Jonah a Missional Reading

“Scripture is appropriately read and interpreted as the Spirit-empowered testimony that equips God’s people for their mission…”

Darrell Guder: The Continuing Conversion of the Church p x

If Guder’s statement above is correct then all Scripture has a missional goal.  What would this look like in practice?  I am attempting to deliberately think missionally about the Scripture I read.  In order to train myself to see not only the individual, theological, communal implications but the missional dynamic at work in Scripture.

I will ignore some details and other truths that are there in the text not because I do not think they are not important – undoubtedly they are.  But because I want to intentionally train myself to look at Scripture with a missional lens I am allowing myself to be a bit “unbalanced” in my reading.

Jonah – A Missional Reading

1. The INITIATIVE for MISSION begins with God

It is God who sends the prophet to go to Ninevah and call it to repentance.  Mission does not begin in the heart or mind of Jonah, but within the character, compassion and sovereignty of God.

2. The REASON for MISSION is the sovereignty of God

The main protagonist throughout the book is God.  It is the LORD: who sends the prophet (1v1-2), before whom the wickedness of Ninevah comes up before (1v2), who sends the storm (1v4), who directs the casting of the lots (1v7), who increases the strength of the storm (1v11), who calms the sea (1v15), and who provides the great fish to swallow Jonah (1v17) in chapter one.

Even the confession from the disobedient prophet Jonah in verse 9 declares the sovereignty of God;  “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”

In chapter two Jonah’s prayer shows that he saw nothing as beyond the reign of the LORD:

Jonah calls to him – from the grave (2v2), from the depths (2v3), when he is engulfed by the waters (2v5), from the roots of the mountain (2v6), from the pit (2v6) and when his life was ebbing away (2v7).   Even from there Jonah knows his prayer will rise to his holy temple.  There is nowhere that is beyond the reign and nothing that is outside of the kingship of the LORD.

The big idea in chapter 1 & 2(and continued in 3-4) is that God is absolutely sovereign over all the earth all idols and other gods of the nations are impotent and worthless when compared to Him.

2v8-9 sums up the entire first two chapters.  The idols of the pagan nations are proven to be worthless (1v2, 5-6). The Lord ALONE is king and salvation and blessing come from his hand ALONE.  This is the message that Jonah was called on to declare to the pagan city of Ninevah:  “GOD IS KING! THERE IS NO GOD BUT YHWH! TURN FROM WORTHLESS IDOLS TO WORSHIP AND OBEY HIM NOW.”

The uniqueness of the LORD who alone is God (not even the greatest among the gods of the nations.  Or that Israel worship only one God.  There is only one God who rules over all)  and who rules sovereignly over the whole earth is a theme that runs deeply through the OT.  This theme runs throughout the prophetic literature and its presence here puts Jonah firmly in that tradition.

Jonah is sent as a “missionary” to Ninevah because the LORD alone is King over all the earth.

3. The SHAPE of mission is the CHARACTER and COMPASSION of God

This is seen in 3 ways in Jonah:

a) Why does God send Jonah in the 1st place if his intention was to destroy?  The sovereign God of chapter 1&2 does not owe anyone an explanation or a warning.  But yet he sends Jonah with a message – why?

b) The repentance and humbling of the king and all the people before the word of the Lord in the mouth of the prophet, surely was God’s intention from the outset.  Despite the warning of destruction – the humbling of the proud and wicked Ninevites before the sovereign King and their cry for mercy evokes compassion from the LORD.   “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” (3v10)

c) Chapter 4v2 is probably the key to the entire book of Jonah, Jonah confesses God to be “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

These words are from God’s revelation of himself to Moses in Exodus 34:4-7.  These words are said to be the name of the Lord.  The context is that of the giving of the law and the binding of God to Israel as a people.  Who is this God who is binding himself to Israel as the their God?  The one whose name is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love.  This is the God who is both the God of Jonah’s people and the God who has compassion on the pagan Ninevites.

The compassion of God on Ninevah is entirely consistent with the character of God as revealed to his people Israel.

