Saturday, March 28, 2015

Arguing With A Burning Bush

Because of the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, when people think of Moses the face millions of them see is Charlton Heston’s. But the real Moses was no Hollywood he-man. He was a man with flaws and faults just like us, and if we are open to God’s leading, He can use us in spite of our flaws just as He used Moses.

Most people who have read the book of Exodus (or seen the Heston film) know that Moses had to flee from Egypt because he had murdered an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. So Moses was no sinless poster boy from the very start. His temper plagued him at the end as well; in chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers, while the Israelites are in the desert God tells Moses to speak to a rock at Meribah and water would flow from it. Moses was angry at the people’s complaining and struck the rock instead; for his disobedience God kept him from entering into the Promised Land.

We also know that during the time between these two events, God used Moses in a way Moses could have never imagined. Through Moses God brought the 10 plagues upon Egypt, freed the Israelites from bondage, parted the Red Sea, oversaw the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, gave the Israelites great military victories, and brought them to the brink of the Promised Land.

However, I think the episode of Moses’ life that is the most amazing (and instructive) is his encounter with God at the burning bush. In real life, Moses was not nearly as composed as Charlton Heston when coming face-to-face (so to speak) with God. In fact, Moses did something I’m sure all of us would swear we would never do if God were before us: he argued with God, not just once, but five times. Here are Moses’ five questions or excuses, followed by God’s response, when God told him to go to Pharaoh:

Moses: Who am I that I should go? (Exodus 3:11).
God: I will be with you; when you come out of Egypt, you will serve me on this mountain (Exodus 3:12).

Moses: But what is your name, that I may tell the people who sent me? (Exodus 3:13).
God: I am who I am, Yahweh, the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:14-15).

Moses: How will the people believe that you have sent me? (Exodus 4:1)
God: Responds by turning Moses’ rod into a serpent then back into a rod (Exodus 4:2-4), then He makes Moses’ hand leprous then heals it (Exodus 4:6-7), and finally instructs Moses to turn water from the Nile into blood if the people still do not believe (Exodus 4:9).

Moses: I am not eloquent; I am slow of speech (Exodus 4:10).
God: I, Yahweh, am the one who made your mouth (Exodus 4:11).

Moses: Please send someone else (Exodus 4:13).
God (finally getting angry at the excuses): Your brother Aaron will go with you; you will speak my words to him and he will speak to the people for you (Exodus 4:15-16).

I think there are several lessons in this encounter. The first is that it’s amazing God chose Moses at all, given the flaws he had already exhibited. The second is that God is patient when we think we’re not up to the task or when we don’t immediately grasp His calling. Finally, Moses’ life makes clear that if we will be obedient to God’s call in spite of our fears and shortcomings, some incredible things can happen. We may never part the Red Sea, but we may do equally amazing things, from sharing the Gospel halfway around the world on a mission trip to helping feed the homeless in our own neighborhood.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Significance of the Resurrection

Easter Sunday, the day we celebrate Jesus' resurrection from the dead following his crucifixion, is fast approaching. A huge number of people will fill churches on Easter morning and sing about the resurrection, but do they believe it? In America today, while most people believe in God, a lot of people don't believe that the resurrection really happened. Amazingly, this includes people that consider themselves Christians.

The literal resurrection of Jesus is not something that can be accepted or rejected according to your personal interpretation of the Bible. This can happen with issues like whether we should have female ministers and whether speaking in tongues still exists. Debate about the resurrection, however, is not possible for people who call themselves Christian, because the resurrection is the single most important aspect of Christianity, and without it Jesus was simply one in a long line of "good teachers." So were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa, but we don't place faith in them or consider them the way to salvation. Jesus himself foretold his death and resurrection several times in the gospels:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Matthew 16:21 (NIV)

Jesus told his disciples, “The nation’s leaders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law of Moses will make the Son of Man suffer terribly. They will reject him and kill him, but three days later he will rise to life.” Luke 9:22 (CEV)

The various Christian denominations may argue about numerous points of doctrine, but they cannot deny the importance of the resurrection in the plan of salvation. The Apostle Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans that "if you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." He went on in his first letter to the Corinthians to say that "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." The resurrection is what sets Jesus apart from every religious teacher that ever lived and what gives believers their hope.

