Text: Jonah 2; Psalm 88:1-10; Acts 2:22-24; Matt 12:38-41
The book of Jonah is a shocking book, not because it tells the story of a God who puts a prophet in the belly of a whale, but because of what it reveals about the heart of God. Jonah is like a play with four acts.
Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”” (Jon 3:4).
The inhabitants of the city believe God’s message with dramatic results; “let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:8-10 ESV).
““v.10 You pity the plant, for which you did not labour, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. v.11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:10-11). To understand Jonah and his offensive mission we must know something about the Assyrians.
The city of Nineveh where Jonah preached destruction was the capital of the Assyrian Empire which encompassed a large portion of the ancient
Middle East: Slide showing location and extent of Assyrian Empire (Jon 1:2).
Whatever the date the of Jonah’s preaching, perhaps the eight century BC, the Assyrians were always incredibly cruel (2 Ki 14:25). They would pin the flayed skins of captives to city walls, impale people on stakes, castrate and disembowel the men and burn alive the girls, enslave and move entire populations from one part of their empire to another; something they did a century later when they destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Ki 17:6): Slide showing Ashurbanipal’s garden party with his wife, with decapitated head hanging from tree. In the eyes of Israel the wicked Assyrians deserved extermination; but the commissioning and miraculous deliverance of Jonah shows how much the Lord loved the Ninevites.
Jonah himself is a highly complex and contradictory character. He shows no fear of the sailors, the storm or the murderous Assyrians and forthrightly confesses to the pagan his fear of the one true God, ““I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.””, then he boldly exhorts them to throw him overboard (1:9).
Jonah testifies to a fear of God but in practice he is the most disobedient of the prophets.
Yet in the belly of the fish he can speak out a beautiful psalm of deliverance; ““The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head….Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you… Salvation belongs to the LORD!”” (2:5, 8-9).
With true prophetic authority Jonah hates idols and is totally assured that only the Lord can save.
Jonah’s description of near drowning touches me very deeply. Years ago off a beach on Kangaroo Island in South Australia I was carried out to sea by a rip and felt sure I was about to drown. I had only been a Christian for about 3 months. Exhausted, swallowing water and having been under twice, they say, “you go down three times and then you are dead”, I found myself praying over and over these final words of Jesus from the cross, ““Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”” (Luke 23:46).
Against all expectations someone swam out and pulled me in and I was delivered from certain death.
“Salvation belongs to the LORD!” and I am so thankful for his deliverance AND for having gone through that traumatic faith-building exercise. It filled me like Jonah with a sense of assurance that I could not perish until God’s call on my life was complete. I am very grateful to God, but Jonah never lost his resentment about God’s call on his life.
What’s the difference between me and Jonah?
Like Jonah the Lord has called me to do things I never wanted to do. I loathed high school, looked down upon teachers and caused them trouble and was so lazy I had to repeat my year 12 and just passed the second time. When I met Jesus at university life stopped being about me. I had my eyes set on a scientific career, but without consultation God spoke into my life through his Spirit, through circumstances and a precise Bible verse telling me I must become a school teacher.
Reluctantly obedient as I was I could never sit down and sulk like Jonah – because I had met Jesus. The great difference between God and Jonah about sin and judgement could only be resolved through the cross.
Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment
The prophets are full of predictions pronouncing stern judgement on idolatrous nations (Isa 13-23; Jer 45-51; Ezek 25-32 etc.) The whole book of Nahum is a taunt song over the destruction of Nineveh; “3:1 Woe to the bloody city…. 2:13 I am against you declares the LORD… 2:13 I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young …. 3:7 “Nineveh lies in ruins; who will grieve for her?…. 3:19 All who hear of your destruction will clap their hands for joy. Where can anyone be found who has not suffered from your continual cruelty?” (Nahum 2:13; Nahum 3:1, 7, 19).
The Assyrians definitely deserved God’s punishment, but buried in the prophets is a word of promise for the land of Assyria, modern Iraq and Syria, “v.24 In that day…. v.25 the LORD of Hosts will say, “… Blessed be Assyria, the land I have made ….” (Isa 19:24-25). The Lord spoke clearly through Jeremiah, “If…I declare concerning a nation…that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation…turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.” (Jer 18:7-8 cf. Isa 28:21; Lam 3:33).
This is exactly what happened in Nineveh; “When God saw…how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them.” (Jon 3:10). Jonah however despised God’s compassion and resented knowing that the Lord is someone who can change his mind about judgement. The outworking of God’s mercy in the world always has a shocking character.
The first readers of Jonah would have understood their covenant God showing mercy to pagans if the prophet had prayed for them, but that the holy Creator could respond to the cries of idol worshippers was utterly shocking to the Jewish mind (Num 21:7 cf. Gen 18: :32; 20:7).
Yet the final words of the book hint at God’s reason for showing compassion to the awakened conscience of the repentant Ninevites, “should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left…?”” (Jon 4:11).
The expression, “persons who do not know their right hand from their left” means the Assyrians were morally and spiritually unable to discern the difference between right and wrong and were ignorant of the seriousness of their sin until they heard the preaching of Jonah.
Paul can speak of his conversion experience in similar language; “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent….I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13 ESV).
