I believe one of the most used stories and books used for Vacation Bible School is the book of Jonah. Probably because the idea of someone being swallowed by a great fish and living in the belly of that fish for three days captures the imagination of young people at every age. Jonah, of course, was a real person not just some Old Testament parable. He was a historical figure. Chapter 1: 1 says that he was the son of Amittai and this same Jonah, son of Amittai, is mentioned in II Kings 14: 23-27. II Kings tells us that he was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Jeroboam II who lived in the Eighth Century before Christ.
But it is the book of Jonah that describes an important event in his life which revealed both a great gift and several weaknesses in this prophet's life (The good and bad). Let's open our Bibles and study both facets of this man's life to see if we can learn something about ourselves through him.
1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, 2 "Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me." 3 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.
4 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. 5 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. 6 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."
7 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. 8 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?" 9 He said to them, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land."
10 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.
- Jonah 1:1-10
Note that the story explains itself, but within the story we discover a man who had a great gift, the gift of prophecy. Now the gift of prophecy expressed itself in several ways and the book of Jonah demonstrates that Jonah possessed the gift in all of its form. For example, there is prophecy in the form of…
1. Powerful Preaching
Vs. 2 – We are told that God sends him to use his gift, his ability, at a certain place and for a specific purpose. The gift is assumed, he knows he has it, he merely receives instruction on where to use it.
Vs. 10 – Jonah refuses to do God's will, but despite this, we get a glimpse of his ability as he shares his faith with the men on board the ship. There were pagans ready to worship anything, do anything to get out of trouble, but the Word says that they actually believed Jonah simply through hearing him speak to them. Not only did they believe him, they were ready to follow his instructions.
His ability was evident, even when it wasn't used in context. Even when Jonah disobeyed God, he couldn't hide the fact that he was a powerful preacher.
2. Precise Prediction
Another facet of the gift of prophecy in these times was the ability to accurately predict the future. Today anybody with a Website can set themselves up as a psychic; people applaud if a modern day prophet is right 2 out of 3 times; but in the Old Testament times, the true gift of prophecy was confirmed if all predictions were 100% complete. Any margin of error resulted in death.
11 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. 12 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." 13 However, the men rowed desperately to return to land but they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them. 14 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."
15 So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
We see that despite the terrible circumstances and consequences to Jonah, his prediction about the solution to the problem was accurate.
16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord and took vows.
The writer describes the attitude and actions of the survivors on the ship. In their worship and charge, the confirmation of this gift is recognized:
- They see the sign
- They worship the God that had been preached to them
- They offer true repentance as a sign of their sincere faith.
Even in disobedience, the word of the Lord does not return void.
3. Poetic Prayer
17 Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
2:10 So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Jonah expresses his plight and its solution. He is in an impossible situation buried alive (in the depths of Sheol). His only recourse is to cry out to God because in his present physical condition, God is truly the only one who could hear him. He looks at his surroundings and compares it to the times he worshipped the Lord in Jerusalem at the temple and how sweet that was. He has no offering of animals or money to make now, but he realizes that he can offer other things that are more precious (even though he's in the belly of a fish):
- He can offer praise.
- He can offer thanksgiving.
- He can offer his faith that God can save him.
- He can offer repentance and a promise of obedience.
From inside the belly of the fish, he realizes not only that God will hear him, but also that what God wants from man is always inside of man and doesn't require a fancy building or ceremony to give. Once he realizes this, once he responds to this, he is released from the fish a changed man, ready to use his gift.
Now the amazing thing here is not only that Jonah learned these things, but that he expressed them so eloquently in these few verses. One aspect of prophecy is the ability to express in beautiful language the mind and will of God. One will not find more beautiful poetry and powerful images in the Bible than are contained in Jonah's prayer.
And so, in the first two chapters, we are introduced to a man who possesses the gift of prophecy in all of its many expressions:
- Powerful preaching
- Praise prediction
- Poetic prayer
Jonah & Nineveh
In chapter 3 we see how this gift was used in context and how effective Jonah was in his role as prophet.
1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 "Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you." 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk. 4 Then Jonah began to go through the city one day's walk; and he cried out and said, "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown."
