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History is populated with great cities. There was Ur, the birthplace of Abraham and probably the first city with a population of one hundred thousand. There was Babylon and its magnificent hanging gardens. There was Rome, unrivaled in its grandeur and influence. Today there are cities such as London and Los Angeles, Tokyo and New York City. Cities have long been the culture centers of civilizations. Another such city in history was Nineveh.

Nineveh was a great city (Jonah 1:2). It was great because it was the capital city of Assyria. It was a large and well-known city (3:3). Its population could have been as high as 130,000. Nineveh was great because it was powerful and because it was full of evil. It was Gotham in its day. As the capital city of Assyria, it represented everything the that Assyrians were, including ruthless.

Today, Assyria would be considered a terrorist state. It was a plague on its neighbors. The Assyrians earned and cultivated a reputation of cruelty and barbarianism. They treated their enemies with the utmost cruelty, destroying populations and impaling victims on poles. No one liked them, including the nation of Israel, and especially Jonah.

So when God called Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach the message of faith and repentance, it is understandable that Jonah would be reluctant. Yet Jonah’s resistance was not a sign of righteousness as much as it was indicative of rebellion. Jonah thought God’s love and mercy for the Ninevites were misplaced. The Ninevites were the enemy and therefore deserving of God’s wrath. The test for Jonah, and for all of God’s people, was to remember that God’s love is expressly for His enemies.

The test for Jonah, and for all of God’s people, was to remember that God’s love is expressly for His enemies.

One of the temptations of being a Christian is forgetting that we were not always such. We were not always among the people of God. We were not always accepted in His beloved. We were at one time enemies of God (Rom. 5:10), bound by sin, disobedient, and justly under His condemnation (Eph. 2:1–3). The Apostle Paul never forgot this.

Though he was called to be an Apostle, a servant and vessel of God’s grace, Paul never forgot whence he came. He never forgot that he was unworthy (1 Cor. 15:9). He never forgot that he had once been rebellious, disobedient, and blasphemous. And because he had been, he also realized that Christ had come to love and to save him (1 Tim. 1:13–16). The grace and love of God through Jesus Christ changed him and became the motivation for the ministry of love that he was called to have toward others (1 Cor. 15:10). This is what Jonah forgot. And it is always the temptation for God’s people.

Jonah knew the abundance of God’s mercy. He knew the lavishness of God’s love. He knew the greatness of God’s grace (Jonah 4:2). He knew it because he had experienced it. He was not ignorant of it in his own life. It was the reason that he was still alive (2:8–9). It was the reason that he was in Nineveh. Yet knowing God’s grace and love did not motivate him to be gracious and loving in return. Jonah thought himself different from the Ninevites. In fact, his trial proved that he was just the same.

Loving the unlovely begins with remembering this: Except for the grace of God, there go I. Jonah thought that he was altogether different from the Ninevites, and that though he could be the recipient of God’s grace, the Ninevites did not deserve it. Loving our enemies is understanding and admitting that none of us deserves God’s love. No one has earned His grace. Jonah forgot this. You and I often forget it too.

For us, the challenge is to love those whom God loves. To love those whom Christ came to love. Jesus loved the ungodly, the unholy, the unworthy, the unlovely. In other words, He loved those who didn’t love Him. He loved His enemies. More precisely, He loved you and me.

The call to love our enemies is not a call to love from a distance but to love in close proximity those who actively seek your ill and do you harm (Matt. 5:43–44). The Ninevites were not a distant enemy. They were the difficult neighbor, the insensitive and inconsiderate in-law, the disrespectful and rebellious son or daughter, the racist classmate or colleague, the antagonistic opponent on the other side of the political aisle.

Jonah did not want to love his enemies. The good news, however, is that Jesus is not like Jonah. Indeed, the good news is that He is greater than Jonah (Matt. 12:41). Jesus loves those who are unworthy of love (Rom. 5:6–11). Christ loved us while we were yet His enemies, reconciled us to God, and gave us the loving commission to bring that reconciliation to the world (2 Cor. 5:19). May Jonah and his test remind us of the pitfall of not loving our enemies. And may we always thank God for Christ’s loving His enemies when they did not love Him—even us.

The Testing of David

The Testing of Daniel and His Friends

Keep Reading Trials, Temptations, and the Testing of Our Faith

From the August 2023 Issue
Aug 2023 Issue