JONAH, THE STORM-TOSSED PROPHET
JONAH text. (Jonah 1:1-6)
We make some common mistakes as we read Jonah. Only 48 verses in Hebrew, it mentions a “great fish” 4 times. It mentions a “great city” (Nineveh) 9 times. Jonah’s name comes up 18 times. But God is mentioned 38 times in 48 verses! Now just doing the math, what is Jonah about? Well, we might correctly say “a GREAT GOD!”
It’s a great story to tell children, but we miss the “grown up” message of Jonah. Jonah raises some of the toughest questions we wrestle with as Christians in the 21st Century: Questions on racism, and nationalism, and death, and judgment, and God’s mercy and compassion, and God’s sovereignty. Jonah deals with our call to missions, and evangelism, and our problems with idolatry.
I want to deal today, not so much with the storyline and narrative of Jonah, but to talk about some very serious mistakes that Jonah made…mistakes we also are prone to make.
First, Jonah underestimated how FAR God’s love reaches
Jonah went down to Joppa….
(NOTE: You might remember Joppa from the New Testament. It was in Joppa that Peter led a soldier named Cornelius, the first non-Jewish convert, to faith in Jesus. But this was after God sent Peter a vision in Acts 10 to teach him “call nothing unclean that I have called clean.” Peter had to overcome his prejudice. It’s maybe just ironic that it was the same Joppa where Jonah had gone to run with his own prejudice.)
The Biblical storyline begins with Jonah running “away from the Presence of the Lord” to the city of Joppa, to book passage on a ship to Tarshish. One of the things that happen through the Book of Jonah is that we see the character, or attributes of God either plainly stated or implied in the story.
One of the first we’ve already encountered. God is merciful and compassionate. His call to Jonah is proof of this. Jonah was not a philanthropist. Nothing in this prophet could indicate he had an ounce of compassion toward Assyria. God had to forcibly impress on him His desire for a message to be sent.
Jonah also was about to learn of an attribute of God’s nature called “omnipresence,” or “God is everywhere.” Conversely, it means we cannot go anywhere God is not. God is not local. He is not regional. He is not national, nor does He belong to any political party, race or culture of people. God transcends all of this and stands over it.
God sent Jonah to warn and testify to the Assyrian people…ruthless enemies of Israel. They were an unusually cruel people and were considered a “terrorist state” people Jonah had been conditioned to hate; people that were beyond Jonah’s capacity to love, given his history with them.
Jonah was a prophet to Israel’s northern Kingdom and served King Jeroboam. We read about him in 2 Kings 14:25 where he prophesied that Israel would regain territory lost to their enemies. It came to pass as he predicted.
Jonah was a nationalistic, gung-ho, pro-Israel prophet. He was a patriot to Israel and to his king in every sense of the word. But God was about to take him from his pedestal of popularity and place him in the deepest struggle of his life. Jonah was about to go into a storm that left him wondering about this God with Whom he claimed to speak. Did he really know Him at all? Had He been forsaken by Him?
Jonah is also about God’s will. God has a desired will for each of our lives. The debate is usually about just how detailed the plan is. But most would agree, if God is our Creator, and He is Sovereign and in control of all things created, as well as the time we are living, then He has some intention for us to live out. Sometimes elements of that plan frustrate us.
Jonah didn’t want to go where God was sending. Sometimes the greatest opportunities for life begin just outside of your comfort zone. But we don’t immediately see these times as opportunities. We see them as a problem.
Jonah’s problem was his love was limited, as yours and mine tend to be, to include only those we like. Or those who like us. Or those who ARE like us. Jonah couldn’t understand how God could love the Assyrian people. In Jonah’s religion, God blessed good people (meaning Israelites) and judged bad people (meaning non-Israelites). He couldn’t reconcile God’s mercy and God’s justice as he saw it. How can a just God forgive and allow a horrible nation to repent and come back to Him? It didn’t fit Jonah’s theological paradigm.
Eric Mason said that Jonah let his SOCIOLOGY overrule his THEOLOGY. He allowed RACE to trump GRACE. Racism and nationalism make the mistake of saying that if we hate someone or refuse to love them or think they don’t deserve to be loved, God must feel the same way.
It’s our duty to hate them too.
But Who does God love? And Who does God hate? And how do we know?
Second, Jonah underestimated how BIG God is
God HURLED a storm….
There is an interplay in Jonah with the adjective “GREAT,” or, in Hebrew, “gedola.” The same word is used interchangeably to describe a “gedola” (great) fish, a “gedola” (great) city, and a “gedola” (great) storm.
