What Is the Church For? (Jonah 4:11)

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Today, I’d like to conclude our little study of the book of Jonah by asking a question: What is the church for?
As I read the book of Jonah, I see three answers to this question, two of which are wrong. The church is for the condemnation of outsiders, the comfort of insiders, or a deep and abiding concern for the lost. Let’s quickly take a look at each answer.
The first wrong answer is that the church is for the condemnation of outsiders. Having read Jonah, you might actually think this is the right answer. After all, according to Jonah 1:2, when God first called Jonah, he commissioned him to “preach against [Nineveh], because its wickedness has come up before me.” And according to Jonah 3:4, when Jonah finally arrived in Nineveh, the content of his message was wholly negative: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Jonah’s God-given mission seems to have been a message of judgment and condemnation.
Many Christians seem to think that condemnation is the church’s mission to the world. They believe the church should loudly denounce the world’s sins. But what they fail to take into account is Jonah’s initial response to God’s call. He ran from God not because he feared God would condemn the Ninevites but because he feared God would give them grace. According to Jonah 4:2, Jonah said to God, “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.” The message of judgment was simply a prelude to the good news, the divine No! that precedes the even louder divine Yes!
The second wrong answer is that the church is for the comfort of insiders. There is only one time in the book when Jonah is described as being “very happy.” It wasn’t when the great fish burped Jonah onto the shores of Israel. And it wasn’t when the Ninevites repented. According to Jonah 4:6, it was only when God provided a plant as a cover over Jonah, protecting him from the scorching sun. Jonah was “very happy” only when his personal comfort was at stake. He was okay with God raining down judgment on the heads of the Ninevites. He only cared about the sun shining down on his own head. Unfortunately, many churches are like that. They are only very happy when they derive some benefit from the ministries of the church. They could care less about the fate of unbelievers outside the church.
The right answer is that a deep and abiding concern for the lost is what the church is for. God himself provides the model for this answer. According to Jonah 4:11, God says to Jonah, “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left…. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” God cares about the fate of the spiritually ignorant, of people who don’t yet know God. Any church worth its salt will feel like God feels and be concerned about for the lost.

Spiritual Priorities (Jonah 4:5-11)

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In Jonah 4:5-11, God uses an unpredictable plant to teach Jonah an important lesson about spiritual priorities.
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?”
Yesterday, I wrote that Jonah’s anger was irrational, hypocritical, and unrighteous. Today, I need to add that it was based on spiritual priorities that were out of whack. Indeed, Jonah’s priorities were a perfect inversion of the Great Commandment, which teaches us to love God, neighbor, and self in that order (Matthew 22:37-40). Jonah loved himself more than the Ninevites and—his actions speaking louder than words—even more than God.
How do I know this? First, notice that throughout this passage, what determines Jonah’s mood is his personal comfort. When God caused the unpredictable plant to grow, Jonah was “very happy.” But when God caused the plant to shrivel, Jonah became suicidally angry. At no point does the book say that Jonah was personally angry at the Ninevites’ sins or happy because of their repentance. We only see his happiness and anger on display when it comes to his personal comfort.
Second, notice what Jonah does not do. After having preached the message God gave him, Jonah does not help the Ninevites seek God’s grace through repentance. He does not disciple them on how to live a godly life. Instead, he marches outside the city in order to see “what would happen” to it. He is indifferent to the fate of 120,000 people. If you had the ability to change the lives of that many people at the cost of some discomfort to yourself, would you do it? Of course you would! But not Jonah.
And third, notice how unlike God’s reaction Jonah’s reaction is. According to Jonah 3:10, God “had compassion” on the penitent Ninevites. But God’s prophet didn’t. Jonah didn’t want to share grace; he wanted it all for himself.
If we claim to love God, our priorities must show it. And since God is “concerned” about the lost, we should be too.

