John A. Heys is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
When one’s earthly life comes to an end, an end comes at once to one’s use of this present world and all that it contains. This then brings an end to one’s ability to misuse one’s time, talents, possessions and life, so that one’s sin here below is terminated in the most absolute sense of the word. This is true for both believer and unbeliever.
But there is another way which God uses, one He uses in His grace and on His elect children; during their pilgrimage here below, that takes from them even the desire to walk according to the lust of their flesh. By His word and Spirit God turns His elect child away from the sin into which he has fallen and is walking. In this instance He does not use physical death but instead instills spiritual life, or quickens a spiritual life that had been implanted in the past and was not asserting itself. Thereby He enables this child to walk in love to God and to the neighbor.
Now Jonah, who had been walking in the sin of refusing to go to Nineveh at God’s command, and to preach unto its inhabitants, did not have his earthly life ended in physical death, even though he deserved it, and had come very, very close to it. For not only did God have more work for him to do on this earth, but as an elect child of God, his sins were eternally blotted out by the cross of Christ, which is eternally in God’s counsel and in His thoughts. In this instance God used that way of grace, and by His word and Spirit He moved Jonah to rise up and go to Nineveh.
Jonah still did not understand God’s way. He understood that God wanted him to preach to these Gentiles in this city that was such a fierce and powerful enemy of the people wherein God was gathering His church. But this time he did not try to flee away from his calling but rose up to go and do what he was bidden to do.
This does not mean that Jonah no longer had to struggle with his flesh. Just read the last chapter in the book of Jonah, and you will see how his flesh again asserts itself. He still had lessons to learn. He must learn to bow before God’s will no matter what He decrees. He must cease ascribing folly to God, or questioning Gods love. He is indeed in need of a timely warning. He must heed the command to go and preach. But he must also be warned to preach only that which God bids him to preach. He must not speak one word of his own. He must not color the message by his own evil feelings. His eagerness to see Nineveh destroyed must not surface in his preaching.
For Jonah to preach that in forty days Nineveh would be destroyed was not difficult for his flesh, even though that flesh would rather preach that the destruction would come in ten days or less. Subsequent history reveals how badly he wanted the whole city destroyed, and how greatly he was disappointed when it was spared of this devastation. Surely Jonah must be warned. All his behavior since he was called the first time makes it clear that he not only must be reminded of his first call, but also that he must be cautioned and warned not to say as much as one word of his own. He was told to preach “the preaching that I bid thee.”
What a timely lesson this is also for us in this day and age! The inclination of our flesh is always to go in one wrong direction or another, or to demand that the preaching on our pulpit go in one wrong direction or another. It is not only the preacher who needs to be warned. Many a preacher comes with that which is contrary to that which God bids His servants to preach, because of pressure from the congregation, the Classis, or the Synod. It is so tempting to say less than God bids us to say, or to say more than He commands us to preach. Certain doctrines go strongly against our flesh, especially at a given moment. These we let go—or insist that they be let go—and on our pulpits they become covered with dust. Philosophies of men, worldly ambitions, social advantages rather than spiritual matters push sin, shame, repentance, the cross, the holy wrath of God, the antithesis, and spiritual values off the pulpit. Often when they are rightly preached, there are violent reactions, not only from the pew but also from other officebearers. Yes it did happen, but not in one of our churches, and for that we may be thankful. In a discourse which we had about the “foolishness of preaching,” of which Paul speaks inI Corinthians 1:21, it was stated that, rather than by the preaching, we should gather the church by hospitality. Preaching must be subservient to and take a back seat to hospitality. Condemn no false doctrine, speak not of God’s hatred and wrath against sin but only of His love. See and preach some good in the unbeliever. Soft-pedal sin. And even though Paul in II Timothy 3:16, 17 mentions doctrine first, as that which makes the man of God perfect, thoroughly furnishing him to all good works, the less doctrine you preach, the less we really know about God and sin, the more hospitable and friendly our church will be; and we will grow! Grow in numbers but not in spiritual life.
No, today there is such a clamoring for entertainment, amusement, a sermon that can make you laugh, not cry about sin. And where today, in what are called Reformed circles, do you hear of total depravity, sovereign, eternal, double predestination, truths which God bids us to preach? Instead of being warned by God to preach what He bids us, men are warned by other men that such preaching is not hospitable and friendly, and that you are with that kind of preaching going to drive men away from your church. Numerical growth means all, and spiritual growth is pushed into the background, if it is considered at all. How timely then for us is this warning to Jonah!
