Aren’t We Christians All Jonahs?

dMy Jonah moment. I am reviewing Prophet on the Run for Cross Focused Reviews. It is a short, thorough and excellent practical commentary on Jonah by Baruch Maoz. I am enamored by it and highly recommend it. I am reminded of my first Jonah moment which occurred in the 1980s when I felt upset about two young men I was mentoring for several years. They were getting married with the blessing of our senior pastor. I thought, “These two young Christians need to prove themselves first, before enjoying matrimonial bliss!” Though I felt it was wrong to feel this way, I could not shake how I felt. I knew I was a Christian like Jonah who was unhappy when “certain people” were given grace, mercy, forgiveness and a godly wife (when I thought they needed to squirm a little more)!

Translating the Hebrew. An interesting aspect of the book is that the author used his own translation of the Hebrew to more clearly convey its sense of poetry, imagery and flow. Though he “sacrificed the English to serve the Hebrew,” he made it a fresh reading of a familiar book. Also, the summary bullet points at the end of each chapter are very helpful and useful.

Highlights and insights. The exegesis often addresses our heart’s deepest motives. They are also foundational for a proper preaching of the gospel and teaching of the Bible.

All humans will be judged by the Law. “Their evil has come up before me” (Jon 1:2). God takes our sin seriously and so should we. God holds people accountable for their actions. Yes, God is the God of mercy and grace–toward Jonah and all people. But God’s grace does not remove his hatred for sin, nor erase his determination to punish those who persist in sin (Rom 2:6-8)–including Jonah. The right way to preach the gospel is to begin with this foundational truth. Only when people understand God’s holiness and see their sin in light of that holiness will they also understand their need of a savior.

JonahThe servant of God, Jonah, became stupid (Jon 1:3). None of God’s people are without sin. We will never be completely free of sin until Christ returns. When he fell into sin, Jonah became really stupid thinking that he could “flee from the presence of the Lord” (Jon 1:3). Though he knew the Bible and knew better, he acted in violation of everything he knew and believed. This is what sin does to our intelligence.

It is impossible to escape from God because God rules over all, including the forces of nature. When Jonah fled from God, God actively “hurled a great wind onto the sea” and “the ship considered breaking up” (Jon 1:4). The language is evocative. Nature does not act on its own. The power of nature and even the ship itself submit to God in putting an end to Jonah’s vain effort to escape from God. There is no situation over which God does not have control.

Our sins have consequences and we cannot escape the consequences of our actions. Jonah’s sin brought disaster to non-believers (Jon 1:5). His sin made him escape reality, become indifferent to the troubles he brought on others, and made him unable to pray (Jon 1:6).

The servant of God, Jonah, was acting irresponsibly and was severely rebuked by non-believers, yet he did not care (Jon 1:6-8). Christians should be a blessing to others. But when we fall into sin, as Jonah did, then even non-Christians seem far wiser and even “more spiritual” than us. This should greatly humble us.

The servant of God, Jonah, was evading responsibility and remaining silent for as long as he could (Jon 1:6-8).

Through non-believers, God helped Jonah to confess who he is, what sin he committed, and what should be done to him (Jon 1:9-12). Without any choice left, Jonah accepted responsibility and submitted to the punishment he knew his sin deserved (Jon 1:12). This is a fundamental gospel principle–recognition of sin and of the fact that our guilt renders us liable to punishment. Though this is an incomplete view of the gospel, it is often a necessary one at the beginning of our journey toward Christ. Before we understand the magnitude of God’s grace we need to understand the greatness of his anger and the weight of our own sins. Learning to recognize our sins is how God works in all of our hearts to lead us to know the depth of his love and grace for us.

Jonah repented when he realized that God did not destroy him by treating him as his sins deserve (Jon 2:1-10). In his distress, he remembered the Bible verses in Psalms that he knew by heart as a prophet of God. He realized that though he brought this trouble upon himself, God was merciful to him. He knew that though he should have died for his sin, yet God saved him. His prayer shows his understanding of salvation that is not due to man’s merit or effort but entirely due to the grace of God (Jon 2:9). Because of God’s saving grace, he also vowed to make good (Jon 2:9). Repentance is not simply a verbal acknowledgment of sin, but an actual change of one’s heart and actions.

