Encounter with Jeffrey Dahmer changed minister’s life
PORTAGE, Wis. — It was an average-sized room that resembled a doctor’s office. Nothing on the walls. Sterile. Roy Ratcliff sat alone at a table in the center of the room.
He noticed sweat trickling from his forehead, and he could hear his heart pounding in the silence.
Ratcliff, minister for the church in Madison, Wisc., was to meet with a prisoner who wanted to be baptized. He had never met with a prisoner before.The inmate was a murderer, and everyone would surely question his sincerity. Perhaps it was a stunt.
The door opened, breaking the silence. A 6-foot man with blond hair, blue eyes and glasses entered the room. Ratcliff stood up to greet him. The man shook his hand and said, “It’s good to meet you.”
The guard did not enter the room. The door closed behind Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer, leaving Ratcliff alone with him.
Although Ratcliff was a little frightened to meet the serial killer from Milwaukee, Dahmer was the more nervous of the two in that room at the Columbia Correctional Institution April 18, 1994. “He was worried that his crimes would be the dominant theme (of the conversation),” Ratcliff said. He didn’t want to hear that from a minister.
Between 1978 and 1991 Dahmer killed 17 young men and boys. Police arrested him in 1991 and found victims’ decaying bodies in Dahmer’s apartment. Accusations soon surfaced that Dahmer practiced necrophilia and cannibalism.
“Do you have any religious background at all?” Ratcliff asked. He was surprised to learn that Dahmer attended a church of Christ until age 5.
Dahmer had started Bible study in prison through courses he received by mail after a “Dateline NBC” interview. A church member in Virginia, Mary Mott, and a prison minister in Crescent, Okla., Curtis Booth, sent him material. He studied on his own, and then inquired about being baptized. A minister in Milwaukee contacted Ratcliff.
Ratcliff realized that Dahmer was serious about his decision. They arranged to use a whirlpool at the prison. Dahmer climbed in and got into the fetal position to fit underneath the water. On May 10, 1994, three weeks after they had met, Ratcliff baptized one of the world’s most notorious serial killers.
After the baptism, Ratcliff insisted that he meet with Dahmer each week for Bible study to continue to bring God into his life.
Ratcliff knew little about the man he baptized, so he started to read books about Dahmer’s crimes. The monster he read about and the person he knew didn’t seem like the same man.
Dahmer mentioned his crimes on occasion, and showed a sense of sorrow for what he had done, Ratcliff said. But at no time in their conversations did Dahmer say why he committed the crimes. That was something Ratcliff — and the rest of the nation — could only guess.
A jury rejected Dahmer’s insanity plea in 1992, and based on his conversations with the inmate, Ratcliff agreed with the decision. “He knew it was wrong and tried to cover it up,” Ratcliff said.
On one occasion, Dahmer said he should be put to death for what he did. Ratcliff said he agreed. But Wisconsin has no death penalty, and Ratcliff told him suicide is a selfish act. He should strive to be a good prisoner and live to serve God.
“Most people struggle with the idea of Jeffrey Dahmer repenting,” Ratcliff said. “All they can remember is the heinousness of the crimes.”
On his answering machine at the church, Ratcliff received one profanity-laced message that said he was foolish to believe Dahmer was a candidate for baptism. However, to his face, Ratcliff received praise. “Can an evil person turn to God? I have to believe that,” Ratcliff said. “What part of the blood of Christ can’t save him, but can save you?”
Over the months, Ratcliff saw a gradual change in Dahmer. He went from a man with a death wish to a man who wanted to help other inmates with Bible study. Dahmer’s father, Lionel, noticed a change in his son as well, Ratcliff said.
But there was a part of Dahmer that remained immature, Ratcliff said, and he believed Dahmer had trouble distinguishing good from bad.
“(At age 34) he was still kind of a little boy yet,” Ratcliff said.
On July 3, 1994, a prisoner from Cuba taped a razor blade to his toothbrush and attacked Dahmer from behind during worship service. Dahmer survived with three cuts. Prison officials assured Ratcliff that great steps would be taken to make sure Dahmer was safe.
But as Dahmer and Jesse Anderson, another convicted murderer from Milwaukee, were doing janitorial duties Nov. 28, 1994, inmate Christopher Scarver used a steel bar from weightlifting gear to bludgeon both men to death, according to the Associated Press. Ratcliff acknowledged that he felt a sense of betrayal.
The Wednesday before his death, Dahmer had given Ratcliff a Thanksgiving Day card thanking him for his friendship. It said he was looking forward to seeing him the next week.
“I didn’t get an inkling he was in danger,” Ratcliff said. “I thought we would be two old men (someday) studying the Bible together. I wasn’t going to give up on him.”
Ratcliff led a memorial service with Dahmer’s family at the Madison church after the murder. A sister of one of Dahmer’s victims attended the service to support Lionel.
