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Today, I’d like to conclude our little study of the book of Jonah by asking a question: What is the church for?
As I read the book of Jonah, I see three answers to this question, two of which are wrong. The church is for the condemnation of outsiders, the comfort of insiders, or a deep and abiding concern for the lost. Let’s quickly take a look at each answer.
The first wrong answer is that the church is for the condemnation of outsiders. Having read Jonah, you might actually think this is the right answer. After all, according to Jonah 1:2, when God first called Jonah, he commissioned him to “preach against [Nineveh], because its wickedness has come up before me.” And according to Jonah 3:4, when Jonah finally arrived in Nineveh, the content of his message was wholly negative: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Jonah’s God-given mission seems to have been a message of judgment and condemnation.
Many Christians seem to think that condemnation is the church’s mission to the world. They believe the church should loudly denounce the world’s sins. But what they fail to take into account is Jonah’s initial response to God’s call. He ran from God not because he feared God would condemn the Ninevites but because he feared God would give them grace. According to Jonah 4:2, Jonah said to God, “That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” The message of judgment was simply a prelude to the good news, the divine No! that precedes the even louder divine Yes!
The second wrong answer is that the church is for the comfort of insiders. There is only one time in the book when Jonah is described as being “very happy.” It wasn’t when the great fish burped Jonah onto the shores of Israel. And it wasn’t when the Ninevites repented. According to Jonah 4:6, it was only when God provided a plant as a cover over Jonah, protecting him from the scorching sun. Jonah was “very happy” only when his personal comfort was at stake. He was okay with God raining down judgment on the heads of the Ninevites. He only cared about the sun shining down on his own head. Unfortunately, many churches are like that. They are only very happy when they derive some benefit from the ministries of the church. They could care less about the fate of unbelievers outside the church.
The right answer is that a deep and abiding concern for the lost is what the church is for. God himself provides the model for this answer. According to Jonah 4:11, God says to Jonah, “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left…. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” God cares about the fate of the spiritually ignorant, of people who don’t yet know God. Any church worth its salt will feel like God feels and be concerned about for the lost.