17 June 2008

Jonah — model preacher?

by Dan Phillips

[These thoughts were sparked a bit tangentially from a good sermon on Jonah, delivered 6/15/2008 by Chad Hertzell, one of my church's elders.]

Jonah has to be one of the strangest preachers, ever.

As a pastor, I often lamented the lack of visible effect of my sermons — or puzzled over the disproportionate effect. That is (to take it chiastically), some sermons that I felt I had simple massacred, or bobbled, or fumbled, seemed to be used for a particularly rich blessing to the folks present. On the other hand, sermons that seemed rich and edgy and on-target and powerful... not so much!

As a rule, I preached through books. So, by no design of my own, we would come on a section which should finger an area of sin or resistance in some regular attender — and then either that person would not show up, or the Word would evidently sail right past, a clean miss. And I'd worry, and puzzle, and agonize.

But I never, ever preached a message, saw the Word go home to great and glorious effect — and then got angry at God because of it!

Yet of course that is exactly what Jonah did.

And what a doof he was: God tells him to preach to this one group of Gentiles, and so (famously) Jonah runs away — and ends up preaching to another group of Gentiles (1:9ff.)! It isn't much of a sermon: it's terse, it's brief, it's virtually forced out of him. But it is 100% true, and God apparently uses it to bring these men to saving faith (1:14-16).

In spite of Jonah.

And then after Jonah's own volte-face in chapter two, he is re-commissioned to preach to Nineveh. This time he does it. But not very well! Again, it's a terse, sparse sermon, as reported in the 3:4. It's a mere five words in Hebrew, eight in English: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be destroyed!"

Not a lovely sermon, not a winsome sermon. But it was the message Yahweh had given him to preach, and he preached it faithfully — and Yahweh used it to produce a massive repentance throughout the city, as they grasp at a straw of hope (3:5-9). The straw of hope was real (cf. Jeremiah 18:7-8) and, however deep or shallow their turning, judgment was averted.

Was Jonah happy? Wouldn't you be? I speak to my pastor-readers, or anyone who's ever told an unbeliever about Christ. Would you be happy to see one hearer repent? Five? Five thousand?

One hundred and twenty thousand (4:11)?

I think you or I would be delirious with joy and praise and gratitude.

But of course, Jonah was not at all happy. He was smoldering, ugly, angry at God; and he got himself a nice little public, for-all-time hiding for it (chapter 4).

From this little tale, I adduce two thoughts.

First thought: why hasn't some ambitious religions entrepreneur made a best-selling book of this? He could call it, Your Best Preaching Now! Or The Prayer of Jonah. Or The Secret Message of Yahweh. Or A Stingy Homiletics.

The message of that barn-burner of a book could be,
"Figure out what God wants you to do, listen for the voice of God — and do the opposite! Preach angry! Preach short, graceless, dessicated little dehydrated sermons! Preach a hard message that nobody wants to hear! And make it harder! Don't pray for conversions! In fact, pray against conversions! You'll experience unparalleled success and explosive growth!"
Maybe you're laughing, maybe you're groaning. But you know that the premise of many very popular books has even less textual basis in the Bible than that.

Jonah serves as another example of the importance of reading each part of the Bible in light of the whole Bible. He also serves as an illustration of how dangerous it can be to mistake description for prescription.

Second thought: no wonder the center of the book is Jonah's confession in 2:9b — "Salvation belongs to Yahweh!" Isn't that the real message of Jonah's wretched example? The results (both in the boat, and in Nineveh) are in no way proportionate to Jonah's consecration, his holiness, his love for God or man, his oratory, or any series of gimmicks or enhancements you could imagine.

From Jonah's example, I can discern only one positive lesson for application: when you preach, preach God's truth. Jonah did do that. Not well, not eloquently, not eagerly, and not with a good spirit. But he did do that much.

But beyond that, the real lesson I glean is this:
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 6 For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us (2 Corinthians 4:5-7)
Now, I'm just going to ask you mentally to plug in here all that the whole Bible says about what a preacher's heart and attitude and spirit should be, about what focus he should have, and about what he should aim to accomplish in his preaching.

But — catch this, it's the big point — we should do that not because it's the method that will work. We should do it because we love God, and that is the orientation that reflects and pleases Him.

Because in the final analysis, it isn't the method, anyway. Look at Jonah! It's GOD who saves. Salvation belongs to the Lord!

You and I might as well face it: on our best and holiest and most consecrated, God-centered, Spirit-filled day, preaching the most exalted, beautiful, Heaven-breathing sermon we will ever preach...

...at our very best, we're just clay pots, conveying a fantastically extravagant treasure not of our making.

Dan Phillips's signature


Rick Frueh said...