4. The Mission of God embraces both the PARTICULAR and the UNIVERSAL

Jonah is consistent with what we know about the mission of God throughout the Bible.  God is always seen to choose Israel, as a particular and chosen people in order to be a blessing to the nations.  The particular people is chosen in order to fulfill God’s plan for the universe.  God’s choosing of Israel is never meant to be an exclusive thing.  It was always meant for the blessing of all nations (Genesis 12:1-3).

5. The Mission of God has a MESSAGE at its centre

It is surely significant that the God of Israel whose desire is for the blessing of the nations shows compassion on Ninevah by sending a prophet with a message of repentance.  Whatever we may say about the role of social justice and community development it can never be at the expense of the proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

6. There is a CONSISTENT FAILURE  to UNDERSTAND the mission of God by the people of God:

If we only read chapters 1&2 we are left with a very awkward question:  How does someone whose theology is as good as Jonah’s end up in the belly of a fish?  We teach children in Sunday school that Jonah was running away because he was scared of the Ninevites.  Now that is blatantly not in the text.  My cynical side suspects that we have invented this reading in order to protect ourselves from the more penetrating revelation from the mouth of Jonah himself:

“O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah is a picture of Israel – those to whom God had revealed himself in order to be a blessing for others.  Jonah, like Israel, is sent to be a light to the surrounding nations (in this case Ninevah in particular).  Instead what is it that God’s chosen messengers do – they reject God’s purposes and try to twist the covenant blessings to their own purposes and benefit.

We see this consistently throughout the OT and perhaps most shockingly here in Jonah.  The very words that Jonah quotes to defend his anger at God’s sparing of Ninevah, are covenental words from God’s calling of Israel.  And yet Jonah misses the very heart of the covenant – Israel is called and blessed for the blessing/salvation of the nations.  Israel in fact only exists because of the saving and gracious hand of God.  But yet that very action becomes the cause of Jonah’s anger and disobedience.

This is also the clue to the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:38-41;16:1-4; Luke 11:29-32) that Jesus speaks of.

Jonah is  an Israel figure who persistently refuses to want God to be gracious and compassionate upon those who are not of Israel.   The sign of Jonah is a judgement upon Israel who like Jonah refused to be who God had called them to be “a blessing to the nations”.  When Israel asks for a sign – Jesus refuses except to point them to what they can already read in the Scriptures, thinking particularly of the story of Jonah.

Jonah is also a Christ figure, the Servant of the Lord, who is raised from death to bring blessing to the nations/proclaim the Kingdom of God and repentance.  Jonah is a Messiah figure for the nations who actually ends up condemning Israel as their representative. But what a pathetic, unwilling Christ figure when compared to the one greater than Jonah who is now here.

7. Mission exposes the self-centredness of our hearts

In the final act of the story of Jonah in  4:5-11,  God, in his grace, provides shade for Jonah’s head in the form of a vine.  Jonah’s discomfort is eased and in a brilliant touch of irony Jonah was very happy!   However, when in v7-8 God causes the vine to wither and the sun to blaze on Jonah’s head he is angry enough to die.

The Lord for a second time asks Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”  This is the exact question that God asks Jonah when he is angry about the Lord sparing Ninevah!  The Lord’s verdict is a chilling revealer of Jonah’s heart:

“You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

Do you see the irony Jonah is angry that God will not destroy a city of one hundred and twenty thousand people but yet he is happy that God has provided a vine so that he can sit in the shade!

Jonah will be happy if God destroys a city of one hundred and twenty thousand people who he has made and loved, but yet angry if God destroys a vine that God has provided so that he can sit in the shade!

Engaging in mission will more often reveal the idols of our heart than listening to a great sermon would. When we engage in living missionally our values, culture, comforts and personal preferences are both challenged and revealed as those things which have the firmest grip on our affections.  And like Jonah no matter how good our theology may be, we will fight tooth and nail to protect that which has captivated our heart.

Previous posts in this series:

Ruth – A Missional Reading

James – A Biblical Basis for Missions


~ by John on October 18, 2009.

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