Running from Grace (Jonah 4:1-4)

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Why did Jonah run from God? We do not learn the answer to this question until near the end of the story. And when we do, it’s not the answer we expect.
If I were Jonah, I would offer several reasons for running from God. For one thing, the message God commissioned Jonah to deliver was a message of judgment. Who wants to be the bearer of bad news? For another thing, the recipients of that bad news were not exactly “good people.” According to the Ninevites own testimony, they were guilty of “evil ways” and of “violence” (Jonah 3:8). And a few decades after Jonah preached to them, Assyria (of which Nineveh was a great city) overran the northern kingdom of Israel (of which Jonah was a citizen) and sent its people into permanent exile (2 Kings 17). So, if I were Jonah, I’d run for the simple reason that I was afraid of Nineveh. But that’s not the reason Jonah offered God for running.
Instead, if I read Jonah 4:1-4 correctly, Jonah is running from grace.
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?”
Think with me, for a moment, about the absurdity of Jonah’s emotional response. First, he is irrationally angry. According to his own testimony, he knows that his message of judgment is really an offer of divine pardon. And yet, he is ticked off that the Ninevites take God up on the offer. That makes about as much sense as Billy Graham holding an evangelistic crusade in Las Vegas and becoming angry that people are leaving the poker tables to follow Jesus. But anger is often irrational.
Second, Jonah is hypocritically angry. He is happy that God gave him a second chance, but he is unwilling to extend second chances to Nineveh. But anger is often hypocritical. We condemn in others the sins we commit ourselves.
And third, Jonah is unrighteously angry. He freely confesses that God is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” But he doesn’t conform his character to God’s character or mirror God’s love to the Ninevites. Instead, he goes suicidal on God. He would rather die than love. That’s un-God-like. That’s unrighteous. And unfortunately, that’s Jonah.
At some point, each of us must face our inner Jonah, the person who wants grace but doesn’t want to give grace. And when we face him, we must kill him off, for the only way to live is to love as God loves.

The Nature of Repentance (Jonah 3:6-10)

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According to Mark 1:15, the essence of Jesus’ message was this: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” What does it mean to repent? In Jonah 3:6-10, we see an Old Testament description of a New Testament imperative.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.
This passage describes repentance first and foremost as an act of humility. Notice the actions of the king in particular. “He rose from his throne.” In ancient days, the king sat while others stood in his presence. But when the King of Kings spoke, the king of Nineveh stood in his presence, recognizing God’s superior authority. He “took off his robe” and “covered himself with sackcloth.” Usually, our outward appearance reveals our inward disposition. Royal robes are external symbols of power, but sackcloth is the external symbol of mourning. The king of Nineveh knew he had done wrong, and he showed it to all. Finally, he “sat down in the dust.” In Genesis 3:19, when God announced judgment for Adam’s sin, he said, “for dust you are and to dust you will return.” When the king sat in the dust, it was an act of humility—he should have been sitting on a throne—as well as an act of contrition. He knew he deserved judgment.
Second, repentance is an act of turning away from sin. The king of Nineveh declared a fast, which applied to every living creature in the city, whether human or animal. Fasting is an act of deprivation. When we fast, we stop doing something—usually eating or drinking—in order to focus our minds on God. But God demands holiness of life. So in addition to fasting, the king of Nineveh called on his subjects to “give up their evil ways and their violence.” Their sins were both personal and social in nature, and all sin results in divine judgment. True repentance is an ongoing fast of sin.
Finally, repentance is an act of hope. As a pagan, the king of Nineveh had no biblical revelation telling him that God would act graciously toward him and his city. But he hoped nonetheless: “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (As Christians, we have the sure promise of Scripture that God has given us grace through Christ.) In the end, God did in fact have “compassion” on Nineveh.”
He will do the same for you and me today if we humbly turn from turn from sin and turn to Christ in hope.

