Sometimes, I kind of feel sorry for Jonah. In the lineup of biblical prophets, his story stands out like a sore thumb. He serves God begrudgingly, reluctant and angry. His inspired biography lacks a happy ending: it leaves him sitting next to a withered plant, pining for death. Nobody sings “dare to be a Jonah,” because he didn’t dare anything except to run from God.
Clearly, Jonah is more of a warning than a role model. It is a cautionary tale – but for whom?
The story has offered lessons for every generation of believers. It teaches that God’s love extends far beyond the borders of our assumptions, that people we imagine to be unreachable will respond to His forthright message in astonishing ways. Jonah’s attitude towards witnessing was obviously wrong; his bitter spirit leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.
Most of the lessons from the book of Jonah have been apparent to every generation. But the more I read the stories of the Bible, the more convinced I’ve become that it holds some very special and particular lessons for God’s last-day remnant church. Jonah’s assignment was a last-day message: “yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”1 If Jonah had been a disciple of Dale Carnegie, his instincts probably would have made him choose something a little more winsome – but he was not free to craft his own approach. “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city” the Lord told him, “and preach to it the message that I tell you.”2
The same is true for us. We have been assigned a specific last-day message: “Fear God, and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come.”3 It is for a specified audience: “every nation, tribe, tongue and people.”4 It is a time sensitive, final appeal.
And like Jonah, we sometimes find ourselves fearful and reluctant to deliver it.
How will they respond? Is this kind of message really going to resonate with these people? Their culture is so different from ours! How can they hope to understand it – or like it?
Sometimes, our fears are rooted in experience. We present our distinctive doctrines to the public, and it doesn’t go well. They turn up their noses; they quit coming to the meetings. So we assume there is something wrong with the message: too much prophecy, too many beasts, too little relevance.
Experience has taught me that when the message is ill received, a major part of the problem is the way we present it. We fail to bathe the message in the love of Christ. It is not enough to dump a severe warning in the laps of an unsuspecting audience; the three angels’ messages must be presented in the context of God’s loving character. They must be focused on the living Christ as both Creator and Redeemer – the Lamb of God who gave His life for the sins of the world.
But tact is not the only challenge we face in fulfilling our unique mission as God’s remnant church. It’s not hard to see parallels between Jonah and Laodicea. We have been given a specific prophetic message to share with a world tragically steeped in error, and like Jonah, we sometimes find ourselves unhappy about delivering it.
The parallels run even deeper, however. In Jonah’s story, there is a further detail that might be uniquely instructive for the final generation of believers. At the opening of the book, we are told that “Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”5
Did Jonah really believe he could run away from God? If you’re running from God, where do you go? “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?”6
How, exactly, did Jonah expect to flee “from the presence of the Lord?”
There’s a general rule in Bible study known as the law of first mention. The first time the Bible mentions a phrase or concept, it often sets the stage for understanding that phrase or concept throughout the rest of the Bible. For example, the first mention of a lamb occurs when Isaac asks his father, “but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”7 That story provides a powerful picture of Christ’s sacrifice: a ram is taken from the thorny thicket and takes Isaac’s place. It alerts the reader to the significance of lambs throughout the rest of the Bible, and interestingly, the first mention of a lamb in the New Testament gives us the ultimate answer to Isaac’s question: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”8
When Jonah attempts to flee “from the presence of the Lord,” the Bible is reiterating a concept found in the book of Genesis, where that phrase occurs for the first time:
“Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden.”9
Cain succeeded in removing himself from God’s presence. How is that possible? The “presence of the Lord” refers to something specific. Remember that after God removed Adam and Eve from the Garden, He established a presence at the gate:
So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”10
The cherubim were not simply a security measure. “At the cherubim-guarded gate of Paradise,” Ellen White observed, “the divine glory was revealed. Hither came Adam and his sons to worship God. Here they renewed their vows of obedience to that law the transgression of which had banished them from Eden.”11 Thus, the guarded gates of Eden served as a focal point for worship, and Ellen White is not the only one to have noticed it. Hugh Martin, the famous Presbyterian theologian (1822-85), said this about the cherubim:
“Most probably, in the days of the first family of our race, the gate of the garden of Eden, where God placed the cherubims [sic] and the flaming sword, constituted the seat of sacred worship; occupying the place and serving the purpose which, in after generations, were occupied and served by the tabernacle in the wilderness and in Shiloh, and ultimately, by the temple, on Mount Moriah.”12
“Here, therefore, was the face of the Lord–the presence of the Lord. Here substantially were all the elements of the temple worship, and of that worship which now by faith we conduct, entering into the temple on high–entering by hope within the veil by a new and living way, by the blood of Jesus.”13
Worship is exclusively due to God. These insights therefore imply God’s own presence at the location where he “placed” the cherubim.14 This sanctuary service at the gates of Eden foreshadowed both the sanctuary service in Israel, and its antitype, the High Priestly ministry of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary. When Cain “went out from the presence of the Lord,” he was moving away from the sanctuary.
