Summary: The story of Jonah and how it parallels our reluctance to reach the lost.

I can still the scene from Titanic where the orchestra is brought out on deck to play music while the ship is sinking. Drinks and food are passed out in the dining room to maintain a sense of normalcy. People were eating, drinking and dancing as the ship was going down. It reminds me of what Jesus said: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37-39). We often think that the people who are oblivious to the seriousness of the times are the people without God in their lives, but it is also Christians who are eating and drinking, going about their lives as usual, while people are plunging into eternity. We are busy rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic while people are perishing about us.

That was certainly the case in the life of Jonah. People were about to die and he was totally unconcerned. The end was coming for Assyria and he was going on with life as usual. He could have cared less that God was about to judge the Assyrians. In fact, he hoped God would judge them. He wanted God to rain down fire from heaven and destroy those whom he considered his enemies. He would have loved it if an invading army would have come and crushed them. He would have played in the orchestra as he watched their ship sink. Jonah’s hatred of the Assyrians was not without good reason. They were an immediate military threat to the existence of Israel. The Assyrians had destroyed many of the surrounding nations, and their reputation for extreme cruelty made them a feared and hated nation.

But God was about to ask Jonah to do something he never would have dreamed God would want him to do. God asked him to care about what happened to the Assyrians, and then go to preach in Nineveh, their capital city, to see if he could turn them around. God wanted to spare them. But Jonah did not want to do what God was asking. He was reluctant to do God’s will, but it was not because he was afraid of the Ninevites. Neither was it because he was afraid of failure. Jonah was afraid of success. He was afraid they would repent and that God, in his mercy, would save them from destruction.

Jonah was a reluctant prophet for several reasons. The first was: Jonah did not want God to love people he hated. Jonah would have loved to see the people of Assyria judged by God. There is a German word for Jonah’s attitude: schadenfreude. It means, “Pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.” Schadenfreude is the sick pleasure you would have when you see the girl voted “most popular” in your senior class now weighing 40 pounds more than she did at graduation — pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. It is feeling good about your least favorite person at work being turned down for a promotion. That was Jonah. He was thrilled at the thought that the Assyrians might be destroyed. He did not want the Assyrians to be spared. He hated those barbaric people who worshiped idols and practiced such violence and cruelty. Jonah was not even sure they were human beings in the truest sense of the word. And if God spared them, it would mean they would live to conquer Jonah’s homeland of Israel. In Jonah’s mind, Israel may have sinned against God, but they were not nearly as evil as the Assyrians. Jonah resented God for wanting to reach out to these idolatrous and violent people. He thought it was perfectly acceptable to hate certain groups of people.

His attitude did not please God, but it is an attitude not altogether unknown to the Christian community. It is to the church’s shame that we have accepted, and at times even blessed, this kind of prejudice against certain groups of people. We have in our town an A. M. E. church. It stands for African Methodist Episcopal. The reason the church exists is because, to our shame, African Americans were at one time not accepted in white Methodist churches, and they were forced to form a denomination of their own. For years, we had the Methodist Church North and the Methodist Church South, because racism had divided the people called Methodists. I have just finished Tom Brokaw’s new book on CD entitled The Greatest Generation. It is a wonderful book about a great generation of Americans. But Brokaw also talks about the racism which was rampant in the 40’s and 50’s, and the tremendous injustices which African Americans endured during the war. He also talks about Japanese Americans and the wrongs done to them at that time. They were herded into detention camps and lived in squalid conditions, even though they were citizens of the United States and had committed no crimes. They were also unwelcome in many churches across the land, even though they were successful business people and often contributed more than their fair share to the prosperity of the nation.

Think of the silence of the church as the Nazi’s committed their atrocities against the Jews. Christians in Germany were not only silent, but many even supported Hitler’s actions. Christians throughout the world persecuted the Jews, calling them “Christ killers.” The Christian church has to hide its face as it remembers the witch hunts, the persecutions, the crusades and the people burned at the stake out of prejudice and hate. Fortunately, it is not the whole story, and the church has done far more to free the oppressed than it has to increase their burdens, but it is a part of our history that we cannot ignore. And all of it was done because we could not believe that God would love people whom we hated. Christians believed it was all right to treat people this way because God hated them too.