Afterward, Ratcliff said, she came up to Lionel and said she thought she could forgive Jeff now.
A decade after Dahmer’s death, Ratcliff still preaches, and now visits seven inmates in four state prisons.
“Because of him I have been involved in more prison work. There’s more of a compassion from me for people in prison settings,” Ratcliff said. “A part of my heart goes out to them.”
Ratcliff doesn’t believe Dahmer realized the impact of his actions and the black mark he left on Wisconsin.
It was Dahmer’s stepmother, Shari, Ratcliff said, who may have captured what Jeff wanted all along. At the memorial service she said, “he wanted to sink into oblivion and to be forgotten forever.”
Craig Spychalla reports for Capital Newspapers. This story is excerpted with permission from the Nov. 28, 1994, issue of the Portage (Wis.) Daily Register.
If in chapter 1, Jonah is like the Prodigal Son, insisting on doing his own thing and going his own way (Luke 15:11-32); then in chapter 4, he’s like the Prodigal’s Elder Brother—critical, selfish, sullen, angry, and unhappy with what was going on. It isn’t enough for God’s servants simply to do their Master’s will; they must do “the will of God from the heart” (Eph. 6:6). The heart of every problem is the problem in the heart, and that’s where Jonah’s problems were to be found. “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry” (Jonah 4:1).
The remarkable thing is that God tenderly dealt with His sulking servant and sought to bring him back to the place of joy and fellowship.
Had Jonah been any other prophet in the history of Israel, he would have been overjoyed with the results of his ministry, the repentance of the great city of Nineveh. Throughout Israel’s history, her prophets had failed to turn the nation to God, and were rejected and even killed by the people. As Stephen put the matter, “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” (Acts 7:52a).
In spite of joy at the repentance and salvation of so many, something for which his colleagues would have been overjoyed, Jonah was angry with God: “But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry” (4:1). Why would Jonah have been so angry with God? Jonah is not hesitant to explain, and so he prays this prayer of protest:
“Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life” (Jon. 4:2‑3).
God listened to Jonah (Jonah 4:1-4).
For the second time in this account, Jonah prays, but his second prayer was much different in content and intent. He prayed his best prayer in the worst place, the fish’s belly, and he prayed his worst prayer in the best place, at Nineveh where God was working. His first prayer came from a broken heart, but his second prayer came from an angry heart. In his first prayer, he asked God to save him, but in his second prayer, he asked God to take his life! Once again, Jonah would rather die than not have his own way.
This petulant prayer lets us in on the secret of why Jonah tried to run away in the first place. Being a good theologian, Jonah knew the attributes of God, that He was “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (v. 2, niv). Knowing this, Jonah was sure that if he announced judgment to the Ninevites and they repented, God would forgive them and not send His judgment, and then Jonah would be branded as a false prophet! Remember, Jonah’s message merely announced the impending judgment; it didn’t offer conditions for salvation.
Jonah was concerned about his reputation, not only before the Ninevites, but also before the Jews back home. His Jewish friends would want to see all of the Assyrians destroyed, not just the people of Nineveh. When Jonah’s friends found out that he had been the means of saving Nineveh from God’s wrath, they could have considered him a traitor to official Jewish foreign policy. Jonah was a narrow-minded patriot who saw Assyria only as a dangerous enemy to destroy, not as a company of repentant sinners to be brought to the Lord.
When reputation is more important than character, and pleasing ourselves and our friends is more important than pleasing God, then we’re in danger of becoming like Jonah and living to defend our prejudices instead of fulfilling our spiritual responsibilities.2-4 Jonah certainly had good theology, but it stayed in his head and never got to his heart; and he was so distraught that he wanted to die!2-5 God’s tender response was to ask Jonah to examine his heart and see why he really was angry.
Jonah’s anger is incredible. Let us take note of what his anger was all about.
(1) Jonah was angry with God. In the final analysis Jonah was not angry with himself, or with men, but with the holy, righteous, perfect God. Jonah’s anger was so intense that he would rather die than live. Having prayed in chapter two that he might live, Jonah prays now that he might die (4:3).
(2) Jonah was angry with God because He acted consistently with His character, and for doing exactly what Jonah expected Him to do.
(3) Jonah was angry with God, protesting those very attributes of God for which the psalmists praised Him. The psalmists of the book of Psalms praise Him for His lovingkindness, His grace, and His mercy (cf. Ps. 86:5, 15), but for Jonah this is grounds for protest rather than praise.
(4) Jonah was angry with God because He showed grace toward the Ninevites. God’s question to Jonah should have served to instruct this prodigal prophet. It should have called Jonah’s attention to the utter sinfulness of being angry with God in the first place. Who can sustain a holy anger against a holy and perfect God? Furthermore, the gentleness of God’s rebuke should have reminded Jonah that He was not only gracious to the Ninevites, but also to Jonah. Indeed, more so, for while the Ninevites had repented, Jonah had not. Jonah persisted in his rebellion.
