What Is Obedience?

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time. —Jonah 3:1

The Immanuel Playbook – it’s what we do together, to move the ball down the field. And how can we be a winning team for Christ without obedience? He’s the coach. He calls the plays. When I played high school football, we had two first-string right guards. They would trade off plays, as one guy and then the other ran in the play from the coach on the sidelines. And whenever our quarterback changed the play in the huddle, I didn’t have a good feeling about it. Our coach was a genius. We succeeded when we ran his plays. And that is what we have in the gospel – a playbook that wins. Let’s run the Coach’s plays.

What is obedience? Obedience is saying Yes, from the heart, to the love of God. Obedience is not outward conformity. Obedience is not technical compliance. Obedience is not doing the right thing when I feel like it and when I feel ready. Obedience is not avoiding disobedience. That’s how we think: “I’m not doing anything bad. So I am obeying.” Really? Is that obedience? Obedience is not just avoiding disobedience; avoiding disobedience is disobedience, because merely avoiding disobedience isn’t obedience. Obedience is a positive, intentional, wholehearted Yes to the love of God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 87, tells us that repentance results in “new obedience.” Not just staying in the same old grooves of already established obedience, but new obedience. A friend of mine has wisely raised his kids to ask two questions: What can I do to help? And what else can I do to help? That’s obedience. Obedience thinks, “Jesus is pouring out his dying love on our city today. How can I change my life, to be fully involved?”

Jonah is worth thinking about, because he’s the photographic negative of obedience. He ran the opposite way from the love of God. Even when he did go to Nineveh, it wasn’t from the heart. But the amazing thing about the book of Jonah is that God loves his disobedient prophet as much as he loves Nineveh. This verse is amazing: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time” (Jonah 3:1). It’s amazing that God would give any man the gospel at all. But that privilege came to Jonah “the second time.” God keeps giving us second chances, because what he wants from us is not only obedient actions but obedient hearts. He’s out to win our hearts as much as he’s out to the hearts of our city. He understands that when they see more repentance in us, we’ll see more repentance in them. He understands that the evangelization of our city begins with the renewal of the church. And God will triumph, because the power he’s using to accomplish this is his love, and there is no greater power in all the universe. As we see here in Jonah, God’s love has more ways of pursuing our hearts than our hearts have ways of running from his love. We see this in Jonah. Let’s think it through, briefly, chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1

In verse 2 the word of God comes to Jonah the first time: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” The love of God is not sentimental. God loves evil people. One historian I read called the Assyrians “the Nazis of the ancient Near East.” They impaled their prisoners of war, blinded them, cut off their hands or lower lips to keep track in counting, built up piles of skulls – and glorified it all as heroism. So who can blame Jonah for running? When he arrived in Joppa and found that ship bound for Tarshish, the opposite direction from Nineveh, he must have thought, “Isn’t the Lord good? He understands how hard that would have been for me. And surely he would never ask me to do something hard and scary and risky. And here is this ship. It must be the Lord’s will!” Jonah must not have read the Catechism about new obedience. There is no way to gain new ground for Christ without new obedience to Christ.

But Jonah is running the other way. And the whole drama of the book flows out of the contrast between the two main characters in the story – God and Jonah. The book is like a stage. Center-stage are God and Jonah throughout the entire play. Everyone else in the story steps onto the stage and then steps off. Everyone else plays a supportive role – the sailors on the ship, the people of Nineveh, and so forth. But God and Jonah are the lead characters. And God, for his part, is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and relenting from disaster. Jonah, the servant of the Lord, is the opposite. But he doesn’t see himself that way. He feels justified in his perceptions and choices. But God is out to win Jonah’s heart. That’s what the book is about – not God saving Nineveh the mission field but God saving Jonah the missionary. God is out to unmask Jonah and show him the truth about his heart and bring him to repentance along with Nineveh. So this book isn’t about the famous whale. It’s about God and Jonah. And God is seeking the heart of his disobedient servant.

