Main Idea: Jonah’s simple disobedience to the word of the Lord to go to Nineveh becomes comfortable indifference in spite of the threat of God’s wrath against the idol-worshiping mariners traveling with him.
There are many reasons the average believer does not consistently share his faith with unsaved people within his sphere of influence:
Usually that last excuse is the most likely one, taking the form of “I just don’t have the time right now,” or “It will be OK if I just leave a tract and don’t say anything,” or “If they hear my Christian music playing, maybe they will ask me about church.” But scared by another name still is just plain ol’ scared, and it is just another excuse.
There is, however, one really good reason for every believer to share the gospel with the lost regularly, consistently, eagerly, and fearlessly: The Lord has commanded you and me to proclaim the gospel to the lost. Rebelling against this command, like any other command of the Lord, is detrimental to our Christian growth, and we take our chances with the consequences from the almighty and holy God. This is what we learn from the life of Jonah as we look at a rebel and the storm-making God.
Children love hearing the story of the trials of this fleeing prophet. Its voyage theme and larger-than-life miracle can keep anyone’s attention just before bedtime.
At least this is true among those scholars who do not submit to Scripture as the very words of God. These scholars find a fish swallowing a man and a man surviving inside of a fish for three days and three nights to be impossible. To these scholars, Jonah’s account is myth—a “tale” or originating in “legendary material” (Kugel, How to Read the Bible, 630). For them, “Jonah and the Whale” is categorized with other fables involving interaction with animals, such as “The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf!’” or “The Snake and the Traveler.” In fact, Jonah is considered less moral and less interesting than most children’s cartoon characters.
However, Jesus did not think Jonah’s story was mythical. He said, “For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights” (Matt 12:40). Jesus could not have said “as Jonah” if Jonah were not real. If He had used a mythical Jonah in His analogy, His audience might have thought the prediction of His own death and resurrection would also be myth rather than fact of history.
Jonah tends to be a point of reference when it appears that someone has been running from a call to preach. That is, when a young man starts to show great growth in prayer and he gains an ability to handle the Word of God in Sunday school slightly better than the average layman, some begin to suspect that the Lord is trying to do something special in that life. Yet the young man never seems to come around to expressing a call to the ministry. In fact, in some cases we can watch as the person starts to move away from the church and to pursue everything but the ministry, sometimes for many years.
Then one day, exhausted with running and hemmed in by God, the zealous layman finally yields and expresses a call to preach the gospel. Accordingly, those of you with just a little bit of discernment and happy for the person who seemingly has stopped running from God encourage him by saying, “Son, we saw that calling on you when you were a little tyke. We were just waiting for you to figure it out and stop running like Jonah.”
So Jonah is familiar to us as we watch people run from serving the Lord and then stop running. But if we leave Jonah as a story for would-be preachers only, we will miss something powerful that the Lord is trying to say to each one of us—preacher and layperson alike. Contrary to our cultural picture of Jonah, the prophet really is more like each one of us than a preacher fleeing pulpit ministry.
By the time of this story, Jonah already has answered the prophetic call; he already is preaching in Israel. The narrative in 2 Kings 14 shows that Jonah preached the word of the Lord to Jeroboam, a wicked king in Israel:
In the fifteenth year of Judah’s King Amaziah son of Joash, Jeroboam son of Jehoash became king of Israel in Samaria and reigned 41 years. He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight. He did not turn away from all the sins Jeroboam son of Nebat had caused Israel to commit. He restored Israel’s border from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word the Lord, the God of Israel, had spoken through His servant, the prophet Jonah son of Amittai from Gath-hepher. (2 Kgs 14:23-25)
It was through Jonah’s preaching that Jeroboam II fixed Israel’s border that had been weakened during early conflicts with Assyria. This kept Israel from being blotted out as a people.
Thus, by Jonah 1, the prophet has had some ministry success with the Lord and has walked with the Lord for a good portion of his life. He already knows the kindness of the Lord; he already knows His power to save, comfort, heal, and judge. He already understands that the Lord is Israel’s protector and strong tower, her King of Glory who is worthy to be praised.Therefore, when the word of the Lord comes to Jonah, he is less like someone who does not want to answer the call to stand behind the pulpit and more like someone who does not want to talk to people in this evil generation about the goodness of our God. He is not the pastor only a few of us can identify with; he is the person who has experienced the grace of God but fails to tell others about it. All of us can—and must—relate to him. He is a rebel against the Lord’s word, which calls everyone to tell others about a great and loving King. From this rebel we learn three things about ourselves.
