The Sulking Servant
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The Sulking Servant

Jonah 4:1–4  (ID: 2176)

One might think that Jonah would have celebrated after Nineveh’s miraculous revival. Instead, he bitterly sulked. Having been the recipient of God’s compassion, he still found fault and became angry with God for displaying the same divine grace to those he felt didn’t deserve it. As the Bible reminds us, though, God does not play favorites. His grace is for all—which, as Alistair Begg warns us, means that Christians are not free to choose “worthy” and “unworthy” candidates to receive it.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Jonah

Man Overboard! Jonah 1:1–4:11 Series ID: 13201

Sermon Transcript: Print

And as you’re seated, I invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to the book of Jonah in the Old Testament. Jonah chapter 4. In the Bibles that you’ll find around you in the pews, if you care to use one, this particular reading is found on page 655—page 6-5-5, Jonah chapter 4, and we’re going to read from the first verse. Actually, we’ll read from 3:10:

“When God saw what they did and how they [re]turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

“But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’

“But the Lord replied, ‘Have you any right to be angry?’

“Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’

“But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?’

“‘I do,’ he said. ‘I am angry enough to die.’

“But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?’”


Now, before we study, let’s ask God’s help:

Father, we pray now that, with our Bibles open upon our laps, that the Spirit will be our teacher; that in and through and beyond the voice of a mere man, we may hear your voice; that you may speak to arrest, to enlighten, to encourage, to convert, in whatever way you choose. Grant that our minds may be ready to think, that our lives may be open to receive, and that our wills may be brought into obedience to your Holy Word. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

For those of you who are visiting us today, we determined a few weeks ago that we would study one of the Minor Prophets—namely, Jonah. And we’ve gone through to the end of chapter 3, and we resume our studies now this morning, and concluding this evening, in chapter 4.

Throughout the opening chapters we have seen the prophet Jonah in a variety of situations. We found him, first of all, running—namely, running away from God and from his clear dictate, seeking to go in the opposite direction from that which God desired for him. We then found him sleeping below deck on a ship that he had taken in order to run away from God. The incongruity of his sleeping in the midst of the storm was striking to us then. We found him, described in chapter 2, drowning, with the seaweed closing over his mouth, almost to suffocate him. And then we picked him up later when he was praying, and this time from the belly of a great fish, which God had provided at just the right moment to be present to pick him up and deposit him on dry ground. As a result of his reinstatement on terra firma, we then discovered him preaching. And he now goes to say what God has told him to say to the people that he had originally sent him. We might have anticipated that we would then find him rejoicing, but in point of fact, as chapter 4 opens, we discover that the prophet of God is sulking. Sulking. And on two occasions he indicates that his sense of discouragement and depression is enough to bring him to the point of wishing to be done with life altogether.

The time that we have the most to learn from the Bible is usually when we think we’ve just about learned it all, for then we’re at our most vulnerable.

And so it is clear that the prophet, although he is a prophet called by God and given a unique place in the purposes of God, still has a lot to learn. I used to think when I was a younger man that those who’d been called to be the preachers and teachers probably knew everything you were supposed to know. When I would be sitting under their instruction and perhaps hanging around them, I had assumed that they were just about absolutely perfect. As time went by, they were gracious enough to let me know that they weren’t, and that was helpful, because having been in the responsible role of preaching and teaching for these last twenty-five years, I recognize too that the preacher always has a lot to learn. And there are, of course, those who are given the place in life of always pointing that out to us lest we should ever be tempted to forget it.

Last Sunday evening, as I spoke at Shadow Mountain Community Church in San Diego for David Jeremiah, in the course of the people who came to greet me afterwards, there was a gentleman with gray hair and a navy blue suit who came to point out to me something that he felt was not in my best interest to do. And I thanked him for it, genuinely and from my heart. I wasn’t sure that I agreed entirely with his word of caution, but nevertheless, I was grateful that he would take the time and be kind enough to treat me in a fatherly way as he did. Because I still have a lot to learn. And all of us who listen to the Bible have a lot to learn. And the time that we have the most to learn is usually when we think we’ve just about learned it all, for then we’re at our most vulnerable. “Oh, there’s nothing more that I have to discover now. I’ve pretty well covered the whole text, and I’ve got it all buttoned down.” At that point we probably have a big lesson about to come over our horizon.

