Christians often regard missionaries as being at the highest level of spirituality, as closest to God, as most zealous for the salvation of the lost, as the most sanctified in every area of life. But a missionary is a saved sinner who has been given particular work to do. He is imperfect, as the case of Jonah demonstrates. We consider Jonah 4:1-11 Grace to the undeserving.
1. Jonah makes his complaint
We might expect that Jonah the preacher would be delighted with the response to his preaching in Nineveh – is that not the heart of a missionary? But the opposite is the case – literally ‘It was evil to Jonah a great evil’ (v1). This is how he views God’s graciously sparing repentant Ninevites. He waits to see what will happen, perhaps still hoping for judgment. He ‘prays’ (v2) – in fact reprimanding the Lord. His focus is on God’s nature – ‘gracious…compassionate…’ (see Exodus 34:6), but he wants such perfections to be shown only to Israel. He cannot accept that the Lord should behave thus to Gentiles. The irony is that Jonah has been the beneficiary of God’s grace and compassion but does not want them to be extended to Gentiles. Our experience of God’s grace ought to make us long for the salvation of people ‘from every nation’ (Revelation 7:9). There is a warning here that we may hold a sound theology without allowing it to shape our life and thought.
2. God confronts his prophet
God puts the spotlight on Jonah – ‘Do you do well to be angry?’ (v4 ESV). Jonah is accountable to the Lord, not the Lord to Jonah. The Lord begins to deal with Jonah gently despite his failures (Psalm 103:10). Where would we be without his grace? He also deals with Jonah forcefully – ‘the Lord disciplines those he loves’ (Hebrews 12:6). It may be painful, but the goal is ‘that we may share in his holiness’ (Hebrews 12:10). It is this spirit that we must respond to our Father’s discipline. At every point the Lord is sovereign in his dealings with his servant – ‘the Lord provided’ (1:17, 4:6, 4:7, 4:8). Different providences from the hand of the Lord fulfil his purpose. He always works like this, though in ways that may be hidden from our understanding.
3. God displays his grace
- To Nineveh: despite Jonah’s intransigence (v9), the moral and spiritual condition of ‘more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left’ (v11) stirs the compassion of the Lord. It is not the need of the city that brings salvation, but the grace of the Lord. Gentiles are included in salvation (Acts 11:18) – a cause of praise to the Lord.
- To Jonah: the Lord is very gracious to Jonah even as he chastens him. We do not know the outcome, but if Jonah is indeed a child of God (as chapter 2 indicates), we may hope he responded in repentance. Was his ministry in 2 Kings 14:25 before or after this? We do not know. In the Scriptures Jonah knew, the Messiah ‘will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death’ (Psalm 72:13). We must align our thinking with the Word of God when we think of mission and evangelism.