by T. Austin-Sparks
The fact that "Jonah" has been so much to the fore in the rationalistic conflict, and so much to the rear in the deeper understanding of the people of God is itself a very significant thing. When anything which has received the imprimatur of the Lord Jesus in any measure has become the object of special assault on the one hand, or peculiar insufficiency of consideration on the other, the suspicions of the watchful should be aroused. Surely this must signify that the enemy back of human minds is especially concerned to obscure something of vital account to his opponent the Lord Jesus. If ever this was true and exemplified in any direction it is true in the case of "Jonah". Here in this short narrative and the three references to it by the Lord Jesus, there is a comprehensiveness of the most vital, profound, and far reaching truth, which it would be difficult to find in so narrow a compass anywhere else in the Scriptures. That is saying a tremendous thing, but we have weighed our words, and hope that as we proceed the statement may be seen to be justified. Our method will be, not so much an exposition of the text as a recognition of the great truths; and these may not be brought out strictly in the order of the narrative, but in the order of practical application. Firstly, then, we shall take the Master's own use of Jonah as in Luke 9:29,30.
The Condemnation of a Race
When He refers to the "evil and adulterous generation" our Lord is not merely speaking in the strict sense of the latter word as we use it any more than He is using the word "adulterous" literally. His frequent reference to the Prophets, their ministry, message, and the treatment they received at the hands of "Israel" links the people of His own day with the unfaithful and spiritually adulterous race for some centuries. Spiritual adultery was the charge brought against Israel by more than one prophet.
Then, again, this people from the very beginning by reason of its disbelieving and unfaithful heart had demanded "signs" and "wonders" to hold them to God. It was almost always true of them that "except you see signs and wonders you will not believe." The word "generation" here must therefore be regarded in its wider sense. It was a race and a race disposition which was being dealt with. This is important to bear in mind for the people of Jonah's day and the people of Christ's day were one and alike, and although Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites there was a relationship of his experience and ministry to Israel as we shall see: and Christ is now turning him upon them.
Jonah was a type of Israel: called to fulfill a ministry of warning and mercy to a sinful Gentile world: to reveal the attitude of Jehovah toward sin and then toward repentance. But there is a terrible breakdown and failure. The cause, which has various aspects, is not far to seek; it is clearly this:-
The Paralysis of a Blinded Mind and a Darkened Understanding.
Jonah had lived his life and fulfilled his ministry so far amongst the ten tribes in Samaria, and doubtless he expected to remain there till the end of his days. His horizon was a narrow one, and his interests local. The only other reference to his prophesying has significantly to do with an act of great grace on the part of Jehovah to Israel in a day of serious departure and declension (2 Kings 14). Jonah was wrapped up with his own people and was jealous for them and for himself and his own ministry. He had learned through Divine inspiration that Jehovah is "a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness" (Jonah 4:2), but for that to be extended beyond the borders of Israel and to Israel's bitter enemies was unthinkable. There is nothing so blinding as pride, jealousy, and selfishness, and this was Israel's curse, and Jonah's malady. We shall see later more of that to which he was blind. For the moment we note the fact as typical of Israel, and Israel as a type of many more.
Isaiah prophesied to Judah not to the ten tribes, but undoubtedly the spiritual state of Isaiah 6:9,10, extended to all and is applied to the Jews of Christ's day and the Apostles' (Matt. 13:14,15; Acts 28:26,27; Romans 11:8).
This blindness is an incapacitation through idolatry and unbelief. There are two phases of such blindness mentioned in the Word of God.
1. The blindness of the natural man, who cannot know the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14).
2. The blindness which overtakes those who have been enlightened and have had "the lively oracles of God," and not "walked in the light," or have failed to fulfill the purpose for which the light was given.
In both cases the adversary of Christ has found his ground for "blinding the eyes of them which believe not, lest -". Their "understanding is darkened" (Eph. 4:18) and their "mind hardened" (2 Cor. 3:14).
It is in the latter case that Jonah is particularly a sign. In him we see a type of such as have had revelation and truth, but have taken hold of it and limited it to their own ends, prejudices, and interests. They have held it instead of it mastering them. It has become formal, static, traditional, and systematised.
Instead of being its servants they have made it serve them. Natural elements have risen up and the judgment of man has been put upon the truths of God. Thus the religious-natural man has appended himself to the revelation, and the revelation has ceased to be a Living testimony. This gives place to the carnal elements which are at enmity with God (Rom. 8:7), and "to be carnally-minded is death" (Rom. 8:6). Enmity and death - that is Jonah; that is Israel; that is very largely Christendom!
