Thinking About Grace
In a recent pondering over the story of Jonah, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the amazing grace of God stamped all over this little book. Through his own embarrassing encounters with God, Jonah saw the grace of God at work in how God dealt with him and how God reached out to the pagan sailors and evil Assyrians. It is a case of grace overreach; God relentlessly pursuing sinners, both saved and unsaved, with His amazing grace.
The story of Jonah contains many unflattering details of him.
Jonah famously refused to accept God’s assignment to warn the people in the city of Nineveh of an impending judgement unless they repent from their evil. He would rather see the city destroyed by God’s wrath because he hated them. The Assyrians were a mortal threat to the nation of Israel. While this is understandable, God’s prophets have no prerogative to pick and choose their assignments. They are supposed to obey God unquestionably, but not Jonah.
When the Ninevites responded to his prophetic warning and repented, Jonah became angry. He was exceedingly displeased with the outcome. Other prophets would have been jubilant, but not Jonah. He sulked and threw a temper tantrum at God. He went to the extent of accusing God of being too gracious and merciful.
Jonah’s action reveals the wickedness of his heart. Is he any less evil than the Assyrians? Evil has many faces. It manifests itself in different ways. Whether in brute force or subtly, it makes no difference to God. Evil is evil.
I wonder whether you have thought of this before. Why was Jonah willing to disclose all these unflattering and embarrassing details about himself?
Granted, we do not know for sure who the author might be. Maybe it is someone else and not Jonah. However, we can be certain that the source materials must have come from Jonah himself. How else could anyone know these details, which were privy only to the prophet himself?
The answer to Jonah’s honest self-disclosure lies in his realisation of God’s amazing grace. He came face-to-face with it. He ran away, but God pursued him with a raging tempest. He wanted to kill himself (getting the sailors to throw into the stormy sea), but God sent a big fish to swallow him up. He died, but God raised him back to life. He was angry with God for withholding judgement on the Ninevites, but God bothered to explain His rationale to him. God was not only merciful and gracious to the Ninevites, but also to Jonah. Jonah must have felt deeply convicted. Despite his reluctance and stubborn disobedience, God still used him.
Probably God’s response to Jonah’s anger, which is recorded in the last statement of the story, struck a haunting chord in Jonah’s heart: “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 4:11 ESV).
An Unlikely Pulpit
Like all the Old Testament prophets, Jonah understood the exacting standards of God as enshrined in the Mosaic Law. However, he encountered the grace of God in his adventures in the sea and Nineveh. He saw first-hand how God seized every opportunity to reach out to unbelieving sinners with His love and forgiveness.
When God caught up with him in a tempest, which threatened to sink the ship, Jonah asked the sailors to throw him overboard. He explained to them that he was the cause of the storm. God was coming after him. Initially, the sailors refused. But when the waters grew choppier, they threw him over reluctantly. Immediately the sea became calm. It became obvious to them that this was truly the hand of God. “Then, the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows” (Jonah 1:16).
This is an interesting turn of event. Who would have thought that the recalcitrance of Jonah would become an opportune occasion for these pagan seafarers to come to the knowledge of God? The LORD used Jonah’s reluctance and the tempest as His pulpit to preach the gospel. This is certainly the amazing grace of God.
Repentance Despite Unsympathetic Message
Fast forward to when the big fish spitted Jonah out onto the dry land. Hey presto! It was exactly where Jonah did not want to go - the city of Nineveh. This is a miracle on top of his resurrection from the dead. You would think that Jonah would be repentant, and he would deliver the warning message wholeheartedly and compassionately. No, he did not. Grudgingly and unsympathetically he announced, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). That’s all Jonah said. Jonah’s continued reluctance and hatred for the Ninevites are obvious.
This is perhaps the crudest and most underwhelming sermon in the entire bible. Despite that, “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5). They responded en masse in repentance. The king declared a national fast. From the king down to the ordinary people, including the animals, they were covered in sackcloth and fasted. That is quite extraordinary. So, God relented and spared the city.
Jonah’s reluctance and uncooperativeness did not hinder the flow of divine grace. That day, Jonah learned that God’s grace is unstoppable. God is relentless in His pursuit of the lost.
For from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (John 1:16). Therefore, it behoves us to be good stewards of this grace. Be enthusiastic in sharing this good news whenever an opportunity opens up to you. Do not be selective like Jonah. Even the vilest offenders deserve to hear it.
Show grace also to one another. Be loving and forgiving like the LORD, God.
Pastors Leslie & Adeline Chua