Jonah, First Foreign Missionary?

The First Missionary Called and Sent by God to a Foreign Country
Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, God has sought people for his kingdom. And God has always called some of those who responded to help him find others for his kingdom. In Genesis 8, “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth” He called Noah, “a preacher of righteousness,” (II Peter 2:5) to preach the gospel. Noah didn’t have to go to a distant land, adapt to a new culture or learn another language, so we would not consider Noah a "foreign missionary."

God sent Abraham to a far country, but not as a missionary. In Luke 16:30, Jesus tells of a certain rich man who died and was being tortured in hell. He begged God to send Abraham to warn his relatives of impending judgment, but God declined.

Joseph was the 11th son of Jacob. Although he did not go willingly, he did go to Egypt where he shared his faith openly. He witnessed to Potipher's family and household, to a jailer, to fellow prisoners, and he even shared his faith in God with Pharaoh and the people of Egypt. Later on, God sent Joseph's brothers to Egypt so Joseph could tell them of his great God and Savior!

The first known person who was called and sent by God to a foreign country to preach was the prophet Jonah.

A Wicked World
I recently heard an adult Sunday School teacher expounding on the sin of Lot, who "pitched his tent toward Sodom," a wicked and godless city (Genesis 13:12). I reminded the teacher that Abraham was also journeying to a wicked and godless place. And missionaries go to such places to preach repentance and salvation.

The difference between Lot and Abraham is the fact that Lot was drawn of his own lust towards wicked Sodom, but Abraham was called and sent by God. We served as missionaries for 38 years and were constantly surrounded by godless and evil people, but God protected us and our family from evil influence. In 2003, we retired from foreign missions and are now living in America, but we are still missionaries, surrounded by godless and wicked people! A person can commit the sin of Lot without traveling to a distant country. And when God says "Go," we should never say "No!"

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and the Assyrians had a reputation for cruelty that is difficult to fathom today. Their brutality and unspeakable atrocities are perhaps unequaled in history. When their armies captured a city or a country, they skinned people alive, decapitated and mutilated them, ripped out their tongues, made pyramids of human heads, pierced the chin of captives with a rope and forced them to live in kennels like dogs. Ancient records from Assyria boast of this kind of cruelty as a badge of courage and power. They were the most feared Terrorists of their day. Everyone, not just Jonah, feared and hated the Assyrians. In Jonah’s mind, the people of Nineveh deserved the worst possible punishment!

Nineveh is located in modern Iraq. Assyria is no longer a nation, but the Kurds are their descendents and they live in the same general area as their ancestors. Most Iraqis and Kurds are Muslims today. Sharia law demands that Muslims kill non-Muslims and even fellow Muslims who fail to follow Sharia law. Iraq has a long history of evil deeds, especially against Jews and Christians. After 9/11, the people of Iraq and most Arab countries rejoiced in the streets. If God called you to be a missionary to Iraq, what kind of a message would you like to deliver to the people?

God must Judge Sin
God can not ignore sin. That was the situation in Noah’s day. It was no different with Sodom, Gomorrah and Nineveh. God was forced to do something about it, even if it meant destroying his own creation. God must judge the wicked, but he first seeks their salvation.

God Is Merciful
God is NOT going around looking for sinners to punish. He is seeking their repentance and salvation. It is his desire to bless all people. Ezekiel wrote in chapter 9, "And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof." In II Chronicles 16:9, we read, "For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him." Jesus came “to seek and to save that which is lost”

That is missions - evangelism! When Jesus sent out the 70 disciples, he told them to enter a town and ask, "Who is worthy?" They were to stay with that person or family and minister. If they refused to hear the gospel, then the disciples were to shake the dust off their feet and move on. Jesus said that the judgment of those who rejected the gospel would be worse than Sodom and Gomorrah's.

"The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." (II Peter 3:9).

God Seeks Faithful Messengers who will Stand in the Gap
God must judge godlessness, but his desire is for the salvation of sinners. He is constantly on the lookout for believers who have that same heart. When God said that he would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded with God for the city. When God declared that he would destroy the Jews, Moses pleaded for them.

God was also determined to give Nineveh a chance to repent and he hoped that Jonah would share his heart's desire for their salvation. As I will explain in detail later, the prophet Jonah was well qualified for this task.

Jonah, the Disobedient Prophet
The people of Nineveh desperately needed God, but when God called Jonah, he said "Nah!" I tell children that is why I call him "Joe Nah," because he said “NO!” to God's “GO!”

The Hebrew author of Jonah plays on the words for "up" and "down" in Chapter One. God told Jonah, "ARISE and go to Nineveh!" Jonah got UP and then went DOWN to Joppa instead. There, he found a ship that was heading even further DOWN -- to Tarshish. He plunked DOWN the money for the fare and went DOWN into the bottom of the ship and fell into a DEEP sleep.

Attempting to run from God -- to escape "the presence of the Lord." takes us on a downward spiral that seemingly never ends. Psalm 139:8 tells us that we can't escape the presence of God.