The Plant and the Prodigal
Because of Jonah’s persistence in maintaining his anger toward God, God presses on with yet another experience for Jonah which will serve to expose the root problem of the prodigal prophet. This is accomplished by means of the giving and the taking away of a plant, which gave Jonah pleasure.
It would seem that the forty days have passed, yet the judgment of God does not fall upon the city of Nineveh. This is no surprise to the reader, but it was a great disappointment to Jonah. Jonah went outside the city, where he made himself a mini‑grandstand, a shady booth from which he could enjoy the spectacle of the destruction of Nineveh, perhaps in a hail of fire and brimstone like that which overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. Here was Jonah, a spectator waiting for disaster to strike, so that he could watch, like the Romans who later would gather at the coliseum to watch the Christians eaten by the lions.
God caused a plant to grow, the shade of which gave Jonah great comfort (4:6). For the first time, Jonah is described as being happy, extremely happy in fact, over the presence of this plant. His happiness was short‑lived, however, for on the following day a divinely appointed worm came to do its work, which resulted in the destruction of the plant. When you stop to think about it, Jonah should have found it easier to identify with the worm than with the plant. He, like the worm, seemed to find greater fulfillment in the destruction of God’s creations than in bringing pleasure, as the plant brought shade and enjoyment to Jonah.
Along with the worm, which brought the demise of the plant, God sent a scorching wind, which caused Jonah great discomfort. While Jonah wanted the Ninevites to be “torched,” he himself was “scorched” by the heat of the wind (4:8). Jonah did not need to be here, and thus did not need to suffer, but he was determined to stay put. He once again begged God to die.
Jonah is angry with God again, now in regard to the plant and the worm. For the second time, God challenged Jonah to consider his anger: “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” (4:9). In no uncertain terms, Jonah reiterated his right to be angry with his God: “I have good reason to be angry, even to death” (4:9).
God comforted Jonah (Jonah 4:9-11).
For the second time in this book, Jonah abandoned his place of ministry, left the city, and sat down in a place east of the city where he could see what would happen. Like the Elder Brother in the parable, he wouldn’t go in and enjoy the feast (Luke 15:28). He could have taught the Ninevites so much about the true God of Israel, but he preferred to have his own way. What a tragedy it is when God’s servants are a means of blessing to others but miss the blessing themselves!
God knew that Jonah was very uncomfortable sitting in that booth, so He graciously caused a vine (gourd) to grow whose large leaves would protect Jonah from the hot sun. This made Jonah happy, but the next morning, when God prepared a worm to kill the vine, Jonah was unhappy. The combination of the hot sun and the smothering desert wind made him want to die even more. As He had done in the depths of the sea, God was reminding Jonah of what it was like to be lost: helpless, hopeless, miserable. Jonah was experiencing a taste of hell as he sat and watched the city.
A simple test of character is to ask, “What makes me happy? What makes me angry? What makes me want to give up?” Jonah was “a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8, nkjv). One minute he’s preaching God’s Word, but the next minute he’s disobeying it and fleeing his post of duty. While inside the great fish, he prayed to be delivered; but now he asks the Lord to kill him. He called the city to repentance, but he wouldn’t repent himself! He was more concerned about creature comforts than he was about winning the lost. The Ninevites, the vine, the worm, and the wind have all obeyed God; but Jonah still refuses to obey, and he has the most to gain.
God instructed Jonah (Jonah 4:9-11).
God is still speaking to Jonah and Jonah is still listening and answering, even though he’s not giving the right answers. Unrighteous anger feeds the ego and produces the poison of selfishness in the heart. Jonah still had a problem with the will of God. In chapter 1, his mind understood God’s will, but he refused to obey it and took his body in the opposite direction. In chapter 2, he cried out for help, God rescued him, and he gave his body back to the Lord. In chapter 3, he yielded his will to the Lord and went to Nineveh to preach, but his heart was not yet surrendered to the Lord. Jonah did the will of God, but not from his heart.
Jonah had one more lesson to learn, perhaps the most important one of all. In chapter 1, he learned the lesson of God’s providence and patience, that you can’t run away from God. In chapter 2, he learned the lesson of God’s pardon, that God forgives those who call upon Him. In chapter 3, he learned the lesson of God’s power as he saw a whole city humble itself before the Lord. Now he had to learn the lesson of God’s pity, that God has compassion for lost sinners like the Ninevites; and His servants must also have compassion.2-6 It seems incredible, but Jonah brought a whole city to faith in the Lord and yet he didn’t love the people he was preaching to!
