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Receive God’s Mercy and Withhold it From Others

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February 15, 2009

“But the LORD said, ‘You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?’” Jonah 4:10-11 (NIV)

It is possible to be genuinely grateful for your own salvation, and yet curiously disinterested in the salvation of others. The great irony of this book is that Jonah received God’s mercy, yet he was reluctant about this mercy coming to other people.

We’re going to see how far Jonah was from the heart of God, and learn how we can be less like Jonah and more like Jesus: “When God saw what they did, and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion, and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” Jonah 3:10. It was this generous outpouring of the mercy of God that got Jonah angry!

Jonah says “You are a gracious and compassionate God” (4:2), but Jonah was not a gracious and compassionate prophet. There is a huge contrast between the heart of God and the heart of Jonah.

The Compassion of God and the Complacency of Jonah

“Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people… Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

(Jonah 4:11)

God is concerned about the city. He says “There are 120,000 people in Nineveh, and these people matter to Me!” What is Jonah concerned about? God says to him “You have been concerned about the vine” (v10).

The contrast here is striking. God is concerned about the city. Jonah is concerned about the vine. There’s nothing wrong with that. The vine was a good gift from God that brought comfort, blessing and joy to Jonah.

We are all concerned to some degree about the vine. We are concerned about our jobs, our homes, our investments, our health and our plans for the future. We are concerned about the things that bring us comfort and joy in this life.

But do we share God’s concern for the city? Do we care about the thousands of people “who cannot tell their right hand from their left?” You can’t hear these words without thinking about the 9.5 million people in this great city of Chicago.

God cared about 120,000 people who were facing judgment in Nineveh. And He cares about the people of this city, many of whom do not have saving faith in Christ. God cares for this city, and if we share his heart, we will care about it too.

Jonah was concerned about the vine. God is concerned about the city. It is easy for us to become deeply concerned about the vine and yet strangely unmoved by the plight of millions without Christ who face eternity with the worm and the wind.

The natural question that is raised by looking at the heart of God and the heart of Jonah—they are miles apart, is this:

How Can I Grow In Compassion?

Rejoice in God’s unique Creation

“You have been concerned about this vine, even though you did not tend it or make it grow.” (Jonah 4:10)

The point is that God did make the vine grow. God gave life to the vine, and he gave life to the 120,000 people in the city. “Jonah, you care about the life of the vine. Why don’t you care about the lives of the people? Every person that you meet is a unique creation of Mine.” That’s the logic and the force of what God is saying to Jonah.

God never made two snowflakes the same, and He certainly never made two people the same. Every person you have ever met, every person that you ever will meet is a unique creation of God. That’s why people are so interesting.

When you sit down next to someone on a train, or in line at the grocery store, or at your desk in school, say to yourself “God made this person.” There is nobody else quite like this person anywhere in the world, there never has been anyone else like this in the history of the world, and there never will be again.

God cares about this person and right now, in His sovereign purpose, He has placed me next to them. Take an interest in people, and you will grow in compassion.

Every person that you will ever meet is a unique creation of God. That is true even of the worst people that you meet. Nineveh was known for terror and torture. These people were notorious for their wickedness “[their] wickedness has come up before me” (1:1), and yet God cared about them. He had compassion on them. “Should I not be concerned about this great city?” (4:11).

God’s glory is seen in the scope of his compassion: “The Lord is good to all; He has compassion on all he has made” (Psalm 145:9). What is the scope of God’s compassion? He has compassion for all that he has made. That doesn’t mean that God will save all people. It does mean that he cares about all people.

God cares about his enemies. God loves his enemies and does good to those who hate him: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). It was “while we were still sinners [that] Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

God gives life to those who will use it to praise him, and he gives breath to those who will use it to curse him. He sustains his enemies. Every atheist is sustained—every moment of his or her life—by the mercy of God.

Try to show kindness to all people, especially those whose beliefs or behavior may offend you or repulse you, because that’s what God does. When you show compassion, especially to someone who you find most offensive, you reflect the heart of God.

Reflect on our human condition

“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?” Jonah 4:11

It could be that the 120,000 people who “cannot tell their right hand from their left” is a reference to young children, but I think it is much more likely that this is a description of people who have lost their moral compass. They are no longer able to discern between right and wrong, between good and evil.

