The Disobedient, Reluctant Ambassador and the Sovereign, Merciful God

July 21, 2017

The Apostle Paul tells us that we are ambassadors for Christ as God makes His appeal to others through us (2 Corinthians 5:20).

What happens when we fail to fulfill that role? What happens when we are disobedient and don’t speak of Him? What does God do in that case?

The book of Jonah tells us of a man called by God to be His ambassador to a people group that he hates. He is disobedient to the command. What does God do?

Let’s first of all look at four different ways that Jonah disobeys God, one way from each of the four chapters of the book.

God’s Disobedient, Reluctant Ambassador

God gives Jonah three commands in Jonah 1:2-3: Arise! Go! Cry out!

But how does Jonah respond in the next few verses? He does arise, but instead of going to Ninevah, he goes down again and again: down to Joppa in verse 3, down into the ship in verse 5, down into the hold of the ship in verse 5 – and then down into the sea in verse 15.  God tells Jonah to go one direction, to engage in cross-cultural ministry, and Jonah goes completely in the opposite direction.

It is easy for us to laugh at Jonah, and to judge him for failing to obey God. But who were the Assyrians? A cruel, ruthless, and powerful people – the major threat to Jonah’s country at this time. Less than 50 years after the time of Jonah this same Assyria will come and destroy the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Think hard now: What group of people do you dislike the most? What people frighten you, annoy you? What people would you least like to go stay with for several weeks? They are your Ninevites.

So how might we characterize Jonah’s disobedience in chapter 1? This is direct, defiant disobedience. God tells him to do one thing; he does exactly the opposite.

So now God gets the attention of His disobedient prophet by sending a storm and having the sailors throw him into the sea. Jonah thinks this is the end – but God appoints a great fish to come and swallow him. Jonah knows that God has spared his life miraculously.

So in chapter 2 Jonah prays. But does he repent? Read Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2:1-9). What do you think? Does Jonah repent?

Amazingly, after God has performed miracles both to punish him for his disobedience and to save him, Jonah says not one word about repentance. He thanks God for saving his life, and he ends with the great cry, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – but he never acknowledges that he was in the sea needing God to save him because of his own disobedience. Furthermore, while salvation does indeed belong to the Lord, the Lord is interested in the salvation of all people groups. Jonah is interested only in the people of Israel.

So Jonah’s disobedience in chapter 2 is a failure to repent.

Chapter 3 provides further evidence that Jonah has had no change of heart. He now comes up with a new way to express his disobedience.

Do you remember the three commands God gives Jonah in 1:2? “Arise, go, call out.” Note that in Jonah 3:2 God repeats those three commands. Does Jonah obey these commands this time? In chapter 1, he arises, but he does not go where God commands and never calls out. This time he obeys the second command: He arises and goes to Ninevah. And he does eventually call out. But  what does he say? Does he say, “Ninevah has defied the Lord God. Now repent! Or God will overthrow you!” No, that is not what he says. He gives no reason for God’s anger and he provides no opportunity for repentance. Indeed, he does not even mention the Name of the Lord! (Jonah 3:3-4)

Is this what God told Jonah to say? The next chapter clearly shows that God intended for the Ninevites to repent at the preaching of Jonah. That being the case, wouldn’t God have instructed Jonah to hold out the possibility of not being destroyed upon their repentance? Indeed, although the Old Testament is full of proclamations of judgment on disobedient nations, in every case there is a clear reason given for God’s judgment. Jonah’s preaching stands in stark contrast to that heritage. We must conclude that Jonah is preaching only part of the message God gave him.

In chapter 3, therefore, Jonah is displaying perfunctory obedience. Perfunctory obedience is when you obey in a grudging manner – you don’t want to obey and you don’t obey from your heart. Instead, you just go through the motions and, in actuality, are disobeying.

So Jonah has disobeyed God directly, he has failed to repent, and he has subsequently obeyed only in a perfunctory manner. Chapter 4 highlights one more way that Jonah disobeys God. In Jonah 4:1-3, Jonah is angry because God grants repentance to the Ninevites and does not destroy the city. Indeed, Jonah accuses God of being “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).

So Jonah is saying that God is too merciful! He is angry at God for forgiving the sins of the Ninevites. He did not want to come to Ninevah and be the source of blessing for these people. And he always thought that God might grant them repentance – that is why he didn’t want to come.