When Jonah simply spoke the message that God gave him (Jon 3:1), a national repentance and turning to the Lord happened (Jon 3:1-9). Jonah’s message was a message of judgment: “Forty more days and Ninevah is destroyed!” (Jon 3:4) It is rather simplistic, unimpressive, rudimentary, crude and judgmental. But when he did just as God said (Jon 3:1), a national repentance and revival broke out (Jon 3:5).

Exemplary leadership from a pagan king: Repentance happened from the greatest to the least” (Jon 3:5b). It is interesting that Nineveh’s king, a pagan ruler, exemplified godly leadership, by humbling himself before God and his people (Jon 3:6-9). The king did not think of himself, his dignity or his privileges. He approached God with a deep sense of sinfulness, in shame and sorrow for sin. “This is how things should be. Leaders are supposed to lead in spiritual and moral matters, although it is precisely those who lead that often find it most difficult to accept responsibility. It is hard to stand at the peak of the pyramid and admit your weaknesses. It is tough, when everyone’s eyes are on you, not to hide your sins. But in Nineveh, repentance began ‘from the greatest’ and proceeded ‘to the least of them'” (Jon 3:5b). “This should be the process in every context. Leaders and all who are looked up to need to set an example by leading others in the ways of God. They should be the first to accept criticism, the first to examine their ways, the first to admit their own faults and to correct them. A people, a church or a family will seldom be better than its leaders. Good leaders will strive for spiritual and moral perfection, and will seek purity of motive and action.” This quote about leadership is my favorite quote of the book, though it is not the main theme of Jonah.

The servant of God, Jonah, was so angry that God blessed “others” (Jon 4:1-11). Chapter 4 is the heart of the book of Jonah. It reveals the punch line, the book’s central lesson. We should learn what God taught Jonah and draw important conclusions for ourselves. Mainly, Jonah’s response to the grace of God on “others” (the world) was one of anger, resentment and bitterness (Jon 4:1-3). Is he any different from the the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son? From the Pharisees? From US?? With Ninevah’s repentance, “God repented of the evil he had determined to do to them, and did not do it” (Jon 3:10). But Ninevah’s repentance “was to Jonah a very great evil, and he was angry” (Jon 4:1). Jonah was furious. He was saddened. He refused to accept the grace shown to Nineveh and charged God as being wrong, though he knew exactly who God was. He prayed, “Please Lord, was this not what I thought when I was still on my land? This is why I at first tried to escape to Tarshish, because, I knew you were a merciful and gracious God, patient and full of grace, and that you repent from evil” (Jon 4:2). Despite Jonah’s horrible attitude, God is stubborn in his love and did not leave Jonah in his sin but continued to extend grace to him (Jon 4:5-11).

Some closing questions:

  • Are we not often like Jonah?
  • When God blesses those (like Ninevah) who have hurt you and others, are you angry? Do you have a right to be angry (Jon 4:4)?
  • Is there anything that God does that you consider inappropriate or unjust?


  1. namuehling

    Thanks Ben! This looks interesting. I am starting to view all of this through the lens of God’s love. Certainly, God loved Jonah. Is part of the story simply helping him to get rid of the anger because it is so damaging? I think so. Part of what is interesting is that the story leaves off with God as unsuccessful in this. I am always left asking what happened after. Perhaps I have a unique view because I don’t think I am upset when others are shown the grace of God unjustly. However, I may be one of those who are shown the grace of God that is the source of consternation for others!

  2. Yeah, Nick. The main thrust of the book of Jonah is God’s relentless and unrelenting pursuit of the most unpleasant and the most undesirable character–Jonah himself, while all the other characters (the sailors, the captain, the king of Nineveh, the people of Nineveh) all seem “a lot more Christian” than Jonah, the prophet of God; everyone else seems wiser, humbler and “more spiritual” than Jonah. Surely, God is trying to tell us Christians something.