We use “right” and “left” to give directions: “Go down this street and when you get to the third street turn left, then keep going until you get to the fourth street—take a right on it. The house is half way down on the left hand side.” A person who cannot tell their right hand from their left cannot follow directions. A person who does not know which way to turn in life will quickly become hopelessly lost.

God says “I have compassion for Nineveh because it is a city of 120,000 people who are just like that! They don’t know how to follow directions. They are completely lost. They cannot discern good from evil. They call evil ‘good,’ and they call good ‘evil’ (Isaiah 5:20). They are in complete moral confusion, and for that reason I have compassion on them.”

Reflecting on our human condition will increase your compassion; it will enlarge your heart, to reflect the heart of God. It will make you more sensitive, less condemning like Jonah, and more like Jesus.

What is the human condition? The Bible describes it many ways, here are three:

  1. Blindness

“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

The blindness is real. It is not just that the unbeliever doesn’t want to see. It is not that he is being obtuse. He cannot see! You talk to him about Christ and what he means to you and he cannot connect with what you are saying. It is a genuine blindness. He doesn’t get it.

  1. Slavery

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”

(John 8:34)

The slavery is real. To be “a slave to sin” means that the sinner can’t stop sinning. He does not have the power to do so. He may be able to change the particular form of his sins, but he cannot stop being a sinner. That’s what slavery means—you’re a slave and you can’t get out of it.

iii. Death

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” (Ephesians 2:1)

This death is real. By nature we are unresponsive to God. We don’t have the power within us to change. That’s why we can’t save ourselves. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

When you get the Bible’s picture of the human condition into your mind, it will help you with people who are like Jonah, who you would otherwise be angry or judgmental with. Let me try and illustrate this. Imagine that you are responsible for parking at the Super Bowl:

The cars are jammed in, bumper-to-bumper. When the game ends, your job is to clear the car park as quickly and as safely as possible. The job carries some authority, so you are given a uniform, a flag and a whistle.

Your strategy is simple—as soon as all the drivers arrive to their cars in the first row of a section, you will begin moving them out into the exit lane, so that the others parked behind them can follow.

After the game lets out, a flood of people slowly make their way to their cars. You see that in the front row of one section all three drivers are seated in their cars, so you raise your flag to call them forward.

Nothing happens. You blow the whistle. You point to them and wave the flag again, but nothing happens. Then you notice something strange—these guys are in their cars, but they haven’t even started their engines. What in the world are they doing?

By now the folks in the cars behind are wondering the same thing. They are getting frustrated. Some of them are sounding their horns. People are getting angry. Why are the guys at the front not moving?

You start getting angry yourself, because it’s your job to clear the car park in an efficient manner. So you walk over to the cars. That takes time and leads to even more blaring of horns, because people sense that something isn’t right. Some people have rolled down their windows and are shouting abuse at the drivers on the front row.

You get to the first car, and bang on the windshield: “Get moving!” The driver rolls down the window. “I don’t know what happened,” he says “but I can’t see. I got in the car, and everything went dark. I can’t drive. I’m blind!”

You go quickly to the next car, and bang on the windshield: “This man has a problem, he can’t move his car. You need to get moving.” The second driver tries to roll down his window, but he has great difficulty.

You look at his hands and you see that he is in handcuffs. “I don’t know how this happened,” he said “but I got in the car and some guy was hiding in the back seat. He slapped these handcuffs on me and then took off. I can’t drive, I’m bound!”

By now, the folks in the cars behind are getting ready to riot: Horns are blaring and people ten rows back are standing on pick-up trucks, waving their fists and shouting abuse.

You move to the third car, and bang on the window. “Sir, these guys have a problem. They can’t move their vehicles. I need you to move your car now!” There is no response. You look more closely. The driver in the third car is slumped over the wheel. He is dead.

Crowds of people are shouting abuse, blaring their horns, and saying what they will do to the drivers in the front, if they don’t get moving.

But you have compassion. Why? Because you understand the problem—one guy is blind, one guy is bound, and the other guy is dead. All the shouting in the world isn’t going to change that.

There is a kind of Christianity that is angry with the sinful world. And there is a kind of preaching that rails against the evils of our time, and seems to find a certain pleasure in doing so. It is angry because it really does not adequately reflect on the human condition.

What is the human condition? All human beings that are born into this world are blind to the glory of Christ, bound by sin from which we cannot get free, and plain dead, unresponsive to God. And no amount of blaring of horns is going to change any of these situations.

