Key Texts: Jonah 1-4; 2 Kings 14:25; Isa. 56:7; Isa. 44:8; Matt. 12:40; Rev. 14:6-12.
The lesson this week has to do with what is arguably the most famous prophet from antiquity, Jonah, the one swallowed by the great fish. His story is found in the Old Testament book bearing his name, Jonah.
Perhaps the best place to begin discussion of the Jonah story is to note that he, of all people, was put in a position by the call of God to work way outside his comfort zone for he was called to go not to his own people, but to the arch enemy of Israel, a people who we know now were among the most brutal in all history. They made it a point to terrorize those they went to war with so that others would capitulate before the fight even began. The thought of having to go to Nineveh to preach its impending demise filled Jonah with great fear, so much fear that he decided it was better for him to run the opposite way, as far from the place of his appointed task as he could get.
- Notice that Jonah, though a prophet, was not a perfect man. He was quite subject to the frailties and foibles common to humans.
- It might be said that he was the first commissioned foreign missionary. What interesting dynamics do you see surrounding that kind of commission?
One of the major elements in the story of Jonah is the picture it paints of God:
- What do you learn about God from his response to Jonah’s flight? Is it possible to run away from God and his callings? How might that affect missions?
- What do you learn about God and the natural world in this story?
- Have you thought of the reigning cosmology of Jonah’s time and how it affects the story? Do the mountains really have roots? How might the cosmology of the time affect our understanding of the story today?
- Think about how the misdoings of Jonah, once confessed, became the vehicles of the “conversion” of the sailors. What do you think when through their minds when the learned they were carrying away on their ship a fleeing prophet of the God of both the heavens and the earth?
We ought to notice that in this story, Jonah was not swallowed by a whale but by a great fish that God prepared to capture him with.
- Reflect on how adversity in the belly of the great fish brought repentance to Jonah. What life-lessons might be drawn from that fact?
- Notice how prayer turned to praise even in the belly of the great fish!
There is not a little that can be learned from thoughtfully studying the message Jonah delivered in Nineveh. Notice that it has both a threat and a promise. The stark announcement that destruction would come in 40 days if there was no response to the message was the front side of a promise that if repentance ensued, there would be salvation instead of destruction. It is very important to understand that the gospel still has these two elements and failure to speak to both of them results in a watering-down of the message of God sent to humans.
One of the more remarkable elements of the Jonah story is his lament at the end. Astonishingly, when God moved to save Nineveh, Jonah complained rather forthrightly. We almost get the idea that he feared for his reputation more than he cared for the Ninevites! At the same time, his words in Jonah 4:10, 11 are remarkable as he speaks almost inadvertently about the character of God. Particularly touching are the final comments where God speaks of his care for even the little ones and the animals.
- What lessons about mission and missionaries can you learn from the Jonah story? In particular, think of the courage he had to muster in order to go on the errand God had given him.
- What would the effects of a watered down message have in Nineveh had Jonah softened the message he was sent to deliver?