Jonah: It’s not about the fish.

I have a very clear memory of my conversation with Tolata in 1999.  Tolata was a villager of the Malaumandan people remote in the jungle of Papua New Guinea.  He was recalling the major story themes of the evangelistic Bible teaching I had just completed.  He was commendably detailing the great amount of material I had covered in that 5 ½ month teaching phase.  In the chronology, he had gotten to Jonah and how God sent him to Nineveh to share God’s message.  He stopped mid-sentence and said, “You are like Jonah, God sent you to tell us like He told Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh!”  It was a touching moment at a precious time in my missionary career.  However, depending on how you take it, to be compared to Jonah may not be a compliment.

The great fish in the story of Jonah, sadly, distracts from what we should remember about the prophet.  The message of the book Jonah is that God loves to be merciful.  Our repentance invokes His mercy.  Like the people of Malaumanda in Papua New Guinea, the people of Nineveh needed to know they had a reason to repent and that a God of mercy was ready to forgive.

Tolata in 2005 (Village of Malaumanda, Papua New Guinea)

Sadly, Jonah did not want God to be merciful to such a cruel people as the Ninevites.

Let’s be honest and ask ourselves a question; How much are we like Jonah?  If God said to go preach to ISIS, Al Qaida, Boko Haram or Kim Jong Un in North Korea.  Would we? If not, would it be because of fear or, like Jonah, would it be because we really do not want them to experience God’s mercy?

After Nineveh repented Jonah was angry

4:1But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. So he prayed to the Lord, and said, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”

The fact is, Jonah understood God’s propensity to demonstrate mercy. His failure was wanting to control how it is dispensed.  You and I need to firmly grasp the fact we, ourselves, do not deserve God’s mercy.  We must understand our personal unworthiness before a holy, righteous God.

I am unworthy.

You are unworthy. Period.

Our position in Him is nothing less than His mercy and grace benevolently flowing from Him to us.

Jonah forgot this.   As resolute disciples “by the Son” we must not forget this.  The strive for God-likeness can only be rooted in the knowledge of who we really are – deceived, self-inflating, self-protecting sinners that have been touched by God’s mercy. That being acknowledged, humility should naturally follow.

The book of Jonah closes with a timeless object lesson that, apparently, spoke to Jonah more than his own journey to that point and entire nation that had repented.  In the burning sun of a post-repentant Nineveh God allowed a little shade producing plant to whither so Jonah would remember that God mercifully is the giver of all good things (Jonah 4:5-11).  Even a tiny bit of shade for a rebellious, stubborn prophet.

I think it is safe to say, Jonah learned the lesson.  I am thankful that, even though it reflected poorly on him, he was willing for it to be recorded for us. Like Jonah, let’s be sure to learn that lesson too!  To be resolute, active, harvest-minded disciples, we must understand our personal worth is only possible when positioned in His.