Those of you who are familiar with the story of Jonah and the whale know that Jonah hopped a ship heading in the opposite direction when God commanded him to go preach to the Ninevites. You will also remember how God provided Jonah with a “living submarine” to get him back where he belonged. But often, knowledge of Jonah stops with this miraculous event. While we may be vaguely familiar with the great revival in Nineveh, we are too often ignorant of the “story behind the story”—the one dealing with Jonah's rebellious attitude toward what God had called him to do.
As we examine this episode from Jonah’s life, we will focus on a number of principles related to personal evangelism, especially principles that will help us understand how we are to approach this God-ordained task. When we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, we become ambassadors, charged with the responsibility of communicating the Gospel to people around us. Yet how many of us-like Jonah—try to escape this call to “be a blessing”? How many of us allow our personal prejudices, our fears of being embarrassed, or our pursuit of personal comfort to hinder our witness? Are we willing to go to the Russians? To the Iraqis? To our unbelieving neighbors? To our unsaved co-workers or fellow students? To the homeless? To nursing-home residents? To people dying in cancer wards or AIDS hospices?
If you are a Christian who does not joyfully seek out opportunities to share Christ with a dark and dying world, then this study is for you. It will help you understand why all Christians must be committed to personal evangelism.
Jonah was a prophet to Israel in the 8th Century B.C. who was given a commission to evangelize Israel's most despicable enemy—Assyria. In Jonah’s day, the Assyrian Empire (whose capital was Nineveh) had the largest army, the greatest warriors, and a vicious, bloodthirsty reputation. When they defeated an enemy in battle, they tortured captives in various ways: yanking out their teeth, impaling them on stakes, dismembering them and feeding their remains to animals, or skinning them alive.
As Jonah and the people of Israel looked to the east and the north, they saw a nation that was constantly advancing and threatening to destroy them militarily. It is not difficult to understand, therefore, why a patriot like Jonah would balk at God’s command to go proclaim the Word of God in Nineveh. Jonah wanted God to wipe out the Assyrian threat to Israel by annihilating them—not by offering them eternal life.
But Jonah’s will was not God's will. Because God was able to see into the hearts of the Assyrians, He knew they would respond to His grace and truth. All God needed was a messenger to carry the good news to people who were ready to listen to and obey the call of God.
God’s desire was not just to save and bless the Ninevites. He also wanted to bless Israel by allowing her to fulfill her divine commission to witness to people in other nations. The Jews in Jonah’s day were neglecting this commission because they wanted to monopolize God’s grace rather than share it with the Gentiles. Their attitude of exclusiveness violated God's plan: He blessed Israel by making her the custodian of His Word so she could be a blessing to other nations by sharing that Word (GEN 12:2-3).
As a prophet in a nation that existed under a divine commission to evangelize, Jonah was doubly obligated to go to the Ninevites. However, his intense hatred of the Assyrians made him a reluctant messenger who fought God at every turn—a messenger of truth so disoriented to grace that he became angry with God because untold thousands were saved.