Friday, December 30, 2016

Jonah and the Sovereignty of God

Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God.” --G. Campbell Morgan.

People always want to know who's really in charge. When people are at a restaurant or a hotel and have a problem, they ask to see the manager. Often times when involved in some social project, you just have to stop and ask: “So just who is running this show, anyway?” Even when aliens invade us, the first thing they always demand is: “Take us to your leader.” It's only natural. The only way to get anything done is to start with the proper authority; to find the person whose in charge. And there are many people who are in charge of various things in life--CEOs over businesses, parents over households, politicians over nations. But the Bible teaches us that there is one--and only one--who is ultimately in control charge over everything. And though this it might not be the first place you would look for such a lesson, you can find this very well taught in the story of Jonah, a story which clearly shows us the sovereignty of God.

The word 'sovereignty' means having complete and absolute control or authority; not being under the authority of anyone else. So, for instance, a nation is said to be a sovereign power if it is not under the control of some other country, if it has full power to direct and govern itself. A sovereign is someone who rules over a country, someone who has the final and absolute authority of his people. Sovereignty means being in charge. And though many rulers and authority figures can legitimately claim sovereignty in some degree or measure, ultimately there is one who is Sovereign over them all. All people, no matter how great, no matter how much authority they possess, no matter how many people they can control, no matter how many resources they control--all of them must bow before the sovereignty of God. We see several aspects of God's sovereignty revealed in the story of Jonah.

First, we see that God is sovereign over His own people--for Jonah was one of God's people. He was a Jew, one of the chosen people of God. Beyond this, he was a prophet, someone whose sole function and purpose in life was to serve God. Even while running away from God and from his duty to God, he told the sailors: “I am an Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven.” And here is the interesting thing about the story of Jonah. God came to Jonah with a mission that Jonah didn't want to fulfill, and so he ran away. But we do not read anywhere that Jonah tried to question God's command or counteract it. And while it's possible that the Bible simply didn't record this, it seems as if Jonah took God's word as final. He was foolish enough to think he could run from God, but not quite foolish enough to think he could argue with God. He seems to have accepted without question the fact that God had every right to send him to Nineveh, even though he didn't want to go. And that is because God is sovereign over His people.

God is sovereign over His people because, well, they are His people.  If we belong to God that fact necessarily entails the truth that He is sovereign over us. The Jews were the special, chosen people of God; God described Himself as their father and their king. He gave them special protection so that they could serve as the means through which His plan would be fulfilled. But all of this implied that God was sovereign over them--as a shepherd has control of His sheep or as a farmer has control of his fields, God was sovereign over His people. Psalm 95 gives injunctions both to worship God and to obey Him. The reason for this is: “For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (Psalm 95:7) Throughout the Old Testament, we find similar language. God demanded the obedience of His people because, in some sense, they belonged to Him.

And if this were true for the Jews in the Old Testament, it is even more true for us as Christians. For a Jew had no choice about being born a Jew, but we have a choice about being born again as one of God's people. And if we have chosen to belong to God, that means that we admit that He is sovereign over us and must fulfill His plans for us. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works.” (Ephesians 2:10)

If we are God's people, then God is sovereign over us, as He was over Jonah; He has the authority to tell us where to go and what to do and we must either submit or run away, as Jonah did. But this is only one part of the sovereignty of God. The most memorable part of the book of Jonah isn't so much Jonah himself as the things that happened to him--and these too show us the sovereignty of God.

Throughout the book of Jonah, we see God orchestrating events; we see Him pulling the strings of nature to bring about certain effects--because God is sovereign over nature and natural events.

First, while Jonah was running away from God, a large storm rose at sea. There is nothing unusual about that. We know the causes of storms and they are a natural part of life. But God arranged things so that this particular storm would arise at this particular time. “But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.” (Jonah 1:4) God in His sovereignty deliberately arranged for this storm. As you may remember, the storm had the affect of bringing Jonah face-to-face with his sins and, ultimately, led to his being thrown off the ship.

But that was not the end of God's working in the life of Jonah: Jonah 1:17 says, “Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.”  We don't know for sure if the fish or whale which swallowed Jonah was a natural creature or one God specially created for this purpose, but we do know that it was no accident that it happened to be right there and happened to have the munchies for prophets. God, as the sovereign ruler of nature, arranged events so that Jonah was swallowed alive and preserved.

