Key Verse: Colossians 3:1b
“Set your hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”
Today’s message continues our series on the topic of idolatry based on Tim Keller’s book, Counterfeit Gods. As we studied, God made human beings with a need to worship. When we do not worship God, our hearts drift towards idols. An idol can be defined as anything that replaces God as the ultimate desire of our hearts. We studied about personal idols such as love, wealth, success, and power. Through studying Jonah, we learned about cultural idols such as nationalism. Today we continue the last two chapters of Jonah. These chapters expose the depth of Jonah’s idols and invite us to examine our own hearts as well. This message concludes our series on Counterfeit Gods and offers us solutions to the problems of personal and cultural idols. Let’s pray to set our hearts on things above as we study today’s passage.
First, God’s Mercy for the “Bad Guys”
To review the story of Jonah from the first two chapters: God called Jonah to go and preach a message of judgment to the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was the most powerful city in the world at that time as the capitol of the Assyrian Empire. Because Jonah had a cultural idol of nationalism, he ran away from God’s direction. Instead of going east to Nineveh, Jonah want west to Tarshish. Jonah was proud of his nation of Israel, which had been established by God. Jonah was also proud of his high moral standard, because his culture had the Law of Moses, which was also established by God. But Jonah’s nationalism and moralism had become cultural idols in his heart. Because of them, he felt superior to the wicked pagan Ninevites. As we learned, God transcends all human cultures. God wanted to reach out in mercy to warn the Ninevites that their wickedness would bring judgment. But Jonah did not want to see the Ninevites be warned and possibly be saved. He wanted to see them be destroyed. As Jonah took a ship to Tarshish, a terrible storm came and rocked the boat. Discovering that it was Jonah’s fault, they tossed him overboard into the sea. God enabled Jonah to be swallowed by a huge fish. Inside the fish, Jonah had time to reflect and repent. Jonah realized that his own idols had blocked the grace of God from coming into his heart. Jonah realized that salvation comes from the Lord, not from national heritage or human achievement. In his moment of realization, Jonah repented and accepted God’s mission. Then the fish spit Jonah out on shore.
Today’s passage begins with God calling Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh, and this time Jonah went. Let’s read Jonah 3:4-5, “On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’ The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” The Ninevites were known as the notorious “bad guys”. Their violence and wickedness were so terrible that they reached number one on God’s hit list. They were like notorious rapists, murderers, and drug dealers. God was going to destroy them as he had destroyed the corrupt people of Noah’s time with a flood, and as he had obliterated the immoral cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire. Through Jonah’s message, God gave them a countdown of forty days until doomsday. The Bible describes God as being slow to anger and abounding in loving-kindness. God bears with our sins with longsuffering patience, and his decision to destroy people is usually the very last resort after they have been given many chances. Jonah fled the city and waited to watch the destruction. But to our great surprise, the Ninevites repented before God. Everyone in the city, from the greatest to the least, fasted with great remorse. They removed their hi-end designer clothes and put on beggar’s rags. They humbled their hearts and asked God for another chance. Even the king of the Assyrian Empire issued a proclamation that all citizens should call urgently on God and give up their evil ways and their violence. The king said in verse 9, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” What a surprise! The ‘bad guys’ had a change of heart. They apologized and decided to stop their evildoing. They were like evil Darth Vader who had a change of heart at the end of Star Wars. We almost can’t believe it, but it really happened—the terrible Ninevites repented.
Let’s read Jonah 3:10 together, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” This is God’s amazing grace. This reminds me of a slave-trader in the 1700’s named John Newton. He was one of the most cruel and vile men in England. One day he got sick and realized that he was under God’s judgment. Then he repented and was completely born again. He stopped the slave-business and became a pastor. He wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace”. We might think that we are better than the vile and wicked Ninevites. But the Bible says that we are all sinners, and “the wages of sin is death”. Like the Ninevites, we need to earnestly come to Jesus for his mercy.
