It might be surprising to some people that Jonah is really a mission book. Many years ago at seminary a returning missionary/Bible translator spoke about his work in the mission field. He then noted that when new converts wanted a book of the Bible translated, often the first one mentioned was Jonah. Let’s pursue that a little more and see if we can discover the reason.
In Jonah 1:1-2 God commissions Jonah with these words: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Interestingly the LXX uses κηρυξον (“preach”), which the ESV follows, “preach against”. Such wording implies a very strong Law proclamation.
But Jonah has other ideas: But Jonah rose 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 on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD. At the command to go to Nineveh, Jonah heads in the opposite direction; while there is doubt about the exact location of Tarshish, it is generally agreed to be in the western part of the Mediterranean Sea, most likely Spain. In other words, Jonah tries to flee as far from Israel/Judah as he can go.
It might be easy for us to criticize Jonah, but let’s remember the situation in which he finds himself. Nineveh represented the hated and feared enemy of God’s people. They would soon swoop down and conquer the northern 10 tribes (Israel), killing many, dragging many into captivity. Consider today if God told me to go the Al Qaeda headquarters and preach against it. What would my reaction be? Probably the same as Jonah’s.
But God does not let Jonah get away. For God’s prophet to speak God’s Word, he will first have to undergo the same as the people of Nineveh. God has to “preach against” Jonah. He does so by sending the storm, then allowing the sailors to throw Jonah overboard, and finally a great fish swallows Jonah. The Law is spoken in its harshest measures. Only an intervention by God can save Jonah – and that is what happens.
Jonah recognizes in the bottom of his despair – in the bottom of the fish – that apart from God’s steadfast love/covenant love (חסד) there is no hope. Ironically Jonah adds the phrase “those who pray to idols” forsake that very hope. Thus, Jonah is setting himself up against the Ninevites (who have the idols – chapter 3). That is, it is “good, right, and salutary” that Jonah, an Israelite would be shown grace, extended God’s steadfast love, and receive hope in the midst of no hope.
What Jonah forgot was something that happened early in the kingship of Israel, several hundred years before his time. Notice this critical passage: 1 Samuel 15:23, Samuel speaks to Saul: For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.” Jonah fell into the same trap; he could not see that his rebellion was in the same category as the idolatry of Nineveh. Therefore, all are under the same condemnation, whether Jew or Greek (Romans 3:9-10).
Nevertheless, God’s grace rescues Jonah, leads him to renewed faith in God.
Sometimes we as forgiven, restored Christians might think that God will change his mind about what he wants us to do. “I have been forgiven, but surely God won’t ask me to do something that I have already refused.” But not so with God. In fact, 3:1-2 we find a repeat of 1:1-2, God’s commission to preach against Nineveh. This time Jonah responds in obedience (result of faith); he goes to Nineveh and preaches against the people. Only an intervention by God can save Nineveh – and that is what happens.
The results are stunning! The people hear the judgment against them and their city, they recognize their sin, and repent in sackcloth. Even the king publicly proclaims the changed hearts, in the desire that “God may relent and turn from his fierce anger” (3:9).
Given Jonah’s prior experience of terror under the Law and the refreshing new life in the Gospel, we might expect that Jonah would rejoice at such a response. Alas, Jonah does not. Rather, he is quite put out! “It is exceedingly evil” was how Jonah considered this new situation. Because Jonah was an Israelite, he knew the promises of God to God’s people. But the Ninevites? No way! They are people who cling to their idols (Psalm 115:1-6), and in Jonah’s mind meant that meant there were two classes of people: God’s people and “them”. The people of Nineveh were part of “them” and therefore could – should not! – receive the same “steadfast love/covenant love (חסד)” that is the heritage of Israel. God shows the same compassion to the “nations” (epitomized by Nineveh) as he does to Israel. The law of God and the grace of God are not hindered by barriers set up even by the strongest of nations.
So the pattern is:
Part 1: God commissions Jonah to speak against Nineveh
God’s first mission complete
Part 2: God commissions Jonah to speak against Nineveh
God’s heart of compassion demonstrated and second mission complete
Now through the lens of Jonah, let’s glance ahead to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. Jesus sends the disciples to “make disciples” of all nations (note also the “preach” aspects in Luke, Mark, harking back to the LXX use of the same word in Jonah’s context). In the past “nations” (Hebrew: GoYiM) would have meant “them” of Jonah’s experience, now the “nations” include Israel itself as part of the “nations” (Acts 1:8, “beginning in Jerusalem”). Everyone and every nation is the missionary target of the Good News.
Further, notice the promise in 28:20 “for I am with you always.” Jonah thought he could avoid the mission assignment by fleeing, not from Nineveh, but from God’s presence. It didn’t work; God was with him. So also, those who think that the Great Commission can be shuffled off to someone else forget that Jesus “is with them always”. No matter where they go, when they go, how far they go, Jesus is there, and the commission is in effect. Jonah becomes a precursor of both Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 12:39-41) and the Jesus’ Commission to the disciples (Matthew 28:16-20).
Jonah truly is a missionary book – for all of us!