Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
When we hear the word “prophet” we often think of the boldness that Isaiah declared to the Lord when the question was asked in Isaiah 6 “whom shall we send” and Isaiah said without hesitation “Here I am! Send me.” Or perhaps we recall the boldness that Moses had when he addressed Pharaoh on the precipice of the Exodus; or even Elijah on Mt. Carmel in 1st Kings 18 when facing off against the false prophets of Baal. If we were honest, we wouldn’t put Jonah in that class of prophets. Perhaps he doesn’t even cross our minds, or if he does, it is often in a negative sense. But we must remember that Jonah was never vilified or put in a negative light when Christ mentions him in the New Testament. This gives us some insight to God’s view of Jonah in light of the bigger picture. With that said, we still cannot ignore the fact that Jonah ran from God.
Jonah was a faithful prophet of God who had executed his service in 2nd Kings 14:23-27 during the reign of Jeroboam II who was a wicked king in the Northern Kingdom. God used Jonah to declare that He (God) would restore the borders of Israel during this wicked king’s rule even though they were deep in the throes of apostasy from the Lord. In other words, God was showing great grace to Israel despite their rebellion. That is consistent with God’s character throughout the Bible. He shows grace to those who do not deserve it; it is His prerogative to do so. When God calls Jonah to this ministry of grace again, he refuses. Why should God show grace to Nineveh, that bane of the ancient world? Why would he bless the enemies of Israel, those who attack the people of God? This was much more than Jonah could process, so he runs.
In verses 1-2 we have the sovereign will of God expressed to Jonah. God has no need of explaining Himself to His servant. Jonah, even though he has shown faithful service in the past, refuses to obey and takes the only course of action (in his mind) which will relieve him of this duty. What is happening is that the clear, expressed will of God is coming into conflict with Jonah’s own desires. This is true for every person. The nature/will of God is diametrically opposed to our human nature and will. Jonah’s actions are an exercise of rebellion against his Lord, and he believes that he can negotiate his participation in the God’s work.
In all honesty, Jonah had been faithful, but he just did not want to do what God was clearly telling him to do. This is true for many of us today in the church. We will often excuse ourselves from a particular ministry because we “feel” like it is not our “calling” or “gifting.” Jonah could well say that he did not feel “called” to minister to Nineveh and be in the same camp as many of us who say the same about a particular place, people, or service. The question we should be asking instead of looking to our feelings is “Has God clearly said that His people are to be doing this?” When we look to the Word of God and we see His clearly expressed will, do we leave it up in the air for someone? Many congregations today take this approach and we are like outfielders who are staring up at a pop-fly assuming the other guy will catch it, but then it falls to the ground. We are like Jonah when we believe we can negotiate our participation in God’s clear call to “cry out” against those who are not His people. What I mean by this is not staging protests about any particular sin, but rather the proclamation of the Gospel to those who have no part/portion in the Lord. That is not our privilege. It doesn’t matter if we feel that evangelism is not “our ministry.” The only question we must ask is “Has God clearly said to do this?”
Perhaps we, like Jonah, are looking back on our previous service and feel as if we’ve done enough for the Lord. But like Jonah, we will begin to substitute past service and obedience for obedience today and now. We see that this past obedience was not sufficient for Jonah, and it is not us either. Perhaps we should re-examine our views of Jonah. When we begin to understand what God was calling Jonah to do and then we observe Jonah’s reaction, we are probably looking at a mirror into our own hearts. That negative light we’ve been seeing Jonah in begins to dim our own sights when we see the truth that we’re guilty of Jonah’s view of ministry as well. Jonah was a faithful prophet of God, but he was a man who struggled with God’s command on his life. When we are guilty of Jonah’s mindset, we will like Jonah, attempt to flee from God as well. Perhaps we should take the same counsel that we’d give to Jonah if we were there… “turn around.”
If you wish to hear the full sermon “A Clash of Wills” from which the above excerpt is taken, you can do so here.