Jesus and Jonah

240px-rembrandt_christ_in_the_storm_on_the_lake_of_galileeMany sermons based on the story of Jesus stilling the storm (Mark 4:35-41) end up with application to the hearers along the lines of of “Whatever your personal situation, whatever difficulties or challenges you face, Jesus can be with you in your boat and can still the storms in your life”. This is the point which is made in the notes for this passage in the NIV Life Application Bible:

“Think about the storms in your life – the situations that cause you great anxiety. Whatever your difficulty you have two options. You can worry and assume that Jesus no longer cares, or you can resist fear, putting your trust in him. When you feel like panicking, confess your need for God and then trust him to care for you.”

While the spiritual truth about the care and compassion of the Saviour for us in our trouble is undoubtedly true, is that the real point of this incident and the reason why the Holy Spirit included it in the Scriptures? Such application fails to take into account the context of the passage in Mark’s Gospel, as well as the overall purpose of the book.

These past few days, while on retreat in Bushmills with the ministry students who are commencing their new academic year at Union College, Nigel McCullough opened up an alternative and more insightful understanding of this story. Having examined the account of Jonah’s experience in the Old Testament book, he drew parallels between Jonah and Jesus and their experiences of a storm at sea. Both were sleeping when the storm hit their boat; both were awakened by their fellow mariners; and in both cases the occupants of the boat were more terrified after the storm than they were in the storm. But the point he made, and which is hinted at in the ESV Study Bible notes on Mark 4, is that Jesus is the new and better Jonah. This follows the connection which is made explicit by Jesus himself in Matthew 12:41: “Now one greater than Jonah is here”.

Unlike the disobedient prophet, Jesus readily commits himself to do his Father’s will. He goes willingly to Jerusalem, in the direction his Father had determined, where the storm of God’s wrath is “hurled” on him, just as the storm was “hurled” on Jonah’s ship and threatened to destroy it. Like Jonah, he endures three days and three nights in the depths, hidden from human eyes. But, also like Jonah, he emerges again with the clear testimony that echoes Jonah’s conviction, “Salvation is of the Lord”. And because of Christ’s obedience, his death and resurrection, we can have real peace and know that the storm of God’s righteous judgment will never be hurled against us. Our salvation is secured by the active obedience of Christ, the greater and better Jonah.

Not only did Nigel make some helpful and pertinent points arising from the story of Jonah for those of us in Christian ministry, but he also modelled for us how the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are to handled. He showed us that the story of Jonah, like many other Old Testament stories, “whisper Christ’s name”. May our ears be sensitive enough to hear those whispers so that we are drawn to worship and praise our Saviour with new love and devotion.

New Post

images-2I haven’t blogged for some months, but now that I have taken up a new position at Union Theological College in Belfast I thought I might give it another go. On September 4 I was installed as Principal and Professor of Ministry at Union, and last Sunday evening, I was officially “farewelled” from First Presbyterian Church, Portadown. It has been a long period of transition. I had first informed the Session in Portadown of my nomination for this new post last April.

I will miss the regular pastoral work and preaching among the good folks of Portadown, and I am feeling the pain of leaving that charge. Pastoral work brings one close to people especially in those challenging times of illness and bereavement when deep and close connections and friendships are forged. But I am confident that the Lord will guide the congregation to a new minister who will pastor them and lead them forward. I must now turn to new responsibilities.

This week, new and returning students have been arriving at Union to prepare for the new academic year. We have 15 new ministry students, bringing the total complement of students preparing for ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to 39 for this year. I am reliably informed that another good batch of applications has been received this September which are about to be processed by the presbyteries. So we anticipate another good intake of ministry students this time next year. Given the low numbers applying for ordained ministry in other denominations, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has reason to be thankful. It seems that we are moving to a situation where, in the next few years, all vacant pulpits will be filled and we will have a surplus of ministerial talent. Is this a time for PCI to re-assess and re-invigorate its mission at home and overseas? Is it time to formulate a new and innovative church-planting strategy across Ireland? The state of the Presbyterian witness in Belfast, on our own doorstep, needs some urgent re-thinking if the steep downward decline is going to be slowed or halted.

images-1In addition to our ministry students, we expect to have around 140 undergraduate students from Queen’s University, Belfast, taking their theology courses at Union, as well as another 50 students pursuing postgraduate degrees. My conversations with the new arrivals this week have been very stimulating, and we look forward to engaging with this generation of able and gifted young people from a wide range of backgrounds. The mix of students has created a stimulating intellectual environment at Union College and I look forward to all the conversations and discussions that will be generated both inside and outside of the classroom during this new academic year.

My new post requires me to reflect, not only on the task of preparing people who will lead Christ’s church, but specifically on the practice of Christian ministry. Christian ministry has always been a challenging calling, but in the current climate in Ireland, and within our denomination, it is particularly so. So, with my intellectual and emotional loins girded, I press forward into the new academic year. The first stop on this journey is my favourite north Antrim town of Bushmills where the ministry students will convene later this week for their pre-term retreat.