The people who could not “discern between their right hand and their left hand” (4:11) were immature little children (Deut 1:39), and if there were 120,000 of them in Nineveh and its suburbs, the population was not small. God certainly has a special concern for the children (Mark 10:13-16); but whether children or adults, the Assyrians all needed to know the Lord. Jonah had pity on the vine that perished, but he didn’t have compassion for the people who would perish and live eternally apart from God.
Jeremiah and Jesus looked on the city of Jerusalem and wept over it (Jer. 9:1, 10; 23:9; Luke 19:41), and Paul beheld the city of Athens and “was greatly distressed” (Acts 17:16, niv), but Jonah looked on the city of Nineveh and seethed with anger. He needed to learn the lesson of God’s pity and have a heart of compassion for lost souls.
God has the final word in the book of Jonah. His last words press to the heart of the matter:
“You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work, and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. And should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (4:10‑11).
By means of the provision of the plant there is at last some common ground between Jonah and God. Jonah had compassion on the plant; God had compassion on the people. Jonah’s “compassion,” like his “psalm,” are inferior. God now presses His point, to show the self‑centered nature of Jonah’s “compassion,” especially when contrasted with His compassion of the people of Nineveh. Consider the following points of contrast between the “compassion” of Jonah for the plant and the compassion of God for people.
(1) Jonah had compassion on a plant; God had compassion on people. Jonah was willing for the entire city to perish in great pain, even though there would be many innocent victims, including 120,000 people and many cattle. Cattle and people suffer pain. There is no evidence that plants do. Jonah had compassion on the plant, but not on people or their cattle.
(2) Jonah had compassion on a plant, in which he had no investment; God had compassion in people, whom He had created, and for whom He had prepared and promised blessing. Jonah had no real relationship with the plant. He had not made it, nor had he contributed to its growth. God created man, and He is the Creator of every creature. God cared for that which He had made, so much so that He purposed to bless men through the offspring of Abraham, so much so that He would send His Son to die for men. Jonah cared for something that cost him nothing.
(3) Jonah had compassion with respect to the demise of a plant; God had compassion with respect to the eternal damnation of people. Jonah had compassion for a plant which existed for a day. Granted, the plant might have lived for a year, perhaps longer. But the judgment of men is for eternity. The “passing” of a plant has no real significance; the death of the people of Nineveh was the outpouring of divine wrath. The eternal judgment and damnation of people is vastly more important than the withering of a plant.
(4) God had compassion on the innocent; Jonah did not. He would have enjoyed watching the destruction of the innocent, along with the guilty. (Remember, it would be the descendants of this generation of Ninevites which would take Israel captive.) It was one thing to want the wicked to suffer for their sins, but totally another to want the innocent to suffer along with the wicked.
(5) Jonah had compassion on himself; God had compassion for others. Jonah’s “compassion” is not really centered on the plant, but rather on what that plant did for him . The plant made him very happy. Had the plant not pleased Jonah, he would have had no compassion toward it at all. Jonah’s compassion was really self‑centered. He cared for himself, but not for others. On the other hand, God cared for people, people who had greatly sinned and who had offended Him.
The Plant and the Point
For a long time, I thought that Jonah’s root problem was selfishness, that he wanted God’s grace for himself and for his people Israel, but not for anyone else, especially the Ninevites. It is my strong conviction now, however, that Jonah’s selfishness was only symptomatic. Jonah’s major grievance with God was His grace. The very nature of grace made it repulsive to Jonah. Let us pause to consider the characteristics of the grace of God which made it offensive to the prodigal prophet.
(1) The Nature and the Origin of Grace. The nature or the essence of grace is unmerited favor—a blessing which is not deserved. The origin or source of the grace Jonah disdained is God. Jonah did not like grace because it was not something which one could earn. One could never feel any sense of accomplishment or ownership, because it is given without cause. To put the matter in plain words, Jonah did not like grace because it was charity.
(2) The Recipients of Grace. The recipients of grace, those to whom grace is bestowed, are those who are undeserving and unworthy. Jonah did not wish to view himself as unworthy. Essentially, Jonah suffered from a large dose of racial pride. He felt that as an Israelite, God was somehow obliged to bless him and his people. The Ninevites, Jonah would gladly concede, were unworthy, which is exactly why Jonah protested against God’s grace shown to them.
(3) The Distribution of Grace. Grace, because it is unmerited, and is bestowed upon those who are unworthy, has no one who can claim it. That is, no one can legitimately feel that he or she has a claim on God’s grace, that there is something they have done or can do which obligates Him to respond with some gift of grace. Since grace is not given out on the basis of merit, it is sovereignly distributed, “just as He wills.” As God put it, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exod. 33:19).
(4) The Goal of Grace. The goal of grace, the purpose for which it is given, is holiness, not happiness. The plant which God gave to Jonah made him “extremely happy,” we are told (4:6), but it did nothing to make him holy. Thus, God took the plant away. Grace is not given to make us happy, to make us feel good, to give us pleasure, but to bring us into fellowship with Himself.
