Teacher’s Overview of Lifeway “Explore the Bible” Sunday School lesson: Jonah 4

(A brief overview for Sunday School teachers and Bible study leaders, of a potential lesson plan for teaching Jonah Chapter 4:1-11 from the Lifeway “Explore the Bible” material for Sunday October 9, 2022. A video version of this overview is available at:

SAMPLE INTRODUCTION:  “What’s something in your life that you probably care TOO much about, that you really shouldn’t?”

For example, I’d say one of them for me might be OU (University of Oklahoma) football. I’ve watched it since I was a boy, and I get so nervous watching the games; and really almost “live and die” by how well they do — or not! The Lord’s been teaching me some lessons about that in recent years, and I *think* I’m getting better about it. But it’s just a game. It’s not life and death. (LOL I wrote this earlier in the week, before OU’s big loss Saturday!)

Maybe you’re like that with your team, or maybe a certain food, or the stock market/your retirement fund, what other people think; maybe you care way too much how some particular thing is done, or something else. You and your class can talk about things like that, that are not REALLY that important, but that you tend to care too much about. 

And then you could say: This morning in our study of Jonah 4, we see something that Jonah cared too much about; that took too big a place in his life. God brought this to his attention, and showed him that there was something more important that he should care about!

OR, for a more “classic” introduction, you could use this:  In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities he tells of the Marquis St. Evremonde, an extremely rich man who entertained himself by racing his carriage through the narrow streets of Paris and watching the peasants dive out of the way. But while the Marquis was driving, suddenly there was a thud; the carriage stopped. People were screaming and crying. Evremonde’s carriage had hit a child. The Marquis was upset also: “Why is he making that abominable noise? How do I know what injury you have done to my horses?” He tossed out a gold coin to the child’s father, and sped away. 

That rich man’s passions were grotesquely misplaced, weren’t they? He cared more about his horses, and his personal entertainment, than for a maimed and dying child. But before we shake our heads at his misplaced passions, let’s make sure that we aren’t just like him. What really bothers YOU? What are YOU passionate about? The Kingdom of God and the people He loves? Or your own possessions and comforts?

In the Book of Jonah this week we see the picture of another man whose passions were misplaced, and sadly many of us today are just like him!

Whichever of these introductions you use, then I’d go to:

THE CONTEXT: As we saw last week, Jonah was commissioned by God to go on a mission trip to preach to Nineveh. He went the opposite way, towards Tarshish (many believe is Spain) but God intercepted him (there’s no running from God, as we saw last week); he was swallowed by the great fish, in which he eventually repented, and was spit up on the ground. 

Now in Chapter 3 God tests Jonah’s repentance: He sends him to Nineveh again. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a SECOND time …”. This time Jonah DID go, and preach, and :5 says “the people of Nineveh believed in God.” They responded to the message, and :10 says when God saw that, He relented regarding the judgment, “and He did not do it.” 

THAT brings us to our focus passage, Jonah Chapter 4:1-11 (the whole chapter).

One might have thought that Jonah 3 would be the end of the story: “Happy ending,” right? Only it wasn’t. Because Chapter 4 shows us the “ugly rest of the story” where God deals with Jonah’s bad attitude.

It reminds me of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15: a great story of repentance, as the son comes back to the father. But that’s wasn’t the end. Then Jesus turns to the bad attitude of the other brother.

That’s how it is here too. God granted repentance and forgiveness to the Ninevites, but now He deals with Jonah’s bad attitude.  God cares about OUR attitude and priorities, just like He did Jonah’s.  Let’s look at the passage:

Chapter 4:1 begins, “But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry.”   Instead of being happy with the revival in Nineveh, Jonah was “greatly displeased.” He didn’t want to see Nineveh repent; he wanted to see them judged. Nineveh had been a violent conqueror, and was a threat to Israel; he wanted to see them “get their due,” and he was disappointed when that didn’t happen. See, Jonah wasn’t “afraid” to go to Nineveh; rather he said in :2, “I knew You were a gracious and compassionate God …”. He KNEW God would forgive them, and he was angry about it!  So God is exposing his bad attitude. We see several elements of that here. I might divide it up like this:

I. He adopted the role of a spectator

II. He became consumed with his own comfort.

III. He misplaced his passion.

I.  He Adopted the Role of a Spectator

Verse 5 says that Jonah went outside the City of Nineveh and sat down “until he could see what would happen in the city.” 