Now, it is interesting—at least to me, and I hope to you also—that despite the fact that Jonah had a churlish attitude, that he was narrow-minded in his approach to things, that he was responding in the wrong way to God’s kindness, God doesn’t write him off. He had provided a large fish to save him, and he could easily have provided a large lion to eat him. He could have responded to him by saying, “Jonah, I’ve now had perfectly enough of you. I gave you one word, and you went in the wrong direction. I sent a fish to save you, I spat you up, you began to preach, now you’re as miserable as sin. Why don’t I send a lion to eat you?” But he doesn’t do that, because he is a gracious and compassionate God.

Aren’t you grateful that God hasn’t sent lions to eat us because we were disobedient to his plans? How many of us would still be here this morning if, on the occasion of our disobedience, he sent a lion to eat us? The congregation would be vastly depleted, if we’re honest. I certainly would not be the preacher; I know that for sure. All you would see is one of my shoes sticking out of the lion’s mouth somewhere, as it went scurrying down Chagrin Boulevard. No, God is gracious and compassionate. He treats his servant with patience and with kindness so as to bring him to the realization that what is wrong, more than any other thing, is Jonah’s attitude.

Now, we might be tempted this morning—perhaps if we’ve come as visitors, or even those of us who’ve been around for a few weeks—to say to ourselves, “You know, this is an irrelevant account from somebody who was long ago and far away. I don’t know why we would even spend our time studying something like this.” Well, I want to suggest to you that you may well, very quickly and quite pertinently, find your face reflected in the attitudes of Jonah. I want you to get ready for that, actually. I don’t think you’ll go very far now without all of a sudden seeing your face. The reason I say that is because it didn’t take me very long into the verses before I saw my ugly face in the reflection of the Bible.

The issues of the chapter turn largely on two questions, both of which are posed by God. One he asks twice, one only once. The one he asks twice you’ll find in verse 4 and again in verse 9. The final one is actually the final sentence of the chapter. Now, the first question is this: “Do you have a right to be angry?” which he asks on two separate occasions. And the second question is, “Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

Now, these questions are well put, are they not? Because Jonah’s reaction is strange for a preacher. Instead of the repentance of Nineveh providing a basis for his encouragement, it actually provokes him to fury. You would have thought that, having now gone and said what God had called him to say, and as a result of that seeing the people turn in repentance, he would have said, “What a privilege to have been used in God’s service. I’m so grateful that God has been kind to me and has not cast me off, didn’t write me off, but has given me the privilege of a second chance.”

And yet, what do we discover? The literal translation of the opening sentence is, “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil.” It’s translated in the NIV, “Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.” The absence of the calamity that he expected—a calamity which he thought and actually hoped would come upon Nineveh—proved to be a calamity in Jonah’s own thinking. So because there was no calamity on Nineveh, it was a calamity for Jonah in his own thinking.

Now, we should not think that Jonah had disobeyed God. This is not the disobedient Jonah of chapter 1. This is the obedient Jonah of chapter 3. And the obedient Jonah of chapter 3 is perplexed in his obedience, because as a result of being obedient, and on account of what he knows of God, it has set up in his mind these questions with which he is wrestling—questions which thoughtful people in every generation will be forced to wrestle with. Although he had gone where he’d been told to go, although he had said what he had been told to say, he was clearly not in complete harmony with God’s gracious plan.

That is a word of caution, incidentally. We may go where we’re told to go, we may say what we’re told to say, we may externally conform to that which is the standard expectation of God for us as his servants, and yet, at the very core of our lives, in a circumstance like this this morning, not really be in harmony with the unfolding of God’s plan.