But Jonah doesn’t feel disobedient. When the crew of the ship question him, how does he introduce himself? “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9). What a minute! If Jonah really feared the Lord, he wouldn’t be on that ship at all. He’d be on his way to Nineveh. But the pious phrase rolls off his tongue, and he doesn’t even see the irony of it. “I’m a Bible-believing Christian. Unlike you pagans, I fear the Lord.” Hmmm. Does anybody else on board that ship demonstrate fear? Look at this sequence. Verse 5: “Then the mariners were afraid.” Verse 10: “Then the men were exceedingly afraid.” Verse 16: “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly.” These pagan sailors are responsive. They’re moving in a positive direction. They find their way from cold fear of the elements all the way to a real fear of God. The truth is making an impact on them. Jonah? Clueless. But God is out to win the heart of his clueless servant.

Chapter 2

Jonah is now in the stomach of the fish. What is he doing there? Praying. He’s praising God for his last gasp rescue at the bottom of the sea. Some interpreters read Jonah’s prayer here as truly repentant. I don’t. This prayer isn’t convincing. It’s beautiful. It’s a masterpiece of biblical elegance. It’s a cut-and-paste collection of echoes from the Psalms. Jonah knows his Bible. But when you look more closely, something’s wrong here. Nowhere in this prayer does Jonah say, “I’ve been wrong.” Nowhere does he say, “I’m sorry.” Nowhere does he say, “Yes, Lord, I’ll go to Nineveh after all.” His prayer sounds as though he were a victim of tragedy inflicted by God (verse 3). He does say, “I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you” (verse 9), taking him mentally back home to the temple in Jerusalem but not forward to Nineveh. He does say, as the punch line at the end of the whole prayer: “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (verse 9). But if salvation belongs to the Lord, if it’s his to give away, then he can give it to the people of Nineveh as well, can’t he? Isn’t it all up to him?

Jonah’s heart is wrong. He doesn’t feel the implications of his own gospel. He delights in God’s grace toward him, but he shows no urgency that anyone else receive that same grace. Nowhere does he say, “Lord, you’ve just saved my sorry self. But don’t just save me. Those nice sailors up in that ship who tried so valiantly to spare me – save them too!” He doesn’t know the storm is over. It didn’t calm down until he was thrown overboard. But all he can think of is, “Whew! That was a close call! But God got me out of it. Isn’t he wonderful?” The author of the book gives us a clue about what God thinks of this prayer in the last verse of the chapter: “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (verse 10).

Chapter 3

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time” (verse 1). That is the love of God. I have a video about the Blue Angels, the Navy’s team of jet pilots who perform at air shows. When their team leader reviews the film of a performance and points out the little mistakes they made, their standard response is, “Just glad to be here, sir.” They’re the best. But even top gun pilots make mistakes. Here, Jonah isn’t saying that. He still thinks Nineveh is beneath him. But the word of the Lord comes to Jonah the second time, even while his heart is still hard. The love of God is pursuing his heart.

Jonah does go to Nineveh. His body goes, anyway. His voice preaches. His heart isn’t in it. But the hearts of the Ninevites are totally in it. They’re like the sailors on that ship. They get it. They respond. And God doesn’t even offer them anything. The only message is, “Forty more days, and you’re going down!” (verse 4). But the whole city decks itself out in sackcloth, even the animals. They fast. They pray. They admit their evil. They repent. They put their hope in God and verse 10 says that they turned from their evil way. So God turned to them and re-wrote their future with a chapter of grace. I have to wonder. What yearnings are there right now out in our city, prepared already by God and just waiting to be aroused by the hope of the gospel? Jesus said, “The fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35). “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2).

Chapter 4

How does Jonah respond to the repentance of Nineveh? He is furious. He complains to God in verses 2-4: “I knew it! I could see it coming. This is why I ran away. You’re just like this. You always have been. It’s what you said to Moses back in Exodus 34. I memorized it in my sabbath school catechism as a boy: ‘What is the glory of God?’ ‘The glory of God is, The Lord, the Lord, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’ Merciful to those pagans? I can’t live in a universe like this! Let me die.”

