This sermon is part of the sermon series "Global Preaching Voices ". See series.
You may remember that in Jonah 3 there was this great revival in Nineveh. And usually when there's revival there's also great joy in the place where revival takes place. In Psalm 85:6 it says "Will you not revive us again that your people may rejoice in you?" And if God uses a preacher as the agent of revival, you would expect him to be the happiest because God has used him. It brings deep joy to be God's chosen vessel for a special task, and so that's what you would expect. But chapter 4:1 in Jonah starts with a "but"— "But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry."
You would expect Jonah to be happy, but the instrument that God used is unhappy. And see what he does in verse 2: "And he prayed to the Lord." Well, at least we can credit him for that. He was able to go to God with his anger. In the Bible very often you find God's people complaining to him, and the complaint is not glorified, is not justified. Often there's a rebuke to the complainer, though usually it's a gentle rebuke.
It's foolish to doubt God's wisdom and sovereignty. But we are weak people and we do that sometimes. And if we do, the best thing to do would be to face up to the reality of the doubt and go to God with the problem. That's what Moses did when he couldn't handle the pressure of leading his people. That's what Jeremiah did when he was struggling with loneliness. That's what Asaph did in Psalm 73 as he was contemplating the fact that he had been faithful and not doing well in life, whereas these wicked people were prospering. Now Jonah is doing the same thing. As always God ministers to these bewildered people. And often deep truths emerge from this complaint that comes from God's servant, and that happens in this passage, too. So we fault Jonah for his attitude, but we can at least commend him for his honesty in expressing his doubt.
God's covenantal love
You know there are some people who are orthodox in their belief—they believe the right thing. Sometimes they are not—they're afraid to be honest with their doubts, and so they won't grapple with their doubts, they suppress them. These people become intellectually defensive and those who meet them think that they are not very authentic. So it's good for us when we have a problem to go to God with that problem.
Now let's see what Jonah says to God in verse 2. "O God, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish." If you remember, Jonah had been asked to go to Nineveh and he went the exact opposite direction, away from the Lord. And then of course through a series of miraculous interventions God brought him back on track.
Now he's saying this is the reason why he didn't go the first time, why he fled to Tarshish and why he's angry now. He says, "For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster." Now this is a passage that is quoted from Exodus 34:6. So Jonah is a person who knew the creeds very well. Even in chapter two in his prayer he mentions the creed. A key to this creed is the statement "abounding in steadfast love." Now, steadfast love is the word used for God's covenant relationship. In the Hebrew its hesed, and it's the word for God's covenant relationship where God remains faithful to the promise. The Jews experienced a special relationship described as a covenant or a testament, and included in that covenant was God's loyalty to Israel. He is faithful to his covenant. This is the word that he uses now, and many Jews regarded hesed as a privilege reserved for the Jews. They didn't want to extend it to Gentiles. That's what had happened here.
When God called Israel, God called them to be a light to the Gentiles right from the start. This call is mentioned four times in Genesis, beginning with Abraham who is given this call to be a light to the Gentiles. Jonah accepted this privilege, but he didn't want the responsibility of using this privilege to tell people the message of God. So Jonah did not want to extend God's love to the Gentiles. He was suffering from theological racism.
I come from Sri Lanka, a country that has had a war for thirty years. We just finished the war. One of the outcomes of the war was some devastating ethnic strife. And one of the sad things that I've had to come to grips with is that, even with Christians, sometimes one of the last things to be touched by the sanctification process is their prejudiced against other people. Many evangelical Christians, who say that they're not racist, would consider another group or race inferior to them. It's very interesting that Nineveh is in modern Iraq, and the people there are Muslim. And very often there's a lot of anger against the Muslims today, and people don't like the Muslims. Many Christians show that they are different yet we love them. And why do we love them? Because the Great Commission extends to them also, and the primary way that a Christian looks at Muslims is as people who can be our brothers and our sisters in Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 5:14 Paul says that "One died for one, therefore all die." Jesus Christ died for everyone, and therefore everyone potentially shares in the benefit of his death. Then he says, "Therefore we regard no one from a human point of view." Now we don't look at people according to their class, their race. Those are not the things that we look at people from, although at one point Paul admits he did look at people from a human point of view. So how should we look at people? Verse 17 says, "If anyone is in Christ he's a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come." Now when we look at people we look at them and say Have they experienced the new birth? Do they know Jesus as their Savior? That's how. If they don't, we want to see them coming to Christ. If they do, we embrace them as my brother, my sister. This is the thing that drives us now as Christians.