He’s wrestling, I think—in fact, I’m sure—with an issue that each us of must face. It is a supreme issue, and it is a question that anyone along the journey of faith will come to sooner or later, and probably sooner rather than later. The question is the sovereignty of divine grace.

Now, for some of you, you say immediately, “I’m not sure what that actually means, and furthermore, I’m not sure that it means anything that is of remote interest to me. I was hoping that when I came this morning, I would have some kind of practical insight into the fact that I’m dealing with a tremendous amount of stress in my life. I was hoping that the sermon this morning would be called something like ‘Seven Principles for Being a Better Dad,’ because I’ve really been quite a wretch over the past month or so and have been longing for my children to go back to school and get out of my hair. I was hoping that something along the journey may help with the fact that our air conditioning broke down and that somehow or another there must be something practical that the Bible has to say about these issues. And now here I am, and I’ve come, and I’m in this room—it feels as though the air conditioning is broken down in here—and he announces the fact that the central issue is the sovereignty of divine grace.”

Yes? Oh, I could address those questions for you Sunday by Sunday. I could have sermons for you that are just like that: “Seven Principles for Dealing with Stress,” “Five Ways to Be a Better Dad,” “Six Ways to Be a Good Mom,” “Fifteen Ways to Clean Your Bedroom,” and so on, and you could all scribble the notes down. And it may have absolutely nothing at all to do with the Bible.

You say, “Well, I don’t know about the sovereignty of divine grace.” Well, that’s fine; I’m going to tell you about it. You see, that’s why God gives to the church pastors and teachers: so that we might edify the saints, so that you can do the works of the ministry. So that we might tackle issues that are not immediately apparent to the rank and file who say, “I’m not so sure that the sovereignty of divine grace is a matter that is number one or even in the top five of my considerations, and before we finished this study in Jonah chapter 4,” we said, “I didn’t realize how pressingly important that was!”

You see, the real issue of God’s dealing with humanity is this matter of his grace. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” he says to Moses, “and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”[1] Paul, wrestling with this in Romans chapter 9, on this whole matter of election, quotes from the Old Testament in 9:[15]. And it is this matter which is the very basis for the perplexity to which Jonah the prophet gives voice. He is angry, he is arguing, and he is praying simultaneously. It’s not an easy feat, incidentally, to be angry and prayerful at the same time.

“O Lord,” he says, “this is exactly what I said.” Listen to him as he tries to justify his previous sin. You ever been tempted to do that? Sin that was so clearly wrong, a disobedience that was so obvious. God forgives you, picks you up, puts you back on track. Then you go to him in prayer, and you try to come back and say again to him, “By the way, you know, thanks for forgiving me. But the real issue was this.” It’s like children; we do it with our parents all the time: “Oh, please forgive me,” we get forgiven, and then we come back in the kitchen and we say, “You know, I know you forgive me, but the reason that I was doing what I was doing, there was a perfectly good reason for me being there,” or doing this, or doing that.

Now, what we have here is not Jonah, the Bible Answer Man, but what we’ve got here is Jonah, the Bible Question Man. And while it is good for us to seek answers in the Bible—and the Bible is full of answers—it’s also full of questions. And I’m not sure that those of us who like to be quick on our feet with an answer aren’t guilty many times of providing answers to questions that people aren’t even asking and refusing to hear the questions that people are justifiably bringing to us. And it is of striking importance that this is not some crazy little man who has no knowledge of God who is asking these kind of questions. This is somebody that God has chosen from all of eternity, called into his service, given him his Word, and made him a preacher. And he’s not alone. Throughout the story of the prophets, you find them asking questions.

