God the Evangelist – Part 4, “Why Did God Insist On Using Jonah?”
The book of Jonah is a great story. But God didn't include it in the Bible purely for its entertainment value. There is a point to the story. As I said last week, there's always just one point to a story. But that doesn't mean that we can only learn one thing from the story. There are several things that we have learned already, and there could be, would be much more that we would learn from the book as we continue to read and study and meditate upon it.
So, so far, what have we learned from the book of Jonah? Well, on the positive side of the ledger, we have learned about the sovereignty of God. We've learned about the power of God. We've learned about the persistence of God. We've learned about the providence of God. We've learned about the grace of God. And we also learned about the compassion of God. On the negative side of the ledger, here's what we've learned. We learned that we as Christians struggle with people who are different from us. We have learned that we, Christians, many times struggle with obedience. We, as Christians, many times have a hard time believing that people who are not just like us are worthy of God's grace. For instance, Jonah. One of the big problems Jonah had was that he saw the God of Israel as their God and their God only. And he was upset that the national God of Israel would extend the offer to grace to anyone else. I'm afraid if we are honest, there are times as Christians, we hold that same point of view. "Ah, they are this. I don't want them to have God's grace." Or "They are that. I don't want them to have God's grace." And as I said, I believe, in the very first week that the book of Jonah is a mirror that when we hold it up to ourselves, it clearly reflects our biases and our prejudices.
But there's more to be learned. Is there one big point to the story? And if there is, then how does it apply to us today? Well, to understand the story of Jonah, first of all, we need to understand something of the backstory, if you will. We need to understand something of the historical context of the book. So what are some of the events that in the life of Jonah and the people of Nineveh in the nation of Assyria, the ten northern tribes... What are some of the events that we need to take into account? What are some of the events of Jonah's life that factor in the story? By the way, each and every one of us has a backstory, if you will. There is a context to our life. There's a history to our life. And we're... seemingly fall on two ends of the teeter-totter if you will. Many times people underestimate the effect of the backstory of their life. They downplay it. They don't take it into account. The other extreme is that they overestimate it. They, they give way too much credit to it. We want to try and find a perfect balance. But either way, we are all affected. Our beliefs, our values, to a certain degree, are all shaped by this backstory, the backstory of our lives.
So what was the backstory of Jonah? Well, we've seen this. So just quickly, we'll go through it. Jonah was a prophet of God to the northern tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel. And from what we know of him in the Scriptures, he was a faithful prophet, and he had always been an obedient prophet until God called him to go to Nineveh, but not only do people have a backstory, so do nations and cities. So what would be the backstory for the city of Nineveh? Well, Nineveh was a prominent city in Assyria. Some believe that perhaps it was a capital city of the Assyrian empire. God Himself describes it as a great city. It was great in size. It was great in population, but it was also great in its wickedness. And the wickedness was the reason that God told Jonah to go out, to go to Nineveh, and call out or cry out against it. The nation of Assyria, they have their own backstory as well. And their backstory is one of brutality. They were a people, a conquering people, a warring people, and they went out, and they conquered other countries, and they kept those other countries in line through their violence and through their cruelty. They ruled with fear and violence and intimidation. And then, finally, we have the northern tribes or the ten tribes of Israel. And they shared a border with a territory of Assyria. The northern kingdom was well aware of the brutal reputation of the Assyrians. And the Assyrians would be God's sword that He would use in just a few short decades to put an end to the northern kingdom of Israel.
So the Assyrians were always a threat to Israel. Jonah's hometown was not far from the border. So, imagine the tension. Imagine the fear that Jonah grew up with. From the time he was a little boy, he lived in a town that had to endure the constant threat of invasion and violence from the neighbors from the north. It would be like today, the border of North and South Korea. We have that zone there, and there's always this tension there. You never know what the neighbor to the north is going to do. Well, this is what Jonah grew up with. He grew up with this tension. And he had to surely have heard the stories of how the Assyrians conquered, how they treated people, how they were so brutal, how they cut the thumbs off of people, cut the lips off of people, and cut the heads off of people. Imagine the impact that would have had on him as he grew up hearing those stories time after time after time.
