There are many reasons people don’t share the faith with others – fear, with its many faces, perhaps is at the top of the list. We may also add apathy and busyness to the list. But how about out-and-out obstinance?
Stubbornness was Jonah’s calling card in one particular season of his life, as he fought God’s call on his life to preach to the people of Nineveh.
But as we’ll see, the hand of God continued to work in and through Jonah’s life, ultimately leading to a great revival among a great enemy of Israel.
There are lessons from Jonah we can apply in our witness. For none of us is completely immune from fighting against God when He calls us to witness for His Glory.
The book of Jonah begins with a unique response from a prophet of God:
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, 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 opens with God calling Jonah to preach to Nineveh. Instead of heeding God’s call, Jonah determines to go anywhere but Nineveh. Instead, he boards a ship to Tarshish. This is the only recorded instance of a prophet refusing God’s commission.
Nineveh, a royal city of Assyria, was one of ancient Israel’s avowed enemies. Jonah displays rebellion by getting on the boat, as he wants no part in helping bestow God’s mercy upon Nineveh. For some levity, I’ve attached this comical 5-minute clip from the Veggie Tales movie “Jonah” – a scene from the ship.
Now I don’t know if there is a place like Nineveh God is calling you to, or a “Ninevite” the Lord is wanting you to pray for, love, and witness to. But I know there have been people in my life that, humanly speaking, I wanted no part of – difficult people, people who rubbed me the wrong way, people I, frankly, wanted to avoid. Yet, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:43-44:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
In my Christian life, there have been people the Lord has brought to my mind to pray for, where I thought, “Really?” Have you been there? Are you challenged today to pray for or perhaps witness to someone whom, naturally, you simply want to avoid?
If so, you’re in good company, as this also was Jonah’s state of mind at the time God commissioned him to go to Nineveh.
Most of us are familiar with the record. Jonah is cast off the boat and swallowed by a “great fish” (Jonah 1:17). Then, after surviving in the belly of the fish three days and nights, he’s vomited onto dry land (Jonah 2:10).
Upon his return to terra firma, Jonah again receives God’s call to go. This time he obeys, and the Ninevites repent as a result of his preaching:
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey[a] in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it. Jonah 3:1-6, 10
If we stopped here in the narrative, we might say, “Good job, Jonah! You came to your senses and obeyed the Lord.” Well, not so fast. You see, Jonah’s heart was still hard toward the Ninevites, despite his outward obedience. For though he himself received God’s mercy, he didn’t want the Ninevites experiencing it! And the text doesn’t tell us, but is it possible Jonah hoped the Ninevites would reject his message to repent? We can’t know. But we do know he wasn’t happy that they did repent.
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. So he prayed to the Lord, and said, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” Then the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry? And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” Jonah 4:1-5,11
Perhaps Jonah felt they weren’t worthy of God’s grace, mercy, and compassion. But Jonah’s oversight may be our oversight if we don’t remember what he should have realized:
Nobody is worthy of God’s grace, mercy and compassion – that’s why it’s so remarkable that He offers it to man!
“The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Well God knows it, and yet He still makes His grace, mercy, and compassion available. Nineveh is a great example of God’s heart, that He desires no one perish but that all would come to repentance. God’s love for the people of Nineveh was far different from Jonah’s enmity toward them.
May we fight against any natural enmity or personal pride that may resent lost people. Rather, may our heart reflect God’s heart for lost people, that they not remain separated from Him, but be reconciled to Him through faith in Christ. Amen .