Fill the Earth: Was Jonah a Missionary?

Those who study mission in the Bible hold one of two views concerning the fundamental mode of Israel’s mission in the OT: centripetal or centrifugal. The former term refers to motion from the outside to the center (centripetal = “seeking the center”), while the latter refers to motion from the center to the outside (centrifugal = “fleeing the center”).

In the NT period we are clearly commissioned on a centrifugal mission; Jesus commands His followers to “go,” and the book of Acts records a process of ever-expanding witness from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

But what about Israel? Were they also called to “go and make disciples of all nations”?

Although most scholars view OT Israel’s mission as centripetal, a minority argue that Israel had a centrifugal responsibility to go and proclaim news of Yahweh to the surrounding nations. Those in this latter category often point to Jonah as the prime example of an OT Israelite engaged in centrifugal mission.

Was Israel’s Mission the Same As Jonah’s Mission?

If you’ve read my posts on what it meant for Abram to “be a blessing” and the nature of Israel’s mission, you know that I view OT Israel’s mission as centripetal. Israel was called to treat God as King by repentantly obeying His authoritative word, and in response God promised to make them a recognized recipient of blessing. The nations would see the ways that God provided for Israel—what a wonderful God and King He was—and come and submit to Him in order to receive His blessing. As all the families of the earth turned to God and received His blessing, God’s kingship would be represented to the ends of the earth.

Now, while it is clear that Jonah is called on a centrifugal mission to travel to a foreign nation and preach God’s word to them, it does not follow that Israel as a nation is therefore called to do the same. Many prophets were called to do many things—such as walking around naked or cooking breakfast over dung—that God’s people as a whole were thankfully not called to do. Jonah’s centrifugal calling therefore does not undermine the view that Israel’s missional call was centripetal.

Jonah the “Missionary”?

Beyond this, even though Jonah was given a centrifugal mission, based on his attitude throughout the book, I don’t find it helpful to think about Jonah as a “missionary.”

A “missionary” is a person who travels to a people or place where God is not sufficiently known with the intent of proclaiming repentance that leads to faith, salvation, and as I argue, missional repositioning. Throughout the book of Jonah—including when he finally “obeys” God in chapter 3—Jonah is portrayed as completely resistant to God’s call and not desiring the Ninevites to repent and receive mercy. Jonah is depicted as someone who is wholly preoccupied with himself, which is the opposite of the posture that a missionary must have.

Yet while I don’t consider Jonah to be a “missionary,” this doesn’t mean that the book of Jonah has nothing to teach us about mission in the OT. But you’ll have to check out Fill the Earth to read about that!

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