Well, one day God comes to Jonah, and He tells him to go to Nineveh, but Jonah has other ideas. Jonah has a plan of his own, and his plan is to get as far away as possible. So what does he do? He goes, and he buys a ticket. He plans to get on board a ship and go as far away as he can. He tries to go to the far side of the Mediterranean Sea. God allows him to make his way to Joppa. God allows him to buy the ticket. God allows him to get on the boat. Now, there's an important detail in the text that I want to deal with here for just a moment. It tells us that Jonah went down, in chapter one, that went down to Java. And the Bible says that he paid the fare (Jon 1:3). Now, that may seem like an insignificant detail until we stop for just a moment and think about who Jonah was. Who or what was Jonah? He was a prophet. He was a man of God. How do you think a prophet was supported? Primarily, by God's people.
In other words, here's Jonah, using God's money to fund his disobedience. We would liken it to something like this today, that you own a company, and you tell one of your employees to fly to New York City to close the biggest deal in the history of your company. Well, you learn that your employee has taken your company’s credit card. And instead of buying a ticket to New York, they have bought a ticket to Osaka, Japan. And you're upset. And so, you know, by the time that they land in Japan, they're going to have a message on their phone. And as soon as they take their phone off of airplane mode, guess what? You're going to give them what for. You're going to let them know exactly how they feel. There's a pretty good chance you're going to fire that employee. Well, Jonah is just like a bad employee. He used God's money to go against God's will. He used God's money to fund his disobedience. So, we have to ask ourselves, why did God insist on using Jonah? Why didn't he just let him go? Why didn't he just say, "You're fired. I'll go find somebody else."?
So God lets Jonah board the boat. He lets the ship set sail. God lets the boat get out to sea, and then God acts. What's He do? He sends a storm. What a storm it was. It's the... Bible tells us that the sailors were deathly afraid. They were so afraid that they began to pray (Jon 1:5). But guess who's not praying? So-called man of God, the prophet of God. He's nowhere to be found. He's below deck. He's taking a little nap. The question comes to my mind again, why did God insist on using Jonah? The sailors begin to cast lots. The lot was used to determine why they were in trouble, who was a source of their trouble. And you know the story. The lot falls on Jonah (Jon 1:7). So what does he do? He kind-of answers their questions and he says, "Hey, if you want to escape, if you want to save your life, here's what you need to do. You need to pick me up, you need to throw me overboard." They didn't want to do that. So what did they do? They tried to step up their game. They thought that more human effort would be able to save the day, so all their strength and all their skill they applied to try to get back to dry land. But, ultimately, they saw that it was futile. All human effort was futile in the face of God's power. So what did they do? They finally consented. And I do believe somewhat reluctantly, they picked up Jonah, and they threw him overboard. And the farther he sank, the calmer the winds became. And by the time he was out of sight, they were out of danger.
Next thing Jonah knew, he had been swallowed by a great fish. It's interesting. The Bible says that the fish was actually appointed by God to be at that place at that time for that very purpose (Jon 1:17a). In other words, God was not going to let Jonah die. God's plan was for Jonah to go to Nineveh, and Jonah was going to go to Nineveh. So, Jonah spends three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. Just use your imagination, and try and place yourself in his position. It had to be dark. It had been incredibly slimy. It had to be somewhat uncomfortable and cold. Imagine the smell. Imagine the constant motion of the fish as it swam through the sea. I don't think it just laid there like a blob, do you? It was a fish. What do fish do? They swim. This man... He's in, in this fish that swims mile after mile. And imagine the pain Jonah must have experienced as this great fish would dive deep into the seas and rapidly come back to the surface. Say, "Why would that cause Jonah pain?" Do we have any scuba divers in the house? One of the perils of scuba diving is if you go down too deep and come up too fast, you get something called "the bends". Your, you get too much nitrogen in your blood, and it's excruciatingly painful. You think this fish cared about how deep he went and how fast he came up? Not hardly. Three days and three nights Jonah had to endure all of this, and finally, at the end of three days... And you and I wonder what took him so long. Finally, he begins to pray (Jon 2:1).
