The Reluctant Evangelist
Scripture Reading: GENESIS 12:1-3
We are now in week #4 of a little series emphasizing evangelism, which is our calling to proclaim to this world the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ for all who repent and believe.
Now, I’d like you to imagine yourself having a conversation with an unbeliever about Christianity. This person wants to know what you believe and how that relates to how you live. And in the course of that conversation, they ask: “So, if I reject Jesus Christ, I will go to hell, is that right?” One way or another, the answer is yes. That’s not what we want, that’s not God’s desire. He takes no pleasure in it, but yes, hell is the righteous punishment for anyone who rebels against the King of creation, the King of heaven.
Well, what if then they ask: “What about you? You’re a Christian already. So, if you don’t obey God, do you get punished? Do you get in trouble?” How do you answer that question? If you don’t obey God, do you get in trouble?
Well, the answer to that question needs a little bit of an explanation. The short answer is: Yes. Christians do “get in trouble” when they disobey. But a Christian’s punishment for sin isn’t the same as the punishment that awaits a non-believer.
An unbeliever will be punished by Christ as their eternal judge. That’s an eternal punishment based on the holiness and majesty of God. A Christian, on the other hand, is lovingly and temporarily disciplined by God as their Father. It’s not just punitive; it’s corrective. I’d like you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 12.
Hebrews is a somewhat longer letter in the back of your Bible. The last book of the Bible is Revelation, and moving backward you have shorter books like the letters from Jude, John, Peter, and James. But right before James, there’s a longer book we call Hebrews.
Hebrews is like the transcript of a sermon. It’s called a “word of exhortation.” And the initial audience included Jewish Christians who, because of their faith, were being persecuted by the Roman Empire. And the temptation was to revert back to Judaism—renounce Christ and make the pain go away. And as appealing as Judaism looked, this book reminds them of the superiority of Jesus Christ. The author wants them to endure the pain. And in giving them that encouragement, he talks to them about how God uses pain. HEBREWS 12:5-11.
There’s a benefit to pain, to discipline. I bring this up because in our discussions about God’s love and His kindness, we should never forget that God is jealous for our devotion. And that godly jealousy means He addresses sin in His children. He does it for our good, so that we would draw closer to Him.
In our discussion of evangelism, what we’re going to do today is look at one example of God’s discipline in the life of a man. And this discipline came specifically because he refused to evangelize. He refused to go and tell people God’s truth. And if you’re not sure who that is yet, please turn in your Bibles to the book of Jonah. The book of Jonah.
Jonah is a very short book, and no matter how familiar you are with the story, it doesn’t change that the book is hard to find. You can use the table of contents if that helps. Or you can open your Bible to the middle, and flipping forward. Jonah is after Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, but before we get to Matthew in the New Testament.
It’s tucked into a section that the Jews simply referred to as “The Twelve.” We call them “The Minor Prophets.” They are twelve shorter books written by various prophets in Israel. And if you still haven’t found it, don’t be afraid to ask someone next to you for help. I really want to make sure you’re there with me so you can follow along.
If you familiar at all with Jonah, then you know it’s the story of a guy who gets swallowed by a giant sea creature of some kind. But that’s not really the main point of the story. Jonah is the story of a reluctant prophet. He is a reluctant prophet who refuses to take God’s message to a specific nation.
Jonah is not the main character of the book. He’s not the emphasis of the story. The emphasis is on God’s compassion to people of a different nation. The main element of the plot is God’s desire to bring deliverance to all who will repent.
Church history has divided this book into 4 chapters which help us follow along in the story. And if you’re someone who like titles or headings we could title chapter 1: “Jonah Runs.” Jonah Runs. That’s chapter 1. Look at VERSE 1-3.
The command given to Jonah isn’t complicated: “Get up and go up to Nineveh.” Now, just so you know, Jonah is in Israel, and Nineveh is in modern-day Iraq. And the tension between those nations isn’t new. It goes back very far. Nineveh, at various times in history was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. And Assyria was one of the enemies of Israel. There was massive tension between the two nations.
The Assyrians were a world empire. They conquered practically every nation they came up against. And they were known for having a highly skilled and ruthless army. We have records that the Assyrians would do things like skin people alive, cut off their heads and appendages, and impale them. Some historian even tell us that the entrance gate to Nineveh was decorated with the heads of enemies they had conquered.
So this was not an inviting place. It was not really a safe place, especially for an Israelite crying out to them because of their sin. You would have had 1 Israeli and hundreds of thousands of Assyrians. Nineveh was a massive city.