God’s command to Jonah seems simple: Go to Nineveh and do just what you did in Israel in the court of King Amaziah—preach the words God gives you. However, on this assignment Jonah would not be preaching to people familiar with God and His law. He would be preaching to Gentiles—to non-Jews. He would be preaching to the most powerful nation in the known world, a nation who had also been an enemy and a threat to Israel for many years. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire.
The prophet would be preaching directly to the Ninevites. He would not, like Isaiah, have the privilege of denouncing Israel’s enemies from within Israel’s borders. Isaiah’s denunciations were akin to the stance of little children, boasting about kicking the stuffing out of a bully while standing in their own front yards with their brothers and cousins around them. Jonah, in contrast, is called to go right into the bully’s yard, to preach to their “wickedness” (1:2) all by himself. This, however, should not have been too much for Jonah to handle since, in the Amaziah episode, he had already seen what the Lord could do with one man to save Israel through his simple availability and obedience.
Yet Jonah flees to Joppa, heading to Tarshish rather than to Nineveh, for reasons clarified in the rest of the book. Twice in verse 3 it says that he is trying to go “from the Lord’s presence.” He is not just rebelling now. He actively is trying to ditch the Lord. Jonah understands that the only possible way to escape obedience to the Lord’s command would be to escape the Lord altogether!
The phrase “[away] from the Lord’s presence” is a Hebrew idiom that indicates Jonah is in full rebellion against the Lord. TOTC [Leicester, UK: InterVarsity, 1988], 101). Kevin J. Youngblood’s thoughts expand this idea: “Most significant for Jonah, however, was the fact the Tarshish was known as a location where YHWH had not yet revealed his glory or his word. . . . This is the true goal of Jonah’s flight—banishment from the prophet’s unique experience of the divine presence” (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, HMS 28 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013]: 57). Jonah’s flight also seems to be away from the temple of the Lord—the dwelling place of the Lord’s presence (1 Kgs 8:10; 2 Chr 5:14; 6:1-2)—to which Jonah later makes reference (Jonah 2:4,7).Jonah is trying to do more than escape going to Nineveh. Jonah is trying to reject the temple choirs, the sacrifices and offerings, the holy of holies, the ark of the covenant, the law, the priests, God Himself, and everything about God! This all started, however, with disobedience to the word of the Lord to go preach to evil, Gentile Nineveh.
The Lord tells believers to do something very similar in giving us the Great Commission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20; see also Luke 24:26-49; Acts 1:8). This is a command to disciples to make disciples, and not a command only to those called to pulpit ministry. Differently than Jonah’s specific, geographic calling to one Gentile people—the Ninevites—the church is to go to all nations, or better, all peoples. As a familiar hymn says,
We have heard the joyful sound: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Spread the tidings all around: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Bear the news to every land, Climb the mountains, cross the waves;
Onward! ’tis our Lord’s command; Jesus saves! Jesus saves! (Owens and Kirkpatrick, “Jesus Saves!”)
The word translated “nations” is ethnos, from which we get words like ethnocentric and ethnic. Narrowly it means people groups outside of Israel, which we translate as “Gentiles.” Broadly it means all unbelievers of all ethnic backgrounds, not simply Westerners—from your Middle-Eastern and pan-African coworkers to your West Indies or Anglo schoolmates, and the Latino and Southeast Asian neighbors to whom you keep saying hello at your child’s or grandchild’s bus stop. All people are the people to whom we are to go with the life-changing story of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
However, when we are slow to tell people about Jesus or don’t tell people at all, we are doing the very thing Jonah did. We are rebelling against a great commission. If we keep doing that unchecked, we could soon find ourselves moving away from the presence of the Lord. For to reject any one command of the Lord, no matter how tough the application of the command seems to be, is to reject God’s will and thus to reject the Lord Himself.
