Jonah: Understanding the Grace of God

Most Christians are very familiar with the opening chapter of the book of Jonah.  There is the call to go to Ninevah and preach about Yahweh, the fleeing to a ship, the ship setting sail, the waves crashing against the ship, the eventual tossing over Jonah into the sea, and the swallowing up of Jonah by a great whale.  As wonderful a story as this is, I want to focus instead on the often neglected last two chapters, where we see the word preached, repentance, and then an interesting dialogue between Jonah and God.  My goal in looking at these two chapters is twofold: First, to show how simple and powerful the response to the preached word can be for salvation.  Second, to show how difficult it is to find joy in other’s salvation (and the wonderful grace and mercy of God).  

 

Why these goals?  It allows us assurance in the perspicuity of Scripture (that what is required for salvation is clearly laid out in the Bible, and that anyone who truly seeks it can find and understand), it shows us that we do not need a glamorous or high production demonstration to lay out the Gospel message, and it forces us to deal with the diversity of sinners who come to salvation (it makes us have to struggle with how we can be brothers and sisters in Christ with other depraved people).  

 

The Simple Gospel Message

Jonah 3:1–4

Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against 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, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

As we start looking at this second chance for Jonah to follow God’s command, we should note that chapter three begins almost identically to chapter one.  What a picture of God’s grace on his disobedient servant that He still allows him to be a mouthpiece for His holy message.  Jonah is being offered a “second chance” of sorts to share the word from God, and he appears to act without hesitation, as the text says he arose and went according to God’s command to this exceedingly great city.  We should pause and realize that this picture of God’s grace on Jonah is not unlike the grace He has shown upon us.  We are rebellious and fearful children of God, and while we are not prophets like Jonah, we do struggle in declaring the truth God has given us in His word.  Yet, as God gives Jonah a second chance, He does so with us as well, giving us seemingly uncountable chances as long as we repent and upon the Lord to go forth and spread the Gospel.  What can we take from just this section of Jonah?  That God uses broken and often rebellious vessels to bring about His decrees. 

 

This change in Jonah is not only apparent because he arose and went to Ninevah without complaint, but that he started preaching the message from God before he even reached the city center.  We are told that Nineveh takes three days to walk across, and yet Jonah starts preaching his message right away on day one.  He is not delaying his proclamation until he reaches the king, but sees fit to preach to all the different classes of people he encounters.  We need to consider who Jonah is speaking to in this first day.  It is not like he is going through the suburbs of middle-class America.  The outer parts of the city were filled with the poorer, uneducated and taboo groups of people.  Implied here is that the message from God was not just for the leaders of the city, but for everyone.  And the message given to these poor and uneducated people of Nineveh was not a theological treatise, but a message that can be summarized by Jonah saying, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  

There are a number of interesting points of application we can make about this section.  First, as mentioned earlier, the message of God is not only for people we like (or those who are not our enemies).  It is for everyone, even the people of Nineveh.  Remember what made Jonah run in the first place was his dislike and hatred for the people of Nineveh.  But we have God declaring here that His message is not to be limited to Jews, but even for the group most hated by the Jews.  Consider for a moment a group or individual you would hate to share the Gospel with.  How does this mesh with the call to go out and make disciples of all nations?  If we are honest with ourselves it does not mesh at all, and we are left convicted not only over our lack of desire to spread the truths found in Scripture, but our disdain for our enemies to be reconciled to God and become adopted brothers and sisters.  So who are these people in your life?  They can be the neighbor, boss, coworker, fellow student, or the stranger you see in the gym who seems to have their life together when yours is falling apart.  

Yet it would be wrong to just group everyone into friends or enemies, and then say, “Go talk about Jesus.”  Why?  Because our approach will fail to include all of those whom Jonah spoke to, namely, the poor, uneducated, or scandalous.  Not only is the gospel message for our enemies that look like us, it is for rich and poor, conservative and liberal, eclectic and reserved, addicted to drugs and addicted to something more socially acceptable (like career or family success).  This is difficult for a myriad of reasons: comfort and fear being the most common, but possibly the biggest difficulty in addressing such a wide group of people is that we lack the ability to communicate the Gospel clearly.  For example, a upper-class businessman who loves to read about theology is going to have the desire to throw in theological meat in his Gospel explanation, when the person he is talking to needs theological baby formula.  The result? Frustration on both parts.  One of the beautiful aspects of the Bible is its perspicuity, which means that the Bible so clearly lays out the way to salvation that anyone who earnestly seeks it will find it.  The Bible does not require a person to understand secret knowledge to come to faith in Jesus.  What does this mean for us?  We need to consider the diversity of brokenness in who we share the Gospel with.  But once we come to sharing this message with them, realizing that we have to start with the basic message of the Gospel, and eventually sharing the meatier theology.  It is not understanding why the gift of tongues no longer occurs (which is something I hold to) that saves a person, it is the basic truths of the Gospel.  

