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What Jonah Can Teach Us about God’s Sovereignty in Missions

Most everyone is familiar with the book of Jonah. Ask almost any Sunday school student and they’ll tell you Jonah is about a big fish, or a worm, or a reluctant missionary, or the bad people of Nineveh. In reality, the book of Jonah is about none of those things. Yes, they are all players in the tale. However, the book of Jonah is about something completely different. Jonah is a book written to remind us that our merciful and gracious God is in control.

Fact or fiction
Many commentators claim Jonah is a fictional tale and that it just can’t have any historical significants. Liberal theologians believe the story—complete with big fish, worm, and runaway prophet—is too fanciful to be real. Frankly, if a person believes in the immaculate conception and Jesus raising the dead, it should be no great stretch to imagine God sending a fish to redirect Jonah.

However, the best way to authenticate the Bible is by checking it against itself. The verse found in 2 Kings 14:25 mentions Jonah by name. That verse says Jonah was a son, a prophet, and hailed from Gath-hepher. The New Testament mentions Jonah by name 10 times. In fact, every time Jonah’s name is used in the New Testament it is spoken by Jesus. Jesus references Jonah’s tale as a prophecy pointing to His own resurrection (Matt. 12:40) and Jesus mentions Jonah’s interaction with Nineveh as a historical event (Luke 11:29). According to Jesus, Jonah and Nineveh were true.

The players
God speaks the first words in the book of Jonah (1:1-2) and He speaks the final words (4:10-11). Cartoons, vacation Bible school, and most sermons focus on the actors of the story (Jonah, fish, etc,). Few resources focus on God as the central character in the book of Jonah. It was God who sent the storm to halt Jonah (1:4). God likely controlled the lots falling to Jonah (1:7). God sent the big fish to save Jonah (1:17). God instructed the fish to vomit Jonah onto land (2:10). God provided the plant to give shade for Jonah (4:6). God appointed the worm to destroy the plant (4:7). God sent the wind to discomfort Jonah (4:8). And, lest we forget, it was God who sent Jonah in the first place and God who saved the people of Nineveh. Jonah is a book about God and His sovereignty.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire. History tells us the Assyrians were a brutal people who were notoriously cruel to their enemies. The Assyrians and the Israelites lived in close proximity and had battled in the past. The city of Nineveh was large and was a pagan culture which would not have taken kindly to a Jew telling them to seek salvation from His God.

Jonah is the only character mentioned in the book by name. He ran from God’s command to go to Nineveh and prophesy to the people there. The reader doesn’t learn the reason Jonah fled in the direction of Tarshis until chapter four. Jonah fled, not because he feared the Ninevites or doubted his own abilities, but because he did not want God to show mercy on the people of Nineveh. Jonah had enjoyed God’s mercy toward Israel and he sought it for himself (chapters two and four). However, Jonah did not want God to show mercy to the Assyrian people. Jonah had deemed them unworthy of the mercy he himself had enjoyed. With God’s help, Jonah did find his way to Nineveh. Although, Scripture reveals Jonah’s important prophetic message consisted of only eight words (in the translated English). Not exactly an impassioned plea for repentance.

The reader
The book concludes with God asking Jonah, “Should not I pity Nineveh?” Of the 66 books of the Bible, only two end with a question: Nahum and Jonah, both of which deal with Nineveh. The reason the book of Jonah ends in a question, with an unfulfilling literary ending, is to pose the moral dilemma to the reader. Reader, should God show His boundless grace and mercy to the cruel enemies of God’s chosen people?

What is it we place ahead of God’s glory? There are thousands of unreached people groups and billions of people who do not claim Jesus as their Lord. Do we place our comfort, security, family, or fear of failure ahead of God’s Great Commission? Have we, like Jonah, made the determination we will run from God’s command to share His gospel with those across the street and around the globe?

Jonah reminds us God is in control. He is sovereign and only He controls outcomes. God didn’t need Jonah to preach to Nineveh, but in His great pleasure He chose to use His sinful servant. God does not need to use us to call His elect to Himself, but it pleases Him to do so. Embrace your calling to share the gospel with the lost, not because you fear a big fish, but because you desire to see God’s glory multiplied on the earth.

Mike Pettengill has served with MTW in Honduras and Equatorial Guinea. He is now the director of MTW’s West Coast office.

Mike Pettengill, Missiology Reflection Sep 27, 2016
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