The Overwhelming Opening Irony of Jonah 1

So that’s it, Jonah 1 is done.  I think the overwhelming theme of this opening chapter is Irony.  Think about it.  It’s ironic that Jonah ran away from God only to find God chasing him down.  It’s ironic that the pagan, non-Christian sailors told Jonah to pray, when Jonah was running away from God.  It’s ironic that when Jonah didn’t care one ounce about the safety of the sailors, it was the sailors that tried to save his life by rowing faster rather than throwing him overboard when they found out that Jonah was the cause of the storm.  It’s ironic that pagan sailors put their faith in the God of Israel after seeing Him calm the storm, when Jonah ran away from preaching to gentiles in Nineveh because he didn’t want them to come to faith.  It’s ironic the pagan sailors seemed to fear God more than Jonah, a prophet of God.

This should not surprise us at all.  God often does things that we never expect.  This is true in my life as well as yours I’m sure.  When I was in Middle and High school, the thought of public speaking sent a panic through my bones that felt like a lightning bolt!  When I had to do it, I use to put little phrases on my note cards like “You can do it buddy!”  “Go for it!”  It’s almost over!”  They never worked, and often made me more nervous than I was before – my face would get red, my eyes would water, my whole body would shake, which would cause my voice to stutter.  It was awful!  It’s ironic that God would use someone like me as a preacher!

I want you to know three things from Jonah 1:

a) God can and will use you in this life for His purposes.  God used Jonah to save the souls of the pagan sailors, and God used the pagan sailors to call Jonah back to Himself.  No matter where you are in your life, running away from God or ignoring Him completely, Jonah chapter 1 teaches us that God chases His people down and always brings them (us) back to Himself.

b) Jonah didn’t act on what he knew was right.  You see, Jonah was a prophet long after Moses, so that means that Jonah would have read the books Moses wrote (Genesis – Deuteronomy), and from reading those he would have understood that God has a kingdom in mind that is bigger than just the Israelites.  God told Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  This is the missionary call, that all peoples and tribes on earth who believe in Jesus will be blessed!  But according to Jonah, the only people who would be blessed were the Israelites!  Perhaps some of you are content to have a small vision of God’s mission like Jonah did and only live your life in the little corner of your own world, in your own church, doing what you’ve always done, and caring about the things you’ve always cared about.  Jonah chapter 1 calls us all to throw that small vision away and get a bigger vision, for the peoples of the world!  There’s more to the Church than America!  There are peoples and there are tribes that Jesus bled for that need the gospel, and the only way they will hear the gospel is if someone leaves their comfortable home and goes to them with the message of life!  I am praying that God would call some of you to go the hard places to do the hard thing, because there are still people in tribes and villages out there every day that die without hearing the gospel, and if knowing that doesn’t break your heart you are just like Jonah.  This reminds me of a song that says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness in the sea, God forbid that I should let that mercy stop with me.”

c) The ironic nature of Jonah chapter 1 prepares us for a greater irony found in the Bible, the cross of Jesus.  There’s something that’s more ironic though.  The Man who was mocked as King on the cross really is the King.  The Man who seemed utterly powerless on the cross is more powerful than 4 billion nuclear bombs!  The Man who died on the cross is the only One who can give us true life.

God Runs Faster

“The LORD hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up.  Then the sailors became afraid and every man cried to his god, and they threw the cargo which was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down and fallen sound asleep.  So the captain approached him and said, “How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god.  Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish.  Each man said to his mate, “Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us ” So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.  Then they said to him, “Tell us, now!  On whose account has this calamity struck us?  What is your occupation?  And where do you come from?  What is your country?  From what people are you?”  He said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.”  Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How could you do this?”  For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.  So they said to him, “What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?” –for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy.  He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea.  Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.”  However, the men rowed desperately to return to land but they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them.  Then they called on the LORD and said, “We earnestly pray, O LORD, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O LORD, have done as You have pleased.”  So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging.  Then the men feared the LORD greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” (Jonah 1:4-16)

The ship which Jonah got on is now in trouble, because it appears that Jonah is not the only one running here, God is running after him, and Jonah is about to learn that God runs faster than he can.  So when we get to this section we immediately see that panic is breaking out on all over the ship because God is stirring up the sea, causing storms, winds, and waves to come crashing into it.  The panic is so great that these sailors, who had most likely been sailing for many years, were freaking out.  Think of how bad the storm had to be to cause seasoned sailors to freak out and be scared for their lives?  Usually during a storm on a boat the passengers are the scared ones and the sailors are calm because they’ve been through so many storms in their days and know how to navigate through them.  Not this storm!  Everyone, even the expert sailors began praying to their gods and throwing cargo overboard to make the ship lighter and possibly save the ship.