Let me illustrate it from the book of Jeremiah. We could go all through the Prophets, but let me just give you three illustrations from Jeremiah. If you want to turn to them, the first is in Jeremiah chapter 12. If you have an NIV, if you turn to Jeremiah 12, you will notice that it is headed “Jeremiah’s Complaint.” And this is how he begins: “You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before you.”[2] In other words, he establishes the nature of who God is and his understanding of theology. And having said that, then he says, “Well, I’d like just to have a word with you, if I may, about your justice”: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?”[3]

Now, have you ever found yourself asking that question? “Why is it that the fellow three offices down from me, who’s a real scurrilous character, seems to do so well, his sales figures are so good, and he always gets promoted? And here am I, seeking to be faithful, seeking to be true to your Word, and what do I get? Not a lot, compared to him. ‘Why do … the faithless live at ease? You have planted them … they[’ve] taken root; they grow and bear fruit.’[4] Yet look at me.”

Now, if we’re honest, it’s a fair question. And if we don’t recognize it’s a fair question, we’re dishonest. And if you’ve never asked the question, the chances are you’re brain-dead. The psalmist asks it. The prophet asks it. “Why, since you are a just God, do people who do so many bad things come off so well, and those who are your chosen, who seek to obey you, come off, apparently, so badly?”

Chapter 15, you’ve got another one. You tell me you haven’t asked this question, either of a circumstance facing yourself or a loved one. Verse 17, he says, “I never sat in the company of revelers, [I] never made merry with them.” In other words, “I haven’t been going down the pub and getting smashed.” Instead, “I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation.” Now, here’s the question: “Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails?”[5] In other words, “Are you going to hang me out to dry, God? Are you going to say, ‘Come over here, and there’s water,’ and I get over there, desperate for a drink of water, and I discover that there is no water at all, it’s a mirage in the desert?” This is the question of the prophet of God.

Now, I said I’d give you three illustrations, but two’s enough; I can tell by the pained expression on your face that we need to keep moving. Let me say this in passing: let us beware of always wanting to be the people with the answers. Right? I don’t mean let us embrace vagueness—let us walk around saying, “We don’t know, and nobody knows.” There are certain things that the Bible has given us absolute clarity on, concerning which we can be clear and straightforward. But the fact of the matter is, there are dilemmas in life which will remain unresolved until we see God face-to-face and we are known by him and we know even as he knows.[6] And it is not a service to the Christian cause for us to seek to dance around those issues and provide trite answers to deep-seated questions. I would warrant that more of our friends and neighbors who are wrestling with such issues will be more closer drawn to a consideration of Christ by an honest acknowledgment on our part of the dimension of mystery that is contained in so much that God does, rather than an attempt on our part always to have some slick and immediate answer to any question that they’re able to raise. You’re sensible people; you need to consider that kind of thing.

Questions are understandable—although all of our questions are not always commendable. And there is, I think, a key to what’s going on here when you consider that in the arguing of Jonah, there is a little too much Jonah. You notice how many times the personal pronoun pops out: “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick …. I knew …. Take away my life … it[’s] better for me to die than to live.” When you and I find ourselves arguing with God, if we’re honest, we’ll find there’s a little bit too much Begg in our questions—at least in my case. In yours, of course, apply your own name. I’m prepared to carry the weight for my own, but I’m not prepared to carry the weight for yours.

Let us beware of always wanting to be the people with the answers.

What is he doing? Well, he’s presenting the issue as a matter of Jonah’s word against the Lord’s word, and he rather thinks that his own is better. You ever been there? “Now, I know, Lord Jesus, that the Bible says this. My feeling is this. I’d like to go with my feeling, if that’s okay with you. I know that it says this clearly; but actually, I have another approach to it.”

And in Jonah’s case, the root issue is a double standard. He has a standard for himself and the people of God—namely, Israel. And then he has another standard by which the foreigners and the enemies of God’s people are to be judged. It was okay for God to forgive Jonah’s disobedience, but not, in Jonah’s mind, just as right for God to show his mercy to the Ninevites.