So I would like to make a very brief case for the historical reality of the resurrection, which isn't as complicated as it might seem at first. Without delving too deeply into various conspiracy theories that have cropped up in the last few centuries I will deal mainly with two key factors: the empty tomb and the deaths of the apostles.

1. The Empty Tomb. Let me first remove the long-discredited argument that Jesus was alive when he was taken down from the cross and somehow escaped the tomb. This theory has always been nonsensical; Roman soldiers were well skilled in making sure a condemned person's sentence was carried out. And while Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ may have been too bloody for some people's taste, it was a very factual presentation of what happened to those sentenced to crucifixion. That's simply not something a person survived.

Another extreme theory was that the disciples stole the body from the tomb. This theory hinges on the premise that Jesus' followers (all of whom fled when he was arrested) returned to the tomb, overpowered a squad of Roman soldiers standing guard to prevent just such an occurrence, and then hid the body. All so they could proclaim the reign of a king they knew to be dead. This notion stretches the imagination even further than the idea of someone rising from the dead.

So if we know Jesus was dead, and the disciples didn't steal the body, then why didn't the Jewish leaders or the Romans simply produce the body when the claims of the resurrection were made? That would have been the simplest way to shut the whole thing down. They didn't because they couldn't; the body wasn't there.

2. The Deaths of the Apostles. There have been many followers throughout history who died for the leader of a religious movement, most often through mass suicide, but the deaths of the apostles fall into a different category altogether. Of the eleven apostles (Judas had committed suicide after betraying Jesus) only John died of natural causes. The other ten died while spreading the gospel, in the following ways:

         Peter - crucified upside down
         James, son of Zebedee - beheaded
         Matthew - killed by a sword thrust
         Philip - crucified
         Andrew - crucified on a cross in the shape of an X.
         Simon - crucified
         Thomas - speared to death
         Thaddeus - killed by arrows.
         Bartholomew - flayed alive and crucified
         James, Son of Alphaeus - stoned to death

Both the violent nature of these men's deaths and the fact that they died at different times and in different parts of the Roman Empire is important. If they knew that the resurrection was a lie, which they would have if they had either stolen Jesus' body or not personally seen him after the resurrection, it is possible that one or two of them might have been deranged enough to die in order to keep the story going. There is no way, however, that ten of them would have endured excruciating deaths, completely separated from the others by years and hundreds or thousands of miles, for something they knew to be a lie.

What we see in the apostles is an amazing change from the terrified men who fled at Jesus' arrest to men who did not shrink from death in proclaiming his resurrection. That is only possible if he really did rise from the dead.

Ultimately, the resurrection is something that cannot be ignored or treated like a fairy tale. It is either true or it's not, and the entire Christian faith rises or falls based on the answer to that question. I believe that, given the limited space allowed, I have shown solid reason for belief in the resurrection that goes beyond a mere leap of faith. But in the end faith is still needed, and this Easter season each of us must ask ourselves if we truly have that faith.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

When One Part of the Body Suffers

The world was shocked and horrified last month at the video released by ISIS terrorists showing the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya. It was one in a long line of ever-increasing atrocities committed by ISIS against anyone who does not believe exactly as they do; they have murdered Christians, Jews, and Muslims with equal disdain.

The reaction to this heinous act was understandable. What is harder to understand is why most Christians in America still do not acknowledge or perhaps even recognize the wholesale slaughter of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Africa. While we debate how to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, lament the ongoing stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and attempt to be politically correct when condemning Islamist terrorists, Christians in Nigeria are being murdered by the thousands by Boko Haram militants and Assyrian Christians virtually "cleansed" from northern Syria by ISIS.

