We have a longer text this evening, as we finish up the book of Jonah. But before we get to it, we need to approach it within two contexts – our context and the context within which the story occurs.
First, let’s think about our context. I want to start tonight with a question.
How do we respond towards those who threaten the Church and our faith? Let me ask that again: How do we respond towards those who threaten the Church and our faith?
To answer that you probably need to start by thinking about who it is that you feel threatens the Church and its faith. Who primarily comes to mind for you? It could be a group you have personal experience with, but it is more likely a larger group – a group that is maybe a bit more abstract for you. So who comes to mind?
Let’s put it this way: First, what groups have a mission that you see as directly at odds with the Church? And I mean the universal Church here – not necessarily our particular local church. What groups have a mission that is directly at odds with Christ’s church? That’s the first question. The second is, within that list, what group or organization would like to do damage to the Church? In other words, who within that set doesn’t really like the Church? And the third question is: Of those remaining groups, who has the means to actually inflict some serious damage on the Church, if they were given the opportunity? Who meets those criteria in your mind?
Maybe it is a political group or party. Maybe it is an interest group – lobbying for certain legislation in our culture. Maybe it is a social activism group, actively trying to push our larger culture in a certain direction. Maybe it’s an entertainment group. Maybe it’s a specific subculture in our country. Maybe it is something else. But if you had to pick one group of people, who present the biggest threat to the Church, and to the Christian faith, who would it be?
Do you have them in mind?
Now – what is your disposition towards that group and the people in it? How do you talk about them? How do you think about them? How do you pray about them? Do you wish blessings on them, or curses?
The Book of Jonah takes place in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, in the early to mid 8th century BC. And if you asked an Israelite in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, in the 8th century BC what the biggest threat was to their kingdom and to God’s people, they would say Assyria. And they would be right. Because even though Assyria was weaker during the ministry of Jonah in the early to mid 8th century, before the 8th century was over, Assyria would destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel – Jonah’s homeland and the northern segment of the people of God.
And Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. In fact, the king of Nineveh was really the king of Assyria.
And this explains some of Jonah’s resistance to going to Nineveh and warning them about impending judgment in chapter one of the book of Jonah. And we will see that motivation fleshed out a bit more in chapters three and four.
But central to our text tonight, is how Jonah the prophet should deal with people who are a known threat to the people of God. What should his disposition be towards them? Should he seek to be an agent of blessing to them, or an agent of curses towards them?
In chapter one God called Jonah to warn the Ninevites of the impending judgment from God. Jonah fled from that calling, and God chased him, culminating in Jonah being thrown into the sea. In chapter two God showed Jonah mercy and rescued him with a large fish, and Jonah praised and thanked God for that deliverance. Then God had the fish spit Jonah back on the land, and now we pick up there, in chapter three.
As we have throughout this series, I will continue to read “Yahweh”, God’s personal covenant, name in the text where it has been replaced with the title “the Lord.”
Please listen carefully then to our text: Jonah chapters three and four, picking up right after Jonah is spit back onto land.
3:1 Then the word of Yahweh came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of Yahweh. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
4:1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to Yahweh and said, “O Yahweh, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O Yahweh, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And Yahweh said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
5 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. 6 Now Yahweh God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 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. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But 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.” 10 And Yahweh said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I 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?”
This is God’s Word.
Now a lot happens in our text, but tonight I want to primarily focus on Jonah himself.
And let’s start by asking: What is Jonah’s disposition towards those who threaten his faith and the people of God? What is his disposition towards the Ninevites? Does he wish blessings on them, or curses?
And the answer is pretty obvious. Jonah wants them destroyed. Jonah is angry that they are not destroyed. Jonah wants them cursed and gone. And the book of Jonah is very concerned with highlighting that trait in Jonah.
But the book of Jonah is not just about Jonah. And we know this in part because of the ending. The ending is weird, right? First, I personally find the bit with the cattle – that that is the line that God chooses to end on – kind of amusing. But more importantly, the story ends unfinished. There is no conclusion.
