Jonah: A Reluctant Servant

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

THE THEME OF THE Book of Jonah is simple: The LORD is a God of boundless compassion, not just for “us” but for “them”—the wicked, the disobedient, the Jew, and the Gentile. Some scholars consider Jonah’s story to be an allegory, using fictional characters to symbolize theological principles. Specifically, some believe “Jonah” represents Israel in its refusal to carry God’s mission to “other nations.” No doubt Israel felt “chosen” and was reluctant to share its status with others. But Jonah is identified as an actual historical figure (see 2 Kings 14:25); his story has elements of prophetic narrative like those of Elijah and Elisha (1Kings). Jesus likened His own impending death and resurrection to what Jonah experienced when swallowed by a giant fish and regurgitated on the beach after three days and three nights (see Matt. 12:40-41).

God’s Sovereign Control

God is sovereign over everything, as expressed in Scripture. He is King, Supreme Ruler, Designer, Lawgiver of the universe. He is sovereign over events on Earth, as expressed in Scripture. God’s sovereignty is infinite, but He cannot will or do anything that is against His character. Grudem writes, “God cannot lie, sin, deny himself, or be tempted with evil. He cannot cease to exist, or cease to be God, or act in a way inconsistent with any of his attributes” (1). We have been given a portion of God’s power—mental, spiritual, persuasion, authority. Grudem writes, “…when we remember that the sum of everything that is desirable or excellent is found in infinite measure in God himself, then we realize that it could not be otherwise: whatever excellence there is in the universe, whatever is desirable, must ultimately have come from him, for he is the Creator of all and he is the source of all good” (2) (italics in original).

David decreed, “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psa. 103:19, ESV). David would often pray, “Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all” (1 Chron. 29:11). Jeremiah said to God, “Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you” (Jer. 32:17). Paul said of Christ, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph. 3:20).

God’s Determination

The Book of Jonah shows God’s determination to make sure His will is carried out. Jonah finds out first hand what can happen when we tell God no! Jonah was unwilling to go to Nineveh, so he tried running away. We know from Genesis 3 that hiding from God is impossible. God knew precisely where Adam and Eve were hiding in the Garden when He asked, “Adam, where are you?” I believe God was saying, Adam, consider where you are compared to where you were before you disobeyed Me. Adam and Eve decided to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil so they could know as God knows; to look within themselves to determine what is good and what is evil; to decide the meaning of life. At that point, man lost his “vertical” (heavenward) orientation with God, exchanging it for a “horizontal” orientation (within and between self and others). Indeed, the number of worldviews is as varied as those who hold them.

When Jonah was thrown into the angry sea by the superstitious crew, they put him back in the path of God’s will. God’s plan will always be accomplished. Whenever God calls on us to “go forth” and perform a task, He begins with a single request. He told Jonah, Go to Nineveh. Any “call” to mission from God is a heavy obligation. Because we are not equipped to comprehend God’s plan all at once, He reveals it to us one step at a time. If God were to reveal the entire journey up front, we would not need faith in Him to equip us for the mission. God says, I know where I am sending you. Trust me and I will get you there. His determination must become our determination. Consider how Jesus was determined to accomplish God’s purpose (a plan for redemption) regardless of what it would cost—humiliation, severe physical pain, mocking, (temporary) separation from the Father (see Matt. 27:46), and death. Crucifixion is so gruesome the Romans coined the phrase excruciate to define the punishment: ex meaning “out of” and cruciate meaning “from the cross.” To excruciate is “to cause great agony or torment” by nailing someone to a cross. It is a slow and agonizing death. Christ willingly paid the wages of our sin. We have a plan of redemption because of the unwavering resolve that characterized His entire life.

Determination gives you the resolve to keep going in spite of the roadblocks that lay before you. 

Determination is our ability to make difficult decisions and accomplish God’s goals based on the truths of God’s Word without regard for what may be encountered. It is the ability to set ourselves toward Godly pursuits and not allow ourselves to be distracted or discouraged. “Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law! I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I set your rules before me. I cling to your testimonies, O LORD; let me not be put to shame” (Psa. 119:29-31). Paul wrote, “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). Jesus told the disciples, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Proverbs says, “Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established (italics added).”

We often hear about the determination of men and women in the mission fields of the world. Mattew Egwowa, of the Ibru Ecumenical Centre, writes, “The syndrome of waiting for God is an old syllabus of the classical believers, but now is an emergence of end time radical believers—the revolutionists: Enough is enough. Such movement begins with a determination; and the launching pad is courage. Courage is despising danger and braving the risk to achieve your goal” (3). Determination is carried on the wings of necessity. It must fly in the face of fear. God said, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10). Egwowa says, “Until fear goes, God cannot come to your aid [and you] cannot tract the supernatural intervention of the Almighty God; fear must leave for faith in God.” In other words, the determined man must not only be fearless, but must also be soundly rooted in faith. Jonah’s strongest objection to bringing the message of repentance and forgiveness to the Ninevites was his hatred for the Assyrians.