(5) The Means of Grace. If the goal of grace is to make us holy, then the means of grace include not only those things which are pleasant and comfortable, but also those painful experiences which cause us to turn from our sin and to trust in Him. If we are honest with ourselves and with God, and if we read our Bibles carefully, we must acknowledge that most of us grow spiritually more in painful experiences than in pleasurable ones.
Think about Jonah, for example. God did answer Jonah’s prayer that He would save him from drowning, but not with the most plush and pleasurable means possible. God saved Jonah by means of a great fish, and Jonah got to soak for three days in the stomach juices of that creature. Being vomited onto dry land was not exactly flattering to Jonah’s ego, either, but it was what was best for him. So, too, the shade of the plant was not furthering Jonah’s walk with God, and thus the destruction of the plant and the sweltering sun was given to him instead. God is not committed to our pleasure, but to our piety. Thus, He often uses painful means to bring us to holiness. These painful experiences, just as much as the pleasurable ones, are a gift of God’s grace. Grace is often experienced in the midst of the most unpleasant of experiences.
This explains all that God has done, as well as why Jonah disliked it. God could bestow the grace of salvation on the unworthy Ninevites because grace cannot be merited. Likewise, because grace is sovereignly bestowed, God can provide a plant for Jonah, and then take it away.
Because of these two characteristics of grace, Jonah wanted no part of it, and no part of life. GRACE, TO JONAH, WAS OFFENSIVE AND UNWANTED. It is easy to see why Jonah would resent the fact that God would be gracious to the Ninevites, but how can it be said that Jonah disdained grace, even when shown to him? BECAUSE GRACE IS REQUIRED ONLY BY THE UNDERSERVING, AND JONAH WAS UNWILLING TO ADMIT THAT HE WAS UNDESERVING OF GOD’S BLESSINGS.
How can a prophet protest the gift of forgiveness to the Ninevites? Only by believing that God’s blessing must be merited. How can the prophet protest when God takes away the gracious provision of the plant? Only by supposing that he deserved the plant, by thinking that God owed him the comfort of the plant.
Here, then, is the key to the entire book of Jonah, and to the sin of the nation Israel, which caused God’s people to assume that God owed them blessing and their enemies judgment. Jonah had rejected the principle of grace, exchanging it for a doctrine of works. THE ROOT PROBLEM OF THE PRODIGAL PROPHET WAS SELF‑RIGHTEOUSNESS. The only person who despises grace is the one who thinks that he is righteous. To the self‑righteous, grace is charity, which is demeaning to the recipient.
What Jonah had forgotten was that God’s choice of Israel and His blessing of Israel was due solely to His grace, and not to Israel’s righteousness.
6 “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments; 10 but repays those who hate Him to their faces, to destroy them; He will not delay with him who hates Him, He will repay him to his face” (Deut 7:6-10, emphasis mine).
Take careful note of the term “lovingkindness” which is found in verse 9 above, for this is the basis for God’s kindness to Israel, just as it was the basis for God’s kindness to the Ninevites (Jon. 4:2).
God warned the Israelites that when they entered the land of Canaan and began to experience His material blessings, the blessings of His grace, that they would be tempted to take credit for their prosperity:
11 “Beware lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; 12 lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, 13 and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, 14 then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. … 17 Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’ 18 But you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14, 17-18, emphasis mine).
If this were not ample enough warning, God further warns Israel about taking any credit for their success or for their blessings, which He has given as a gift of His grace:
“Do not say in your heart when the LORD your God has driven them out before you, ‘Because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people” (Deut. 9:4‑6, emphasis mine).
Jonah, and his people, the Israelites, had forgotten that God’s blessings were the product of God’s grace, not the result of Israel’s righteousness or superiority over the Gentiles. They had also forgotten that God had promised to bless all nations through Israel: “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3b).
Jonah’s prophecy to the nation Israel, as recorded in 2 Kings, was the promise of prosperity, in spite of the nation’s sins. God promised to prosper Israel, not because of its piety, but in spite of its sin.
Look with me once again at this prophecy.
In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and reigned forty‑one years. And he did evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin. He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath‑hepher. For the LORD saw the affliction of Israel, which was very bitter; for there was neither bond nor free, nor was there any helper for Israel. And the LORD did not say that He would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, but He saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash (2 Kings 14:23‑27, emphasis mine).
Israel’s king was evil, as were the people. The prosperity which Jonah promised was not due to Israel’s spirituality, but in spite of her sin. The blessings he promised were thus the blessings of divine grace.
Jonah was also the recipient of the grace of God, and yet it is for being gracious that Jonah protests against Him, even to the point of preferring death to life. Jonah’s deliverance by means of the great fish, and his exodus from the fish were all provisions of divine grace. So, too, was the gift of the plant, which afforded him shade and comfort. Perhaps the greatest evidence of the grace of God to Jonah, however, is the way in which God responds to his rebellion and his protests. How easy it would be for us to have read that God burned Jonah to a crisp with a sudden blast of lightening!
