We’re Just Like Jonah
Is there a better story in the Bible than the story of Jonah? Generations of Sunday School children have listened with wide-eyed amazement at the story of the fish that caught a man. We love this story, yet for all our telling and re-telling, we barely understand what it means.
With this message we begin a five-part series on the book of Jonah called “Outrageous Grace.” In order to frame that theme properly, let’s start with the words of the French philosopher Pascal:
To make a man a saint, grace is absolutely necessary. And whoever doubts it does not know what a saint is or what a man is.
Some years ago Philip Yancey wrote a mega-bestseller called What’s So Amazing About Grace? in which he called grace “the last great word.” He meant that it is one of the last of the “great words” that has retained some of its original meaning: “free and undeserved bounty.” For instance, when we pray, we “say grace” to thank God for our food. We are “grateful” for a kindness done by another person. To show our thanks we offer a “gratuity.” Something offered at no cost is said to be “gratis.” And when we have overdue books from the library, we may return them at no charge during a “grace period.”
Our Churches and Our Children
It is commonly said that Christianity is supremely a religion of grace. And that is certainly true. We sing about grace, we write poems about grace, we name our churches and our children after grace. If you ask us, we certainly believe in grace, but outside of the worship services, the word is rarely on our lips.
Yancey points out that part of our problem is in the nature of grace itself. Grace is hard to accept, hard to believe, and hard to receive. We all have a certain skepticism when a telemarketer tells us, “I’m not trying to sell you anything. I just want to offer you a free trip to Hawaii.” Automatically we wonder, “What’s the catch?” because we have all been taught that “there’s no free lunch."
Grace is hard to accept, hard to believe, and hard to receive.
Yancey goes on to say that grace shocks us in what it offers. It is truly not of this world. It frightens us with what it does for sinners. Grace teaches us that God does for others what we would never do for them. We would save the not-so-bad. God starts with prostitutes and then works downward from there. Grace is a gift that costs everything to the giver and nothing to the receiver. It is given to those who don’t deserve it, barely recognize it, and hardly appreciate it.
As I pondered this, a thought hit me in a very powerful way . . .
God is more gracious than I am.
You know how I know that? Because he saves people I wouldn’t save if I were God. He blesses people I wouldn’t bless if I were God. He uses people in his service I wouldn’t use if I were God.
God saves people I wouldn’t save if I were God.
Which is why I’m glad he’s God and I’m not. The Bible says that he is “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness," (Exodus 34:6) and that’s good news for sinners everywhere.
The World Worst Missionary
The doctrine of grace may be the hardest doctrine in the Bible to accept. It’s not that grace is hard to understand. We know what the word means. Our problem comes in the application. Grace asks us to accept two things we don’t want to accept:
1. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves.
2. If God doesn’t save us, we will never be saved.
Nothing more clearly summarizes the true meaning of grace than the simple phrase found Jonah 2:9, “Salvation is of the Lord."
That statement is both striking and humorous because it comes from the world’s worst missionary. As we begin our journey with Jonah, let’s clarify one point. Jonah is not the hero of the story. God is! At the beginning he is running from God; at the end he is arguing with God. In between he is praying and preaching. He’s no hero. He’s an anti-hero.
This book is about God. We can see it clearly this way:
The fish is mentioned 4 times.
The city is mentioned 9 times.
Jonah is mentioned 18 times.
God is mentioned 38 times.
Jonah is not the hero of the story. God is!
This book is about God and how great his heart is toward prodigal sons and daughters who run away from him. God never gives up on Jonah, not when he runs away and not when he sits under a vine and pouts.
Here is the take-away lesson for all of us: We’re so much like Jonah that it’s scary. There’s a little Jonah in all of us and a whole lot of Jonah in most of us.
That’s why we need, not just grace, but outrageous grace.
