How does a good story – a work of fiction – start? Various web pages recount the opening lines of famous novels, and I suppose that if a good book is to be read and enjoyed, we must get through the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, and the first chapter. Good authors spend a lot of time thinking about how to lead into what they have to say to the world.
In that light, how does a good biography start? Do we begin with the subject’s birth, or perhaps skip ahead to what they accomplished (or are known for), planning to circle back to their childhood later? Maybe we start in the middle, with a formative event? In the same way, what do we talk about when we get to know someone else?
So, how did your story start? I mean, we each “…came to the world in the usual way” (as Harry Chapin’s song says), but where did the course of your life really get started? When did you move from just going through the motions to having a purpose? Let’s ponder those things as we start a new series of articles on the first chapter of the book of Jonah.
The book of Jonah jumps right in with God’s instructions to some guy named Jonah.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
Jonah 1:1-2 NIV
And, isn’t this where our own stories should start, with God giving us instructions? After all, Creation took place when God said, “Let there be light” [see Genesis 1:3]. Jesus gave us the Great Commission to make disciples [see Matthew 28:19-20]. In Jeremiah 29 [see verses 10-14], God had plans for His people, even when they were in exile. Maybe the important parts of our story don’t even start before God sets out a path for us and calls us to do something for Him.
Now, even without more information about Jonah (beyond the rest of this book of the Bible), we would probably consider him to be a prophet, based on what God called him to do, and the message that he eventually delivered to the people of Nineveh. In fact, 2 Kings 14:25 (apparently the only other reference to Jonah outside of his namesake book and two of the gospels) does specifically identify Jonah as a prophet. However, at least in the NIV and the NASB, a search of the book of Jonah does not return any instances of the word “prophet”, “prophesy”, or “prophecy”. In these first couple of verses, he’s “the son of Amittai”, and he has instructions from God.
Sometimes, that’s all that we are called to do, as well. Sometimes, we don’t have to have the title of “prophet”, or even “pastor”, “minister”, or “missionary”. As a follower of Jesus having received the Holy Spirit (which I personally think happens at our baptism, but I don’t intend to argue about that), you have all that you need to share the message of God with others, when He calls you to do so.
In this case, God explains that there is wickedness in Nineveh (which Jonah probably already knew), and He calls Jonah to preach (or “cry out” NASB) against it. The actual act of doing so shouldn’t be too difficult. I’m sure that Jonah knew how to call out wickedness when he saw it.
So, does your story begin with being called by God? If the “obvious” lesson from the book of Jonah is that, when God tells you to do something, you should do what He says, maybe that’s where the story of our lives should begin, too.
In fact, we can’t even get away with saying that He hasn’t called us to anything, since we are each called to follow Him. (See Revelation 3:20 for a great picture of Jesus knocking at the door, waiting for us to invite Him in.) In addition, God’s Word is full of instructions for followers of Jesus. Yes, sometimes God calls us (like Jonah) to more specific actions, whether through an opportunity or through the direction of the Holy Spirit, but we can’t wait for a formal “message from God” to get started.
Sometimes, obeying that call will not make a lot of sense, or we won’t want to do it, but things are probably going to go a lot more smoothly if we follow God’s instructions up-front.
I encourage you to read through all of the rest of Jonah on your own, before we continue this series. There’s more to these events than just a prophet and a fish, but the starting point for the prophet Jonah is the same as it should be for us: with God’s calling.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for June 5, 2022
- The Lookout, June 5, 2022, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Minor Prophets Volume 1: Hosea-MIcah, by Harold Shank. College Press Publishing Company, © 2001.