Running to the Lost
Running to the Lost
Should God have any enemies?
The popular answer these days is basically this: "No, God shouldn't have any enemies … if there is a God, then he must be tolerant. He accepts everyone just as they are."
It's true that the Bible has a ton to say about God's love, but God's love is far more complex than popular ideas about tolerance. It has to be. The reason for that is because we live in a world that has been complicated by injustice and suffering and evil, so to talk about tolerance merely is not enough.
In this fallen, broken world, should God have enemies? If so, then who should those enemies be? Terrorists? Big corporations? Religious know-it-alls? Racists? Your difficult neighbors? How you answer that question reveals a lot about you and what you believe about God.
But at the end of the day, what we think doesn't matter. The truth is what matters. If God really does have enemies, then we want to know who they are. More importantly, we want to do whatever it takes to make sure that we are in right relationship with God.
The first half of the Book of Jonah is this amazing story of Jonah's disobedience and God's fierce and gracious pursuit of Jonah. Chapter two ends with Jonah rescued from the bottom of the ocean and vomited onto dry land by a huge fish—but at least he's alive!
Now God's call goes to Jonah again, and so we come to chapter three.
I want to consider three things: God's unconditional grace, Jonah's irrational anger, and then we'll wrap up by thinking about Jesus' unstoppable mission.
I don't know where you are in your relationship with God. Maybe you're angry at God. Maybe you're indifferent toward him. Maybe you don't think you need him. Or maybe you've given up on him. Whatever wrong attitudes you might have toward God, know that he is far too loving to simply let that go. God is pursuing you with his Word so that you might know him as he truly is.
God's unconditional grace
(Read Jonah 3.)
Chapter three opens with God speaking to Jonah. Even though Jonah flagrantly disobeyed God's command, here God gives him a second chance. We don't always get second chances, but when we do, it reveals how incredibly gracious God is.
God gives Jonah the exact same command that we saw in chapter one. Maybe Jonah was hoping that God would've changed his mind, but God's purposes have not changed. As a parent, I sometimes cave in if my kids disobey or throw a tantrum; I don't demand their obedience anymore. God is not like that. His purposes endure, even in spite of our disobedience. Jonah must now go to Nineveh to preach.
We see in verse three that Jonah obeys. In the Hebrew, it doesn't communicate any kind of enthusiastic obedience. Actually, it's all just very literal: God says go to Nineveh and preach. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches. He does exactly what God requires.
But, to Jonah's credit, this is a big deal. Not only is Nineveh a large and important city, but its inhabitants are the mortal enemies of the people of Israel. Nineveh was a royal city of the Assyrian empire, and the Assyrian empire was built by military conquest. They used violence and intimidation to extend their reign. Assyria had earned a reputation as a brutal and merciless opponent. If you know the story of the Old Testament, you'll know that just a few decades after this story, Assyria will destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, where Jonah came from.
Here, Jonah—a Jew—is being called to head to this city and preach God's judgment on them. This would've been like a Jew preaching in Berlin during World War II or a black man preaching in the Deep South during the Civil War.
That's what Jonah does. He shows up and proclaims the message God gives him: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown" (Jonah 3:4).
This idea of being overthrown: it's the same word that is used to describe what God did with Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, when he rained down fire and sulfur from heaven to destroy those cities for their wickedness.
Why 40 days? Well, it's an indication that this is no accident: this preacher has come, and the clock is ticking. Divine judgment will come upon them. And yet, the fact that God would even give them 40 days is a hint of mercy, isn't it?
When we look at verse four, Jonah's message doesn't seem like much. It's probably a summary of all that Jonah preached. But I think we're meant to see that whatever the message was, there wasn't anything particularly eloquent or winsome or powerful about it. If anything, it should've been deeply offensive, and we would expect the people in Nineveh to reject it. The nation of Israel had plenty of prophets come and preach far more powerfully about God's judgment, and they were rejected. Should we expect any different from this violent, pagan people?
