By L&T Columnist Gary Damron
When our children were little, my wife told them Bible stories, sometimes asking them for fill-in-the-blank answers. One they had memorized was about Jonah, the Old Testament prophet in Israel who brought a message to the Gentiles in Nineveh.
In every account, there are no doubt more levels of meaning than what’s visible, much more than a children’s story. Throughout history, we see that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Before Jonah came to the great city, God had been working on the hearts of the Ninevites. And as is often the case, he also had a plan for the messenger.
The journey from Israel to Nineveh, which is in the north of Iraq inhabited now by the Kurds, would have been about 500 miles on foot. But with Jonah’s detour to Joppa where he boarded a ship, was thrown overboard and spent time in the belly of a fish, it took even longer.
The people of Nineveh were wicked, as we all are, yet God still saw them as deserving of an opportunity to repent. Jonah finally arrived and brought a warning of destruction.
Amazingly, from the common people to the king of the nation they prayed and repented, and the adults, their children and all their livestock were saved.
Jonah had prayed for deliverance while in the belly of the fish and God heard him. But after he preached to Nineveh and God stayed his destruction, Jonah was angry and pouted. It’s obvious that God, who promised judgment, was more merciful than the messenger.
Jonah, Jewish leaders in the New Testament, and believers today are held to a higher standard than people who don’t know God. We see Jesus denouncing only the religious leaders of his day, those who were condemning people in need of grace.
Those who deliver the message of God’s mercy and grace need to be indifferent to the behaviors of the hearer, their languages, ethnicities, everything except that they are a person for whom Christ died.
Paul wrote, “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
If we get sidetracked arguing about politics, theology or lifestyle, we lose sight of the message of Christ’s salvation for all.
The wrath of God, had it come upon Nineveh, was not against the people but against their sin. Even the warning brought by Jonah can be seen as a sign of grace. A speaker recently phrased it that God’s mercy is holding back punishment which we deserve; God’s grace is giving salvation which we don’t deserve.
Centuries later, in Acts 9 and 10, the city of Joppa again figures into a story of God’s love for all people. The apostle Peter, who was staying in Joppa at the house of Simon the tanner, had a vision.
A centurion named Cornelius also had a vision and sent for Peter, which remarkably led to Peter’s ministry to Gentiles. God’s message has eternal implications for the messenger as well as for those who hear and respond.