Tonight we begin a very short series that will be a fly-over of the book of Jonah. The book of Jonah, containing the famous story of Jonah being swallowed by the fish, is one that most people, even if they are not Christians, are familiar with. However, I want us to look at this story for more than just a cool story about a big fish. A few weeks ago, we spoke about how we should read the Bible as one continuous story, all centering on Jesus. This Sunday, John spoke about how all the stories in the Bible are not here primarily as role models for us to pattern our lives after, but rather are here to point towards Jesus. This is my hope as we quickly run through the book of Jonah: I want to show you how we are to read stories in the Bible and find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus and his Gospel.
So what is the book of Jonah about? The book of Jonah is about sin and God’s mercy. There other themes that we could look into, but these seem to be the most major ones. In the story of Jonah we see just how far the reach of sin goes, and its devastating consequences.
Last year, in Bowling Green, Kentucky a sinkhole 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep opened up directly underneath a corvette museum, swallowing eight priceless, vintage corvettes, and causing millions of dollars in damage. A sinkhole is created when rainwater erodes away limestone foundations underground, and creates a cavern beneath the soil. After a matter of time, the earth gives way (and everything that was on top of the earth), and a sinkhole is formed. That is a great illustration of what sin does in our lives. Our life may look totally safe and normal on the outside, but if our heart is treasuring something other than God, then we are treasuring sin. Sin slowly and silently erodes away the foundations of our lives, and then one day some pressure comes, some disappointment arrives, some unforeseen challenge arises, and our lives collapse in on themselves – and we suddenly become aware of the depth of our sin. You see this in a dramatic scale in apocalyptic movies, where nice, polite citizens suddenly became cruel, and self-centered when society crumbles and their life is on the line. You see this more realistically in our day-to-day lives when we see what triggers our most uncontrollable emotions; our tempers flare, we become intensely depressed, or indulge in some addiction. The thin veneer of our lives crumbles and we are plunged into the dark depths of our sin. This is exactly what happens to Jonah. Jonah is a professional prophet (2 Kings 14:25), meaning he would have been known as a holy kind of guy. But the book of Jonah is going to show us that regardless of Jonah’s holy profession, his cavern of sin runs shockingly deep.
We will cover three main sections of the first chapter tonight: Jonah’s Flight, The Storm, and God’s Salvation.
The book of Jonah opens up with immediately jumping into God’s call on Jonah. God comes to Jonah and commands him to go to the city of Nineveh, and to call them to repent of their sin and turn to the Lord (1:1-2). Interestingly, Nineveh is not actually a city in Israel. Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian empire – and the Assyrians were enemies of Israel! The Assyrians did not worship God or even claim to – they worshipped the typical Assyrian gods. However, and this is important to note, God still holds them accountable to repent, even though they do not claim to follow God. The Bible tells us that God is the Creator of all mankind, and therefore, all mankind owes their allegiance to Him (Rom. 1:18-32). And our culture as a whole today winces when they hear something like that. They say, “Isn’t it extremely arrogant to claim that you alone have the right view of God, and everyone else is wrong?” Well, aside from the obvious contradiction they just made by themselves claiming to have their own correct view on God in their critique, there is this simple truth: it is only arrogant if it isn’t true. It is only arrogant if it isn’t true. But if it is true, that there really only is one God and he made us and therefore owns us – then it is the height of arrogance to reject that truth. God calls all people everywhere to repent and worship him.
Okay, so how does Jonah respond to this invitation? Not well. Jonah goes and buys a one-way ticket to anywhere but Nineveh, hoping to run away from his task, and ultimately run away from God (1:3). This is the first collapse we see in Jonah where the sinkhole of sin manifests itself. Rather than joyfully obeying the Lord, Jonah runs away. We will look more in depth into the specifics of Jonah’s sin and why he runs away from going to Nineveh later on in the book, but we can clearly see that Jonah is disobeying God by fleeing to Tarshish. The book tells us that Jonah ultimately was seeking “to flee from the presence of the Lord.” Now, this is clearly ridiculous – you cannot outrun God. This sounds eerily similar to Adam and Eve in Eden, right after they have sinned, and attempt to hide from God, as if that was possible. God is not flying around the world on an invisible cloud – we don’t relate to God the way people in a house relate to a man living in their attic, we relate to God the way the characters in a story relate to the author. You cannot “flee from the presence of the Lord” because He is everywhere, and Jonah knows that, but still he tries. An old mentor of mine always used to say, “Sin makes you stupid.” Sin blinds you and leads you to believe and do things that you know are bad. Many times, if someone else was trying to do the things you were trying to do, it would be easy for you to spot out how dumb that is – but, alas, sin makes you stupid. And it is easy for us to see this in the life of Jonah, but it is harder to see in our own life.
