Have you ever wondered about the last chapter of Jonah in the Old Testament? Jonah is a short book and many never get beyond the Sunday School lesson on obeying God (or else!) which is neatly centered around the first three chapters. One of the beautiful truths in scripture is buried in chapter two: “Those who cling to worthless idols, forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” (Jonah 2:8). But these days I find chapter four to be the lesson I truly need to heed.
After Jonah preached to his country’s arch enemy (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria which ultimately overthrew the Northern Kingdom – the Kingdom for which Jonah was an early prophet), the city actually repented and God did not bring upon them the destruction He had planned (Jonah 3:10). The Lord’s outpouring of compassion sent Jonah into a tailspin in chapter four as he indignantly prays, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish, I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Today’s preachers would be jumping for joy over the kind of repentance the people of Nineveh displayed. God’s question for Jonah, shining the light on motive as He always does, is perfect: “Have you any right to be angry?” It seems Jonah didn’t like the idea of a God who truly loved the whole world. A God “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). A God who “does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34). I quote Peter on purpose because I find in Peter my answer to the puzzling end of Jonah chapter four.
Fast forward to Acts chapter nine and you’ll find Peter doing great work ministering to his own people – people he was comfortable with and people with whom his interaction would not raise any eyebrows. Some of these people had invited him to Joppa where a saint (Tabitha) had just died. Peter goes without reservation, prays over her and she comes back to life. Joppa’s a great beach town so Peter hangs out with Simon the tanner for a while and life is good. [Now allow me to overly spiritualize: In which town did Jonah board his runaway boat and, coincidentally, what was the name of Peter’s father (see Matthew 16:17)?]
Then comes Acts chapter 10 and the Gentile Cornelius. Peter has to have a special nudge from God in the form of a vision to prepare him for this next ministry invitation. Notice that Cornelius, like Tabitha, was a doer of good deeds too – he just wasn’t Jewish. When Peter literally hears the knock at the door, he knows he must go to a place he wouldn’t normally want to go and hang with a people he wouldn’t normally want to hang with. Upon arrival in Caesarea and seeing Cornelius had gathered a large number of his Gentile friends to hear the Gospel, Peter blurts out, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what is right.”
Peter returns to Jerusalem to endure the criticism of his “church buddies” who want him to account for his hanging out with such improper scoundrels as Cornelius et al. Peter finally convinces them that “God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” To me, this is the same message that God was trying to get across to Jonah: “But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” Thank the Lord He is concerned about all people’s eternal destination. The question is, am I too concerned? Or do I just want the Good News to apply to me and the people I prefer?