“‘Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh.’ . . . But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord.” -- Jonah 1:2-3
What do believers generally think we should learn from Jonah’s story? The takeaway I hear mentioned most often is: “Obey God.”
I’ve heard missions mobilizer (and Nazarene MK) John Zumwalt graphically describe that particular viewpoint. Most people, John says, think the lesson from Jonah is: “Obey God, or you’ll wind up as whale vomit!”
To be sure, Jonah’s story will support the thought that God expects us to obey Him, but is obedience really the story’s main point? I do not think so, since Jonah eventually did what God asked. Jonah did go to Nineveh and preach all throughout the city. If obedience is the crucial issue, shouldn’t everything have then been hunky-dory between Jonah and God?
Well, it wasn’t. Indeed, as the curtain comes down on Jonah’s story, God expresses displeasure. God’s final words to Jonah are a question: “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:11, NASB)
Jonah avoided going to Nineveh because he detested the Ninevites. They were Israel’s enemies and Jonah shared none of God’s concern for them. Indeed, Jonah got mad when the city repented en masse and it was not destroyed. That reaction greatly bothered God.
We’ll only truly understand Jonah’s story if we listen carefully to its final two verses. The main point of Jonah’s story is that God loves all people groups, even -- to Jonah’s dismay -- the Ninevites. That’s a major reason scholars have often called Jonah “the missionary book of the Old Testament.”
God clearly wants our hearts in tune with His heart on this issue. World Vision founder Bob Pierce often said, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” In Jonah’s story, God’s heart is broken when an entire people group is separated from Him. Jonah should not be our model. Our hearts today must be burdened about the thousands of people groups still unreached with the Gospel (www.joshuaproject.net).
Sadly, believers today often think that whomever they feel threatened by should not make it into the Kingdom. They rejoice when their enemies face suffering and even extermination. A few decades ago, many American Christians were vociferous about their hatred for Russians. Jonah-like slogans such as “kill a Commmie for Christ” were bandied about. After 9/11, many American Christians began seeing Muslims as the enemy. In Croatia, I discovered the people in neighboring Serbia were seen as the enemy. In many places, immigrant populations are considered the enemy.
Let’s reflect carefully on the implications of Jonah’s story. God was unhappy when Jonah did not care about a city full of people estranged from Him. Surely, God is not pleased today when His people feel little or no burden to reach the as yet unreached peoples of the world.