The Bad News of the Gospel (Jonah 3:1-5)

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As Christians, we believe we have “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Jesus Christ came into the world to “save sinners,” including us (1 Timothy 1:15). But saved from what? If the salvation of sinners is the good news of the gospel, then the judgment of sinners is the bad news of the gospel.
The Prophet Jonah was a bad news evangelist. Consider what we read in Jonah 3:1-5:
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city-a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
Notice several things about these verses:
First, God is the God of Second Chances. When God first commissioned Jonah to “preach against” Nineveh (Jonah 1:2), Jonah disobeyed him, running literally as far away from Nineveh as possible. But Jonah’s initial disobedience was not the end of the story. God brought him back to the starting line and gave him the commission all over again. If God gave his disobedient prophet a second chance, might he give Nineveh a second chance too?
Second, evangelism is urgent. Nineveh, we read, required a three-day visit. Jonah didn’t waste any time. “On the first day,” he began to proclaim his message. If the good news is a matter of life and death, we too should feel more urgency about sharing it with others.
Third, the evangelistic message includes bad news. In a real sense, Jonah was not an evangelist at all. His entire message was one of judgment: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” That’s all God told him to say. And yet, since God is the God of Second Chances, the bad news of the gospel is always a prelude to grace. As Paul states the matter in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The Ninevites certainly interpreted Jonah’s message as a call to repentance. “They believed God” and “declared a fast,” which is a symbol of repentance. They did not believe Jonah. They did not believe Jonah’s message. They believed God. That’s important. It indicates that they had taken Jonah’s message to heart as God’s personal word to them. And recognizing that God stood opposed to their sin, they turned to him for gracious forgiveness.
We don’t hear a lot of talk about God’s judgment of sin today. But unless we understand the bad news of the gospel, we can’t even begin to understand why the good news of the gospel is supposed to produce “great joy.”

Salvation Comes from the Lord (Jonah 2:8-10)

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In the modern world, many people believe that each religion is as good as any other. “All paths lead to heaven” is one way of stating the matter. But this belief—usually referred to as religious pluralism—is neither logical nor biblical, and therefore it is not spiritually helpful.
Religious pluralism is not logical for the simple reason that however similar they may be, the various religions make contradictory truth claims. Consider the case of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Traditional Judaism condemns Jesus as a heretic. Islam praises him as a merely human prophet. Christianity worships him as the Incarnate Son of God. Logically speaking, these religions’ individual beliefs about Jesus Christ may all be false, but they cannot each be true, for they cancel each other out.
From a biblical point of view, religious pluralism does not fare much better. Consider the end of Jonah’s prayer in Jonah 2:8-10:
“Those who cling to worthless idols
forfeit the grace that could be theirs.
But I, with a song of thanksgiving,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
Salvation comes from the LORD.”
And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Notice the explicit criticism of non-biblical religions in verse 8: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” That is the consistent position of the Bible. There is one true God who made the heavens and the earth, who reveals his will to men and women, who judges them for their sins, but nonetheless saves them from themselves. Verse 9 states the biblical position more positively: “Salvation comes from the LORD.” Now this biblical position is either true or false. If true, it means that non-biblical religions are unable to save you. If false, it means that the biblical religion is unable to save you. You can take or leave what the Bible says, but you cannot deny that it teaches what it teaches. And it does not teach religious pluralism.
If religious pluralism is both illogical and unbiblical, then it is also spiritually unhelpful (assuming, of course, that the biblical teaching about salvation is true). If all paths do not lead to heaven, then it is spiritually harmful to tell people that they do. It would be like telling people to take the sea route to Fresno or the land route to Hawaii. It just can’t be done, and all you will do if you try is experience the frustration of an impossible project.
Some people think that the notion of one religion teaching the correct path of salvation is too narrow and bigoted. Jonah thought otherwise. He rightly concluded that if God saves a sinner such as himself, the proper responses are thanksgiving and obedience. A drowning man has only two options: rescue or death. It would be churlish to quibble with the lifeguard about how he saved you, rather than gratefully to acknowledge the simple fact that he saved you.

