Jonah 4:1-11

Playing God

2000, J.W. Carter
Scripture quotes from KJV


When we attempt to talk about reaching the lost with most Christians, their responses vary widely. Occasionally, we might find ourselves taking part in a lively discussion with testimonies of how God has worked in our lives to reach many people for Christ. However, the response of Christians is usually quite different. Usually, and tragically, the response of most Christians is somewhere between "somewhat interested" to "totally indifferent," with most leaning toward the latter. When the pastor preaches about reaching the lost, many will simply tune it out.

I am reminded of a true story told by a missionary to Haiti. While visiting, he stopped at one of the nicer restaurants and ordered a very nice meal of a steak and all of the trimmings. He sat by the window to look out over the street. When his meal was placed on the table he was very pleased by its appearance and how great this meal would be. Then, a group of neighborhood children gathered at the window, dreaming about this kind and quantity of food that they would have little hope of ever seeing given to them, for they were hungry and poor. The missionary suddenly lost his appetite and his spirit shouted out in concern for these people, and the folly of his insensitivity. Then, a waiter came over, and apologized for the intrusion, lowered the window blind, and said, "I’m sorry, now you may enjoy your meal."

I am sure that the missionary finished his meal, but as evidenced by his testimony, he learned a very significant truth. Far too many Christians live completely self-centered lives. We fight off boredom by sitting in front of our big-screen television sets being mindlessly entertained by pictures of actions and events that are both fantasy and usually quite in opposition to God’s word. We drive nice cars, live in nice homes, we pay people to prepare our meals for us and deliver them with complete and friendly service to our tables. Our view of the world has ourselves at the center, tied to a few relationships with others (including an on-off relationship with God). We surround ourselves with people who are just like us. We shun those who are different, and by ignoring the needs of the lost people that Jesus came to save, we show contempt toward them and toward the Gospel.

God must be very sorrowful for such a state of affairs. He has called each of us to be ministers of the gospel to the lost world; we have responded by faithfully learning of the gospel, and are better prepared to share it than any group on the planet. Yet, for the most part, we are silent. We mix among the lost every day and by ignoring these people, we keep the joy of the gospel to ourselves. If the lost people happen to be of a different race or economic state, we do not even mix among them. It is no wonder that there are so many lost in the world. In my own lifetime I have seen the world’s population increase from less than 4 billion to over 6 billion people, a 50% increase in less than 50 years. The spread of the gospel has not kept up with this growth, and we are falling farther and farther behind.

The problem illustrated here has to do with the basic attitude of most Christians toward the lost: most do not really care. We give money and lip service, we wail profoundly in our prayers, but when we leave the worship center, we go back into our little spiritual cocoons waiting for our next visit to the church where we will again consider the plight of the lost.

This is the fourth of a four-part series on the Old Testament book of Jonah. We have seen Jonah called by God to bring a saving message to the Assyrian city of Nineveh, a city doomed by its godless depravity. Instead of delivering the message, a rebellious Jonah tries to run away by taking a boat to a distant city only to find his passage blocked by God. The storm that blocked the way of the ship could only be quelled by his being tossed into the sea where he was delivered to the shore by a large fish who kept him "safe" in his mouth or belly for three days. After recovering, Jonah, again hearing the call to go to Nineveh, goes to the city, proclaims the message of salvation to these Gentiles, and witnesses a city-wide act of repentance. His mission to the city was supernaturally successful. The Gentiles did everything in their power to honor the God of the Jews, to the point of fasting, wearing sackcloth, and sitting in the dust. Jonah should have been thrilled to see the power of God in that city. He should have been thrilled to witness the salvation from imminent destruction. What was Jonah’s response?

Jonah 4:1-3.

1But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2He prayed to the LORD, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."

Is there not something incongruous about Jonah’s response? Jonah had gone to preach a message of a compassionate and loving God. He had just experienced this compassion from God and praised Him for it. Why would Jonah be angry? We get a glimpse of Jonah’s problem in verse 2. (Reread this verse). You have to admit that, though misguided, at least Jonah was honest with God. Jonah did not know what the message was that he was to deliver to Nineveh, but he knew God well enough to know that it would be to preach a message of repentance to this depraved city of Gentiles. Jonah did not want to do this because he did not want the Gentiles to experience this salvation. What did Jonah really want for these lost Gentiles? He wanted them to get what they deserved. Rather than see this city delivered and have a relationship with God established, Jonah wanted to see the city burn in the Sodom-and-Gomorrah fashion that his message to that city described.

What makes Jonah such an important part of God’s word is this example of prejudice of a prophet towards the lost. The message of the book is often lost in the miracle of the big fish because the event is so dramatic at the surface. But as we dig deeper into this book we find the part that the fish plays in this chain of events is quite minimal. God used the fish simply to bring Jonah back from rebellion. The book of Jonah is a prescription to bring us back from rebellion, because we have more in common with Jonah than we would probably care to admit.

Is it possible that some Christians look upon the lost of the world and can say, "let them burn"? I have met a few who believe this way and it is not a pretty sight to behold. Once I brought a family of a different race and religion to church for our Easter Sunday services. I had the wonderful opportunity to have their entire family in my Sunday School class as I taught about the miracle of God’s love through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a stumbling block in their religion. They heard the simple gospel story and testified to me how they were inspired by the entire morning’s events. Later that afternoon I was approached by the chairman of the deacons and told that I had never bring any of those kind of people into the church again. By "those kind" he was referring to members of the black race. This family was not even black. It was Persian. That church never accomplished very much. It failed to grow, and split on regular occasions. It’s faithful core suffered through many very difficult times. This church, which has the facilities and potential to support a membership of over 1,000 has now dwindled down to a membership of less than 400, running less than 200 in Sunday School.

Though Jonah was unrepentant, he was honest. He was also adamant. What was his statement in verse 3? (Reread). In a tantrum worthy of the most precocious and spoiled 3 year old, Jonah told God that he would rather die than to live in a world where Gentiles could turn to God in the same way that Jews did. In that same church, my wife and I were frequently referred to from the podium as their "Token Yankees." One prominent family left the church because they allowed "Yankees" in. Needless to say, this was not a culturally diverse congregation. God called us to serve in that church, and serve we did. God did use us to minister to many of these people, to minister to the people of the region, but there were many many tears shed in the process.