Second, Disappointment Reveals the Heart
Let’s read Jonah 4:1-3, “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee 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. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” It is a shocking end to the story. God’s mercy transcends human logic. The Ninevites repented, God relented from destroying their city, and everyone should have felt so relieved and thankful. But Jonah was furiously angry. We remember from chapters 1 and 2 that Jonah’s idols were nationalism and self-righteousness. The Ninevites were enemies of his nation, and Jonah hated them. They were bad guys, and Jonah thought he was much better than them. They were public enemies like bullies or terrorists. Jonah could not wait to see God destroy them. Jonah was sitting on the edge of his seat. He was eager to see God burn them up in smoke. He wanted to play it back in slow motion and watch the explosion, but there was none. When Jonah saw that God had mercy on the Ninevites, he blamed God for being too merciful and for letting the enemy get away scot-free. God sent a vine to grow and provide comforting shade for Jonah, but the next day it dried up in the hot sun. Jonah was devastated that God took away his comfortable little vine. Jonah repeated to God four times that he was angry enough to die. Jonah felt that he was right and God was wrong. Jonah so hated the Assyrian race that he thought God’s mercy on them was the worst thing that could ever happen.
In the belly of the fish, Jonah had begun to realize that all people are equally unworthy of God’s love and that all can receive God’s grace. He realized that salvation is God’s decision, it is not subject to human standards. But in the real life situation, Jonah’s faith was not as strong as he thought it was. Jonah relapsed into his idolatry of nationalism and moralism worse than before. From Jonah, we can see that human hearts do not change quickly or easily. Jonah acknowledged God’s will from his mind, but not from his heart. Many Christians say that Jesus is their savior in principle, but other things really have functional control over their hearts. Someone said that if you want to find rats in your basement, if you approach slowly, you will not see anything, but if you leap down and surprise them quickly, you will see their tails scurrying away. It is under stress, in real life experience, that the true nature of our hearts is revealed. Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India in the early 20th century, well described this truth. She said, “If a sudden jar can cause me to speak an impatient, unloving word, then I know nothing of Calvary love. For a cup brimful of sweet water cannot spill even one drop of bitter water, however suddenly jolted.” The sudden jolts of life’s disappointments are the things that reveal the idols in our hearts. For Jonah, the stormy sea was one jolt, the giant fish was another jolt, God’s mercy on the Ninevites was a jolt, and finally when the comfortable little spot under the vine dried up, it was the last straw.
Another effect that idols cause is exaggeration of thoughts and feelings. Idolatry distorted Jonah’s thinking. He became angry at God. How could he be so furious at God’s compassion, love, and patience? It was for the same reason that lovesick Jacob was so easily tricked, that greedy Zacchaeus would so easily betray his friends and his nation, that Naaman would cling to his pride rather than humbly accept the cure to his leprosy, and that Nebuchadnezzar could become such a megalomaniac. They were all blinded by their idols. When an idol gets a grip on one’s heart, it produces a whole set of false definitions of success and failure, of happiness and sadness. It redefines reality in terms of itself. Jonah’s idol of nationalism caused him to think that his people’s status was the ultimate good, and that anything that gets in the way is bad. Because of his idol, Jonah saw God’s love as a bad thing. Idols cause people to call good evil and evil good. Idols distort not only our thinking, but also our emotions. Let’s read Jonah 4:10-11, “But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right than from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” God confronted Jonah about his anger. God did not say that anger was wrong, but that Jonah’s anger was grossly exaggerated. As idols are raised to ultimate value, the desires they generate become paralyzing and overwhelming. Idols cause people to have false beliefs such as “If I can’t achieve success, then my life won’t be valid.” or “since I have failed, I can never be happy or forgiven again”. These beliefs magnify ordinary disappointments and failures into life-shattering experiences. When an idol is threatened, it leads to paralyzing despair and anxiety. Why had Jonah lost his will to live, to the point where he demanded four times for God to let him die? Jonah’s meaning of life was the freedom of his nation. That is a good thing, but when it became an ultimate thing, Jonah could not accept God’s forgiveness of his enemy. God’s mercy became a roadblock to the national success that Jonah wanted, and Jonah’s thoughts and feelings became exaggerated to the point of despair.
