The Minor Prophets are not among most Christians’ favourite sections of Scripture. Due to its narrative nature, Jonah is an exception. Jonah’s story is well-known to adults and children alike.
In terms of the Minor Prophets, Jonah is really the first in a two-part story, its counterpart being Nahum. Whereas Jonah preached (or, at least, implied) a message of grace to Nineveh, Nahum preached a message of judgement. Nahum preached the message that Jonah would have preferred to preach, but he would minister at a slightly later time. We will consider the book of Nahum on its own at a later stage, but first we turn our attention to Jonah.
Jonah is famed as the prophet who ran from God, though painting him with such a broad brush is a little unfair. The book that bears his name records but a single, isolated incident in his life and ministry. Still, it is an incident from which we can learn much.
The story begins with Jonah running from God’s grace. It highlights our tendency to do the same. As James Bruckner observes, “The timeless truth of Jonah 1 is that the inclination of every person (even a true prophet of God) is to flee from the radical grace of God.” He adds that there are at least two ways in which Christians are prone to run from God. “We run from God’s forgiveness for us and from our participation in proclaiming that message of forgiveness to others.”
In Christ, God offers grace for forgiveness and cleansing to those who will recognise and repent of their sins. Sadly, we are too often too intent on living self-fulfilling, self-authenticating lives to heed the call to repentance. In that way, we run from grace.
Jonah certainly displays such stubbornness. Consider the transition from the first to second chapters, ignoring for a moment the chapter division (which is not original with the author): “Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed.” Even when he was at death’s door, he stubbornly resisted calling out to God in repentance and embracing God’s forgiveness. Too often, our sin is so dear to us that we only express repentance and embrace forgiveness when our situation becomes hopeless.
But we also far too frequently run from God’s call to proclaim the offer of forgiveness in Christ to others. We neglect to do so for our families and friends, much less our enemies.
To be sure, our motives for neglecting to share the gospel are not often the same as Jonah’s. Jonah refused because he didn’t want the Ninevites to receive grace (4:1–3). But the cause of our neglect is frequently the same as what Jonah tried to manufacture. Though he knew that running from God was futile, he nevertheless tried to do so in order to drown out God’s word. He did this in at least two ways.
First, he tried running from the place where he would hear God’s word. The further he was from the Promised Land with its capital city and temple, the less chance he might have of being exposed to God’s word. If he couldn’t hear the call to share grace, he perhaps would not feel so guilty for refusing to do so. Sometimes, the reason we don’t share our faith like we should is because we are not in the place where we hear the call to do so. If we are not frequently found in worship—private and corporate—we may not hear the call to share our faith, which will dampen our commitment to doing so.
Second, he tried running from the place of need. God had called him to go east to Nineveh; he headed, instead, west for Tarshish. Perhaps if he was not surrounded by the people to whom God had called him, he would not feel guilty about neglecting to share the offer of forgiveness with them. Sometimes, the reason we don’t share our faith is because we avoid the company of those who need the offer of forgiveness. If we are not building relationships with unbelievers—with those in need of the gospel—we will have no one with whom to share the gospel.
As you reflect on Jonah 1 this morning, ask God to help you identify ways in which you have run from grace—either in receiving or sharing grace—and receive his grace to do better.