It is true that the secular media often downplays the fact that these attacks against Christians are occurring, but that does not excuse our indifference. And while we should be outraged when attacks of this kind happen to anyone, anywhere, if we truly believe the Bible as we claim to, we should take note for another very important reason: all Christians, no matter their nationality, race, gender, or any other demographic you want to use, are one Body:

“The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit…This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 25-26

As Christians, whether in Egypt or Syria, Nigeria or Iraq, America or Europe, we should be wounded as if these persecuted brothers and sisters are part of our own family...because they are. We should not simply shake our heads sadly and move on to the next news item. We should pray without ceasing for our fellow believers around the world for whom persecution is much more than being told they cannot hold a Bible study in a public school or pray before a football game. And we certainly should not remain silent; when one suffers, we all suffer.

Finally, we should pray that we would, if faced with the same fate as the 21 Egyptian martyrs, remain as faithful as these brothers did, who “did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Revelation 12:11) and who have received “the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:4).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Creflo Dollar Has Obviously Never Met Job

It was reported a few days ago that televangelist and mega-church pastor Creflo Dollar has asked his congregation and supporters for donations to purchase a $60 million Gulfstream jet airplane to "help him spread the gospel." The outcry from all sides, including many normally supportive of his ministry, was so strong that Dollar has taken down the fundraising page for the jet. While many have embraced the prosperity gospel of preachers like Dollar and the more famous Joel Osteen, $60 million for a private jet was finally a bridge too far.

The controversy brings us back to a question that comes up when dealing with preachers like Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and others: are they preaching the gospel, or simply saying what people want to hear while getting rich in the process? One of the best answers comes not from the New Testament, but rather the Old Testament story of Job, a book that seems to be missing from these individuals' Bibles.

When looking at the story of Job, the first thing that becomes obvious is his suffering. Job lost nearly everything, and God allowed it. He lost his flocks, his herds, his servants, his health, and his own children. The only things he did not lose were the two things that by that time he probably hoped to: a nagging wife and his own life.

Yet the Biblical account of Job emphasizes that throughout his ordeal Job did not sin against God by cursing him. God allowed Satan to bring calamity upon Job to prove that Job would remain faithful no matter what his circumstances became. This doesn't fit very well with the prosperity gospel message so many flock to today, a message that says Christians with enough faith will always be healthy and wealthy, and those who suffer in these areas do so because of a lack of faith.

Preachers like Dollar and Osteen love the "name it and claim it" philosophy of the prosperity gospel, and with good reason. In most cases the faithful are required to "sow financial seeds" as a way of demonstrating their faith, and these seeds of faith go directly to the preacher (VISA and MasterCard accepted). It's certainly a gospel of prosperity for the ones preaching it.

In fact, Osteen can do something few Christian preachers in history have accomplished: preach a month of messages on "getting blessed" and "being the best you that you can be" while never mentioning either sin or Jesus even once. Theologian John Piper has rightly said that "the prosperity gospel will not make anybody praise Jesus; it will make people praise prosperity."

So is this prosperity gospel Biblical? Absolutely not. As proof, let's start with our friend Job, not so much because of the trials he faced even though God still favored him, but because of his responses, which Mr. Osteen and Mr. Dollar could learn from. When Job learned of the deaths of his children:

"Job stood up and tore his robe in grief. Then he shaved his head and fell to the ground to worship. He said, 'I came naked from my mother's womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!' In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God." (Job 1:20-22 NLT)

Job recognized that everything we have is given to us by God, and that our praise should not depend on our circumstances. Later, his wife had some harsh words for him, and he gives an amazing answer:

"His wife said to him, 'Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.' But Job replied, 'You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?' So in all this, Job said nothing wrong." (Job 2:9-10 NLT)

Joel Osteen has often described himself as more of a life coach than a preacher (he is surely glad that churches hold tax-exempt status, since life coach corporations do not). But a life coach needs to prepare people for the inevitable trials of life, don't they? Teaching that enough faith fixes every financial problem doesn't seem to be very good counsel, especially since this type of faith is centered on self rather than on God. To make matters worse, it tells people who are suffering that their suffering stems from a lack of faith.

