Reflecting God’s Compassion … Indiscriminately (Jonah 3:1–10)

The Apostle James describes the Bible as a mirror into which God’s people are to look, see their ungodliness rightly reflected, and be motivated to change (James 1:22–25). In other words, Scripture is given, not for mere information but for application and life transformation.

Having looked for a couple of weeks into the mirror of Jonah, we’ve been forced to ask ourselves some difficult questions. In chapter one, seeing a prodigal prophet running from God, we asked Do I reflect God’s compassionate character obediently? In chapter two, watching the pious prophet praying against God, we asked Do I reflect God’s compassion consistently?

As we now come to chapter three we find a pedestrian prophet speaking for God and we’re forced to look into that mirror again and, this time, ask ourselves Do I reflect God’s compassionate character indiscriminately?

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In the opening chapter of his NT letter, the Apostle James insists that God’s Word is given, not for mere information, but for application and life transformation.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do (James 1:22–25). 

Some look into the mirror of the Bible, rightly see themselves there, but then ignore what they see. These are the hearers only. Others look into the mirror, are convicted, and determine to change. These are the doers, and they will be blessed.

One author has captured this well: “For me a mirror is not a reflector of reinforcement but a tool of conviction. That’s how we use a mirror most effectively, to find where we need to change. The only ones who use a mirror for reinforcement are those who think they need no improvement. God’s mirror—the Bible—is not intended for our reaffirmation and reinforcement. God’s Word is given to us for change.”

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been staring into the mirror of the book of Jonah, the over-arching theme of which is that God is a compassionate God who wants his people to reflect his compassionate character to the world in which they live. 

The prophet Jonah serves as an all-together negative example of this task, providing a picture of what-not-to-do and how-not-to-live.

In chapter one we saw a prodigal prophet running from God. And we looked into that mirror and had to ask ourselves Do I reflect God’s compassion obediently?

In chapter two we saw a pious prophet praying against God. And we looked into that mirror again and asked ourselves Do I reflect God’s compassion consistently? That is, is my heart consistent with God’s heart?

In chapter three, the text in which we land today, we’re going to find Jonah a pedestrian prophet speaking for God. And we’re going to look into that mirror and asking ourselves Do I reflect God’s compassion indiscriminately? That is, without reservation or bias.

Looking into a mirror isn’t always enjoyable, is it? Sometimes we don’t like all we see. But it’s healthy, especially when that mirror is Scripture, our guide is the Holy Spirit, and the goal is Christlikeness.

So, let’s look to the mirror together now. Please turn, if you haven’t already, to Jonah 3. As you turn, let’s remember that the prophet has just been vomited up onto dry land by the great fish that God sent to save his life and he’s immediately met with a familiar command. 

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.”

The language here is almost identical to that of 1:1–2. This is a re-commissioning; a re-sending. It’s as though God says, “Okay, Jonah, let’s try this again. Go. To. Nineveh.” 

And, to the original audience’s relief, this time the prophet obeys. 

So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord.

If only he had done that the first time! But, perhaps, better late than never.

Now, as the chapter continues, we’re going to find Nineveh taking centerstage. It’s the people, the king, and even the animals of this wicked city become the focus of most of the chapter and the author does that for a very specific reason.

You see, to a Hebrew, who were the Ninevites? They were enemies, pagans, debauched, and sinful. They were, in a word, “outsiders.” They were outside God’s people, outside God’s blessing, outside God’s invitation, outside God’s plan, and outside God’s purpose. And the Holy Spirit, working through the human author of this book, takes these “outsiders,” places them in the middle of the story, to highlight the contrasting reactions to them by God and God’s prophet. In other words, in Jonah 3, we are going to be shown, on one side, Jonah’s heart for “the outsider” and, on the other side, God’s heart for “the outsider.” And, seeing them both and comparing them, you and I are then going to be invited to examine our own hearts for “the outsiders” in our lives.

First, let’s consider what the text reveals about Jonah’s heart for “the outsider.” 

In chapter 1, you’ll recall, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh to bring those evil people a message but Jonah ran away. In fact, as that chapter continued, we learned Jonah would rather die than visit those wicked people. In chapter 2, while thanking God for showing him mercy, Jonah declares that “those who cling to empty faith” [like the Ninevites] “forego God’s compassion” (2:8). In other words, they don’t deserve God’s mercy like Jonah clearly does.

So, judging from chapters 1 and 2, how would we describe the prophet’s heart for “the outsider”? Calloused? Indifferent? Vengeful? At the very least we could say he doesn’t believe they deserve to witness nor experience God’s compassion.