“I kinda like it, God, that you are kind and compassionate towards me—got me out of that dreadful problem there where I was about to drown. But I don’t like this idea of your kindness and your compassion being shown to… them. After all, this Assyrian power, God, is an enemy of your people. These are bad people, God. I mean, when I went in there to pronounce judgment, I was pumped about it, because I said, ‘Let it fall!’ you know. ‘Let it come down! Let it rain down on them fast and hard!’ But God, I don’t expect you to be compassionate to them. They’re not monotheistic like us. They don’t pay attention to the law of Moses like us. They don’t bring their children up in the nurture and admonition of God,[7] obeying the Shema in Deuteronomy 6.[8] They don’t observe the various codes and shibboleths and dimensions of an existence of those who are the true people of God. God, why would you be merciful to them?”

You see, it’s the question I posed earlier. It’s the issue of the sovereignty of God’s grace.

Now, whenever you find yourself thinking that way, as did Jonah, then it will be clear that we have forgotten just how undeserving we are to be the recipients of God’s grace. The grace of God had flowed to the people of Israel not along routes that are approved or understood by human reasoning. I mean, it’s been summarized by people long since in the little phrase, “How odd of God to choose the Jew.” It’s not an anti-Semitic statement. It’s simply an expression of the fact: “How in the world, God, did you choose this group of people? On what basis?” What is the answer?

Well, the answer is in Deuteronomy 7:8. And when you get to it, you’re going to say, “I don’t know that’s a great answer.” “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you … that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you.”[9] It’s the sovereignty of his grace.

Says one Scottish theologian, “Ultimately divine grace towards sinners cannot be understood. It does not have a reason. It simply reflects the way God is.” Let me say that to you again. It’s one of those quotes that I wish was mine. And I deliberately write the man’s name underneath it in my notes, lest in years to come either myself or somebody else will be tempted to take it to me. “Ultimately, divine grace towards sinners cannot be understood.” It’s amazing grace, isn’t it? “It doesn’t have a reason; it simply reflects the way God is.”

Now, despite the fact that Jonah had so recently been the recipient of God’s compassion, that he’d been on the receiving end of God’s mercy, still here we find him finding fault with God for displaying the very same mercy to those whom he felt to be beyond the circle of redemption. In other words, he had created categories in his own mind, and he had determined that God’s plan and purpose was centered only in this way, and that anybody else, whoever they were, was not deserving of God’s grace.

Deserving of grace? Is that not the ultimate oxymoron? Of course they weren’t deserving of grace! What was Jonah deserving of in his disobedient heart? Not a special limousine—sea limousine—to deposit him on dry ground.

And so he is angry with God—angry at God for acting in a way that Jonah did not understand or approve. Let me pause there for a moment. Angry with God for acting in a way that Jonah did not understand or approve.

Have you ever been there, Christian? Some of us may be here this morning, and that is exactly where we are. Suddenly the Spirit of God puts, as it were, a pin right into the core of our being. And although our friends and neighbors, our family and our loved ones, may not have an inkling of this, the reason that we are where we are in our spiritual pilgrimage—which is actually By-Path Meadow—is on account of the fact that somewhere along the line something happened to us or through us that we do not approve of, do not like, and we are angry with God for ever in his permissive will allowing it in the first place.

We thought that when we committed our lives to Christ, we were going to have the perfect marriage, and it crumbled on us, and we’re angry. We thought that we were going to be the absolute perfect parents, and we found it to be a royal struggle, and we’re angry. We thought that as a result of putting God first, in Matthew 6:33, “all these [other] things” would have to do with finance and with status and with significance and with resource. And we have found that we haven’t got much beyond the third floor in our office building, and the chances of us being able to have any kind of meaningful retirement have seemed to dim on us long time past. And we are angry with God, because God has chosen to act in us and through us in a way that either we do not understand or we do not approve. And so, because the Lord has failed to meet Jonah’s expectations, Jonah decides to sulk. “O Lord, take away my life,” verse 3, “it[’s] better for me to die than to live.”

