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“But Jonah ran away from the Lord … .” -Jonah 1:3a

Jonah is often called God’s reluctant missionary. Based on the text, though, that title doesn’t seem quite accurate.

When God told him to go to Nineveh, Jonah didn’t plead for the Lord to send someone else like Moses had, and he didn’t express his fear as Ananias did. Instead, Jonah just ran—physically and spiritually as far away from where God was calling him to go. Jonah wasn’t just reluctant; he was unwilling to obey God.

This story of disobedience reveals not only the heart condition of one prophet but of many people who call the Lord their God. Unfortunately, some believers may be more like Jonah than they realize.

An Unwilling Missionary

Not much is known about the life of Jonah outside the book titled after him. The one historical mention of him outside of this book says he was a prophet from Gath Hepher during the reign of Jeroboam, the son of Jehoash (2 Kings 14:23-25). According to Scripture, Jeroboam was an evil king, though he did restore Israel’s border, which Jonah accurately prophesied.

Considering that the lives of Old Testament prophets involved a great deal of persecution and suffering, prophesying one good thing for Israel probably didn’t sound too bad to Jonah. But God would soon enough call Jonah to a greater challenge.

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’” -Jonah 1:1-2

Assuming Jonah was where most of the Israelites lived at the time of this word from God, Nineveh would have been east of him. And so when Jonah fled to Tarshish, he was going as far west as he could travel (and as far away from Nineveh as possible).

Foolish as it was for Jonah to think he could run away from God, he tried. Boarding a ship for Tarshish, Jonah brought calamity to a group of unsuspecting pagan sailors. The Lord sent a violent storm, and the sailors feared for their lives. Asking Jonah who he was, they learned that he was a Hebrew who was running from God. Even with that admission, Jonah never repented. He didn’t ask God for forgiveness or for him to show mercy. He only told the sailors to throw him into the sea to calm the storm. It was as if Jonah would have rather died than obey God.

Despite Jonah’s unrepentance, God was merciful and sent a fish to swallow him and carry him to shore. Jonah prayed from inside the fish, praising God for saving him. Still, he didn’t admit to his sin.

The fish vomited Jonah on the shore, God told Jonah again to go to Nineveh, and Jonah finally obeyed. Going a day’s journey into the city, he preached against it. The entire sermon to the Ninevites was only five words in Hebrew:

“‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’” -Jonah 3:4

With five words, Nineveh repented. The people fasted, wore sackcloth, and called out to God. The Lord, in turn, relented from His destruction.

Here is where Jonah should have praised God’s name, jumping for joy that an entire city was spared. Instead, Jonah was angry, and he exposed the true motivation of his heart.

“‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.’” -Jonah 4:2

Jonah never wanted to see Nineveh saved. He wanted to see the city destroyed. The Ninevites were an unreached people, but Jonah didn’t care. He didn’t want the Lord’s grace and compassion to extend to the evil Assyrians, a nation that had tormented the Israelites for years. His anger was so consuming that he asked again to die (Jonah 4:3).

Jonah had missed God’s heart for the world. God has always wanted people from every nation to worship Him (Genesis 28:14)—not just the Israelites. Every nation includes those who are enemies of God. The Lord took pity on Nineveh, and He wanted Jonah to do the same.

No believer wants to admit to being like Jonah, but many are. Christians might not be hopping on planes or boats to run away from God, but many have hardened hearts for God’s global purposes.

Are you one of them? Ask yourself this: How often do you pray for your enemies to be saved and follow Jesus? Have you ever ignored a call from God to share the gospel with someone who has hurt you? Many terrorist organizations belong to unreached people groups. Do you want God to change their hearts through His compassion and grace like He did for Nineveh, or would you rather see them destroyed?

Do you desire all nations to know and worship God? If so, are you willing to do whatever God asks of you to make that happen?

We must love God’s enemies because we were all once enemies of God (Romans 5:10). The world is full of people who are far from God. Worse yet, billions of people have no way of knowing who Jesus really is unless someone takes the gospel to them.

If you feel like a modern-day Jonah, the good news is that God is a God of second chances. He gave Jonah another opportunity to obey, and He gives nations the chance every day to repent and believe in Him.

When believers choose to follow God’s call on their lives, incredible things happen. An entire city was saved after a prophet spoke five words. Imagine what could happen if all believers took part in God’s global rescue mission.