With that as introduction, here are three quick notes about the book of Jonah:
1. It’s a true story.
Contrary to the critics and skeptics, I believe this story is recorded as sober, historical truth. That is, there really was a man named Jonah who really did flee to Tarshish, who really was swallowed whole by a great fish, who really did survive for three days in the fish’s belly, and who actually was vomited up on dry ground. It’s all true, just the way it was written. It’s not a myth or a legend or a saga or a fable or a parable. Jonah is a true story. We can date the book at about 765 B.C. during the days of Jeroboam II, king of Israel.
By the way, Jonah came from Gath-Hepher, a little town in the northern part of Israel, in the region the New Testament calls Galilee, not far from village of Nazareth where Jesus grew up. That means Jonah was a country boy, raised in a rural area who likely grew up in a poor family.
2. It’s a short story.
Only four chapters, 48 verses, just over 1300 words. You can read it in 15 minutes. Yet it tells us all we need to know. Beautifully balanced, deep and profound, this book opens a window into the heart of God.
3. It is a revealing story.
I’m sure most of us have taken a ship to Tarshish at one time or another. We all know what it means to run the other way. And we know how creative the Lord can be when he wants to bring us back to where we ought to be.
Here’s a simple outline to help us understand the flow of the story:
Chapter 1: Jonah flees.
Chapter 2: Jonah prays.
Chapter 3: Jonah preaches.
Chapter 4: Jonah pouts.
In chapter 1 Jonah is running from God; in chapter 2 he is praying to God; in chapter 3 he is speaking for God; in chapter 4 he is learning about God.
Jesus loved the story of Jonah.
We call this book one of the minor prophets, yet it contains only one prophecy. It’s really a book about Jonah and God. We know that our Lord loved this story because Jonah is the only minor prophet Jesus mentioned by name (Matthew 12:40).
The Call God Gave
The story begins this way: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ’Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me" (Jonah 1:1-2). Some of you may have a version of the Bible that says, “Arise, go to Nineveh.” That’s what the Hebrew literally says. The meaning is, “Jonah, get up and go to Nineveh now.”
It’s amazing, isn’t it, how just one sentence can change your life. You can be driving down the highway and get one phone call that changes your life forever. If it’s good news, your life changes one way. If it’s bad news, it changes in another way. Either way, your life can be turned upside down with just one phone call.
Life can turn on a dime. That’s what happened to Jonah when God when God spoke three little words:
“Go to Nineveh."
Life can turn on a dime.
Note what Jonah was to do. Go to Nineveh and “preach against it.” This is not “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” It’s not “your best life now.” This is Bad News from Almighty God.
Go to Nineveh and preach against it! Their evil was like a dirty stench to the Lord. The time for judgment had come.
When God said Nineveh was wicked, he wasn’t kidding. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the most powerful empire in the world in that day. The Assyrians had a reputation for cruelty that is hard for us to fathom. Their specialty was brutality of a gross and disgusting kind. When their armies captured a city or a country, unspeakable atrocities would occur. Things like skinning people alive, decapitation, mutilation, ripping out the tongues, making a pyramid of human heads, piercing the chin with a rope and forcing prisoners to live in kennels like dogs. Ancient records from Assyria boast of this kind of cruelty as a badge of courage and power.
The Assyrians had no use for the Jews, and the Jews hated the Assyrians. Hated them for their bloodthirsty cruelty. Hated them for their idolatry. Hated them for their arrogance. For a Jewish man to be told by God to go preach to Nineveh was repugnant. As far as Jonah was concerned, Nineveh could go straight to hell. “Go ahead, Lord. Push the button. Open the trapdoor. Let ‘em fall straight down into the pit.” That’s how Jonah felt about Nineveh.
What qualifies as Nineveh today?
Nineveh is whatever pulls you out of your comfort zone.
Nineveh is the place God calls where you don’t want to go.
Nineveh is the people who have hurt you deeply and God says, “Go and give them my message.”
Nineveh is the place God calls where you don’t want to go.
Nineveh is danger. Nineveh is discomfort. Nineveh is whatever you hate that God loves deeply.