So God says, “Okay, thanks for all of that, Jonah. Let me just come back to you, and let me come back to you with a straightforward question, because it is clear that you’re not thinking straight.” And “the Lord replied,” verse 4, “‘Have you any right to be angry?’”

Only those who have been grasped by grace will be able to rejoice in the superabundance of God’s grace lavished upon those who are so clearly undeserving.

In the summertime at CAMP-of-the-WOODS up in the Adirondacks, in the question and answer session with which the week concluded, in the course of the questions that were put to me, somebody asked a question about being angry with God. I can’t remember it exactly. I think it was along these lines: “Is it ever right for the Christian to be angry with God?” And my answer was that it is understandable that the Christian pilgrim would be angry with God, but I don’t believe it is actually ever right. So while it is understandable, it’s not right. You see, the Lord is not asking, “Are you angry?” He says, “I know you’re angry, but I want to ask you, have you any right to be angry?”

Now, this takes us to the core issue of the whole matter. Does Jonah, as a representative of a people chosen by God, for no merit on their part—a people whom God has favored even when they’ve gone astray—as a prophet, who in his disobedience has personally known the saving hand of God in his life, does this Jonah have any valid grounds for objecting if God, out of his mercy, shows his compassion to other people?

Now, the answer is clearly that neither Jonah nor we have any right to challenge God on the way he extends his mercy. No right to challenge God on the way he extends his mercy. Now, only those who have been grasped by grace will be able to rejoice in the superabundance of God’s grace lavished upon those who are so clearly undeserving.

So let me conclude with this thought: Have you been grasped by God’s grace? And I use that phrase purposefully, because it gives all of the initiative to God. You will notice that. The question is not, Have you ever invited Jesus into your heart? It’s a good question. It’s never a New Testament question; you’ll never find anywhere in the New Testament that anybody is invited to ask Jesus into their heart. It’s a question that is common in circles such as ours. There’s a far more biblical question, and it is, Have you ever been grasped by God’s grace? Have you ever moved from a position where, frankly, the Bible was a closed and a dead book to you, where suddenly the Bible became alive to you? Where the possibilities of attending worship were regarded as, frankly, a bad idea, and you endured it as best you could whenever you came? Some of you may be still there this morning. And what happened was that the Bible suddenly opened up to you. That the singing of God’s praise suddenly moved your heart and stirred you. That the issue of a dying Christ suddenly became the most pressing matter to you in relationship to the fact that you realized that you were dead in your trespasses and in your sins,[10] and you couldn’t really explain what was going on.

I heard a lady not so long ago give her testimony, and she talked about how she had gone and heard someone preaching. And she had been so moved and stirred in her heart. And she’d gone home to her room, as a university student, and she’d begun to read her Bible, and she’d prayed out to God, but she frankly didn’t know what to read and didn’t know what to pray. And some weeks later, attending the freshers events of the university at which she had begun, somebody laid out the gospel and the plan of salvation. And when they laid out the nature of what it means to know God and to trust him and to repent and to embrace him, she said, “Oh, that’s what’s happened to me! That’s what’s happened to me.”

Now, the reason I ask the question in this way is simply this: Pharisaism is alive and well, sadly, in churches like this—individuals who have not been grasped by grace, but who, in some short-circuited endeavor for a relationship with God, have simply exchanged one set of external circumstances for another set; have dumped the non-Christian list, and they’ve gone for the Christian list. And simultaneously, they find in their hearts not a sense of empathy and compassion for those who are disfigured and who are spoiled and who are broken and who know themselves to be wretched. Instead of compassion being there, there’s resentment there. And they find themselves saying, “You know, these people deserve what they get. The people like that—doing that, going there, thinking that, believing that.”

I put it to you, that is not the response of someone who has been grasped by grace. Because the individual who has been grasped by grace says, “That was me. In fact, absent your grace, Lord Jesus, that is me: going there, doing that, thinking this, embracing that.”