What is Jonah doing here? He is quoting Exodus 34, one of Israel’s great confessions of faith about the glory of God, he’s throwing it back into God’s teeth as an accusation, and he feels justified in doing so. He thinks he’s the victim. And – get this – God does not nuke this little twerp! God is as merciful to Jonah as he is to Nineveh, even when Jonah, unlike Nineveh, feels no need for mercy.

That’s how Jonah responded to Nineveh’s repentance and God’s mercy. Now, how does God respond to Jonah’s sulky lack of repentance? He reasons with him. He calmly says to Jonah in verse 4, “Do you do well to be angry?” But Jonah doesn’t even give God the courtesy of a reply. He turns on his heel and stalks off without a word. And still, God pursues him. God appoints a plant to shade Jonah while the prophet waits for God to wise up and change his mind about Nineveh. But still God pursues him. God appoints a worm to attack the plant, and it withers. Then God appoints a scorching east wind and a sunburn for Jonah. And the prophet’s final words in the book are: “I do well to be angry, angry enough to die” (verse 9). But still God pursues him. He reasons with Jonah still further. In fact, the book closes with God asking Jonah a question. Notice this. God in heaven is asking little Jonah a question – about God. “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” In other words, God says, “Jonah, you feel entitled to your anger. You feel that something has been taken from you. You grieve over this plant that just died, for example. Okay. I care about your comfort too. But something else that moves me is all those people down there in that big city, people who don’t know their spiritual right hand from their left. I even care about the animals. You pity yourself, but what about them? You’re so sure of yourself, Jonah. So help me here. Advise me. What should I feel? Am I wrong to pity Nineveh? Is your anger wiser than my compassion? Is my mercy toward sinners offensive, or is it my glory? Jonah, should God look more like you, or should you look more like God? Tell me, Jonah, what kind of person should I be? And what might be the implications of that for you?” And the curtain closes.

We don’t know how Jonah answered that question. But I have a hunch. My hunch is that the Creator God who has all the forces of nature at his command, from a great storm to a great fish to a little plant and a tiny worm and a scorching east wind, the Sovereign God who has more ways of confronting Jonah than Jonah has ways of evading God, the Savior God who can awaken the hearts of a pagan crew from the captain on down and the hearts of a pagan city from the king on down – I think that great God finally got through even to a Hebrew prophet. I think that the great Pursuer of our hearts won Jonah’s heart, and Jonah wrote this book to tell us how God taught him obedience.

What is obedience? Obedience is saying Yes, from the heart, to the love of God. Let’s see God clearly. Let’s reflect God clearly. Paul saw God more clearly than Jonah did: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:15-17). Paul does not say, “I was the foremost sinner.” He says, “I am the foremost.” Paul saw himself as a continuing but forgiven first-degree sinner. And that is not a concession he’s reluctantly willing to make. In that fact he finds the meaning of his life and motivation to witness for Christ and inspiration for worship. He sees himself not as a sterling human being but as a living proof of how patient Jesus is. He thinks Jesus chose a jerk like him, so that other jerks could take heart and move toward Jesus. When Paul looks at his life, what does he see? So much patience toward him, it must be of God. And he wants every other sinner to join him there in his sense of wonder. His heart learned from the love of Christ what it really means to obey.

We are all like Jonah, and the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time. Moses was a murderer. David was an adulterer. Peter denied Jesus. Paul was a persecutor. John was a nice guy, but his only claim to fame was that Jesus loved him. What was it that renewed them with such power that the world felt the impact of their obedience? The love of God cracked open their hard hearts, and that mighty love poured in. The word of the Lord came to them a second time and a third time and a gazillionth time. God doesn’t simply love us in spite of our disobedience; he loves us out of disobedience and into obedience. There is no way he will let us win the argument about whether or not we’re going to Nineveh. He loves us too much to be defeated. We’re going to Nineveh, that scary place of obedience. We will witness for him in this city. And we will do so from the heart, because the greatest glory of God is his love for evil people, starting with us. His love awakens wholehearted obedience that gets us doing hard things for his sake in this world. He is still today a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster for you and for me.

“We have this ministry by the mercy of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1).