    The speculation of what happened at the end of the book is that Jonah likely repented, since he exposed just how hideously horrible he was throughout the book.

    Nick, I think you just perfectly articulated my sentiment exactly: “I may be one of those who are shown the grace of God that is the source of consternation for others!” – See more at:

  3. Joe Schafer

    Ben, thanks for contributing this article. Let me stir up the pot by mildly objecting to a couple of your points which Christians who understand the gospel from other perspectives might see differently.

    First, about God’s sovereignty. You wrote:

    “It is impossible to escape from God because God rules over all, including the forces of nature… Nature does not act on its own… There is no situation over which God does not have control.”

    Most Christians agree that God is sovereign in the sense that he could control everything if he wanted to. But from the earliest times, many Christians have believed that God restrains himself and grants considerable autonomy to the created beings in the heavens (angels) and to the natural world and especially to human beings. He doesn’t manipulate the weather every single day. Not every natural disaster was directly caused by him. He doesn’t necessarily decide ahead of time which team will win the Superbowl. He sets up wide parameters but then gives real, non-illusory freedom to us because without freedom there can be no love. God doesn’t always get what he wants. He doesn’t want us to sin and yet we do. He wants to save all people but some don’t want his salvation. It seems to me that, out of a desire to maintain a high view of God as all-powerful and all-glorious, some theologians mischaracterize God as a control freak. Our views about God have real consequences, because whatever image of God we worship, we eventually become like that image. If we see God as excessively controlling and manipulative, then guess what? We begin to think it’s good and godly to excessively control and manipulate people. If we see God as excessively punitive and retributive, then we begin to think it’s okay to punish and apply force to advance God’s plans. (I think this was/is a serious problem in SL’s theology, as Chris has recently pointed out. SL’s messages were full of stories of people who didn’t do what SL wanted and then suffered terrible consequences.)

    Second, about the need to feel the weight of our sins as a prelude to receiving God’s grace. You wrote:

    “This is a fundamental gospel principle–recognition of sin and of the fact that our guilt renders us liable to punishment. Though this is an incomplete view of the gospel, it is often a necessary one at the beginning of our journey toward Christ. Before we understand the magnitude of God’s grace we need to understand the greatness of his anger and the weight of our own sins. Learning to recognize our sins is how God works in all of our hearts to lead us to know the depth of his love and grace for us.”

    This is the basic script of American evangelical revivalism. Preachers like Dwight Moody presented the gospel in this way. But not everyone comes to God in the same way. For example, Brother Lawrence was converted by simply looking at a tree. During the winter, he saw a dead tree and somehow understood that the tree had a sure hope of resurrection in the spring, and he needed that hope too. Eastern Orthodox Christians take sin very seriously, and yet when they present the gospel, they begin with the fundamental problem of death rather than sin and guilt. God has many, many ways of reaching people; he approaches us in our own context and doesn’t always follow the same script.

  4. Ben,

    Apparently I’ve been healed enough that I don’t feel the need to react to your article with a litany of swear words and PTSD-like spasms of righteous indignation :)) I will simply say that from an ex-member viewpoint this articles sends the clear message: “God will bless ubf whether you like it or not. So stop being like Jonah and get over your anger.”

    In any case, your raise some important points to discuss. Here are my responses to your questions.

    Are we not often like Jonah?

    Perhaps we human beings have a tendency to not be happy when other people are blessed, especially people we think should not be blessed. So in terms of recognizing our human jealousy, envy and self-righteousness, I would say yes, we are like Jonah. Yet there are some deeper points here.

    When God blesses those (like Ninevah) who have hurt you and others, are you angry?

    Was Jonah hurt by the Ninevites? I don’t recall anything but maybe I missed something in the story. So your question Ben is a loaded one. I don’t recall that Jonah was angry because God *blessed* the Ninevites, but because the Ninevites repented when they heard of God’s judgment. So I don’t care for your phrasing of this question.