Then the passage takes us back to Jonah, and while nothing but terror is happening on deck, we see Jonah downstairs…sleeping.  What?!  This had to be one heck of a nap to stay asleep during this storm!  Eventually the captain found him, and said what we’re all thinking, “How are you sleeping?!  WAKE UP!  While we’re throwing cargo overboard doing everything we can to save this ship, you need to start praying, maybe your god will care and save us from this storm!”  It’s interesting and ironic that while Jonah is running away from God, a pagan sailor (who did not know the true God of Israel) encourages Jonah to talk to God.  Jonah should learn right here that he can’t run away from God, because God is everywhere and God will use anything to get His people back to Himself.  The passage doesn’t say if Jonah took his advice to pray or not.  I think Jonah just sat there, and didn’t even say one word to God.  Why do I think this?  Because when you’re running away from God or doing something God told you that you shouldn’t be doing, the last thing on earth you want to do is talk to God, because He is the One you’re running away from!  Think for a second at what an awful attitude Jonah has here.  Everyone else on the ship, from passenger to crew member, is up on deck helping out and doing all they can do to try to save themselves and save the ship.  Where is Jonah?  Below deck, in his room, sitting on his bed, having a pity party.  Jonah seems to be thinking like this, “If we all die, we all die, I don’t care.”  This goes to show you that even the most godly people are capable of doing fantastically sinful things.  We should never be surprised.

The passage then tells us that the crew thought of a new idea that may save them.  They were gonna cast lots to see who’s fault this storm was.  We all know what this is, let me explain.  When I was a kid, and my friends and I were about to do something risky, or dangerous, something so scary or hard that no one else wanted to do it, we got straws out, cut one of them shorter than all the rest, put them all in one guys hand (making them all look equal), and began to draw straws.  The guy who picked the shortest straw had to do the deed.  Well, the people on the boat did the same thing, and Jonah drew the small straw.  This shows us and it should have taught Jonah that he can never hide from God, or run away from God.  He will always chase us down.  Things now get really tense on the boat.  As soon as Jonah gets found out, the sailors get really mad and ask Jonah, “What is your occupation?  And where do you come from?  What is your country?  From what people are you?”  When they hear Jonah’s response, terror fills them and they say, “How could you do this to us?”  This reveals something to us, that Jonah’s God, the true God, the God of Israel, is famous around the world.  These sailors know about this God, they know the crazy miraculous things He has done for His people, and they know that when people run from this God, bad things happen.  Jonah, realizing his awkward position, begins to come to his senses.  He says, “The only way to save yourselves is to throw me overboard.”  Now, I get sea sick really easily, so I can imagine how angry some of the people would have been on that boat.  If I were on it, I would have said, “WHAT!?  Why didn’t you tell us this sooner Jonah?  It would have saved everyone’s luggage from being thrown overboard, and it would have saved all of us from freaking out over this storm.  I hate you Jonah!”  And with those last words I would have thrown his over the side of the boat as hard as I possibly could!  But notice what the sailors do?  Rather than throwing him over, they row as fast and as hard as they can.  This is again interesting and ironic, because while Jonah doesn’t care about the lives of the crew or the passengers, they care about him and try to rescue him by rowing harder, thinking that they won’t have to kill him if they can just make it to land.

They soon realize that their rowing won’t work, so they do something at this moment that they’ve never done before, they talk to Jonah’s God.  They ask God to forgive them for what they’re about to do, and throw Jonah over.  And as Jonah hits the water, they are shocked that the storm stops dead in its tracks.  From this moment on, their lives are changed forever, they put their faith in Jonah’s God.  Look at 1:16, it tells us that they feared God, offered sacrifices to God, and made vows to God.

Jonah Runs Fast, and So Do We

“The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”  But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.  So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.” (Jonah 1:1-3)

After reading these first verses the question that comes to my mind is: “Why did Jonah run?  He was a prophet, he knew God, he preached the Word of God to God’s people, he had personally seen God do miraculous things over and over, and on top of all of this, he actually heard the audible voice of God (!) and he still ran away?  Hmmm……that doesn’t make sense.”  Well this doesn’t make sense, until we read the rest of the book and find our answer a couple chapters later in 4:1-2 where we see that it was desire that the Ninevites remain unrepentant that sent him off running.  That is the reason for most of Jonah’s disobedience in the book.  Jonah runs because he knows the character of God, that God is gracious and compassionate, that God turns away from doing harm when people turn from their sin, and that if he were to preach about this gracious God to the Ninevites (like God is calling him to) Jonah knows the Ninevites will turn from their sin and be shown mercy, and that is the last thing Jonah wants.  Why?  Because Nineveh was the largest city in the pagan nation of Babylon, and what pagan nation shows up a lot as Israel’s enemy in the Bible?  Right, Babylon.  Because of this, Jonah hates Nineveh, and the last thing he would want to see in his life is mercy being shown to Nineveh, they are his enemies.

