the Bible? There are numerous accounts, but the one that stands out is Adam and Eve. This is the account you can read about in Genesis chapter 3.

Right after Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”[2]

The story of the fall and trying to hide ourselves from God has saturated and become part of just about every story we know. It seems to be human nature to try and hide from people and/or God when we are ashamed or feel guilty.

When we tell about the beginning of the fall, when the fruit was eaten, notice how we tend to focus on the people’s actions and their sense of separation from God. Have we noticed the great care and grace God offers by “searching” for the man and women in the garden? God knows where they are located but God is asking where their heart is. The man tells God they were afraid. Their hearts were in fear, instead of peace.

Through the fear in their hearts, God still comes to the man and woman and offers them a chance to live, even if it is not in perfect peace as they were used to. God does this because the state and condition of every heart is known by him. Remember what God told the prophet Samuel when he went to anoint the next king of Israel after Saul, “the Lord looks at the heart.”[3]

Back to Jonah. 

JONAH LEARNS HE CANNOT RUN OR HIDE FROM GOD

God knows what Jonah will do. God knows that Jonah will try to run and hide, but God still offers grace from the beginning by giving Jonah the chance to do what he is supposed to do.

Jonah does not surprise God when he flees. God knows everything about us.[4] Jonah thinks he can run away from God by running away from his assignment.

Notice how the text says Jonah “went down to Joppa,”[5] “gone below deck.”[6] Jonah kept going down. The author is showing how the condition of Jonah’s heart is going deeper and deeper away from the presence and calling of God.

What we learn from this is God is not a person we can run and hide from. God is omniscient, meaning God is everywhere. There is no place God is not. Here, we can remember the words of David from Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.[7]

So now we have to ask if there is anything you are hiding from God? Do you wish God was with you and answering your pleas? Rest easy, God is always with you. God has never left you. There is nowhere you can go God is not. The presence of God is always seeking to give your heart peace and vanquish any fear within.

God is everywhere. That is good news for us. This is not all this first chapter of Jonah teaches us about God.

GOD CREATED EVERYTHING

This might seem like a no-brainer but this is a reality and truth we have to understand, or at least believe. Jonah seems to know this, yet he does not seem thrilled about it.

When he gets on the ship, Jonah goes below the deck to take a nap. Suddenly, a great storm comes upon the sea and is threatening the boat and the crew on board. The sailors are terrified and are trying to figure out why they are having this bad luck. They want to know who “cursed” the boat by coming aboard.

After casting lots, which is similar to drawing straws, the sailors find it was Jonah who caused the storm. They rush to get him and bring him to the deck to question him. Now, they already knew why he was on the boat because he told them he was running away from God. This never sunk in until the storm hit.

The sailors questioned Jonah about who he is. 

It’s interesting they did not want to know who he was before, they only wanted to know his reason for going to Tarshish. 

Jonah begins to tell them, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”[8] It is easy for us to hear Jonah with a confident, prophetic voice declaring who he is; but we have to keep in mind Jonah is running from God because he seems to be unhappy with the task he was called to do.

Instead of hearing a bold voice proclaim, “I am a Hebrew and worship the Lord…” Maybe we should instead hear Jonah speak with a snarky, disgusted tone because, yes he is a Hebrew, but he does not or has not shown he worships the Lord since he has run away. 

There are those who would try to make others feel guilty about running away, but pay attention to how Jonah is also showing us the human condition while teaching who God is. People run from God for many reasons. People will claim they worship God but live a life doing the opposite.

Jonah is telling the crew who he is supposed to be and what he is supposed to do. Maybe he has given up trying to pretend because at this point, Jonah is still trying to figure a way to get out of the assignment at hand, for unknown reasons at this point.

Yes, Jonah is a Hebrew. Yes, he is supposed to worship the Lord, but Jonah is unhappy with his lot in life. When the crew tries to decide what to do, Jonah steps in and says, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”[9] Jonah has thought about ending his life. He gets in his head that if he were gone, the lives of those around him would be better, would be safer.

