Over the month of September we are going to revisit our vision “to make a positive difference to the city of Dublin spiritually, culturally and socially” by looking at the book of Jonah. Despite all of Jonah’s misgivings, God wanted Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh so that the people might come to know Him. And the book ends with God’s challenge to Jonah
should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?’
God is a missionary God, who wants to impact the major cities of the world and he wants His people to learn his compassionate missionary heart, so that we might join him on His mission to bring his salvation to the ends of earth.
But as we’ll see, far from being a ‘nice children’s story about a big fish’ the book of Jonah is a stern rebuke about a man (Jonah) and a nation (Israel) that are far from fulfilling the purposes that God has for them. God wants to shake Jonah up…and he wants to shake us up, too!
(1) God’s compassionate heart & Jonah’s racist heart
The book of Jonah deals with a huge modern problem – “us” vs “them”. Modern society is increasingly polarised where we separate ourselves into ‘our tribe’ and criticise, despise and demonise ‘the enemy tribe’ from a distance, usually through social media!
When God tells Jonah to go and preach to the people of Nineveh he is in effect saying ‘go and get close’ to them. As Brene Brown says
people are hard to hate close up.
So, God tells Jonah to get real close the Ninevites. Why? Well, for two reasons:
Firstly – because God has a compassionate heart for all people. God doesn’t want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). No-one is too far, too bad, too messed up or too broken for God to have compassion on. God loves all people, not just his covenant people (in 8th Century this was Israel, today it is the worldwide church). It is often the greatest enemies of God’s people that God chooses to reach out to (think about Saul of Tarsus who violently persecuted the early church in Acts 8-9).
Secondly – because Jonah is a racist. He hates the Ninevites. He doesn’t want to get close. They are the enemy. At the time when Jonah lived (8th Century BC) the Assyrians were the dominant world super-power and would eventually come and plunder and exile the 10 northern tribes of Israel where Jonah lived (in 722BC, see 2 Kings 17). Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and therefore it was the last place on earth Jonah wanted to go. Yet, God called him to go. God wanted to deal with Jonah’s heart and root out his racism.
And so will it be with us. God wants us to reach out to those we see as the enemy, or find hard to love. He wants to us go—leave our comfort-zones and, out of compassion, share God’s love with others. And while we do, God wants to teach us some ugly truths about our own hearts so that he can change us, too.
(2) God’s Grace & Jonah’s Pride
Throughout the book of Jonah, God acts in grace, both towards Jonah and towards the people of Nineveh. His relentless pursuit of Jonah is quite astonishing. Jonah deserves to be cast aside by God and rejected, yet God gives him a second chance…and a third and fourth! Jonah was wicked, but God was gracious to him. Ninevah was wicked, yet God wanted to show His grace to them, too.
Whilst God acts in grace, Jonah is petulant and stubborn, and the final chapter reveals his pride and self-centredness as he argues with God as to why he didn’t want God to show compassion on Nineveh.
However, what God is doing with Jonah, God wants to do with Israel as a whole. Jonah represents Israel. Israel has become lazy, sinful and proud. They have the privilege of being God’s chosen people (Exodus 19:4-6) but, as Spiderman taught us, with great privilege comes great responsibility. Instead of using their privilege to be a light to the nations, Israel has fallen far from God and are anything but a light to the nations. So in revealing Jonah’s stubbornness and folly, God is revealing Israel’s stubbornness and folly. Yet, God hasn’t given up on his people. Whilst he will chasten them (like he does Jonah in chapter 1), he ultimately wants to restore them (chapter 2) so that he can reuse them (chapter 3). But for this to happen, Israel has to start to first appreciate God’s grace to them, so they may share that grace with others (chapter 4).
Jonah is very much like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. As the younger son receives undeserved mercy from his Father after his great sin (the traditional sins that accompany hedonism – sex, drink, drugs, wild spending etc.), the elder brother is confronted with his own sin…the sin of pride which manifests in anger, superiority and demonisation of others. So too must Israel be confronted about their pride, so God can use them.
And so it will be with us. God wants to use us to make a positive difference in Dublin, but very often he will send us to the people we least want to go and be with. We will find ourselves ‘with the enemy’ and learning how to love and show compassion to those that we naturally hate. But, in changing us, God can start to make us instruments of change in the city. In teaching us grace, that grace can seep out into the lives of those around us.
(3) God’s Sovereignty & Human Responsibility
The book of Jonah shows a God who is in charge. He is in control over nature; sends a great wind (1:4) and then calms the storm (1:15), he provides a great fish (1:17) and then commands the fish to vomit Jonah out (2:10), he causes a great vine to grow up (4:7) and then causes it to be eaten by a worm (4:8).
But, God is also in control of salvation. Even whilst Jonah is running away from preaching to the gentile city of Nineveh, God saves gentile sailors (1:16). Jonah cannot thwart God’s salvation purposes! When Jonah finally goes to Nineveh, it is an 8-word sermon (3:4) that causes the whole city of 120,000 people to repent. As Jonah himself says in 2:19 “Salvation comes from the Lord.” This is God’s work.
Yet, God’s sovereignty does not bypass or eliminate human responsibility. A huge purpose of the book is to reveal that Jonah is a fool, a racist and a sinner who needs to repent. He is held up to us as a negative example of what not to do when God calls you! And the people of Nineveh had to repent and are commended for that (see Luke 11:29-32). And God wants his people Israel to take responsibility for their role in bringing salvation to the ends of the earth, a commission that Jesus will give to all us (Matthew 28:16-20).
So, as we think about reaching out to the city of Dublin, we must remember that only God can open blind eyes (2 Corinthians 4:1-6), and only God can change hearts (John 3:1-8). However, we still have a job to do. We must go and preach that people must turn to God in repentance and faith. And we must embody and model that message with lives that are full of grace and truth, that God might grant repentance to them, too.
And by the way, may the book of Jonah encourage us to pray for salvation. We learn that 120,000 people believed God and repented (3:5). Nineveh was probably the biggest and most important city in the world at the time. And yet the people turned to God. So may we never give up sharing the gospel with others…you never know what might happen! God wants to send us to the city of Dublin as his missionaries.
(4) Jesus & Jonah
Jesus compares his ministry to ‘a wicked and adulterous’ Israel in the First Century to that of Jonah to Nineveh in the 8th Century. Matthew 12:38-41 says:
38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.’
39 He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.
Just as the nation of Israel in Jonah’s time didn’t turn to God but the people of Nineveh did, so in Jesus’ time the people of Israel do not respond to his message, but the gentiles do. And just as 8th Century Israel were judged (exiled in 722) so 1st Israel will again be judged. And therefore the only sign that will be given is the sign of Jonah, which is Jesus’ way of talking about (a) his preaching of repentance and (b) his rising from death after three days.
As a side point, Jesus clearly sees Jonah as a historical figure and the incident in the fish as something that happened. So despite our many modern minds might scoff at the idea of Jonah being swallowed by a fish, if it was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for me! And besides, if God can raise some from the dead after 3 days, why can’t he keep someone alive inside a fish for 3 days?!
Our series: sent to the city
So as you can, the book of Jonah has a lot to teach us about our hearts, about God’s love for cities and about the gospel of Jesus itself. Here is how we will divide up our series
- September 9th: Jonah 1 – Running from god
- September 16th: Jonah 2 – Rescued by God
- September 23rd: Jonah 3 – A second chance from God (City Group Sunday)
- September 30th: Jonah 4 – The compassion of God (Vision Sunday & Baptisms)
Do join us over September as we study the book together, we meet every Sunday at 4.15pm at Synge Street School.