A Heart For The City

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The Book of Jonah is a nearly forgotten book, well apart from the whole fish thing. It’s as though we thought we’d reaped all we could in this book when we finished the coloring page in Sunday School. Yet, this book tell us far more about the heart of God toward the city then any other Old Testament book. We as Christians could learn a lot about reaching people for Christ by looking to the Protagonist of this book, which despite the name is not who you might think it is. No, Jonah is not the protagonist, in fact at the end it becomes clear that he is actively working against the Protagonist. It’s not the fish or the scared Mariners either. God is the Protagonist of Jonah.

It is God, not Jonah, who is actively working for a good outcome for the city of Nineveh, the capital of wicked Assyria, a terrible nation of brutal men. Nahum 3:1 calls Nineveh a “city of bloodshed” due to their brutality and violence. Yet, it is to these evil people that God sends His herald with a message - repent or be destroyed. While, some might have looked at the Assyrians and immediately wrote them off, they listened to the message of God. The Ninevites repented and God lived up His promise by sparing them the judgment reserved for them. It’s in the concluding chapter of Jonah that we can learn how to have a heart for our own city.

A Heart for the City Begins with a Humble Spirit.

Jonah 3:10 accounts how God spares the judgment He had threatened, the following verse shows the emotional reaction of the prophet who delivered God’s message. Instead of rejoicing with the people at the mercy of God, Jonah was “displeased” at what God had done. He is wrecked over the graciousness of God. It was a personal disaster in his soul. This leads to him becoming furious, but not at the Assyrians, at God. He then began to lecture the Almighty by saying this is why he didn’t want to come in the first place. You can almost hear him yell, “I knew you were going to be like this! You’re always like this!” The prophet is angry His God is gracious and merciful. He’s ticked that God is abounding in love. Why? He’s angry because he hates the Ninevites.

Jonah might be the first Pharisee. He’s hyper-religious. He knows all the right theological concepts. Read his prayer in chapter 2 and anyone can see that Jonah knows his Bible, but he is totally apathetic toward the Assyrian people. He’s prideful. He thinks he’s better than the Ninevites. It’s easy to look at Jonah and see his flaws, but what about you and me? Are we ever filled with pride toward the city to which we’ve been called? Do we secretly desire God to not be gracious toward a select few, you know the people “too bad to be saved?” Impact for Christ in a city can never be achieved unless you realize that apart from Christ you were just as damnable as the people in Nineveh, just as lost as the people in your city.

A heart for the city desires God’s grace for all.

There is a complete contrast between our main characters in this historical accurate account. While Jonah chooses to embrace his anger and even to focus it toward the Lord, God turns from His fierce anger. Why would God do this? Jonah says it best Himself, “You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”(4:2) Jonah knows not just because the Bible (or Law) told him so, but because he experienced it. When he ran, God saved him. Jonah deserved wrath, but received grace through the fish. Jonah even prays, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (3:9) He knows God’s grace, but he only thinks he should get it or at least that the Ninevites shouldn’t. We have to ask ourselves, do we want everyone to be saved in our city? Don’t just give the superficial and easy affirmative response. Think about it. Do we truly desire that God’s grace would reach every soul in our city? Not just the people who look, sound, and act like we do, but do we want God’s grace for all of the city?

A Heart for the city stays in the city.

God’s answer to his rebellious prophet is a simple question, “Do you do well to be angry?” (4:4) In other words, Jonah do you have a right to be angry? This is a question Jonah refuses to answer, instead like a dog always looking for the hole in the fence, Jonah decides to run again. This time Jonah sets up camp outside the city, hoping God will change His nature so Jonah could see some fireworks. Several times, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, He never rescinds those orders. Jonah was supposed to be in the city. He was supposed to be ministering to the people. Jonah deserts his post. Why? He has no love for the people. An apathy toward the city will always result in isolation from the city.

Many Christians do this without ever changing their address. Isolating yourself from the city is just as awful as Jonah’s physical abandonment. It might look like refusing to get together with your coworkers. Or never making it out to that neighborhood bbq. The principle is clear. Christians are to be involved in their city. They should be at all the big events, not out of some sense of duty, but out of love and concern for the spiritual wellbeing of their city. Remember, we are to work for the good of the city, the best good being the Gospel.

A Heart for the city shows compassion for the city.

The last part of Jonah is even weirder than the fish. God chooses to teach a lesson to his wayward prophet through a plant, a worm, and a wind. He teaches Jonah that He has power to deliver by causing this plant to give Jonah shelter. He then teaches Jonah that He has power to destroy by causing the worm to kill the plant and the sun to beat down on Jonah. It’s an odd picture, but a clear message - God gets to choose who to destroy and who to deliver and He chose to deliver Nineveh.

This is not good enough for the faltering herald. When asked again by God what right Jonah had to be angry, Jonah indignantly replies, “Yes, I do have a right to be angry. Angry enough to die.” These are Jonah’s last words. Hateful, treasonous, and harsh words by a man who should have known better. Yet, God’s words are the opposite - loving, soft, and tender. God replies, “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:11) The word “pity” means to have compassion. That’s exactly what God does, He acts out of love and shows compassion toward Nineveh. Christians should follow God’s example by showing compassion toward the people of our cities. They have no clue what they’re doing, we know this because we were just like them before Christ. Let’s have a heart for the city and reach out in love. Let’s be friends with them and show them compassion, after all we should be the experts on compassion having experienced God’s great love in Christ.

The city is not the enemy. The city is desperate for Christ. The city is loved by God. So will we have the same heart as God for the city? 

- Dean