Jonah’s response is not to head east, and it’s not even to stay still. Jonah decides to head west to Tarshish. As best we can tell, it was probably a city in what is now Southern Spain. So Jonah’s going as far and as fast as he can in the opposite direction. He is going, away from the presence of the Lord. Jonah rebels. Jonah runs.
And in response to his decision, God brings along some fatherly discipline. While Jonah’s on the boat, God hurls a storm. And every sailor is crying out to his own god, while Jonah is inside the boat sleeping—running away from his duties.
Well, they wake Jonah up, and they cast lots to try to figure out whose fault this is. And, of course, the lot falls on Jonah. And Jonah tells them: “I’m an Israelite. I serve the Lord of heaven and the Lord of the seas, and the Lord of the earth.”
The sailors recognize that that is not someone you want to be rebelling against. And though it wasn’t their first choice, eventually, they throw Jonah off the boat, asking God to forgive them. VERSE 15-16.
These non-Israelites worship the one, true God. They probably get saved. Jonah, on the other hand, also needs to be saved. Otherwise, he’s going to drown. So… VERSE 17.
Jonah’s rebellion ended up getting him seasick, thrown off a boat, and then swallowed by some giant sea creature. And that bring us to chapter 2. Chapter 1 was “Jonah Runs.” chapter 2 is “Jonah Repents.” Jonah Repents.
He finally comes to his senses. He recognizes that he should have died. But he cried out to God and God saved him. God preserved him. And so, in chapter 2, verse 9 Jonah says…JONAH 2:9-10.
In chapter 3, it’s as if God is saying: “Let’s try this again, Jonah. Get up, go to Nineveh. Tell them exactly what I tell you.” And this time, Jonah goes. And chapter 3, verse 4 tells us the message. JONAH 3:4.
It’s not a very impressive message, or a long one, but in the mercy of God, the Ninevites respond. JONAH 3:5-9.
This is a revival. The entire city, young and old, poor and rich, repents. That’s the title for chapter 3: “Nineveh Repents.” Nineveh Repents. Even the animals were included as part of it. The entire city calls out to God for mercy. And verse 10 tells us what God did. JONAH 3:10.
This is the mercy of God. A city filled with hundreds of thousands of pagan, immoral, violent people turns in repentance.
Jonah Runs. Jonah Repents. And now, Nineveh repents. But that’s not the end of the story. What happens next is the twist in the story. It’s the shocking ending. Let me give you the title for chapter 4: “Jonah Rages.” He rages. He gets upset. And not just like slightly bothered. He throws a tantrum.
Look at chapter 4. JONAH 4:1-3.
In other words: “God, I KNEW you were going to do this. These are wicked people. They are our enemies. And you decide NOT to destroy them. I knew you would od this. That’s why I didn’t want to come in the first place!” And so, God, in His Fatherly wisdom asks a question. JONAH 4:4.
“Jonah, do you think this is righteous anger? Do you think your attitude is justified?”
And Jonah doesn’t answer. He goes out to a little hill, and he builds himself a booth, and he sits under it hoping God will change His mind and destroy the city after all.
Well, God’s not done with Jonah. He wants him to learn a lesson. JONAH 4:6.
Jonah wakes up one morning, and to his joyful surprise, a plant appears, a plant with big leaves. So, he’s happy. He’s comfortable. He’s really enjoying this newfound shade. JONAH 4:7-8.
Jonah, once again, is extremely upset. And here is where God teaches him the lesson. He asks him a similar question as before. JONAH 4:9‑11
The book ends with a question from God. “Jonah, you’re all upset because I killed a plant. You wish the plant wouldn’t have died. You would have spared the plant if you had the option. And if you think it’s justified for you to care about the life of some plant, am I not justified in caring about this city?”
Do you see the lesson God wants to teach Jonah? God is sovereign and powerful. He’s in charge of everything. He does whatever He wants. And God is compassionate. He is a Savior. He saved the sailors. He saved Jonah. And He saved a generation of Ninevites. But Jonah doesn’t share God’s heart. Jonah doesn’t share God’s heart.
More than just a lesson for Jonah, there was a lesson here for all of Israel. And there is a lesson here for all of us, specifically as it relates to evangelism.
This is the heart of God that we need to focus in and allow to shape our lives. God is sovereign and God is compassionate. Those are the two main messages of Jonah. God is sovereign, and God is compassionate. How well do you understand and reflect those truths?
Let’s start with God’s sovereignty. How does the book of Jonah show us God’s power?
Well, in chapter 1, God is the One who caused the storm. And He’s the One who made the lot fall to Jonah. And He’s the One who stopped the storm. He’s also the One who appointed the fish that swallowed Jonah.
