Missiological Lessons from Jonah

Now the Word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying “Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
Jonah 1:1-3

The book of Jonah is a powerful little book that has much to teach the modern church of Jesus Christ. There are several great themes and purposes encapsulated within it. The central figure is a prophet who came from a town about an hour’s walk from Nazareth. It is probable that he was a disciple of Elisha and succeeded him as prophet. He lived during the reign of Jeroboam II and was a statesman in the northern kingdom of Israel. He is mentioned also in 2 Kings 14:25.

To fully grasp the significance of the three verses above at which we want to look closely, it is critical to understand some of the larger themes of the book as a whole that are at play. Two primary purposes are threaded throughout the book: (1) To underscore God’s true attitude toward His chosen people and all outsiders (2) To reveal the clear-cut responsibilities of those who claim to represent Him.

In the time of Jonah, Israel possessed an attitude toward God that was growing more and more perverse. She was increasingly viewing Him as being only for her. There was a feeling that God had created Israel for Himself and that as a result He held only hatred and contempt for any outsiders of Israel. Jonah is meant to be a representation of the common attitude of pride surrounding being God’s chosen people and thus, God being hostile toward all others. Through the book we find God helping correct such a low and false view of Him. His correct outlook and desire for the surrounding peoples (and thus all peoples) is seen through His divine pity, His divine patience and His divine power clearly revealed as we watch Him dealing specifically with Jonah. God is seen to be wholeheartedly committed to working behind the scenes in the lives of His people. He takes care of us even as we see He took great care of Jonah. To do so He will manipulate nature, intervene in human affairs and do great things which the mind cannot comprehend (sustaining a person in the belly of a fish) in order to teach one man about His huge heart. In many ways the book of Jonah is a “test” book. It is a challenge to all believers. It tests our own hearts. How we view this book is how we view God, His Word, and His purposes in the earth.

Let’s now look closely at the three verses that commence this little book. Many lessons can be applied to the global church today as we observe Jonah in these few verses. The context of the Scripture is clear. Jonah is a prophet and receives a clear call from God to go to Ninevah and prophesy against it of what is to come if they do not turn from their wicked ways. The perversion of Ninevah had arisen before God and the bowls of filth were full and required justice. The call of God causes Jonah to literally run the other way and seek to flee the situation entirely and in doing so also seek to get away from God Himself. What is going on here? What is happening under the surface that God wants His people today to see and to grasp at a heart level?

First, let’s consider what God was calling Jonah to do. First, Jonah was called to cry out against Ninevah was to declare to it the trouble and disaster that was coming. God’s compassion towards Ninevah was clearly revealed and displayed in this command to cry out against it. God was seeking to bring a solution to bear which would protect the great city from the inevitable judgment that was in time going to be necessary for justice. Today, God’s compassion is revealed in exactly the same way. He loves all ethne (individual ethnic people groups within geo-political nations) and seeks to protect them from the inevitable. He longs for them to experience His greatness, His salvation, His deliverance from a life of worship of false gods and to experience the intimate relationship He has created all humanity to be satisfied through. This is our call today among the nations. We are to proclaim the trouble and disaster that awaits those who do not repent and rend their hearts toward God. Obviously, this is primarily an eternal trouble, but also a trouble in this world. God is patient beyond human capability to imagine, yet in time justice for wickedness must be reckoned. In this particular situation that time had come for Ninevah. So God, in His relentless mercy, seeks to send His ambassador to call for a turning of their hearts.

Secondly, we’ve only gone three verses into the narrative and are not yet shown why Jonah responded as he did. But due to the prevailing mindset of the Israelites of the day, we can see what is going on here. Jonah has been tainted in the same way as his fellow Israelites. A subtle belief had crept in that Israel had a corner on God and as a result He should not care for any others but them. An elitist prejudice arose in their hearts. This is a caution to all who follow God and who lead God’s people. We are not above having the wrong mindsets and outlooks on God and how He sees things seep into our own understanding and polluting it. We must proactively guard our hearts and minds with the Word of God and the revelation of the Spirit. Apart from this we will become tainted with a wrong attitude as Jonah did. Many in the global Church today fall into the same outlook as these Israelites possessed. We develop an inward-looking, self-centered, “God is all about me” perspective which is completely foreign to the heart of the Father.