We had a staff worker who was arrested for being a terrorist, and he had to stay fifteen months in prison. And he was released without any charges made against him. But during this time he started a ministry in the prison, and many people met Christ. This was a wonderful time where people's lives were transformed. While he was in prison, we celebrated we took a Christmas meal for all eight hundred people in that prison. There was a group of twelve of us who went. We had the meal, then we had a Christmas service. It was a moving time. Many people came up and said, "We thank God that we came to this prison because in this prison we met God." There was an older person there, and a colleague told me "That's the guy who was responsible for the bombing of the Joint Operations Command, and he's very seriously considering the Christian gospel." Now the Joint Operations Command is like your Pentagon, and when it was bombed, it was the scariest day of my life because that building is next to my son's school. I heard the bomb go off and I went to the road and I asked, "Where has the bomb gone off?" And the people said at the school—at my son's school. I got onto my motorcycle and I went as fast as I could to the school. My son was there and safe. All he had was a cut because part of the roof had fallen in his classroom. But here was the man responsible for the scariest day of my life, and he was considering the gospel. And I forgot all my fear because I realized this man needs the gospel. That is how we start to look at people through the eyes of the gospel. These people need Jesus.
Now salvation has come to Nineveh, and Jonah is mad at God. You know there are some people who believe that enemies must not be helped. And if you're bitter with someone you get angry with those who help this person. Jonah was angry at God for that. Even Christians sometimes want their enemies to be punished. And if someone is kind to them they take it as a personal insult. Sometimes people even leave churches because they say they're tolerating that guy in this church. They say it's because of justice that they are leaving it. But actually it's because of bitterness.
What if God treated us like that? Every time we sin against him and come back he forgives us. Jonah had rebelled. After knowing God's will he had rebelled against God. Now he's angry that God forgave the people who repented. In Jonah 3:10 it says says that "God turned away from anger." Then Jonah 4:1 says "Jonah was angry." When you harbor anger over enemies you may be on the opposite side of God, and even Christians, even leaders like Jonah, could fall into that trap.
Now the reason why he was angry is that the key to salvation is mercy. Often this word hesed is translated in the King James Version as mercy, and that's a good translation because that's the heart of God's covenant relationship with the Jews. He says, "You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in hesed," in steadfast love. It is because God is gracious and merciful that he shows covenant love to Israel. They don't deserve it. They didn't merit salvation. It was all an act of mercy. And that's the same with our salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "By grace you are saved through faith and not of work, lest anyone should boast." So we can't boast about your salvation, because this is a free gift from God. But those who think they have earned their salvation have grounds for boasting, and they think they deserve it more than wicked people. They're not happy when mercy is extended to these wicked people. That's what happened to the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son. In Luke 15:29, he says, "Look. These many years I have been slaving for you." That's the word he used. I've been slaving. He wasn't living as a son. He was a slave, and his boast was in his work, not on God's grace. When that happens, when mercy is extended to these people, we get upset.
We tend to think of people that we dislike as being unworthy of salvation. My calling for the last thirty years has been to work with the urban poor, and these are people with a lot of vices. Many of them are dishonest and untruthful. We've seen a lot of failure. I have been taken for a ride many times. And sometimes we can think Let me go to a group of people who are a little more honorable. You know the vices of the affluent are less conspicuous than the vices of the poor, and so sometimes we think Why don't we go to such people? Yet we have seen many who have come to Christ.