??? You might ask your class: “What was Jonah going to do in :5?”  (The answer is: Jonah wasn’t going to “do” anything! It says he was going to SIT there, and “SEE what would happen.” Jonah didn’t plan to preach any more, or teach the people how to follow Yahweh. He was just going to “pull up a good seat” and watch whatever unfolded. Jonah adopted the role of a SPECTATOR. 

Peter did that in Matthew 26:58 “But Peter was following Him at a distance as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and entered in, and sat down with the officers to SEE the outcome.” Again, Peter didn’t intend to DO anything, just watch as a spectator. 

This applies to many of us today, doesn’t it? Too many people in God’s churches today have become “spectators.” They don’t preach, teach, sing, go on mission; don’t serve in any particular way. Their entire “role” in the church, is just being a spectator. 

Unfortunately over the years many have taught that “the clergy” are to do the ministering, and the “members” leave the ministry to them. Just come once a week, sit and learn and give, and we’ll call you a “good Christian.” But Jesus never intended His followers to be mere “spectators.” He called us to “follow Him” and serve.

This is a place where you could share the Gospel this week:

When God saw that we had sinned, and none of us deserved to go to heaven; God the Son Himself came down to Earth in the Person of Jesus Christ. He died on the cross to pay for our sins, and rose again, so that whoever would call on Him might be saved. The moment we ask Him to save us, His Holy Spirit comes into our heart to “seal” us as His. And He gives us gifts: special abilities with which we are to serve Him. EVERY Christian has at least one of these gifts. I Corinthians 12:7 says: “To EACH ONE is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” 

So ALL of God’s people are to actively serve Him. The pastors and other ministers in the church are NOT to personally DO all the work of the ministry. Ephesians 4:11–12 says that God gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers “to equip the SAINTS for the work of the service.” ALL of God’s people are to minister. We each have different gifts and abilities, but you should serve Him in whatever way He has personally gifted you.

Lyndon Johnson ran in a special election for U.S. Senate from Texas in 1941, and biographer Robert Caro wrote that LBJ’s campaign group was devoted to serving him. Someone sneered at one young man, Carroll Keach, because he was “only” Johnson’s chauffeur, but Keach replied simply: “Everyone can do something for him. This is what I can do for him.”  (The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path To Power, p. 680)

That’s how we should be with the Lord: we should serve Him in whatever way we can. What we do may not be “glamorous,” and it may not be what someone else can do, but we can say: “This is what I can do for Him.”  

??? ASK your group: What are YOU doing for Him? Don’t be content to just sit and watch! (If your church has a gifts/service survey, this might be a good time to give it to your class, to let them volunteer to serve in various ways in your church.)

One of the give-away signs of “spectator Christianity” is that 

worshipers come to church to participate; spectators come to evaluate! Worshipers come to sing to God; to pray, to listen; and to come away with something to DO. But Spectators come to evaluate: “well, the temperature wasn’t quite right; the music wasn’t really what I wanted; boy, the pastor sure was off today!”

Ask your class: Are you a “spectator” or a participator in God’s church? Is there something of which you can say, “This is what I can do for Him?”  If not, see if you can help them get plugged in, or get them to someone who can help them find a place to serve. 

II. He Was Consumed With His Own Comfort

After Jonah “sat down” and became a spectator, God planned a little “episode” to reveal Jonah’s heart. Verse 6 says the Lord appointed a plant to grow up and give Jonah shade. The end of the verse says: “and Jonah was extremely happy about the plant.”  

This wording is so revealing: “Jonah was EXTREMELY HAPPY about the plant.” He’d been so “put out” by how God showed mercy on the people of Nineveh; :1 says he was “greatly displeased” that He’d spared them. But now Jonah was EXTREMELY happy! Why? Because now he was comfortable. He was in the shade; he’s got a “good seat.” The “spectator” was comfortable. And COMFORT is what’s important to the spectator!