Friends, we do exactly what Jonah does. God tells us to do something, and we try to run away from him. Maybe we don’t get on a ship for Tarshish, but we run to something else that we think will be an escape. Where do you run when God asks you to obey him, but you refuse? Do you distract yourself? Do you make excuses? Do you try and take control and convince yourself that you can fix the problem on your own without doing it God’s way? See friends, this is why it is so important for us to be living our life within community of one another. Sin makes us stupid, and we need someone else from the outside who can point it out to us. We need someone who we are honest with and have given the right to call us out when we are making excuses. A few weeks ago we talked about the need to be meeting regularly to confess our sins to one another – have you set up an accountability partner yet? It is so very important for the health and vitality of your soul.
Jonah thinks that his plan to take a vacation in Tarshish is going to bring him rest and relief – but because God loves Jonah, and is serious about his mission to save Nineveh, he intervenes and stops Jonah. So what does God do? He “hurls” a great wind upon the sea that leads to a hurricane-like storm that is so violent that it is threatening to destroy the very ship Jonah is on (1:4). And where is Jonah during all of this? Taking a nap (1:5). The captain runs down and literally asks him “How are you sleeping?!” Outraged at his inaction, the captain then tells him to at least pray to his God for their safety (1:6). But why would Jonah be reluctant to pray? Because he knows that this storm has come because he has disobeyed God, so praying that God will safely help him to continue to disobey God is pretty pointless. If we are to the point where we are resistant to pray to God, that may be a good sign that we are walking in disobedience. In the same way a man is reluctant to meet with his banker if he is in a massive amount of debt and owes the man money. So Jonah broods below the deck in secret shame.
Now, here is the question we need to ask ourselves: why did God send the storm? There seems to be four possibilities to explain why God sends this terrifying storm:
- First, God is punishing Jonah. Jonah has disobeyed God and that has angered him, so know he is going to make Jonah pay for it.
- Second, God needs Jonah. Perhaps God’s mission to lead Nineveh to repentance depends on Jonah, so if Jonah leaves, God will be unable to accomplish his mission.
- Third, there is no reason. God is just wild, angry, and unpredictable, and just feels like causing a storm for no reason.
- Fourth, God loves Jonah. God knows that letting Jonah have what his sinful heart wants is not what is best for him, so he lovingly and severely intervenes.
The second and third options are the easiest to dismiss. God needs nothing, He is all-powerful and is not limited by anything (ps. 115:3) – He doesn’t need Jonah. Also, God is not purposeless in anything He does – Scripture tells us that God sovereignly controls all events in history for a purpose (Eph. 1:11). That leaves us the first and fourth options. If we can be honest, most religious, church-going people tend to think that when bad things happen, it is because God is punishing us. But we know that God isn’t punishing Jonah, and we know that God doesn’t punish us.
We know that God isn’t punishing Jonah because he spares Jonah’s life – if God were to actually balance the scales of justice and punish Jonah for his sin, he would have instantly killed him, judged him, and sent him to hell. God doesn’t do that. In fact, God miraculously saves and delivers Jonah, and then continues to use Jonah for his purposes and mission. Friends, when we are walking in a pattern of disobedience, getting on our ships to Tarshish, and God hurls a storm our way, He is doing it because He loves us, not because He hates us. It is popular in some Christian circles to say things like, “God would never send pain or problems into your life,” but friends, that simply isn’t true. The book of Hebrews promises us that the Father disciplines his children (Heb. 12:7-11). He is treating you like children, not like prisoners. You see the difference between how you treat a child and how you treat a prisoner? You punish prisoners so they can pay off the debt of what they have done, but you lovingly discipline children so that they don’t continue to do what would harm them.
The storms that God hurls into our lives are not punishment – they are loving discipline. If you are cheating in school, and get caught, that is God lovingly disciplining you, because He knows that it is not good for you to continue to walk into sin. If you are in a relationship that is leading to sexual sin, and you are broken up with, that is God’s love towards you. It is better for God to point out that there is a sinkhole growing in your life, rather than letting it continue to grow and silently get bigger.
