Minor Prophets Series: Jonah’s Message
Scripture: Jonah 1 – 4
Even though there are also a few wonderful secondary themes in the book of Jonah, to which we – due to time constraints – cannot attend to now, we will focus only on the essential message this morning.
One thinks about matters such as: 1) The central purpose of preaching. The way in which the Lord saved Nineveh was/had to be through preaching (see 1 Cor 1:21). 2) The Lord’s heartbeat of grace. When He observes how wicked people are, He wants to save. His passion for a city full of people who are going astray. 3) We saw what happened with the pagan sailors, how they suddenly prayed to the Lord, and acknowledged Him as the only Lord who does His sovereign will – what a turnabout as a result of Jonah’s simple testimony!! The Lord changes people with the bend of His little finger. 4)We see how the fish vomits Jonah on to dry land the moment when Jonah acknowledges and confessed the free grace of God: “Salvation comes from the Lord only.” 5) We see how powerfully God worked in Nineveh on the basis of only one sentence that Jonah preached. It is not the quality of what/how we speak which brings people to faith. It is the mighty working of the Spirit that brings people to that point – and – He does it by creating a realization of lostness and sin, and together with that a desire to turn away from sin, and to turn to God. That was a far greater miracle than was the wonder of Jonah-inside-the-fish! 6) The change/transformation started with the people and worked through to the authorities, and not the other way around (3:5-6). The king responds to what had already happened to the people. And so, one can continue.
Furthermore, for interest sake: The city Nineveh was in the news again recently with the large number of Christians who were persecuted and murdered there by Moslem-extremists like ISIS. The city of Mosoel in northern Iraq is the modern Nineveh, situated on the western bank of the Tigris River. The old Nineveh was just on the opposite side of the river. Significant the spiritual distress reigning in Nineveh at present.
Further just an aside remark about the fish that swallowed Jonah. We are aware that some theologians and preachers presume (and openly proclaim it) that it could not really have happened like that, and that Jonah’s writing was merely a sort of poem/poetry using symbolic language.
Therefore, people struggle to believe that the Lord can use such a fish in His service. Our answer to this unbelief is simply that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself believed that what is written in Jonah, is a historical reproduction of what really took place. Because we do not know better than He does, we accept the book Jonah as He himself presents it to us (Matthew 12:40).
All that as introduction. Our point of focus now: the essential message of Jonah.
Now look, the one thing which is most noticeable when you read Jonah, is the prophet’s very strange behaviour, not so? How on earth can it be that he did not desire spiritual salvation for the Ninevites? And then he becomes angry when there is a spiritual revival in Nineveh? Angry – because people found salvation?
Of course, one should understand that he was simply fearful about having to go to Nineveh. Remember, the Ninevites and the Assyrian kingdom were brutally cruel. The Assyrians (modern Iraq) instilled great fear in those days. The instruction to Jonah to go and preach the Lord’s Word in Nineveh, was just a good as sending a missionary to the Middle East today to infiltrate ISIS with the Gospel message. Extremely dangerous.
Yet, Jonah himself provides the explanation for his strange behaviour. We do not have to speculate, Jonah is saying it himself. After he is sent to Nineveh the second time, and he preached there, and revival started, Jonah sat off to one side – angry and displeased. Then he said to the Lord: “Lord, this is exactly why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. Therefore I did not want to preach in Nineveh. I know your heart. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. I just knew you would bring a spiritual turn among them. And I do not want them to become part of your church. They are pagans. They deserve to go to hell. No, it is better for me to die than to live and watch this happening”.
There we have it! Jonah knew the Lord’s heartbeat so well. He knew how God was. He knew God’s free grace. His gentle heart. His passion to save sinners. And he knew it was going to lead to the pagan Ninevites’ salvation. And he did not want them to become part of the Lord’s family, because that family was reserved for his own people: the Israelites. Not for alien nations! To Jonah the church was like a “holy huddle” – a demarcated exclusive group of people. To Jonah it was like death having to bring the Gospel message to people outside the boundaries of Israel.