Well, you know what? God has a way of bringing us to the end of ourselves, doesn't He? And that's why it took three days and three nights. Jonah was determined. He wasn't going to go to Nineveh. If he had to spend the rest of his life in the fish, so be it. Finally, God broke him. God is bending his will. So, like the prodigal son, Jonah begins to regain his senses, and he begins to pray. Look at chapter two verses five through seven. Jonah prays, "The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about, about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever." And he's, you know, what he's describing here? "I was as good as dead. I was good as dead." ..."yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple." He acknowledges that he was about to die. He acknowledges that he thought he was going to die. He says, "When my life was fading away," when my life was ebbing away, "I remembered the Lord and my prayer came to you" (Jon 2:7). You get the sense that he was just perhaps just moments from death. And he finally comes to his senses, and he prays.
So I wonder, have you ever asked yourself this question: What has changed? "Throw me overboard. I would rather die. I would rather commit suicide than go to Nineveh." Now, here he is praying to God, "Save my life." What has changed? Three days, three nights in the belly of the fish. It was God keeping him alive because God had a specific plan for him. And God was bending his will in order to get him to do what he needed him to do. And it's a prayer of repentance. Look at verse nine of chapter two, "But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you;..." Now, notice this, "...what I have vowed, I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord." I don't think he's making a deal with God. I think what he's saying here is "I'm a prophet of God. I'm a man of God. I've been given an assignment by God, and I will fulfill my responsibilities as a man of God." So, he's ready to do what God wants him to do. He says to God, "...what I have vowed I will pay."
And it's at this point that either the fish was tired of him and vomited him up or God said to the fish, "Vomit him up." Say, "Do you really believe that God was controlling this fish from the... making sure that he was in the right point, the right place at the right point at the right time?" Yes, I do. "Do you really believe that God said to that fish: 'Okay. Time to up-chuck.'" But this was up-Jonah, right? "Do you really believe that?" Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, the fish was able to tolerate him for three days and three nights. Why all of a sudden? Because God said, "he's ready now."
So God saved Jonah from death, twice now. First, when he was thrown over the side of the boat, God used the fish to save him. Now, inside the fish three days and three nights, his life was ebbing away. But he prays to God, and God saves him again. So I have to ask this question. Why does God insist on using this guy?
Well, now we come to chapter three, and God comes to Jonah, tells him exactly what He wants him to do. He says, "Arise, go to Nineveh," verse two, chapter three, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you." Now, this time Jonah obeys. He goes to Nineveh, and he delivers the message that God instructs him to deliver. Now, what was the message? Well, according to the narrator of the passage, it's really a pretty short message. It gets right to the point. And I wonder, did Jonah preach with a sense of compassion for them or did he preach with a sense of anticipation that God would destroy them? We don't know. But the text says in verse four, "Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, 'Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.'" (Jon 3:4). What is this? It's a message of judgment. But as I've said before, implied in the message of judgment is what? Is grace. Is grace. If God did not I want to show them grace, he would not have sent Jonah to them. And when He sent a messenger who preaches a message of judgment, that is an act of God's grace.
So, why does God let us hear the gospel? So that we can know grace. Why does God want us to share the gospel with others? So that they can know grace. There are parts of the gospel that are offensive to people. Do you think the people of Nineveh embraced Jonah with open arms when he said, "You have forty days, and the city's going to be overthrown."? I don't think so. But you know what, in that message, there was grace. So, Jonah has a change of heart about his own life, but I still wonder has he had a change of heart about their lives. And Jonah is like... Jonah is so much like us. And I think if we would be more honest with ourselves, we would see this. Jonah's like many of us, who care far too much for our own lives and far too little for the lives of others.