??? You could ask your class, what’s the most comfortable theater or sports arena you’ve been in, and why? They’ll can probably share stories of places they’ve been, with comfortable seats, arm rests, large video screens, cupholders, etc. 

The reason they have all that, is because COMFORT is important to the spectator.

But a participant has a different mindset, don’t they? Spectators in a football game only care about the comfort of their seat. An actual player in the game isn’t focused on comfort; he wears very uncomfortable shoulder pads, a very tight-fitting helmet, and so on, because he’s not focused on comfort, but on competing. It’s the same with a military person; they’re not focused on comfort, but on accomplishing the mission they have been given. 

Some of you may have a story like this one of mine you can share: I love to visit warships, like the battleship Alabama in Mobile Bay. One day I was touring a submarine, and I saw the bunks where the sailors slept. Each individual bunk only had about 18” of space until the next one was stacked right on top of it. As a spectator, I looked at that and thought: “That doesn’t look very comfortable!” But that ship was not made for comfort. It was a warship! 

Sadly too many of God’s people in the American church today regard the church as a kind of “cruise ship” that here for our comfort: 

— we want seats that are comfortable

— we expect the temperature to be comfortable for US

— we want songs that suit OUR tastes

— we want a length of service that we are comfortable with

And so on … and this has become so ingrained into our expectations in America that we don’t even consciously think about it. We just expect it: this should be comfortable for us.

If you think about it: many of the concerns that American Christians have today with the church, deal with our own comfort. Because whether we are aware of it or not, we have become “spectator Christians.” And a spectator is primarily concerned with his own comfort.

When “spectator Christianity” takes hold, then like Jonah, “shade plants” become important to us. We can criticize Jonah for his love for that shade plant, but the truth is, many of us have our own “shade plants” don’t we: the personal comforts and conveniences we love.

??? I think a good question you could talk about with your class might be: What might be a “shade plant” for you? Or one you’ve seen/heard in others? For some it might be: a comfortable chair, or the air conditioning, “your” classroom that you don’t want to give up — or some other “comfort” or “convenience” in the church. But talk about how focusing on our comfort is the wrong attitude for God’s people.

III. He Had Misplaced His Passion.

The next verses show what happens when the spectator loses the comfort he loves so much. Verse 7 says God appointed a worm to kill the plant Jonah loved so much. He did this to reveal Jonah’s heart: that Jonah’s passion was for this PLANT, this comfort, instead of for the PEOPLE God had called him to minister to. 

Verse 6 said “Jonah was EXTREMELY HAPPY about the PLANT.” He was so happy about the comfort he received from this plant. He was NOT happy about the revival that took place in Nineveh; not in the repentance and salvation of the people there; he was extremely happy about the comfort he received from that PLANT!

And so then, when God caused the worm to kill the plant, it says the sun beat down on Jonah, and he got angry. God asked him if he had a right to be angry, and in :9 Jonah says, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death”! “Angry even to death” means he was REALLY angry; he was so angry he could die. WHY? Because he’d lost this plant, this comfort. It was totally misplaced passion.

So God confronted Jonah in :10. He said: “You had compassion on the PLANT … which came up overnight and perished overnight — should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great CITY, which has 120,000 PEOPLE, who do not know their right hand from their left … ?”. God was saying: Jonah, look at your heart! You are so passionate about this perishable PLANT, but you don’t care whether hundreds of thousands of PEOPLE live or die or go to heaven or hell?!

Jonah 4 calls for soul-searching from us as God’s people: have we become “spectator Christians,” who are only concerned about our own comforts, and who get more upset about when our comforts are taken away, than we do over people being lost or in need?

??? One question you could ask your class here: What do you think would cause a bigger uproar in the church: 

— if the A/C went out and we didn’t fixed in time for Sunday?

— or if we knew that there were children children within a mile of this church who don’t know the name of Jesus? (I guaranteed you, we’d do our best to make sure ONE of those two got fixed by Sunday and I know which one it is!)

— Would people be more upset if we replaced all the worship center seating with foldable metal chairs? 

— Or that we knew there were senior adults who felt abandoned and alone?     Are we passionate about the right things?