And look friends; we may not always be able to understand how all of the storms in our lives are working inside of us or why they are sent, but we trust that God is much wiser than us, and knows what He is doing, so we submit to His loving discipline. But how do we actually do that? How do we not slip into despair and shame when the storms come on the horizon? How can we have our failures pointed out to us and not be crushed? Ultimately, how do we know that we aren’t being punished? We look to the One that Jonah’s life points to.
The crew on the ship cast lots, which was something similar to dice, in order to determine whose fault it was that the storm was coming, and it falls on Jonah (1:7). Jonah fesses up to fleeing from God, and that the storm has come from his disobedience, and then tells them that the only way the storm will quiet down is if they throw him overboard (1:8-12). Now, the commentators aren’t sure about what Jonah’s motives are at this point; obviously he feels guilty about putting the mariners life in danger, but it is uncertain as to whether or not he is repenting of his sin. Some say that by offering his life over, he is showing evidence of repentance. Others, however, say that Jonah isn’t repenting here, but trying to commit suicide – his shame and guilt have been building since fleeing, and now his folly has put others lives’ in danger, so he tries to kill himself to finally put an end to his shame. I tend to believe that Jonah was indeed trying to kill himself; I think if Jonah was truly repentant he would have dropped to his knees and prayed, confessed, and told the mariners to turn the ship back towards Joppa so he could return to Nineveh. But he doesn’t do that. He doesn’t say a single word about repenting of his sin. If that is true, then this means we are seeing again another collapse downwards into the depth of Jonah’s sin: Jonah would rather die before going to Nineveh.
At hearing this, the mariners refuse to throw Jonah over out of fear that his may anger God even more so, but upon attempting to row towards dry land they relent, beg God to forgive them, and throw Jonah over, and the storm ceases “from its raging” (1:13-16). As Jonah begins to sink beneath the waves, out of nowhere, a massive fish that the Lord “appointed” swallows Jonah whole, and Jonah remains in the stomach of the fish for three days, and three nights (1:17). What does this teach us?
First, it shows us that God is a God of grace. Jonah was a punk. Jonah was not good, he was not lovely, he was not godly – he was selfish, immature, and disobedient. And at his lowest moment, God saved him. And God didn’t even wait for Jonah to ask to be saved; Jonah had no idea a fish was going to swallow him and save his life. God stepped in, without being asked, and single-handedly saved hard-hearted Jonah. “Grace” is God’s love and favor towards us, when we don’t deserve it. If you have this idea that God could only love you if you were good enough, then you don’t know the God of the Bible. Our God is fundamentally a God of grace.
Second, it shows us Who Jonah is meant to point us to. Why did God have Jonah be swallowed by a fish? And why for three days? Why not just have him fall onto a nice little raft? Well, that is because Jonah is meant to be a picture of Jesus. Jesus plainly tells us, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth… and behold, something greater than Jonah is here,” (Matt. 12:40-41). You see, Jonah is meant to be a signpost that points us to Jesus. Jesus is the truer and better Jonah, who was thrown into the ultimate storm, the storm of God’s wrath poured out on Him at the cross, not because He disobeyed God, but because He did obey. Jonah was selfish, sinful, and wicked, but was saved, and Jesus was selfless, sinless, and righteous, but was crushed – why? Because the gospel of Jesus Christ, the main story of the Bible, friends, is a story of substitution. Jesus died in Jonah’s place, and in our place, to pay the debt of our sins, so that we, sinners though we are, may be made right with God. That is the gospel. The mariners cried out, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood,” but the Church cries out, “O Lord, let us not perish BY laying on us His innocent blood.” For, “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent ( not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption,” (Heb. 9:11-12).
You see, friends, this is how you go through the storms in your life that expose your sin, and you do it without being crushed. You tell yourself, “Jesus was ultimately crushed, so I wouldn’t have to be. He was thrown into the storm of God’s wrath, so I never would. And if that is true, then this storm isn’t God punishing me – this is God loving me, and calling me to repent.” Yes, we are riddled with deep pockets of sin, but that’s okay because Jesus wasn’t, and we now can stand in His righteousness.
Sin makes us stupid, and God will lovingly throw storms our way, but because Jesus suffered and died in our place, we can be confident that the storms are for our good (Rom. 8:28). Let’s pray.