According to Martin’s words, Jonah’s behavior may also constitute running from the sanctuary. He cites a Jewish tradition in which they “believed the spirit of prophecy to be confined to the sacred territory.”15
The ministry of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Daniel clearly discounts any narrow understanding on God’s freedom to bestow his gifts. Still, God does speak of Israel’s exile as being cast out of His presence: “...therefore behold, I, even I, will utterly forget you and forsake you, and the city that I gave you and your fathers, and will cast you out of My presence.”16
And from that point of view, Jonah’s flight beyond the national boundaries may have meant for him escape from God’s presence, the sanctuary, as well as from God’s call to prophesy. There is evidence to support the idea that Jonah believed this in his prayer of repentance, where he says he has been cast out of God’s sight and yet will “look again toward” the temple.17
I call this escape from God’s presence (sanctuary) and call (prophetic ministry) the Jonah syndrome
. It provokes reflection on the attitude of some of the most aggressive critics of Adventist belief. Unlike Jonah’s cowardly escapism, these individuals, most of them being former Adventists themselves, direct some of their most virulent attacks on the doctrines of the sanctuary and the spirit of prophecy. To be sure, there are sometimes also complaints about the Sabbath and the state of the dead. But these are not the key points of discomfort. Within our own ranks, when dissidents turn against the church, the focus of doctrinal controversy almost always revolves around the sanctuary
and the spirit of prophecy
Look closely at the almost cyclical history of major apostasy within our movement. Kellogg’s heresy involved a reinterpretation of the “temple.” Conradi, Ballenger, Canright, Brinsmead, Ford: their attacks include the Sabbath and other points of doctrine, but their objections invariably boil down to the sanctuary doctrine and/or the prophetic ministry of Ellen White. And their criticism can make some of us shy about sharing these key components of our message.
In my years as a public evangelist, I can attest to the fact that I have never had an objection to the sanctuary doctrine from the general public. The audience loves the concept. They see no conflict between the gospel and the sanctuary messages; on the contrary, they usually overwhelm people with the depth and breadth of Jesus’ love. The spirit of prophecy usually meets with a warmly receptive audience as well.
The objections come from emboldened Jonahs within our own ranks, proclaimers who, by attack rather than flight, would undermine the sanctuary, and see the uniqueness of the Adventist message evaporate; who attempt to dismiss the prophetic guidance offered to our movement, and leave us questioning our mission and losing our focus.
The book of Jonah has an unsatisfactory ending, from a human perspective. To be sure, God’s mission was accomplished: in spite of the objections of the prophet, Nineveh received the message and returned whole-heartedly to the Creator God. But the prophet himself, like the elder son of Jesus’ parable, exits the story confused and angry, at loggerheads with the prophetic ministry God has specifically given to him.
It tells us something important. God was not only bringing a message of mercy to the fallen city; He was also, at the same time, working for the sanctification of the messenger. Today, the city is spiritual Babylon, and we are the ones called to deliver the message. The message will be delivered, and Jesus will come. And we have a choice: We may object, like Jonah, to a prophetic ministry that is God’s gift to us for the salvation of modern Ninevehs. Or we may welcome the honor, share our unique message, and rejoice in the glorious result as we see kings and their people repent and turn to God. The message we have stands on astounding doctrinal foundations. We dare not miss the opportunity of giving it to the whole world!
11Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 62
12 Hugh Martin, Jonah (London: Billing and Sons 1978), p. 35.
14 The Hebrew verb for “placed” shakan, often applies to God as dwelling among men (see for example Exodus 25:8; Psa 74:2), and is related to Shekinah, a word used for God’s literal presence above the ark of the testimony.
15 Ibid., p. 38 Notice how this Presbyterian scholar also understood the term “spirit of prophecy” to refer to the prophetic gift.
17 See Jonah 2:4, 7
Shawn Boonstra is former speaker/director for It Is Written. He writes from Southern California.