You can share this story if you want to, or share one like it from your experience: Years ago a senior adult woman from another church told me how all these new kids were coming to their church — but she was COMPLAINING about it. She said: “Do you know what kind of mess they make in the pews? Do you know how much toilet paper they use?!” Seriously? Their church was reaching kids and families, but she was upset because they were using too much toilet paper?! 

What bothers us, gives us away, doesn’t it? Our passions reveal where our heart really is. We need to ask ourselves: are we just like Jonah: more concerned with our personal “shade plants” — or “reaching, teaching, and caring” for people?

This is a very convicting scripture, and I hope the Lord will use it to touch your class in a powerful way this week.

Per licensing agreement with Lifeway:

– These weekly lessons are based on content from Explore the Bible Adult Resources. The presentation is my own and has not been reviewed by Lifeway.

– Lifeway resources are available at: goExploretheBible.com and: goexplorethebible.com/adults-training

– If you have questions about Explore the Bible resources you may send emails to explorethebible@lifeway.com

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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7 Responses to Teacher’s Overview of Lifeway “Explore the Bible” Sunday School lesson: Jonah 4

  1. Pam Ross says:

    Thank you for creating such good life applications for all these lessons.
    Please pray for our church as we seek a new pastor.

  2. Lynn Kent says:

    Thank you. Praying your voice is stronger. I do appreciate your time in doing this each week.

  3. Jo Brown says:

    I discovered your online notes a few weeks ago, and they have been so helpful to me in preparing the lesson! Thank you!
    Please pray for our church, Clayton Baptist in Clayton, Alabama, as we seek the pastor God has for us.

  4. Ken Lawson says:

    Good afternoon, hope you’re feeling well. LOVE your lesson notes and recorded lesson reviews. Our class had a question that I think you can help me with. Since Jonah kept his mindset about NOT wanting repentance for the Ninevite’s, did he actually repent? Was his decision to just go and preach to Nineveh an act of repentance? For us as believers, what does repentance look like or what should it look like?

    Our bible study is in Okla City at Prospect Baptist Church.

    • Shawn Thomas says:

      I am doing MUCH better this week, thank you Ken! I am glad the overviews are helpful to you. Sorry I am just getting back; I hope this might be in time to help you today. I think Jonah DID show evidence of repentance in that he went to Nineveh – he had NOT gone, and then he did. That was some fruit of repentance. And he did preach. But obviously his repentance was not perfect; he didn’t have God’s compassion for the people there. So I would say that his repentance was genuine to an extent, but not perfect. And in a sense, probably ALL of our repentance, as human beings, is imperfect in some way. Repentance SHOULD be “a change of mind that leads to a change of direction” like we see in the Prodigal Son. So I think as believers we should be able to see ways in which our thoughts have been changed: from the mindset of the world to the mindset of the Word. We should be able to see that the direction of our life has been changed in particular areas. Of course these changes will always be imperfect; we are all “a work in progress.” I hope that helps some!

    • Shawn Thomas says:

      Also Cheryl & I are from the OKC area — Cheryl was born in Oklahoma City, and we have lived in Harrah, Tulsa, and Norman, and still have family there. Greet the good folks in Oklahoma today for us!

      • Kenneth Lawson says:

        Shaun,    For the first time, I feel a little political preference in your teachings.   Be careful.  When we speak of ungodly things, please include the spread MISTRUTHS,  lack of compassion on the underserved, the importance of democracy,  denial of the truths about out past.  Have many women in my bible study and while they DON’T like abortion, they feel that Woman have reasonable rights for THEIR bodies.  I feel it is HORRIBLE for those that choose to use ABORTION as birth control but also feel terrible about the victims on the other end of these automatic rifles killing innocent people.  Gotta watch supporting the TRUTH when it supports your Agenda or political preference.  I have conservative values but hugely disappointed of words of hate and disenfranchisement of groups that don’t look like the privileged race.   I do agree that there is a WORDVIEW out there that does not support Godly principles, but WE MUST be careful about feeling that one political group is more  righteous than the other.   Both Democrats and Republicans need to watch this. There is so much very visible HYPROCRISY out there that causes young people to reject the GOOD NEWS – the Truth.  With a lesson on leaders, it amusing to me to have so much Evangelical support for former President Trump.   Corrupt leaders can fuel a corrupt view of rightness.

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