Archive for October, 2011

On a recent ocean voyage in the Pacific, I had the pleasure of daily observing schools of playful dolphins that accompanied our ship, and, on one occasion, we ventured close to a pod of whales.

The sight of the whales reminded me of the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, who tried to run away from the mission to which God had called him, but was swallowed by a “great fish,” presumably a whale.

So I decided to reread the book of Jonah, and as I meditated on the story, I was confronted by the following considerations and insights.

The first was that, whereas I had always accepted the traditional interpretation that Jonah was alive in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights, a comparison of Jonah 1:17 and Matthew 12:40 led me to consider the possibility that Jonah died in the belly of the fish but was resurrected after the fish vomited him out onto the beach!

When the religious teachers and Pharisees asked Jesus to show them a miraculous sign to prove that he was from God, he replied:

“Only an evil, faithless generation would ask for a miraculous sign, but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so I, the Son of Man, will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.” (Matthew 12:39-40, New Living Translation, NLT)

Since Jesus was predicting his own resurrection from death to life after being in the grave for three days, was he implying that Jonah, too, was dead for three days and was brought back to life?

And what about Jonah’s own words that seem to imply an experience of death and resurrection?

“I called to you from the world of the dead, and Lord, you heard me!” (Jonah 2: 2b, NLT)

“I was locked out of life and imprisoned in the land of the dead. But you, O Lord my God, have snatched me from the yawning jaws of death!” (2: 6b, NLT)

The language of Jonah 1:17 – 2:10 is ambiguous in the sense that it could be interpreted either way—that the prophet was alive in the belly of the fish, or that he died in the belly of the fish and God restored him to life when the fish vomited him onto the shore.

Because Jesus likened Jonah’s experience to his own death and resurrection, I am inclined to accept the latter interpretation.

Second, I was reminded that God’s grace and salvation was—and is—offered to all people throughout the world, yet it was a concept that Jonah and the people of Israel found difficult to accept because of their belief that God’s salvation was reserved only for them as God’s special nation.

So when God called Jonah to take his message of repentance and salvation to Israel’s powerful pagan enemy, Nineveh, Jonah was so angry that God would offer grace and mercy to such a vicious and hateful people that he disobeyed God. Instead of journeying northeast to Nineveh to deliver God’s message, he headed down to the seaport of Joppa and boarded a ship heading west to Tarshish, presumably in or near Spain or Sardinia.

And as the familiar story goes, God sent a life-threatening storm that abated only after Jonah revealed to the ship’s crew that he was running away from God, and they followed his suggestion to throw him overboard to appease God and end the storm.

Jonah’s confession to the pagan crew (Jonah 1: 9-10), his description of the Lord as “the God of heaven, who made the sea and land,” and God’s powerful demonstration of immediately stopping the storm combined to cause the crew to turn from their pagan faith, pray for forgiveness, offer sacrifice, and commit to following and serving the living and powerful God of Israel.

Not only did Jonah’s act of running away from God inadvertently lead the pagan crew to receive God’s grace and salvation, but when Jonah finally reached the outskirts of the city of Nineveh and shouted, “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” he was amazed at the people’s immediate willingness to believe God, repent, fast, and wear sackcloth in mourning.

Waves of populace repentance radiated and surged inward from the suburbs and throughout the city that by the time Jonah reached the center of the city three days later, he found that even the king and his royal household and nobles had repented and had joined the rest of the city to wait out the forty-day period in the hope that God would spare them.

When God saw that they had stopped their evil ways, he had mercy on them and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened (Jonah 3: 10).

Thankfully, God’s mercy and message of salvation continues today, and we are the beneficiaries of his grace through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and through the witness of countless numbers of faithful servants throughout the ages who have faithfully answered Christ’s commission to go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone, everywhere (Matthew 28: 19; Mark 16:15).

Third, in looking at Jonah, we see some of his flaws and characteristics in ourselves. For haven’t we been reluctant to do something that we knew that God wanted us to do?

Haven’t we, at some time, been willfully disobedient in doing something that we knew that God wanted us to do?

Haven’t we been angry and raged at God when we didn’t get what we wanted, when he didn’t answer our prayers the way we expected, or when we felt that he failed us?

Haven’t we been jealous when God showed favor to someone other than ourselves, when we felt that we deserved God’s blessings instead of that other person or group?

Haven’t we been biased and prejudiced towards another person, family, group, race, nation, religion, denomination, school, college, or political party, thinking that we are better than they are, that we are God’s chosen, and that we are right and they are wrong? And haven’t we failed to recognize Jesus among them?

In Jonah 4, we see the fickleness, self-pity, self-centeredness, self-righteousness, and argumentative moods of Jonah as he waited outside the city, expecting to see the destruction of the city and people; we see his immaturity as he lashed out at God after losing his plant shade, and we sense that despite the fact that he finally fulfilled his mission and had been given a second chance at life and ministry, yet he hadn’t learned his lesson and he hadn’t grown in his spiritual journey!