So Jonah is angry at God for fulfilling His character and displaying mercy to the Ninevites. But remember: in chapter 2 Jonah praises God for being merciful! He cries out, “Salvation is from the Lord!” So Jonah wants God to be merciful to him and to his people – he just doesn’t want God to be merciful to others. He fails to see God’s heart for ALL nations.

So we can summarize Jonah’s sin in chapter 4 as a lack of faith in God’s Word. God’s Word says that He has a heart for all nations – indeed, God’s command to Jonah was further revelation on this topic.

Thus, God uses Jonah as His ambassador, even though he is reluctant and even though he sins again and again and again.

The Sovereign, Merciful God

But although Jonah is prominent throughout the book, the main character is God, not Jonah. This book shows God’s loving persistence in bringing the lost people of Ninevah to Himself – and also His loving persistence in bringing the reluctant prophet to Himself.

What does God do in order to bring the Ninevites to repentance?

  • He calls Jonah.
  • He sends the storm.
  • He sends the great fish to save Jonah.
  • He causes the fist to vomit Jonah on the shore – and not on any shore, but on a shore from which he can walk to Ninevah.
  • He calls Jonah again.
  • He changes the hearts of the Ninevites.

What is the lesson in all this? Psalm 67:3-4 provides it: “The peoples must praise you, O God; all the peoples must praise you! The nations must be glad and sing for joy.”

God will bring the nations to Himself – despite their hardness of heart, despite the inadequacies of His ambassadors. God has begun a good work in this world and He will, He must complete it. Why? Because of His passion for His glory. Habakkuk 2:14: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

God’s desire to glorify Himself is at the root of His bringing the nations to Himself. He has stated that this must come about, and just as He performed miracle after miracle to bring about the repentance of the Ninevites, just as He brought about that repentance despite the sin and attempted sabotage of His chosen ambassador, God will one day bring those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation to Himself. It must happen.

Do you see how this is a great comfort? God gives us the privilege of being His agents in this great task – He chooses to work through us – but the outcome is certain. We cannot fail. Whatever our weaknesses, whatever our failings, God will break down all opposition and will bring the nations to Himself.

But God is just as intent upon bringing His errant ambassadors to Himself! Consider how He treats Jonah in chapter four. Jonah has just stated how disappointed he is that God has not destroyed Ninevah. Now, in the midst of his pity party, he says, “Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3).

Despite all his best efforts, Jonah has accomplished the task God set before him. God could have responded, “OK, Jonah, if that’s how you feel, ZAP!” And Jonah would be dead.

But God doesn’t do that. Instead He exerts the same loving persistence, the same sovereign mercy in bringing His prophet to Himself as He exerted for the Ninevites. Consider all He does just in chapter 4:

  • He sends a plant to sprout up and give Jonah shade.
  • He sends a worm to destroy the plant.
  • He sends a scorching east wind.

This leads Jonah to become even angrier, as he is upset about the death of the plant.

God then confronts Jonah with impeccable logic in Jonah 4:9-11: Jonah had nothing to do with bringing the plant into existence, and such a plant at most lives only a few days. But because it served a purpose for him, Jonah “pities” it, being sorry that it dies. But God created the Ninevites and had dealt with this city for hundreds and hundreds of years. Now at last the city is fulfilling the purpose for which He created it: to glorify God. Should He not pity them? If Jonah has any reason to pity the plant, God’s reasons for pitying the Ninevites are much greater.

So God pursues Jonah as He pursues the Ninevites: relentlessly, persistently, sovereignly, mercifully, until all opposition fails. God cares about us as individuals and pursues us until we come to Him; and God cares about us as peoples, and pursues peoples until all the peoples praise Him.

Jonah had no love for the Ninevites. Jonah had no desire to see God glorified through the praises of the Ninevites. So Jonah’s heart was not united with God’s heart.

What about you? Is your heart more like Jonah’s or God’s?

Don’t be disobedient. Don’t be reluctant. Don’t just give God perfunctory obedience. He is gracious and merciful to every type of person – even to those you intensely dislike, even to those who frighten you.

But know: Our God is sovereign. And He is merciful. In that sovereign mercy He sent His Son. And through that Son, He will bring all the nations to Himself. And He will bring to repentance all His reluctant ambassadors.

That is our hope. And that is our joy. Praise His Name!

(Much of this is taken and edited from a sermon preached March 16, 2003 – the first sermon I preached on a Sunday morning service at DGCC. You can read that sermon in its entirety at this link.)

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