And most people don’t know what to do with this. And that is most obvious in many retellings of the story that we see – especially retellings for children. Almost all of the versions of this story for kids, in children’s bibles, or videos, or whatever, either end the story after chapter three, or they add a made-up ending to the story where Jonah repents of his anger towards the Ninevites.
But of course, that is not how the story ends – because in fact the story doesn’t really end at all. And that is on purpose.
Dr. Jack Collins of Covenant Seminary explains the purpose of this. He writes “The interaction between God and Jonah […] builds up to God’s question in v. 11 about his right to spare Nineveh; but there is no closure (that is, the chapter flouts convention). Thus the reader is left hanging: what did Jonah say to that? In effect God gets the last word, and the question therefore still hangs in front of each new reader: ‘You are Jonah – what is your answer?’” (Collins, 37)
And we have to put that literary device in the context of the original audience of the Book of Jonah. If the Book of Jonah was written in the eighth century, before Assyria had destroyed the Northern Kingdom, and if it was written to God’s people at that time, then the question is especially aimed towards them. In other words, Israel seems to have the same problem as Jonah.
The Book of Jonah is not just about Jonah’s problem of wanting to call curses down on his enemies. It also is addressing Israel’s problem of having the same disposition. The book contains a dialogue between God and Jonah at the end, but it is meant to draw Israel into that discussion too, so that God’s last confronting question rings in their ears as well. God has compassion on Assyria, their enemy, and wants to bless them. Are they right to be angry about that? Are they right to prefer that he curse them?
And of course finding God’s people wanting to keep blessings from their enemies, and instead calling down curses on them, is not unique to the time of Jonah. It is the same situation that Christ found at his coming.
During Christ’s earthly ministry Israel was occupied by the Romans, who most Jews regarded as enemies. How did God’s people respond? What was their disposition towards their enemies? Did they work to bring them blessings or curses?
Well, what Jesus finds is a nation filled with those who would like to bring curses on the Romans. Rebels rise up in Israel on a regular basis in the first century. There are full blown revolutionaries, and then in many of the cities there are Jewish assassins, working covertly to kill specific Roman targets. (Leithart, The Four, 54-55). Many of the Pharisees themselves, known as a religious group, are also involved with the resistance movement, and are ready to take up arms against the Romans (Leithart, The Four, 56). Much of Israel is ready to go to open war with the Romans. And the depth of that commitment is most clear at Jesus’s trial. In an attempt to release Jesus, Pontius Pilate offers to set him free as part of the celebration that comes at the Passover. But the Jews instead call for Barabbas – a revolutionary who has been stirring up Jews against the Romans. One commentator puts it this way “[Pilate] decides to let the Jews decide which one they want him to release. It is more than a choice of two men. The Jews are choosing paths for their future – the path of Jesus that involves love of enemies and submission to Rome, or the path of Bar-Abbas, which will lead eventually to armed war with the Romans. The Jews have already made their choice.” (Leithart, The Four, 90)
There were many problems that Jesus found in Israel when he came. And this was one of them. God’s people were refusing to love their enemies, and determined instead to fight and curse them.
We see that tendency in Jonah. We see it in the Israelites in the 8th century BC. We see it among the Jews in Jesus’s day. What about us?
Think again about that question we started with. Who is it that you feel most threatens the Church and its faith? What group do you feel most threatens you as a Christian? And what is your disposition towards them? How do you talk about them? How do you think about them? How do you pray about them? Do you wish blessings on them, or curses? Do work to bring blessings on them, or curses?
Now, let me clear, by asking if we work to bring blessings on them, I am not asking if we work or hope or pray for the success of their endeavors. I’m asking how we relate to the people themselves behind the organizations?
Do we resemble Jonah? When good things happen to those people, when God brings a blessing or a mercy into their lives, do we look like Jonah – angrily protesting?