    So to put things bluntly, if ubfers repent, like you and Joe have, I would certainly rejoice! But do I want to see ubf be destroyed, come to an end and cease to exist as it did in the past? Yes I do want to see that. Am I angry if God in His sovereignty allows ubf to continue its harmful practices? Yes I am a little, but I now have much peace that God knows what He is doing.

    Do you have a right to be angry (Jon 4:4)?

    This is also an odd question. Taken point blank, the answer is sometimes yes we have a right to be angry, and sometimes no we do not have a right to be angry.

    Is there anything that God does that you consider inappropriate or unjust?

    As I mentioned it is sometimes hard to accept why God would allow arrogant abusers to go unpunished in this life. But I’ve come to accept that they are in God’s hand. I have accepted this to the point where I am no longer angry at the thought that Slee and ubfers will meet me in heaven (I just trust that I won’t bow down to them :)

    One sentence that troubles me, Ben is this:

    “Before we understand the magnitude of God’s grace we need to understand the greatness of his anger and the weight of our own sins.”

    This is only one of five major ways to present the gospel, the conscience/sin/morals way. There are four other paradigms that I long for someone to articulate but rarely do I find such thinking.

    There are five great human problems (at least)… shame, sin, law, curse and death. And I believe the gospel found in the bible addresses all five problems comprehensively. But we cannot possibly know which problem(s) will lead someone to the good news.

    • Joe Schafer

      On Sunday (two days ago) I delivered a sermon on Ephesians which presented an alternative view of the gospel. Later today, if I get a chance, I will post it and ask for everyone’s critique.

    • Thanks Joe, that would be awesome to read your sermon.

      If there is one question that has driven me since 2003 (our move to Detroit), that question has been: What is the gospel?

      I asked that in 2010/2011 to the leaders in Toledo ubf, and was told “That is a question that takes too long to answer” and “Answer it yourself” and “What does it matter? We have to get back to the ubf heritage.” (I’m paraphrasing somewhat).

      My writings have been based on the backbone of this question, and the gospel has been a thread throughout all my blogs. I’m actually frustrated with my own paradigm of using the “problem/solution” approach.

      We need a gospel buoy not a moral compass to navigate today’s waters.

      The gospel is about surpassing glory, power, grace, revelations and greatness.

      The gospel includes an unpayable debt, a debt we cannot repay.

    • Joe Schafer

      Brian, the best answer to that question (What is the gospel?) — at least the answer that intrigues me at the moment — is:

      “Jesus completes the story of Israel (that is, the story of what God was up to within the Jewish nation) and brings all of humanity and the whole earth into that story.”

      Another way to explain it is this:

      “The four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) when rightly read in their first-century Jewish context are the gospel.”

      Two recent books that explain this well are The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight and How God Became King by N.T. Wright. Reading those books helped me to deeply appreciate the Bible once again. Given your expressed interest in Jewish thought, I think they would resonate with you as well.

      If you don’t have time to read those books but have one hour to spare, you can get an excellent overview of this perspective by listening to this lecture:

  5. “The right way to preach the gospel is to begin with this foundational truth. Only when people understand God’s holiness and see their sin in light of that holiness will they also understand their need of a savior.” Like Brian, I am reacting to this statement and others like it. The gospel is so rich that to hear this aspect of it pounded out stridently leaves me somewhat cold(and it’s not because I resist this foundational truth) In fact, it may tend to sound like a clanging cymbal. Sorry to say so, Ben. But I really would like to hear the other themes of the gospel turned up as well, so that the whole beautiful piece of music that is the gospel might be heard.

  6. Yes Sharon, I long to break through the shallow Hellenistic presentation of the gospel. I have found it helpful to begin reading up on some of the Jewish/Hebrew thought fabric.

    For example, I watched a History Channel show called “The Curse of Oak Island“. Someone actually used the Jewish Tree of Life diagram to find stone markers on the island.

    I am more and more convinced that a deeper, richer understanding of what Jesus said and did lies in knowing something about the Jewish thought fabric, for example the “Tree of Life diagram“.

    Surely the gospel Jesus preached relates somehow to Keter (the crown), Chokhmah (wisdom), Binah (intuition, understanding), Chesed (mercy) or Gedulah (greatness), Gevurah (strength), Tiferet (glory), Netzach (victory), Hod (majesty), Yesod (foundation) and Malkut (sovereignty)?