Every time I stop at my local convenience store and speak casually to the same store clerk I’ve seen for years but do not mention Jesus, all the times I take my car to the same mechanic and never even mention to him the power of Christ to save, and every time I see the same dry cleaner’s worker and never once share the gospel, I am going down a path toward rejecting God. I never move so slowly, hesitantly, or cautiously when I want the Lord to heal a pain in my body, have mercy on my children, or get me out of a jam. At those times my attitude toward the commands of the Lord is, “Just speak the word, Lord, and I will obey!” It is that same “speak the word” response we should have toward telling the lost about Christ, or our rebellion could grow into rejection.
If ever we think the Lord simply glosses over rebellion to His Word, we are mistaken. If we think it is a light matter to ignore the command of God in the Great Commission and to ignore the example of the believers sharing the gospel throughout the book of Acts, we are fooling ourselves. Let God serve notice to all of us: He is prepared to break up this ship, drown Jonah, and let all of these idol-worshiping sailors perish, all in response to Jonah’s rebellious actions. The Lord will make a storm to wreak havoc and wreck our plans when we readily dismiss obedience to His command.
God responds so fiercely because rebellion is serious. Sin, in any form, is something our God hates. When someone brushes off the Holy Spirit’s urging to tell a person about Jesus, eventually that person could clear his conscience by going on with routine business. But the Lord does not brush off sin. Sin is an affront to God’s absolute holiness. Our “God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him” (1 John 1:5). James says that God cannot be tempted by evil (Jas 1:14). God’s eyes are too pure to look on evil (Hab 1:13)! If He were to permit Jonah’s sin (or ours) and sin were to go without reckoning, then He would not be holy, and we could rebel against anything and everything He says without concern for consequences. Commands would become some good advice from a well-meaning and nice deity rather than absolute directives from a righteous and all-powerful Creator whom one disobeys at one’s own peril. William L. Banks comments:
Rebellion never escapes God’s notice, and it is foolish for men to think they can resist God’s will with impunity. . . .The Lord may let a man go to a certain point before He steps in, but when He does move, He moves with no uncertainty. (Jonah, 2)
In his anger toward Jonah’s sin, the Lord hurls a great wind on the sea. This is no minor storm. These seasoned mariners are scared for their lives. They begin praying as they have never prayed before, calling on any god who can still the chaotic forces of the sea. If they are typical sailors, some of them are so hard and salty they probably have never prayed so earnestly—if at all!—until God unleashed this storm on them.
They are hurling cargo as God is hurling a great wind. (It is pretty obvious who is going to win the battle of hurling.) Such evasive actions are ridiculous when you are dealing with the Lord. The Lord does not want their cargo; He wants the obedience of His child! They don’t know this yet, so in fear of death, they keep hurling.
If anyone should be scared, however, it is Jonah, for he knows the power of God—that nothing can stop Him. In one moment He has the power to take calm seas and make them rough; in another minute He can take the roughest seas and calm them in an instant with the words, “Silence! Be still!” (Mark 4:39).
As believers, if we think we are safe from God’s judgment because of the grace that is ours in Christ, remember that the Lord disciplines His own, as says the writer to the Hebrews (Heb 12:6). In the church at Corinth the Lord put His children on sickbeds and deathbeds for profaning the Lord’s Supper—people who had the same grace in Christ that all believers do (1 Cor 11:30). God can send a storm on one’s income; He can hurl a wind on one’s health; He can crush one’s grades, scholarships, and dreams in school. When we rebel, He can do whatever it takes to get us to return to Him or to take us out of this present life in our disobedience.
When we rebel against God’s clear instruction and purpose for us, He can bring a veritable storm into our lives. The discipline He brings will often be no subtle nudge but rather a maelstrom of trouble that not only affects us but brings danger and damage to those around us as well. And just as Jonah went down to Joppa, went down into the ship, and lay down virtually unconscious, the path of rebellion will never take us to the heights of value, virtue, and activity. To reject God’s purpose is to reject our best purpose. The one who has done that finds himself either purposeless and torpid or striving vainly at cross purposes with God, neither of which leads to a fulfilling, vibrant life.
The Lord does not have to put us in an accident; He can simply put life in neutral until we decide that we are going to proclaim the gospel no matter the size and power of the Ninevehs we face. To rebel is to invite His wrath.
Interestingly, the whole ship has gone to prayer, but Jonah is asleep! He is sleeping so well that the captain must awaken him.
Sadder than Jonah’s nap is that these men want to escape death, and the only one who has the means of escape is sleeping. With every snore the sailors and Jonah are coming closer to their ends. The sailors think that calling on one of their gods and chucking the cargo will help. The captain wants Jonah to wake up and call on his “god.” Nothing is working.
