Lessons From The Worst Missionary Ever

The Book of Jonah is a great example of brutal biblical honesty. The Prophets were revered godly leaders, often known for their boldness. Jonah was cowardly, showed extreme prejudice, pride, fear, and unrighteous anger. Yet God pursues this wayward prophet in His grace and uses him to deliver the people of Nineveh from judgment.

So if Jonah was such a poor example of a missionary, can we actually learn anything from him? Of course. That’s the story of the Bible; God works in spite of and through sinful people like Jonah (and us) to bring about his purposes of redemption for His glory. So what does the Book of Jonah teach us about the Mission of God?

The Mission is Hard (But Worth It)
Nineveh was a wicked Assyrian city known for their military brutality. They were the feared enemy of the Israelites. For Jonah to go and warn them of God’s judgment would’ve seemed like a death sentence for Jonah.

The mission of God is always risky. Whether it’s the possibility of death as you take the gospel to a hostile people group, the loss of reputation among friends, or the laying aside of personal desires, obedience to God’s mission requires sacrifice. The question for us is, “Is it worth it?” Jonah decided the mission wasn’t worth the risk so he ignored God. What about us? A missionary has to constantly be reminded that Christ is worth the risk and the mission is an unimaginable privilege. Here’s how the Apostle Paul explains it in 2 Corinthians 5:17–20,

[17] Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. [18] All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; [19] that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. [20] Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

The Heart of The Missionary Matters
God could’ve moved on to a more faithful prophet, yet he continued to use Jonah. He gives him a second chance to obey the command to “Go.” When Jonah pridefully pouts about the mercy shown to Nineveh, God patiently teaches him. Why? Because God cares about the heart of the missionary just as much as he cares about the recipients of the mission.

His primary concern is not that we merely perform missionary duties, but that we are shaped and conformed into the image of Christ. As we seek to be obedient to God’s command to bring the gospel to those who do not believe we will face discouragement, disappointment, frustration, and failure. Yet each of these moments is an opportunity for God’s Spirit to work in our hearts; to reveal idolatry, lead us to repentance, and reinforce our confidence in Christ.

This is why the ending of Jonah is so helpful. The book ends with God questioning Jonah about his love of self over and above loving others (Jonah 4:10). But we never get Jonah’s answer. The ending is meant to turn the question to us, “We don’t know how Jonah answered this question, but how will you answer it? What is the condition of your heart?”

God Is Sovereign Over The Mission
God’s sovereignty is woven all throughout this book. He’s sovereign over a storm (1:4), a fish (1:17, 2:10), a plant and a worm (4:6,7), a wind storm (4:8), the salvation of the pagan sailors and the people of Nineveh (Chapter 1, 2:9, 3:10). In short, Jonah shows us that God is sovereign over both creation and salvation.

This encourages us in the mission. If we rightly consider the task at hand: taking the message of the gospel to those around us, we will say with Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” No one! The work of the gospel can’t be carried out in our own strength or by earthly means. The conversion of a sinner is a miraculous work of God’s grace.

But God sovereignly works in our attempts to bring the gospel to the unbeliever, even though they are flawed and sometimes misguided. Salvation belongs to the LORD, not to the missionary. His plan could not be thwarted by Jonah’s disobedience. And his mercy could not be ignored by the wicked people of Nineveh.

God Loves Your Mission Field More Than You Do
It’s unlikely that anyone was sitting around in Israel dreaming of ways to love the Ninevites. The Ninevites were warned of coming judgment because “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Ps. 145:8). God certainly loved the Ninevites more than Jonah loved them. Christ loves your mission field more than you do. After all, he’s the one who died for them.

Christ, the better Jonah, answered God’s call to go to a wicked people; us. Instead of reluctantly warning them of coming judgment (like Jonah), Christ lovingly received the judgment we deserved. Jonah descended in the belly of the fish for three days because of his sin. Christ descended into the grave for ours. Jonah watched and waited in hopes that Nineveh would be destroyed. Christ welcomes all who are weary and heavy laden to come to him for rest, life, and salvation. 

What does this mean for us? First, we need to cultivate a heart for the gospel. We must see ourselves as sinners in need of God’s grace before we tell other sinners they’re in need of grace. We must know that our mission field doesn’t ultimately need us, they need Jesus. And if our hearts are constantly delighting in the finished work of Christ, this gospel will flow out of us like a river of living water (Jn. 7:37-39).

Second, we need to ask God to cultivate in us a heart of love for sinners; for neighbors, friends, families, co-workers, people groups who do not know the saving love of Christ. As the Hymn writer Henry Lyte wrote, “Did Christ over sinners weep and shall our cheeks be dry? Let floods of penitential grief burst forth from every eye.” 

As God answers that prayer we will be moved to action. we will long to take the gospel to those around us because they are needy and he is worthy. We will be willing to sacrifice for the mission no matter how difficult it becomes. Our missionary heart will be a Christ-like one which rests in his sufficiency. We will move forward on mission with boldness and confidence in Gods sovereign grace and infinite mercy.

Let’s Take heart, rest in the gospel, and press on!

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