Today we start the book of Jonah. Jonah is one of the minor prophets in the Old Testament. It’s only 4 chapters long, which is why it’s called a minor prophet, not because it’s less important, but because it’s shorter in length than any of the major prophets. Jonah is, by far, the best known minor prophet, and that is because of a particularly memorable thing that happens: Jonah is swallowed by a large fish, and yet survives. Many people know this part of the story well, even many of those outside of the Christian faith know this story.
Now, before we get into Jonah, I want to mention that because it’s such a well-known story, it’s easy to come to this book with some presuppositions about what it means, and even about what God shows us in this book. Most of you know that God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, instead Jonah runs away, then he gets swallowed by a whale, repents, and then gets thrown back up, and then goes to Nineveh, and the people repent and everything works out. Many of you know that, and could even tell the story. But, I just left out an entire chapter of Jonah.
Even the video we just watched about Jonah, left out an entire chapter, and even the other kids’ video that I found online that was an option to show today, leaves out the 4thchapter of Jonah! Why is that such a big deal? I mean, I know that for a kids’ video and kids’ story they’re trying to keep it simple. But still, why is it a big deal that most of us that know the story of Jonah can’t even recall chapter 4? What’s the big deal? Because in the fourth chapter of Jonah we see THE purpose for the whole book! We see, directly from God’s own voice, what it is that he wants Jonah and us to learn! We’ll get into it in-depth in a few weeks (feel free to read ahead), but…
Can I just say: this is why it is so important for all of us to be reading the Bible on our own. Why? Because you cannot and should not just rely on what other people say about the Bible, and that includes me, your pastor! You must read it and experience it for yourselves, because, first of all, this is how you get to know who God is, and second of all, there is so much out there that’s just wrong, but also there’s so much out there that gets really close, but not quite! And the only way for you to know what God has said in his Word is to read it on your own. So, please, open the Bible. If you don’t have one, we’d love to give you one. If you don’t know where to start, start in the gospel of John. Great place to start.
Ok, so, just to introduce you to this book a bit: Jonah was written a little differently than the other prophets in the Old Testament. You see, the other prophets mainly record the words of that particular prophet. But Jonah doesn’t just give us his words, but instead gives an account of Jonah’s story, part of his life. Why? Well, it was written this way to teach something to its readers! It wasn’t just written to record history and what a prophet said to the people back then; it was written specifically for readers after the fact.
It’s designed to make us ask questions of ourselves! In fact, there are 14 questions in this book, 11 of them are asked specifically of Jonah, but it is obvious that we’re to ask ourselves the same questions. So the goal as we spend these four weeks in Jonah is that each of us, and even all of us corporately as a church, hold up this book like a mirror.
That’s what I’m praying, that God really challenges and transforms us. So, I’d like us to take small sections of this chapter at a time, stopping to talk about what’s going on as well as what we can learn from Jonah. Starting with verses 1-3 of Jonah chapter 1. Let me read those:
God Calls Jonah and He Flees
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
Alright, so God tells Jonah to go to the great city of Nineveh and call out against it, calling them to repent, and God asks Jonah because Jonah is a prophet. Other than this book about Jonah, there’s not much else we know about him in the Bible, except that he was one of Israel’s prophets during the reign of Jeroboam II. You can read about that in 2 Kings 14, where we also see some other hints about what is going on during Jonah’s lifetime.
We know that this was a time when kings often did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. And so prophets were there to speak on behalf of God to call kings and the people back to following the Lord. In fact, the prophets who came just before Jonah were Elijah and Elisha. It was these two prophets, in particular, that God used to kind-of raise up a new generation of prophets willing and able to speak the Word of God. So Jonah was one of the first prophets that were part of that group that came after Elijah and Elisha.
Other than that, these four chapters are what we know about Jonah. Apparently, earlier in his life he was a faithful and even successful prophet. People listened to him and even remembered what he said. But now, something has changed. Something is different in his attitude and in his heart.
He’s called by God to go to Nineveh, as clearly as can be, there’s no doubt about it here. And yet, what does he do? He runs! Instead of going to Nineveh, which I’ll show you on the map up here, he goes over to Joppa which is on the Mediterranean coast just west of Jerusalem, and boards a ship to Tarshish. Now, we don’t actually know where Tarshish was, but most think that Tarshish was in the western Mediterranean. So, Jonah doesn’t just disobey God and run away, he runs as far away as he possibly can, or at least that’s what he has in mind. I mean, he is GONE.