The secret to change is to identify and turn away from the idols in our hearts. We can ask ourselves several questions that help identify our idols. What do we daydream about? Where does most of our money go? What upsets our emotions when we are suddenly jarred? What do we turn to for security, acceptance, and comfort? If our answer to these questions is anything other than God, than it is likely that we have idols. It is not wrong to desire good things in life. But distorted thinking and exaggerated feelings are clues that good things have become ultimate things in our hearts.
Third, Replace Idols with God
Before concluding, let’s review the parallels between Jonah and Jesus. Jonah wasn’t willing to go to bring God’s message to the Ninevites, but Jesus came willingly to bring the message of God’s grace to sinful people. Jesus left his comfort zone in heaven to minister not just to people who might harm him, but to people who did. To save them, he would have to do more than just preach; he would have to die for them. While Jonah was merely thought to be dead, Jesus really died and rose again. Jonah’s message was for one city, but Jesus’ message is for the whole world. Because of our sins, we would have received God’s wrath and destruction, but Jesus died on the cross for our sins and through his word in the Bible, he gives us the message of his grace and forgiveness. Where Jonah failed, Jesus succeeded. And where Jonah lacked mercy, Jesus showed mercy.
Earlier in our series, we learned that “a greater godly affection” is the only power that can remove idols. John Piper said that often our problem is not that our desires are too passionate, but that our love for God is too weak. Colossians 3:1b says, “Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” Verse 2 continues, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Repentance from idolatry is more than remorse and better behavior. It is setting our minds and hearts on things above, not just on noble and beautiful things, but on Christ himself. We need to rest and rejoice in what Jesus has done when he died on the cross to forgive our sins and rose again to give us new life. Jesus must become more beautiful to our imagination and more attractive to our hearts than idols. That is the way to replace counterfeit gods with the true God. 2 Thessalonians 16-18 says, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” We should treasure God and reflect on his beauty until our hearts find rest from anxiety and until our heart taste the joy of being loved and forgiven. Jesus is worthy to receive our praise and thanks. It is necessary for us to meditate on God’s character, for he gives us a spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It is said that the favorite American pastime is complaining, especially when the economy is down. But instead, we should write down 100 things that we are thankful to God for. We should sing songs of praise to God, it doesn’t matter whether they are contemporary or old-fashioned songs. It is also important to pray. Prayer can simply be defined as talking to God. The Lord’s Prayer urges us to praise God first before presenting him with our shopping list of desires. We should pray privately and also corporately. To set our minds on things above, we also need to meditate and study God’s word. This does not mean that we have to follow a slavish regimen of Bible study and testimony writing. But when we delight in God’s word “as a deer pants for streams of living water”, we find that these can be helpful tools for our meditation on God’s word. Finally, when we have relapses into idolatry as Jonah did, we should not despair and give up on ourselves and each other. It takes a lifetime to grow in faith and the character of godly affection, so just keep coming back to Jesus for his love and mercy.
Today, we saw how Jonah became angry when God showed mercy to the wicked Ninevites. Jonah accepted God’s will with his mind, but not his heart. In the jolt of disappointment, Jonah relapsed into his idolatry of nationalism and moralism. His exaggerated thinking and emotions revealed his idols. We learned that we need to be patient and persistent to overcome idolatry. Idols can only be replaced by a greater godly affection. This affection for God can be established when we deeply accept Jesus’ forgiving love for us when he died on the cross for our sins. Beyond mental acceptance of God’s love, we need to fill the vision of our hearts with private prayer and devotion, corporate worship and praise, and study and meditation of God’s word. These are not ritualistic acts, but are tools that can help us to rejoice always, pray continually, and be thankful in all circumstances. Let us thank God that the depth of his love and grace is greater than the damage caused by idols.