When you reflect on the human condition it will help you to understand what salvation is all about. It has to come through the light of the gospel, lit and giving sight by the power of the Holy Spirit. It has to involve the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, not just His forgiving work, but His freeing work. And it has to involve the resurrection power of the Lord Jesus Christ, actually giving us new life and new birth. Of course, the New Testament tells us that all of these things are found only in Christ.

The human condition is that we are all born blind, bound and dead. That is true of every person born into the world, including your children. My children were born this way. I was born this way. You were born this way.

Reflecting on the human condition will affect the way that you parent your children. It will help you to grow in compassion. It will make you less like the Jonah, who was very moral and very angry. There are a lot of fathers, a lot of mothers, who are just like that. It will make you more like the Lord, who has compassion on people who cannot tell their right hand from their left.

Here’s something for you to work on this week: Think about someone who really annoys you. You get upset with them, you feel impatient with them. You know that you need to grow in compassion for them. Reflect on our human condition in relation to them and you will grow in compassion.

Maybe you are thinking “That’s all very well, but what if the person who angers me most is a Christian?” Though God has given us sight, we only see in part (1 Corinthians 13:12). Though we have the Spirit, we still battle with the flesh. Though we are new creations, we are not yet what we will one day be. So, let us be patient with one another in Christ as well.

Has your heart been gripped by the compassion of God? When God says “Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left… Should I not be concerned about that great city?”(v11). The word translated “concern” literally means “to have tears in one’s eyes.” The root meaning of the word is “to overflow.”[1]

“Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, should I not have tears in my eyes over that great city?”

You can’t hear that without thinking about Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of people, and He says “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:41). Christ knows the human heart. He wept over the city. He has compassion on you, rest assured of that. This is the God of the Bible.

Engage in Christ’s redeeming mission

“Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city…

He waited to see what would happen…” (Jonah 4:5)

Jonah’s heart grew cold when he was disconnected from the work God was doing. God’s Spirit is at work in a great revival that was sweeping through the city. People are coming to repentance and faith. But Jonah is outside. He’s passive and disconnected from what God is doing, obsessed with the plant and his own life.

The king and the prophet

There is a striking contrast here between the king and the prophet. Both of them sat down. They assume the same posture, but in entirely different ways.

When the king hears God’s Word, as a result of Jonah’s ministry: “He rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust” (Jonah 3:6).

The king sat down in prayer. He sat down in repentance. That’s the point of the sackcloth. Then the king said “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows, God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger” (Jonah 3:8-9).

Jonah also sat down. “Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city” (Jonah 4:5).

The contrast is amazing: The king is a “new believer.” He has just received the Word of God for the first time, and he is actively engaged, pleading with God for the salvation of his city. The prophet is a mature believer but he sits outside, passive, watching to see what will happen.

Hearts grow cold on the sidelines of ministry. You can’t grow in compassion without being engaged in the work that God is doing. Compassion is more than a feeling. It is love in action. Look at what God’s compassion for Nineveh involves:

He calls Jonah and sends him to Nineveh…

He sends a storm to intercept Jonah…

He exposes Jonah’s sin…

He prepares a great fish to save Jonah…

He causes the fish to spew Jonah onto the beach…

He calls Jonah a second time…

He gives Jonah the message…

He gives faith and repentance to the people…

He changes the heart of the king…

He pours out a spirit of prayer among the people…

He relents from sending disaster…

God is always at work. That is what Jesus said “My Father is always at work!” It’s more than pity, more than feeling sorry for people in their lost condition. It is God taking action for the good of people who cannot help themselves. The king is growing in compassion because he is in the city, praying in the dirt for the salvation of his people.

In His compassion God sent Jonah to Nineveh, but His compassion doesn’t end there: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Rosemary Nixon says this well in her commentary on Jonah:

Love and labor are inseparable.

We love that for which we labor,

And labor for that which we love.[2]

Rosemary Nixon

As we talk and pray in these days about how we might double our impact for Christ, it would be easy for some of us to sit back and say “Well, it will be interesting to see what happens.” In every church there are people who are working and people who are watching.

Ask God how He wants you to be engaged in Christ’s redeeming work at this season of your life. Choose the company of those who are working, rather than the comfort of those who are watching, and you will grow in compassion.

[1] Rosemary Nixon, The Message of Jonah, p.200

[2] Ibid., p.199



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