The Reluctant Missionary: Jonah Preaches to Nineveh
The story of Jonah and the whale is a favorite story at Vacation Bible School. Children are drawn with the fascination of the idea of being swallowed alive. It also addresses the natural fear children have of the unknown. A story like this helps children arise above this fear. If Jonah could overcome being swallowed by a whale, then they can face scary things in life. I suppose there is some truth in this, but this is hardly the purpose of the book. We really need to dig deeper into the book and find the fullness of the message.
To understand the lectionary text from Jonah 3 this morning, we need to get some further information. First of all, Jonah was from the region of Galilee in the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 850 BC. This makes him the earliest of the minor prophets. In that day, the great power of the world was the nation of Assyria, whose capital city was Nineveh. Assyria ruled its neighbors by what is known as the carrot and stick approach. If the nations submitted and paid Assyria tribute, then there were some benefits, at least to the ruling classes of these client nations. If these nations did not submit to Assyria, then terror would be brought upon that nation. Both Israel and Judah saw both sides of Assyria. Part of the submission was to acknowledge the gods of Assyria as being superior to the gods of the client nations. Some leaders in Judah like Ahaz made these accommodations. But Jonah, as an Israelite who served Yahweh, the idea of serving the Assyrian gods was an abomination. Jonah utterly hated the Assyrians.
Yahweh came to Jonah and asked him to go to Nineveh and preach there. He was to decry the wickedness of the city. This was to be done by Yahweh, the God of Israel. Jonah would be risking his death by a gruesome form of execution known as impaling by proclaiming such a message to Nineveh. But the fear of this was not Jonah’s motivation. This is not revealed at the beginning of Jonah, though. If one were to look at it, Jonah’s response to get on a ship to Tarshish which was as far as one could go in the known world from Assyria, one would think that Jonah was afraid of what the Ninevites would do to him.
Jonah was afraid of something, though. As the Israelites were not a sea-going people, the idea of escaping by a boat to another Gentile land with a crew of Gentiles. Jonah was willing to suffer the terrors of the sea and being received by those in Tarshish rather than to obey Yahweh. But the LORD intervened in Jonah’s journey. He created a great storm, so great that the ship was in danger of sinking. The sailors were terrified, each one of them crying out to his god. But Jonah was not made afraid by this. While the storm raged, he was sound asleep in the boat. The sailors could not understand this any better than the disciples of Jesus who saw Jesus asleep in the boat when they were in danger. Both Jonah as well as Jesus had to be awakened and be told of the danger. Both Jesus and Jonah were rebuked by words to the effect that they did not care that everyone was about to die. Even Simon, the son of Jonah (Bar-Jona) joined in the rebuke of Jesus.
Neither was Jonah afraid to be cast into the stormy waters. He did not care about living or dying. Without the intervention of Yahweh, he certainly would have perished. Even when the storm abated when Jonah was cast into the sea, he hardly could have swum to safety, if he could swim at all. The text says that Yahweh prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. The skeptics point out that this was impossible. The only fish big enough to swallow Jonah would have been a whale. But whales of the necessary size are not found in the Mediterranean. It is easy to get these weeds wrapped around one’s head, as Jonah states it. But God is God, and he prepared a great fish. It wasn’t a “fish” of the kind naturally found in creation. If man wanted to rescue Jonah from the water, the great fish they would have prepared is a submarine. How much greater is God than man.
Jonah spent three nights in the fish’s belly. Jesus relates the story of Jonah to His own death and resurrection. Then Jonah was restored to land, the land where creatures lived and not fish. Jonah had his own She’ol experience. He had passed from death to life. After he was vomited back on land, Yahweh came to him again and told him to go to Nineveh and preach. So Jonah went and preached “Yet forty days and this city will be overthrown. Contrary to human expectations, Jonah was not arrested and executed. Jonah actually would have preferred this in a strange way. Instead the city of Nineveh believed the message, and everyone from the king down to the common beast fasted and showed the signs of true repentance. They believe that Yahweh would spare them if they repented. The prayers of the Ninevites was answered, and the city was not destroyed. Like the Gentiles sailors, the Ninevites had more fear of the LORD than did Jonah. Not only this, but they had a better understanding of Yahweh’s mercy than did Jonah.