The essence of this book goes much deeper than the Jonah-inside-the-fish-message. It reveals a prophet of the Lord who discriminated deep inside his heart against a group of people who was not of his own kind. In the eyes of Jonah, the Lord was hopelessly too gentle with people who should rather have remained unsaved. That is why he was angry and sat sulking in self-pity while Nineveh was celebrating, and people were rejoicing because their sins were forgiven.
Exactly like the elder brother in the parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15. What does the elder brother do while the home coming of his younger brother is being celebrated? He is furious towards his father who was so forgiving towards the little fool who had squandered his inheritance. And now there is a feast for his return! He, who is the eldest has always tried to live a decent life and never left his father, but never was there a celebration held for him. He does not understand his father’s heart. He does not understand grace! Indeed, he does not like grace, because he does not know it himself.
Contrary to that, Jonah knew and understood the Lord’s heartbeat perfectly well, but his heart discriminated against people who were not Israelites. He did not want to share with them the one loaf of the communion, or drink from the one cup, and together with them, be a part of the one family of the Lord.
One would think: this must now be the end of Jonah. The Lord’s patience must surely be exhausted with Jonah. That is why one cannot believe your eyes when you read how the Lord, like a patient teacher, continuous to teach Jonah to bring him to insight.
In the same way as He arranged for a fish to save His prophet from death, so He now provides a vine to give shade for his head. And then a worm to destroy the plant and the shade it gave. And a scorching wind that made Jonah feel discouraged. No need to wonder what Jonah’s reaction was going to be. Yes, angry because the shade is gone, and concerned about the vine that died.
And now the Lord had Jonah just where He wanted him. “Are you concerned about the vine that is dead, Jonah? While you received the shade, it provided as a gift. You did not tend it to make it grow. Yet you are concerned about it. How much more should you and I not be concerned about the 120000 people of Nineveh? Even about their livestock. Because the animals also suffer because of their wickedness. You are deeply concerned about the vine and a bit of shade. But what about the thousands of people who are living in spiritual darkness and who are on their way to a lost eternity? No, Jonah. Be compassionate and gracious as your Father in heaven is compassionate and gracious towards you.”
You see, the profound message of the book of Jonah is about God Himself. His heartbeat for people. He, who gives people exactly what they do not deserve: eternal salvation. And in His heart, there is no preference for a particular group. The Ninevites were out-and-out pagans, and 1000s of miles apart from the Lord’s church in Israel. But you see, the person who personally starts to believe this God, starts to develop His heartbeat more and more. The inborn sinful discrimination/prejudice against others is destroyed by merely looking at the heartbeat of the Lord!
Come, let us be perfectly honest: By nature, it is true that our first inclination towards our church sentiment always rests with our own kind/group. In a certain sense it is not necessarily sinful/wrong to put your own group first – provided that you do not think about it as a closed group, or a group which is better than another.
But, when is it sinful? When we do not care for other groups – as if we are of more consequence for the kingdom of God. One example: When we do not really care about the spiritual welfare of the Moslems right next door to us here in Zonnebloem and Bo-Kaap or Woodstock. They are like the Ninevites to us. They are far removed from us. Their culture is different. They are the sort of people who can hijack aeroplanes to crash into skyscrapers. We half-and-half are afraid of them. No, rather keep them at a distance. They also look different to us. They are definitely not so important in the kingdom like us!
The miracle of the Lord’s saving grace in our own lives, is rather that we develop a longing/desire that people of all kinds and groups would gather with us around this communion table. We must have a longing that Moslems from Bo-Kaap, from Zonnebloem and Woodstock come to repentance and faith and come share with us the same loaf and drink from the same cup. Even if they do not deserve it (in our own eyes). Yet, the Lord Jesus died also for the chosen ones among them.
Translated by Marthie Wilson