Loving the Ones You Hate
In this lesson, we discover that spiritual needs are often not met because of prejudices based on external factors.
A strange paradox sometimes exists with religious people. Religious groups have a code, or standard, through which they view the world, and normally that code contains high moral standards like love, kindness, justice, and acceptance. One would expect that, because of the moral base of their code, all religious groups would extend love, kindness, justice, and acceptance to all other people. But therein lies the paradox—most religious groups struggle to do that. Why? Because the same high standards which bind the members of the group together tend to exclude those outside the group. Ranchers will tell you that fences not only keep cattle in, they keep predators out.
We discover in the Book of Jonah that just getting Jonah back on dry land was not a guarantee that he was going to be excited about God’s assignment for him.
Have you ever been in a God situation where you were not that excited about it?
This was not a new problem. A Jewish person in Jesus’ day would add many miles to a journey from Judea to Galilee by walking around the border of Samaria (remember our study in John about the woman at the well? Jews didn’t like Samaritans). And Jews weren’t very fond of Gentiles, either. They called them “dogs.” Ethnic animosity and hatred is not new to the 20th century nor unique to Jewish people in biblical times. Wherever nationalities and races have existed, barriers have been there to overcome. And Jonah had a serious barrier to overcome if he was going to fulfill God’s assignment: Jonah hated the Assyrians!
How Jonah Saw Nineveh
It is obvious that Jonah had a negative predisposition toward the Ninevites. His attitude of fear and disgust was based on three views he held about the city: its size, its souls, and its sins.
How fearful are you to witnessing for the Lord to strangers?
Have you had a negative experience when approaching strangers with the Gospel?
Describe a positive time you had in witnessing to strangers.
Great in Size
The Bible tells us that when Jonah got ready for his second attempt to bring a revival to Nineveh, that “Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent” (Jonah 3:3). In other words, it took three days to make one’s way through the city.
Prior to the late 1800s, many critics of the Bible scoffed at this verse. No evidence had surfaced anywhere in the ancient Near East of a city so large that it would take three days to traverse it. But when archaeologists discovered the ruins of Nineveh, people stopped their scoffing. The immediate, central part of the city was one mile by two-and-a-half miles, while the entire metropolitan area was over 60 miles in circumference. The 60-mile-long wall around the city was estimated to be 100 feet tall, and the city had 1,500 towers which were 200 feet tall. This was indeed an “exceedingly great city.”
Great in Souls
Not only was the city great in size, it was great in the number of people: “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left?”(Jonah 4:11). This is not talking about the intellectual ability of the people of Nineveh. It is an Old Testament euphemism to describe children. The Bible says that in Nineveh there were 120,000 children who were not old enough to know right from left. Many have taken this to mean conservatively that there were 600,000 people living in this city during the days of Jonah.
Are there any people or groups to whom you feel God has called you personally to witness?
How do you measure your success in witnessing to them?
What barriers, if any, did you have to overcome in witnessing to them?
Great in Sins
Perhaps nothing about Nineveh was as great as her sins. Indeed, its wickedness is the reason God sent Jonah to preach against it (Jonah 1:2). Nineveh’s geo-political presence in the ancient Near East had a great deal to do with the reluctance of Jonah to go there and minister. The delicate balance of power in the Near East had quickly shifted to the Assyrian Empire during the reign of Jeroboam II in Israel. There was a tremendous fear in the minds of many Jews that their nation was going to be consumed by this insatiable giant, the Assyrian Empire, the capital of which was Nineveh.
Not only was Nineveh a powerful force, but they were a wicked force as well. When we talk about sin and wickedness we should not put in our mind Las Vegas, but more like the Holocaust—Nazi Germany’s reign of terror upon Jewish people in World War II. The Assyrians skinned their captives alive. They pulled out tongues. They gouged out eyes. They mutilated entire cities by driving over their population with chariots fixed with scythes on the wheels. They burned children alive and resorted to other atrocities designed to create fear and submission among their subjects. They engaged in every sort of unspeakable physical cruelty and terror imaginable against those they conquered.
Do you understand why Jonah hated the Assyrians? Why he was not only afraid to go there, but felt they didn’t deserve God’s grace? The last thing in the world Jonah wanted to do was to go and be the messenger of hope and faith to these people—to offer them an opportunity to repent and be spared God’s judgment. He just wanted the judgment to fall!
Have you ever been in a situation where you held back the good news or hope from someone?
How Jonah Saw Nineveh’s Revival
After Jonah preached to the city and the Ninevites had repented, “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. So he prayed to the LORD and said,
1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. – Jonah 4:1-2 ESV
What Jonah was probably meaning was,
“God, I knew you were going to do that. I knew if I went there and preached these people would get right, and then they would end up going to heaven. I want them to go to hell!”
Jonah was some kind of prophet! Can you imagine a modern-day evangelist leading a city of 600,00 people, including the king, to repent, and then holding a pity-party because he was so mad they repented?
While we might never admit it, there probably are people about whom we feel the same way. Maybe they are people who have mistreated us. Or perhaps it is a group of people about whom we have developed a sense of fear or mistrust—Hispanics, whites, African Americans, Chinese, or whoever. Like Jonah, we sometimes have a difficult time surmounting our own racial prejudices to get the Gospel to the people who truly need it. Let me ask you a question, class.
Did Nineveh need the Gospel of God’s grace preached to them? Does the chief city of the race or group that you dislike need the Gospel of God’s grace? Yes, in both cases.