But as we've come to expect, we see a surprising plot twist. The people of Nineveh respond to Jonah's preaching! They respond in a big way. This response is so unexpected that it would be almost comical if it weren't so wonderful. The Ninevites believe Jonah's words, and they believe God. They declare a fast and put on sackcloth. In light of God's wrath, food becomes secondary, and sackcloth becomes an expression of their grief and sorrow.
In verse six, Jonah's preaching reaches the king and his officials. Incredibly, even the king believes God. The king gives up the symbols of his power and authority, leaving his robes and his throne behind, putting on sackcloth and sitting in ashes. In other words, in light of God's coming judgment, the king acknowledges that he is no different than anyone else. He is not king: God is king. If the Ninevites' king has any authority, he's going to use it to call people everywhere to repent. Here, you see their desperation.
In verses eight and nine, he gives the motive behind all of this: "Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish."
It's not enough to fast and to grieve. At the heart of their response is a giving up: literally turning away from their evil ways and their violence. Apparently Jonah had made it clear in his preaching that the judgment that was coming was a result of their evil and violence. Here, the people do not rationalize; they don't relativize. No, they recognize their evil and violence, and they repent. They give it up. They turn away from it. They urgently call on God for mercy, for forgiveness.
In doing all that, they don't presume on God's mercy. I appreciate the humility there in verse nine. The king doesn't say, "If we do all these things, then God has to forgive us," or, "If we say all the right words and do all the right things, then our good will outweigh our bad." No, the king knows that at the end of the day, if God will turn from his wrath, it will be out of sheer compassion: not because of who they are, but because of who he is.
Shockingly, God does: God relents. He has compassion on them. He does not treat them as their sins deserve. God sees them in their repentance, in their sorrow, and he is moved with pity, and he forgives them. He doesn't bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. Somehow, the slate is wiped clean for these people. Nineveh is saved.
I wonder how all this talk about destruction and judgment sounds to you, especially if you're not a Christian. You might be thinking, Ah, here they go again—these Christians talking about fire and brimstone. But what I want you to realize is that in the face of real evil and injustice, we have to talk about God's judgment. In the face of evil, the opposite of love is not judgment. No, the opposite of love is indifference. It would've been unloving for God to be indifferent about all the evil that went on in Jonah's day, and it would be unloving for God to be indifferent about all the evil that goes on in our day.
Just as you would be outraged if the legal system did nothing about crimes done against you, so would we be outraged if we lived in a universe where God would do nothing about the evils that go on in our day.
Sadly, we know that human justice often fails. Human justice can be indifferent. But that is not true with God. God is never indifferent toward evil. Unlike human courts, God has the authority and power to bring about true justice. What this story reveals to us is that for every evil that is committed, there will be a day of reckoning. That's not only true for Nineveh: That is true for every single person who has sinned, who has turned away from God. The judgment that God threatened on Nineveh actually was just a foretaste, a glimpse of the final judgment that he will one day bring on all the world because of our rebellion. On that day, every evil will be accounted for. Every injustice will be answered.
Which then raises the question: How did Nineveh escape judgment? How were they able to receive God's compassion, instead of judgment? This is the mystery of religion, isn't it? How can a holy God remain fully committed to his justice and righteousness, and yet, at the same time, wipe the slate clean for sinners?
Here in Jonah, we see the people of Nineveh repent and turn away from their sins. But that still doesn't answer how God can justly forgive all their past sins.
What we learn from the Bible is that the only way God can forgive sin is if God provides an appropriate substitute to bear the punishment of sin so that the guilty can go free. Friends, this is what Christianity is all about. We live in a world that is under the wrath of God. You, along with every other human being, have sinned against this good God. Instead of living as he made you to live, you have gone your own way. You have pursued selfishness and evil and turned your back on God. You are a part of a world system that is in proud opposition to God.