A great post, Dan. How true that we are simply mouthpieces that so often overestimate our oratatorical prowess. The most rumbling, stumbling message that comes from the heart is better than a Spurgeon-esque message preached from the head.


Kim from Hiraeth said...

This reminds me of the passage in Philippians re: the motivation of the preacher.

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

As long as the true gospel is being proclaimed, the preacher's attitude is not what is important. It is the content of the message. I'm sure that Paul would rather have had those men preaching from a sincere and loving heart, but he still rejoiced that the Gospel was proclaimed in truth.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Wow! Wow again! You have a really excellent elder in your church, DJP! Terrific exposition that I have never seen before in the book of Jonah.

P.S. Slightly off-topic. I have argued with LibProts and Catholics who don't believe at all in the historicity of the Book of Jonah. They believe there are allegorical and spiritual lessons to be derived from the "story" of Jonah whilst accusing me of being a fundamentalist and literalist for maintaining that Jonah is historical fact-narrative. I refused to budge.

James Scott Bell said...

I love the idea of a little book on Jonah that can sell a couple of million copies. I think the title can be worked a little:

"A New Kind of Jonah"
"Sex Jonah"

Something along those lines. But if the central message is going to be "preach God's truth," forget about it. Those books don't sell.

DJP said...

Well, TUAD, so Chad doesn't go nuts when he reads that and say "What?! I didn't say most of ANY of that!" —

This mostly isn't what Chad preached. That was the "tangentially" part. These are my thoughts, reflecting AFTER his sermon.

Chad did the whole book. One of the things he pointed out that I'd never noticed was that, though Jonah was a prophet, there is only one sentence of prophecy in the book: in forty days, Nineveh will be destroyed. He also stressed the conversion of the sailors, the terseness of Jonah's "witness" to them, Jonah's unconcern, that he'd rather die than preach to the Ninevites.

As I said, it was a good sermon. This wasn't it, though. You could go a number of different ways with Jonah, as Chad and I were discussing afterwards, all of them valid and true to the book.

If it were up on our web site, I'd have linked to it. When it does go up, I'll update the post so you can hear him.

DJP said...

That's right, Kim.

candy said...

Great post. I really like the story of Jonah.

Chris said...

Truly an encouraing post in this personal season of discouragement. Thanks again.

Chris said...

I've been wanting to preach from the book of Jonah for a while now. What resources/authors would you recommend that have really done justice to the book of Jonah whether it is commentary, historical background or any other tools one might use during sermon preperation. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great post Dan and great comment Kim. Better a true representation of God's Word, that the preacher doesn't like or doesn't believe, than the most heart-felt exposition of some unbiblical thought.

Moral of the story (for me, for now) don't get caught up in the preacher, his sincerity or what I think of his style, hear the word preached and do/believe what it says.

(Just imagine the result if the Ninevites ignored Jonah because 'his heart just isn't right')

DJP said...

Chris — I want to say that you should preach Jonah, you'd have a whale of a good time, but I won't.

What leaps to mind are R. K. Harrison's Old Testament Introduction, and Gleason L. Archer Jr's A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Here away from my library, that's what I've got in mind.

Anonymous said...

Further to my last comment. Was Jonah "authentic"?

I"m pretty sure not, he wanted 'em all dead.

Mike Riccardi said...

In my new practice of reading the picture captions, I have this to say:



ChosenClay said...

J.E. is Dan's Home Boy! :D

CSB said...

Jonah as a preacher? I never heard that exposition before but your post made me think. Thanks.

Susan said...

1. Kim said: "As long as the true gospel is being proclaimed, the preacher's attitude is not what is important. It is the content of the message. I'm sure that Paul would rather have had those men preaching from a sincere and loving heart, but he still rejoiced that the Gospel was proclaimed in truth."

Well said, Kim. For the preacher's own sake, though, I hope he does have a good attitude. Kinda reminds me of Dan's BIG announcement on his blog. He mentioned there that one of his friends had once given him the advice that if he could do anything else other than preaching, then he should do it. The cool thing about this seemingly "unspiritual" advice is that it's well thought-out and biblical (see 1 Tim 3:1). The DESIRE has to be there. It would be tragic for the preacher if he dosen't have the "fire" in him (however calm his temperament may be). Perhaps this is why some pastors end up burning out....

2. Daryl said: (Just imagine the result if the Ninevites ignored Jonah because 'his heart just isn't right')

Divine sovereignty vs. human responsibility--which is it? The answer, of course, is, "YES." And yet even after all these years I still struggle with the issues of election and providence. It's comforting yet disconcerting all at the same time. Jonah's Ninevites repented and were saved; Nahum's did not and were destroyed. What a mystery.

DJP said...

It's comforting yet disconcerting all at the same time. Jonah's Ninevites repented and were saved; Nahum's did not and were destroyed. What a mystery

Nicely put. If we did "Comment of the Day," this would be a nominee.