Instead of seeing the Ninevites’ revival as a victory for God, Jonah saw it as a defeat for (self-) righteous people everywhere. He didn’t want heaven soiled with the blood-stained sandals of the Assyrians. Jonah was acting like the prodigal son’s pious brother, the one who was sorry that the sinner came home.
How Jonah Saw the Ninevites
Jonah made five major mistakes that caused him to be blind to the true spiritual needs of the Ninevites and the victory represented by their repentance. I fear we may see ourselves in one or two of these as well. If we are going to reach those around us with the Gospel, we are going to have to look at people differently from the way Jonah looked at the Ninevites.
Jonah saw the Ninevites in these five unfortunate ways:
1. Nationally, Not Individually
Jonah did what we often do. He said, “All the Ninevites deserve to go to hell. All the Ninevites need to be judged.” He saw that city in terms of its reputation, and he put everybody in that nation in the same category, as if they were all as guilty as the most atrocious criminal among them. We call that stereotyping.
Do we ever do that today?
“All” is never an accurate term to describe an entire group.
Go walk among the group that you think you know, and you will find people who are tender toward the truth of God’s Word. Yes, they may be involved in some of the sinful things that are going on in that group, but when you walk among them, God gives you a heart for them. When kids go to the mission field and see the need and meet the people, they fall in love with the opportunity to take them the Gospel of Jesus Christ—and they give their lives to serve those people as career missionaries. Nations are made up of individual people like you and me. Unfortunately, Jonah looked at the Assyrians nationally instead of individually.
2. Historically, Not Prophetically
Secondly, Jonah saw the Assyrians historically instead of prophetically. By that I mean he knew everything they had done. He could have told you about their cruelest atrocities. He knew everything bad there was to know about the Ninevites. But when you go to a people group you have to go prophetically, not historically. You have to walk in and say, “I see these people not only for what they are and what they have done, but for what they can become by the power and grace of Jesus Christ.”
I think we need to ask God to help us see people like that, to see people in terms of what they could become if the Gospel of Jesus Christ were released in their hearts. We don’t need to look at the things they have done. That is history. Second Corinthians 5:17 says,
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV
Do we still believe God can do that to the cruelest, ugliest person?
To the person who does the atrocious things that are part of our media coverage today?
Do we think God can take those people and change them and make them all new?
He is the only one who can—and we need to see them as He does.
3. Physically, Not Spiritually
Jonah could not get past the Ninevites, sinful deeds to see their spiritual needs. We believers are great at discriminating in all kinds of physical ways—on the basis of appearance, ancestry, age, achievement, affluence, and a host of other ways. We look at people on the surface, but we often never see deep enough to find out who they really are.
The fact that Jonah could only see the Ninevites physically kept him from having compassion and love for them. He never allowed the truth of Isaiah’s prophecy to be applied to the Ninevites, that Israel was to be a light to lighten the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6).
“I am GOD. I have called you to live right and well. I have taken responsibility for you, kept you safe. I have set you among my people to bind them to me, and provided you as a lighthouse to the nations, To make a start at bringing people into the open, into light: opening blind eyes, releasing prisoners from dungeons, emptying the dark prisons. – Isaiah 42:6-7 MSG
Jesus’ words hundreds of years later speak to Jonah’s short-sightedness:
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick – Luke 5:31 ESV
4. Ethnically, Not Personally
Jonah was willing to write off a whole group of people simply because of their ethnicity, and this is simply wrong. After the apostles wrestled with the issue of taking the Gospel to the Gentiles in the Book of Acts, Peter came to his own conclusion:
Truly I understand that God shows no partiality – Acts 10:34
That is a good observation, based squarely on God’s truth.
And yet, so often, we violate that truth. We label people as we would label identical shirts coming down an assembly line. Christ died for the whole world. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.” If we demonstrate, subtly or overtly, that we treat ethnic groups differently, we let everybody know that we don’t have the heart of God, because that is not His heart. It is a liberating thing to get past labeling on the basis of the color of skin, accents, cultural mannerisms, age, hobbies, and traditional practices. Only then do we see the person for whom Christ died.
5. Hatefully, Not Mercifully
Unfortunately Jonah looked at the Ninevites hatefully, not mercifully. In Jonah 4:10–11 we will discover that Jonah had more compassion for a silly gourd plant than he did for a city of 600,000 people. I know people today who seem to care more about animals than they do about the eternal soul of a neighbor. How could we get to the place where we look at people with no mercy at all? Ephesians 2:4–5 says,
“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.… ”
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved. – Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV
Describe an experience when you were brought into close contact with an ethnic, racial, or religious group very different from yourself.
What were your initial feelings?
How did your feelings change over time?
How did your feelings toward them affect your ability to serve them as a Christian?
What did you learn about this group that changed how you felt initially?
Hopefully the lessons we learn from Jonah’s life will keep us from looking at people through Jonah’s eyes. We must look at them through Jesus’ eyes. While there may be modern-day versions of Assyrians, let us be modern-day versions of the Lord Jesus Christ, not Jonah, when we look at them. It matters not whether those to whom we go are great or small in size, hundreds or millions in number, or the mildest or meanest in manner, we must obey the command of God: “Go … and make disciples of all the nations”(Matthew 28:19).
Did you know?
Before we write the Ninevites off as being the bad boys of the Bible, we had better check out their appearance in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus said that the men of Nineveh would stand as judges over the first century Jewish leadership (Luke 11:30, 32). Reason? At least the Ninevites repented at Jonah’s preaching, and one greater than Jonah (i.e., Jesus) was preaching to the Pharisees, who didn’t repent. Appearances don’t always reveal the condition of the heart.
Jeremiah, D. (1998). The runaway prophet: Jonah (Study guide). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.