Jonah typified Israel in that he no longer viewed God’s blessings as a manifestation of God’s grace to an undeserving people, but rather as the blessings which He was obligated to give a righteous people. No wonder Jonah despised the grace of God. He knew that only the undeserving received grace, and he and his people were not in need of divine handouts. The pride and the self‑righteousness of Jonah and of his people are now glaringly apparent. The reason for the sacking of Israel by the Assyrians is now obvious.
- The marvel of an unanswered question (Jonah 4:11)
Jonah and Nahum are the only books in the Bible that end with questions, and both books have to do with the city of Nineveh. Nahum ends with a question about God’s punishment of Nineveh (Nahum 3:19), while Jonah ends with a question about God’s pity for Nineveh.
This is a strange way to end such a dramatic book as the Book of Jonah. God has the first word (Jonah 1:1-2) and God has the last word (4:11), and that’s as it should be, but we aren’t told how Jonah answered God’s final question. It’s like the ending of Frank Stockton’s famous short story “The Lady or the Tiger?” When the handsome youth opened the door, what came out: the beautiful princess or the man-eating tiger?
We sincerely hope that Jonah yielded to God’s loving entreaty and followed the example of the Ninevites by repenting and seeking the face of God. The famous Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte believed that Jonah did experience a change of heart. He wrote, “But Jonah came to himself again during those five-and-twenty days or so, from the east gate of Nineveh back to Gathhepher, his father’s house.”2-7 Spurgeon said, “Let us hope that, during the rest of his life, he so lived as to rejoice in the sparing mercy of God.”2-8 Alter all, hadn’t Jonah himself been spared because of God’s mercy?
God was willing to spare Nineveh but in order to do that, He could not spare His own Son. Somebody had to die for their sins or they would die in their sins. “He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). Jesus used Jonah’s ministry to Nineveh to show the Jews how guilty they were in rejecting His witness. “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and, behold, a greater than Jonah is here” (Matt 12:41).
How is Jesus greater than Jonah? Certainly Jesus is greater than Jonah in His person, for though both were Jews and both were prophets, Jesus is the very Son of God. He is greater in His message, for Jonah preached a message of judgment, but Jesus preached a message of grace and salvation (John 3:16-17). Jonah almost died for his own sins, but Jesus willingly died for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2).
Jonah’s ministry was to but one city, but Jesus is “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14). Jonah’s obedience was not from the heart, but Jesus always did whatever pleased His Father (John 8:29). Jonah didn’t love the people he came to save, but Jesus had compassion for sinners and proved His love by dying for them on the cross (Rom. 5:6-8). On the cross, outside the city, Jesus asked God to forgive those who killed Him (Luke 23:34), but Jonah waited outside the city to see if God would kill those he would not forgive.
Yes, Jesus is greater than Jonah, and because He is, we must give greater heed to what He says to us. Those who reject Him will face greater judgment because the greater the light, the greater the responsibility.
The book of Jonah does not end nicely and neatly, with a “happily ever after” feeling. Far from it. We are left somewhat suspended by the final words of God to Jonah, words of rebuke. We are never told that Jonah repented. The reason is simple, I believe. It is because there was no final solution to the sin of self‑righteousness and to the waywardness of the nation Israel apart from the new covenant and the coming of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. The conclusion of the book of Jonah is fitting, for it portrays the stalemate between Israel and her God which persisted till the time of Christ and indeed to the present moment. The last book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi, is a record of Israel’s belligerent argumentation with God, who is accusing the nation of sin:
The oracle of the word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi. “I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have You loved us?” “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob” (Mal. 1:1‑2, emphasis mine).
In the final analysis, this hardness of heart will persist until the Great Tribulation and the return of Messiah breaks the stubborn pride and will of His chosen people, who will be finally saved, not because of their righteousness, but by His grace.
Jonah’s Self-Righteousness and the Israelites of Jesus’ Day
Not only did Jonah typify the spiritual state of Israel in his own day, he also prototyped the self‑righteousness of many Israelites, especially the religious leaders, at the time of the first coming of Christ. When our Lord was born, it was not to the religious elite that His birth was made known, but to the humble and the meek (cf. Luke 2). This was indicated in the magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46‑55). The coming of the Christ was for the Gentiles (Luke 2:31‑32), as well as for the Jews, and so the magi were informed of His birth and came to worship Him (Matt. 2:1ff.). Our Lord’s introduction of His ministry in Luke chapter 4 (esp. vv. 16‑21) indicated this same emphasis on Christ’s coming to the poor and the oppressed. The Sermon on the Mount gives similar testimony to the recipients of God’s grace.