Look at all these people with a worldview that is so alien to our Christian worldview. Why do they believe that about a fetus? Because they’re pagan! Because they’re without God and without hope in the world! Is it wrong? Clearly! Should we stand, then, on a high horse and shout down to them? Are they beyond the circle of redemption? Those who for whatever reason have embraced a lifestyle that is so clearly contrary to that which is laid out in the Bible, shall we then go on a high hill and shout down to them? Shall we be Jonah in our day? “Lord, I’m angry! Look at the kind of people you’re letting in. It’s okay for you to let us in. But not them!”

Why did Jesus infuriate the Pharisees so much? Because he was the embodiment of this: “Jesus, we’ll be having a very important theological discussion at our home this evening. And a number of us—you’ll identify us by our robes and our phylacteries attached both to our foreheads and our wrists—we will be convening around seven o’clock. And we hope you can be there prompt, and make sure you wash your hands when you come in, as per the normal ceremonial customs.”

Jesus says, “Sorry, I can’t come. I’m going to Zacchaeus’s house.”

“Jesus, excuse me, do you know Zacchaeus? We know Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a con man, he’s a cheat, he’s been ripping people off for ages.”

“Yes,” Jesus says, “yeah, I’m going down to Zacchaeus’s house.”[11]

See, the Pharisee will never understand that. But the person who’s been grasped by grace says, “Right on!”

Let me finish in Luke 15. You’ve got it embodied, don’t you? The one son makes a hash of it, comes back up the road, his father embraces him, falls on his neck, kisses him, gives him new shoes, gives him new clothes, gives him new jewelry, gives him a shower, gives him a party, kills the fatted calf, gets the dancing going like crazy, and suddenly the elder brother shows up. And when the older brother heard the sound of music and dancing, he called one of the servants—Luke 15:26—to ask him what was going on: “‘Your brother has come,’ he replied.”

Now, that should have made him happy, don’t you think? He killed the fatted calf, he’s got him back safe and sound. “[But] the older brother [was] angry and refused to go in.”[12] Why? Because he didn’t understand grace. Because he was a slave in his father’s house. When his father comes out and entreats him, he says, “All these years I’ve slaved in your house, and you never gave me anything. But when this son of yours, who took all the cash and went off and made a complete mess of things, comes back up the road, then we have the finest party that the neighborhood has ever seen! Explain that to me!”[13]

“Ultimately, divine grace towards sinners cannot be understood. It does not have a reason; it simply reflects the way God is.”

See, this is the great challenge for us as a church family. It is to get out into the highways and byways of this great city and proclaim the news of God’s amazing grace. Only those who have experienced it may share it.

Where are you? Where are we?

Let us pray.

Let’s acknowledge—those of us who have been arguing with God, setting our word against his—that it’s not, as we will see this evening, right for us to be angry. For those of us who’ve got such a man-centered view of things that we’re always wrestling with the sovereignty of grace, let’s lay down the arms of our intellectual rebellion and acknowledge that the clay has no right to say to the potter, “What do you think you’re doing?”[14]

And those of us who find it easy to be tolerant of our own disobedience and then to deny to others the same grace and mercy, which we so desperately need in order to stay on track—our lives are an open book to God.

[1] Exodus 33:19 (NIV 1984).

[2] Jeremiah 12:1 (NIV 1984).

[3] Jeremiah 12:1 (NIV 1984).

[4] Jeremiah 12:2 (NIV 1984).

[5] Jeremiah 15:17–18 (NIV 1984).

[6] 1 Corinthians 13:12 (paraphrased).

[7] Ephesians 6:4 (paraphrased).

[8] See Deuteronomy 6:4–9.

[9] Deuteronomy 7:7–8 (NIV 1984).

[10] Ephesians 2:1 (paraphrased).

[11] See Luke 19:1–10.

[12] Luke 15:28 (NIV 1984).

[13] Luke 15:29–30 (paraphrased).

[14] See Isaiah 29:16, 45:9.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.