The word “gedola” has to do with immensity, dimension, intensity and size. We use the English word “mega” in much the same way. “Mega” could describe a hit movie in a theater, a city, a shopping center, a sale in a store, and other uses.
As Jonah ran from the will of God, which was specifically to “go and preach to Nineveh, that “gedola” city. But Jonah’s refusal to go and do as God desired led him directly into the path of a “gedola” storm, and later into the belly of a “gedola” fish!
That is exactly what happens when we run from the revealed and clearly stated will of God. We run from God’s best into our mess. We abandon the glory and joy of working with God to accomplish His purposes in the world, and squander them on the confusion and chaos of trying to do things our own way.
The little book of Jonah also stood as a stark message to the people of Israel. While I believe Jonah really happened (so did Jesus by the way, if you’ll check out Matthew 12:39-40), it is presented as a larger working parable for the people of Israel.
Jonah had simply been sent by God to do what God had intended for Israel to do all along: Being a light to the nations; being a missionary people to a lost world.
But Israel had squandered their opportunity by emphasizing the privilege of being the people of God and refusing to embrace the responsibility that goes with that. Lest we think we’ve ironed that out, we haven’t. God grafted us in (Romans 9) to be a new growth on the vine of Israel that would hopefully bear fruit, since the original vine did not.
We find ourselves doing the same thing, however. We would much rather emphasize our privilege as the people of God. We have grown complacent in the thought and belief that we are saved, so that should be enough, and that’s all God expects. Now, let’s enjoy the privilege of the people of God.
But God is still seeking a people to be the light…to be the missionaries who will go with His Presence and bless ‘all the families (nations) of the earth’ as Abram was called to be a blessing in Genesis 12. The Great Commission that Jesus left us in Matthew 28:19-20Sadly, like Israel we miss it. Like Jonah, we run from it.
Jonah kept going down…an interesting metaphor that occurs throughout Jonah. The further Jonah ran, the further down he went. He actually thought he could get somewhere that God couldn’t see or know where he was.
You see, Jonah thought God’s “jurisdiction” as God ended at the border of Israel. That God was not even God of the oceans, and that he could go there to hide from the face of the Lord.
David the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 139,
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” (Psalm 139:7-12)
Assyrians, like most cultures of the day, were idolatrous. They had their own religions and their own deities. They worshiped the god Marduk.
One underlying message of Jonah, though, is that he also was idolatrous. He had created God in his own image…made Him an Israelite…believed He hated Israel’s enemies and only really loved the Jews. And He stayed in Israel! Blessed to be a blessing to the nations.
Whether we acknowledge God as God or not, He still is. Though none in Assyria named the name of Yahweh in worship, He was still their Creator and their sustainer. He was about to become their REDEEMER. It was God’s grace for His creation that kept them alive.
You know when the Bible says, “Every knee will bow, and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” that’s what this is saying. Whether we acknowledge Jesus as Lord of all or not doesn’t change the reality that JESUS IS LORD! We will either acknowledge this and bow before Him or resist Him and be judged by Him.
And we will never take missions seriously until we understand and acknowledge this reality. God loves other nations as much as He loves America. Now if you are trapped in nationalistic thinking, that statement will give you some heartburn. You may say you believe it, but your heart recoils from it. There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, until it becomes nationalism which means you believe your country, your nationality, is the only one God cares about…or the people He loves most.
The problem with a theology that is nationalistic in nature is that it reduces God. As long as we see God as the God of only nation, one people group, one culture…we reduce not only God, but we reduce ourselves. Nationalistic religion is self-absorbed, and self-centered. And when the chips are down, it is easy to kick a nationalistic God to the sidelines.
We will never take God seriously as long as we reduce Him to a size we can comprehend, explain, or relate to. If you can understand all of God, you are not truly understanding God at all. Our sin is making God too small in our eyes. Jonah made God small in his own eyes by believing He could only be the God of Israel.
We are guilty of making Him smaller than our problems. We think, “God is big, but obviously the coronavirus is bigger, right?” Well of course it’s not, but we can drift into thinking that way.
Is God bigger than cancer? Than your marital problem? Than mental illness? Than addiction? Is God bigger than the grave? And we make Him smaller than our passions. We make Him smaller than our causes, or our agendas, and even our nation. We use God to serve what we want or what we think is best. That’s what Jonah was guilty of doing. That’s what Israel had done. And if we aren’t careful, we will repeat the same sin.
God is sovereign. He is bigger than this universe. Over every problem, and bigger than every issue you confront. In our Milky Way galaxy, there are over one hundred billion STARS. Our sun is among the smallest of all stars. In our known universe, as far as we can see and estimate, there are no less than one hundred billion GALAXIES! This awe and wonder made the Psalmist David reply,
“When I consider the heavens, the handiwork you have made what is man that You are mindful of him…?”