In fact, in chapter 4 (spoiler alert!), Jonah admits this is exactly the case. The reason he ran from God in the first place was that he knew God would probably show compassion to those he felt didn’t deserved it!

With that in mind, let’s go back to verse 3:

So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk.

In addition to a statement of Jonah’s long-overdue obedience, we’re also given some information about Nineveh. It’s a great, important city. Literally, the Hebrew says it “was great to God.” So, not only is it great in size (a three days journey), but it’s also important in the eyes of the Lord.

Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Finally, the wicked city of Nineveh hears the warning of pending divine judgment. “Judgement is coming!”

Now, we can interpret this verse in one of two ways. Option #1: Jonah is doing exactly what he’s told. He goes through the city preaching, and his message is so powerful that it only takes one of the three days necessary to have its affect. That’s to paint the prophet in the best light possible.

Option #2, the one I’m going to suggest, I find more consistent with what we know about Jonah so far and the trajectory of the book as a whole.

I think Jonah, though being obedient, is doing so begrudgingly. Chapter 4 will reveal that he still hates Nineveh and doesn’t think they deserve to be spared. So, I read 3:4 describing the prophet as doing the bare minimum; cutting corners on his assignment. I think, though Nineveh is a three-days walk (v. 3), Jonah only does one (v. 4). He pokes his head into the city, does a third of his task. And I also think he also delivers a truncated message from God. In Hebrew, Jonah says only five words to the Ninevites. I think, motivated by his disdain for Nineveh, the prophet of God does the absolute bare minimum for them while still being able to say he was obedient to his God.

Imagine a parent tells their teenager to clean their room. Instead, without saying a word, the child storms out of the house and hitchhikes to Mexico to get away from the parent and their “stupid chores.” The parent has no choice but to involve the police who apprehend the teen a few days later and bring them back home. The parent now looks at their child and says again, “clean your room.” This time the child, still visibly angry, gets up, walks to their room, and gets to work.

Do you think that child is cleaning well? Do you think they’re working with joy in their heart? Or, do you think there’s a chance they may cut corners, stuff a bunch of dirty clothes under their bed just to say they did what the parent asked? In light of previous disobedience, it’s a good question.

Now, at dinner that night, a long-overdue conversation finally takes place in which the child blows-up: “I hate cleaning my room and I’m sick of you trying to get me to do things I don’t want to do. I know you well enough to know that you’ll just ask me to do it again next week, so what’s the point!?” 

Now, with that outburst added to the equation, what do you think the chances are that, if that parent goes to inspect the bedroom they’ll find it wasn’t really cleaned all that well? Probably pretty high, right? Why? Because it’s consistent with what the teenager has shown about their character, their priorities, and their heart.

So too with Jonah here. Knowing what we know about his past rebellion and knowing that a blow-up is coming in chapter 4, it makes sense to me to read 3:4 with suspicion. Jonah’s heart for Nineveh hasn’t been one of compassion so far, and it won’t be in chapter 4 either, so why would it suddenly be in chapter 3?

No, Jonah’s heart for “the outsider” is one of indifference at best and hatred at worst. He believes that God’s compassion, mercy, and love should be reserved for those who deserve it, people like him for example; nations like Israel.

So, Jonah begrudgingly obey’s God, and look what happens: 

Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them.

Despite Jonah’s lack of enthusiasm, the message spreads like wildfire through the city, the people believe and respond immediately. Everyone started fasting and dressing in sackcloth—universal signs of repentance. 

Eventually, the news of coming judgement reaches the palace.

When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.”

Like his people, the king hears this prophecy of an unknown god given by an unknown prophet, but believes it, and responds immediately and dramatically. The whole city moves to mourning, turning from their violent ways, and throwing themselves on the possibility that this God may just extend mercy to them.

For the second time in the book of Jonah we find the attitudes and actions of pagans being depicted as more godly than those of God’s prophet. Just as the sailors called out to God, tried to spare Jonah’s life, and vowed and sacrificed to Yahweh, so too here we find the awful Ninevites responding immediately and dramatically to the word of God. In both cases, the pagans are used as foils against which Jonah is compared and shown to be lacking godliness. 

The entire city, from the greatest to the least, the king to the beggar (and even the animals), repented of sin. Yet, to this point, God’s prophet has done no such thing.

In chapter 3 of this book we find, yet again, a negative example in Jonah in that he lacks compassion for “the outsider.” 