If we have any interaction with the people themselves, do we look a little bit like the Jews of Jesus’s day? Not assassinating anyone, I would certainly hope – but are we actively working to bring curses on such people?
Of course in our culture we usually just avoid the people we feel threatened by. So maybe instead we should ask how we speak of them with others. What do we write about them on social media? What is our rhetoric like in the comment box on a website?
You may feel threatened by much of the increasingly forceful secular world around us. And you may have good reason for that. But what do you do with that feeling of threat?
In one way or another we often do some kind of combination of withdrawing from the non-Christian world, and hoping for cursing to fall on them. In one way or another we often look like Jonah – avoiding the enemy, and demanding their destruction if we have to interact with them.
So that is our tendency. But what does God want from us instead – and why?
What comes out in Jonah is fairly clear. God has compassion on the Ninevites and he seems to want Jonah to as well.
And it is worth noting that God seems concerned with bringing both eternal and temporal blessings on those outside of Israel. We see his concern with both types of blessings by noticing the level of engagement people have with Yahweh in this book, and an indication of that seems to be the name people use for God.
And so back in chapter one we saw what may have been the conversion of pagan sailors. They call on God with the name Yahweh – Gods personal name. They pray to him by his covenant name. They make vows to him and they offer him sacrifices. That sounds a lot like conversion.
We don’t see the same thing in Nineveh. It is noteworthy that in chapter three the Ninevites use the generic term for God, and not God’s personal name. Still, it is significant that they believe God, that they mourn, fast, and repent. They turn from their violent ways. And God’s response is to relent of bringing temporal disaster on them.
But it seems to be a stretch to see this event as a full blown conversion of Nineveh. The text itself doesn’t indicate that level of conviction, and we do not have any evidence of Nineveh and Assyria being a nation faithful to Yahweh going forward.
And that means that God’s interest in blessing those outside the covenant community is not limited to eternal blessings through conversion, but includes temporal blessings. It even includes the wellbeing of the cattle, he tells us in 4:11.
God cares for those outside the covenant community – outside of the Church now, or Israel back then. He cares for those who are not themselves faithful to him. He wants to bless them. And he seems to want Jonah to do the same. Why does he want Jonah to do that?
Well, the Bible gives us three basic answers. First, Jonah himself was a recipient of grace. Jonah himself rebelled against the Lord. Jonah himself rejected God’s calling on him. Jonah himself deserved judgment. And Jonah himself received mercy from God. He seems to have conveniently forgotten that when he objects to God showing mercy to the Ninevites.
And so first, Jonah should desire for God to show unmerited blessings to Nineveh, and Jonah should work to bring those unmerited blessings about, because he himself depended on unmerited mercy for his salvation.
Second, we see that being an agent of blessing to the world is one of the purposes of the covenant community in the first place. God first gathers to himself a covenant people in Genesis 12, and at that time he explains their purpose. He says to Abram “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make you great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2-3)
What we learn here is that God formed his covenant people in part so that they would be a blessing – and not just to themselves, but to all the families of the earth. And so when Jonah, or when Israel, refuses or resists their calling to bless those outside, to bless those who may be a threat to them, and instead choose to curse them – then they have rebelled against one of the very purposes for which God called them to himself. So we see it second in the purpose of the covenant community – the purpose of Israel and of the Church.
But third, we see it ultimately rooted in the character of God. Jesus makes this point in Matthew 5:43-45. There Jesus says “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
In other words, God wants Jonah to bless those who hate him because that is what God is like. Every day God blesses those who curse him – when he gives them life, when he gives them sustenance, when he gives them gifts, when he gives them joy. That is what God is like. And if Jonah is God’s son, then he should resemble his Father and do the same.
That is what God calls Jonah to here. He calls him to be a blessing to those outside of God’s people – even his enemies. He calls Jonah to do this because he himself received mercy. He calls him to do this because that is one of the central purposes for which God gathered his people, and he wants him to do this because that characteristic finds its foundation in the nature of God. It is what God is like.