When Jesus commenced His ministry, much of His time and energy was devoted to “sinners,” which brought an immediate reaction from the religious elite of Israel, the scribes and Pharisees:
And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?” (Mark 2:16).
Why would the scribes and Pharisees be offended by the fact that Jesus spent more time with “sinners” than with them? For the same reason that Jonah was angry with God. The religious leaders felt that they were worthy of Jesus’ time and presence, and that the “sinners” deserved nothing but the wrath of God (cp. John 8:2‑11). They despised the Gentiles and even the masses of Israelites (cf. John 7:49).
Why did the scribes and Pharisees react so vehemently to the teaching of Jesus? Because He exposed them as sinners, and they were not willing to admit this. They were self‑righteous. Thus, they rejected God’s Messiah and instigated His death on that Roman cross.
Even the disciples of our Lord seemed, like Jonah, to be eager to have the “heathen” perish at the hand of God:
52 … And they went, and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make arrangements for Him. 53 And they did not receive Him, because He was journeying with His face toward Jerusalem. 54 And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:52b-54).
Later, after our Lord’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, it was the Jews who opposed the proclamation of the gospel (cf. Acts 22:19‑23). Even Christian Jews drug their feet in the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 10‑11, esp. 11:19). Because some Jewish Christians felt superior to Gentile believers, they either segregated themselves or they sought to force the Gentiles to conform to their Jewish practices (e.g. Acts 15:1; Gal. 2:11ff.). Truly Jonah’s self‑righteousness typified a tendency among Israelites which has continued on throughout the centuries.
The book of Jonah has much to say to 21th century Christians, as well as to Israelites of all ages. Let me conclude by pointing out a number of points of application to our lives today.
(1) God’s dealings with men have always been on the basis of His grace, and not on the basis of man’s works. Dispensationalists (among whom I would include myself) must be very careful to avoid giving the impression that God deals with men today by means of grace, and dealt with people in the Old Testament by some other means. The distinction of this “age” as “the age of grace” tends to imply that God dealt with men according to some other principle in the Old Testament. Jonah was wrong because he forgot or had forsaken the principle of grace. God has always dealt with men according to the principle of grace. The New Testament and the new covenant simply enable God to bestow His grace more freely and fully. Let us never view God’s past dealings with men as anything less than gracious.
(2) Resisting and rejecting the grace of God are just as great and just as common a sin today as they were in Jonah’s time. Christians become angry with God today, and for the same wrong reasons as Jonah. We are just not as open and honest as Jonah to admit it. When do Christians get angry with God?
- Whenever we think we deserve something from God and we find Him guilty for not giving it to us.
- Whenever we think someone else to be unworthy, and we are angry with God for giving them blessings they don’t deserve.
- Whenever God takes away some blessing from us, which we think He has no right to remove.
- Whenever we are self‑righteous.
I believe that self‑righteousness had deeply penetrated the Christian community in America. Americans are very inclined to take credit for our prosperity. We believe that we have been “blessed” due to our intelligence, our ingenuity, our hard work, and our devotion to God. Conversely, we excuse ourselves from sharing our wealth and prosperity with others by convincing ourselves that other nations suffer poverty because they lack the righteousness which we have. Thus, while the nation India lavishes in poverty and starvation, we assure ourselves that their poverty is the result of their worship of cows. Simple, isn’t it? But in the final analysis, it is self‑righteous.
Some Christians today view divine healing as a result of one’s righteousness than as a gift of God’s grace. I do not wish to argue whether there is a gift of healing today; I am willing to grant that God does heal. What I wish to vehemently reject is the contention that God must heal, if we but have the faith to claim it. Is divine healing a gift of God’s grace? If it is, then it is undeserved, not earned, even by “having faith.” Is healing a gift of grace? Then God is free to give it to whomever He chooses, to a believer or an unbeliever, and He is also free to withhold it from one who asks for it, or claims it in faith. We don’t demand grace, nor do we dare to protest when we don’t receive what makes us happy (remember Jonah’s plant).
Let us remember, too, that God’s grace does not always come in the form which we might choose or prefer. God was gracious to Jonah, saving him by means of the great fish. Had Jonah been able to choose which form the grace of God would have taken, it wouldn’t have been in the form of a fish’s stomach. God is gracious to His children by chastising them, by bringing pain and adversity into their lives, just as He was going to do in the history of Israel. Adversity is just as much a gift of grace as is affluence. Remember the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount!
Job understood that God was both good and gracious, whether He gave prosperity or took it away, whether He gave pleasure or pain. Thus, when he received word of the loss of his family he responded, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
Failure, suffering, and adversity are often the result of God’s grace, for when these things come into the life of the Christian they are for the purpose of displaying the grace of God, to us, to others, and even to the heavenly host.
