Jan
2015

Grace

 In Western Christianity, January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany–a celebration of the light of God shining into the world with the birth of Christ.  In particular, this day is associated with the light of the star that guided the wise men from the East to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).

There is something particularly wonderful about this part of Matthew’s Christmas story.  Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels–and yet, in his account, the first visitors to the newborn Jesus are not only Gentiles, but foreigners: astrologers from distant Persia.  What better way to underline the grace of God: that the light of God would shine, not only upon me and mine, but particularly upon folks unlike me, from far away?

In the Book of the Twelve, that astonishing grace of God, particularly to foreigners, is the particular theme of the book of Jonah.  In this wonderful prophetic novella, Jonah is sent to deliver warning of God’s judgment to foreign Nineveh, capital city of the oppressive Assyrians.  When he instead flees for Tarshish, God sends a storm to halt the ship in which he is traveling.  In spite of Jonah’s poor example, the foreign sailors on the ship become faithful worshippers of the LORD (Jon 1:16).  Jonah, who had insisted that the sailors throw him overboard to avert God’s wrath,  is saved from drowning when he is swallowed by a giant fish (Jon 1:17)—not what we would normally call a rescue!   Then, when he eventually fulfills God’s command by declaring to the Ninevites, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Jon 3:4), the people of that wicked city repent, extravagantly:  not only does everyone in Nineveh from the king to the lowest beggar fast and mourn in sackcloth and ashes, but their animals fast and sit in sackcloth and ashes, too (Jon 3:7-9)!  As a result, “God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it” (Jon 3:10).

Jonah, who wants God to act according to divine justice rather than divine grace, is furious–but not surprised.  This, he says, is why he had earlier tried to flee from God’s presence:

Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy (Jon 4:2).

Jonah had not wanted to deliver the message of judgment against Nineveh he had been given because he knew that God was likely to back out, leaving Jonah with the stamp of the false prophet, whose predictions do not come true (see Deut 18:21-22)—which is, of course, what happened. No wonder Jonah is so angry!  The prophet quotes here from the divine self-declaration in Exodus 34:6-7,

 The LORD! The LORD!
    a God who is compassionate and merciful,
        very patient,
        full of great loyalty and faithfulness,
         showing great loyalty to a thousand generations,
        forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion,
        yet by no means clearing the guilty,
        punishing for their parents’ sins
        their children and their grandchildren,
        as well as the third and the fourth generation.

This passage is cited throughout Scripture, usually with a decided emphasis on God’s grace and forgiveness (for example, Pss 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Neh 9:17; Joel 2:13).  But while Exodus 34:7 describes the LORD as “by no means clearing the guilty,” (Hebrew wenaqqeh lo’ yinaqqeh), Jonah describes God as “willing not to destroy”  (Hebrew wenikham ‘al-hara’ah)–using the Hebrew wenikham (“relent”) here to pun with wenaqqeh (“declare innocent; clear”) in Exodus, and so underlining and reemphasizing God’s gracious choice to preserve Nineveh.

In the New Testament, Matthew refers twice to  “Jonah’s sign” (Matt 12:39-41 and 16:4) as the only sign of the in-breaking kingdom his “evil and unfaithful generation” would receive (the first of these references is paralleled in Luke 11:29-32).  Jonah’s three days in the fish’s belly (Jon 1:17 [Hebrew 2:1]) become a sign of Jesus’ resurrection, paralleling his “three days and three nights . . . in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40).  Indeed, many early Christian interpreters read Jonah as a type for Christ.

Tertullian wrote that Jonah “would have been lost, were it not for the fact that what he endured was a type of the Lord’s suffering, by which pagan penitents also would be redeemed” (On Purity 10; cited in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament XIV: The Twelve Prophets, ed. Albert Ferreiro [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003], 134).

Reformer John Calvin concluded, “Hence Jonah was not a type of Christ, because he was sent away unto the Gentiles, but because he returned to life again, after having for some time exercised his office as a Prophet among the people of Israel” (Commentary on Jonah, Lecture 72, in Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, trans. John Owen [Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005 {orig. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society,1847})

Further, foreign Nineveh is lifted up in the Gospels as an example of sincere repentance:

The citizens of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it as guilty, because they changed their hearts and lives in response to Jonah’s preaching. And look, someone greater than Jonah is here (Matt 12:41//Lk 11:32).

Although Jonah is not mentioned, there are also clear parallels between Jonah 1 and the Gospel story of Jesus calming the storm (Matt 8:18-27//Mark 4:35-41//Luke 8:22-25).  In each case, there is a “[great] storm.”  Jesus, like Jonah, is asleep in the boat.  In each account, the sailors are delivered, and there is a calm after the storm.  Indeed, the many parallels between these accounts intensify the contrast between the faithful foreign sailors in Jonah, who after their deliverance “worshipped the LORD with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made solemn promises” (Jon 1:16), and the faithless disciples in the Gospels, who ask, “Who then is this?” (Mark 4:41; compare Matt 8:27; Luke 8:25).  In the Gospels, then, Jonah is remembered as a book about God’s gracious deliverance.

In this season after Epiphany, devoted to exploring the implications of God’s gracious revelation in Christ, we would do well to remember Jonah’s message of the hilarious extravagance of God’s grace, lavished upon us.  Particularly today, on the Feast of the Epiphany, may we recall God’s grace to the foreign sailors, to the foreigners of Nineveh, to the foreign wise men–and to outsiders like us, now brought near by the light and love of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

AFTERWORD

In the Christian East, the liturgical year follows the old Julian calendar. By their reckoning, this is Christmas Eve, and tomorrow is Christmas.  So, to all our Orthodox sisters and brothers–Merry Christmas!

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