Jonah 3:5–10

And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.  The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”   When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

Right away, we see that the people have a reaction to this message, and it is an act of repentance.  The text says that they believed God, and it is accompanied with the actions that are common with people who repent: fasting, tearing clothes and wearing sackcloth, and crying out to God.  Honestly, I must admit that when I read this section of Jonah, I am overcome with a cynical, “Yeah right.”  Perhaps it is because I long to see this type of conversion and grieving over sin take place on a major scale, but what is more likely is that I have doubt in the powerful work of God to cut men, women and children to the heart with the Gospel message.  I long to see people converted as a pastor, yet how rare is that in my particular ministry.  I lack the expectation and understanding of God’s grace that the witnessing of a neighbor or the ministry of a church could bring about salvation to some.  How wrong this is.  What we see here is not only God using a fallen messenger to present truth, but we see God’s grace at work in a mighty way in the repentance of a great city.  What a powerful reminder that God is sovereign, and He will work wherever he ordains it to come to pass.  When we see God sending His grace upon a people, they cannot help but be overwhelmed and changed.  Do you believe this?  Do you believe the grace of God is powerful enough to change even the hardest of hearts?  Do you believe that God can use the least of His apostles to bring about restoration in relationship with Him?  And for pastors who fail to see fruit: Do you trust that it is God’s grace that saves and not your own actions or performance?  When you read this chapter, are you not overwhelmed with the sense that God can change even the most noble and scholarly heart and mind to repentance?  If you do not believe that, are you even preaching the truth that is found in Scripture?  

 

Joy In Another’s Salvation?

Jonah 4

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” 

Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

 

When I worked in campus ministry, I wanted to see our particular ministry on the college campus thrive and produce great fruit.  I wanted to see someone converted.  But thanks to the Philosophy of Ministry (I love the POM) our group followed, while we did see some conversions and prodigals returning, we spent a majority of our time shining the light of hope the Bible brings to broken Christians.  When I saw these other ministries having “revival” or “mass/spontaneous conversions,” I struggled finding joy in a person’s salvation; dwelling instead on why that did not happen with our ministry or being cynical that those people were not authentic.  This is a selfish view of ministry and evangelism and ministry.  It is ministry on my terms.  It is this type of self-centered ministry that Jonah was focusing on to begin with.  He does not want to speak to the people of Nineveh and so he runs.  When he gets his second chance, and preaches that judgment is near, the outcome is an enormous collective response.  But we notice right away in chapter four that Jonah is exceedingly displeased.  He is actually angry that God graciously entered into the loves of these people.  If we look back into chapter one, Jonah is actually unwilling to go to Nineveh because of this very reason: God might turn these people to repentance.  

 

In studying this passage in T. Desmond Alexander’s commentary on Jonah (TOTC series, a series I would recommend to anyone in their study, pastor or congregant), he points to Jonah’s unwillingness as knowing something about who God is, which in this situation focuses on his grace.  The king repents in the end of chapter three and says, “Who knows? Maybe God will relent?  But Jonah starts chapter four saying I knew this would happen, because you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.  This description has been repeated throughout the OT, in Exodus 34:6-7 with Moses, and throughout the prophets.  Jonah knew who God was, and he even experienced God relent from destroying himself, and yet when he relents on Nineveh he prays to die.  He seems to be going back on his prayer of praise in chapter two, where he says, “Salvation belong to Yahweh!”  This contradiction should evoke some emotions.  Are you not disgusted in Jonah?  Are you not ashamed that he is a prophet of God?  How could someone who was so blessed be angry at the blessing of salvation for others?  Yet despite these feelings, I have this problem: I am guilty of the same thing.  I am guilty of knowing God and receiving His covenantal love, and being angry or disapproving on who he shares this with.  How often do you struggle with this?  How often do you struggle with who god shows His gracious, everlasting love on?  How often have you questioned why God would save such a person and not another?  These questions show us how we struggle knowing these amazing attributes of God, yet doubt whom God sets his affections upon.  