Pride is back of it all. Personal interests are somewhere lurking. "Leaning to (their) own understanding" is inherent. Jonah reasoned along these lines, or along one line with an unacceptable issue. "I know God to be merciful and forgiving. If I tell Nineveh that in forty days it will be overthrown and it repents, God will forgive and save. That means that they could easily say that what I said had nothing in it. Then if Nineveh is saved we stand to lose because they are our sworn foes. Moreover, this will be an innovation. Jehovah is the God of Israel, and why should our enemies get our blessings. This is taking the children's bread and giving it to dogs." Such was the frame of mind and the state of temper. Exclusiveness, jealousy, self-interest - these and many such like elements are always the perils of those who have received much enlightenment, and the book of Jonah thunders against them. Christ is exceedingly strong in His denunciations of them. Now of the two issues the first is this; to such there shall no sign be given, save the sign of Jonah.
We cannot deal with the latter until we have dwelt a little on the former.
Some have thought that the presence or absence of signs or miracles is dispensational. (We are referring to public miraculous demonstrations to the world.) We shall not enter into the controversial, but seek to maintain spiritual ground. God is very thorough, and when He saves He saves to the uttermost; but when He condemns He leaves no loophole of escape. In condemning Israel He attested Jesus as Christ by many mighty works and miracles, but these were all as nothing to them and they still sought a sign, as though none had been given. Of all the multitudes who saw the miracles very few indeed came right through. Now these signs and wonders are characteristics of beginnings, of the kindergarten stages, the accompaniments of immaturity. True faith is not that which rests upon anything objective or sentient. When virgin soil is being broken in heathen lands, such things are common, as seen in missionary records, and such works as "Pastor Hsi." But these records make it perfectly clear that when Christ becomes known and a certain stage of enlightenment is reached, these miracles on the outward become less frequent. The miracle has become of another sort, it is the one supreme and all inclusive miracle upon which alone faith stands. God is going to bring all true believers to one common footing of faith. The Risen Christ is going to be the ultimate criterion, not miracles as such.
"The Jews seek after signs, and the Greeks wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:22).
The absence of miraculous workings in the realm of the senses where the matter of knowing the Lord is in question is two sided: it is condemnation to those who have had the light and not followed it; and it is spiritual advancement in the case of those who are in the way of knowing the Lord more deeply. The great apostasy of the last days will have as its ground an absence of genuine love for the truth for its own sake; a craving for demonstrations, sensations, manifestations; and then the satanic production of an imitation apostolicalism "with power, and signs and lying wonders" (2 Thess. 2:9); "a strong delusion" (2 Thess. 2:11), so that "if it were possible even the Elect would be deceived" (Matt. 24:24).
The object which "the deceiver" has in view is to turn from Christ to Antichrist (2 John 7).
So the Lord Jesus would make things safe for His own by putting things upon a much higher plane than objective aids to faith. The further we go on with the Lord the more inward things become, and the more He Himself becomes the transcendent reality and centre of all things.
Before we can speak more fully of "THE sign," we must come back and gather up everything into one crisis. The condemnation brought upon a race by the Lord Jesus in His use of Jonah was, and is, because of the blindness, enmity, carnality, pride, self-interest, exclusiveness, formalism, prejudice, jealousy, which mark the natural man as he presses into the realm of Divine things, or holds the oracles of God. This is the natural-religious or the religious-natural man.
This Man Must Go Overboard
This type must be brought to an end. He inevitably meets the billows of Jehovah's wrath and judgment. He does not represent God truly. He only brings men's lives into jeopardy. It is not in him to truly do God's will. The commandments of God to him are not joyous, but grievous. When the will or way of God runs counter to his own interests, reputation, judgments, or common acceptances it is not true of him that he delights always to do God's will. If his creed, or institutions, or traditions, are broken in upon and God seeks to do a new thing, these things fetter him, and God comes up against a padlocked mind and a stiff neck. The Lord is not free to do as He likes with such a one. This introduces all that Calvary means to the race in Adam, and in Abraham after the flesh; also in Christ other than by resurrection. "Romans" speaks to every branch and age of the race and gathers all up into chapter 6 for death in Christ, and then shows that that only is acceptable to God which is alive in the Spirit (chapter 8).
In a day of many delusions along spiritual lines the only safe place is in Romans 8 through Romans 6, where the natural (psychical) man has given place to the man who knows the Lord after the spirit.
Let this man go then. Throw him over. It is God's way for him. God is able to secure the survival of that which will serve His ends. In other words, let him recognise that as him and for him the Lord Jesus has gone into the depths of the Divine billows of judgment, and taken him to death. Henceforth anything that is not Christ is a denial of Calvary and a setting aside of Christ's work on the cross. Henceforth a life not in the flesh but in the spirit is the only one recognised by and favourable to God. This brings us at least to be able to consider that sign which is the ground of standing before God, and effectual witness in His Name.