Now, I don’t think this is the main point of Jonah, I don’t think this is the main theme, or the main question the writer is wanting us to ask ourselves. But, it’s a good question nonetheless. I wonder how many of us would run if God were to clearly call us to do something we didn’t want to do. Let’s use, as an example, overseas missions. Would we be willing to go? And if not, why not?
We actually find out in chapter 4 of Jonah why Jonah doesn’t want to go. We know why Jonah tries to run away from God. And it’s not merely because he wants to get away from the presence of the Lord just because he’s indifferent toward God now, or just some other general reason. No, there’s something very specific driving Jonah’s desire to flee from God’s presence, and we’re going to really hit that hard in a few weeks when we get to chapter 4.
But, for now, what if God were to call you to move your family to a part of the country that did not have near the same Christian influence as Kansas City, even moreso all these suburbs? What if God were to call you to the northeast, or even overseas? Just a thought here: don’t assume too quickly that that’s not you, and can I just say this from Jonah (this is the first jewel from Jonah):
- Running is futile.
Running is futile, not only in the sense of a threat from God, like a stern voice: “Running, oh no. Trust me, don’t do that.” But also in the sense of missing out of the grand joy of living in obedience. Living in obedience is often harder, but it is always better. Right? So yes, running is futile as in it’s pointless because God will not like it, but also it’s pointless because you’re missing out on the great joy of obedience. Again, obedience is often harder, but it is always better.
Jonah may have forgotten this. He has in mind, literally, to flee the presence of God. He wants to hide from God, not because he actually thinks he can hide from God. He knows God is omnipresent. He’s a prophet of God, he knows Psalm 139, a great psalm on God’s unlimited knowledge, especially of us. But even so, Jonah runs, thinking he can at least escape the feltpresence of God. He thinks if he gets far enough away, maybe at least then he won’t feel the presence and likely conviction from God. So, he’s on the boat heading for Tarshish, then, we get movement 2 of this chapter. He’s running, but then this happens. Verse 4 and following:
The Violent Sea
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
So, obviously these sailors are panicking, and we know that they don’t know the one true God because they’re each crying out to their own gods. They are panicking and when they see Jonah asleep, they think he’s crazy! What are you doing? Get up and cry out to your god, so maybe we’ll be saved. And when that didn’t work, they cast lots to see whose fault this was. We see that in verse 7, look there:
And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.
Just a quick side-note here, an inevitable question that comes to our minds: casting lots is basically like rolling the dice. And just because God happened to somehow use it this time to point the sailors’ attention toward Jonah, and just because the apostles in the New Testament did this to determine who would take Judas’s place among the 12 disciples (if you remember that)—just because we see these very rare instances of casting lots in the Bible, doesn’t mean weshould do it to figure out God’s will for us.
Why do I say that? Because throughout the Old and the New Testament, God’s will is determined through his spoken or written word. That’s the norm, that’s how God speaks the vast majority of the time! Ok, just a quick side-note. Rolling dice: not the most reliable way of determining God’s will. But God did use it here— they cast lots to figure out whose fault is this storm, and the lot fell on Jonah. So they ask in verse 8:
Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”
They’re just drilling him here trying to figure out why it’s his fault that all this is happening, and they’re probably still panicking because the storm is still going on and the ship is about to fall apart. So Jonah responds in verse 9 and following:
So Jonah said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.” Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”
So they drill Jonah with question, and he answers them, right? At least most of them! He says I’m a Hebrew, and my God is the God of heaven and earth, which includes the land and the sea. But, he doesn’t answer the first question that he was asked, at least that we know of: what is your occupation? He didn’t answer that question. Why?