Well, whatever his attitude may have been, Jonah delivers a message that God gave him. What happens? The people actually believe God. The people of Nineveh believed God. They repented, and God relented. say, "Well, how do we know that their belief was genuine? How do we know that it was genuine repentance?" Simply by their actions. Bible tells us they called for a fast. As a sign of mourning, they put on sackcloth (Jon 3:5). Sackcloth was a garment made out of goats hair. Doesn't sound very comfortable, does it? But that's the point. It was a sign of mourning. It was a sign of repentance. And this repentance wasn't confined to just the lower classes of society. The king of Nineveh repents and calls for a citywide fast as a public demonstration of mourning for their sin. Look at verse seven of chapter three. "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..." Something dramatic is happening here. God is at work here. From the top-down, we have the whole city, we have the great city and all levels of the society of the city repenting and turning from their sin. In just a matter... I don't know, was it the one day? Was it the 40 days? I don't know. But I know this. In just a matter of days, the entire city was converted. You say, "Oh, you don't believe that? Do you? This is just hyperbole of Scripture?" No, I believe the entire city was converted. Such is the power of God. If God wants to convert a whole city through one message, He can do that. God has confidence in His Word. Do we?
You know, understanding what God did at Nineveh should give us confidence that when we present the gospel even to the most hardened sinner, God can give them spiritual life. I mean, you talk about revival. This is a revival. 120,000, at least. There' some, there's some question as to 120,000. Does that refer to the entire population of the city or just the young ones of the city? We don't really know. But anyway, that's a lot of people. 120,000 people are converted. That's a revival. And you would think that Jonah would have been thrilled by this. You would think he would have hired a press agent and just waiting for the call from Christianity Today to put him on the cover. And Todd Friel of Wretched radio was about to have him on for an interview. And every Christian podcaster in the country would surely want this guy on, and he was already preparing his materials for the Nineveh method of evangelism, and he was going to make a fortune. Jonah should have been thrilled. He had been used of God in the conversion of 120,000 people. Take the population of Berea and multiply it by ten, and that's how many people were converted through one message.
But he wasn't thrilled. He wasn't happy. In fact, he was just the opposite of being happy. The Bible says that God's act of grace displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry (Jon 4:1). And why was he angry? We'll look at verse two of chapter four, "And he prayed to the Lord and said, 'O Lord...'" Now, he's ready to pray. "'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 know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.'" Jonah said, "This is exactly why I ran away. I knew what you were like. I knew that you were going to show grace to these people. I knew what you were going to do, and I wanted no part of it. I didn't want to see these people spared. I want to see these people punished."
And now, it's at this point in the story that Jonah appears to become unhinged. It's like he's reached his breaking point. Mentally, he can't handle it anymore. So what's he do? Once again, he asked God to take his life. He would rather die than live with the knowledge that God has spared the people of Nineveh. That.. such was his hatred of them. God asked him a very pointed question. He says, "Do you do well to be angry?" (Jon 4:4). And notice, no response is recorded here. And I have to ask myself, why did God insist on using Jonah?
Well, Jonah goes away from the city to sit down and wait. And keep in mind, it's in the Middle East. It's hot. The sun is hot, blazing hot. So to shade himself from the sun, he makes himself a little booth. And he's going to sit there until he saw what happened to Nineveh. Now, you know what his hope was. That Nineveh would be destroyed. But, God continues to show grace both to the people of Nineveh and to Jonah. And so, He appoints a plant to come up and to provide shade for Jonah. It was a much better source of shade than anything Jonah could have built for himself. And finally, we have something that makes Jonah happy. He's so happy. So happy that God has spared him from the heat of the sun. "If Nineveh burns, so be it, but I'm in the shade." Jonah slept so soundly that night. God had provided this beautiful plant to protect him.
But the next morning, when the sun rose, God once again makes a divine appointment. He sends a worm. This little worm has a voracious appetite. And do you think it was a random occurrence that this worm, this little worm found that plant? Do you think he was just inching along? "Oh, that looks good." No. God created this worm for that plant. And he went to eating. And what did he do? He killed the plant. The plant withers, the plant dies. And God's not finished with His appointments yet. Once the plant has withered, God sends a scorching east wind, and the sun beats down on the head of Jonah. He's so hot, he's about to faint. And what's Jonah's response? Once again," I'd like to die." And then, God asked him one final question. Look at verses nine through eleven, "But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And Jonah..." We wouldn't expect anything too different at this point, do we? “...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?" (Jon 4: 9-11).