But Jonah underestimates the image of God within humanity. He forgets that God desires people to live and to live in community with others.

What is remarkable is how the sailors try to avoid throwing Jonah overboard. They come up with every other idea. They even tried to row back to the land, back to safety. But the storm was too strong for them to row and they finally relented to Jonah’s plea.

GOD CAN BE SEEN IN THE MOST UNLIKELY PEOPLE

The sailors throw Jonah overboard. But before they completed that task, they cried out to Jonah’s God. “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”[10] The sailors began to plea to the Lord. They cried out to the Lord. What this means is they worshipped the Lord, in that moment.

We never know how our lives are going to touch those around us. Even if we are not living up to the life God set out for us, there is still his Spirit within us to touch the Spirit of another person. Pay attention to how people begin to act when you are around. You or I may not be the most perfect example of living for God, but maybe there is something about us that helps bring people to him. 

I cannot remember where I heard this quote, but it sticks with me: “Your fingerprints never leave the lives you touch.” Because of the grace of God, the Holy Spirit within us reaches out to another person and offers the grace of knowing the God in heaven, the Creator of the universe.

As the sailors were worshipping God, they threw Jonah overboard. All of a sudden, the storm ceased.

They realized the Lord is the One who created the heavens, the earth, and they sea. The Lord created everything. So, they continued to worship the Lord by offering sacrifices to him and made vows to him.[11]

Jonah is in the sea. He thinks his life is over, but notice this: God shows great compassion by allowing Jonah to live. God provides a huge fish, speaks to it, and the fish swallows Jonah. Jonah is kept safe in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Even though it is in the belly of a fish, God still desires his people to live and to experience real life, life in God’s presence here and now not just in the life to come.

What an interesting way to end this chapter. But here we are, in the belly of the fish, learning about the nature of God. Remember this, the circumstance you might be in now could be something God is using to keep you alive and trust in God. You may not be in the best situation, in your mind, but you may just be exactly where God is wanting you to be. You never know who God has placed in your life that has the tools to get you out of the ditch. It is in these situations we are becoming more and more transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. Just look at what the Apostle Paul says in Romans:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And weboast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.[12]

So, if this were the only book of the Bible you had in your possession, how much could you teach about who God is and what his nature is?

So far, we have learned:

  1. Even though God knows our real heart, he still calls to us and speaks to us, giving us his mission.
  2. There is no place we can hide from God. This should give us great encouragement because God never leaves us.
  3. The Lord is the One who created everything.
  4. People come to see and know God by our lives.
  5. God offers grace and desires life for people

As we can see, this is who God is and what God is like. Fast forward to the New Testament, we can see all of this lived out in the person of Jesus Christ.

Bringing this chapter to a close, I am invited us to begin to memorize Hebrews 3:15, “today, if you hear [God’s] voice, do not harden your heart.” God’s word comes to us in many different ways. Do we have the ears and heart to hear?

Maybe someone needs to hear this word, as if it is from God:

“I know who you are and what you’re capable of, yet I still choose you for this life, for this calling, for this special mission I created you for. You can try to go as far from me as you want, but remember, I’m already there and I’m pursuing you with a love so great that I will do everything I can to keep you alive. I created this whole world. I created you! Because of you (whether it’s done perfectly or not) the most unlikely people will come to believe in me, know me, and worship me. You have a great role to play in expanding the Kingdom of Heaven.”


[1] Tribble, Phyllis. New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes Volume 7. (1994). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. Page 493

[2] Genesis 3:8 NIV

[3] 1 Samuel 16:7c NIV

[4] Psalm 139:1-6

[5] Jonah 1:3 NIV

[6] Jonah 1:5 NIV

[7] Psalm 139:7-12 NIV

[8] Jonah 1:9 NIV

[9] Jonah 1:12 NIV

[10] Jonah 1:14 NIV

[11] Jonah 1:16

[12] Romans 5:1-5 NIV