What do you do when God says, “Go to Nineveh,” and you hate those people? You need to think about that because sooner or later, that’s what he’s going to say.
The Man God Chose
When God said, “Arise, Jonah. Go to Nineveh and preach against it,” we might expect the next verse to read, “And Jonah arose and went to Nineveh."
But that’s not what happened. Verse 3 says he ran from the Lord and headed for Tarshish:
But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.
It helps to know a little geography at this point. Nineveh was 500 miles north and east of where Jonah was. It was a major city on the banks of the Tigris River. In contemporary terms, that would be in Iraq, about 300 miles north of Baghdad. Archeologists have found the ruins of ancient Nineveh right outside the city of Mosul in Iraq. Tarshish was almost 2000 miles west in Spain. So we’ve got a 2500 mile “gap” between God’s call and Jonah’s desire.
God said, “Go east."
Jonah said, “I’m going west.”
The text says that Jonah went “down” to Joppa. That’s true on two levels. First, to get to Joppa, Jonah had to go “down” to the seacoast to the port of Joppa. Second, by going to Joppa he was going “down” spiritually.
If you look at the action in this chapter, you can see that Jonah went “down” four times:
He went “down” to Joppa (v. 3).
He went “down” into the hold of the ship (v. 4).
He went “down” into the sea (v. 15).
He went “down” into the belly of the great fish (v. 17).
That’s not a coincidence. It’s a statement about what happens when we disobey God’s call. Any time you run from God, you never go “up"; you always go “down."
Any time you run from God, you never go “up"; you always go “down.”
Why did the reluctant prophet run from God?
1. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh.
2. He didn’t care about Nineveh.
3. He didn’t think God should care about Nineveh.
4. He didn’t want them to repent.
5. He didn’t want a God who loved people like that.
It was perfectly fine with him if God sent them straight to hell. In fact, that was his preference. Jonah’s problem was never ultimately about Nineveh. Jonah’s problem was always with God.
The Path Jonah Took
So Jonah has decided to run from God. He heads for Joppa where he just “happens” to find a boat going where he wants to go.
What are the chances?
Isn’t that an amazing coincidence?
It’s a long way from Joppa to Tarshish. It’s not like they had a boat leaving for Tarshish every day. Think about that.
When we decide to disobey God, there is always a boat going to Tarshish.
And there is always room for one more passenger.
When we decide to disobey God, there is always a boat going to Tarshish.
What are the chances that a man would have the money in his pocket to pay the fare for a ship that happened to be going where he wanted to go?
When we decide to run from the Lord, Satan is happy to provide the transportation.
So he found a ship and paid the fare with the money he had. There’s a lesson here to be considered. Money gives us options. If a man has no money, he can’t buy a ticket to Tarshish. If you’ve got money in your pocket, it may actually make it easier for you to run from the Lord.
In thinking about this, I pondered the excuses Jonah might have given for running from the Lord. Here are a few things he might have said:
“God is calling me to Tarshish.”
“They need the Lord in Tarshish too.”
“I’ve prayed about it.”
"I have peace in my heart about this decision.”
“Look at the circumstances. I had the money. The ship just happened to be there. It must be God’s will.”
“I love Nineveh, but I’m not the right person to reach those people.”
"I just feel like going to Tarshish is the right thing to do.”
Whenever we decide to disobey, we can always find an excuse. It’s easy to justify wrong-doing by cloaking it in religious language.
Whenever we decide to disobey, we can always find an excuse.
As we stand back and look at this story, a question naturally arises. How far will God let us go in sin? I don’t think anyone knows the full answer, but it appears that sometimes the answer is that God will let us go pretty far. He doesn’t always stop us quickly. I received an email from a woman who told me that her husband had left her for another woman. This is part of what she wrote:
“I am working through forgiveness, it is a moment by moment process. My conviction right now is not to divorce him.”
“Our church has pursued him, friends, Elders, Pastor, letters... he has changed so much. He is “under” church discipline now and is no longer a member.”
“I fear for my husband.”