Just two Sundays ago we had a person come to our home to visit us with his wife and his son. He had been in a drug rehab program. I usually spend every New Year with the people in the rehab center. So one year we had our service at midnight and ushered in the New Year, and I was in the dorm with the boys chatting. This fellow was giving me his story. He said, "I usually sleep most of the day. Then I get up at night and I rob. I go to houses and I rob things. Then I wait till the shop opens that buys stolen goods and I sell those things to the shop. And then I take my drugs, and then I go back to sleep." And as he was saying this I thought to myself Now if this fellow came to my house I would have been so angry with him. This is the type of person who causes me to get enraged. But now he's with us, and he has become a Christian. About ten years later, he has his own business, he's married, he has a child, he's doing well, and he's active in his church. Here was a person who we would have thought was not honorable, didn't deserve the gospel. But as Romans 5:8 says "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." God didn't wait for us to become worthy, because he knew that we didn't have the ability to be worthy, so that we can earn our salvation.
Verse 3 reveals an even bigger surprise. "Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life for me, for it is better for me to die than to live." You know there are other people of God who have wanted to die rather than live. Elijah when he was exhausted after his great battle at Mt. Carmel and finds out that Jezebel is looking to kill him. He says, "I want to die" several times. Jeremiah when he's lonely and rejected by his people says, "Curse the day that I was born." He wants to die. So if ever you thought to yourself Oh, it's better if I die, you're in good company. Even some of God's great servants thought that way. But Jonah's reason was that here was a person whose theology was correct but whose personal desire clashed with what he knew was the will of God.
His head and his heart were in conflict. His head had the theology, and his head said salvation is unmerited. It's a gift because of God's mercy. The Ninevites needed to hear the gospel just like the Israelites. His heart said, "Me and my people are better than these people. We deserve to be saved; they don't deserve to be saved." And there was a conflict within him, and he had lost his peace. You know the peace that God gives us, shalom in the Old Testament, is one of the great heritages that we have as God's people. God is with us, and life is grounded, wholesome. Things are okay, because God is with us. And he couldn't say that. What a desperate situation to be in—to know the truth but not to want to follow it. You know the folly of disagreeing with God but you don't want to agree with God. After some time the conflict becomes so unbearable you just give up and want to die.
So God speaks and he says, "Do you do well to be angry?" Actually literally this is "Is it good for you to be angry?" Jonah says in verse 3, "It is good for me to die." In verse 4 God is saying, "Is it good for you to die?" And Jonah says, "It is good for me to die." So here is a case of God's servant and God thinking in totally opposite ways.
Well, it's very interesting to see how God deals with Jonah. Verse 5: "And Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city." So he's making a booth. We don't know what this booth is made of, but it must have not given him too much shade because then a tree came up and he was really happy. And he wants to see what would become of the city. Is he thinking that God might change his mind and still destroy the city, or is he waiting for some action from God to respond to his questions? We are not told. But what we are told in verse 6 is that God appoints a plant. "And now God appointed a plant and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be shade over his head to save him from discomfort." So a plant would have made him a little more comfortable. It made the place a little cooler. We don't know what this plant was. In verse 10 it says "it came up overnight." That could be a figure of speech as if to say it came up very quickly, or it could be a miracle that God caused for it to come immediately. If it was a figure of speech and it came up quickly, it could be the castor oil plants, because those come up very quickly.
Whatever the plant is, Jonah's response is very interesting. Verse 6 in the last part. "So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant." Now earlier he was exceedingly upset. Now suddenly something happens and he's exceedingly glad. The Hebrew literally says "Jonah rejoiced over the gourd with great rejoicing." You know as if some wonderful thing has happened. As one translator put it, "He was terribly pleased." Why this extreme response? Once he's extremely angry; now he's extremely joyful over a relatively small thing. This is the response of someone whose insecurity causes them to look to themselves for security, for importance, and they trust in themselves. Jonah regarded the vine as an acknowledgement of his inherent worth. "I deserve God's help, and here is evidence of it. At last God is treating me the way he should be treating me." But you know if you trust in yourself you are trusting in something very insecure. When you feel affirmed there's an extreme expression of joy, and if you feel you're not affirmed or you see others affirmed you get very upset.