Unlike the polytheistic sailors, Jonah knows the Lord! Therefore, his sleeping is ensuring that the sailors perish forever. “What a great missionary opportunity for Jonah,” writes Anthony Selvaggio. “He had an opportunity to alleviate the fear of the sailors by sharing with them the knowledge of the true God, but instead chose to go below deck and fall asleep. . . . Obviously, Jonah had no desire to extend God’s grace to these pagan sailors” (The Prophets, 71).
Jonah is denying perishing men an opportunity for the hope of the Lord’s salvation. He feels he cannot tell them of the Lord’s mercy because he does not want to tell Nineveh of the Lord’s mercy. All around him are people who want a solution to escape death, but Jonah is trying to flee from the presence of the Solution!
Recently, in a sermon, I offered these words to unbelievers sitting among our congregation:
Later, at the end of today’s service, as at the end of almost every service, we are going to provide an opportunity to respond to the message. For you who are not believers among us—not saved, you do not love Jesus with your whole heart even if you acknowledge the very real existence of God (for knowing that He exists is not enough for salvation)—we invite you to make a decision about placing your trust in Christ, the Son of God, against whom we have rebelled since the beginning of time. We invite others to make known a need for baptism, consider membership, or rededicate their lives to the Lord or be restored from unrepentant sin. But to you, the lost one, we offer an opportunity to profess that you believe on the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who died to pay the penalty for our sins and rose again to offer life after death. Why do we do this? We do this because we have hope, and we want you to have the same hope of salvation.
However, we want people to have the message of hope more than the one day a week they come into a worship service. We want them to have this hope daily. That is, if we care about them, we want them to share our hope. So rather than rebelling, we offer the message of salvation willingly, eagerly, boldly, humbly, and zealously.
How do we apply a message like this to make sure that we are not rebelling, rejecting, and gaining wrath, but instead are faithfully offering the hope of the gospel to those around us? Consider four things:
1. Go on the offensive on Monday mornings. When you arrive to work after the weekend, someone may ask you, “How was your weekend?” Make a reply to them that opens an opportunity for the gospel: “I heard a great sermon at church on Sunday that explained how embracing Jesus’ death and resurrection can transform one’s outlook on one’s vocation” (or something similar). Share a 30–60-second synopsis of the main point of the message as it relates to Christ and His work. When you are finished, say, “I would love to share more from the message with you later.” Look for that opportunity and similar ones weekly.
2. Be clear on the gospel and its significance. Jonah did not seem to grasp the significance of his calling to the Ninevites. His message was the only hope for these idol worshipers in the storm of God’s judgment. Similarly, as sinners before the Holy God, people are deserving of His deepest and eternal wrath. Our message about Christ’s substitutionary work as God’s propitiation for sin and as the One who alone defeats death is the only message of hope for lost people.
3. Pray for opportunities to share the gospel clearly, courageously, and humbly. If anyone will give a hearing to the life-saving message of Christ, it will depend on the working of God’s power. As Paul asked of the churches,
Pray also for me, that the message may be given to me when I open my mouth to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. For this I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I might be bold enough in Him to speak as I should. (Eph 6:19-20)
At the same time, pray also for us that God may open a door to us for the message, to speak the mystery of the Messiah, for which I am in prison, so that I may reveal it as I am required to speak. (Col 4:3-4)
4. Actively and regularly invite people within your spheres of influence to Sunday worship services. The gospel should be read, preached, sung, prayed, and displayed (in the ordinances) every Sunday at your church. Therefore, bringing unbelievers to worship with us is one possible means of introducing them to the message of Christ. Use paper invitations, social media, e-mail, text messages, and every possible means to offer them an opportunity to sit in a pew with you. But do not allow these invitations to substitute for verbally proclaiming the gospel. We must open our mouths and share; we must speak, using our words to explain carefully the gospel.
We must speak the good news because our Lord Jesus, when He came down from heaven to a place of great evil—the earth—came using His words:
This Jesus, for the joy set before Him, went to the Cross, became the propitiation for my sins, became sin for me, bore my sins in His body on a tree, died for my sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again after three days, and along the way saved me through the preaching of the gospel! It should be a little thing for me to tell someone else how He can save them.