What about God? What is God’s heart for “the outsider”?

God’s compassion was already on display in chapter 1 when he commissioned Jonah to warn Nineveh instead of destroying them and again in chapter 3 when he re-commissioned Jonah. God’s compassion was also seen in his dealings with Jonah.

And, finally, as we come to the last verse of chapter 3, we see his heart for “the outsider” on display yet again.

When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.

This verse describes the opposite of what Jonah desired and the culmination of what God desired.

Jonah’s heart was that Nineveh would be punished for their evil; God’s was that Nineveh would turn from that evil so to experience mercy. Whereas Jonah’s heart for “the outsider” was indifference, God’s is love and compassion.

And praise God for this because, though we sometimes forget (just as Jonah seemed to have forgotten), we too were “outsiders” to whom God extended his love and compassion.

[Romans 5:8] But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

It was while we were separated from God in rebellion and wickedness—outside his grace, outside a relationship with him, outside forgiveness, outside reconciliation, outside the family of God—that God came after us, sending not a fickle prophet like Jonah, but the perfect Prophet in his Son, Jesus, who came to proclaim the ultimate message of love, mercy, and compassion. You see, everyone of us, as believers, were once standing in the streets of Nineveh when we heard the liberating and powerful proclamation of the gospel. We were outsiders, and God showed us indescribable compassion.

And this is now when we have to look in the mirror of the Bible, ask ourselves honestly what’s being reflected back at us, and ask the Holy Spirit to help us apply what we see rather than forget it. We want to be doers and not just hearers.

Is my heart for “the outsider”—those that don’t look like me, talk like me, think like me; those that attend a different church, who are of a different religion, who are trapped in a creepy cult; those that may even be considered my ideological opponents; those I disagree with politically, spiritually, intellectually; those who are criminals, rebels, or dangerous; those who have hurt me in the past, embarrassed me, disappointed me, shunned me—is my heart for these “outsiders” like Jonah’s or like God’s? 

Are there people, or groups of people, that, if I’m honest, I’m indifferent about when it comes to their eternal destiny or their current standing before a holy God. Maybe I’m even vengeful.

When I think of those “outsiders,” and they can be different for each of us, but when I think of them, do I long to reflect to them God’s compassion and mercy? Would I sincerely celebrate upon hearing they were shown compassion?

It’s not always enjoyable looking in the mirror, is it? But it’s healthy, especially when that mirror is Scripture, our guide is the Holy Spirit, and the goal is Christlikeness.

And Christlikeness, godliness, in this case demands we Love across all lines! Love across all lines! That God is progressively developing in each of us a growing desire to see God’s compassion extend beyond any boundary there is, whether it’s a real boundary or one we’ve made up. We’re to Love across all lines!

I challenge you this week to think of a single person in your life that you would consider an “outsider” for whatever reason. Maybe they’ve hurt you in the past, maybe they’re mean and rude and dismissive of your faith, maybe they’re of another religion. Think of a single person and, before we meet again as a church, let’s do three things. 

First, remember that we were once outsiders. If not for God’s initiative, his grace, his compassion, his mercy, we would be forever lost. Remember that we were once outsiders.

I’ve heard it said, “We [Christians] are never more than poor beggars telling other poor beggars where there is bread.” Jonah forgot his outsider roots. We must not. We must remember that we were once outsiders.

Second, pray for that outsider, the one God brought to mind. I doubt Jonah could have prayed for Nineveh. To pray for someone is to love them. So, let’s pray for that outsider, that they would experience God’s compassion and love (even if it means, through us!). 

Third, reach out to that outsider. A phone call, a text, a communication-starting email. Whatever it looks like, commit to making contact with hopes that it leads to an opportunity to reflect God’s compassionate character to this individual.

Remember that we were outsiders. Pray for the outsider. Reach out to the outsider.

Brothers and sisters, let’s be a people who, unlike Jonah and more like God, Love across all lines! Let’s be, empowered by the Holy Spirit, committed to reflecting God’s compassionate character to those around us, even those we struggle to believe deserve it, remembering that neither did we.

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Josiah has served the Oakridge Bible Chapel family as one of its elders and one of its pastoral staff members since September 2018, before which he ministered as an associate pastor to a local congregation in the Canadian prairies. Josiah's desire is to be used by God to help equip the church for ministry, both while gathered (edification) and while scattered (evangelization). He is married to Patricia, and together they have five children—Jonah, Henry, Nathaniel, Josephine, and Benjamin.

Josiah Boyd

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