But what about today? Does God love that neighbor of yours whose yard is full of trash and who has too many animals? Does God care about alcoholics and drug addicts? Does he care about people with tattoos, body piercings and painted hair? Does he care about the young people in the Goth culture with their dark clothing and darker attitudes? Does God care about Saddam Hussein or Bill Clinton? What about pornographers, pedophiles and homosexuals? Surely God does not like these people any more than we do — or does he? Part of the danger in taking a strong stand against sin is that we may come across as though we are against people — people God loves and sent Christ to die for. It is important that we hate sin, but it is also important that we love the sinner — sinful as he or she may be. We must be sure that even though we disagree with, and dislike their sin, they understand that we want them to come to know God and experience his love. We want them to find his forgiveness and walk in his grace. We want their lives to turn around that they might know his goodness and experience his favor. We need to pray, in the words of the scripture, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

The second reason that Jonah was a reluctant prophet was: Jonah thought some people were unworthy of God’s love. Jonah didn’t think about how merciful God had been to him. He had forgotten about his sins. He failed to remember how patient God had been with him and how undeserving he was. He felt smug and superior to those awful people who lived in Nineveh. They were only worthy of God’s wrath. They were dirty, evil people. He did not think they deserved to hear the good news about God.

He knew God was merciful, but he was not sure they could really change. They were too bad. But he forgot about his own people. The prophets had been preaching to Israel for hundreds of years, but they refused to listen — and they were supposed to be God’s people. They had rebelled against God and indulged in every sin imaginable. Over and over again God had reached out in love to his people only to be rejected. They had corrupted the worship of the one and only God and brought idols into his temple. They pretended to worship him while worshiping other gods at the same time. And God said to them, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps” (Amos 5:21-23). Their religion had become nauseating and offensive to God. The truth was that Jonah’s own people were farther from God than the Ninevites. Israel had the benefit of the Scriptures, the temple and the prophets, and chose to ignore them all. Nineveh did not have any of those advantages, and God was asking Jonah to give them one opportunity.

The Assyrians had never heard about the God who made the earth and everything in it,. But once they did hear, they responded with eagerness. Actually, Jonah was the most successful prophet in the Old Testament. An entire nation repented, and his sermon was only eight words long. He shouted: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Then we find these amazing words: “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 3:4-6). None of the prophets to Israel or Judah had experienced that kind of success. But Jonah was angry with God for sparing the Assyrians. He did not want them to turn to God. He didn’t even ask them to in his eight-word sermon. In his mind they did not deserve to be saved.

Jonah did not think the Assyrians were worthy of God’s love, but he forgot that he was running from God. He was living in disobedience to what God had asked him to do. He overlooked his own sin, but he was very aware of the sin of the people he disliked. He overlooked the sin of his nation, but wanted God to destroy another nation for its sin. But sometimes people who are supposed to be God’s people are not really living for God, and people who seem far from God are actually looking for God. People can, and do change — in spite of the seriousness of their sin. The Bible says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The power of God can change anyone.

We know that the people of Nineveh were not hopeless, because hundreds of years later Jesus made this astounding statement about them: “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 one greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41). Those whom Jonah considered hopeless were people Jesus considered more righteous than the people of his own day. Jonah needed to believe that as the scripture says, God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

The third reason that Jonah was a reluctant prophet was: Jonah was more concerned about himself than others. Jonah did not want to preach to the Assyrians and have them repent, because they were the enemies of his nation. He did not want to travel to the capital city of these heathen. He did not want to see them repent, and he certainly did not want to see God spare them. In fact, when God did spare them, Jonah went off in a huff. In his anger he said to God: “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:2-3). God said to him, “Have you any right to be angry?” But Jonah did not respond to God; he just went to a hillside to watch and see if God would destroy the city after all. Then God made a vine grow to give Jonah shade and ease his discomfort while sitting in the hot sun, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But the next day God commanded a worm to go and destroy the vine, so it would wither and no longer give Jonah comfort. Then God sent a scorching wind, along with the hot sun, so that Jonah would miss the vine. And God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” Jonah said, “I do. I am angry enough to die” (Jonah 4:9). Then God drove home the lesson he was trying to teach Jonah. He said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left [i.e. children], and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:10-11).