5 Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. 6 When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. 7 He issued a proclamation and it said, "In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. 8 But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. 9 Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish."
10 When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.
Again, the chapter is self-explanatory. Jonah goes to Nineveh and warns them to repent or else they will be destroyed. The writer describes the complete change of heart from the king on down. As a result of Jonah's preaching and their response to it, God spares the city.
The story would have ended here and we would have a marvelous story with a good lesson about repentance and God's love, all neat and clean. But there's another chapter that goes on to describe Jonah's faults.
1 But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, "Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life." 4 The Lord said, "Do you have good reason to be angry?"
5 Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. 6 So the Lord God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant. 7 But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered. 8 When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah's head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, "Death is better to me than life."
9 Then God said to Jonah, "Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?" And he said, "I have good reason to be angry, even to death." 10 Then the Lord said, "You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. 11 Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?"
- Jonah 4:1-11
At first, Jonah runs away from God and we could conclude that he was just afraid and after the fish experience he gained courage, but this would be inaccurate. Jonah was not afraid, we know this for several reasons:
- He didn't deny his faith in front of pagans who were hostile to him.
- He offered himself to be thrown overboard.
- He didn't panic when swallowed by the fish.
- He went to Nineveh and preached against it after all, a traditional enemy of the Jews.
No, his faults are made evident after he has finished preaching.
1. He was prejudice — vs. 1-2
Some think that anger or impulsiveness were the problems, but the anger was the result of the true problem, prejudice. He was upset because God spared Jonah's non-Jewish enemies. These Assyrians, these pagans, were a thorn in the side of the Jewish nation. Here was a chance to wipe them out and God saves them.
He explains that he ran away because he knew God would forgive them if they repented and he did not want to be the one who offered them the chance. As far as he was concerned, they could and should die in their sins. He was prejudice and even God's acceptance of these people wouldn't force Jonah to accept them.
2. He was Presumptuous — v. 3-4
He assumed that he knew better than God. Now that they were spared, there would be no chance of defeating them. They might have to actually deal with them as brothers. Of course, history shows that they eventually lost the war with the North and Nineveh was destroyed as their repentance and safety died away. Jonah wanted to dictate to God what God should do with his life and the life of this nation.
3. He was Pig Headed — vs. 5-11
He refused to acknowledge that God was the God of all. He didn't see that the same God who offered him refuge in the planet, also offered salvation to the entire city. He refused to believe his own preaching that God spared those who repented and called on him for forgiveness. He accepted that for himself, but wouldn't extend it to his enemies. In the end, his faults cancelled out his gifts rendering him unable to share in the rewards of his preaching. I think that's why the story ends abruptly with no closure because this reflects where Jonah was in his spirit - NO CLOSURE.
Lessons for the Jews
Jonah was a real person, this is not some kind of Old Testament parable, this is history. Chapter 1:1 says that he was the son of Amittai and he is mentioned in II Kings 14:23-27. Jonah was the prophet who served during the reign of Jeroboam II in the Eighth Century before Christ. Not all of his prophecies are recorded, but one of his major predictions was that the northern kingdom would have peace from its enemies to the North (this was fulfilled later in the reign of Jeroboam II). This may be why he was reluctant to go to Nineveh in the first place. He wanted them destroyed (one way of fulfilling his prophecy).
Of course, when the Jews, who knew Jonah, who knew his life and prophecies had read this book, it contained several lessons for them:
1. God is the God all men.
The Jews tended to be rather exclusive with God thinking He was only concerned with them and their well-being. This story showed them that God is the Lord of all, not just one people.
2. They had a responsibility as the light of the world.
In Romans 1:18-23, Paul says that the knowledge of God has always been evident to man:
- Through the creation
- Through the conscience of Man
In Jonah, we see that God makes Himself known through the witness of His people. In every age, people have had access to God through His special people:
- The patriots before Moses' time
- The Jewish Nation before Christ
(They revealed God to the people around them.)
- The church of Christ after the appearance of our Lord Jesus
The book of Jonah defined the extent of their responsibility to reveal God beyond the borders of the Jewish nation.