Try Repentance (Jonah 2:3-7)

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When life is hard, do you become bitter or better? How you answer that question will determine whether God can use you for his purposes.
In my experience, life is hard for three basic reasons: (1) Rotten luck. Sometimes, bad things happen for what seems like no particular reason. (2) Evil people. Someone else has done something wrong, and we are experiencing the negative consequences of their actions. And (3) personal sins. We have done something wrong, and we are experiencing the negative consequences of our own actions.
If Job is an example of reason (1) and Christ an example of reason (2), then surely Jonah is an example of reason (3). Though we sympathize with Jonah’s parlous situation, we also realize that it’s his own fault. If he didn’t want to spend time being digested in a fish’s belly, he shouldn’t have boarded the fast boat to Tarshish. He should have caught the caravan to Nineveh.
Jonah himself seems to have realized that his submarine ride was an act of divine discipline. Just look at his prayer in Jonah 2:3-7. Speaking to God, Jonah confesses:
You hurled me into the deep,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
I said, “I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.”
The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you brought my life up from the pit,
O LORD my God.
When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, LORD,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.
Jonah is pretty chipper for a guy stuck in a fish’s belly at the bottom of the sea. It’s not because he’s a masochist—the suffering-for-Jesus type who equates hardship and obedience. (Sometimes, obedience to God’s will is hard, but not always. Remember: Jesus also said that his yoke is easy and his burden light.) Nor is Jonah happy because he’s a Panglossian optimist who despite his circumstances nonetheless thinks that this is the best of all possible worlds. Rather, Jonah is a theological realist. He realizes that “the LORD disciplines those he loves” (Proverbs 3:12). Discipline is a temporary judgment, and its purpose is reform, not retribution. God wants Jonah to see the error of his ways and get back on the right path.
Are you going through a rough patch in life at the moment? If so, try to figure out why. If it’s because of rotten luck, learn patience. If it’s because of evil people, fight for justice. And if it’s because of personal sin, try repentance. God gives second chances to those he loves.
Sometimes, you see, what seems like the end of your world is really the beginning of a new adventure with God.

Look Up and Speak Up (Jonah 2:1-2)

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Several years ago, I found myself in the middle of a deep depression. I have never felt sadder or lonelier in my life. But I have also never felt closer to God. The prophet Jonah probably felt the same way during his three days in a fish’s belly, and that’s what I’d like to talk to you about today.
Let’s quickly recap Jonah’s story. God called him to speak a hard word to Nineveh. Instead, he booked the fast boat to Tarshish. Mid-cruise, a storm arose, and to calm it, the sailors threw Jonah into the sea. But instead of drowning, Jonah got himself swallowed by a providentially large fish.
That brings us to Jonah 2:1-2:
From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. He said:
“In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me.
From the depths of the grave I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.”
Old Testament scholars debate whether Jonah is an historical narrative or a parable. Much of the debate centers on whether we’re supposed to interpret Jonah’s submarine ride literally. Personally, I don’t think resolving that debate is very important. If God could raise Jesus from the dead after three days, I’m sure he could keep Jonah alive for the same time in a fish’s belly. So maybe this isn’t just another fish story. But even if it is a parable, the lesson about prayer is still the same. And it is this: When you’re in trouble, pray.
Our passage gives three clues about the parlous nature of Jonah’s situation.
First, he is “inside the fish.” In the order of creation, God did not make humans to be fish food. If anything, it should be the other way around. We should not be inside a fish; the fish should be inside of us. But as an unnatural act, sin results in the reversal of the order of creation. What God created to bless us becomes instead a means of judgment.
Second, Jonah mentions “my distress.” The objective peril of his situation causes him subjective discomfort. We’d feel the same way if we were in Jonah’s situation. And in a sense, we were. Apart from Christ, we too were under the sentence of death that sin imposes (Romans 6:23).
Third, Jonah describes his spiritual location as “the depths of the grave.” When I was depressed, I couldn’t think past the present moment. There seemed to be no future for me. Hopelessness is a dying man’s way of thinking.
And yet, despite all this, Jonah is quite sure that God has not abandoned him. Speaking of God, he says, “he answered me,” and “you listened to my cry.” Notice the past tense voice of those verbs. Jonah is so confident of God’s grace to him that he speaks of an as-yet-unanswered prayer as an already accomplished fact. That’s the kind of faith we all ought to have.
When you hit rock bottom in life, look up and speak up. God heard the prayer of Jonah’s distress, he heard the prayer of my depression, and he’ll hear the prayer of your trouble too.