An interesting contrast with how the first century Jews handled the persecution from the Romans is to look at how the second and third century Christians handled similar persecutions.
Christianity was not legalized in the Roman Empire until the fourth century. In the first through third centuries, Christian faced sporadic, but sometimes intense persecution. Like the first century Jews, they too were under the Roman rule, and if anything they enjoyed fewer legal protections than the first century Jews did. At the very least, they had good reason to feel threatened by the pagan world around them. So how did they relate to them? How did they respond to the pagan world around them that threatened their very existence?
In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Starks says he seeks to consider “how the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the Western world in [just] a few centuries.”
And one of the things that Stark notes is how Christians treated not only each other, but also those outside the Church. To put it simply, they often sought to be agents of blessing to the pagan world around them – even to those who threatened them.
Stark points to the often quoted letter from the fourth century emperor Julian, who sought to undermine Christianity and reinstate paganism in the Roman Empire. Julian called the Christians “Galileans,” and wrote in a letter to a pagan priest “I think that when the poor happen to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.” Julian goes on to write “the impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” (Stark, 83-84).
In other words, the Christians had a habit of caring for not only their own poor, but pagans who were poor as well.
But this practice did not emerge under Emperor Julian in the fourth century. It was seen in even more extreme ways in the second and third centuries. In those centuries of the early Church, two epidemics spread through the Roman Empire – one around 165 AD, and the other around 251.
Several sources show that when the plagues hit, pagans fled the cities, often leaving sick family and friends behind to die. Cities could become filled with only the dead and the dying. And those left behind who were ill, would be far more likely to die because they had no one to help them with their basic needs – like getting food and water.
And this was not surprising. E. A. Judge has studied and shown how classical pagan philosophers regarded mercy and pity as pathological emotions – as a defect of character that all rational people should avoid. (Stark, 212). So why would pagans stay and risk their own lives out of pity and mercy? More often than not, they didn’t.
But Christians stayed. Many Christians, holding onto God’s call to care for those in need, with one hand, and holding onto God’s promise of the resurrection with the other, stayed behind and cared for the sick. And their basic nursing work likely saved many, many lives – though it also took the lives of many of those Christians who stayed behind to do it. (Stark, 82)
But the Christians did not just serve other Christians. They served all whom they could, who were left behind. Christian leaders, such as Cyprian of Carthage, urged Christians to not just serve their family members, or fellow Christians. Cyprian exhorted them, saying “Do something more than heathen men or publicans, [become] one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well.” Cyprian’s biographer adds “Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.” (Stark, 87)
Christians followed their leader’s advice, and served pagans in need. Many of those pagans survived. And while many remained pagans, many also became Christians.
Both the first century Jewish people of God, and the second and third century Christian people of God, faced pagan Roman opposition. Both saw pagan Rome as a serious threat to them, and in both cases they had some good grounds for it.
But the differences in their responses are striking. In one case, the majority worked to be agents of cursing towards their enemies. In the other they worked to be agents of blessings – both of eternal blessings for pagans who converted, but also of temporal blessings, for pagans who survived the plagues but did not convert.
Those who chose the path of being agents of cursing found themselves judged by God, and dispersed by 70 AD. Those who chose to bless their enemies in imitation of their Father in heaven, conquered the Roman Empire spiritually.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel faced the same choice in the time of Jonah. Would it seek to bless its enemies or curse them? Would they imitate their heavenly Father and serve their intended purpose, or would they flee from their purpose, and kick against it, like Jonah?
All indications are that they persisted in their desire to curse their enemies. And within the century, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed.
So what about us?
Because if this calling was true of Israel, it is even more true of the Church today. Because at Pentecost the Church was sent out to the unbelieving world in a way that Israel never had been. To whatever extent Israel was called to be a blessing to those outside, the Church is called even more.
