E-book: Jonah, the reluctant missionary (Part 4)

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This electronic book (e-book) is about the theology of missions. Its basis is an Old Testament character named Jonah, a man whose story is often used to teach obedience. These 10 short chapters reflect on what Jonah's story has to say about God's desire that the entire world be evangelized.

1. Are the heathen really lost?

Point three: Lost because of their sin

     Eighteenth century French writer Jean Jacques Rousseau referred to tribal peoples as untainted "noble savages." He believed that human beings are intrinsically good. Peoples' vileness, Rousseau said, comes from the corrupting effects of modern civilization. That's not true, of course. The heathen of every age and culture have been as spiritually lost as those in Nineveh. "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10).
     Right belief is important. Still, just believing that Yahweh or Jehovah, revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the one true God, Creator of the universe, won't save anyone. Conversely, Jonah's story makes clear that what damns people is not their belief in the wrong thing. People are lost because of their sin. While Jonah condemned the Ninevites' idolatry in his prayer inside the fish, it was not their idol worship alone that brought on God's judgment. A key to understanding the Ninevites' alienation from God is knowing their wickedness. That sin was an offensive stench to God. They were not saved by being zealous in their own religion. They were saved only because of their radical repentance and turning to Jehovah.
     Two days after Lori Smith shared with me her burden for unevangelized peoples, I told her story to some other students. I had hoped that they would share her concern for those with little or no access to the Gospel. Many did not.
     "After all, if people have love in their hearts, won't they be OK in God's sight?" one student asked. What the student was really saying was that their good qualities were going to outweigh their bad ones. While that may sound reasonable, that's not the picture that the Bible reveals to us. What it says is that judgment has already befallen us. What we human beings need is not a fair trial; we need forgiveness. That's clear in the first three chapters of Genesis where the question is answered as to why we human beings are lost. Without meaning to, that student was making it more-- not less -- difficult for people to get into the Kingdom. The only way we can truly love is when "the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts" (Romans 5:5). By making entrance to God's Kingdom dependent on our own merits, that student was making it impossible for those people ever to approach God.
     When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they sensed immediately that their sin had disrupted fellowship with their Creator (Genesis 3). They were right. Beginning with the story of their Fall, the Bible piles up example after example of how sin drives wedges between human beings and God.
     Jonah knew that. He immediately sensed that his disobedience had separated him from God. "I have been banished from your sight," he cries. (Jonah 2:4). Even the Ninevites must have already sensed their sinfulness. When they heard Jonah's message, they did not offer excuses. They did not argue with God over how good they had been trying to be. They acknowledged their guilt and the rightness of the punishment decreed for them (Jonah 3:10.)
     In my 15 years as a cross-cultural missionary I never heard anyone say: "Well, even before I first heard the gospel, I was already in a right relationship with God." Rather, they have all lamented: "I was lost."
     Even people with some understanding of the Gospel often rationalize away their lostness. Many nominal Roman Catholics that I met in Italy felt that at the Final Judgment God would take a look at a comparison of their good and bad deeds. That's a common belief of nominal Christians. Unfortunately for them, counterbalancing evil deeds with good ones is not the way God measures the holiness necessary to get into heaven (Hebrews 12:13). We cannot change the rules and try to dictate the terms on which we will be saved. Just because someone refuses to admit his sinful plight does not mean it's not true. Actually, since God has already done His part to reconcile us with Him, nothing is open for negotiation. The first three chapters of Paul's letter to the Romans clearly explain the whole world's sinful predicament.
     The idol worshipers sailing that ship carrying Jonah sensed that someone's sin had caused the storm. Those sailors of long ago did not see every storm as a sign of divine wrath. Still, they had correctly diagnosed the cause of this one. As they were to find out, however, it wasn't their sin behind that storm. The offending sinner was their Jewish passenger, Jonah.
     As Jonah's story ends, God reminds Jonah of the Ninevites' moral blindness. Some Bible commentators think Jonah 4:11 refers to lots of young children in Nineveh. In their minds the phrase "they didn't know their right hand from their left" means babies. I'm not sure children is the best interpretation of that phrase. I prefer the way Ken Taylor has paraphrased it. With all their religiosity, the Ninevites had been, writes Taylor in his Living Bible, in "utter spiritual darkness." The Ninevites were, as Jesus would later say, wandering like "sheep without a shepherd." In the context of the whole story, that is the best interpretation of Jonah 4:11. . . . [ continue reading ]

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Rejecting God's grace

Next chapterJonah's story indicates that people of other religious persuasions are lost because they have either rejected or ignored God's seeking grace. . . [ read more ]

SNU missions course materials and syllabi

Cultural Anthropology    Introduction to Missions    Linguistics    Missions Strategies    Modern Missionary Movement (History of Missions)    Nazarene Missions    Church Growth and Christian Missions    Theology of Missions    Traditional Religions    World Religions

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Article by Howard Culbertson. For more original content like this, visit: http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert