The Reluctant Ambassador
A sermon on the book of Jonah by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 3/16/03
What is the purpose of the church?
The purpose of the church is to fulfill God’s purpose in creating man.
Why did God create man? Isaiah tells us in 43:7: “whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” God created man for His glory, and the church exists to fulfill that purpose: to glorify God.
But from among men, whom is God calling into His church?
On Wednesday night, we saw that God intends to bring worshipers together for Himself not from one people group, not from a few hundred people groups, but from every people group. This is clear even in God’s promise to Abraham (then Abram) in Genesis 12:
I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
Or consider this prophesy from Isaiah:
The time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory. 19. . . And from them I will send survivors to the nations . . . that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. 20 And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the LORD (Isaiah 66:18-20)
God intends to bring together into His one true church believers from every nation, every people group. And note that He is not bringing them into multiple distinct churches; rather He is uniting them in one Body of Christ which is worldwide. We are truly one.
But we also noted Wednesday night that there are some from every people group who are lost eternally. No people group is excluded in its entirety from the blessings of God, but no people group in its entirety is within the Body of Christ. We see this in Revelation 13:7-8:
[The beast] was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8 and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.
Every tribe and tongue and people and nation are under the authority of the beast. So there are some lost eternally and some saved eternally from every people group.
We also saw Wednesday night that we show we belong to Christ Jesus by our love for each other – and that this love for each other is one way that we fulfill our purpose of bringing glory to His Name:
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35)
Furthermore, not only do we SHOW we are His by our love, we KNOW we are His by our love:
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)
At this point you might think, “Coty, you’re overwhelming us with Bible verses. Where is all this heading?”
To this: The church by its very nature is called to cross-cultural ministry. The true church by God’s plan is multi-cultural. Being mono-cultural is not an option for the church. God’s true church is diverse. And a key indicator that distinguishes God’s true church from imitations, from pseudo-churches, is the love that we have for each other across barriers of culture.
This is clearly true of the worldwide church. But does this mean that every local assembly of believers must be multi-cultural?
I would not go that far. But note that we have several examples of local churches in the New Testament that were multi-cultural. Consider first the church in Antioch:
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (Acts 13:1)
These prophets and teachers are a diverse group socially, ethnically, and linguistically. The ethnic diversity becomes even clearer in Galatians 2:11-13.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
The church in Antioch was composed of both Gentiles and Jews. There were united in one church. Peter’s actions were dividing the church along ethnic lines. So Paul, knowing that the witness of the church to the world depends on our being one across cultural barriers, takes the extraordinary step of publicly opposing Peter to his face.
Note also that even the Jerusalem church was a mixed group, with Greek-speaking Jews joining together with Aramaic-speaking Jews (Acts 6). Indeed, this leads to conflict. But how do the apostles deal with that conflict? Do they say, “OK, you Greek-speakers form your own congregation over there and set up your own plan to serve your widows; we Aramaic-speakers we stay in this congregation and serve our own widows.” Is that what they do? Not at all. They keep the church unified, and in fact put six Greek-speaking men in charge of the distribution to all the widows.
So in the New Testament we have examples of ethnically mixed local congregations – and those congregations made serious efforts to remain ethnically mixed even though there were difficulties to work through.
As we said above, this does not necessarily mean that all local assemblies should be multi-cultural. Indeed, in some locations that would be impossible. (Furthermore, when the Gospel first penetrates a people group, it may very well be best to develop a monocultural church for a limited period of time in order that Christianity can be seen as something other than a foreign religion.) But we can say that God is most glorified when the local church reflects the heavenly church, when we display God’s supernatural love across the natural barriers that divide us – when we, different as we are, become at home with each other.
Clearly, when we look around the city of Charlotte, when we look around the US, we see very few churches that display God’s supernatural love in this way. How can we go about building a church that will glorify God like this? How can we transition churches that are monocultural to become multicultural?
The main requirement: A change of heart. And today’s text - the book of Jonah - shows more clearly than any other in the Bible what is involved in such a heart change.
We’ll go through this book quickly this morning under two main headings:
God’s Reluctant Ambassador and
God’s Loving Persistence.
Under this second heading, we’ll see God’s persistence both for the nations and for His ambassador.
Under this heading we will look at four different ways that Jonah disobeys God, one way from each of the four chapters of the book. First, chapter 1.
Look at God’s commands to Jonah in 1:2:
"Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me."
God gives Jonah three commands: Arise! Go! Cry out!
But how does Jonah respond in the next few verses? He does arise, but instead of going to Ninevah, he goes down again and again: down to Joppa in verse 3, down into the ship in verse 5, down into the hold of the ship in verse 5 – and then down into the sea in verse 15. God tells Jonah to go one direction, to engage in cross-cultural ministry, and Jonah goes completely in the opposite direction.