Here are a few other verses for the prosperity gospel proponents to consider:

"Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!" Habakkuk 3:17-18 (NLT)

"Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you." 1 John 2:15 (NLT)

"Don't store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be." Matthew 6:19-21 (NLT)

Note that none of these verses condemn having money or possessions; the condemnation is for those who love the things of the world more than the things of God. If you follow a "name it and claim it" theology, then you are by definition storing up treasures on earth and loving the world more than God.

I don't know if either Mr. Dollar or Mr. Osteen are familiar with the verses I've used here. I can only pray that they will someday begin preaching the true and complete gospel to their huge congregations. Until that day, this passage both sums up their "preaching" and the prosperity gospel, and counters their claims as well:

"After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can't take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content. But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows." 1 Timothy 6:7-10 (NLT)

As for Creflo Dollar's current "ministry need," he would do well to remember that Jesus "had no place to lay His head" (Matthew 8:20), and he certainly didn't have a private jet.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Does a Church's Size Matter?

For hundreds of years the most important question people asked when choosing a church had to do with denomination. That can still be a major factor (even today very few people move effortlessly from Lutheran to Baptist to Episcopal services), though the rise of non-denominational churches has diminished it somewhat. The new "big question" that has emerged only in recent years concerns something quite different: size. People searching for a church have a wide range of options, from cell groups to house churches to churches that meet in coffee shops and bars. But the most common choice is between a small church or a mega-church. Both have advantages and both have drawbacks, all of which must be considered.

In some ways, choosing between a small church and a mega-church requires the same analysis of advantages and disadvantages that one would apply to the question of whether to live in a small town or a large city. In saying this I am not discounting the leading of the Holy Spirit in choosing a church or diminishing the importance of a congregation's doctrinal beliefs, but rather acknowledging the realities of life in America today.

Before looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the two types, some definitions are needed. For the purposes of this article, a mega-church is any congregation with over 2,000 people attending regularly. A small church is one with fewer than 250 regular attendees. Obviously there are a great number of churches whose congregations fall between these two numbers, but this is a look at small vs. mega, not medium vs. fairly large.

The New Testament has examples of both types of congregations. The first chapters of the Book of Acts tell of very rapid growth in the church that occurred as people were hearing the Gospel for the very first time. You can see similar explosive growth anytime the Gospel was proclaimed in areas where it had not been heard before, such as Korea after the Japanese occupation and Eastern Europe after fifty years of communist rule. In Romans 16:3-5, Paul acknowledges a much smaller church, sending greetings to Priscilla and Aquila and the "church that meets at their house." The house church movement in China mirrors this type of congregation. Jesus himself gave us the minimum size for a congregation: two or three. In Matthew 18:20 He said: "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."

Small churches offer one thing that mega-churches can't match: a real sense of family. There is something comforting about being somewhere where everyone knows you, especially as we become more and more disconnected from each other as a society. People in small churches also have much greater direct access to their pastor; this diminishes as the congregation grows larger and the demands on the pastor's time increase. The mixing of age groups in smaller churches also helps by intermingling the excitement and energy of younger or new believers with the wisdom and experience of senior adults. Singles get to hear the problems discussed by married couples in their classes, and thus aren't as surprised when they encounter these same problems after they get married.

The strength of that interaction of age groups has a downside, however. The singles often have greater interaction with married couples precisely because there are so few other singles. This lack of others at their same stage of life can be discouraging (although even large churches do a poor job of caring for singles). Smaller congregations also are more likely to suffer from a dearth of programs and ministries due to lack of funds and lack of people to lead them. Sometimes simply providing a decent living for the pastor can be a financial strain on a very small church.

Mega-churches have to be concerned about finances as well, but for very different reasons. Most have a large number of programs and ministries, and need to bring in huge amounts of money to finance these programs. There is little access to the pastor, who may only be seen by most on Sunday mornings. Mega-churches offset this by having very large ministerial staffs, with ministers for married adults, singles, children, missions, etc. I know of at least one mega-church in North Dallas that has over forty full-time ministers on staff for a congregation of 28,000.