Do you see what God's doing here? He's really pointing out the absurdity of Jonah's outlook. He's making Jonah come face-to-face with his lack of compassion for the Ninevites. His question points out to Jonah that he cares more about the plant than he cares about the people. And again, we have a tendency to cluck our tongues and wag our heads at Jonah. But what about us? Do we have compassion for the Ninevites in our lives? We've all got them. Or do we care more about our political positions, our political statements than we do people? As Martin Lloyd Jones said, "There can be no true justice apart from justification."
If you really care about people, if you really care about people, if you really care about people, you will be a passionate evangelist. Be passionate, but not for your political party. Not for your political position. Be passionate for Christ and for people. Do you want to see change in our society? So do I. You want to live in a better world? So do I. Be a passionate evangelist. The world as a whole has a heart problem. We don't have a legal problem. We don't have a political problem. We have a heart problem. Until and unless those hearts are converted, we will be in this endless cycle of violence.
So why did God insist on using Jonah? That's the big idea of the story. That's the one point of the story. Why did God take the time to bend the will of Jonah so that he would go to Nineveh so that he would go to a group of people that he couldn't stand so that he would go to a group of people that he didn't believe deserved to experience the grace of God? Keep in mind, the Assyrians were a constant thorn in the flesh of Israel. The Assyrians were a constant threat to the very survival of Israel. Why did God ask him to go to them of all people? A more modern parallel would be something like this: God coming to a Jew, living in Nazi Germany, and telling them to go preach the gospel to Hitler. That Jewish man or woman would think to themselves, "I'm not going to present the gospel that man. He's killed thousands of my fellow Jews. He's killed thousands of my fellow countrymen. He's killed, my friends. He's killed part of my family. Let him rot in hell for all that I care! Put him in a gas chamber! I'll flip the switch!" See? God wanted Jonah to go to Nineveh because when Jonah, an Israelite, a member of the northern kingdom, showed up and preached a message of grace... Remember, he's the oppressed. He's part of the country that has suffered at their hands. When he shows up and preaches a message of grace, that message has instant credibility. Jonah would be grace in the flesh. Jonah would be grace incarnate.
So, here's the point. God is helping us understand this. Your most effective ministry will be your hardest ministry. Your most effective ministry will be your hardest ministry. Your most effective ministry will come out of what has caused you the greatest pain in your life. Your most effective ministry will come among those who are not like you. Your most effective ministry may come from those that today you believe to be your enemies. And when you begin to minister to those who have caused you such pain, who have hurt you or to those who are different from you, when you bring the message of God's grace to them, you will be like Jonah. You will be grace clothed in humanity. You, like Jonah, will be grace incarnate.
What was Jesus? Wasn't He grace incarnate? Wasn't He grace in the flesh? Didn't He come to a world that hated Him? Didn't He come to a world that wanted absolutely nothing to do with Him? Didn't he come to a world that He knew was going to reject Him? Didn't He come to a world that He knew was going to kill Him? Do you think it was easy for Jesus to come to the world that He had created and lived here for thirty years, live among people who wanted absolutely nothing to do with Him? But ask yourself this question: Did Jesus have an effective ministry? Was it a hard ministry? Was it a difficult ministry? Yes, on all accounts. It's a ministry that continues to benefit you and me both today and for all of eternity.
Have you been looking for the easy way out? Do not take it. Do not equate effective ministry with easy ministry. If min.. if ministry's easy... Can I tell you? Don't let this gray hair fool you. I've been in ministry for a long time. It's hard. I'm only 25 but look at me. No, I'm kidding. Ministry by its very nature is hard, but it's rewarding. Your most effective ministry will be your hardest ministry. Jonah didn't want to go. He didn't want to preach. But he did. I'm sure, I'm sure it grated him, but it was hard. It was difficult. But God wanted to show him and us that your most effective ministry is going to be your most difficult ministry.