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Jonah: Telling the Truth, truthfully (Week Four)

Our fourth week of the challenge involves reading Jonah Chapter 3

This week we move to Jonah Chapter 3.

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God...”

In the Diocese we’re committed to the Rule of Life - we’re called to pray, read and learn; we’re sent to tell, serve and give. What does the story of Jonah in Nineveh have to teach us, this week in particular as people who are sent to tell?

At first sight, Jonah’s method resembles some of the ways of doing evangelism which are less effective today. In my book “The Table” I quote a story from the “Metro” newspaper of a couple of years ago:

“Panicked passengers forced their way out of their rush hour train after a man read out Bible passages in the carriage. The train was just outside Wimbledon at around 8.30am, when the man started reading out phrases such as ‘death is not the end’... Ian, who was on the train, tweeted that the man’s Bible-reading caused a ‘crush’ and a ‘commotion’. He said that someone asked the man to stop speaking ‘as he was scaring people’, after which ‘the guy stopped and stood there with his head down’. Other passengers praised a guard, who apparently dealt with the situation with ‘compassion, restraint and bravery’.” 

I go on to say in the book that perhaps the best way to engage in evangelism today is to be like that guard - to exercise compassion, restraint and bravery. This too is biblical. In 1 Peter we are told “... in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15,16)

In our story, Jonah on the other hand, though he doesn’t lack bravery, simply tells it as it is - “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And in the story, his preaching is remarkably effective, and the people of the huge city immediately turn from their evil ways and repent. As we shall see next week, Jonah himself is not best pleased by this extraordinary result. But for us as evangelists, sent to tell, the question remains: what might we learn from this story for our own ministry?

Jonah is a storybook, and so it is attractive, but inconclusive, to speculate about things that the author has decided not to tell us. How did Jonah make his proclamation? What was the immediate response? Did he answer any questions from the people of Nineveh, and what were the questions, and what was his answer? Of course we can make up our own answers to these questions, and if you read chapter 3 in a prayerful way, asking the Holy Spirit to guide your reading, it may well be worth doing that, and perhaps sharing your answers with others in your church or in your small group if you are a member of one.

But you may also want to look back over your own life, and identify moments when you had the opportunity to share your own faith, and ask those same questions of yourself: How did you make your proclamation? What was the immediate response? Did you answer any questions from the people you were with, and what were the questions, and what was your answer? 

When I do that exercise myself a pattern emerges. I tend to offer my own proclamation quietly and even hesitantly. So I remember a time when a friend was sharing news of their own bereavement. I tried to express sorrow and sympathy and also to say something like: “And I’ll pray for you and ask God to be with you. I remember in my own bereavement that people prayed that for me. It didn’t take the pain away but somehow I knew that God’s love was still holding my Mum. That’s because I’m a Christian, you know.”

And then waited to see what happened. If my friend had simply changed the subject then that would have been fine. But when a question came, then I prayed for the strength and grace to answer it. Because I believed, and still believe, that if the answer comes from the truth of my own life, rather than simply from a book, then I can be sure that God will use my own truth to speak of God’s own eternal truth.

And this is how I read this chapter of Jonah. Here is a man who ran away from God’s call, and who was taken by God into the depths of his life and made to examine himself deeply there, and to turn his life inside out and around and to become one who truly followed God’s call. It is out of this chastening and even humiliating experience that he speaks. And God uses his truth to speak of eternal truth. God uses Jonah’s stubbornness to speak of the stubbornness of the city. It is Jonah’s real-life experience that he is able to share with anyone who asks him for the hope that he has. It is his experience that authenticates him as a proclaimer of God’s truth. It is his experience that purges him of arrogance. It is his experience that makes his proclamation so effective.

Jonah is a scriptural story and so it is part of God’s revelation: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching...” (2 Timothy 3:16). And in this case God has chosen to reveal truth through an inspired storybook. So as a Christian, inspired yourself by the Holy Spirit, you are free to read the story and to bring your own experience to bear on it, and to draw learning and wisdom from the limitless well of scripture in the power of the limitless love of God.

With all that in mind, why not get together with two or three people from your church or community over a coffee, and discuss these questions - questions of evangelism - for yourself this week?


  • Called To Read
  • Bible
  • Reading
  • Jonah
  • Whale
  • Bishop Paul

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