3. God's Nature is Love
The Jews tended to see God as the God of Mt. Sinai
- The God of terrible pressure, power
- The God of law
- The God of justice
- The God of punishment
- The God of holiness
Jonah's book reveals an equally important and over-arching quality of God's character. He is the God of love and compassion.
They knew that God loved them but that He could also love their enemies, love those that disobeyed and hated Him, opened up a new horizon of possibility that would affect their lives and relationship with God and each other.
Lessons for Modern Day Christians
Certainly the story of Jonah and the whale or great fish has been a favorite Bible school lesson for generations. Aside from a very powerful story, it contains so many good lessons for us today, too many to mention here, but I chose three to leave with you tonight.
1. Jonah was Much Like We Are — A Combination of Gifts and Faults
Religions have traditionally gone from one extreme to the other in this area:
A. We're all bad
Calvin believed that man was totally depraved and unable to make a moral decision without the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. From this, came all kinds of perverted ideas and social practices that hurt us. The doctrines of predestination and mistakable grace which became the mainstay of so many Protestant and Evangelical denominations began with this misconception.
B. We're all OK
This is what we're living through today. Nothing is bad, everything is relative, you are politically incorrect if you judge anything as bad.
To these extremes, the book of Jonah clearly exposes the truth about mankind:
- Because we are made in the image of God, we can do some pretty good things, even some Godly things that are spiritual in nature.
- Because we are sinners, we also have the potential for evil in our lives, sometimes terrible evil.
Jonah teaches us that everyone has a combination of good and evil within them. It's not 50/50, sometimes more good than evil or visa versa, but always there is both (shouldn't be surprised).
2. God's Word is Powerful
Despite Jonah's pig-headedness, his prejudice, his pride, when he preached God's word, it was productive:
- The pagan sailors believed and they and their ship were saved.
- The pagan Ninevites heard Jonah's preaching, believed and repented, and they and their city were spared.
- Even Jonah himself when he spoke to God believing in his power, was saved from his predicament.
The power of God's word for condemnation or salvation reminds me of a story about a young girl and an atheist:
A little girl who was in Bible school was talking to her uncle who was an avowed atheist. He asked her, "Do you really believe that Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days?" She answered, "Oh, yes I do, cause the Bible says so." Then he said, "What did he do, what do you think he ate while he was in there?" She thought for a minute and replied, "I don't know. I"ll ask him when I get to heaven." And he, thinking he had her, said, "What if he doesn't go to heaven?" She smiled and replied, "Then you'll have to ask him!"
God's word is powerful to save, to build, to transform, to correct as well as to judge, to condemn and punish forever. This is why those of you who choose to make church attendance and Bible class a priority over the many pressures and activities of the world are wise, because you are filling up on the kind of power you need to deal with this world effectively and eventually move into the next world.
3. God is A God of Love and Forgiveness
The shining truth of Jonah that spans for centuries is that God is not only the same God, but that He is a loving and merciful God.
A. He was merciful to the sailors. They were pagans, they worshipped idols and were involved in terrible practices. They were not searching for God, God went and searched for them and found them through Jonah.
B. He was merciful to Jonah. His sins were greater because he knew God, but he disobeyed anyway. Despite this, God, in His love pursued Jonah:
- When Jonah was in the belly of the fish God went there to hear his prayer, to witness his repentance, to draw him out of his grave.
- When Jonah was angry in Nineveh, God blessed him anyway and was patient with him in his anger.
God was merciful to the Ninevites. They were not only pagans, but they had attacked and killed God's people. Yet God still felt compassion for them and reached out to them. And when they repented, He saved them and their city.
Of all of the lessons of Jonah, the one that is repeated over and over again is that God is a loving and merciful God and He will forgive and save those who come to Him in faith and repentance. As John says in I John 1:9:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
None of us will probably be in the belly of a fish, but sometimes:
- We're in a pit of depression.
- We're in a battle with sin.
- We're overwhelmed by doubt or fear, or guilt or discouragement
During these times, let's remember the God of love and mercy who can come to us no matter where we are and save us and forgive us as we believe and trust in His word.
Are you in the belly of a fish as far as your life, or marriage, or health, or finances are concerned? Call on God in prayer and faith and He will answer you. If we can minister to you in any way, please don't hesitate to call on the church now as we stand and sing.