But God, in his mercy, sent his Son Jesus into this world. Jesus came this first time not in wrath, but in compassion. There on the cross, Jesus Christ offered his life as a sacrifice for sinners, bearing the punishment and the judgment that we deserved, and he died in our place. Yet through that awful death, God fulfilled all his just demands against our sin—and to prove that the payment was completed, he raised Jesus from the dead and crowned him as king of the universe.
Friends, I'm not talking about a myth or a legend. I am talking about what happened in history 2,000 years ago. Jesus Christ is the answer to the mystery of how we can be made right with God. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God's holiness and love come together in perfect unity.
If you're not a Christian today, you're in the exact same position as these Ninevites. Nineveh was only a shadow of that fuller salvation that would come through Jesus Christ. There is a day of judgment that is coming, when all of us will stand before God. Just a few more days, and this world will be overthrown—but that day is not yet. Today, God's Word comes to you, calling you to give up your life of sin and to call on God for mercy through Jesus Christ.
Don't presume on God's mercy. Don't think, Of course God should forgive me. Of course my good deeds will outweigh my bad deeds. That kind of pride minimizes your sin and belittles God. Humbly realize that if you're going to come to God, it's going to be only by the way he has made, on his terms, through the salvation he has provided in Jesus. Turn away from your sin. Place your trust in what Christ has done today.
You'll notice I titled this point "God's unconditional grace." Why did I call it unconditional? After all, it sure seems that these Ninevites were working pretty hard to be forgiven.
The reason I say unconditional is because it's just so clear that God is sovereign over the salvation of the Ninevites. It's not as if the Ninevites are desperately seeking after God, and finally God decides to send them Jonah. No, the Ninevites are a wicked nation and care nothing for God. Yet God, in his mercy, takes the initiative in sending a prophet. God is in control over the message that he preaches. I think we're meant to understand that God is sovereign over the response of the Ninevites.
Yes, the Ninevites choose to respond in dramatic faith to Jonah's preaching. But I don't think that the goodness or morality of these Ninevites had anything to do with it. God pursues them even while they are living in their sin. It certainly isn't because of Jonah's amazing preaching. I think we're meant to be astonished at their response and realize that God had compassion on these people, allowing them to respond in that way.
We should stop and think about the words of the king there in verse nine. God doesn't save them because they deserve it. The people of Nineveh did not earn their deliverance. Salvation is not something that God owes to anyone. Rather, if anyone is saved, it is entirely because of God's sovereign, unconditional grace.
Charles Spurgeon, the famous preacher in 19th-century England, once wrote this:
"One week-night, when I was sitting in the house of God … The thought struck me, How did you come to be a Christian? I sought the Lord. But how did you come to seek the Lord? The truth flashed across my mind in a moment—I should not have sought Him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek Him. I prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself, How came I to pray? I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures. How came I to read the Scriptures? I did read them, but what led me to do so? Then, in a moment, I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, and that He was the Author of my faith."
I think this is what a Ninevite in Jonah's time would have to confess: How did I get to be spared from the judgment of God? Is it because I am better than others? Is it because of I had the good sense to believe in Jonah's preaching? No, God was at the bottom of it all. He is the author of my faith.
If you were to do a similar exercise, what would you find?
I became a Christian because my parents shared the gospel with me. Right there, I have to confess that I didn't choose my parents; no, God graciously placed me in that family. But there are plenty of kids who grew up in Christian homes, so why did I choose to respond to the gospel, while many of my friends did not? And having responded to the gospel, why is it that I have continued to live as a Christian, while so many of my friends have left the faith? Is it because I am more clever, more moral, more bright than others? I prove every day by my sinful heart that that's not true. Yes, I was genuinely involved in my spiritual journey in coming to Christ, but at the end of the day, I have to confess that at the bottom of it all, it was God's unconditional grace that drew me in, that gave me a heart to respond rightly to the gospel, that has kept me in that faith ever since. Any evidence of genuine faith in my life is evidence that God has loved me: not because of anything good in me, but because of his sheer compassion.