It is easy for us to laugh at Jonah, and to judge him for failing to obey God. But who were the Assyrians? A cruel, ruthless, and powerful people – the major threat to Jonah’s country at this time. Less than 50 years after the time of Jonah this same Assyria will come and destroy the Kingdom of Israel.
Think hard now: What group of people do you dislike the most? What people frighten you, annoy you? What people would you least like to go stay with for several weeks? They are your Ninevites.
So how might we characterize Jonah’s disobedience in chapter 1? This is direct, defiant disobedience. God tells him to do one thing, he does exactly the opposite. Once we have thought about our own Ninevites, we might be less inclined to laugh at Jonah – but there is no getting around Jonah’s clear disobedience to God’s command.
So now God gets the attention of His disobedient prophet by having the sailors throw him into the sea. Jonah thinks this is the end – but God appoints a great fish to come and swallow him. Jonah knows that God has spared his life miraculously.
So in chapter 2 Jonah prays. But does he repent? Let me read you Jonah’s prayer, and then answer that question:
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying, "I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. 3 For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 4 Then I said, 'I am driven away from your sight; Yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.' 5 The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head 6 at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. 7 When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. 8 Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. 9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!"
What do you think? Does Jonah repent?
Amazingly, after God has performed miracles both to punish him for his disobedience and to save him, Jonah says not one word about repentance. He thanks God for saving his life, and he ends with the great cry, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – but he never acknowledges that he was in the sea needing God to save him because of his own disobedience. Furthermore, while salvation does indeed belong to the Lord, the Lord is interested in the salvation of all people groups. Jonah is interested only in the people of Israel. This was the sin that led him to disobey God directly – and we see the same sin express itself in different ways in chapters 3 and 4.
So Jonah’s disobedience in chapter 2 is a failure to repent.
Chapter 3 provides further evidence that Jonah has had no change of heart. He now comes up with a new way to express his disobedience.
Do you remember the three commands God gives Jonah in 1:2? “Arise, go, call out.” Note that in 3:2 God repeats those three commands:
"Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you."
Does Jonah obey these three commands this time? In chapter 1, he arises, but he does not go where God commands and never calls out. This time obeys the second command: He arises and goes to Ninevah. But see how the author describes Jonah’s actions in verses 3 and 4:
3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
Jonah does eventually call out. But the author inserts two extra sentences between the fulfillment of the 2nd and 3rd commands. And then when he does call out, what does he say? Does he say, “Ninevah has defied the Lord God. Now repent! Or God will overthrow you!” No, that is not what he says. He gives no reason for God’s anger and he provides no opportunity for repentance. Indeed, he does not even mention the Name of the Lord!
Is this what God told Jonah to say? I think the author is hinting to us that it is not by inserting the two extra sentences. And the next chapter clearly shows that God intended for the Ninevites to repent at the preaching of Jonah. That being the case, wouldn’t God have instructed Jonah to hold out the possibility of not being destroyed upon their repentance? Indeed, although the Old Testament is full of proclamations of judgment on disobedient nations, in every case there is a clear reason given for God’s judgment. Jonah’s preaching stands in stark contrast to that heritage. We must conclude that Jonah is preaching only part of the message God gave him.
In chapter 3, therefore, Jonah is displaying perfunctory obedience. You kids know what this is even if you don’t know the word! Perfunctory obedience is when you obey in a grudging manner – you don’t want to obey and you don’t obey from your heart. Instead, you just go through the motions and, in actuality, are disobeying. Jonah continues to be disobedient in chapter 3.
So Jonah has disobeyed God directly, he has failed to repent, and he has subsequently obeyed only in a perfunctory manner. Chapter 4 highlights one more way that Jonah disobeys God. Let’ read verses 1-3 together, which tell of Jonah’s reaction after God grants repentance to the Ninevites, and then decides not to destroy the city:
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."
What does Jonah wish had happened? What is Jonah accusing God of?
Jonah is saying that God is too merciful! He is angry at God for forgiving the sins of the Ninevites. He did not want to come to Ninevah and be the source of blessing for these people. And he always thought that God might grant them repentance – that is why he didn’t want to come.
Note that Jonah is quoting in verse 2 from Exodus 34, when God passes before Moses and shows him part of His glory. That glory is simultaneously declared verbally, as God says:
"The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
So Jonah is angry at God for fulfilling His character and displaying mercy to the Ninevites. But remember: in chapter 2 Jonah praises God for being merciful! He cries out, “Salvation is from the Lord!” So Jonah wants God to be merciful to him and to his people – he just doesn’t want God to be merciful to others. He fails to see God’s heart for ALL nations.