The principle of grace, by which we are saved, is the governing principle of God’s dealing in all of our lives, whether He shows Himself to be gracious in bestowing wealth or health, or whether He shows Himself to be gracious in our hour of trial, by sustaining us and drawing us to a deeper trust and intimacy with Him.
The principle of grace is also to govern our relationship with others. Just as God is gracious to us, so we must be gracious to others, especially to the undeserving: the cruel and those who are our enemies, who would persecute and despitefully use us. Only by showing grace to others do we reflect God’s grace to us.
(3) The book of Jonah has much to teach us about evangelism and revival, which we desperately need in America. I believe that the book of Jonah informs that the following elements are required for revival. These are not the only elements necessary for revival, but they are essential:
Revival requires those who will go and who will warn the lost of the impending wrath of God on sinners. A deep conviction of sin and the motivation to be saved is rooted in the proclamation of the fact that men are sinners, destined to face the wrath of God.
Revival requires genuine repentance. There was revival in the city of Nineveh because men turned from their wicked ways. They not only confessed their sin, they turned from it. Revival requires repentance, and repentance requires change.
Furthermore, the book of Jonah confronts us with what is perhaps the foremost enemy of evangelism and revival—a smug self‑righteousness which detests the grace of God, and which expects and demands God’s blessings for us, but not for others. It was Israel’s self‑righteousness, pride, and selfishness which kept God’s people from sharing the blessings of God with the Gentiles. Likewise, I believe that it is our self‑righteousness, pride, and selfishness which hinders us from telling the lost of the salvation which God offers all who repent and who believe on His Son for salvation.
Imagine, for example, that God called you to devote your life to finding a cure for AIDS, or to give your life in ministry to the victims of AIDS. ‘But they deserve to die,’ you protest. The fact is that many suffer from AIDS apart from any willful act of sin on their part—an immoral spouse, a contaminated blood transfusion, an infant whose parent was infected.…
Many of us are just like Jonah. We are eager to condemn those suffering from AIDS as a whole, even though there are many innocent victims among them. Jonah was willing, indeed eager, to see the entire city of Nineveh perish, even though there were 120,000 innocent children among them, and animals as well. Jonah was not just seeking divine judgment for guilty sinners; he was condemning the innocent along with the wicked. (To Jonah, their “real sin” was that of being Gentiles. And by this standard, all Ninevites should perish, according to the prodigal prophet.) The fact is that the wicked repented of their sin when the prophet proclaimed God’s Word to that city. God was not only eager to save the innocent, but to save the guilty as well. Not so with Jonah.
All sinners deserve to die (the wages of sin is death), which includes every one of us. Isn’t it amazing that the sin of sexual immorality is (or at least was) readily condemned by Christians, but pride and self-righteousness are often tolerated, and sometimes even praised (a “good self-image”). We must remember that our Lord came to seek and to save the lost—those whom the self-righteous religious leaders disdained and avoided. Apart from his saving grace, we are all sinners, who deserve God’s wrath and should be cast out of the presence of a holy and righteous God. Surely those who have become the recipients of God’s grace should be the first to seek to show and to share that grace to others.
(4) God’s grace has come to men in Jesus Christ. The grace of God has been revealed to men in the person of Jesus Christ, who promises all who will believe the gracious gift of eternal life. All you need to do is to acknowledge that you need it, that you are a sinner who can never merit God’s blessings, and to receive God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ. It is by faith in Jesus Christ that our sins are forgiven and we are declared righteous in God’s sight. It is by faith in Christ that we receive the gracious gift of eternal life.
There is no word that better sums up the goodness of God to men than the word “grace.” Jesus Christ is God’s grace personified, sent to men (cf. John 1:14, 17; 2 Tim. 1:9; 2:1; Titus 2:11). Salvation is God’s grace to sinful men, the forgiveness of sins and the provision of eternal life (cf. Acts 14:13; 20:24, 32; Romans 1:5; 3:24; Ephesians 2:8; Colossians 1:6; Titus 3:7; 1 Peter 5:12). We grow in and by means of God’s grace (2 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 13:9). We are eternally secure in the grace of God (Romans 5:12). When we pray we approach the “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). When we serve, we serve by grace (Eph. 4:7ff.; 1 Peter 4:10), and we live by the standards of grace (Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 4:6).
But the real issue isn’t how Jonah answered God’s question; the real issue is how you and l today are answering God’s question. Do we agree with God that people without Christ are lost? Like God, do we have compassion for those who are lost? How do we show this compassion? Do we have a concern for those in our great cities where there is so much sin and so little witness? Do we pray that the Gospel will go to people in every part of the world, and are we helping to send it there? Do we rejoice when sinners repent and trust the Savior?
All of those questions and more are wrapped up in what God asked Jonah.
We can’t answer for him, but we can answer for ourselves. Let’s give God the right answer.
May the grace of God be precious to you, the basis for your praise of God, not your protest, as it was with Jonah.