Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish? Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it. (Jonah 3:1-10)
The story of Jonah is one of the more familiar parts of scripture. Children are fascinated by the incredible imagery of a man being swallowed by a whale (the scriptures only indicate it was a great fish). As a prophet, Jonah had been called by the Lord to go to the city of Nineveh and cry out against the great wickedness seen by God. He refused fleeing in the opposite direction of Tarshish. While on his voyage, a great storm arose that nearly destroyed the ship and its crew. Jonah knew it was the Lord who had brought the maelstrom and told the sailors to throw him into the sea. God still had a work for Jonah and by His providential hand saved Jonah; but not after the prophet spent three days in the dark belly of the fish. The fish vomited Jonah onto dry land and then a second time the Lord calls Jonah to go preach to the city of Nineveh.
Assyria was a formidable empire and Nineveh was its capital. The city was one of the most ancient places in history mentioned first in Genesis 10. Unlike most cities of the ancient world, Nineveh was a vast metropolis requiring three days journey to cover. It contained at least 120,000 citizens; if not more. This was a vast city. Particularly characteristic of the city was the fact it was a Gentile city. There are many reasons why Jonah refused to go to Nineveh but the Holy Spirit does not divulge those answers. Could it have been the Lord told Jonah to preach to a vast Gentile city and the Jewish prophet could not bring himself to preach to a city given over to wickedness? It lies within the realm of possibilities but the scriptures are silent. Jonah was the right man for the job because after preaching to the heathen city of its impending destruction by the hand of the true Lord God, the whole city repented including the king. The people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth and ashes. Nineveh’s king followed suit commanding all citizens cry to the Lord for salvation. When God saw their works, He relented from the destruction He had planned for the city and did not do it. Incredibly, Jonah became angry with God and the book closes with the Lord showing mercy to the prophet.
Jonah is not far from the problem with evangelism in the church today. Most Christians are familiar with the need to teach others the gospel of Christ. A problem that plagues the church in America is how this evangelism is accomplished. There are many Jonah’s in the ranks of God’s people. Sermons exhort the saints of the Lord to help bring others to Christ, scriptures are filled with the need to teach others the plan of salvation and plans are made from hill and dale to convert the lost. With all the noise of evangelistic trumpets, sounded few are being saved. Among the reasons for non-growth is the spirit of Jonah that looks upon a city like Nineveh and runs away from those dirty Gentiles. Imagine the surprise of the Jewish prophet called to preach to a huge city of uncircumcised heathens. Did Jonah run away from God because he could not stomach the thought of a city of Gentiles believing truth? If it was not the main reason, it could have been a feeling of the prophet. The Lord chose the right man because the city did repent. He failed to appreciate the power of salvation on the hearts of wicked people – much like the church today failing to share the gospel with those of lesser quality.
The church in America has experienced the struggles of trying to restore New Testament kingdom through the years. It now finds itself only reforming the principles of the restoration accomplishing little in the area of evangelism. There was a time when churches were brimming with new converts and the hearts of its members were filled with zeal to teach their neighbors. The church has laid aside the plan of restoration and settled for the comfort of compromise. Evangelism is viewed through the eyes of Jonah. Many churches do not want to grow. A great number are satisfied to meet at each service expecting any who want to learn the truth to walk in the front door. If an “undesirable” approaches, they are rebuffed. Like Jonah, preaching to the uncircumcised is a mistake. Prayers are lifted that the community will hear the gospel but it will not come from the lips of the saved. For many congregations, the church of Christ in America has become nothing more than a social club for the disciples of Jonah.
Jesus used the story of Jonah as a sign of His own death, burial and resurrection. The story of Jonah also tells us why Jesus died and rose from the dead. Like Jonah, the Son of God brings a message of repentance to all men. Unlike Jonah, Christ rejoiced in the salvation of the Jew and the Gentile. Jesus died for all men – all walks of life – all types of sins – all the problems that plague man. The Lord did not die for a middle class, comfortable, educated, ‘almost a Christian’ world. He died for the prostitute, drug user, drunkard, religiously devout neighbor and atheist co-worker. Evangelism does not segregate prospects by the color of skin, nationality or ethnic history. Moslems need the gospel of Christ instead of hatred. Protestants must learn the truth to save them from the religious dogmas of man. Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh-Day-Adventist must learn the truth of God. The neighbor who sings the mantra of worldliness needs to see the path of righteousness. Jonah brought a city to its knees by preaching the message of repentance. Jesus died so that we can turn the world upside down. Stop running away from God and turn to the work of teaching the lost. Let the power of the gospel have its way because that is the power of conversion.