The Need for Repentance

The need for repentance is universal and is not bound by time, geography, nationality, race, or culture. God prepared to destroy the ancient city of Nineveh because of its rabid sin. It had become as evil as Sodom. As with Jonah, there are times when we might not want God to forgive those who have hurt us. Jonah hated the Ninevites, and he did not want them to be saved. Nineveh was the oldest and most populated city of the ancient Assyrian civilizations, located near the modern city of Mosul on the Tigris River. The Assyrian army sacked a number of cities, which included Jonah’s home town of Gath Hepher. He may have seen his mother and father slain and his siblings captured. He was not able to assuage his anger and resentment of Nineveh and the Assyrians under his own power. As Christians under the New Covenant, we understand God’s position on forgiveness. We struggle with forgiveness, but our salvation is rooted in it.

Unforgiveness is one of Satan’s powerful weapons. He knows it is impossible that no offenses should come (see Luke 17:10), so he sways us to anger and indignation. The Greek word for offense (adíkima) means “malpractice, wrong, tort, misdeed.” Interestingly, the NIV translation of 17:10 is, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they came.'” Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees since Luke 16:14. Now, however, He turned to the disciples. The Greek word that covers “things that cause people to sin” (skandala) means “traps,” but symbolically this includes anything that causes people to fall back into sin. Jesus said this trap is so egregious that “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:2). Remarkably, the “trap” of Jonah’s refusal to let go of the offense by the Assyrians caused him to sin by disobeying and God and running from His calling. God loves obedience more than sacrifices (see 1 Sam. 15:22). He expected Jonah to obey His command in spite of the anger and resentment he held against the Ninevites and Assyrians. And He expects our obedience in forgiving others.

Paul said in his second letter to Timothy, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:24-26). The “snare of the devil” should be with the offending party, not with the one who is offended. It is human to react adversely to being wronged, but we are called to seek help from the Lord to let go of the offense, allowing the other party to “own it,” forgiving them in love and grace. This is why John Bevere divides all offended people into two categories: (a) those who have been treated unjustly, and (b) those who believe they have been treated unjustly (4).

I became so ensnared when my family refused reconcile with me after forty years of my active addiction, manipulation, lies, thefts, and defiance. My thought was, Hey, I mean it this time! Now, I have been clean for twenty-nine consecutive months, and I have completed a B.S. in Psychology and an M.A. in Theology. My daily mission is directed toward those who still struggle with active addiction and those who have quit and want to change their lives forever. My offense was great despite the truth of my behavior. I had in fact become unforgiving of their unforgiveness. Perhaps there is no trickier trap than “justifiable” anger. One of my mentors remarked that until I forgive my family members (e.g., of their unforgiveness), they cannot forgive me. It is a spiritual axiom that I was standing in the way of God’s blessing me with forgiveness and reconciliation from my mother and my siblings.

God’s Full Assurance

Many have wondered why God used Jonah to carry out His will after Jonah refused to go to Nineveh. Foremost, our LORD is the God of second chances. When God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah’s immediate reaction was, Oh no. Nope. Not going to Nineveh. In defiance, Jonah bought a ticket to the farthest place west that was known at the time—go any farther and you will sail off the edge of the planet. He went to “the end of the world” to escape God’s will. As he was on the boat, a tempest of severe weather struck the ship. The crew ultimately tossed Jonah overboard as a sacrifice hoping to calm the angry sea. Well, that’s the end of that, right? Jonah will surely perish and God will send someone else to deliver His message in Nineveh. Jonah 1:17 says, “Then God assigned a huge fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the fish’s belly three days and nights” (MSG). I can only imagine Jonah’s state of mind while laying among partially digested food and stomach acid!

“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. For you cast me into the deep, into the hear of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ 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. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD'” (Jonah 2:2-9).

I find it noteworthy that Jonah knew for certain it was God who tossed him overboard in a tempest and had him swallowed by a giant fish. Jonah acknowledged God’s sovereignty when he said “your waves and your billows passed over me.” Jonah experienced utter darkness in the belly of the fish and got a taste of Sheol. And then, “The LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). He was being given a second chance. Ever have one of those? Maybe more than one second chance? I’ve lost count of how many second chances God has given me over the decades. A friend of mine who owns a Christian bookstore reminded me that God casts our sins into the sea of forgetfulness. I don’t think this means God cannot “remember” what we have done, but it does mean our offenses have been forgiven and will not be “recalled” or held against us. We have been redeemed through Christ.