Now in two ways Jonah had an easier task preaching what God bids then the preacher today. Jonah did not have as many ships to take him to so many places called Tarshish. Today’s preacher had within his reach so many ships he can board, and thereby leave behind his task to which he is called. There are the pleasures boats of sports, hobbies, social activities which, with so much pleasure, take him away from determining what it is that God wants him to preach from a particular text. At the last minute he must slap something together, or borrow the works of another, without actually even digesting the truth himself.
Then, too, Jonah had it easier because he had given to him word for word the message that God wanted him to preach. Jonah did not need to exegete a text in a language other than his own native tongue. He did not need to work out carefully a sermon with logical order that the congregation could follow. He did not need to dig, dig, and dig some more, search, search, and search more deeply, delve, delve, and delve still further into a given text and the whole of Scripture, and not be satisfied until he was sure that this was what God wanted preached to this congregation at this time, and until his soul bubbled over with a particular messages, so that he could hardly wait for the Sabbath to come, in order that he might share with the congregation what God gave him to preach; and he might send the congregation home with souls that were singing God’s praises.
Do you realize that the Old Testament word for prophet comes from a verb that means to boil forth? In the day of shadows God filled the minds of His prophets with a particular message, and He set their souls on fire by the power of His Spirit, so that their souls boiled like a tea kettle on the stove. The result was that even as steam came shooting out of the spout of that tea kettle, so the words came rushing out of the mouth of the prophet. But that tea kettle had to have water in it as well as fire underneath. And today one’s mind must get God’s message out of Holy Writ and be filled with the truth in a given text, and be set on fire, through such diligent and faithful study, by the Holy Spirit. Then he will preach what God bids him to preach and not just fill in the time, or come each Sunday with the same message he gave last month, or even perhaps last week.
And it is not how loudly we preach, nor how dramatically we present the message, but what we preach, and what we want preached, that counts. Preaching is not entertaining. It is edifying, that is, building up in the faith and in the truth, leading ever more deeply into the truth, to see it more richly, that we may be more able to render the praises the God of our salvation has coming to Him.
Indeed, a faithful preacher, whose soul is set on fire by such study and by the Spirit, will come with lively preaching. And that may appeal to the flesh, brings forth spiritual fruit and growth is what is preached, when it is what God bids us to preach. We never get the idea of Jesus preaching boisterously. When He preached the sermon on the mount—better called the sermon on the kingdom—He sat down, we read inMatthew 5:1. The power was in the words which He spoke. For He indeed, not only in each word, but in each letter in each word, preached what the triune God bade Him to preach. And we do need to be warned to follow in His footsteps, and want only that which God presents to us in His Holy Word. The philosophies and ideas of man must not only not be our message, but they must be exposed as being the very opposite of what God bids us to preach.
But to return to Jonah, he went because the word of the Lord came to him. And that word was the same as came to him the first time, namely, “Cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me.” That was the preaching that God bade him to preach. That is also why Jonah preached, “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown.”
How correctly the Heidelberg Catechism presents this preaching when it states that first of all we must be taught our sins and miseries. There just is no true gospel, no real good news for us, no comfort amid all the miseries of the curse under which we lie because of sin, unless we see our sin in all its awfulness. See it as GOD see it!
Man can preach advances in science, in medicine, and amazing surgical achievements. He can cry out about tremendous social advances and an unheard of higher standard of living, which far exceeds what Solomon knew in all his glory. For Solomon never enjoyed the comforts of air conditioning and of central heating, of electricity and a host of labor saving devices, of automobile and jet plane travel, and of a host of other comforts and conveniences that we just take for granted. Bu all this, rather than to take us to the cross of Christ, and the assurance of a new creation wherein there will be no sin and curse, will turn us away from that cross and its blessings.
We will have to go into this matter more fully next time. But let it be emphasized that we must preach—and want preached—only what God bids us to preach. And that means that we add nothing of our own, or from the minds of other men; but it also means that what He bids us to preach must be preached. We may not add to His word; but we must not subtract either. We must not think that we are wiser than God and that we can improve upon Scriptures by eliminating from them the things we do not, because of our sinful flesh, like to read or hear. To be silent in regard to some truths, to avoid them because they go against the flesh of men is to take a ship to Tarshish, and to be without the assurance that God will in the storm send a fish to bring us safely back to the dry land.