The reluctant missionary: Jonah
“Jonah and the whale. Isn’t that just a kid’s story?”
There’s so much content packed into the short story of Jonah. There’s a broken hero, danger at sea, the mysterious big fish, the impossibility of Jonah’s salvation, and the unexpected outcome of his mission. It’s definitely much more than a children’s story. It’s about the power of God’s word, his big heart for the lost people of the world, and our role in relating that love to people we may consider as enemies. Even Jesus had something to say about Jonah.
I don’t remember what pastor preached this outline on the book of Jonah, but I’ve always found it makes the story easy to remember.
Running away from God. Jonah rejects God’s call to go and preach to Nineveh. He tries to go as far away as possible, thinking foolishly that he can outrun the LORD. Instead, a storm threatens to sink his ship until the sailors realize who is responsible and throw him overboard.
Running to God. Imprisoned in the belly of a big fish, Jonah repents of his disobedience and returns to God. Then the fish regurgitates Jonah on the shore.
Running with God. In the most successful evangelism campaign ever, the entire city of Nineveh turns to the LORD in response to Jonah’s simple message of coming judgment.
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. 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. Jonah 3:3-6
Running ahead of God. Jonah wallows in anger over God’s forgiveness of Nineveh, revealing the reason for the prophet’s reluctance to preach there. God shows his compassion for people in contrast to Jonah’s selfishness.
The most amazing thing about Jonah’s story is how effectively he witnessed for God in spite of himself. As the storm threatened to sink his ship, the sailors glorified God when they heard Jonah name his LORD and saw how the storm stopped when Jonah was tossed overboard. Though he hated the Ninevites and only wanted to see them destroyed by God, his eight-word sermon converted the entire city. We should remember the power of just being God’s person anytime we begin to doubt our ability to witness.
Jesus didn’t consider Jonah to be a story-book character. He mentioned him as a real-life example foreshadowing his own miraculous resurrection.
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.” Matthew 12:38-41
I’ve always thought of Jonah’s burial in the fish as just being symbolic of Jesus’ burial in the grave for three days, but here’s another way to think about it. Jonah was a sign to the people of Nineveh (perhaps because of how he looked after three days in the fish’s stomach). Jesus’ three days in the grave is a sign to us – of how much God loves us. He loves us so much that he was willing to condemn his own son to die for us.
There is no change in God, absolutely considered, but there is often an apparent change, that which he threatens, while men remain in sin, is not executed upon them when they repent and turn to him. He is always the same God. from the beginning, he has been “the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” If he did not pardon sin, when men turn from it with sincere repentance, he would have changed his method of dealing with the penitent; but when he does forgive, it is according to his way from the beginning, for he has ever been a tender, and compassionate, and gracious God. Charles Spurgeon
Image by mamnamie on Flickr, CC by 2.0