What that means is if there is any spark of conviction in your heart, any desire for and appreciation of Christ, any faith and hope and love working in you through the gospel, then know that God is at work in you. Even now, God is demonstrating his compassion in your life. Salvation comes from the Lord.
It's when we recognize the unconditional grace God offers that we realize what a precious gift faith is—because it comes from God. More than worldly power, more than worldly riches, the greatest gift we could receive is a heart that repents over sin and calls upon God. This image of the king removing his robes and descending from his throne reveals just how worthless worldly riches are in light of God's judgment. I think of John Wesley's words:
"I was in the robe chamber, adjoining the house of lords, when the king put on his robes. His brow was much furrowed with age, and quite clouded with care. And is this all the world can give even to a king? All the grandeur it can afford? A blanket of ermine round his shoulders, so heavy and cumbersome he can scarce move under it? A huge heap of borrowed hair, with a few plates of gold and glittering stones upon his head! Alas, what a bauble is human greatness! And even this will not endure."
None of that endures. What endures is God's unconditional compassion: received not by a perfect life, but by humble repentance and faith.
Jonah's irrational anger
Let's now consider Jonah's irrational anger. Look at chapter 4.
(Read Jonah 4)
Perhaps we would've expected Jonah to rejoice at Nineveh's response. Maybe he should've been happy just to make it out alive! But here we see a final plot twist, which drives home the point of this book. This book was never about Nineveh. This book is an indictment on the people of Israel, and Jonah is their representative. Throughout the book, it's the pagan sailors and this pagan city who are turning to God in faith and finding salvation. The enemies of God are none other than those who reject God's grace, just as Jonah and Israel did.
The chapter opens with Jonah furious at God. Why? Jonah knew from the beginning that his call to preach judgment to Nineveh was not an act of hatred or intolerance, but an act of compassion from God toward a sinful people. Isn't that amazing? Jonah understood that no matter how difficult it may be to hear, God's Word is a gift to a lost people. But Jonah wanted no part of that. That's why he ran away: He never wanted these undeserving sinners to hear God's Word.
There in verse two is a rich irony: In describing God's character, Jonah is quoting Exodus 34, which is how God reveals himself after sparing Israel for worshiping the golden calf. The people of Israel had come to know God personally by these characteristics. Jonah himself had just been rescued by that exact same mercy. But he didn't want that mercy to be shown to anybody else: certainly not to his enemies, these Ninevites.
In Jonah's mind, the Ninevites should've been God's enemies. They should not have received mercy, and so Jonah condemns God in his anger for showing such kindness. Isn't that amazing? Jonah condemns God for doing so much good to others. It reminds you of the way Jesus was condemned by the religious leaders of his day for healing the sick and befriending sinners.
Jonah is so sick of it all that he is ready to die. He doesn't want to live in a world where God would be so indiscriminating in his grace.
Here we just have to pause and reflect on this a bit. As ugly as Jonah's tantrum is, I wonder if any of this resonates with you. In a room this size, I would imagine that we all have our enemies. We have people in our lives who anger us, whom we envy, who have wounded us, whom we look down on. I realize that to talk about enemies, we're talking about something deeply personal. It's going to look different for all of us.
For me, these days, I'm tempted to see the homeless people who live in the park across the street from my house as my enemies. I see the danger they pose to my family. I hear them being disruptive late into the night. In my soul, I have a hard time loving them.
What about you? Are there prejudices you hold against certain groups of people? Are there individuals who threaten you, who have hurt you or cheated you or betrayed you, and you cannot bring yourself to love them?
If so, then what do you believe about how God views them? Do you believe that the grace God holds out to your worst enemies is exactly the same grace he holds out to you? Are you okay with a gospel that tells you that you need God's mercy in your life as much as your worst enemy does?
If there is someone in your mind who you think deserves God's grace less than you, then chances are you don't understand God's grace.