Jonah might have enjoyed being a missionary in Tarshish. It was a large Phoenician seaport city in Southern Spain. It boasted a balmy climate, sandy beaches, palm trees and shops that sold anything the heart could desire. Jonah must have been financially self-sufficient to afford tickets to Joppa and Tarshish. He would also have needed funds to live in that far-off place.

But Jonah never got there. A violent storm came up and threatened to sink the ship, drowning all of its occupants. The sailors fought to save the ship by throwing cargo overboard and by rowing. They feared for their lives and prayed to their gods, while Jonah was in the bottom of the ship sleeping!

How Low Can a Person Get?
The King James Bible says that Jonah was "in the sides of the ship." The Hebrew word indicates an outer border or extremity. It would indicate the bottom of a container. A ship has decks where cargo is stored and where passengers sleep. Below those decks is what we call the bilge. It is the lowest part of a ship's hull. Any water that may seep in through cracks, decks, or other places runs into the bilge. No one sleeps there and no cargo is stored there. It is dark, damp and moldy in the bilge. There are often rats and insects in the bilge that came on board with the cargo. It stinks in the bilge, but if you want to get away from people, that is the place to go! Jonah was apparently sleeping in the bilge.

While all the sailors were on deck praying to their gods, the Captain went down into the bilge and woke Jonah up. He demanded that he pray to his God! Imagine a heathen sailor telling a missionary to pray to his God (1:6)! Did Jonah oblige and "say a prayer" for them? I don't believe Jonah could pray in his condition. We know that God doesn't hear our prayers when we are disobedient and unrepentant.

When a person says “no” to God, that is the beginning of a long slippery slope downward, and the slide continues as God deals with Jonah.

The sailors cast lots in order to ascertain who was at fault for their terrible dilemma. The lot fell on Jonah and they began to pepper him with questions: "What is your occupation?" "Where are you from?" "What nationality and race are you?" "And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land. Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them". (Jonah 1:7-10)

Those last words are telling. Jonah was called to be a missionary, but what does he tell these heathen sailors? He told them that he was running away from God! And only when asked, did he tell them about God. He said that it was HIS God who created the seas and dry land! He then added, “I created this mess you are in. Throw me overboard and you will be saved.”

Jonah never answered the sailor's last question, "Why are you running from God?" We do know that the crew tried hard to save the ship and preserve Jonah's life, but Jonah showed little concern for their eternal salvation. Jonah’s sin was even worse than the sins of Nineveh, for he knew God and they didn't. Later on in the story, we find the sailors worshipping Jonah's God and even sacrificing to him and asking his forgiveness.

Jonah was thrown overboard, fully expecting to drown and get his ordeal over with, but God  prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. He would discover how low a disobedient prophet can get!

If you think a ship's bilge stinks, consider what it's like to be wrapped in seaweed, gasping for air while swimming in what would soon become vomit! Dr. Erwin Lutzer, of the Moody Church, says, "When a man eats a bad fish, he gets botulism, and a fish that eats a bad man experiences the same!"

The deeper Jonah got, the darker it became. But he could not escape the presence of God. In the pitch black stomach of the great fish, under the most disgusting conditions imaginable, Jonah came face to face with the God he was trying to escape. Jonah cried out for mercy -- for three days and three nights! Jonah must have agreed to go to Nineveh and preach, but his heart was still not in it. Although the book of Jonah doesn't say, I think that Jonah did eventually repent of his sin and get a change of heart. How else would we have gotten this story? There were no reporters present in the belly of the fish! 

When we disobey God it affects others as well, sometimes even more. A drunk driver may escape injury in a crash that maims or kills others. Although the fish obeyed God's command explicitly, it became deathly ill with a disobedient prophet in its belly. God had mercy on both the fish and Jonah. Instead of seeking to escape the presence of the Lord, Jonah now sought to escape the belly of the fish. And the fish was just as eager to be rid of Jonah.

Jonah soon found himself on a sunny beach, but it was no vacation. He was covered with seaweed and vomit, perhaps 3,000 miles from Nineveh. The Bible doesn't tell us how Jonah got to Nineveh, but when missionaries obey God's call, he takes care of "all these things" (Matthew 6:33)

Jonah's Sin
When God sought someone to take his message to Nineveh, he selected Jonah for good reason. He was apparently a bold, gifted, eloquent and effective prophet. When Jonah spoke, people listened. Many Bible historians believe that Jonah was that unnamed servant of Elijah on Mount Carmel, where 450 prophets of Baal were slaughtered (I Kings 18:43) who gave orders to King Ahab. This can not be verified, but what we do know about Jonah shows a prophet of high esteem. Jonah prophesied that a large portion of Israel which had been taken by its enemies, would be restored. It seemed very unlikely at the time, but his prophecy was fulfilled during the reign of Jeroboam (II Kings 14:25).

If God had destroyed Nineveh, Jonah would likely have become the most famous, feared and powerful prophet in the world. Along with power, would have come the pleasures and comforts of life, wealth and possessions.

