Is it easier to identify with people when you find yourself in the same boat with them?
Jonah finds himself dealing with two different groups of pagans in the course of his story - those he shared a boat with in Jonah 1:4-16 and the citizens of Nineveh in Jonah 3:3-10. We have reflected already in this series on the ungodly attitude Jonah displayed toward the lost Assyrians. But have you ever thought about those pagan sailors and the difference in how Jonah ministered to them?
The sailors were as pagan as the citizens - they were doubtless idolaters of the first rank - superstitious to the core. But with them, Jonah shares his "testimony" - Jonah 1:9 - as well as doing a very Christ-like thing in offering up his own life to save that of these seamen - Jonah 1:12. His influence in this short time with these men is impressive, as Jonah has them praying to Yahweh God before all is said and done - Jonah 1:14.
Certainly this reflects the truth that Jonah was a hidebound Israelite nationalist, we might even say an anti-Assyrian racist. But perhaps there is more going on here. Jonah was in the boat with these sailors - for how long, we do not know, but surely it was a significant time. They were on their way to the furthest point west at the time - Tarshish - which many think was in Spain. Jonah spent time with these guys. They worked on the ship together. They talked and ate together. Maybe they shared stories together.
Maybe some of the difference we see is simply the fact that Jonah took the time to get to know these pagans a bit. He had time to discover they were not monsters, they were fellow human beings. They had wives and families. They had hopes and dreams. Different beliefs? Certainly! Different manners and morals? Most likely. But being in the boat with them gave them a shared experience and a common humanity, at least for a time. And such opened the door in Jonah's heart to be God to these men - to even offer his life for them.
I am humbled and a bit shamed when I ask myself the application question: how often have I taken the time to "get in the boat" with unbelievers, enemies, people I disagree with? How much time have I shared with people different from me - different in beliefs, different in lifestyle?
The answer to that question might shed light on my lack of influence in sharing Jesus with people who need Him.
As an evangelist, I would consider it a great success and would be overjoyed to find that somebody I was working with understood and accepted the following truths about the God of heaven: "You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster." This is what Jonah knew and believed about God- Jonah 4:2. And yet, it is so twisted that the prophet did not want this truth applied to the situation at hand: the fate of the sinners in Nineveh.
Jonah knew - he just knew! - that God was going to end up forgiving and saving these wicked Assyrians. He knew it! And he hated it! Would it be going too far to say Jonah hated God? Perhaps. But he certainly hated what God stood for. Sometimes we say of God (and sometimes of ourselves!) - "He loves the sinner but hates the sin." True. But imagine with our man Jonah: he loved God but hated what God did. Incredible!
How does this happen? Possibly it happens when a person forgets that the grace they have received is undeserved. How short was the memory of this reluctant prophet? He had just been rescued from a near-death experience in the belly of a monster fish (Jonah 2), through no effort of his own, and not deserving said rescue one little bit! It was totally a gift of mercy and grace from the God who loved him.
Turn just a page or so later in your Bible, and Jonah, still wet behind the ears with salt water and wiping seaweed out of his nostrils, sits pouting on a hillside, in a rage, apparently expecting God to change who He is and submit to Jonah's wishes for fire from heaven to descend upon this city, full of 120,000 fellow human beings and many innocent animals (Jonah 4:11). It is such a ludicrous scene we scratch our heads and struggle to understand.
We would never be like that!
Jonah tried his best to accomplish the impossible: to run from God. He defied his calling as a prophet. His fellow minor prophet, Amos, describes the calling of a prophet with these words - Amos 3:7-8 - "For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets. The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?" Much is said about what prophets do and what they say, but the truth is pretty simple: a prophet speaks when God speaks, and he speaks what God speaks. As natural as it is for a person to fear the sound of a roaring lion nearby, so instantaneous is it for a prophet to speak the words of God when he hears them.
Take note in Jonah 1:3 that as the prophet attempted to do the impossible, the text says that he "paid the fare." That is, he bought a ticket to Tarshish. Barnhouse, in his work on Jonah, makes wise comment on this fact. He says that when one tries to run away from God, they never get to where they are going, and they always have to pay their own fare. If, on the other hand, one decides to go with God, they always arrive at their destination, and God always picks up the ticket.
How insightful that is! How expensive it is to be at cross-purposes with the Lord, to desire to go your own way, and to ignore His voice. On the other hand, the best deal one will ever make is to discern God's will and to follow it as faithfully as they can. In such a case, God pays for everything, and blesses your every step in His path.
Jonah learned (I hope) this lesson the hard way. It involved a near-death experience (twice), bitter disappointment, and a terrible humbling. Costly lessons for the man from Gath-hepher.
What if the absolute greatest thing about God is the very thing that makes you the angriest? That’s the boat Jonah was in (pun intended!).
We love grace when it is applied to us – we are not so sure about it sometimes when it is applied to “real sinners.”
We like when Yahweh gives us do-overs – after all, ours was an honest mistake. But seriously, how many chances do some people need?
The Lord really loves us. After all, we’re good people. We are sort of like “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Those people, out there, it is hard to imagine a good God thinking they are good enough to save.
I hope those unspoken thoughts very similar to Jonah’s are more horrific to us than the movie It. They should be. They ought to be. They MUST be! Jonah stumbled over the grace of God (Jonah 4:3). He is far from the only one to do so. The Pharisees did (John 8). Peter did (Galatians 2). I have (none of your business!). Perhaps you have (I won’t ask).
We love grace toward us. Sometimes – sometimes, we struggle with grace toward that guy.
When that happens, we ought to spend a few days in the belly of a great fish. At the least, we ought to meditate upon this truth: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for ALL people…” – Titus 2:11.
As I have taught Hebrew to university students through the years, one of the books we always translate together in Year 2 is Jonah (along with Ruth). Jonah is a brilliant short story, powerfully and compactly written, full of vim and vigor and bursting with spiritual truth. There is a reason we go back to it over and over again.
Jonah as a prophet is so unique. He is a missionary prophet (though certainly a reluctant one) unlike the others who prophesy mostly to Israel and Judah. His words are few – just 8 words of preaching are recorded – “Yet 40 days and Nineveh will be destroyed” – and one gets the feeling those words were spoken with the hope no one would here, and no one would heed.
Jonah also stands out among the Minor Prophets in that he is the only one that our Lord mentions and actually compares Himself to (Matthew 12 / Luke 11). Interesting, is it not, that Jesus chose the most incredible character with the most unbelievable story to treat as a real historical person and draw parallels with His own redeeming work?
There are also 4 significant miracles in Jonah, and multiple instances of God intervening powerfully to promote His will. He does so through such things as a fish, a plant, a wind-storm, and a calming of a storm.
Jonah as an individual is incredible because he is a preacher who hopes he will fail – and spectacularly! He is a man of God who fears the goodness of God.
Finally, he is a true-blue Israelite patriot who was probably a national hero for his accurate prophesying of national success during the days of King Jeroboam – 2 Kings 14:25. God, however, now wants him to throw all that away by offering an olive-branch to the most fearsome, most hated, most hateful, terroristic military machine in the history of the world to that point: the Assyrians. Is it any wonder he tried to do the impossible and run away from God? Would any of us have done any less?
More to come…