Trust me, God is more than enough to handle any issue you are dealing with right now. With David the Psalmist, we’re amazed to know that God knows us…and cares. He is God of the farthest-flung star in our universe. And He certainly reigns as God of every nation, every ethnic group, and every piece of ground on earth.
Third, Jonah underestimated how DEEP God’s mercy will go
God pursued Jonah into the depths, even in Jonah’s disobedience. You know, whenever you run from God’s will or God’s command or God’s presence, you always go “DOWN.” You never go “UP!”
The story of Jonah is the story of God giving a rebellious, disobedient prophet a second chance. Jonah was confronted in the belly of the very ship he had booked passage on by a pagan sailor who was showing more devotion to his false God than Jonah was to the One True God!
How far will God go to get our attention when we’re in a state of rebellion? Well first, we need to be very afraid when God leaves us alone! Here is an amazing act of a merciful God Who would not let go of His rebellious child’s hand, no matter how hard he tried to pull away.
“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me… (ruthlessly pursue) me” (Psalm 23)
God in grace doesn’t turn His back on us, even when we are determined to turn our back on Him. Like the story of the prodigal son, (which parallels Jonah on many fronts), maybe you’ve found yourself running “away from the face of God.” He’s calling you back…calling you home today.
No matter how hard you’ve run or how far you’ve gone…
…He wants you back.
But now, in our day of heightened racial tensions and Black Lives Matters and White Supremacy and everyone in between Jonah is taking a brand-new bounce.
Jonah was a racist prophet. He was a man who put his nationality as a Jew above every other race on earth. He blamed the Ninevites for what they had done, not to him personally, but to his forefathers and to other nations.
Jonah despised the Assyrian people so much he was more than ready for God to wipe them off the map. People he’d likely never met, never sat with for tea; people with whom he’d never shared a meal. But he hated them. How much? Enough to rejoice if God wiped them out!
But the large fish is only mentioned four times in the book. Jonah is not about the whale. And it’s not about the great city. Nineveh is mentioned nine times. It’s not about the prophet either. Jonah is only mentioned eighteen times. But GOD is mentioned 38 times in a book that just has 48 verses!
You know that the MAJORITY of our Bible’s 66 books were written from right to left? Every OT book was written…God’s Holy Spirit inspired people who read from right to left, and people who think from right to left. That is one of the main reasons we struggle so much with Old Testament books, and why we miss so much of it while we try to make it make sense as people who read and think from left to right!
Now I know that some of us, as modern, scientifically-minded left to right thinkers, believe that it would be unlikely that this is a REAL event…that it actually happened…that JONAH was swallowed by a fish. C’mon pastor. Sounds like a scene from Pinocchio or something.
But you may never have seen the video clips of a whale shark or even a great white that could swallow a person! So maybe it was something much bigger than a whale that swallowed Jonah. We don’t know. The Bible says it was a “great fish” I’m pretty sure there wasn’t enough space inside the fish to set up a little table and chair like Geppetto had in the Pinocchio cartoon. It would have been dark, smell like dead fish, and Jonah would have been marinating in gastric juices that probably started bleaching his skin. And I’m sure that some of our fishermen in here have a “great fish” story at least that big that got away!
We do need to understand that the Lord JESUS believed it really happened! In fact, He used the story of Jonah’s being swallowed as a way of explaining His time in the grave before resurrection came. “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish…” (Matthew 12:39-40)
But ultimately Jonah’s story is about God calling Israel back to their intended purpose: To be a light to the nations who do not know Him… A missionary people, carrying the Good News to the world. But the story was repeated time after time and the Israelite’s chose over and over again to emphasize their “chosen nation” status and neglect their duty to evangelize and do missions and to tell the nations about the God they served! They thought God chose them to bless them. But God blessed them to be a blessing to the nations, not to keep Him to themselves.
Church be careful. Christian, listen up. You were “grafted in” to the vine of Israel to do what Israel would NOT do…go to the nations and share the Good News of Jesus!! Let’s not fail in that task as they did.
Jonah failed. This is the story of a man called to do exactly what was in his job description: Represent the God of Israel to a lost nation—in this case the Ninevites. But Jonah did exactly what we do: Eric Mason reminds us that Jonah put his SOCIOLOGY above his THEOLOGY. He put his RACE above God’s GRACE.