Anonymous said...

"It's comforting yet disconcerting all at the same time."

Amen. I've lost count of the number of times, when looking at my own life, that I need to remind myself of what Luther once said to Melancthon. "Melancthon, your salvation is entirely outside of yourself." Thank God it is, else I'd fit more justly into the group that Nahum preached to rather than those Ninevites Jonah preached to.

Anonymous said...

I just realized that Jonah is "Bullhorn Guy".

DJP said...

Are you my conciser sock-puppet?

You don't say much, but you do make it count!

Unknown said...

I have been blessed by Matthias Media in Australia and found the comments on their blog to be dealing with a similar type question while reflecting on Nehemiah's preaching style. I thought you might enjoy:

DJP said...

That's pretty good; thanks!


dickkopf said...

Hello, Dan and kim from hiraeth:

Okay, thanks to you both, I now understand Philippians 1:15.

My pea brain just could not get it; people were preaching Christ to get Paul into trouble (scratching head), but the man still maintained a godly attitude. Wow.

More insight gathered as well from the wisdom contained in Romans 15:4. I can even learn from Jonah's attitude!

God's word and those "clay jars" as yourselves that He uses continue to amaze.

Hugh McBryde said...

I have done some preaching, and my first sermon, was on Jonah, in which I observed almost the exact same things, ending with this observation.

Since Jonah did a demonstrably lousy job and got the results he got, anyone could have done what Jonah did, God had prepared Nineveh to receive the message. As Mordecai said to Esther, if you don't do it, help will arise from somewhere else.

Jonah was sent because God needed to tell JONAH something. Nineveh was already a foregone conclusion.

Solameanie said...

Funnily enough, as I read this post I thought of C.S. Lewis and his "Apologist's Evening Prayer."

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle's eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

Lewis wrote this after some evenings at the Socratic Club when he felt he did particularly badly at defending the faith. I know I've felt at times like I've blown a sermon, only to find out later that some were really blessed. We really have to leave it in His hands.

CR said...

I think we need to put things in perspective and at least get an understanding of why Jonah responded the way he did. Chad, and rightly so, because of children present in service mentioned just a general statement that the Ninevites were wicked but he said he would not go into detail of the kinds of acts they did.

I will just mention one detail since we're mostly adults. Ninevites were known for such atrocities as ripping open a mother's womb and ripping the unborn (almost to be born child) and throwing him/her up and spearing the unborn child for play practice.

So, I don’t think Jonah was doof, but he was understandably sickened and repulsed by the fact that the Lord would forgive such atrocity. There have been some pretty sick and disgusting atrocities committed in the 20th century – Hitler, Stalin, Mae Zedung, Kim Jong Il, and I’m sure I’m wrong on this one, but the one that probably comes closest to what the Ninevites did was the massacre that happened in Rwanda.

Now, I suppose there were some Christians that ministered and proclaimed the gospel to these Rwandans, and imagine how difficult it would be.

I take another lesson from Jonah in addition to what has already been mentioned in the post– and this is only helpful to those that understand that the history of the Ninevites - You want to know how ugly and disgusting sin is in the world? Read about the Ninevites. I also heard a story about some abusive parents taken their daughter ‘s face and meshing it in dung. So, the lesson here is oh, that’s how unimaginably ugly and disgusting my “white” sins never mind the real “serious” ones are to the Lord. The lesson is also the unimaginable grace that the Lord has.

I think the other lesson also is that Jonah, I guess, didn’t completely understand the infinite gravity of his sins nor the infinite grace from God it took to forgive him.

Andrew Wheatley said...

I've read or heard that one of Jonah's contemporaries (Joel? Obadiah?) had prophesied that Nineveh would invade Israel. Perhaps Jonah hoped that if the Ninevites were destroyed the prophecy wouldn't come true.

Teresita said...

But of course, Jonah was not at all happy. He was smoldering, ugly, angry at God;

There is a secret wish inside many of us to see God unleash his fireworks. For some it would be undeniable confirmation of the existence of the supernatural world, shoring up their faith. For others it would allow us to tell scoffers, "See, I told you so!" which is a joyful thing, on a human level. The personality of the deity which emerges in the book of Jonah is that he is very practical, and does not put a premium on killing.

jeff said...

Beautifully put Dan. Thanks.

Jesus Is Coming Soon said...

Thanks for the reminder. it's Gods Word that saves "by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony" and they can even be on a tract right? I just read a book on hudson taylor and as a young man it told how he picked up a track and read it seeking God and that after years of exposure to the Gospel and Gods word He was saved.

Mike said...

"I've read or heard that one of Jonah's contemporaries (Joel? Obadiah?) had prophesied that Nineveh would invade Israel. "

I believe you're referring to Zechariah 2:13.