The book of Jonah ends with the pagans forgiven but with God’s man angry and unrepentant. Yet Jonah is one Old Testament prophet with whom Jesus openly compares himself.
Jonah and Jesus
The Sign of Jonah
The Sign of Jonah
The “sign of Jonah” contains within it a message of great hope for the salvation of the world because the sign of Jonah is the gospel. As Jonah was restored after three days in darkness on the edge of death and went to the Gentiles who repented at his preaching, so Jesus will rise again from the dead and his name will be proclaimed to the nations who likewise will turn to God (cf. Matt 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-47).
As Tim Keller says; “God hinted to Jonah that he would love the great, lost cities of the earth in a way that Jonah would not. In the gospel of Jesus Christ…that commitment was fulfilled.” Jesus is the direct opposite to Jonah.
Jonah had no compassion for the ignorant, but surrounded and immersed in the absolute moral and spiritual blindness of both Jew and Gentile humanity on the cross Jesus cries out in prayerful words that finally reveal the true heart of God; ““Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”” (Luke 23:34).
Just what was it that made the divine commission to Jonah so shocking and why is it just as shocking to the Church in Australia today?
Mercy and Forgiveness
An idol taken into the heart becomes invisible to all natural moral and spiritual discernment (Ezek 14:1-11). Only something truly shocking can prise open our idolatrous hearts so that we can see what God sees inside of us on; our ever hidden idol is self-righteousness and the only event radical enough to expose it is the gospel of Christ. It was the idol of self-righteousness that would lead the people of God to crucify their Saviour (Luke 23:35).
The Assyrians of Jesus’ day were the idolatrous Romans hated by pious Jews. When Christ challenged his hearers with the exhortation; “v.44 “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, v.45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”” his words were shockingly offensive to all those Jews praying for a militant messiah to come and crush their idol worshipping conquerors (Matt 5:44-45).
The story of Jonah and its direct opposite in Jesus incisively provokes the question, “How much of the prophet’s self-righteous superiority is in us?”
At the time of the Falklands war the Archbishop of Canterbury caused a great stir when in a public memorial service he prayed for the casualties on the enemy’s side. Alison was attacked by other Christians for interceding for the conversion of Osama Bin Laden. I have been in quite a number of prayer meetings for the persecuted Church in recent days, but I cannot recall many passionate prayers for the Assyrians of our time [open question to congregation], Islamic State.
Samar* is an 18-year-old young woman from Saudi Arabia. Throughout her childhood, her life was steeped in Islamic tradition. But in her teens, she began to question the teachings of Islam. The horrifying violence of ISIS only reaffirmed her doubts. Seeking the Truth, Samar decided to learn more about Christianity through our 24/7 satellite television channel.
She said that she could be killed if her family discovered what she was doing, and she wanted to know for sure that Jesus was the Truth.
“I’m not ready to die for something that might be a lie,” she said.
After eight months corresponding with our follow-up team, Samar became convinced that Jesus was…the…Son of God…“Now I am ready to die,” she said, “because it’s easy to die for the Truth.”
She then shared this shocking statement: “I thank God for ISIS, because they opened my eyes.”
It is not possible to understand the message of Jonah and the gospel of Jesus and retain a self-righteous attitude of hostility towards militant Moslems or any other group of “evil” people in this world (Matt 5:39; 7:11; 12:39).
It is through the gospel message of unconditional forgiveness offered to the most evil of this world that the true glory of Christ is revealed. And the most evil of this world are not the terrorists, paedophiles, abortionists, prostitutes, drunken aboriginals, gay activists, your “ex”, ice addicts or whoever else we think that does not deserve mercy, the most evil are the self-righteous (1 Cor 6:9-11).
God’s call on Church on the Rise is to be a haven for all the “worst sorts of sinners” in this world, the sort of people I have named, and more, but the cost of this call must be great. Jesus prophesied that if we follow him in his way of shocking forgiving love that leads sinners to repentance ““a person’s enemies will be members of his own household.”” (Matt 10:36)
Just as God’s boundless mercy shown in Christ led rejection by the religious of his day so a church that walks in such unmeasured mercy will be misunderstood and rejected by both the conservative and liberal elements in Anglicanism. The shocking power of the gospel remains undiminished and will always create enemies for faithful followers of Jesus (Rom 1:16; 2 Tim 3:12).
There is a final word of hope for us from Jonah.
It is not only terrorists and other sinners who are “persons who do not know their right hand from their left”. As long as we are a part of a Church which does not passionately cry out in prayer with the crucified Christ for the forgiveness of all of our enemies we are the most morally and spiritually ignorant of all women and men (Matt 5:43-44; Luke 23:46).
Revival will come to the Australian Church as we begin to confess the depths of our ignorance about the mercies of God (Rom 12:1; 1 Pet 4:17-19).
Brothers and sisters, the person who suffered most from Jonah being in the belly of the whale was not Jonah, it was Jesus, and today Jesus is suffering terribly because those whom he so desperately loves is in the darkness concerning his unlimited love for the wicked (Eph 4:26, 30).
If God listened to an ignorant rebellious prophet who cried out from the belly of the fish and gloriously delivered him by a foretaste of resurrection power, how much more will he deliver us if we cry out to him in the name of him who is “the sign of Jonah”, the name of Jesus!
“O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy…”