  7. Joe, Sharon, Brian, Thanks so much. Though I expected your responses to the parts about sovereignty, sin and holiness, your clearly articulated comments/kickback are irenic (my recent favorite word which I personally need to learn how to practice) and truly delightful to hear! I hope that many will read them and understand that the gospel can be presented and understood in multiple multifaceted ways.

    I guess UBF does teach the Bible with a Reformed bent (but with strongly tribal, sectarian, cultural, ethnic and imperialistic elements that are quite unpleasant and unpalatable).

    Joe, regarding the Superbowl, I believe God, who is omniscient, knows who wins (I hope it’s Denver!). But yes, he is not manipulative nor a control freak. I love this sentence of yours!: “(God) sets up wide parameters but then gives real, non-illusory freedom to us because without freedom there can be no love.” – See at:

    I also agree that presenting God as primarily punitive, retributive and holy in his divine judgments and wrath somehow diminishes or obscures the God whose love is perhaps beyond our human comprehension. And yes, as Chris has repeatedly pointed out, the things SL spoke and wrote about those who were “severely punished” for leaving UBF or for not doing what he wanted is horrible beyond words to even describe. (I was present at the worship service when he preached this.)

    This truly distorts our glorious, gracious God and our glorious gospel of grace. It also guilt-trips with the intent to control and manipulate “UBF people to do UBF stuff in the UBF way.” This might be the single foremost reason why so many people have left UBF over the decades.

    From my own personal sentiment and experience of grace and redemption, the aspects of sovereignty, sin and holiness presented here somehow still resonates deeply with me to realize and appreciate just how great the love of God for me is.

    My singular desire is that people who know me and who hear me preach and teach will realize just how great the love of God is by the work of the Holy Spirit.

    I understand that God’s sovereignty can be explained in ways that just sounds horrible (like John Piper when he explains tsunamis and tornadoes). Sin and holiness can also be easily presented in ways that guilt-trip, control and manipulate people. I consciously and proactively do not want to ever do this ever again.

    Thanks again for your comments which I believe are very helpful for me to hear and read.

    • I am also rooting for the Broncos! I hope they win. I just watched my first American football game a couple weeks ago. It’s not that great of a sport compared to bball and soccer, but Peyton Manning is amazing….

      Anyway, back to Jonah. I love this book of the Bible! My dad was recently preaching on it and he said that if it had ended at chapter 3 it would have been good. We wouldn’t have seen Jonah’s whiny resentful side. Jonah loved the plant so much and it was simply a plant! I very very often feel like Jonah. I was really mad at one of my friends and my mom started mentioning grace and forgiveness. I said, ‘No way, I am not forgiving her. I’m not going to show her grace she has to earn it!’ Then my mom just looked at me crazily and I also saw how my view of grace is screwed. This book of the Bible encourages me because I see God’s servant as a whole with all his warts and whiskers.

      My favorite verse in the book is Jonah 2:9, ‘But I with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifics to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.” It’s so beautiful. Salvation comes from the Lord and yet so often I forget it. Salvation comes from the Lord!

    • Hi MJPeace!

      This is a very good point: “We wouldn’t have seen Jonah’s whiny resentful side.” – See more at:

      The bible does not hide the ugly, crazy, beautiful, whiny, broken side of humanity, including the ugly, crazy, beautiful, whiny, broken side of the bible itself.

      Surely our minds can comprehend all three kinds of thinking? First we learn binary either/or thinking, then we learn analogue both/and thinking and maybe we learn third-option/trinitarian thinking. All of these have value and wisdom comes from knowing when to use which kind of thinking.


    Here’s NT Wright on how we distort the gospel by neglecting parts of it. Thanks Ben for seeing us as irenic and not just tuning us out. That word is new to me too. Brian, that is interesting stuff! I’ve also been reading “Walking in the Dust of the Rabbi” to understand Jesus better in his Jewish context.

