Summary: Talk 2 in my five-talk series on Jonah. Mission is God's mission. In the story of Jonah - and especially in view of what Jesus says about Jonah - we recognize that God is the master strategist in mission and he's breathtakingly creative.
Jonah Talk 2: God of Mission
Last week I started a new series on Jonah. My major theme last week was how compassionate God is.
At the time of Jonah, the Assyrian Empire was expanding. Historians of the Middle East tell us how cruel the Assyrian rulers were. I spared you the grizzly details. If people did things like they did today there’s no question that they would be guilty of crimes against humanity. The people of Nineveh absolutely deserved God’s judgement and God intended to destroy them. Their situation was analogous to the situation of ISIS in recent years. ISIS is such an evil entity that the major nations of the world decided that it needs to be destroyed.
But although Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was extremely wicked and deserved God’s judgement, God decided to give it a chance. He sent his prophet Jonah to it. There would be no point in God sending Jonah if it was 100% certain that he was going to destroy the city.
The fact that God wanted to have mercy on the Ninevites shows us how amazingly compassionate God is. People sometimes say that God in the Old Testament is a God of wrath but that certainly isn’t how Jonah – or many of the other Old Testament writers, for that matter – saw him. They knew God as a god of mercy.
So, last week our focus was on God as a god of COMPASSION. In order that God could show compassion something would need to change in Nineveh. God therefore sends Jonah.
We now see that God is a god of MISSION.
Since we’re made in God’s image, and we’re trying to serve God and be like God, then it should go without saying that we should also be compassionate and be missional.
Today, we’re going to look at how God goes about mission.
The minister of a church I attended many years ago would often say that in order to understand the Old Testament we need to look at the New Testament. We need to see what the New Testament writers say about the Old Testament passage.
This is particularly important in the case of Jonah. Jesus has some things to say about Jonah which aren’t immediately obvious from the book of Jonah.
Here are two questions which we don’t see the answer to in the book of Jonah but which we find the answer to in Jesus’ words.
First, is the story of Jonah true? Maybe, we think, Jonah is really a kind of parable. It’s fiction. That is possible. There are parables in both the Old and New Testaments.
So, is Jonah true, in the sense of historical, or is it fictional?
We can answer that question when we look at what Jesus said about it. Jesus said (Matthew 12:40):
“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.”
Jesus was saying, ‘my death and resurrection will be true as the story of Jonah being three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish is true.’ I assume we believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection is true. Therefore, based on Jesus’ words, Jonah being three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish must also be true.
The miracle of Jonah emerging after three days in the great fish was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ emerging from the tomb after three days.
It’s therefore important that we believe the story of Jonah is true. If we don’t, we find ourselves in disagreement with Jesus. That’s the reason why I gave so much historical background last week. History doesn’t tell us if Jonah was swallowed by a whale. But history tells us that there was a place called Nineveh and it really was wicked. That was also why I showed the video clip of ISIS blowing up Jonah’s tomb. As far as I know, fictional characters don’t have tombs. We can’t say from history that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish. But we can at least say that Nineveh was a real place, it was very wicked indeed, and Jonah appears to have been a real person.
I said that Jesus’ comments on Jonah help us answer two questions. The first question was, ‘Is the story of Jonah true?’ The second question is, ‘Did the people of Nineveh know that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish?’ If they did, then it tells us a lot about how God does mission.
We need to look carefully to see the answer to this. Let’s take a look. In Matthew 12:39 Jesus says, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’ Then in the next verse Jesus says, ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish…’