In the final chapter of Jonah, we see another example of God using natural creatures--this time a gourd and a worm, which God used in order to teach the prophet an object lesson about mercy. But again, we notice that  God “prepared” these things (Jonah 4:6-7); in other words, God was working, even in seemingly ordinary and natural things. Just as a master tactician arranges for his armies to be at just the right spot at the right time so they can strike the finishing blow, so God arranged trivial and mundane events to work out His will.

And that is why we have no reason to doubt that God can sovereignly arrange whatever He intends. For instance, Jonah prophesied the destruction of Ninevah--which never happened because the people of Ninevah  repented. But what we do know is that God would have had no trouble in bringing about if necessary. Whether it would have been some miraculous like fire falling from Heaven (such as happened to Sodom and Gomorrah) or something more prosaic like an invading army (which God used to punish Israel and Judah), we know that God in His sovereignty, could have brought it about without the slightest problem.

What, then, is God's sovereignty over nature? It is simply this: God is able to act in and through the natural events of this world (or set them aside entirely and work directly) in order to affect His will. God never looks at some event or force in the world and says, “Oh dear, now what are we going to do about that?” He is the irresistible force before which, in the natural world, there are no immovable objects.

Why is God sovereign over nature? There are many reasons for this, but we can briefly give two. God is sovereign over nature, first of all, because of Creation. Just as God is sovereign over His people because they are HIS people, so God is sovereign over the world because it is, well, HIS world. “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” (Revelation 4:11) God has control over this world because He created it. As an artist has full control over his picture or as a novelist has full control over his story, so God has full control over this world. But not only did God create the world, but he continues to uphold it by his providence. Colossians 1:17 says that “by him all things consist” or hold together. God did not create the world and then leave it to its own devices like a man winding a clock and leaving it to tick alone on a shelf. God continually and every moment exercises His providential care over the world and without this (so it seems) the world would instantly collapse. God both originally made and continually upholds this world and it is for this reason that He is sovereign over it.

It is an amazing truth to realize that God is sovereign over His people and His world--but what of those who are not His people, who are not (willingly) part of His world? Well, the story of Jonah also tells us about that--it also shows that God is sovereign over all nations.

Here we need to make a clarification. We can use the word 'power' in two different senses.  On one hand, we have the idea of strength or ability, the ability to accomplish something, to do something, to exert some kind of influence. When we use power in this sense, we think of strong men like athletes and body builders or of strong machines capable of moving mountains or of the strong winds and tempests of nature. On the hand, power can have the idea of authority or right. When we use power in this sense, we think of important men like politicians and executives or of the inflexible laws of logic and morality which have the authority and right to direct our lives. And when we speak of the sovereignty of God or the power of God, we include both these ideas. God has both the might and the right. We see this as we move from God's sovereignty over the natural events of the book of Jonah to His specific dealings with Ninevah. The people of Ninevah were not the people of God. The very likely didn't even know who God was; the name of the Lord Jehovah was probably a strange one to them. But that did not change the fact that God was sovereign over them.

God had the right to bring judgment. This was Jonah's message: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4) Though this does not actually happen, we can be quite sure it would have--as, in fact, judgment did eventually come to Ninevah many years later. We do see many other examples in the Bible of God bringing judgment, all culminating in the great and terrible day of the Lord when He shall bring all works into judgment.

And there is one thing that is certain--Ninevah deserved this judgment. Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, and Assyria is noted in history for its extreme cruelty, even in a time period when cruelty was essentially the norm. What Ninevah was and what it represented was an ideal of oppression and cruelty, of moral hunger and greed.

But the essential point is that it was God who was bringing judgment. We are often reminded (and not without reason) that we have no business trying to bring about judgment on wickedness. God has specifically told us not judge others--we are not judges; much less are we executioners.“Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” (Romans 12:19) But while this forbids vengeance to us, in the same breath it gives it to God. We are not to bring judgment because that is the province of God alone. The windows of God's house are composed of His unbreakable holiness and therefore He alone can cast stones. Just as ordinary citizens are not to go around locking robbers in their basement because imprisoning criminals is the province of the government, so we are not to judge people for their sins, because only God can do that.

God has right to bring judgment because of the nature of His own deity. God is, by definition, the standard or rule by which all created things are judged. Because God is, in principle, perfect, He alone can judge all imperfections. And because He is the creator, He has the right to judge and punish all created things. Just as a parent has the responsibility to keep his house in order; just as a driver has the responsibility to keep his car on the road; just as a government has the responsibility to protect its citizens--so God, as the sovereign of the universe, has not only the right but the responsibility to bring about judgment on man for their sins.