Steven Grabill puts it this way – he says: “The Church is the Body of Christ, given as a gift, for the life of the world.”
“The Church is the Body of Christ, given as a gift, for the life of the world.”
In other words, the Church is called to bring blessing, not just to itself, but to those outside its walls.
Do we? Are we working to bring blessings to those outside our walls – both temporal blessings and eternal blessings? To some extent we are. We have people involved with the ministry of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. We have people involved with the ESL ministry starting here in the fall. And we have people involved with many other ministries that go on outside these walls and that work to bring blessings to the city around us.
And yet some of us don’t have as much that we do in that area. Some of us don’t have an area where we are working to be a blessing to those outside our family and outside our church. And I know that lives can be busy. And I know that many of us are already pulled in a number of different directions. And I know that sometimes it feels like fulfilling your job and caring for your family are just about all that you can do. So I am not proposing a directive or a one-size-fits-all application for this issue. I think my plea for now is just that this is something that some of us need to think about. To think about whether or not we have a place in our lives where we are bringing blessing to the world around us, outside the walls of the church. To the city around us. I know at least that that is something that I need to think about for myself.
One pastor, years ago, framed the question for me this way. He said “What you need to ask yourself is, if your church suddenly disappeared overnight, would anyone in your community really notice?” In other words, do the members of your congregation bless the community around them in such a way that if they suddenly disappeared, the community would experience that as a loss? The answer would have been a resounding “yes” for the early church. The early church blessed their unbelieving neighbors, not just with evangelism, but with sacrificial service, in a way that would have been painfully missed if they were gone.
What about us? What about each of us personally? Surely some would notice. The point of this reflection is not to beat ourselves up or to downplay the good work that many already do in our community. But the challenge for us as individuals is to ask, should there be more people in the community who would notice if we disappeared? Should there be more ways that our presence is a blessing to the non-Christians around us?
If so, what might it be for you? Who might it be? It need not be something grand or something organized. Sometimes it is just finding ways to serve a neighbor. But the challenge for us, is to strive to fulfill our purpose – to be a blessing to all people. The challenge for us, is to imitate our heavenly Father – who sends rain and sun on both the good and the bad, and who had compassion on the Ninevites.
We live in a culture where we constantly feel under threat. Some of it is imagined, but certainly not all of it. Some of the threats are real.
But that is not a new situation for God’s people. We need to ask ourselves how we are going to react. What shape our lives will take as we live under that threat.
How will we live in relationship to the non-Christians who we so often feel threatened by? Will we follow Jonah’s example, and simply plead with God for their destruction and do our best to avoid bringing any blessings to them? Will we follow the first century Jews’ examples, and see our relationship exclusively as only one of combat, and rally around leaders like Barabbas, who promise to bring the fight to our opponents? Or should we follow the example of the early Church, who sought opportunities to serve the pagans around them, even as they faced persecution from pagan officials? Should we follow the example of our God, and feel pity and show compassion for our opponents, as he did with the Ninevites?
Rising tension is on the horizon in our culture. There is no doubting that. And so we need to think about how we will face it. Will we resemble more and more the first century Jews or the second and third century Christians? Will we look more like our heavenly Father or Jonah?
Let us strive to be a people, known for bringing blessing. Let us each consider where God might be calling us to serve our neighbors. Let us be faithful to our calling to be the Church, “Body of Christ, given as a gift, for the life of the world.”
This sermon draws on material from:
Alexander, T. Desmond. “Jonah.” In Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, edited by Donald J. Wiseman, 51-146. TOTC. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988.
Collins, C. John. “From Literary Analysis to Theological Exposition: The Book of Jonah.” Journal for Translation and Textlinguistics 7, no. 1 (1995): 28-44
Leithart, Peter. A House for My Name. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000.
Sources for illustrations:
Leithart, Peter. The Four. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2010.
Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1997.