Jonah: The Book

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“Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” 

Matthew 28:18 – 20

 

The book of Jonah is so significant for understanding the biblical basis of mission because ti treats God‘s mandate to His people regarding the Gentile peoples and thus serves as the preparatory step to the missionary mandate of the NT.

Jonah is a lesson in educating a person to be a missionary: it reveals the need for a radical conversion of one’s natural tendencies and a complete restructuring of one’s life to make it serviceable for mission.

The title of the book is the personal name of the unwilling prophet, Jonah, and harks back to the days of King Jeroboam II, when a prophet named Jonah ben Amittai was living.

Israel has become so preoccupied with herself that she no longer directs her eyes toward the world of the nations.

Jonah’s crafty evasion efforts represent a  lazy and unfaithful Church which does not heed its Lord’s command.

It is a miracle that Jonah, with its strong warning against ethnocentrism, ever made its way into the canon of Scripture.

The first scene opens with Jonah receiving the command to go to Nineveh.  While the OT usually appeals to the other nations to come to Zion, the mountain of God, Jonah, like the disciples of the NT, is told to go.  The Septuagint translation of Jonah uses the same verb used by Jesus in His Great Commission.

But Jonah refuses.

In the second scene, God responds to Jonah’s flight by sending a mighty storm.  The wind obeys Yahweh‘s commands, but the disobedient Jonah sleeps in the bottom of the boat, oblivious of the fact that the storm is directed at him.

The third scene describes a large fish which, at Yahweh’s instructions, opens its mouth to swallow Jonah getting ready to spew him onto the shore at the appropriate time. Jonah simply cannot escape God’s missionary mandate.

In the fourth scene, Jonah implores God to rescue him from the belly of the fish.  He who had no mercy on the Gentiles and refused to acknowledge that God’s promises extended to them now appeals for divine mercy, and by quoting lines from various psalms, pants after those promises claimed by worshipers in God’s temple.

Yahweh reacts.

In the fifth scene, God repeats His order to the man whose very life affirms the truth of what he confessed in the belly of the fish – salvation is from Yahweh.  That single world, kerygma, summarizes Jonah’s mission – he must proclaim that Nineveh, however godless she may be, is still the object of God’s concern, and unless she repents, she will be destroyed.

In the sixth scene, Nineveh responds to Jonah’s appeal to repent.  The proud, despotic king steps down from his royal throne, exchanges his robes for dust and ashes, and enjoins every man and animal to follow his example.

The people  join the king in repenting.

The curtain closes on this scene with these amazing words –

“God saw what they did, and how they abandoned their wicked ways, and he repented and did not bring upon them the disaster he had threatened.”

The seventh scene recounts the fact that the greatest hurdle to overcome in discharging the missionary mandate was not the sailors, nor the fish, nor Nineveh’s king and citizenry, but rather Jonah himself – the recalcitrant and narrow-minded Church.  Chapter 4 describes Jonah, who has long since departed the city to find shelter east of the borders.

He who once pleaded with God for mercy from the desolate isolation of a fish’s belly now is angry that this God shows mercy to the nations. He vents his fury in the form of a prayer —

“So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.”

Part of this text comes from an ancient Israelite liturgy which every Israelite knew by heart and could rattle off in worship at the temple or synagogue while half asleep.  But Jonah cannot stand to think that this liturgy is true not only for Jerusalem, the location of God’s temple, but for other places as well – Nineveh, Sao Paulo, Nairobi, New York, Jos and Paris.

In the eighth and last scene, one can see God still working to teach His thick-headed missionary his lessons.  He did not catch the point of the storm, the sailors, the fish, and Nineveh’s conversation because he did not want to.

At that point God again turns to His missionary-student, using the tree as His object lesson.  The very God who directs the whole course of history, rules the wind and waves and turned Nineveh’s millions to repentance now asks tenderly —

“Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?” Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly.  But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?”

God spares and rescues.

The book ends with an unsettling question which is never answered – God reached His goal with Nineveh, but what about Jonah?

The NT Church must pay close heed to the message of Jonah’s book.  Jesus Christ is “one greater than Jonah.”  His death on the cross with its awful cry of God-forsakenness and His resurrection with its jubilant shout of victory are signs of Jonah for us, pointing to the profound meaning of his whole life and clearly attesting that God loved the whole world so much.

 

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