But Jonah knew that God had no joy in judging the wicked, but rather takes pleasure in their repentance, conversion and salvation. Jonah was instructed to preach judgment for sin, but God showed the repentant city mercy and forgiveness. In Jonah 4:2, the prophet tells God, "I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil."

Jonah feared that his success as a missionary would ruin his reputation as a prophet - and it did! Instead of going down in history as one of the greatest prophets, Jonah is remembered today for his selfishness, his disobedience and his punishment. The results of his preaching made Jonah appear to be an ineffective, powerless and false prophet.

Jonah in the New Testament
During the ministry of Christ, numerous sessions of the Sanhedrin dealt with the question of what to do with Jesus. Nicodemus, who visited Jesus at night, once attempted to come to his defense in a meeting of the Sanhedrin. His colleagues reacted promptly and with contempt. “Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet” (John 7:52).

The prophet Jonah was born in Gath-Hepher of Galilee, just three miles from Nazareth. How could these Jewish leaders claim that NO prophet could come from Galilee?

Galilee and Samaria were despised by the Pharisees and many Jews. Upon being introduced to Jesus, one of the twelve disciples, Nathaniel, asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The poor reputation of Nazareth, however, can be traced to the Pharisees’ diligent defamation of the city more than to historical facts about its citizenry. The terms “Jesus of Nazareth” and “the Galilean” were intended to be defamatory in nature, but Jesus readily accepted them. In fact, he never mentions his birthplace in Bethlehem and although he lived much longer in Capernaum than he did in Nazareth, he never claimed to be from that city. Most of his disciples were Galileans, and the apostles preached and performed miracles in the name of “Jesus of Nazareth.” In his post-resurrection appearance to Saul of Tarsus, Jesus revealed himself as “Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecuteth.”

Jonah was held in disrepute by Jewish leaders. The Sadducees rejected him because he preached to the Gentiles, who escaped their deserved judgment. The Pharisees were divided on the question as to whether Gentiles could be saved, but they too despised Jonah and refused to recognize him as one of the prophets because of his disobedience.

The Sign of the Prophet Jonah
In Matthew 12, we read: "Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

The Lord's words would have been perceived as an open insult, but Jesus poured salt into their wounded ego when he added, "The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonas" (Matthew 12:38-41).

God Gives Disobedient Children a Second Chance!
Jonah wanted to die, but what he went through must have seemed worse than death! God still gave him another chance.

Jonah went to Nineveh and preached to the people. He told them that they were sinners and of God's impending judgment. From the king down to the lowest slave, all repented of their sin and asked God to save them! God showed mercy and forgave them! Jonah was a gifted preacher and his appearance after spending three days and three nights in the fish must have underscored his message. Jonah looked like a million dollars – all green and wrinkled!

When a person is saved, the Bible says that the angels in heaven rejoice (Luke 15:10). They have a birthday party for just one person who is born again. Here, the entire city got saved and Jonah says, “I knew that would happen!” He was “exceedingly displeased” and “very angry” about the conversion of the people of Nineveh. God showed them grace and mercy, but Jonah just felt sorry for himself. God wanted to forgive and save, but Jonah wanted them to be killed and go to hell! What kind of missionary is that?

While the king and all the people of Nineveh were repenting with fasting and wearing sackcloth, Jonah was looking for a comfortable spot. It gets pretty hot in Iraq, so Jonah built himself a primitive shelter to get some protection from the scorching sun. It was still very hot, so God caused a big gourd bush to grow up overnight and protect him from the sun.  Jonah sat in the shade and waited to "see what would become of the city." He was still hoping against hope, that God would do something to save his reputation.

Jonah’s problem was not that he didn't love the people of Nineveh. His problem was that he didn't love God. God should have killed Jonah, but he didn’t. In fact, God made Jonah “exceeding happy” (4:6) when he provided the gourd plant. 

God not only loved the people of Nineveh and cared for the cattle (4:11).  God made a worm happy, but the worm made Jonah angry! (4:7) God attempted to bring Jonah to his senses. He asked twice, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4 and 9). Jonah answered, “Yes, I have every right to be angry. I am furious! I am angry enough to die and rightfully so!” (4:8-9) Jonah is talking to God!

I will paraphrase God's answer. “You really loved that plant which grew up without any help from you and you felt bad when it died, but you think I should destroy a million people including 120,000 innocent kids and a lot of livestock?"

There are many Christians today who have the same problem Jonah had. They want to feel good and have things and enjoy popularity, but they don’t care if thousands or even millions of people die and go to hell. But God doesn’t destroy us for that. He keeps on trying to reach us and to show us how selfish we are.

He hopes we will be willing missionaries and witnesses; to love people like He does. But even if we are disobedient, God may use us as a negative example!

We All Have a Nineveh!
Jonah is the only book in the Bible that ends with a question. God asks, "Should I not care?" I hope you don't say, "Nah!"

Ralph V. Harvey, December, 2012