I don't know who your enemies are, who your competition is. Again, this is a deeply personal issue. But if the grace that God has shown you does not spill over into how you view these people, then—like Jonah—something is defective in your relationship with God.
Well, God will not give up on Jonah, and here is hope for all of us angry people. God pursues Jonah with a severe mercy. God causes a plant to grow and give Jonah relief, and right away, Jonah is very happy. But then the next day, God kills the plant and increases Jonah's suffering; again, Jonah is done with life. God questions Jonah, and Jonah digs in his heels, feeling justified in his anger.
But then we see God's piercing question.
(Read Jonah 4:10-11)
Far from being justified, Jonah's anger here is revealed to be utterly selfish, while God's compassion reveals just how good he really is.
I think one of the reasons Jonah got to this place is because he lost sight of the goodness and glory of God. His worldview, rather than being oriented around God, had become oriented around himself. He thought that God and the universe existed for him and his family and his nation: "Why else would God have saved me and blessed me?" But as soon as God does something that is inconsistent with that worldview, everything is turned upside down for Jonah.
We should be amazed that God has been so gracious to us. But if that shifts over into thinking that God's grace is all about us—that somehow God orbits around us and the people we love—then we have misunderstood it. No, God's grace exists for something far bigger. God demonstrates his grace not to show the world how great we are, but in order to show the world just how glorious he is. The reason we've been saved is to magnify God's grace, not our worth.
(Read 1 Timothy 1:15-16)
This is what Paul believed, but this should also be what every single forgiven sinner believes. If you have been saved, you are a demonstration of King Jesus' unlimited patience towards rebels.
Through Jesus Christ, this is what God is doing. In bearing our judgment, in forgiving the worst of sinners—even you and me—God, the great king, is displaying in radiant colors the glory of his grace and love and compassion. He does not exist for us. We exist for him.
One sign that we have this backwards is when we become too obsessed with material comfort. Jonah was obsessed with this plant that brought him relief because that plant was affirming his own selfish worldview. This is why suffering is so jarring and difficult for us: because it reminds us that we are not at the center of the universe.
I wonder what earthly comforts you've set up to affirm your own selfish worldview. In our materialistic, technological society, it is really easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that the universe revolves around us. For example: I push a few buttons, someone brings a pizza to my house. I press a few more buttons, I get to watch any movie I want on my big screen. I press a few more buttons, I can talk to people all over the world. The universe is at my beck and call! But all that is simply confirming a lie.
That's not what God is up to in the universe. His mission is not simply to provide for our retirement or to make sure that Apple or Google releases the coolest new products every year.
This passage is really clear: God is concerned about his glory. God is concerned about perishing souls. He was concerned about the 120,000 people in Nineveh, he is concerned about the millions in your metro area, and he is concerned about the 7 billion people in the world, the vast majority of which cannot tell their right hand from their left. They have no idea why they're here, where they're going, or who God is, and they live under all kinds of deception and addictions and enslavements that lure them away from all that is truth and life. God is concerned about them. God is concerned that his glory be displayed in them.
So where do we begin? It begins with our hearts. Pray that God would not let you be like Jonah. Pray that God would help you see people as he sees them. Pray that God would help you to see the lost-ness of the people around you and to care. Pray that God would send workers into the harvest field. Don't go at this alone: Make this a part of your discipleship conversations with one another. Confess your callousness to one another. Join with one another to pray for the lost. Then let's strategize together on how we can introduce our non-Christian friends to Christ.
As a church, we must not become ingrown. As soon as we do, we have lost plot. We have forgotten our mission. I pray that it's not too late. But there's hope. Praise God that this is not our mission, but Jesus' mission.
Jesus' unstoppable mission
Throughout the Book of Jonah, we have seen themes that propel us forward in the storyline of the Bible. Jonah himself paints a striking picture: this prophet who gives up his life for the salvation of others, who is in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, and who rises up from the depths of the sea to bring salvation to the Gentiles.