To illustrate that God has separated us from our sins as far as the east is from the west, my friend brought out a globe. “Take your fingers and walk west around the globe,” she said. She kept turning the globe, telling me to continue “walking” around the globe four times. Then she asked me, “As you walked toward the West, did you encounter the East?” I had not. Then she had me walk up the globe toward the north pole, and down the other side to the south pole. She said, “What happened regarding North and South?” Walking up the globe I encountered the North Pole, and as I walked down the other side I encountered the South Pole. I greatly appreciated the illustration.

The Mission; the Command

Here’s where the story comes down to “street level.” As Christians, we have a commission to go to every corner of the globe sharing the gospel and making disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to follow all that Jesus taught the disciples (see Matt. 28:18-10). Why are we going in the opposite direction? When we get outside the will of God, we give in to our fear. We rationalize our actions (e.g., they probably won’t believe in Jesus!), or we say, “Let someone else go, I’m no missionary.” God sends whom He needs to send for each mission; the one who can best carry His message. Quite often what God needs to say in the situation can only come from the person He sends! Imagine how convinced Jonah was about God’s intentions after being regurgitated from the belly of the giant fish!

Chris Hoke wrote an amazing memoir (5) about his work as a minister to the homeless, migrant farmers, and prisoners. His experiences opened up a whole world where some lives seem to matter less than others: drug addicts, alcoholics, people suffering from mental illness, the incarcerated, the “illegal” alien. We need to erase margins that often stand in the way of inclusion—where the “demonizing” ceases and the “disposable” are no longer tossed aside. All people, even the most troubled, are worthy of a second chance. Why is it so easy to demonize people? What are we afraid will happen if we reach out and embrace the outcast? I had the nasty habit of judging people for most of my life. When I renewed my commitment to be “in the way” of Christ, I looked closely at this tendency and noted a need to promote or prop myself up at the expense of others. Coming back to Christ gave me at least a desire to put myself second and to stop judging others, but this character defect was deeply rooted and in need of “weeding.” Chris Hoke’s ministry to life’s “less than” individuals is refreshing.

Concluding Remarks

Jonah allowed his anger and resentment toward the Assyrians and the Ninevites to thwart his obedience to God. He no doubt felt “justified” having witnessed the Assyrians kill his parents and snatch his siblings. Perhaps Jonah was “left behind” to warn others to comply with the enemy or suffer the same fate as his family. This is a familiar theme in the first Star Wars movie. Luke Skywalker returns to his village to find it burned to the ground and his aunt and uncle murdered. It was at that moment that a darkness began to move in his soul. Luke tried to rush his “jedi” training so he could avenge his village and his aunt and uncle. Obi-Wan Kenobi taught Luke to calm his anger and search diligently for the “force.” Jonah was similarly blinded by hatred and resentment. These emotions are not fruit (“evidence”) of the Spirit at work in our lives, but are examples of the flesh controlling our actions.

We cannot hide from God. Once “called,” we will be pursued to whatever end we ultimately choose—stay or run. As with Christ Hoke, and with Jonah’s mission to Nineveh, God sends whom He needs to send for the circumstances at hand. God’s message could only be delivered by Jonah—ultimately, forgiveness and redemption. It is as if we’re to come away with the lesson, If Jonah could put aside his strong feelings against the Assyrians for murdering his parents and focus on performing God’s will, we can forgive those who have offended us and get on with our calling. God’s judgment might be “delayed,” but it will always be exercised. Nineveh’s repentance was short-lived, leading to their destruction 100 years later. God is jealous and avenging; slow to anger but mighty in power. Maybe there is a deeper message in the eventual destruction of Nineveh (and of the entire world). Jesus wants more than nominal “believers.” Believing in Christ is not the same thing as being in Christ. Nineveh went to great lengths to show God they feared Him: “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them to the least of them” (3:5). Yet, they had no true change of heart.

Justice means “getting what we deserve.” Mercy involves receiving undeserved vindication. All have sinned. And the just punishment for sin is death: spiritual separation from God and eternal damnation. Thankfully, we are granted redemption through salvation under the New Covenant. God loved us enough to ask Jesus to suffer an unbelievable death as a propitiation for our sins. He who knew no sin became sin for us (see 2 Cor. 5:21). His ordeal was so incredibly horrific that it is incomprehensible. Mel Gibson and Jim Caviezel created scenes in The Passion of the Christ that many Christians are unable to watch. It took me three attempts to watch the film through to the end. I find it helpful whenever confronted with premeditated or habitual sin to remember what the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life were like. I also recall Christ saying to “nominal” Christians, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'” (Matt. 7:21-23).


(1) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 217.
(2) Ibid., 219.
(3) Mattew Egwowa, “Characteristics of Determination,” The Guardian: Conscience Nurtured by Truth (Nov. 13, 2016). URL:
(4) John Bevere, The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2004), 7.
(5) Chris Hoke, Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders (New York, NY: HarperOne), 2015.

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