Chapter 2 speaks to different kinds of person: the self-congratulatory ‘moral’ person and the ‘religious’ person. Both are different examples of the sin of pride in action!
The average quality newspaper journalist might be a typical example of Type 1: he or she appears to ooze moral superiority and looks down upon most of the population, in a patronisingly critical way. If it were not for the fact that many are committed atheists, they would probably assume that the quality of their lifestyles obviously pleases God and automatically opens up the gates of heaven for them. Romans is not so sure! “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed”. Moral superiority will not succeed; it is not enough to be better than your fellow man, you must be perfect!
Then the focus turns to the ‘religious’ person, to the Jew in particular, who has received the Law of Moses. There is pride in having been selected as the privileged chosen nation. It also produces in the religious person, a false sense of self-satisfaction and the belief that he/she is superior to the atheist, and that his/her religious observances will carry them through to salvation. ‘Not a bit of it’, says the Lord. ‘If you are trying to pass this exam on your own merits, then realise that the pass mark is one hundred percent’! “All who sin apart from the Law will also perish apart from the Law, and all who sin under the Law will be judged by the Law” (2:12). For those in the latter group, it should be obvious that they cannot attain the high standards of the Law.
For those Gentiles who do not have the Law, they show through their inbuilt sense of right and wrong (everyone has a conscience) that they are acutely aware of the Law’s requirements. At one point or other in every person’s life, they appeal to a universal sense of fairness; well, where did that come from? Obviously universally from the Judge of all the Earth!
If you are proud of being a circumcised Jew, then don’t be. It is not the arrangement of your physical body that matters to God, but of your inner being. Verses 28 and 29 of chapter 2 are vital to understanding the later chapters of Romans, by the way. A true ‘Jew’ in God’s eyes, is one who has had a heart changed by submission to his or her Messiah.
JONAH 1, 2, 3 and 4
The prophet Jonah was a religious bigot and a passionate nationalist! Without doubt his prophetic ministry was sharp and powerful, and he clearly heard the Lord speak to him on a regular basis. Nearly everyone knows the basic story that involves Jonah running away from God’s command to preach to the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, but it is a common misconception that Jonah was afraid of his assigned task and so ran scared to the other end of the known world. The truth is found in Jonah chapter 4 verses 1-3: “But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live”.
Jonah had an understanding about the grace and mercy of God, and he didn’t like what he saw; in Jonah’s view, God was far too accepting of people of all kinds, and far too ready to forgive them and include them in his Kingdom. As a prophet of the Lord, charged with speaking words of rebuke and encouragement to God’s people, Jonah had great zeal for the purity of God’s people and for the ‘special relationship’ that Israel had with the Lord. He didn’t want the floodgates being opened to the kind of idolatrous, sexually lax, Ninevite, who had no regard for what they ate – ‘diluting’ the god-fearing Jewish culture and temple-worship. God’s line was: “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 their left—and also many animals?” From Jonah’s viewpoint, the Lord had drastically lowered His standards!
The name ‘Jonah’ means ‘Dove’ – also a symbol of the Holy Spirit and of gentleness. He is mentioned in the Book of Jonah and also in one more place in scripture: 2 Kings 14:25. Jonah’s call was to preach a message of judgment against the city of Nineveh, due to its great wickedness, and this involved a journey of over 500 miles from his hometown of Gath Hepher. Most preachers would have had no problem with delivering a message of condemnation to the godless people of a hated empire, and yet Jonah fully understood that this was a conditional judgment, and that Nineveh might well repent and become acceptable to the Lord again. A risk he was not prepared to take! So, he headed in the opposite direction to a city called Tarshish, which could easily have been Tartessus in Southern Spain, near Gibraltar. Surely Jonah must have realised that God could reach him anywhere and would not give up on the mission so easily!
God therefore sent that great storm that threatened the lives of all the ship’s company. The sailors cried out to their false gods, which had no effect. They tried to determine the cause of the storm by casting lots – again, a pagan activity – and the Lord manipulated the exercise by exposing Jonah. Evidence that Jonah was a brave man with a fearless zeal for the Lord was found in verses 9 and 12 of chapter one. He was quite prepared to die for his faith, and also for his self-righteous convictions. The ship’s crew did their best to avoid any unnecessary death, but to no avail. As soon as he was reluctantly thrown overboard, the sea became calm again. This caused the pagan crew to become believers in the Lord and to pray to him. Miraculously, the Lord supplied a great sea creature (maybe a giant fish or a whale) to swallow Jonah whole, and Jonah was kept alive in the creature’s belly for three days and three nights – a period of time foreshadowing Christ’s residence in the tomb (Matthew 12:40; 1 Corinthians 15:4).
Jonah repented and prayed to the Lord for deliverance, showing gratitude in advance for God’s mercy, and prophetically knowing that “Yet I will look again toward your holy temple… You, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit…”. “Salvation comes from the Lord”. And the next act of God’s mercy was to cause the creature to vomit Jonah out onto the seashore. The mercy of God is further shown in the key verse of 3:1 “Then the word of the Lord cam to Jonah a second time.” God is giving his rebel prophet a second chance to fulfil his command, and this time Jonah has learned his lesson. God’s message of grace is first modelled in his treatment of his own prophet. Jonah’s skin was probably bleached white by the sea-creature’s stomach contents, and he must have been a weird and scary sight for the Ninevites, shouting “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown”. They believed God, called a fast and went into mourning and repentance. God cannot resist repentance from anyone, and he heard, responded and forgave the entire city, rescinding his decree of destruction.
We now reach the place where we started today: Jonah was angry and upset because the Lord was just too gracious and accepting. The Ninevites were symbolic of all non-Jews, the world over, and Jonah could not face a heavenly kingdom where all and sundry were invited and welcomed. He was most concerned for the purity of God’s people.
The message from God was clear: ‘I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy’, and ‘Let ME worry about the purity of my people’. Are we at risk of restricting the gospel to those whom we think will respond, or to those whom we think deserve to respond, or to those who will be the right kind of people for the Kingdom? Do we ignore the grace of God already shown to us and available to so many more who currently reject him? Are we more concerned with ‘standards’ than the Lord is? Read again the message of the Book of Jonah.