The story of Jonah is one chapter in the larger narrative of the Triune God’s mission for humanity.
Published on: 10-01-2018
The story of Jonah and the big fish that swallowed him and then spat him out on a beach three days later is a favorite among children and adults alike. The story illustrates God’s power and His ability to care for His creatures but it also has a lot to teach about God’s mission for lost humanity. This article will follow the narrative in search of insights regarding God’s mission and His remnant.
Jonah was a true prophet of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, who had been chosen as a special people for God’s mission to all nations (Gen. 12:1-3). As God’s missionaries, Israel was to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6). Israel was to function as a spiritual magnate, drawing the nations to observe, learn, and participate in the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem. Israel’s location at the transportation hub between Africa, Asia, and Europe made that possible. Occasionally there were missionaries like Jonah who went out from Israel to the nations.
The word “remnant” does not appear in Jonah. However, the remnant concept is implicit throughout the Old Testament and it is implied in this book. A remnant is a group chosen by God’s grace to fulfill God’s mission as He directs.1 Thus, Jonah was a remnant missionary sent by God to Nineveh.
The story of Jonah is one chapter in the larger narrative of the Triune God’s mission for humanity. God the Father initiated this mission for lost humanity after the Fall (Gen. 3:15). God the Son embodied God’s mission in Himself and accomplished the atonement to make redemption possible (Rom. 3:25). God the Holy Spirit empowers and supervises mission (Acts 2:1-4). God will bring His mission to glorious completion, in His own time (Acts 1:7). God’s remnant people of all ages are his human mission agents and Jonah was one of those agents.
Following God’s Movements in Jonah
As the story begins, God commissions Jonah to proclaim judgment against Nineveh, the modern city of Mosul in Iraq (Jonah 1:2). However strong his commitment to God may have been, Jonah did not want to go. The trip from Israel to Nineveh would be long and arduous and the thought of confronting the pagan city alone was no doubt terrifying. Nineveh was one of the capitals of Assyria, the sworn enemy of Israel. Most significantly, Jonah knew that God was merciful, compassionate, and forgiving and he did not think the pagan Ninevites should benefit from God’s forgiveness (4:1-3).
In the second movement of the story, Jonah fled toward Tarshish in a ship, God blocked his flight by a storm, saved his life through a big fish, and put him back on track (1:4-3:10). Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish is a spiritual masterpiece.
In the third movement, God called Jonah a second time and this time the prophet obeyed (3:1-3). Somehow, Jonah made the long trek from somewhere on the Mediterranean to Nineveh. Once in Nineveh, he proclaimed God’s impending judgment, the people believed God, called upon Him, and God withheld destruction (3:4-10).
The fourth movement should have found Jonah praising God. Instead, Jonah was displeased that God had shown grace and compassion to Nineveh and he asked God to take his life (4:1-3). Jonah said in effect, “You see, God. I knew even before I left home that You would forgive Nineveh because You are so gracious. That’s why I fled to Tarshish.”
The next scene shows Jonah seated at a vantage point outside the city waiting to see what would happen to the city (4:5-11). Possibly he waited because he understood that a single repentance would not produce lasting change within a very sinful culture. Perhaps he believed the city still deserved destruction. As he waited and watched, his merciful God provided a plant to shade him from the scorching sun. But then God sent a worm to kill the plant. Once again, Jonah became angry and wished to die.
In the final scene, God confronted Jonah. “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (4:11).2
God was the Creator of Jonah, the plant that shaded Jonah, the ignorant, misguided people, and the animals of Nineveh. God’s wrath against Nineveh, which Jonah shared, was justified but it was in God’s character to be gracious and compassionate, as He willed. Neither Jonah nor the nation of Israel had an exclusive claim on God’s grace and showing grace to Nineveh would not diminish Israel.
God’s missionary remnant, saturated in knowledge about God and driven to fulfill God’s mission, must never forget that mission is about God’s grace. Neither Jonah nor the most devout Israelites of his day deserved God’s favor and salvation any more than the Ninevites. If everyone got exactly what they deserved, everyone would be consumed by God’s holy wrath against sin. God’s remnant, with its careful attention to belief, behavior, and lifestyle should never forget that “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
The remnant can sometimes feel exclusive and self-centered. Jonah demonstrated an inward focused exclusivism on behalf of his own people, Israel. Jesus addressed the same exclusivism by telling the Pharisees not to boast that “we have Abraham as our father” (Matt. 3:9). Israel had a message for all nations but thought they should be the exclusive recipients of God’s compassion and mercy.
The remnant needs to remember that God’s mission belongs to God. God’s mission was much bigger than Jonah and it is always bigger than the church. Jonah did not surrender himself fully to God’s mission, even after he had preached judgment successfully in Nineveh.
The book ends with Jonah’s relationship with God and God’s mission unclear. We can hope, for Jonah’s sake and the sake of his mission, that his heart was changed and that he eventually said to God, Yes, Lord. You have a right to be merciful and compassionate to whomever you will. I am your humble servant. Send me wherever you wish and use me however you wish.
Gorden R. Doss, Ph.D., is a professor of world mission at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University and lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.
1 Tarsee Li, “The Remnant in the Old Testament,” in Toward a Theology of the Remnant, ed. Ángel Manuel Rodríguez (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2009), pp. 25-32.
2 All Scripture quotations have been taken from the NASB.