One of the single biggest advantages of mega-churches is the quality of their children's programs. Given the fact that many couples either return to church or start going for the first time when they have children, the size and quality of a children's ministry has a huge impact on the growth of a church. An outgrowth of this is also an increase in Bible study classes for married couples, with more choices than you will find in a small church.

As I said above, singles (particularly those who are divorced) are often treated as second-class citizens in churches regardless of size, but they have more opportunities in mega-churches simply by virtue of their larger numbers. Mega-churches also tend to do multiple mission trips during the course of a year, so those with a heart for missions have far more options than are available in a smaller congregation.

Mega-churches have drawbacks, of course. Many attend simply because of the status some of these churches have, hoping to cut business deals or move up socially as a result of their membership. Mega-churches also have a tendency to become small cities unto themselves, with activities every night of the week, coffee bars, bookstores, full workout facilities, even bowling alleys and movie theaters. You can essentially live there, which totally goes against Jesus' command that we go into the world and be salt and light.

In the end, you may have to visit both types of churches before finding the one you are most comfortable with and where you can best serve. Neither type of church is good or bad based solely on its size; we need to keep in mind that growth is a not always sign of God's favor and blessing, as well as the fact that smaller doesn't necessarily mean less worldly. A church cannot be judged by its size, but by the heart of its members and their impact on the world.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Great Commission

Evangelism and discipleship are not the same thing, but without evangelism there can be no one to disciple. In the Great Commission, evangelism is implied when Jesus tells the Apostles to "make disciples":

"Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'" (Matt 28: 18-20 NIV)

Jesus' command to his disciples, and ultimately his followers down through the centuries, to reach the world with the good news of salvation is recorded in the 28th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew; it has come to be known as the Great Commission. The Great Commission is one of the clearest passages in the entire Bible, and yet is also one of the least obeyed.

In Matthew 28:19, Jesus said, "go." He didn't say think about going, or even pray about going. He said go. Yet only a small fraction of Christians ever follow this clear command. I think there are several reasons why this is, ranging from a simple fear of talking to people to thinking it's the job of the pastor, missionary, or some other "professional clergy." But we are all called to do our part to take the gospel (or evangel, from which we get the term evangelism) to the world. In Acts 1:8 Jesus gave us the blueprint, elaborating on what "all nations" means:

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8 NIV)
Let's break this blueprint down both in its 1st Century context as well as what it means for us today. I would then like to examine what is and what is not evangelism.
  1. Jerusalem. In the first century, this obviously meant the city of Jerusalem. This was where the apostles spent time with Jesus following his resurrection, where the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, and where the first church was formed. Today, we can think of Jerusalem as whatever city we happen to live in, or even our own family. These are the people closest to us, the ones we care the most about.
  2. Judea. Judea was the administrative region in which Jerusalem was located, roughly the equivalent of a state or province today. If Austin is your Jerusalem, then Texas could be considered your Judea. You still have a connection or kinship with folks in this area.
  3. Samaria. Samaria was a region outside of Judea, and could thus be considered another state, like going to Oklahoma from Texas. But Samaria was much more than this. Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies, and by specifically telling his disciples to go there, Jesus was making clear that everyone, whether friend or foe, was to be told the message of the gospel. That message is the same for us today, which means going places we might not otherwise be comfortable going.
  4. The ends of the earth. This literally means the ends of the earth. In the 1st Century, the apostles went to most of the known world, from Paul's missionary journeys through Asia Minor and Greece to Thomas's journey to India. We are called to do the same, realizing that for us China may be "the ends of the earth," while for a Chinese believer New York or Boston is "the ends of the earth." It simply depends on where you're starting from.
In fact, there are many who would not use the contemporary examples above at all, arguing that Jerusalem is the actual city of Jerusalem, as are Judea and Samaria, and that all the rest of the world is the ends of the earth. For me the command is the same either way you look at it: we are supposed to tell those close to us, and whenever possible to tell even those in far away places.

