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  • Writer's pictureMark

Context Matters

There’s a book I read about joke-telling where it pointed out that the joke, “There once was a man from Verdun,” is pointless without the setup joke of “There once was a man from Purdue, whose limerick stopped at line two.”

I had to reread it to get the message - if there was a second line to that first joke, the whole thing would have been, “There once was a man from Verdun, whose limerick stopped at line one.” But that message isn’t there unless you tell the jokes in order.

Context matters, in other words. There’s no point in telling the Verdun joke without leading up with the Purdue joke.

The same thing goes with the old and new testaments of the Bible.

When I was a kid in church I hated listening to most of the old testament. Sure, there are fun stories like David and Goliath, Samson yanking down a building, and Jonah getting swallowed by a giant fish. Those were the fun things, but the dry recitation of the “begats” made me yawn. And don’t get me started on all those kings who did evil in the sight of the Lord, who ended up smiting them.

Let’s take Jonah. God told him to go “prophesy” to the city of Nineveh. How hard could it be? Walk into the city, tell ‘em “God says your toast,” and you’re done. Simple.

But Jonah hires a ship to take him to a city about as far away as anyone in ancient Israel knew about. What’s that? Jonah disobeyed God? Doesn’t he know about all the smiting God has done? Why in the world would Jonah head AWAY from Nineveh when God said to go there?

Context matters.

At the time, the folks in Nineveh ruled an empire with a reputation about as bad as there can be. They treated conquered people worse than anything you can imagine. If you think of being burned alive you’re not even close.

At the same time, the people in Israel hated pretty much everyone who wasn’t Hebrew. Their attitude was like this: the fires of Hades were fueled by the souls of the pagans. And everyone who wasn’t Hebrew was a pagan. So God told Jonah, a Hebrew, to warn Nineveh of impending doom.

Linda and I took a trip to Chicago a number of years ago. We went to the Museum of Science and Industry. When we left, we knew I-90 was to the east, along Lake Michigan. But there was a tiny sign pointing west for I-90.

Perfect! All the traffic is heading east, we’re almost to rush hour, so let’s take a different path to I-90.

We ended up in some of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago. At least that’s the way it seemed. I could see the skyline of Chicago to our north, it’s been quite some time since that one-and-only sign for I-90, and the car we’re in is the only one not up on cinder blocks. Half the windows in the surrounding buildings were gone, the other half broken. And there’s this guy sitting on a stoop watching some idiot Wisconsinite drive past.

I’m just glad God didn’t tell me to get out and preach to that man. “Sorry, Lord. I’m heading to Wisconsin, and there ain’t to fish big enough within a hundred miles.”

That’s the kind of thing God was telling Jonah to do, and Jonah refused. “Nope. Ain’t gonna happen. Let those folks get roasted. They deserve it.”

So Jonah got on his ship and went the opposite way. God threw a storm at the ship, the pagan sailors got scared, and ended up throwing Jonah over the side. What’s funny about that is the pagan sailors ended up worshiping the God Jonah was trying to avoid.

A big fish swallowed Jonah, after three days the prophet told God he’s sorry, and the fish vomited Jonah onto dry land. God said again, “Go to Nineveh.”

Jonah did. He walked into the city and said, “Repent or you’re toast!”

It might seem odd that the people living there actually would repent. “You know what, Jonah, you’re right. We’re nasty people and we need to change our ways.” But again context matters.

As I mentioned, Nineveh was the capitol of one of the biggest empires of the time. If they wanted to take over a chunk of land, they went and took it over. But what the book of Jonah doesn’t say is that there were other empires moving in on Nineveh’s territory. Jonah’s message gave them forty days.

Enter Babylon. You’ve heard of them. They ended up taking over both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. At this point in history, though, they were just starting out. But they were putting a lot of pressure on Assyria, the empire controlled by Nineveh. Other parts of Assyria were getting restless, and neighbors which had been pacified were in the early stages of rebellion.

So when Jonah drove his Honda Civic into the south side of Chicago - I mean, walked into Nineveh wearing Hebrew clothes, the people there were pretty worried about this army marching their direction. “Y’all got forty days before the broiler kicks in.” They took him seriously. They repented. And it bought the city more time before the Babylonians finally did come and take over.

BTW, Jonah resented that reprieve. “See? That’s why I didn’t want to come here. I knew you’d let ‘em off the hook, and I wanted ‘em to roast!”

All of this context matters as God progressively reveals Himself to humanity. Jesus even mentions Jonah when the religious leaders of that time asked for a sign. All of the old testament is context for Jesus. Everything there points to Him.

When we study the new testament exclusively we’re missing half the story. Okay, maybe more than half. Like the joke of the man from Verdun, we totally miss out on why Jesus had to die the way He did. It’s treaties, legally binding contracts, and who ends up paying when someone cannot live up to the bargain.

It’s choices, the ramification of those choices, the people who spit in the face of someone who loves them.

Why did Jesus come to the Earth? Why didn’t the religious hierarchy recognize the Messiah when He arrived, and what did that rejection really mean?

There once was a man named Jesus

Who could have done as He pleases

To set us all free, he was nailed to a tree

So for eternity he sees-us.

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