I started as a lead pastor in September, and I began by preaching through Jonah. Of all the Bible stories from Sunday school, Jonah was my favorite. As someone who always seemed to fall off the boat when it came to being a good Christian, Jonah’s story, especially God giving him a second chance, resonated with me. Reading the story now, though, a man getting a second chance didn’t hit so close to home. God chipping away on Jonah’s heart to pursue the good of others above himself brought the message of this book into my living room.
Jonah is a man who would fit in well on Twitter. He would feel at home in the “Us vs. Them” mentality behind almost every debate on social media. But where he would be most comfortable is how we praise individualism. People are celebrated who pay no mind to the concerns of others and pursue their dreams. Jonah, likewise, resists setting aside his interests, even when God commands him to, so he can serve. He sleeps and leaves the crew on the boat to die in the storm (Jonah 1:5-6). Despite their repentance, he sits comfortably beneath God-given shade, hoping for Nineveh to catch fire and brimstone (Jonah 4:1-9). He constantly sets the good of others off to the side to hold on to his selfish desires. He acts for the good of others only when he has no other option.
A Better Way
God calls us to something different. He calls us to imitate Christ by considering others more important than ourselves. Paul describes what this looks like, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4).
Two people staring at the same painting can see different things depending on their perspective. Seeing through the lens of the gospel, and not the culture, changes our perspective. God prizes sacrificial love above self-expression. The gospel shows our best interest is not giving full, uncontrolled expression to every desire of our heart. Putting the good of others ahead of selfish desires has a rich reward. In dying to ourselves to live in Christ, we gain Christ (Gal 2:20)! With this perspective, we lay aside selfishness and are fitted with the humility and self-sacrificial love of Christ. Paul says this humble attitude of putting others before ourselves is ours in Christ Jesus (Php 2:5).
In Christ, we seek the good of others with the joy of athletes winning a championship, not with the attitude of disappointed children forced to eat vegetables. The prize of self-sacrifice in God’s kingdom is much bigger than the trophy of self-expression rewarded by our culture.
The Gospel and the Good of Others
The gospel, the climax of the Bible’s story, beautifully shows Jesus “looking to the interests of others.” The Son of God comes humbly, as the servant of God (Is 53) and servant of others (Mk 10:45). Even though he is God, he empties himself and dies on a cross to save his people (Philippians 2:6-7). Jonah eventually goes to Nineveh, but he fights every step. Jesus comes for sinners and goes to the cross willingly. And the glory Jesus receives is directly tied to his humble, loving, selfless sacrifice. “Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).
Through Jesus, self-sacrifice is gain and not loss. Jonah initially refuses to seek the good of the “ungodly” sailors. He finds sleep more rewarding than serving. But God doesn’t let him have peace with his selfishness. We are probably more like Jonah than we want to admit. We are asleep to our selfishness, but God does not let us rest peacefully. He rings the alarm and wakes us up. He transforms us to lay aside selfish ambition and sacrifice for others. In causing us to count others as more important than ourselves, God leads us away from the shackles of selfishness and into the freedom of Christlikeness. He leads into all that is ours in Christ.