This is wrong enough as it is, but then we often couple this with a subtle hostility and contempt that God could really love and want the best for certain outsiders. In many ways, Jonah’s response of fleeing possessed the spirit of a national hero. Consider it for a moment, Assyria was a dreaded enemy of Israel. God speaks to Jonah about going to the capital city of that dreaded enemy to speak a word that might actually cause the people to repent and turn from their wickedness and thus escape doom. His being obedient would keep them from being destroyed which, in his thinking, would continue to endanger Israel as they could rise up later and attack Israel and take them into captivity. By fleeing, Jonah was seeking to alleviate the option of them responding to God’s word and instead be destroyed by God and thus protect Israel from this dreaded enemy. Jonah saw his fleeing as a willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of protecting and saving his people and thus as completely honorable.

Obviously he was thoroughly misguided! God’s ways are not our ways. What appeared certain in Jonah’s nationalist heart was not reality or truth. How often do we seek to help God because what He seems to be doing and asking us to do does not gel with our vision of how victory and salvation will come to a people? His ways often contradict our plans and purposes because we have taken our cues from our culture, political situation or self-absorbed agendas. Spiritual maturity leads us to yield and submit to Him and His will even if it confuses, angers or frustrates us about God. In His tremendous love and mercy, however, He is moved to teach us His heart though discipline and correction. This is His incredible heart of love and concern for every person alive.

In our day, it seems that there is a similar attitude to what Jonah felt towards Assyria among many in the Church today. Its target is those caught in the web of Islam. A quiet sense (and sometimes not so quiet) exists that we should not be reaching out to these ones who we perceive to have done so much harm around the world. They deserve whatever judgment God has in store for them (this is becoming a teaching in the church). Because of their adversarial attitude toward Christianity, we should forget about them at the least and destroy them at the most. And due to their hostility they should not be loved as Christ calls us. True reports are cited often of comments made by leaders in the Church who seem to possess venom in their words toward those caught in the bondage of Islam. By doing so these have betrayed the reality that their hearts are not aligned with God’s. When we are tempted to think that our denomination, doctrinal stream, even country that we live in, has in any way a corner on God we need to remind ourselves of 1 John 2:2 “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” As the narrative of Jonah goes on we know that God used drastic means to teach His servant about His heart for all peoples and that He, in no uncertain terms, is a nationalistic God. If we are not careful and turn from our own false assumptions of God, He might have to use similar means to get our attention.

Lastly, we find Jonah fleeing from God and seeking to board a ship that will take him to Tarshish. In the ancient world there was a false understanding that a deity only had authority in the specific places that it was worshipped. Though a prophet, Jonah was still very human and thus prone to incorrect theology. It seems as if he was bent on the belief that God would not find him in Tarshish. Outside of Israel he thought that he would be away from God’s power to make him do what he most definitely did not want to do. How often do we possess a similar yet slightly different perspective? In our Christian cultures we believe intellectually that God is everywhere, yet by consuming our lives with busy-ness, entertainment, personal priorities and more we are seeking to tune Him out and be left alone. We don’t give Him the time to speak or to lead.

Our petty and worldly excuses for why we cannot do something that He may be leading us to, are grievous to the heart of God. Jonah, though possessing great disobedience, had a teachable spirit and God was able to break through (later in the book) and God molded Him and formed Him. It is that teachable spirit and a willingness to allow God to form and mold our mindsets and outlooks about what He is really like, that is critical. We will all make multitudes of mistakes when it comes to grasping God’s perspective on things, yet a teachable spirit which confesses it is wrong and cries out to God for right understanding is what God is after.

If you have allowed a wrong outlook to cloud your mind or heart regarding God’s heart toward those who practice Islam I want to suggest a few practical ways to allow God to mold and form your heart. (1) Confess that God is not a nationalistic god who takes up the political agendas of your particular country ; (2) Confess that out of misunderstanding you have bought into a lie concerning these precious people who need Jesus as savior; (3) Ask God to open up your eyes to His thoughts on these ones; (4) Ask Him to saturate your heart with His all-consuming love for muslims; (5) Begin to pray for a particular muslim city in the world and the people who live there every day; (6) Give Him permission to send you to an unreached muslim city as a message bearer of His great love.

Remember that God is bigger than our wrong mindsets and is not surprised by them, but He does desire for our minds to be renewed, refreshed, and transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit.

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