In chapter 2, God is the One who preserved Jonah’s life. And He’s the One who made the fish vomit Jonah. In chapter 3, we know God is the One who brought about the reformation in Nineveh. He changed their hearts.
In chapter 4, He’s the one who made the plant grow overnight. And He’s the One who sent the worm to eat the plant. And He’s the One who sent the scorching wind and sun. God appointed it all because He is in charge and in control of everything. God can do whatever He wants. He is sovereign over every aspect of life.
Do you know that? Do you understand the sovereignty of God? … And secondly, like with His compassion, does that understanding express itself in how you evangelize? God is all-powerful. God has an eternal plan that He will bring to fruition.
How does that effect evangelism? Well, what it means for evangelism is that you or I can’t mess it up. We can be unfaithful evangelists. But we can’t ruin God’s plan for His people.
God had planned for this generation of Ninevites to be saved. And even with Jonah running in the opposite direction, it still came to pass. God brought it about.
For those of you who are familiar with the story of Esther, do you remember what Mordecai told her when she said that she could be put to death if she went before the king to expose Haman’s plot. He said: “Esther, do not think that you will escape… If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will ride for the Jews from another place…Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
How could Mordecai say that? Because he trusted in God’s sovereignty. So, even if you’re not the most competent or confident evangelist, God is going to use you. Look at Jonah. It doesn’t seem like there was any desire on his part to preach with gusto or with passion. But God used it. He used a reluctant prophet to bring about one of the greatest revivals in human history!
So, you can have confidence when you evangelize. God will use you to accomplish His purposes. And even the most wicked and opposed person is no match for the power of God. He can save anyone. You must never think: “Oh no! Not that person. He’ll never come. She’ll never come. He hates God.” You don’t know that! And the moment you think you can determine who is going to repent and be saved, you’ve placed salvation primarily in man’s hand, rather than God’s.
What did Jonah say at the end of his prayer? Remember? “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” He does it. He accomplishes it. And He can change the hardest heart. So depend on Him and continue in prayer. God is sovereign.
Now, at this point, one of the questions people bring up is this: If God is sovereign, they why should I evangelize? If God is going to save His people, wherever they are, why do I need to go tell them? Can’t I just sit back and watch them get saved? … That sounds like a valid question, right?
Let me answer that for you. The answer is NO. No, you can’t. And here’s why: In God’s sovereignty, not only has He ordained who will be saved (which we won’t ever really know until Christ comes), but He has also ordained the means of salvation. And the means of salvation is the proclamation of the truth—the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That ordination of the elect doesn’t negate God’s ordained means.
Yeah, but doesn’t that just mean that someone else will tell them the message? Why do I have to do it? If God is sovereign, why do I have to evangelize? Here’s the answer. Are you ready for this? … Because God is sovereign. That’s the answer. Because God is sovereign. He has commanded you to do it.
This is the irony in the book of Jonah. Everybody and everything listens to God—the storm, the sailors, the fish, the Ninevites, the plant, the worm, the wind, the sun. Everything listens to God, except Jonah. And God issued a correction. He set him back on the right track.
Since God is sovereign, then we are to obey His commands. That’s how sovereignty works. we can never use sovereignty as an excuse NOT to evangelize, because it is God’s sovereignty that compels us to obey Him.
Think of it like this: A father and a mother are having people over for dinner that night. And in their attempt to be hospitable and loving to their guests, they ask their son or daughter to clean the bathroom. They give them that command. Sweep all the stray hair out of there. Clean the mirror and clean the toilet.
What happens if the kid doesn’t do it? What happens? I’ll tell you from experience. First of all, the kid gets in trouble. There is a consequence for disobedience. And secondly, mom and dad are going to clean it themselves, right? Because they want it to be clean.
Now, here’s the question: Is it a valid argument for the children to ask: “Why do I have to clean the bathroom if you’re just going to clean it yourself anyway? If I don’t clean the bathroom, mom is just going to do it anyway.” Is that valid? No, not at all. The fact that it will get done either way doesn’t remove their responsibility to do what they’ve been told to do. Does that make sense?
And that’s the point with evangelism. The fact that God is sovereign—that He will accomplish His plans—is not a valid argument for us to disobey Him. It doesn’t remove our responsibility to obey the call to evangelize. God is sovereign, and so we must obey, and we should evangelize with faithfulness and confidence in the power of God.
The second emphasis in Jonah is on God’s compassion. God’s compassion. And here’s the question to consider: Does your life reflect the compassion of God? That’s not the same as asking if you know about it. Jonah knew about God’s compassion. He said it himself. That’s chapter 4 verse 2. JONAH 4:2.