    • Joe Schafer

      A couple of minutes ago I just told Brian about that lecture in my comment above… I guess he has no choice but to listen to it now.

    • lol. Yes I believe I am pre-destined to be ordained to read this book!

    • I am finding that the Hebrew cultural context is important to figuring out Jesus. However, the Hebrew/Jewish context only gives a background. Jesus; words and actions seem to often stand in contradiction or in challenge of that culture without being antagonistic and also connecting with what was good about that cultural background. The only way I can say it is that Jesus Himself was “in the world but not of it”. Nor was he fighting a war against the world. Jesus embraced people and certain parts of society.

    • Joe Schafer

      Yes, Jesus challenged the Jewish culture as much as he affirmed it. My point is not that we need to adopt a Jewish mindset. The point is that we’ve failed to hear much of what the writers of the gospels were trying to communicate about Jesus because we haven’t understood the symbols and politics and cultural references. We’ve been taught that everything we need to understand any given passage of the Bible is there in the passage. But it’s not. The text assumes the readers know lots of things that we (the church) have forgotten.

  9. Joe Schafer

    Ben, I re-read the first paragraph of your article and started to laugh. It sounds as though your “senior pastor” officiated at a gay wedding.

  10. Joe, Sharon, I finally watched Wright’s lecture, which I think is excellent. I also don’t find anything objectionable in what he said. But these are some of my random thoughts:

    * Most people will not understand him unless they know both the OT and NT well. Perhaps this talk at Calvin College is directed toward more serious scholarly Christians, whereas he might “simplify it” or “dumb it down” for a secular or non-churched audience.

    * He speaks rapidly, which means that anyone who is a foreigner or where English is not their primary language will have significant difficulty following his rapid fire pace.

    * He and McKnight seem to be primarily addressing “Christians” who adopted a soterian gospel where they just accept Jesus to be saved and forgiven so that they can go to heaven. I don’t think that many in UBF think like this or believe like this, perhaps because we emphasize the study of the four gospels >60-70% of the time (at the expense of studying the epistles and the OT).

    * He also seems to be targeting “liberal social activist” Christians who downplay the incarnation and the atonement and primarily emphasize social justice causes.

    * He stresses that Christ is King and Lord, and that the gospel comprises of the kingdom and a cross (with hope and suffering), which I think that most in UBF will affirm as absolute truth.

    * My thought is that regardless of whether one accepts a “story gospel” (of Wright/McKnight) or a “soterian gospel” (of the Reformers) or anything in between, the primary problem is not which version one accepts or affirms, but whether one is touched and transformed by the Holy Spirit until their life conforms to the image of Jesus. I don’t think UBF will deny or reject Wright or McKnight’s presentation of the gospel. But still I think that some longstanding leaders do not seem to be able to NOT lord over others.

    * Though I do not deny and in fact believe that Christ comes as King and as the fulfillment of the story of Israel, it is hard for me to apply this in life and faith. I can more easily relate to Christ being my King and Lord (and Savior and Friend). And I think, so can others, without causing them to “just believe in Jesus to be saved and to go to heaven.”

    * I still maintain that all people’s main problem (definitely and especially mine) is our fallen sinful nature and our innate rebellion against God which constantly requires the gospel and the Holy Spirit. I don’t quite see how the way Wright (or McKnight) presents the gospel addresses this specifically, and thereby leading their hearers to repentance and faith.

    Joe, I look forward to reading your Ephesian’s lecture.

  11. I listened to the first 15 minutes of NT Wright’s lecture, and love it so far.

    Surely the life of Jesus is not “dispensable backstory” as some may claim.

    NT Wright hits hard at both extremes – “social worker Jesus” and “mystical creed-loving Jesus”. He is saying that neither the liberal nor the conservative label can comprehensively explain the life of Jesus described in the 4 Gospel Books.

    Some would be happy if Jesus just was born, died and rose again, skipping his life story. Others would be happy if Jesus merely lived, with no virgin birth or resurrection.

    NT Wright claims the real question to ask about the life of Jesus would be “what does it look like when this God becomes king?” Very good thoughts!