Strangely enough, the only thing that Jonah seems to have feared was that Yahweh is merciful. If Jonah felt that the LORD was going to really destroy Nineveh, he would have obeyed the first call. There would have been no detour to Tarshish. He would have run to Nineveh in record time and preached what he thought was good news: “In forty days, our Yahweh is going to wipe you miserable wretches out!” But he was afraid that Nineveh would believe and repent. He also knew that the LORD does not wish to destroy, but to save. This was too much for Jonah who only wished revenge upon the heathen. He would withdraw to sit under the shade of a gourd, completely despondent. But the LORD who had provided the gourd in the first place caused it to wither. Jonah was left burning in the full heat of the sun. He who had just so recently accused God of being merciful only could wish for mercy on himself. He was so miserable that he wanted to die. God used this as a lesson to Jonah. The message was the idea if that if one desired mercy, one must be merciful.
We can see from the Book of Jonah how intertwined its message is with the message of Jesus. We had talked about the storm Jesus and the disciples faced crossing the Sea of Galilee. They were crossing over to the Gentile side of the lake. There Jesus would minister to Gentiles. But instead of being a reluctant and disobedient missionary, Jesus was quite the opposite of Jonah. The message of the Father’s mercy was made available to all who would repent and believe on Him. Instead of being angry, Jesus rejoiced over the reconciliation of sinners. No one deserves His mercy, but He offers it willingly. Whereas Jonah was willing to die rather than preach repentance to Nineveh, Jesus actually died to save sinners.
There is one more connection. We mentioned that Simon Peter surname was “Bar-Jona” or “Son of Jonah.” There is more to this than the fact that Simon’s father was named “Jonah.” “Bar-Jona” is mentioned twice of Peter in the Gospels. He is called this in Matthew 16 after he confesses Jesus at Caesarea Philippi.” Caesarea was where the former temple of Baal was carved into the rockface above a cave where one of the sources of the Jordan River came. The name of the cave in Greek is “Palai Hadou” or the “Gates of Hell (Hades).” God was going to build His church on the top of the rock where the Temple of Baal (Pan) was carved, and atop the Gates of Hell which would not prevail against it. The place where Peter confessed Jesus as Christ (not Messiah) was in a Gentile area. The message was for Gentiles also. Simon would now receive a Greek name “Peter.” He had recently been called by the Aramaic “Cephas” which means the same thing. The Jewish idea of Jesus as “Messiah” which is an Aramaic term was replaced by the Greek equivalent. This is subtle but need to be noticed. Jesus Christ is for all people, not just the Jews.
The other place Peter is called “Bar-Jona” is after the resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of John, chapter 21. There he is asked three times by Jesus: “Simon Bar-Jonah, do you love me more than these things? Three times Simon affirmed this, and three times Jesus called Him to feed and tend His flock. We see reluctance in Peter to preach to the Gentiles at first in the Book of Acts. Three times Peter had to see a vision of a table set with unclean animals. Peter was beckoned to kill and eat. Peter at first refused as these animals were unclean. But Jesus told Peter that these things were now clean. “What God has cleansed, call not unclean.” Peter finally got the message. We don’t know if Jonah ever really repented, but Peter did. He would open the doors to the Gentiles.
There is one more “Jonah” to look at. His name is Saul of Tarsus. He as a Pharisee despised the Gentiles. He might have allowed a second-class membership to believing Gentiles, but the idea of preaching Christ to them was anathema. He had no fear either. He would cross land and sea to have hunted the Christians down. Yet, God had other plans for him. He in a way was a reluctant missionary as well. Acts 8 records that in his very persecution of the church that the believers scattered everywhere and preached Christ in the villages where they went. But soon, Jesus would confront him on the road to Damascus. The very one who was reluctant to include Gentiles in any meaningful was would now preach to the Gentiles the Gospel. Many Gentiles believed on Jesus and were forgiven even as many proud Jews did not and were not reconciled.
So when it comes to us, are we both bold and willing to offer a world as wicked at those of Nineveh that if they would repent and believe on Jesus that they would be saved. Our problem is more out of fear than out of racial hatred, at least I would hope so for all concerned. But we are called to go out and make disciples of all nations (Gentiles). We are to baptize and teach them to observe what Jesus has commanded. May God give us both boldness to proclaim the Gospel as well at the motivation of love to reach the lost. The same God who called Jonah, calls us. The world is about to be overthrown by the hand of God. Repent and believe the good news that all who call upon the name of the LORD shall be saved.