Stop and think about this.  I bet some of you are thinking, “I wouldn’t run away like Jonah did.  I’m a Christian, I wouldn’t run away from God.  I’m too mature in my faith to do such a thing.”  To which I reply, “Yeah right!”  Oh we run, we just do it in different ways.  When were called by God to do something hard or uncomfortable, rather than jumping on a ship to a foreign place like Jonah, you know where we go for relief?  To the TV, to the Xbox, to the mall, to food, to the internet, to your girlfriend or your boyfriend, or to our various Apple products.  Some of us, like Jonah, run to hatred.  To explain how we run to hatred, think – what major worldwide event happened a few years ago that was all over the news?  Hint: it was the story behind Zero Dark Thirty?  Right, the death of Osama Bin Laden, one of the most horrific and evil terrorist leaders the in the world.  Did you notice how people reacted to this news?  Some people didn’t care, and others just went about their day as normal, that’s true.  You know what I saw?  Celebration.  “We got him!  He’s dead!  God bless America!  Osama got what he deserved, a bullet between the eyes!”

Personally I was a bit mixed.  I was happy that justice has been dealt because he has killed thousands of people, but I was also grieved that a human being who was not a Christian, entered into hell.  It was strange for me to watch people celebrate because when I heard about it I was thinking about Jonah chapter 1, trying to figure out how I was going to think about Bin Laden’s death and how it relates to Jonah’s hatred toward the Ninevites and how it kept him from obeying God’s call to bring the message of repentance to them.

So let me ask you the hard question that comes from these verses: does celebration of the death of our enemy resemble Jesus’ command to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute you?  Would you want to see your enemies saved by God’s mercy, or would you, like Jonah, want them to die in their sin, receive justice, and burn in hell for all eternity?

Far be it from any Christian to rejoice when a soul enters into hell.

Jonah: Parable or History?

For the next two weeks I’m going to take you on a guided journey through the book of Jonah, it’s one of my favorites and we can indeed learn much from this little obscure book.  But before we begin there is a matter I should clarify.  It has been a long debated whether Jonah is a parable or actual history. Here are both sides and my opinion.

Those who think Jonah is a parable usually argue these points. First, Jonah is different than other prophets because he doesn’t say a lot. Second, there are extraordinary events in it like the fish, the repentance of the entire city of Nineveh, and the growth of the plant at the end. None of these would happen in real life. Third, there are exaggerations present as well. Repentance of animals (3:7-8), and saying that the size of Nineveh is 3 days walk (3:3). Now if it really is a parable, Jonah would represent disobedient Israel failing to take the God’s Word to the nations, which is represented by Nineveh. Jonah running away would represent Israel’s failure to take God to the nations. The fish which swallowed Jonah would represent Babylon and the exile. Jonah’s prayer for deliverance represents Israel’s return from exile. Lastly, Jonah’s anger would be Israel’s anger at God’s patience toward the Gentiles. Now viewing this as a parable has problems. Parables are normally short. Parables are normally simple. Parables are normally accompanied with an explanation. Jonah does not represent the normal parable.

Those who think Jonah is a historical account (me) argue like this. It really happened, it was a historical event. Jonah 1:1 is very similar to other prophetic books. If it’s a parable did Amittai not really exist? Did the Word of the Lord never come to Jonah? Jonah is also identified (2 Kings 14:23-28), further proving he was a real person. What about the Animals repentance in 3:7-8? This was just a call for ALL of Nineveh to repent; obviously no animals can do so. What about Jonah’s comment that it takes 3 days journey through Nineveh? Perhaps it is a parallel to 3 days in the fish, or Jonah could be referring to the amount of time it took to preach his message throughout all Nineveh. Or “greater Nineveh” could include the outlying areas as well. How could a whole city, especially one as large as Nineveh repent? “With God all things are possible.” (Luke 18:27) There was an eclipse in 763 BC, and great plagues in 759 BC and 756 BC that God could have used to focus the Ninevites to repentance. Lastly, Jesus refers to Jonah. Was he merely referring to a story that was popular in Jewish culture? No. Jesus spoke of the real historical account of Jonah as a sign of His own death and resurrection. If it didn’t really happen, would it be legitimate for Jesus still to use it as a sign? All the other examples in Matthew 12 are true events, why not this one?

This is why I think Jonah is history, and not a parable.