Jonah avoided Nineveh, not out of fear, not out of inconvenience, but because He didn’t want them to receive God’s mercy. He didn’t think they were worthy of it. And Jonah wasn’t alone in this idea. The majority of Israel lived like that. They had forgotten that God is a compassionate, desiring to bring salvation to people from every nation.
The Abrahamic Covenant promised a blessing to every family of the earth. Psalm 67 anticipates that and asks for it. The Great Commission directs our attention to all nations. First Timothy 2:4 says: “God is our Savior, and He desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."
The book of Jonah was written as an indictment on the nationalistic, racist pride of Israel. They knew about God’s compassion. But they thought it was a compassion and a blessing meant ONLY for them. And you know what? … We can do the exact same thing.
“We’re the church. We’re the elect. We are sons and daughters of the king. We have been justified. We have been redeemed. We were rebels and God made us His friends.”
We rejoice in the compassion of God toward us. And yet we are ineffective in reaching out to others because we don’t share the same compassionate heart toward them that God has toward all people.
Jonah cared more about a plant than he did about the people. And as ridiculous as that sounds, if we are introspective enough, we can relate. If you love gardening, you can definitely relate. But even if gardening isn’t your thing, maybe it’s something else. Maybe you care more about your dog than your neighbor. Or you care more about your car than your neighbor. Or you care more about a parking space than your neighbor. Or you care more about your grades or your job than your neighbor. The list of possibilities is endless. We can very easily be more concerned about temporary stuff than about people’s eternity.
Do some prayerful contemplation this week. Ask God to reveal the areas in your life in which your priorities do not reflect His—areas in which His compassion is missing in your life.
If you’re more politically minded, is it possible that you care more about some political debate than about the person you disagree with? Do you care more about the issue of immigration than you do about the immigrants around you? Do you care more about where people live now, than where they will spend eternity? Do you care more about what happens with LGBT laws than you do about what happens to an LGBT person for eternity? … Do you truly desire to see all people come to know Jesus Christ, for His glory and their good?
Those kinds of questions make us examine our hearts. Do we really have God’s compassion for all people? Do we want them to come to salvation? Are we ready to see them come to faith?
Sometimes, if we don’t evangelize, maybe it’s because in the back of our minds we’re thinking: “Oh, these people deserve what they’re getting. They need to fix their own lives. They don’t deserve God’s blessing, God’s mercy. They’re wicked. They’re sinful.”
And you know what? That’s right! They don’t deserve it. But neither did you, and neither did I. And for the Jews, they should have known that Abraham didn’t deserve it either. And if we are sons and daughters of the King of creation, then we’re called to have the same heart as our Father—a heart of compassion to all people—a heart to see them repent and come to salvation. We need to understand and live out God’s compassion.
At the heart of Jonah’s problem was a stubborn selfishness. He cared more about himself than the Ninevites. And eh cared more about himself that God. When God’s desires line up with his own, he participates. But when they don’t, he rebels.
If this is your first time in our church, or your first time in any church, we want to make sure you understand that we are not in charge of our lives. Jesus Christ is. And Christians are on this planet because God has a mission, a mission that extends to every tribe and tongue and people and nation. To gather a people for Himself.
Jonah’s message may not have shared God’s heart, but it was the truth nonetheless. And there’s a similar component to the Christian message today. Your time is limited. Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the dead, is coming again. And He will judge this world in perfect righteousness. He will take His rightful place on the throne over the earth. And you do not measure up. You’re not good enough for Jesus and His kingdom.
But if you will surrender to Him now, He will save you. If you repent and turn from your sin, He will rescue you. Rather than be your Judge, He will be your Savior. He paid the price of sin on the cross. He took the penalty on Himself, which He didn’t deserve. And God raised Him from the dead as a testimony of these truths.
Believe in Jesus Christ. Surrender to him, and you will be forgiven. Right now, today, God is willing to wipe away every single sin you’ve ever committed. He will wipe your record before Him clean, if you will turn to Him. That’s the compassion of God. And if you want to talk more about that, then talk to any of our members after the service. Don’t pass up this opportunity.
For the rest of us, the ones who know Christ already, let’s meditate on the realities of God’s sovereignty and compassion. And let’s see what changes we need to make in our own lives, especially in the area of evangelism.
Once God is done making his final point to Jonah—once God poses that final rhetorical question—how did Jonah respond? What happened to him? … We don’t know. We don’t know. And you know what? … It doesn’t matter. Because the story isn’t about Jonah. It’s is about the compassion of God to every nation, to every people group in the world. And this book is a call to us to open our eyes and respond to it. The story of our lives shouldn’t highlight our own lives. It should highlight the sovereign compassion of our great God.