Jonah and the “Underbelly” of Election

December 17, 2013

by Ron F. Hale

With strong confidence in the authority of the Bible, most missiologists show signs of having never lost their concern for seeing people come to faith in Christ or their passion for world evangelization. For most, their theology doesn’t seem to have “hang-ups” that would hold-up offering the Gospel to anyone, anywhere, at anytime.

One professor of missions wrote 27 words that I immediately highlighted in yellow. He penned:

The prophets never tire of reminding Israel that her election is not a privilege which she may selfishly keep for herself; election is a call to service.[i]

This brings me to the Old Testament prophet Jonah. He found himself in the belly of a great fish—why?

Jonah’s knuckle-headed view of Israel’s election had soured into an “us versus them” heart-set that made him speculate what was wrong with God! Later, Jonah saw the salvation of the Ninevites as obnoxious, and he scolded the Lord (Jonah 4: 1–4) concerning his gracious offer to the pagans.

While singing his “God has done me wrong” song, the pouting prophet prays for his life to be taken from him. A lesser deity would have thrown a holy hissy-fit and quickly obliged him, but not the One True God.

Christopher Wright asserts, “… the mission of God is to bless all nations on earth … Israel in the Old Testament was not chosen over against the rest of the nations, but for the sake of the rest of the nations.”[ii]

Jonah willfully chose to run from his calling, but he could not outrun the consequences of his choice. Soon we find Jonah in the gastric gorge of a great fish displaying the sorry underbelly of his distorted chosenness.

Dr. Johannes Verkuyl does an excellent job in showing the significance of the Old Testament in forming a Biblical foundation for our worldwide mission mandate, and in doing so, he shows how God’s own people have sought to sabotage His efforts. Verkuyl shares eight scenes from the life of Jonah. The following eight vignettes serve as examples of how God’s chosen people have resisted God’s work of reaching out to other nations (Genesis 12:1–4):

  1. Jonah receives his commission to go to Nineveh. The Septuagint translation of Jonah uses the word porettomai in 1:2–3 and again in 3:2–3, the very same verb used by Jesus in His Great Commission. Of all places, Jonah was to go to the very center of totalitarianism, brutality, and warlike attitudes; for God wanted to see Nineveh repent!
  2. The second scene is God sending a mighty storm (1:4­­–16). The wind obeys Yahweh’s command but not the prophet. As the Gentile sailors search for a clue to calm the sea, Jonah confesses and asks to be thrown overboard. When the prophet is finally pitched, the storm ceases and the Gentiles break forth in praise to Yahweh. Their praise and fear of God surpasses that of the saboteur of God’s worldwide mission.
  3. A large-mouth fish under the instruction of Yahweh swallows the saboteur (1:17), and the fish dives for the deep.
  4. The fourth scene (2:1­–10) has Jonah in the underbelly of a great fish panting promises from psalms and praying for rescue. Finally, the prophet is puked ashore with a “fishy” notion that his rebellion is futile. Soaked in saltwater and covered in seaweed, Jonah is a testimony of God’s patience, mercy, and grace.
  5. God repeats his order (3:1–4) to the man whose very life affirms the truth of what he confessed in the belly of the fish, “Salvation is from Yahweh.” God’s message of impending judgment is coming, and repentance must be proclaimed to the pagans. “Turn or burn” was the basic truth to be delivered.
  6. The sixth scene (3:5–10) is an amazing story of a spiritual awakening and the heathen becoming holy. From the king to his kingdom—they collectively repent and cry out to God. God sees how they responded, and the left hand of God’s wrath is replaced by his right hand of blessing and freedom.
  7. The seventh scene (4:1–4) shows that the greatest hurdle to overcome in discharging the missionary mandate was not the sailors, nor the fish, nor Nineveh’s king and citizenry, but rather Jonah himself—the recalcitrant and narrow-minded church. He cannot stand to think of the Gentiles as part of salvation history.

This was Jonah’s sin, the sin of a missionary whose heart is not in it; for God is treating those outside his covenant the same as he is those within.

  1. In the last scene (4:5–11 KJV), one can see God still working to teach His thick-skulled missionary His lessons. He did not catch the point of the storm, the sailors, the fish, and Nineveh’s conversion because he did not want to. Now God uses one last object lesson, the gourd and the worrisome worm. The plant dies and the prophet is peeved. Jonah showed more emotion over the gourd than over the Gentiles and their salvation.[iii]

If there is a missionary in the book of Jonah, it is Yahweh! For He shows that His love is not limited, and His offer of salvation is well meant.

In writing about God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–4, John R. W. Stott recorded, “Nor must we suppose that God chose Abraham and his descendents because he had lost interest in other peoples or given them up. Election is not a synonym for elitism (emphasis added).[iv]

Jonah’s elitist snobbery displayed the profane underbelly of election gone astray. If he were God, Jonah would not have saved the Ninevites. Do you have a list of people or groups unworthy of God’s salvation?

Jonah balked at the idea “the chosen are chosen for the sake of the unchosen.”[v]

© Ron F. Hale, November 27, 2013

[i] Johannes Verkuyl, “The Biblical Foundation for the Worldwide Mission Mandate” in, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, ed. Ralph D. Winter (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981, 1992), A-52. Verkuyl is the retired Professor and Head of the Department of Missiology and Evangelism at the Free University of Amsterdam.

[ii] Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity, 2006), pp.99, 100.

[iii] Johannes Verkuyl, “The Biblical Foundation for the Worldwide Mission Mandate” in, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, ed. Ralph D. Winter (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981, 1992), A-54-57. While all the ideas and material is from the work of Dr. Verkuyl, I did express some of his thoughts through my writings, as well as quoting him verbatim. I encourage you to read his entire chapter and obtain the entire collection of essays, for it is a mission’s masterpiece.

[iv] John R. W. Stott, “The Living God is a Missionary God” in, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, ed. Ralph D. Winter (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981, 1992), A10-11.

[v] Dr. Eric Hankins shared this thought based on the work of C.S. Lewis in his message entitled: Chosen for the Unchosen, Sept. 22, 2013, FBC Oxford, MS.