Learning From a Reluctant Preacher – Ray Stone

Ray Stone

There was, long ago, in the days of direct revelation from God to man, a preacher. He was a good, accomplished preacher, skillful at eliciting a response from those to whom he preached. But he wasn’t perfect, as none are. He had one major flaw that would color the whole account we’ll be examining.

God commissioned this preacher to take on a daunting work—to warn a prominent city given over to evil of God’s condemnation as a consequence. God’s instructions were clear, with no ambiguity. He even gave His reasons for this charge. He said “Arise, and go cry against this great city; for their wickedness is come up before Me.”

Now, this would be an unpleasant task at best—no one enjoys rebuke. “All chastening seemeth for the present to be not joyous but grievous…” (Heb. 12:11), and that goes for the giver at least as much as the receiver. Besides, this was a big city, and a big challenge. But the preacher was up to it; God knew he was the man for the job.

The only problem was, the man didn’t agree! Oh, he agreed with God’s assessment about the city’s wickedness; he just didn’t think they deserved the warning! He didn’t share God’s love for them; didn’t want any part of anything that might give them a second chance. And there was his great flaw as a preacher—a lack of compassion for his fellow man, no matter that man’s spiritual condition or chosen path.

And by now you recognize the “reluctant preacher” as Jonah, and his assigned subject as Nineveh. 2 Kings 14:25 gives some background on the man himself. Jonah was God’s spokesman to Jereboam II during that king’s last great attempt at reformation, just one generation before the fall of his Northern kingdom to Assyria. That puts Jonah in the days of the split kingdom, working in the Northern kingdom of Israel, around 750 BC—a faithful prophet of God teamed up with the last faithful king of that nation, working to preserve it in what would turn out to be a futile effort.

Sometime during that period,

Now the Word of Jehovah came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, tht great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of Jehovah” (Jonah 1:1-3).

There’s more than one reason a preacher might hesitate preaching to certain people: The fear of rejection, of the man and/or his message, is surely the most common. No one likes to be rejected, from Samuel on down (1 Sam. 8:7). But that wasn’t Jonah’s problem. He wasn’t afraid they wouldn’t listen; he was afraid they would! He hated Gentiles—They were on the road to Hell, and Jonah was glad of it. Just consider later when he did in fact preach to them as God commanded, and they did in fact repent at it and were spared, “It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1). He complained to God, (v. 2) “See? isn’t this exactly what I said would happen? That’s why I ran away!” So, our title: The Reluctant Preacher”.

But Jonah was far from unique: Remember that self-righteous Pharisee who prayed “I thank Thee, God, that I’m not as the rest of men” (Luke 18:11)—I’m better! or the general attitude of Jews toward Gentiles in those days, considering themselves “better” because they were the Chosen—a real superiority complex. For instance, Peter had to see a vision three times and then be directly prompted by the Holy Spirit before he’d consider going to the house of a Gentile to teach (Acts 10). Paul wrote the whole letter to the Romans to convince them Jew and Gentile were equal—equally sinful! Especially fascinating about this racial prejudice is that it wasn’t from God. At least two Gentiles are in the bloodline of Jesus Himself: Rahab of Jericho, and Ruth of Moab (Matt. 1:5).

So Jonah hated Gentiles in general and Ninevites in particular. So as a way of declining his commission, he hopped a boat crossing the Mediterranean to Tarshish, possibly the city in Cilicia called “Tarsus” in the New Testament, home town of the apostle Paul (Acts 21:39).

And the real story begins. The boat encountered a ferocious storm sent by God as the first object lesson to Jonah (1:4). The sailors were familiar with Mediterranean storms, and knew what to do: They dumped their cargo overboard to lighten the ship (1:5); put out oars to attempt rowing back to land (v. 13); but they’d never seen a storm like this one! Jonah recognized the hand of God, and from his strong sense of integrity confessed to them, “I’m the cause; you must throw me overboard to stop it” (1:12). To their credit, the sailors didn’t want to do it, but when all else failed and they felt they had no choice, they did. The storm immediately ceased—and as collateral benefit, it made believers of them (v. 16).

Meanwhile, God “prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (v. 17), the most famous part of the whole account: But before you join that parade, consider: God deals with this “amazing” event in only two verses!—1:17—the swallowing and 3 days’ duration in the creature’s belly, and 2:10, the vomiting of Jonah up onto dry land. Sandwiched between the two is Jonah’s prayer for deliverance, but the actual event is dealt with in a casual, almost offhand way—and it is never mentioned again the entire Old Testament! The only other time it’s even referenced is when Jesus drew a parallel with His 3 days’ duration “in the heart of the Earth” (Matt. 12:40). No, the most amazing part of this story is something else entirely. Keep watching for it.

Now Jonah, convinced God was serious, accepted his charge, albeit still with reluctance. He went to Nineveh, preached the message God gave him, “Yet 40 days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown” (3:4), and went outside the city to sit in the shade and see what would happen next.

And what happened next is that most amazing part of the story. For the people repented, from the king down to “the least of them”—although it wasn’t part of the message, no hope of deliverance was extended, still they proclaimed a day of fasting and mourning, saying “Who knoweth whether God will not…turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?” (3:9). And true to His nature, when God saw their genuine repentance, He graciously extended His pardon to them, as He ever will to a true penitent (3:10).

We’ve already seen Jonah’s reaction, and it was totally predictable. He didn’t like it, and became angry with God. Pouted like a spoiled child, sitting on the hillside from which he had hoped to witness Nineveh’s destruction. Wished for his own death rather than live in a World with penitent Ninevites.

God gave Jonah—and us through him—one final object lesson: Sent him physical comfort in the form of a gourd plant to provide shade from the hot sun then as suddenly took it away (4:6-7). As Jonah sweltered in the “sultry east wind” God also brought, he again expressed his anger (now at the gourd—how dare it die and expose him to the elements!) by giving voice to his death-wish (v. 8). God confronted him directly. “Is it good to be mad at the gourd?” to which Jonah replied, “Yes!” giving God the occasion to apply His lesson: “You had regard for a gourd plant in which you had invested nothing; understand My regard for a city full of people in which I’ve invested everything!”

So what can we learn from Jonah, the reluctant prophet?

  1. You can’t run from God and shouldn’t try (Psa. 139:7-12). You may avoid Him your whole life, but will still stand and face Him in the Judgment (Matt. 25:32; Rev. 20:13). Far better to face your condition before Him in this life, when you can do something about it!

  2. The true test of obedience is when it’s something you really don’t want to do. If it were something you wanted to do, you’d do it anyway, commanded or not; it proves nothing. But when it’s something abhorrent to you: Forgiving a slight from a brother (Matt. 18:21-22); giving aid to your enemy (Rom. 12:20)—or preaching truth to a people who manifestly don’t deserve it!—ah, that’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak; when the truly obedient are separated from the wanna-be’s. Embrace “hard” commands; that’s where you prove your submission as a servant to God.

  3. God’s concern is truly without respect of persons (Acts 10:34-35): He cares equally for a city full of sin on one hand, and a single rebellious prophet on the other. He cares for Heads of state, and the homeless living on the street, and everyone in between—equally. He “would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). As should we.

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