The moment of delivery has arrived. What will you do?
We Christians often speak of coming to the Word, but Jonah chapter 3 begins with the Word of the Lord coming to him. The living word is a great thing. It encapsulates all of God’s mind, his desire, his will, his wisdom, his delight, and his command. As such, it represents the highest imperative for a human being.
In this case the imperative, God’s will, mind, compassion, and delight, was for Jonah to go to Nineveh. And he had said no. Now the Word was coming to him a second time, adding that he was to preach “the message that I tell you” (v. 2).
Christians have trouble with this command. Even when we go to others, we subtly change the message. I don’t think we do it deliberately. We live in an age where the worst thing you could do to another person is offend them. Under that kind of pressure, we unconsciously avoid certain words and topics in evangelism.
No doubt we need to learn effective communication, but often the safe, acceptable messages we craft and deliver don’t involve repentance at all. There’s no change of mind about sinful past lives, only Christ as an added ingredient for life enhancement. This kind of message solves the awkwardness of addressing sin, but makes the cross and the blood of Jesus pointless. It’s a comfortable word. People will like it, because as Paul said, “then is the stumbling block of the cross done away with.” It is a defaced message.
As the Jonah’s of today, not only are we told to go and preach the word, but we are expected to faithfully transmit it without alteration.
Jonah’s message contained urgency and the certainty of consequences–“Yet 40 days and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (v. 4). At first, it seems only negative, being “against” them (v. 2)—that is, against their past sins, their current morals, their culture, and their norms.
Yet it was ultimately for them. Romans 2:4 says, “the kindness of God leads to repentance.” We aspiring gospel preachers sometimes forget that fact. In our attempt to make the message friendlier, we change it, and end up working against God.
I grew up in a true country family. We had two pickups—a good one and the old junky ‘69 GMC someone had painted with a flat brush. The GMC broke down in the middle of nowhere. Instead of towing it, we decided to pull it home with a rope. My dad drove the lead truck, and I rode in the dead truck to steer it. He had told me, “Don’t ride the brakes.” I was fourteen and didn’t know what that meant, but I said “Okay,” anyway. He started pulling me down country roads, across the freeway, over railroad tracks. Terrified, I basically rode the brakes all the way home. When we pulled up in front of our house, a smell was boiling out from under the truck like eggs fried in motor oil. My dad turned three shades of purple.
I hadn’t understood how to work with him. As he had been pulling, I had been braking. I think we Christians often don’t understand how to work together with God on behalf of another person. The “kind” God in the lead truck, leads, leads, leads people to repentance. Meanwhile, we’re in the dead truck with the sinner, and we’re braking, braking, braking.
This is most evident as God moves to convict someone, and we tell them, “Oh, don’t worry about it. God loves you just the way you are.” It’s as if we don’t see the love of God in the cross. We see the love of God as a license that allows people to do whatever they want, or live whatever lifestyle they choose, and it’s all okay. That is an altered message, where consequences don’t exist and repentance isn’t needed.
When you share the gospel, don’t pretend everything is okay. You’re not supposed to be Mister Rogers. You’re a gospel preacher. You’re a prophet to that person. If your friend is disturbed by the notion of God’s judgement, then share with him or her the way to get out of it! That’s the punch line anyway. Jesus told us in Luke chapter 24:47 “that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name.”
Never tell yourself this doesn’t work in a postmodern world, where we’ve redefined sexuality, marriage, gender, morality, and truth itself. That would be to say Jesus is out of date, that when he gave this command in Luke, he couldn’t foresee our current age and its challenges. Trust me, Jesus is more relevant and hip than any of us could ever hope to be.
Admittedly though, there are ways to announce this message, and then there are better ways. Jonah’s way was to walk through a city and shout it. I don’t recommend this for your office or classroom. You probably don’t want to do it at a family reunion, either. When you announce the “hard word,” you’ll need three things in your communication toolbox:
- Right attitude (Compassion, kindness, humility, and gentleness, not anger, disgust, condescension, or moral superiority).
- Right context (Follow the flow of a conversation, rather than sounding grossly discontinuous and out of place. Bad example: “It’s so nice of you to join me for lunch.” “Thanks, it would be nicer if you’d repent and not go to hell.”).
- Objectivity (Inform someone of God’s judgment, without projecting your personal judgment upon them).
While visiting a friend in the hospital, I struck up a conversation with a guy in the adjoining room. He told me he was Jewish. I asked if he was kosher and kept the Sabbath. He said, “Mostly I don’t bother with it.” Then I said, “Please be careful. Moses himself said, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all the things of the law to do them.’ Personally, I know I can’t keep the whole law, and I’ve broken a lot of it, so I believed in Jesus. The Scriptures say as He hung on the cross, He became a curse for me.”
My words were jarring, but I had the right attitude (concern for him), context (we were already having a religious conversation about keeping the law), and objectivity (I spoke of God’s judgment, not mine). We eventually parted on friendly terms.
Another time I was on campus and saw a young Middle Eastern man sitting at a table, eyeing every girl who passed. If you’re ever seen heat waves rising off a road, that was him. As I sat down at the table, he said to me, chuckling, “You know, Islam doesn’t work over here.” I said, “So, you’re Muslim?” He shrugged his shoulders, “Yeh.” I asked him if we could talk about the Bible for a few minutes, and suddenly with great conviction, he said, “I’m not interested, I’m Muslim.” I said, “Okay, but can I ask you how Islam deals with sin?” (Since he had just admitted it didn’t work).
He went on to speak of good works offsetting bad ones, and when judgement day arrived, a desperate final reliance on the mercy of Allah. “You have no guarantees or promises at all?” “No.” “So, in effect, you have to save yourself. Wow. I could never be that strong. I’m afraid I’d go straight to hell. That’s why I trusted in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and received full forgiveness of my sins, past, present, and future.”
He kept arguing, but I could tell no one had ever spoken to him like this and probably no one ever would again. Unfortunately, sharing one’s faith with someone from a different culture is considered politically incorrect, especially with the hope they’ll convert. I got away with it that day though, because attitude, context, and objectivity didn’t sidetrack the whole conversation.
One Pastor related how he got on a plane and sat down next to a high-powered CEO. They talked for a little while until CEO asked him what he did for a living. The pastor told him. The CEO replied, “Oh no! I don’t need any of that. This last year especially, I’ve been pretty darn good.” The pastor asked, “Have you ever thought that maybe God’s standard is different from yours?” So, with the man’s permission, he took him to some verses, and showed him how God’s standard is higher than “pretty darn good.”
The man said, “Wait a minute…if what the Bible says is true, everybody is going to hell.” The pastor paused, smiled, and said, “They ought to, but they don’t have to.” And so he shared the good news of the cross that bridged the gap between that lost man and God. I often wonder if such an encounter will ever happen again in that man’s life, because evangelistic warnings are so out of vogue today. Yet in that instance, this one was well taken because there was the right attitude, context, and objectivity.
Only the Holy Spirit can lead a person to repentance unto salvation, but our communication technique can become a lead foot on the brake pedal, unnecessarily offending them, or ignorantly justifying them without the cross. Let’s choose the better way of sharing hard words.
Maybe a handful of Christians will end up speaking scattered things about Jesus to your friend or relative over their lifetime. Why not shoot for being the pivotal one in their life, the one individual who shares with them the whole truth?
Having prayed to open their heart and bolster your own nerve, the moment of delivery will come. Be kind. Be reasonable. Be true.