It's like two girls walking along the street and they meet a friend, and this friend tells one of the girls, "Oh, you look very beautiful today," and the other girl is up all night asking Why didn't she say that about me? and upset because she wasn't affirmed. It's like that with us if we find our satisfaction from things in this world. If your trust is in God there is a quiet confidence. Then what is most important to you is not how well you do, not what people think of you, not what you will get, not what you don't get. The most important thing is that Jesus loves you, that you belong to God, and that he loves us not because of anything that we do but simply because he loves us. That's the greatest thing about us. Then we can trust him to look after us.
This is the third time the word appoint has come. In chapter one we are told that God appointed a big fish to come and help Jonah out. Then we are told in verse 6 that he appointed a plant. Now in verse 7 we are told "But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered." God has now done a different kind of appointing. The first two were to help Jonah. This one also is to help Jonah, but it is not in the way that Jonah anticipated. God is teaching Jonah in the most graphic way.
Jonah had been complaining that God didn't destroy Nineveh, but that didn't mean that God was incapable of destruction. He appointed a worm to destroy Jonah's shelter. Soon he's going to appoint Assyria, the very people that Jonah hated, to come and destroy Israel, which happened some years later. This is a real life parable to Jonah. God is both loving and holy, and God not only blesses his people with what they regard as good and comfortable. Sometimes God blesses his people with what they regard as uncomfortable because he wants to make us greater. So he sends chastisement or discipline to our lives, including discomfort, pain, and heartache. He allows that to happen to us. The discipline serves to teach a lesson, to burn off impurity in our heart and to direct us along the path of greatness. Chastisement and discipline are examples of God's love.
In Proverbs 3:12 we are told, "The Lord reproves [or disciplines] him whom he loves, as a father the son whom he delights in." So sometimes when bad things happen to us, we might question God, and God's servants do question him. We will lament. We will struggle. And then finally the vision of God's sovereignty comes through. God is in control of my life, and he wouldn't have allowed this if this wasn't for my best. And so we take the discipline, give our self a little slap, and say, Thanks, Lord, I needed that, and go on along the path towards getting closer to God's way.
Now in verse 8 we come to the peak of God's chastisement. "When the sun rose God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah, so that he was faint." We don't exactly what that word scorching means, but it was a strong and hot wind that came along with the sun that was coming, and his shelter is gone. The situation is desperate. And so we are told Jonah said, "It is better for me to die than to live." His despair has peaked. God has treated him the way he expected the sinful Gentiles to be treated. Earlier he wanted to die because God treated the Gentiles the way he wanted to be treated. Now he wants to die for the exact opposite reason—God is treating him the way the Gentiles should be treated, he thought. You can imagine his frustration. He has a stubborn heart, and God is trying to reach out to his stubborn heart. He's brought to the end of himself before the great message of the book of Jonah is given to him, and that comes in verses 9-11.
"So God said to Jonah, 'Do you do well to be angry for the plant?' And he said, 'Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.'" So Jonah is snapping back at God now—"You are trying to kill me! I have every reason to die, to be angry." Then God explains his thinking. Verse 10: "And the Lord said, 'You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in the night and perished in the night.'" See, he's telling Jonah that he had no investment in this plant. He's gently but firmly reasoning with Jonah. There's a gentle firmness in this response to Jonah, and it's the same response to Moses, Jeremiah, and Elijah. All of them were struggling with the consequences of obedience. And when God disciplines us, he disciplines us wisely. He knows how much we can handle and what is the best thing for us. He never lowers his standards with us, but he varies the storm, without varying his demand. That's what he's doing here. He's gently arguing with Jonah. He tells him, "You pity the plant." He had no deep tie with this plant. He did nothing for it, no investment in it. It came up suddenly, and it died suddenly. Yet Jonah seems to be concerned for this plant. Then God said that his relationship with Nineveh is different to Jonah's relationship with the plant, much more serious. Verse 11 he says: "And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" God is describing how needy the people of Nineveh are.