And with that question the book of Jonah abruptly ends. There is no indication that Jonah agreed with God or changed his opinion. There is no evidence of his own repentance. He never answers God. He was too consumed with his own displeasure to care about what would happen to the people of Nineveh. The irony of the book is that the people of Nineveh repented at the first hearing of God’s prophet, but Israel did not repent, even though they had repeated warnings from many prophets. Jonah, a prophet of God, ran from God rather than obey God. God had to send a special fish to bring him back. The story is all turned around. The wrong people are the good people in the story. God’s people and God’s prophet are living in disobedience, but the people of Nineveh repent. The pagan sailors on the ship Jonah boarded expressed faith in God. The great fish does God’s bidding. The king of Assyria repents. Even the cows wear sackcloth. The king gave this edict: “Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish’” (Jonah 3:7-9). Everyone and everything is doing what God wants except Israel and Jonah. Even the worm follows God’s orders! But Jonah can only think of himself.

How does the message of Jonah apply to us? Are there people we don’t want God to love? Are there people we don’t want to see converted because we think they are a lost cause? Do we see some people as unworthy of God’s love? Are we so concerned about ourselves that we have no concern for other people? Are there people we would not like to sit next to in church?

There is another scene from the movie Titanic which still haunts me. The opulent, 900-foot cruise ship, which sank on its first voyage from England to New York, caused the deaths of fifteen hundred people. The officers of the ship attempted to keep fourth class passengers locked in the lower decks so that the first class passengers could have the benefit of the lifeboats. But even then, some passengers were so concerned about their own status and comfort that they wished to have a lifeboat all to themselves, even though it meant others would perish. Eva Hart, who survived the night of April 15, 1912, remembers when the Titanic plunged 12,000 feet to the Atlantic floor — two hours and forty minutes after an iceberg tore a 300-foot gash in the starboard side. Eva says, “I saw all the horror of its sinking, and I heard, even more dreadful, the cries of drowning people.” Twenty lifeboats and rafts were launched, but there were too few, and they were only partly filled. Most of the passengers struggled in the icy seas while those in the boats waited a safe distance away. The Titanic went under at 2:20 a.m., but only one lifeboat, No. 14, rowed back to search for survivors after the ship slipped from sight. All alone, it chased cries in the darkness, seeking and saving a precious few. Incredibly, no other boat joined in the search and rescue. It is true that some lifeboats were already overloaded, but in virtually every other boat, those already saved rowed their half-filled boats aimlessly around in the night, listening to the cries of the lost and dying. They were afraid that unknown swimmers would cling to their craft, eventually swamping it. They were more concerned about themselves than others.

Jesus said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Are we concerned about the people Christ is concerned about — those who are lost and in need of him? Countless people who are plummeting toward eternity? Do we even understand the danger they are in? Do we demonstrate to the world God’s concern and love for them? Are we only concerned for ourselves and our comfort, or are we wanting to spare people from a Christless eternity? Are we rowing about in the waters, hearing the desperate cries of others, but refusing to do anything because it would rock our boat? We need to pray that God would break our hearts with the lostness of the world right around us. We need to pray that we will be able to reach out to a lost and dying world. We need to pray that we will be gripped with the compassion which God has for all his creation. We need to put aside our reluctance and be a part of the rescue effort to save a lost and dying world.

Rodney J. Buchanan

September 17, 2000


Jonah 1:1-17

“Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2).

Jonah was reluctant because:

1. He did not want God ____________________________


“But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry” (Jonah 4:1).

2. He thought some people ________________________


“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

3. He was more ____________________________________ about _____________________ than ____________________.

“O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:2-3).


1. What kind of people do you find it most difficult to be around? To whom is it most difficult for you to witness ?

2. Are there some people you would not want to see in church?

3. What was the real objection of Jonah?

4. In Acts 10, God gave Peter a vision of unclean animals and asked him to eat them. Each time Peter refused. Read Acts 10:34-45. What was God trying to teach Peter? Why was it so hard for him?

5. School shootings and other acts of violence seem to be marked by an “us” and “them” mentality. Why have hate crimes become such a problem in our culture?

6. Read 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9. Is it possible for anyone to become a Christian? Are there some things which are so bad they cannot be forgiven?

7. Sometimes the great issues of the church are the color of the carpeting or the style of the drapes. What should be the great concerns of the church?

8. If our church was less focused on our own needs, and was more focused on the needs of the lost people around us, what would the church look like? What would we be doing with our time and money?

9. If you won $1,000,000 would you tell anyone? Why is it so much harder to share our faith?