“I didn’t even get to the part where God has pursued me with His great love in so many, many, many ways.”
How far will God let us go? Why doesn’t he stop us sooner? My answer is that part of his judgment is not to stop us.
He could have arranged things so the ship went to a different port.
He could have arranged things so the ship had no room for Jonah.
He could have arranged things so a thief robbed Jonah of his money.
Sometimes the judgment of God is simply that God lets us go on and on in our sin so that we have to face the consequences of our own disobedience. This is the “severe mercy” of the Lord. That’s what Romans 1 means when it repeatedly says that “God gave them over” (Romans 1:24,26,28). When a society decides that it doesn’t need God, his response is not always to bring out the lightning and thunder. More often than not, God says, “If you want to jump off the cliff, I have warned you time and again, but if that’s what you want to do, I will not stop you.”
How far will God let us go in sin? I don’t think anyone knows the full answer.
As we consider the beginning of Jonah’s sad story, remember that we can run but we can’t hide. God was with Jonah every step of the way. Though Jonah tried to leave the Lord, the Lord never left him.
It is the patience of God that allows us to run away.
It is the wisdom of God that provides the ship.
It is the providence of God that sends the storm.
It is the kindness of God that sends the great fish.
If God didn’t care, he would let us go on in our sin forever.
As we come to the end of this message, it looks like Jonah has gotten away with it. He’s run from God, bought a ticket, and now he’s on a ship heading for Tarshish. He’s a happy camper. So far his plan has worked to perfection. He’s so happy that as our story ends, he’s going to take a nap (Jonah 1:5).
It is the kindness of God that sends the great fish.
But God is not through yet. He’s just getting started. Write over this story the words of Proverbs 14:12, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”
Three Final Thoughts
As we wrap up this message, here are three thoughts to ponder:
1. Every step out of the will of God is a downward step.
No one ever disobeyed God and went up. You only go down.
“Down” to Joppa.
“Down” into the ship.
“Down” into the sea.
“Down” in the belly of the great fish.
2. We get away quickly, we recover slowly.
It’s easy to go down, easy to get off the right path, easy to fall into sin. But the road back is difficult and often very painful.
3. Satan can work through circumstances just like God can.
Satan has his ships, and he always has room on his ships. His ships always go where we want to go when we’re running from God. He can make disobedience look good by means of favorable circumstances.
As he gets ready to take a nap, Jonah may have thought, “Things are going so well for me. This must be God’s will.” But if he thought that, he was wrong. The Lord had already made his will clear. No set of favorable circumstances can override what God has clearly said. Down deep he knew God’s will. He just didn’t want to do it.
No set of favorable circumstances can override what God has clearly said.
I began by saying that I am calling this series on Jonah “Outrageous Grace.” You may wonder, “Where is the grace of God in this story?” The answer is simple. He let Jonah disobey. He didn’t kill him on the spot. He gave him the freedom to mess up his own life. That didn’t seem like grace at the time, but it was. God works even in the midst of our disobedience to bring us to himself. Sometimes God lets us go way off course so that when we finally see our sin for what it is, we are ready to return to the Lord.
Meanwhile Jonah’s disobedience looks pretty good so far. “Happy sailing, Jonah. Watch out for that big fish.”
This is how life really works. Sin looks good for awhile. Jonah experienced the “pleasures of sin for a season.” If sin always brought immediate misery, it would be a lot less attractive to us. Stolen water may be sweet, but it leads you to the gates of hell.
The bitterness comes later.
The sadness comes later.
Sin is fun for a while. Be not deceived. God is not mocked. Jonah is about to find that out the hard way.
Stay tuned for the rest of the story.
Father, we’re glad that your grace is greater than our sin. Some of us have loved ones who seem to be living the high life on the ship to Tarshish. Some people seem to have gotten away with disobedience. Lord, we wonder where you are.
Maybe some of us right now are looking to take a ride on a ship heading for Tarshish. Speak to us. Wake us up. Help us to believe more deeply in your outrageous grace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
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