We saw earlier that Jesus clearly commands us to evangelize, to reach our world with the gospel, but what exactly is the gospel? First, what it isn't. It isn't orphanages, hospitals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, or any other charitable act or organization. These are all good, important, and evidence that we are believers in Christ, but in and of themselves they are not the message. If they were, then you would have to consider every Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, Agnostic, and atheist who did any of these things a Christian, and neither we nor they believe that. Good works also give an opportunity for evangelism, but they are not evangelism.

The gospel, the evangel, the good news that Jesus brought is not nearly as complicated as we often try to make it. In a nutshell, Jesus' message was that we have all sinned and none of us deserve Heaven. But God loved us enough, even while we weren't loveable, that He sent Jesus to take the penalty that we deserved. The apostle Paul put it this way:

"My friends, I want you to remember the message that I preached and that you believed and trusted. You will be saved by this message, if you hold firmly to it. But if you don't, your faith was all for nothing. I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say. Christ appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. After this, he appeared to more than five hundred other followers. Most of them are still alive, but some have died. He also appeared to James, and then to all of the apostles. Finally, he appeared to me." (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 CEV).

The majority of us in America have heard this message in some form or other since we were children, although that is becoming less and less the case today. But many, if not most of us have never done anything once we heard the message. Jesus said in Luke 19:10 that he "came to seek and save the lost." How does He save us? When asked how to be saved, the apostle Paul gave this answer:

"Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. For if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Acts 16:31, Romans 10:9 NIV).

That's the Good News. We can have our sins forgiven and enter into a real, personal relationship with God. News doesn't get any better than that, and we shouldn't hesitate to tell others about it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Whale of a Tale

While the story of Jonah is one of the best known in the Bible, nearly everyone misses the real point of the story altogether. The ultimate theme of the Book of Jonah has nothing to do with whales; it is a story of God's merciful compassion for all people, not just the Israelites.

Jonah preached during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel (782 753 B.C.). At some point during his ministry, God called him to preach a message of repentance to the people of Nineveh, the capital of the Israelites' bitter enemies the Assyrians, in order that they would turn from their evil ways and not be destroyed. This would be similar to an American preacher being called to bring a message of repentance to Osama bin Laden or the leader of ISIS, knowing that they would turn from their ways and be spared by God. Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh (the same way many of us would want al-Qaeda or ISIS destroyed), so he ran in the opposite direction, taking a ship to Tarshish.

This is where the whale comes in. God sent a storm to stop Jonah, and after determining that Jonah was the cause of the storm, the crew threw him overboard. The great fish was simply the means God used to keep Jonah from drowning. After three days Jonah had had enough, and cried out to God to forgive him. The whale then spit Jonah out alive onto dry land, and Jonah began the long journey east to Nineveh. For those who don't believe that the whale (or great fish, we don't know for sure) really swallowed Jonah, take it up with Jesus. He refers to the event as a fact in Matthew 12:38-41 and Luke 11:29-30. If Jesus says it happened, then it's good enough for me.

What happens once Jonah gets to Nineveh is the real lesson of the story. He does as God commanded, calling on the people to repent or be destroyed. To his chagrin, everyone from the king down to the lowliest servants do just that, fasting and praying for God's forgiveness, and God relents from destroying them. Jonah becomes so angry about this that he tells God that he wants to die. God then teaches him, and us, a lesson.

While still hoping that God might change his mind and destroy Nineveh, Jonah goes to the east of the city and sits in the blazing heat. God caused a plant to grow that gave shade to Jonah, and Jonah was very happy. But the next morning, God sent a worm to attack the plant, which immediately withered and died. This made Jonah so angry that he again told God it would be better for him to just die. God simply asks if it is right for him to be angry about the plant, for which Jonah had done no work and which was, after all, only a plant, while having no concern for the people of Nineveh, people just like him whom God had created.

Therefore, the Book of Jonah is not some children's fairy tale about being swallowed by a whale. It is a lesson from God about loving those who are not like us, even our sworn enemies, especially our sworn enemies. Because while he may not condone their deeds, God loves them just as much as he loves us. It wasn't a popular message 2,700 years ago, nor 700 years later when Jesus told us to love our enemies, and it's not particularly popular today. But if we're going to follow God as we should, it is a lesson we must heed.