Jonah—Worst Missionary Ever?

It didn’t matter that my Jonah was almost as big as the boat. The children in the Sunday school class, who’d never heard the story of Jonah, were locked in. Their eyes widened in dismay when flannelgraph Jonah was thrown from the boat and began sinking into the sea. Thanks to those children, I saw Jonah with a new perspective that day.

Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy, offered me a similar experience. Jonah is a common story for those of us who grew up in the church. Among the minor prophets, he’s the one we actually remember. The message of Amos or Micah? Maybe not.

But we’ve got Jonah. Or do we?

Keller goes deep into the story of Jonah: What was the root sin of Jonah’s disobedience? What do we learn about God? How should our lives change because of Jonah?

Keller’s book isn’t written for missionaries but there are clear implications for them (185ff.). After all, Jonah was a missionary—a terrible one, but a missionary nonetheless. Whether you’re on the mission field or wondering how to pray for those who are, the story of Jonah seen through The Prodigal Prophet offers poignant help for struggling people.

Trust and Obey—Even When You Don’t Understand

Jonah didn’t understand how God could show mercy on God’s enemies. He was a Jew and he loved Israel, God’s chosen people. Assyria was a pagan nation, the “terrorist state” of the day (11). Jonah knew about Assyria’s atrocities, and presumably, he also knew of Nahum’s prophesy that God would destroy Nineveh (Nah. 1:7–8). With everything he knew about God’s justice and Assyria’s depravity, it just didn’t add up.

“The same God who called Jonah to Assyria calls each of us to proclaim the saving gospel of Jesus.”

Keller suggests that Jonah made an idol out of his own ethnicity. He writes, “While Jonah had faith in God, it appears not to have been as deep and fundamental as his race and nationality” (50). In the end, Jonah leaned on his own understanding, and this disobedience plunged him into the raging sea.

Many missionaries bump into a God they weren’t expecting—a God who doesn’t interact with their lives how they thought he would. They’re not bouncing down the street gathering disciples like the Pied Piper. No, they’re struggling to learn the language. They’re realizing their day-to-day responsibilities are different than the job description. They’re fearful that the government will deny their residence permit application. Or they’re leaving the field in chagrin because of a child’s struggle.

In these moments, we can question God’s character and actions. This is simply not what we expected from God. Keller admits that God has a “confusing, complex character” (133). And we have a choice. We can rely on our reason or we can trust and obey even when we don’t understand.

God has revealed himself in the Scriptures. The only way missionaries can stay faithful is through resolved obedience and an abiding trust in this God.

Reflect the Compassion of God—Even Though It Doesn’t Come Naturally

The God of the universe felt compassion for the people of Nineveh. The word compassion translated means “to grieve over someone or something, to have your heart broken, to weep for it” (118). God is filled with pain at the sin of humanity.

Keller argues that there is no evidence that the Ninevites actually turned from their idols to serve the living God. Jonah 3 says that the Ninevites “believed in God,” however the word for God is not God’s covenant name, Yahweh. Keller argues that their repentance was one of social reform, not heart transformation (90ff.). Assyria eventually faced judgment but in this brief moment, God showed compassion. We should likewise show the same compassion.

“Practicing the compassion of God toward local people in the daily, small annoyances is a training ground.”

Keller writes,

When we look at people who have brought trouble into their lives by their own foolishness, we say things like, ‘Serves them right’ or we mock them on social media: ‘What kind of imbecile says something like this?’ When we see people of the other political party defeated, we just gloat. This is all a way of detaching ourselves from them. We distance ourselves from them partly out of pride and partly because we don’t want their unhappiness to be ours. God doesn’t do that. (121)

Once the honeymoon period of missionary work wears off, the sinners we work among can be downright annoying. The triumph of knowing the local language well enough to communicate clearly is a dangerous gift. The ability to argue your rights or put someone in their place could grieve the Holy Spirit. As James admonishes, “from the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10 ESV hereafter).

Practicing the compassion of God toward local people in the daily small annoyances is a training ground for missionaries to respond well on the day malicious people slander and persecute.

Find Grace in the Storm—Even When You Disobeyed

The storm God hurled upon Jonah came because of Jonah’s sin. Keller notes that “every sin will bring you into difficulty” and “every act of disobedience to God has a storm attached to it” (24).

Meanwhile, Keller also explains that not every storm is because of our sin. The sailors, after all, were caught up in the same storm. Life’s storms simply come from living in a broken, fallen world. And no matter the reason, storms are an opportunity to see God’s grace. God showered his mercy in the rains and wind, drawing the pagan sailors to himself and softening the brittle heart of his son Jonah.

“The same God who called Jonah to Assyria calls each of us to proclaim the saving gospel of Jesus.”

Missionaries won’t always be able to answer the “why?” questions when storms rage. So what happens when you’re forced to relocate and start again? Or when depression paralyzes you. Or your family is on lockdown because of security threats in your city?

God’s character of mercy never changes, and his children can always find mercy in the storm. Look for the grace and be changed by it. Let it draw you into praise.

Remember the Sign of Jonah—Even When You Know It Already

As new covenant believers, we have the privilege of understanding the parallels between Jesus and Jonah. Keller draws out these connections between the two (147ff.). They were both asleep in a storm on the sea. Jonah had sinned. But Jesus calms the storm as the sinless Lord of creation. Jonah was thrown into the sea as the sacrifice to save the sailors. Jesus hung on a cross as the sinless Son of God to save all who believe. Jonah refused to have compassion for the sinners in Nineveh who didn’t know their right hand from their left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Anyone confused in understanding a God who is both merciful and wrathful should look at the cross. There, Jesus suffered the full wrath of God we deserved. God’s wrath and mercy meet in the glorious triumph of our accomplished salvation. Jesus said, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).

This is the same message we proclaim today on the mission field. The same God who called Jonah to Assyria calls each of us to proclaim the saving gospel of Jesus.

I look at my own heart and, well, I don’t think Jonah was the worst missionary ever. I struggle with some of the same heart issues. I have to go back to the cross and remember the basic truths that saved me and carried me to the mission field. I look to Jesus, the better Jonah who conquered the grave. And that softens me into repentance.

I like to think that Jonah also repented and is now among the cloud of witnesses, cheering me on.

Let’s take heart and remember the sign of Jonah.

Madeline Arthington is a writer who serves in Central Asia.