The story of Jonah, that reluctant and misguided Old Testament missionary, teaches wonderful lessons about what the Lord expects of his disciples, all of whom have been called to stand as witnesses of the Lord and to share his gospel.
In the story of Jonah, we see a disciple of the Lord, called to take a message from the Lord to a hostile city. He was neither the first nor the last to receive instructions to share the gospel.
In Isaiah 49, the Lord said to all of his people, “thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
In Jeremiah the Lord promised: “Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the LORD, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.” (Jeremiah 16:16).
In Matthew 5:19, the Lord explained that whoever would “do and teach [the commandments], the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus sent his disciples to “teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19), with the commandment that the gospel should “be preached in all the world” (Matthew 24:14), and “to every creature.” (Mark16:15).
In one of his comments about this work, the Lord invited his disciples to “look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest” (John 4:35).
In the story of Jonah, Nineveh did not seem white, not did it appear to be ready to harvest.
Nineveh did not seem ready to harvest
When the call came to Jonah to take the word of the Lord to the chief city of Assyria, he was understandably terrified: “NOW the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” (Jonah 1:1-2).
Nahum, who lived within a hundred years of Jonah, described the city with these distressing words:
“Woe to the bloody city! it is all full of lies and robbery; the prey departeth not; The noise of a whip, and the noise of the rattling of the wheels, and of the pransing horses, and of the jumping chariots. The horseman lifteth up both the bright sword and the glittering spear: and there is a multitude of slain, and a great number of carcases; and there is none end of their corpses; they stumble upon their corpses: Because of the multitude of the whoredoms of the wellfavoured harlot, the mistress of witchcrafts, that selleth nations through her whoredoms, and families through her witchcrafts. Behold, I am against thee, saith the LORD of hosts” (Nahum 3:1-5).
It is not difficult to imagine the reluctance of Jonah to carry the message of the gospel to such a people. He was not part of a multitude of men sent arm in arm to do the work, and he was not protected (so far as he knew) by heavenly fire and angelic intervention as others had been. He was to go alone to one of the most powerful and degraded cities on the planet with a message from God which, he was certain, they would not want to hear.
In Jonah’s response to this call and his involvement in the work the Lord had given him, we find six wonderful lessons for missionaries, who are called to assist the Lord in his work among the nations of the earth.
The Beginning of the story of Jonah brings us the first lesson about missionary service:
1.There are no easy calls
The commandment to Jonah was to “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” (Jonah 1:2).
Isaiah was called to preach to a derelict people: “Jerusalem is ruined, and Judah is fallen: because their tongue and their doings are against the LORD, to provoke the eyes of his glory. The shew of their countenance doth witness against them; and they declare their sin as Sodom, they hide it not. Woe unto their soul! for they have rewarded evil unto themselves” (Isaiah 3:8-9).
The enemies of Jeremiah, “cast him into the dungeon . . . and they let down Jeremiah with cords. And in the dungeon there was no water, but mire: so Jeremiah sunk in the mire” (Jeremiah 38:6).
Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned in Philippi (see Acts 16); John was banished to the isle of Patmos (see Revelation 1:9).
Bur none of these missions involved a foreign nation with a reputation for bloodshed, debauchery, and iniquity like Assyria.
Lesser men than Jonah might have caught a boat sailing in another direction.
This brings us to the second wonderful lesson in the story of Jonah:
2.You can run but you can’t hide
“But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).
Tarshish was in nearly the opposite direction from the nation of Assyria and the city of Nineveh. What Jonah thought to accomplish by fleeing in that direction is hard to imagine. He must have known that the Lord was watching him, and that his call to Ninevah would not be vacated because he tried to hide on a ship sailing toward Spain. Perhaps, like Moses he was hoping that the Lord would replace him and call someone else (see Exodus 4:10-13).
Neal A. Maxwell, a former leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke of this:
“The living God never leaves us alone even when we seek to move away from him. When the living God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, the prophet, out of fear of men, strove to go to Tarshish instead. The living God was not busy elsewhere or slumbering; he delivered Jonah unceremoniously to Nineveh! That is the sort of thing the living God does.
“A passive life force or an indulgent grandfather God wouldn’t worry about that sort of detail-as long as we are being basically good boys and girls who might find some good to do in Tarshish. But we have a precise and loving Father in heaven who knows what we need and who loves us enough to get us to Nineveh instead of settling for the chores of Tarshish” (Neal A.
Maxwell: Things As They Really Are, p. 36).
God came for Jonah on the ship to Tarshish, in the cloak of a great storm that convinced the sailors to consign Jonah to his fate in the water.
The third lesson from the story of Jonah is:
3.God will prepare a way
“Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17).
