God’s Word for You
Jonah 3:4 unworthy ministers
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, November 10, 2018
4 On the first day, Jonah began to go through the city. He preached: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”
This wasn’t Jonah whole sermon, but what we would call his theme. Luther explains: “He must have enlarged on the themes why such wrath of God would overtake them, what sorts of wickedness were rampant in the city, how one should be a godly person, and all that is involved in this. We are still in the habit of summarizing a sermon today, saying, for example: ‘He preached on sin,’ or, ‘He preached on the Mass.’”
There were at this time enough examples that had taken place in Israel’s history to flesh out Jonah’s message. Consider Sodom and Gomorrah, what happened to them in the days of Abraham and Lot (Genesis 19:24-25). Then there was the whole land of Moab, overthrown through the leadership of Ehud the left-handed man (Judges 3:1-30), and the Philistines struck down by Shamgar the Judge (Judges 3:31). Through Joshua the Lord destroyed the cities of Jericho (Joshua 6:24), Makkedah (Joshua 10:28), Lachish (Joshua 10:33), Eglon (Joshua 10:34-35), Hebron (Joshua 10:37), Debir (Joshua 10:38-39) and many others.
The time given, forty days, is a familiar number. This was the duration of the rain when the flood came (Genesis 7:4), the number of days on which Moses was on the mountain to receive the law (Exodus 24:18, 34:28), the number of days taken by the spies to search out the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:25), and the amount of time spent by Moses when he prayed that the Lord would relent from destroying the Israelites (Deuteronomy 9:25). After Jonah’s time, it was also the time spent by the Lord Jesus in temptation prior to his ministry (Matthew 4:2) and the time he spent on earth after his resurrection prior to his ascension (Acts 1:3). It might be seen to be “the measure for determining the delaying of visitations from God” (Keil & Delitzsch), but as a symbolic numeral we need to consider its two elements. Four is the number in the Bible of the earth, representing the four compass points or the four winds, and ten is the number in the Bible representing completeness. Multiplied, their total (40) represents the complete amount of time used by God prior to an interaction with people in the world in general, either Israel (Exodus 24:18) or all mankind (Genesis 7:4). Here, it is a reference to all the people of Nineveh, including “the whole creation” (as in Romans 8:22), meaning more than men, women and children, but also the animals of Nineveh, which is something that God restates in the final words of the book.
If you, personally, were given a certain number of days in which to repent, would it take forty days? Would it take even one? God was being patient, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love. He was being all of the things that his prophet Jonah secretly hoped he wouldn’t be.
What we see in this flaw in the heart of our preacher, Jonah, is something that can comfort all of those Christians who are members of churches in which they are not sure about the faith of their pastors. Sadly, this is becoming a disease throughout all denominations of Christendom; no church is immune to its danger.
I have been asked about this on more than one occasion this year, and so it’s time we addressed this problem of members of denominations where the ministers have a questionable faith. If this describes you, wondering whether your pastor believes in the resurrection of the dead, the forgiveness of sins, the incarnation of the Son of God, the historical truth of Jonah’s account, or even of the existence of heaven, you can be comforted by one wonderful truth: The gospel does not require a perfect man to preach it. A baptism performed by a hypocrite, one that uses water and the word of God, is still a holy baptism for the forgiveness of sins. The Lord’s Supper administered by a hypocrite or a scoundrel is the still the Lord’s Supper, it is still the body and blood of Jesus Christ given together with the bread and the wine for the forgiveness of your sins. Our confession states: “When the sacraments are administered by unworthy men, this does not rob them of their efficacy. For they do not represent their own persons but the person of Christ, because of the church’s call, as Christ testifies (Luke 10:16), ‘He who hears you hears me.’ When they offer the Word of Christ or the sacraments, they do so in Christ’s place and stead. Christ’s statement teaches us this in order the we may not be offended by the unworthiness of ministers” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, VII-VIII, 28).
So it is with a wedding performed by a Justice of the Peace who doesn’t care about marriage; it’s still a valid, legal marriage, because of his authority. In the same way, an unbeliever still receives the true body and blood of Jesus when he takes the Lord’s Supper even though he doesn’t believe in it (although this is to his judgment, 1 Corinthians 11:20), so also an unbelieving minister nevertheless presents the true word of God when he reads the gospel. Why? Because the gospel is true, no matter who is involved. An atheist can read the Bible, and the gospel will still do its wonderful work. But we do not call atheists to lead us or represent us.
Jonah’s heart wasn’t in the right place, but his message was from the Lord. It was the word of God at work, not Jonah’s heart. And so it is whenever you hear the wonderful, saving gospel of Christ crucified. Pray for the faith of your pastors, especially if you have had cause to doubt it. If not, thank God and praise him! Otherwise, consider whether or not you should remain there in that flock. If you must, ignore the one who proclaims it if you can, and focus on the message that is read from the word of God. “Lord,” Peter said, “you have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Pastor Timothy Smith
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