Because he was no longer a prophet of the Lord, or at least he was not fulfilling his God-given role as prophet, was he? He knows very well he’s in disobedience to God. He knows very well what he is doing. And maybe at this point, he even feels as if there’s no point to even trying any more. Maybe that’s why he tells them to throw him into the sea. It could be that he’s just looking out for them, or he’s feeling like there’s no way that God would ever use him again, or maybe even, he’s still trying to escape. Right? That’s still an option! That would certainly reflect the sentiment we see later and chapter 4, when Jonah asks God multiple times to kill him. Maybe even here, he’d just rather die than have God ask him again to go to Nineveh. But no matter the reason why, he tells them to throw him into the sea. They didn’t want to do this, though. Look at verse 13-16:
The Sailors throw Jonah overboard
Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord have done as it pleased you.” So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
So throwing Jonah into the sea, it worked. The sea calmed down, they were safe, and so what did they do? They worshipped God! It says they feared God, offered him a sacrifice, and even made vows! This just goes to show us something. The 2ndjewel from Jonah 1:
- Even our disobedience cannot stop God!
We see that later in this story with God still getting what he wants, when Jonah does go to Nineveh, but even here, we see God bringing about his glory even in the midst of Jonah’s disobedience!
These sailors were deeply affected by Jonah being on their boat, weren’t they? In verse 5, they were each crying out to their own god, helplessly. In verse 16, they fear the one true God, and they make vows and offer a sacrifice to Him. God clearly was glorified even in a situation that came about as a result of Jonah’s disobedience.
Now listen, that shouldn’t comfort us in our disobedience. Knowing that our disobedience cannot stop God shouldn’t make us feel better about our disobedience; it should instead remind us that it’s really not aboutus. If anything, it should compel us TOWARD obedience. Why? Because we know that our God is not so small that his glory is dependent upon us! We wantto obey God because he is worthy of our obedience! God certainly does not NEED our obedience! If he did, he probably wouldn’t be worthy of our obedience.
The truth that even our disobedience cannot stop God should make us that much more amazed at who God is. Even our biggest failures cannot stop him. Not only that, but we see very clearly from verse 17, the 3rdjewel from Jonah 1:
3.There is no escaping God’s presence.Look at what happens after Jonah is thrown into the sea. Verse 17. This is the 3rdmovement of Jonah 1, just one verse:
The Fish swallows Jonah
And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Jonah is swallowed by a whale, and lives there in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights. In other words, if you think you can run away from God’s presence—his loving response might just be sending a whale after you.
Probably not, but, then again—God may very lovingly and yet firmly send you a clear message about running from Him. That doesn’t mean everything you go through is punishment from God. That was the problem with Job’s friends and their advice to him in the midst of all of his pain. No, your pain and suffering is not God punishing you. And yet, God absolutely cansovereignly use things we go through to wake us up. Especially to remind us of this truth that there is no escaping his presence.
Now here’s the thing: this truth might be a scary truth for some. Because according to Hebrews 10:31, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” speaking of God’s judgment. But, listen, for those of us who are children of God, who’ve trusted in Jesus alone for salvation, who have been forgiven of all our sin, this truth is the greatest truth of all. There is no escaping God’s presence, praise the Lord!
For us who believe, this fear of God’s presence everywhere has turned into joy, and hope! Why? Because “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither heights nor depths, might I add neither the Mediterranean Sea, or any cancer of the lung or brain, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s Romans 8:38 & 39. There is no escaping God’s presence. Praise the Lord! What used to bring fear now is our joy!
Even when we think of Jonah’s situation—it’s easy to think of the whale as punitive. This isn’t about punishment, it’s about restoration! God’s desire was to bring Jonah back! The reason he’s doing this to Jonah is because he loves Jonah! Proverbs 3:12- “The Lord disciplines those he loves.” You can even think of the whale as an extreme form of constructive criticism: “Jonah, while you’re in there thinking about your decisions, I’m also going to give you a free ride back to the beach, so that when you have come to your senses, you’ll be ready to obey!” I love that. The question is, do we see God’s hand of correction in that way? Do we see it according to this 4thjewel of Jonah 1:
4.God’s hand of correction is part of God’s lovefor us. When God uses another believer to lovingly, yet firmly correct you, do you see the valuethat? Do you see it as part of God’s way of loving you? Or do you just get mad? Do you immediately resort to throwing their sin in their face? Listen, I hope that our attitudes toward God’s hand of discipline, this hand of correction, would be that of gratitude. God loves me enough not just to let me sit and wallow in my sin. No! I am a child of the living God, and He will not let me continue to pretend that I am not. I’m grateful for that, most of the time. Hopefully, I’m more and more grateful for this as I mature. Do you see God’s hand of correction as part of God’s love for you?