Have we matured and grown spiritually?

The book of Jonah ends in the following way (Jonah 4: 9-11, NLT):

Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even enough to die!”

Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. And a plant is only, at best, short lived. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a city?”

In the same way, the Lord says to us, “There are nearly seven billion people on earth today. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such people?”

Let us not be reluctant when God calls us to minister to any of them.


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There are many stories of people who were once antagonistic towards Christianity but were converted to Jesus Christ when they encountered his good news of salvation. The most famous of these was the apostle Paul who later wrote: 

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ.  It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—Jews first and also Gentiles. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. (Romans 1:16-17a, New Living Translation, NLT) 

Muslims today are among thousands around the world who are coming to Christ through his Good News of salvation that they encounter in the pages of the Bible—or as they call it, the Black Book!

Rob Weingartner, executive director of The Outreach Foundation, recently related the conversion testimony of one such Muslim, Hassane (pronounced Haas-sahn).

Hassane was born into a family in which his father was a leading member of the Islamic leadership council of their town in an African nation that was 99% Islamic. His father hoped that one day Hassane would take his place on the leadership council, so he had Hassane begin memorizing the Koran at age three.

As a youth, Hassane earned a scholarship to a prestigious school of around eight hundred students, but he was soon shocked to realize that very few of the students took their religion seriously or attended the mosque where Hassane shared in leading prayers.

So he started offering leadership conferences at the school, and one day he asked the students a question about the prophets. Their answers disappointed and discouraged him, for he realized how little they knew about their holy book. He was about to explain the answer to them when he noticed the raised hand of one of the three Christian students who attended the school.

Thinking that the student had a question about Islam, and seeing this as an opportunity to convert the boy from Christianity to Islam, Hassane asked, “What would you like to know about Islam?”

“No, I don’t have a question. I want to answer your question about the prophets,” replied the boy, who then went on to speak very knowledgeably about the prophets.

This disappointed, then angered Hassane, for he felt that such an eloquent answer should have been given by a Muslim boy—not a Christian who was not supposed to know more about the prophets than Muslims.

So he asked the boy how he knew so much about the prophets. The boy replied that he learned it from the Christian book.  Hassane remembered that his Muslim teachers had warned him that if he ever met Christians, he was never to read their black book.

“This book, is it a black one?” asked Hassane.

“Yes,” replied the boy.

Despite the warnings of his former teachers, Hassane secretly obtained a Bible and began reading it at night for two years to learn about the prophets so that he could be the best teacher on the subject. Then one night he came across Ephesians 2:8-9 which riveted his attention:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.

This shook him to the core and threatened all that he believed and the way he lived his life. Going to his mosque’s Koranic teacher, he said, “You know about all that I am doing—how I am leading the mosque, preaching, teaching, counseling. Does that save me? Does that guarantee my salvation in heaven?”

His teacher’s reply shocked him. “I don’t know if you can be elected to heaven!”

“Something’s wrong!” protested Hassane. “You know all I’m doing in the mosque, and yet you cannot assure me that it will earn me salvation?”


Hassane went back home and pondered his future. Despite the dire consequences that could occur if he were to become a follower of Jesus Christ—such as being put to death— he committed to following Christ who alone could assure him of eternal salvation. He then went to his father and told him that he had become a Christian.

As the leader of the town’s Islamic leadership council, the father convened the council to announce that his son had become a Christian. The council voted to put Hassane to death by stoning, but later the members changed their decision because of the high regard they had for Hassane’s father, and banished Hassane instead to a region that was over four hundred miles away.

The council also ruled that Hassane’s twin brother should accompany him to convince him to return to his Islamic faith. The brother stayed with Hassane for ten years and eventually decided to follow Jesus Christ. The brothers then returned to their father and witnessed boldly to him.

Hassane became a church pastor and bible teacher, and today is a national leader for his denomination in his African nation. Over six thousand Muslims have since become Christians, and Hassane’s brother and several others from the Islamic leadership council have become elders in Hassane’s church.

As Rob Weingartner shared this story, I reflected on how a boy’s understanding of the Word of God was the catalyst that not only led Hassane to embrace the Good News of the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, but also, as an indirect consequence, led thousands of other Muslims to become Christians.

The Word of God was not only powerfully proclaimed in the boy’s answer but also in the pages of the “Black Book” that Hassane secretly studied, for as Hebrews 4:12 states:

For the word of God is full of living power. It is sharper than the sharpest knife, cutting deep into our innermost thoughts and desires. It exposes us for what we really are. (NLT) 

And I wondered, “How many of us Christians are able to give an intelligent account of our faith? How many of us have a mature understanding of the Bible to be able to answer someone’s honest question about it?

We might never know the ways in which God wants to use each of us to be the catalyst through which he transforms lives, but let us embrace for ourselves Paul’s admonition to Timothy:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, correctly explaining the word of truth. (2 Tim 2:15) 

We are blessed with the freedom to read the Bible—no matter the color of its cover—and to access the living power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes.

May we not neglect this powerful book of truth!


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