The God Who Sends
This is actually an amazing beginning. Most of the prophets, especially the minor prophets, began and finished their ministry calling Israelites back to covenant obedience to Yahweh. Some of the prophets were sent to the northern Kingdom of Israel, and some to Judah in the south. But it is rare to unheard-of for a prophet’s ministry to turn to a pagan people…especially despised people like the Ninevites…maybe God could find us some NICE unbelievers to love, right?
The Assyrians were an unusually cruel and wicked people. Their evil was notorious. It would have been an easy assumption that God would simply want to wipe them out for their sinfulness.
But instead, God sent a prophet. An emissary to warn them and give them opportunity to respond to Him in repentance and faith. This is where we encounter the radical mercy and grace of God. “And…”
It was a difficult assignment for Jonah. He had been taught all his life to hate Assyrians. He had been taught all his life to believe GOD hated the Assyrians too. Isn’t it interesting that we assume that because we hate someone, that God must hate them too?
The God Who Sees
Jonah went DOWN to Joppa, bought a ticket going DOWN to Tarshish (away from God’s presence), went DOWN into the bottom of the ship ….away from the place God had called him to go…to flee from the assignment God had given him.
Jonah’s story is one of going down…down to the ship…down in the ship…down in the sea…. down in the belly of the fish.
Now before we shame Jonah, let me ask this question. Have you ever tried to run from the call of God? Has God ever clearly told you to do something, and you just pretty much said NO? We find our life in a downhill spiral when we do this. We don’t ever help ourselves…we only hurt ourselves.
Maybe like our children sometimes do, we say OK, but LATER. That answer normally aggravates parents. Because the next thing they’re going to hear is I FORGOT. Some smart Moms and Dads have learned to say NOW. If you have people working for you, and you supervise them or own the company that writes their check, and you ask them to do something isn’t it implied with your request…NOW?
Is delayed obedience enough? Or is it, in reality, the same as rebellion and disobedience? Jonah ran. He didn’t want to do what God had said, and so he headed in the opposite direction.
Jonah had prophesied before about the fortunes and lands of the people of Israel being restored (2 Kings 14:25). He was obviously a very popular prophet, carrying joyful messages from God and getting applause. He would only get God’s applause for doing this. Some would think he was crazy doing this. Some would think he was a traitor to the Jews!
So, he became, in the words of one book title, a Prodigal Prophet as he ran from God’s call.
The God Who Pursues
But God stubbornly pursued Jonah. Listen. The times we need to fear are those times when God STOPS pursuing us and leaves us to our own devices and our own destruction!
Jonah experienced and received the same mercy that he was willing to withhold from the Ninevites. We learn in later verses that he was not fleeing God because he was afraid of what they might do to him. He was afraid that God would do exactly what He did: Show them mercy!
You see we want to help God decide Who He should save, Who He should show mercy to, and Who He should love. Who are those people? The ones we believe deserve it! If God hates the people we hate, then He also has to love the people we love, right? Jonah decided God should not be showing mercy to these Assyrians! He hated them, and surely God did too!
God pursued Jonah. From the moment he departed from Israel and headed south to Tarshish…but from that moment God was after him. He made the mistake of thinking he could leave God behind in Israel.
His theology was wrong. He believed God was the God of Israel exclusively. That was very common thinking among people in that day. This God belongs to us! He watches over everything that happens in Israel and the more land and nations that are captured, the more God can rule over.
But Jonah was about to learn an important lesson, and a hard one for him. First, that God is the God of every people, every land, every nation, every culture, every people, every ethnic group. God is multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multi-national in His dominion. God is omnipresent. He is universal in scope. He created every person, not just those of certain races and nationalities.
Whether or not they acknowledge that does not change the reality. Whether or not you believe in God does not change the reality one bit that He exists. You don’t diminish Him with your unbelief. He is still God. You will either acknowledge Him as Creator and Lord, or you will be called to account for choosing to disbelieve. But either way, the reality doesn’t change. God is the God of all people.
As such, God is a lover of all people. Every ethnos, every land, every nationality. He doesn’t love us more as Americans any more than He loved Israel more than the Ninevites. His heart, His love is for every person…because every person has the image of God stamped on them. If you hurt or hate any person, you are doing the same to the God Who made them.
Third, Jonah was about to learn one of his most important lessons: that the God Who called him also pursues him relentlessly. This is such a powerful lesson of grace. We don’t earn God’s love by our obedience or lose it by our disobedience. We will know greater blessing if we obey, plus we get to partner with God in His redemption of the world. We miss those blessings if we refuse to obey and live only for what we want.
—What is God calling you to do today?
—Are you thinking biblically about Who God is?
—Who is the hardest person…or group or race or nationality for you to love?