Jonah was arguably the world’s worst missionary. He stubbornly resisted God’s call. He was selfish with God’s grace. He hated the people he was called to evangelize. He refused to disciple the new converts God had made. In fact, he hoped God would change his mind, revoke his kindness, and unleash his judgment. When God stood firm in his mercy, his missionary became suicidal. However we struggle as missionaries, Jonah was worse!
But the book isn’t setting a low bar. It is, in fact, a radical call to share with others the grace that God has given to us. Two questions help us better understand and apply the book of Jonah in our own quest to obey Jesus’s Great Commission.
What Is Jonah All About?
Before anything else we should be convinced that the book isn’t a fable, but a historical narrative. The book gives no indication of being fictitious, it’s missing the typical marks of a parable, and Jesus handled the account as fact. The book is best described as “didactic history,” a true story making a point.[i] Here’s the gist: God called Jonah to warn the citizens of Nineveh. Instead, he fled by ship in the opposite direction. But God caught Jonah and returned him to shore inside a great fish. Jonah reluctantly obeyed God’s renewed commission, but his heart was a mess, especially after the Ninevites repented. The end of the book is an invitation for Jonah to appreciate God’s pity toward the lost. What is the story’s point?
Jonah is a missions manual. It isn’t a step-by-step evangelism guide. Instead, it’s an exposé of Israel’s missionary disobedience. Israel was meant to be a guiding star in a dark world. And God did graciously preserve a remnant of faithful believers who cared for outsiders. Still, covenantal presumption easily nursed a “proud, cold, stern, and malignant spirit of ecclesiastical self-righteousness and bigotry, and national intolerance and pride” among many Israelites of Jonah’s day.[ii] Jonah mirrors Jesus’s New Testament parable of the prodigal son. Gentiles are the child who forfeited all rights to sonship. The Father intends to welcome them back into the family. But like the older brother, Israel failed to share God’s welcoming heart. Jonah’s book was meant “to enlarge the sympathies of Israel and lead the chosen people to undertake the great missionary task of proclaiming the truth to the heathen world.”[iii]
But Jonah also sets up Jesus as the ultimate missionary. Jonah is a sign of Jesus (Matt. 12:39). Jonah’s experience in the fish pictures Jesus’s death and resurrection (Matt. 12:40). And Jonah’s reluctant outreach to Nineveh prepared Israel to expect a greater prophet who would willingly seek and save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus is “a greater than Jonah” (Matt. 12:41). To put it differently, the Ninevites were a first installment “of the Gentiles’ conversion to come”[iv] The awakening in Nineveh anticipates Pentecost, the first revival affected by the gift of Jesus. Because of Jesus, one day, “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of redeemed people will sing of the matchless worth of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 5:11–12). Jonah, even through his stubborn disobedience, reveals the loving heart of God toward lost people. Like all biblical narratives, Jonah isn’t the hero of the story; God is. This book helps tell the story of God’s heroic mission work in a broken world.
What Should We Learn from Jonah?
This little book suggests at least three things we must do to be faithful missionaries.
We must know God’s grace.
Jonah called himself a believer (Jonah 1:9). He affirmed that God is gracious “and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah could quote Exodus 34:6. But Jonah’s story gives little evidence of an experience of grace. His prayer, for example, is theologically sound, reflecting biblical psalms. But in an important way, his prayer is very un-psalm-like. “In psalms when sin is recognized as the cause of the writer’s duress, he makes that element primary and seeks deliverance from sin before anything else (as in Ps. 32).”[v] Jonah never confesses his sin. He blames God for his troubles (Jonah 2:3) while self-righteously extolling his own piety (Jonah 2:7–9). Jonah wouldn’t have liked John 3:16. God’s love for the world “displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was angry” (Johan 4:1). Faithful missionaries know that they need divine rescue. They love God’s mercy and invite others to be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).
We must obey God’s missionary call.
Witnessing is a matter of obedience. As a “professional prophet,” Jonah’s calling was simple, to say the words God put in his mouth (Jer. 1:9). All believers are prophets. We “share in [Christ’s] anointing” as prophet and must “confess his name.”[vi] Jonah’s commission previews the Great Commission. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18). We must take every opportunity to defend our reasons for hoping in Jesus (1 Peter 3:15). Jonah’s rejection of his missionary calling began a downward spiral “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3). We face that same danger today. Missionary disobedience is dangerous to our faith. Jesus was strong: people who refuse to acknowledge him before others have no right to call themselves Christians (Matt. 10:32–33).
We must trust God’s sovereignty.
Jonah knew that “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9; cf. Exod. 33:19). But he found no encouragement in God’s sovereign election. We should. Jesus once encouraged Paul to keep preaching the gospel on this ground: “I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:10). There were few actual believers in Corinth, but many who were divinely chosen for salvation (Acts 13:48). We must trust God’s sovereignty. God’s priority in salvation energizes missions. How? First, election guarantees results. God’s sovereignty in salvation “gave Paul hope of success as he preached to deaf ears, and held up Christ before blind eyes, and sought to move stony hearts.”[vii] It could have done the same for Jonah. It can do the same for us. Second, election calls us to action. Paul knew that “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). The sovereign God can save through your spoken word, however weak it is. Third, election keeps missionaries humble. Jonah didn’t work the revival in Nineveh. Paul knew that his success in Corinth was all of God. While he planted and Apollos watered, God gave the increase (1 Cor. 3:6, 8).
Like Acts, Jonah ends abruptly. You might read the last words wondering if there is more to the story. There is. We’re left to answer God’s closing question about the beauty of mercy. And we want to answer better than Jonah did. Will we “copy Jonah’s ‘embarrassing and ridiculous’ … hatred of his enemies”? Or will we “see the world as God sees it, a world greatly in need of mercy.”[viii]
To gain more encouragement from the world’s worst missionary see William Boekestein’s book, Stubborn Prophet, Faithful God.
[i] Daniel C. Timmer, A Gracious and Compassionate God: Mission, Salvation and Spirituality in the Book of Jonah, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 2011), 60.
[ii] Hugh Martin, The Prophet Jonah: His Character and Mission to Nineveh (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1958), 9.
[iii] James Orr, ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), s.v. “Jonah, the Book of,” by John Richard Sampey.
[iv] The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 23.
[v] Timmer, A Gracious and Compassionate God, 81–82.
[vi] Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 32.
[vii] J. L. Packer Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 1961), 116, 117.
[viii] Douglas Stuart, Hosea—Jonah, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 501.