It was the Lord’s intent to get Jonah to Nineveh. When sailors threw him off the ship and into the water, the great fish swallowed him. The fish did not offer transportation to Nineveh. There are no connected bodies of water that would make that possible. But the great fish did offer three days in which Jonah had some quality time to think about his decisions. When the fish vomited Jonah out onto dry land, and the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time commanding him to go to Nineveh and preach, he “arose, and went unto Nineveh” (Jonah 3:3).
After his short sabbatical in the stomach of the fish, Jonah had some difficulty understanding what was really at stake, so the Lord prepared a way to help Him learn the worth of souls.
When Jonah, in his anger at the decision of the Lord to spare Nineveh, built a hut east of the city and settled in down see if God would keep his promise to destroy it. God prepared a gourd to shade Jonah (Jonah 4:6); he prepared a worm to destroy the gourd (Jonah 4:7); and he prepared a violent east wind (Jonah 4:8) with a blazing sun to teach Jonah the value of the people in Nineveh.
Referring to Jonah’s bitterness over the loss of his gourd and his shade, the Lord said “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand” (Jonah 4:10 – 11).
The fourth lesson from the story of Jonah:
4.God will speak in a voice we will hear
God spoke to Jonah during his cruise on the Mediterranean with the voice of the storm, a voice which Jonah recognized at once. He said to the sailors, “I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you” (Jonah 1:12).
God spoke again to Jonah with his time inside the great fish. Jonah testified of that experience and his repentance there: “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice” (Jonah 2:2).
God spoke to the people of Nineveh with the voice of Jonah. Jonah did not travel to Nineveh with a message of hope, repentance, and redemption. He brought a message of destruction:
“He cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”
The people of Nineveh believed him and repented! They put on sackcloth and ashes, began to fast, and turned away from their evil, hoping that God would turn away from his fierce anger (see Jonah 3:4-9).
This brings us to the next lesson, perhaps the central lesson in the story of Jonah.
5.The Lord loves to forgive
The King James Version of the Bible speaks of forgiveness sixty times. Isaiah 55:7 assures us that the Lord will “abundantly pardon” and in Mosiah 26:30 the Lord promises, “As often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me.” Micah records this description of the Lord: “He delighteth in mercy . . . He will subdue our iniquities, and he will “cast all [our] sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18,19).
So, of course, when the people of Nineveh repented, God changed his mind about the decreed destructions that “he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not” (Jonah 3:10).
The final lesson from the story of Jonah is this one:
6.Don’t major in minors
From the distance of twenty-seven hundred years, it is difficult to imagine the passion with which Jonah longed for his dead gourd and the bitterness with which he regarded the preservation of Nineveh. But it happened. When God determined to forgive the people of Nineveh, “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry” (Jonah 4:1).
He spent more emotion mourning the death of a plant than the death of one hundred and twenty thousand people (see Jonah 4:11)!
That plant, that quick-growing gourd that came up in a night and died in a night, taught Jonah, and must teach us, to focus our energies on the things that matter most. The Lord said, “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I [have pity on] Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand?” (Jonah 4:10-11).
A useful illustration of this principle comes from an incident in the history of the Mormon Church. The Lord called over two dozen men living in Ohio to travel to Missouri to bear testimony of that land and the place for the city of Zion. They were called in June and arrived in late July. By the middle of August their work in Missouri was completed and they were on their way home.
Most of these men were farmers. This trip to Missouri must have concerned them. For two or three months, their farms had been supervised by women and children. They were anxious to get home and get back to work.
As they sailed down the Missouri river near McIlwaine’s Bend, the Lord spoke to them. “Verily I say unto you, that it is not needful for this whole company of mine elders to be moving swiftly upon the waters, whilst the inhabitants on either side are perishing in unbelief” (Doctrine and Covenants 61:3).
Here is lesson 6 from the story of Jonah again: Don’t major in minors. Farms are important, but not more important than souls.
There are people along this river who need to hear the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Land the boats, enter the towns as Jonah entered Nineveh, and tell them my children you know.
Of course it was important for these men to care for their farms, but not more important than it was for them to bring souls to Christ. In fact, it is impossible to imagine anything that matters more than that.
Elder Henry B. Eyring, a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, made this observation:
“At some moment in the world to come, everyone you will ever meet will know what you know now. They will know that the only way to live forever in association with our families and in the presence of our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, was to choose to enter into the gate by baptism at the hands of those with authority from God.
“They will know that the only way families can be together forever is to accept and keep sacred covenants offered in the temples of God on this earth. And they will know that you knew. And they will remember whether you offered them what someone had offered you” (Henry B. Eyring, “A Voice of Warning,” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 33).
Here, once again, are the missionary lessons from the story of Jonah’
- There are no easy calls
- You can run, but you can’t hide
- God will prepare a way
- God will speak in a voice you will hear
- The Lord loves to forgive
- Don’t major in minors