Stormy Weather (Jonah 1:4-17)

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As I write these words, dark clouds are gathering on the horizon. A storm is brewing. Usually storms are just the result of natural causes. But sometimes God stirs the clouds with his fingers. The trick is to learn which is when, and to respond appropriately.
When last we checked in with Jonah, he was boarding a boat for Tarshish, although he should have been riding in a caravan to Nineveh. At first, sailing was smooth—so smooth, in fact, that Jonah went below deck for a nap. But according to Jonah 1:4-17, the smooth sailing didn’t last long. According to verse 4, “the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.” And according to verse 5, the sailors responded with a mixture of emotion, pragmatism, and religion: “All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.”
Unfortunately, none of the sailors’ initial responses to the storm calmed it. So they dug a little more deeply into their bag of religious tricks and cast lots to see which man’s god was angry at him. Jonah drew the short stick. According to verse 8, the sailors interrogated Jonah: “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?” According to verse 9, Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
Thinking quickly, the sailors asked Jonah in verse 11: “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” This is fairly logical. After all, from the sailors’ perspective, if the source of the storm was Jonah’s angry god, then doing something to Jonah would make that god happy and the storm less fierce. According to verse 12, therefore, Jonah instructed the sailors with these words: “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” So they did, and it did.
Most people have a come-to-Jesus moment in the midst of a trial. They turn to God when things are bad. But the sailors had their moment after the storm had passed. Verse 16 says, “At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.” That demonstrates the sincerity of their devotion. Everyone cries out to God in a storm at sea. Only believers pray when the waters are still.
And what about Jonah? He caught a submarine ride back to Joppa. According to verse 17, “the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.” As I said earlier, usually a storm’s just a storm. But sometimes, when we’re out of God’s will, God uses life’s difficult moments to grab our attention. When he does, make sure to do what you must to get back on the road to the Nineveh where God has called you.

A Lesson in Spiritual Geography (Jonah 1:3)

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If life is a journey toward a destination, then the most important question you can ask yourself is whether you’re headed in the right direction.
Yesterday, I talked about God asking the prophet Jonah to say a hard word to the Ninevites (Jonah 1:1-2). You might think that Jonah would quickstep it from his home in Gath Hepher all the way to Nineveh, but you’d be wrong. In fact, he went the opposite direction.
Here’s how Jonah 1:3 tells the story:
But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.
Old Testament scholars locate ancient Gath Hepher in the modern village of el-Meshed, about two miles from Nazareth, in northern Israel. And they locate ancient Nineveh in archaeological ruins near Mosul, Iraq. But they’re not sure where ancient Tarshish is. Some identify it with the ancient city of Tartessus, which would have been located on the Iberian Peninsula in Andalusia, Spain. Others with Tarsus, in the western half of Turkey.
Whatever the physical geography of Tarshish may be, its spiritual geography is well known. Nineveh is east, Tarshish west. Nineveh can only be reached by land, Tarshish only by sea. Nineveh is where God wants you to go; Tarshish is not. Nineveh is obedience, Tarshish sin. Tarshish is a flight away from God.
Interestingly, we don’t learn why Jonah fled from God at this point in the story. In fact, we have to wait until the final chapter of the book to find out why Jonah bought a ticket to Tarshish. But at this point in the story, why he fled is not important, only that he fled.
The same thing could be said of our Jonah-like behavior. There are a thousand reasons to sin: “It’s only a ‘white lie.’” “He started it.” “She had it coming.” “The IRS won’t miss a few dollars.” “What happens in Vegas….” Our minds are an excuse-making factory that produces rationalizations on demand. (As some wag pointed out, to “rationalize” means to offer “rational lies.”) Whatever the reason, sin puts us on the road to the wrong destination, to the place of God’s judgment rather than his blessing. And after a long arduous journey, who wants to arrive at the wrong place?
There may be a thousand reasons to sin, but there’s one big reason to obey God: It’s in your best interest. As we’ll see tomorrow, God made Jonah’s flight to Tarshish so difficult that Jonah finally obeyed and set out for Nineveh. He doesn’t always do that, but sometimes he does. And when he does, you’d better get back on the right road.
Spiritually speaking, we’re all in Gath Hepher. The word of God has come to us too. We can go to Nineveh and obey or Tarshish and sin. Today, are you headed in the right direction?

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