But if this were the end of the matter, it would be a terrible truth; for, before the face of God, we all deserve judgment. But that is not the only truth Jonah teaches us. Not only is God sovereign over the nations in the sense of being able to bring judgment, but also--God has the right to forgive.

The only person who has a right to forgive a wrong is the person who is wronged. If I punch my brother in the face, none of you can say, “Well, I forgive you for that.” The only person who can forgive me is my brother. But the person who is wronged always has that right of forgiveness. And God is the one who is wronged in every sin. Because God is the ultimate law which defines right and wrong, every crime is a crime against God. In every wrong act we do to our neighbor or to ourselves, we are blaspheming the nature of God; we are denying in practice the very fabric of the Cosmos.  And for that reason, God does have the right to bring judgment--and, also, the right to forgive.

God is a God of justice and because He is, He also may be a God of mercy. If I have money--if it is mine free and clear--then I have the right to save it, to spend it, or to give it away. That is what it means for it to belong to me. And because the right of judgment belongs to God, He also has the right to forgive. Jesus told the parable of some workers who complained because other workers were paid (comparatively) more than they were for the same amount of work. Though they received just wages, it seemed unfair that others should receive more. To this, their employer replied: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (Matthew 20:15) And just as a man has the right do as he will with his own money, so God has the right to forgive people and delay judgment.

Many people believe this is why Jonah was so hesitant to go to Ninevah. “I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.” (Jonah 4:2) He was afraid that if he preached to Ninevah, they would repent and God would forgive them. And he didn't want them to be forgiven, because the people of Ninevah were terrible people; they deserved judgment for the things they had done. The people of Ninevah had done terrible things to Israel; it is not surprising that Jonah would have a desire for their judgment. Often times, when we see some terrible act of violence or cruelty, our first response (and not without reason) is a desire for justice. And God can--and will--bring justice. But God also has the right to forgive. He had the right to forgive the people of Ninevah just as He forgave Jonah. And so Jonah had no right to feel bitter (as he did feel) because God forgave Ninevah--since God is sovereign and He has the right both to judge... and to forgive.

There is an important final note to this matter of God's sovereignty. The word sovereignty implies the rule of a king or sovereign. Many people picture God's control over the world like that of a man over a machine or a scientist over an experiment; a detached, impersonal control for an abstract purpose or for no purpose at all. But God's control is that of a king. Just as a king--a good king--acts in order to bring about certain things, so God always works for a purpose. God is not like a child playing with blocks who arbitrarily sets up one pile and knocks down another. Though God's authority is absolute, He always exercises it for a purpose. God is a king and He always works for the sake of His kingdom. We see this in the story of Jonah.

God didn't just look down at Jonah and think, “You know, we haven't had any stories about fish in the Bible yet. Let's stick in a giant fish here and have it swallow a prophet.” God had a purpose for why He did what He did. In every step of His interactions with Jonah, there was a purpose. By having the storm come up, having the whale swallow him, raising and destroying the gourd in chapter four--and even by calling Jonah in the first place (even though God knew how Jonah would react)--in all these things, God was working out his purpose. And that purpose was Jonah's salvation. God could have sent His warning to Ninevah through some other channel. But if He had, Jonah would never have learned that “Salvation is of the LORD.” (Jonah 2:9) And though we don't know the end of the story of Jonah--we don't know if Jonah finally recognized God's working or rejected it--we do know that God worked in His life to bring Him to that point of decision.

The same can be said for God's working with Ninevah. Obviously, if God had only wanted to bring judgment on Ninevah, He could have done it without dragging in Jonah at all. He could have just done it. Only a single word and judgment would have come. But God's sovereignty is not limited to bringing judgment; God is also sovereign in order to bring about mercy.

And all of this only points forward to God's working for our salvation. Just as throughout the story of Jonah, we see God working, acting sovereignly, in order to bring the possibility of repentance and forgiveness both to Jonah and to to the people of Ninevah, so God worked, sovereignly, to provide us with a plan of salvation, so that we might have the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.

Many people in this world desire to be in charge. Many say, “If I were in charge, things would be different.” But let us never forget who is really in charge of this world. God is sovereign over all things--without rival and without limitation. He is sovereign over His people, with the authority to direct and command them. He is sovereign over the natural world, with the power to arrange circumstances to forward His plan. He is sovereign over all people, with the authority to bring justice--and mercy. And in all this, He is sovereignly working out His master plan for the world. Just as a king works to forward his Kingdom, so God is always working to advance His Kingdom, a Kingdom of mercy and grace, so that all men can see that: “Salvation is of the LORD.

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