This is something similar to one of the great missionary texts of Jesus. Remember he went about healing and preaching, and then we are told that "He saw that the crowds were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, and he was moved with compassion, and he said, 'The harvest is truly plenteous and the laborers are few.'" That's the type of thing that has happened here. Here are 120,000 people and they don't know their right hand from their left. In other words, they don't know how to make moral decision. They don't know God. They need to know God. So God's compassion is coming out. "Should I not pity them? Should I not be concerned?"
Lostness is the greatest tragedy in the world today. The papers focus on tragedy all the time. They are writing to us about tragedy. But the greatest of these tragedies is something that the papers never write about, and that is that people are lost without Christ, that they need God. There is a tendency for us to focus so much on other needs, such as AIDS, hunger, unemployment, poverty, and the environment. Of course the Bible is clear. Those are important needs, and Christians need to be doing something about this. We need to be involved. In fact, I really believe that Christians should seriously think of going into professions that deal with hunger, AIDS, unemployment, poverty, and the environment. We need to be involved in those things. They are great needs. But the greatest need is that people need the Lord.
Paul in Romans 9:2 says "I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart, for I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh." What a contrast to Jonah. The Jews have rejected Paul and the gospel, but he says he wants to die taking the gospel to them. Jonah wants to die because he is angry that Gentiles had accepted the gospel. God is concerned for the lost.
Today people try to downplay this idea of lostness, because it's embarrassing. They think, Who are we to tell other people they are lost? And isn't it arrogant for us to do that? I think the greatest arrogance for us is to reject what God the Creator of the universe has said, that people need to come to Christ for salvation. And if we reject it and say "Who are we to say that others are lost?" I think that is the greatest arrogance. We need to remember, as Paul said in Ephesians 2, "Remember that you were [call uncircumcision] separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in this world." That's the way people are before they know Jesus.
As a young person I came across a song written by Canadian poet Margaret Clarkson. I used to sing it often, and I still sing it once in a while to remind myself of the deep reality of lostness.
Open my eyes, Lord Jesus,
open my eyes to see
millions of souls are dying
dying apart from Thee!
Then let me see my Savior,
nailed to a cross of woe
loving through endless ages
millions who do not know.
Jonah was asked to leave his comfort zone and take a message to people whom he didn't like, and he did so unhappily. Paul, on the other hand, did so with a passion. He said in 1 Corinthians 9:16 "Necessity is laid upon me, woe to me if I do not preach the gospel." He was willing to pay the price, and so he says, "Even though I'm a free man I've made myself a slave to everyone. To the Jews I become like a Jew. To the Greeks I become like a Greek. To the weak I become weak, and I become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some."
You know this attitude of Jonah I've seen it a lot today. Deep down many are not willing for different kinds of people to come to their churches. They don't want that. So they don't want to change because when people who are different than us come change takes place. So they don't want to grow. They are comfortable with the way they do church.
I remember reading about a church in the southern part of the U.S. that was next to a university, and this was during the time of the hippies in the sixties and seventies. They were not able to reach anybody in this university, so they said we have to pray that God will bring university students to us. One day a university student came—typical hippie, no shoes on, long hair—and he walked up the aisle. The preacher was preaching. He came, sat down beside the preacher as he was preaching. And there was an old elder in the church, and he started walking forward behind this young man. And the members of the church wondered what is he going to do. And this old elder went up to the young man, sat down beside him, and listened to the sermon along with that young man. He was willing to change. Not easy for an old man to sit on the floor, but he was willing to do that so that this person may feel welcome in the church.
So God continues to call his people to mission. How did Jonah respond? Well, we're not told. Perhaps we are deliberately left hanging there, because the response is up to us to make a decision. Some will accept the challenge. Others will reject the challenge and continue to think only about themselves. There was a book of poems on the book of Jonah called You, Jonah by a Presbyterian American pastor Thomas John Carlisle. And this is how he ends the book:
And Jonah stalked
to his shaded seat
and waited for God
to come around
to his way of thinking.
And God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs
in their comfortable houses
to come around
Open our eyes, Lord Jesus, so that we can see the dark reality of lostness. And, O Lord, help us to come around to your way of thinking. Amen.
Ajith Fernando is the Teaching Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka and author of Reclaiming Love (Zondervan).