Also, Jonah leaves out something very important in his quotation from Exodus. In effect, Jonah is accusing God of being unjust by not punishing the Assyrians. He knows their sins – and, as we noted, those sins were many and great. But in that very passage in Exodus, God assures Moses and all subsequent readers that he “will by no means clear the guilty.” God is not unjust. He forgives, but He always ensures that every sin is paid for. While Jonah, living before the cross, could not know how God would accomplish that, he should have believed God’s word to Moses, and thus should have had confidence in God’s justice.
So we can summarize Jonah’s sin in chapter 4 as a lack of faith in God’s Word. God’s Word says that He has a heart for all nations – indeed, God’s command to Jonah was further revelation on this topic. And God’s Word says that He is just.
Thus, God uses Jonah as his ambassador, even though he is reluctant and even though he sins again and again and again.
But although Jonah is prominent throughout the book, the main character is God, not Jonah. This book shows God’s loving persistence in bringing the lost people of Ninevah to Himself – and also His loving persistence in bringing the reluctant prophet to Himself. We’ll look at both.
Think: What does God do in order to bring the Ninevites to repentance?
What is the lesson in all this? Psalm 67 provides it:
The peoples must praise you, O God; all the peoples must praise you! 4 The nations must be glad and sing for joy (Psalm 67:3,4)
God will bring the nations to Himself – despite their hardness of heart, despite the inadequacies of His ambassadors. God has begun a good work in this world and He will, He must complete it. Why? Because of His passion for His glory. As God tells Habakkuk,
the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14)
God’s desire to glorify Himself is at the root of His bringing the nations to Himself. He has stated that this must come about, and just as He performed miracle after miracle to bring about the repentance of the Ninevites, just as He brought about that repentance despite the sin and attempted sabotage of His chosen ambassador, God will one day bring those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation to Himself. It must happen.
Do you see how this is a great comfort? God gives us the privilege of being His agents in this great task – He chooses to work through us - but the outcome is certain. We cannot fail. Whatever our weaknesses, whatever our failings, God will break down all opposition and will bring the nations to Himself.
But God is just as intent upon bringing His errant ambassadors to Himself! Consider how He treats Jonah in chapter four. Turn to verse 3. Jonah has just stated how disappointed he is that God has not destroyed Ninevah. Now, in the midst of his pity party, he says,
Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." (Jonah 4:3)
Despite all his best efforts, Jonah has accomplished the task God set before him. God could respond, “OK, Jonah, if that’s how you feel, ZAP!” And Jonah would be dead.
But God doesn’t do that. Instead He exerts the same loving persistence in bringing His prophet to Himself as He exerted for the Ninevites. Consider all He does just in chapter 4:
This leads Jonah to become even angrier, as he is upset about the death of the plant.
God then confronts Jonah with impeccable logic:
9 But God said to Jonah, "Do you do well to be angry for the plant?" And he said, "Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die." 10 And the LORD said, "You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" (Jonah 4:9-11)
Jonah had nothing to do with bringing the plant into existence, and such a plant at most lives only a few days. But because it served a purpose for him, Jonah “pities” it, being sorry that it dies. But God created the Ninevites and had dealt with this city for hundreds and hundreds of years. Now at last the city is fulfilling the purpose for which He created it: to glorify God. Should He not pity them? If Jonah has any reason to pity the plant, God’s reasons for pitying the Ninevites are much greater.
So God pursues Jonah as He pursues the Ninevites: relentlessly, persistently, until all opposition fails. God cares about us as individuals and pursues us until we come to Him; and God cares about us as peoples, and pursues peoples until the peoples praise Him.
Jonah had no love for the Ninevites. Jonah had no desire to see God glorified through the praises of the Ninevites. So Jonah’s heart was not united with God’s heart.
What about you? Is your heart more like Jonah’s or God’s?
As we consider building a diverse church, are you a reluctant ambassador?
If you’re not reluctant now – Get ready, you probably will be!
There is no question: Cross-cultural ministry is hard. It is challenging. It is difficult. It is frustrating. Whoever your Ninevites might be, most likely God will put them in your path in some point as He grows this church.
So, Desiring God Community Church:
God will build His church. He is giving us the privilege of playing key roles in that process. As part of Desiring God Community Church you will play a role. What kind of ambassador will you be? Don’t be a reluctant one. Accept your role with eagerness, even as you accept it with fear and trembling. And then watch, as God works through you and in you for your great joy and His great glory.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 3/16/03. See this file for my teaching notes on Jonah (a Word file).
Copyright © 2003, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.
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