I want to spend a moment here to talk to those of you who have been following Jesus for a long time, and also for those of us who would like to one day say that we’ve been following Jesus for a long time. I want that to be true of me. So for all of us, but especially for those of you who’ve been at it a while.
We know that Jonah had been living faithfully, obeying God and fulfilling his God-given role as a prophet, speaking on behalf of God. I mentioned earlier 2 Kings 14. He spoke boldly, God used him, and the people remembered him! They responded! For someone like Jonah to now be running from God— it seems like something that’s unlikely to happen very often. Surely, people that live faithfully, for decades especially, surely it’s kind of a given that they’ll see it through! But that’s not really a given, is it?
We must aware that temptation, distraction, discontentment, apathy, and even outright rebellion can happen at any stage of the Christian life. Even just statistically we can see this. There’s an increasing number of marriages being split apart after 30, 40, even 50 years, and I’m talking inside and outside the church. There are pastors who can’t pray to the Lord genuinely on their own, because they just don’t want to anymore. There are pastors and others, who, after years and years of schooling and marriage and ministry, throw it all away with an affair. In the last 15 months, two pastors that I’ve known personally have been fired because of moral failure.
Listen, as a Christian who wants to live a joyful and content life in the Lord for the next 20, 30, 40 years, however many God gives me, and for you, hopefully desiring to do the same for as long as God gives you. Listen: do not think you are above moral failure. Don’t think that you’re somehow above falling into temptation. Because I guarantee you that this path that Jonah went down, and these paths that so many other long-time men and women of God go down, they start by simply letting their guard down, forgetting that the enemy is real and seeks to steal and kill and destroy, and also forgetting that until God brings us home, we still wrestle with the flesh.
How quickly our circumstances and our sinful desires can cause us to take something that we used to love about God and turn it into something we hate. “I cannot escape God’s presence. I used to love that, because I knew he was always there and that meant for me that nothing could separate me from his love. I used to love that, now I hate it.” Why? “Because I’m over here now, and I want to do whatever I want to do, and I want to be guilt-free while I’m doing it, and I can’t be because I know God is always present and I can’t get rid of him or run far enough away!” Do you see how, when we move our eyes off of our great God and onto ourselves, how quickly some of the most endearing attributes of God become repulsive to us.
That is the heart of this book. We will see later in chapter 4, the reason why Jonah ran. The reason why Jonah didn’t want to be in God’s presence. We see that Jonah’s hatred for a particular people, the Ninevites, far outweighed his love for God. His hatred for them had grown so much that he ran to avoid seeing God be compassionate toward this city. Jonah didn’t want God to love his enemies. He wanted God to destroy them. In chapter 4 verse 2, the most beautiful and awe-inspiring attributes of who God is become his very complaint. He mocks God’s most beautiful attributes. This supposed prophet of God, a man who prophesied Israel’s success when Jeroboam II was reigning. So what do we learn from this? The 5thand last Jewel from Jonah 1:
- No matter how long you’ve lived in obedience, always seek God’s face.
Moral failure, disobedience to God, even for a strong, seasoned Christian. We’re never above this kind of moral failure. Any of us are capable of running from God. We fall into disobedience not merely because we’re tempted, not merely because of some rash decision, but almost always because, over time, we’ve come to value God less and less. Slowly, we become indifferent. Slowly, we take our eyes off of God’s face, and his glorious character that we worship every Sunday when we gather, his glorious LOVE for us.
We must seek God’s face. We must open His Word to know Him better, that our hearts and minds would be captivated and delighted in him.
Jonah probably didn’t plan to have a few decades of faithfulness, and then work his way into hatred for wicked people, forgetting that the very compassion he’s mad about is the same compassion that God has shown Jonah and even shows Jonah yet again in this very narrative. I don’t think he planned for it. So how can we not end up somewhere we didn’t plan? By planning the opposite. By setting our eyes on God, keeping his attributes, his character, his glory, his love, on our minds and in our hearts.
Jonah is not just about a big fish. It’s about a man who forgets the beauty of who God is, and forgets that God has shown Jonah the same compassion that he gets so angry about. May we remember that running is futile, it’s pointless. And it’s a good thing that it’s pointless. Because it means that we can never be separated from God’s love. That love that he had for the Ninevites, the love he had for the pagan sailors, and, of course, the love he had for angry, rebellious, Jonah.