In Matthew 12, the Pharisees test Jesus and ask him for a sign. Jesus responds in this way:
(Read Matthew 12:39-41)
We want to ask, "How is Jesus greater than Jonah?"
Jonah ran away from God's call, but Jesus perfectly obeyed every one of God's commands.
Jonah left his home kicking and screaming, but Jesus willingly left heaven, in his love.
Jonah himself stood in need of God's salvation—Jesus is the one who never sinned, but gave his life to save sinners.
Jonah rejected God's purposes for Nineveh, but Jesus embraced his mission to be a light for the Gentiles, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth.
Jonah was ready to die because of his anger at God, but Jesus was ready to die because of his love for sinners.
In Jonah 4:2, we see this amazing insight into Jonah's motive. Why did he do something so foolish as to run away from God? As a prophet, wouldn't he have known that to disobey God means incurring God's judgment?
Yes, he did. So why was he willing to die? Because if he died, that would mean that Nineveh would've never heard, and Israel would've been saved. Jonah the prophet knew that Israel was in trouble, and the Assyrians were coming. Jonah was willing to die in order to save Israel. But he failed. God did not accept his sacrifice. One greater than Jonah was needed: one who never disobeyed God, one whose death would bring salvation not only to Israel, but to the whole world. This is what Jesus came to do.
Here at the end of Jonah, we see a glimpse of God's purposes in redemption. Jonah thought that Israel was the climax of redemptive history. But here we see that God is up to something more. Throughout the Old Testament, we see individual Gentiles coming to faith—Rahab, Ruth, Naaman—but here we see something amazing: A whole city of the most pagan, wicked Gentiles repents and believes in God. God is up to something big.
Israel is not the climax of redemption; something more is coming. A day will come when God will bring his salvation not just to Israel, but to the ends of the earth. This is exactly what Jesus has come to do. Jesus, God's Messiah, has accomplished the salvation that was foretold since the beginning. In Christ, Jew and Gentile alike find forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. Now, Jesus calls his disciples to take that salvation to the rest of the world.
(Read Matthew 28:18-20)
There is Jesus' call to the church. Our mission is to go, to preach the gospel, and to make disciples of all nations. When Jonah heard God's command to preach to Nineveh, what was his conclusion? "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity" (Jonah 4:2) The same is true for us today. What is the evidence that the clock has not yet run out on God's compassion for the world we live in? It's that today, even today, God is calling us to take the gospel to them.
God means to be known as a gracious and compassionate God—slow to anger, abounding in love—in the lives of the non-Christians that you know. That is why God calls you to share the gospel to them. Your speaking is not proof that God is mean or angry. It proves we have a God who relents from sending calamity, who is ready to withhold his judgment, if they will only come to Christ.
Think about the non-Christians in your life. Think of the people God has providentially put in your way. Think of those relatives, those co-workers, those neighbors. Did you know that God is a gracious and compassionate God toward them? Will you go tell them that?
In this story, I'm struck how the biggest obstacle to the Ninevites receiving salvation is actually not their sin. God is quite ready to forgive them. Rather, it's Jonah's sin—it's Jonah's own reluctance to preach to them and to obey God's call. Could the same be true of us?
We do often fail. Too often, we are like Jonah. But as Christians, here is where we must realize we've been given a new identity. We do not belong to Jonah, but to Jesus, and as those belonging to Jesus, where Jonah fled from the lost, we run to the lost. Where Jonah was filled with resentment, we are filled with compassion. Where Jonah condemned God for his grace, we worship God for his grace. We believe that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16), because this is the way our Lord walked for us.
The Book of Jonah gives us a glimpse of what God is doing in redemptive history, and today, we are living in the midst of that reality. So let's not run away. Like our Savior, let's go out in obedience and declare the good news of our gracious and compassionate God.
Geoff Chang is an associate pastor at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, OR.