 

It is interesting then to read how God reacts to such questioning.  Does Jonah get struck down by lightning?  Does God throw him back into the sea?  Where we expect God’s wrath and anger to finally come upon Jonah, we instead see Him ask a simple question: “Have you any right to be angry?”  This is quite the perplexing question for Jonah, and his response is to say nothing and continue to hope God will come around to seeing things his way.  So like a child who is angry for no reason, he keeps going on with his plan; he goes outside the city and picks a spot where he can watch Nineveh fall to pieces.  Again, God reacts to Jonah in an interesting way: he provides shade that covers him from the blazing hot sun.  You could say that God graciously provides for Jonah in a miraculous way and protects him.  How does Jonah react to Gods grace?  The text says he is exceedingly glad.  You might think that he gets the picture after this, that he might think, “God is gracious to me time and time again, even when I am angry with him,” and he might pack up his stuff and return to Israel.  In fact, we are not even told if Jonah credits God with this graceful shade.  What we do see is that Jonah goes back the next day to the same spot, anticipating the fall of Nineveh.  Nothing has changed, and so God appoints a worm to attack the plant, and the plant withers, leaving Jonah to face not only the sun, but the scorching wind appointed by God.  

 

As we see Jonah and God enter into a similar dialogue found in the beginning of the chapter, we notice that this time Jonah has an answer to God’s questioning of, “Do you have any right to be angry?”  Jonah is clear and forthright in saying, “Yes I do. I am angry enough to die.”  This is the last we hear from Jonah, and we are never told if God grants him his request or if he returns back to Israel and repents.  Instead, the focus ends on God’s words.

You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?

What do we see here?  The issue is not whether God was right or not in his compassion in saving Jonah with a whale, relenting on Nineveh, or raising up the destroying the vine.  The issue is in the heart of Jonah.  He finds joy in a plant, yet wants a whole city to be destroyed.  The inconsistency of God’s grace and sovereignty is not found in God, but in Jonah.  So what can we learn from this?  I want to close with three points of application.

1.  Self-centeredness will keep you from seeing the grace of God in your life.  

Look at how Jonah reacted to the shade provided for and then taken away by God.  We would amount his reaction to a temper-tantrum thrown by a child.  It is petty and focused solely on himself.  I think it is interesting that Jonah does not credit God with the shade, but he does complain after the shade is destroyed.  It shows how consumed with himself Jonah is.  It shows how blind he is to the need of others.  Life is all about Jonah.  And what happens to him because of his self-centeredness?  He becomes the spoiled kid that no one wants to be around.  He makes mountains out of molehills.  He says he wants to die because things do not go his way.  Jonah’s self centeredness keeps him from seeing God’s goodness to him.  

Many of us are self centered as well.  We major in the minors with regards to our faith practices.  And what is the consequence of this?  Our joy for God is sucked dry.  It is hard to be full of joy and thanksgiving for God when you are consumed with yourself.  How has your self-centeredness blinded your eyes from seeing God’s grace in your life?

2.  Self-centeredness will keep you from seeing the work of God’s grace in the lives of others.

So how do we get out from under this self-centeredness?  We see that the book of Jonah is centered around the city of Nineveh.  Jonah is to go to these people who are lost and proclaim God’s message.  God finds great joy in the repentance of Nineveh, so much so that he relents his wrath and destruction.  If we are made in God’s image, if we reflect His glory like the moon reflects the light of the sun, then we too should find great joy in proclaiming God’s truths and seeing His grace bring others to saving faith in Jesus Christ.  

But we need to be careful that we do not “box in” God’s grace to others as merely dealing with their spiritual well being.  It is not just the people who will be destroyed, but the whole city.  We see this by looking at the livestock that Jonah should have at least cared for if not for the people.  We are to share the grace of God not just by caring for their spiritual well-being, but also their physical and mental health.  We are to care for their struggles.  Demonstrating the grace of God is a holistic act.  Self-centeredness will keep us holistically demonstrating, applying and contemplating on the work of God’s grace in the lives of others.   

3.  God’s glorious mercy and grace is for those who struggle with being self-centered.

The truth is that we are all like Jonah.  We are all full of selfish prejudice that hardens our hearts from sharing the Gospel with others.  In fact, if you do not believe this point (that you are like Jonah, but God’s grace and mercy is powerful enough to redeem you), then the previous two will be impossible for you.  Heck, we even have to admit that we are like Nineveh!  We are fallen, and therefore (before our hearts are changed) our hearts do not want anything but that which is evil and wicked and self-centered!  Yet God shows mercy on us.  And that mercy not only shows us our sin, it gives us hope that we can change, and opens our eyes to who God is.  God is sovereign, merciful, holy, mighty, and gracious.  If you believe this, then not only are you overwhelmed with praise and worship for God, but you must then think outside yourself and proclaim this message to all of those who are in Nineveh, just like you once were.  If anyone who hears God’s message of the cross repents and believes God, they not only will have their eyes opened to His grace, but they will have assurance that God has relented the punishment of damnation on their soul. 

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