December 17, 2014.
I am very excited to be in Chattanooga after a long break in time where I was unable to be here. On the way here, however, I chose to listen to a podcast series on the book of Jonah that was really good, and it has inspired me to do a (at least) two part series on the story of Jonah. Yes, I am going to use much of the material that was covered by the series that I listened to, but since you probably haven’t heard the same lessons I’ve heard, maybe it will be new and beneficial to you. I have a particular interest in the story of Jonah due to its stark differences from the rest of the minor prophets. These differences make his story unique. The story of Jonah also served as a well fit example of Christ’s death and resurrection for us, as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days just like Christ was in the grave for three days (ref. Matthew 12:38-42).
The story of Jonah is very well known amongst Christians as it is one of the favorite stories that we teach our kids when they are young and in bible classes. The thing is, however, we often don’t teach the entire story of Jonah (because it really isn’t that kid friendly) and even imply things that are not true at all for Jonah. The first part of this series will be dedicated to common misconceptions of the story of Jonah and what the bible actually records. I hope you will enjoy this series as much as I am going to enjoy writing it.
1. Jonah was not a real person- his story is a fable.
Over the years, many people have challenged the authority and validity of the bible by point to stories that would seem impossible to actually happen. Jonah has been a favorite of critics of the bible everywhere to challenge Christians about the truth and accuracy of the bible. There are even those among Christians who have taken then belief that Jonah’s story is simply an allegory. There are several reasons that I do not believe this is a good course to take. The first stems from the very first verse of the book of Jonah:
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai”
The book starts out by stating who the main character is and who he is the son of. Why? I think the reason for this is to say, “Hey, this is a real guy. Go check the genealogies. We don’t just make up names and put them in there, Jonah was a real person.” If this were simply a fable meant to teach a lesson, there would be no reason to state the short genealogy of Jonah. Beyond this, Jonah is indeed mentioned elsewhere in the bible amongst another setting (yet another reason to think genealogies are cool!):
“He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.”
(II Kings 14:25)
There is no implication in the book of Jonah that any of the events recorded did not actually happen. You might say, “but wait, how could any man live in the belly of a fish for three days?” The simple answer is, he can’t. Under normal circumstances, that is. But to use this logic is to imply that you don’t believe that God is the God of the universe, able to supersede the laws that He put in place. See, to not believe that God could make this happen through supernatural means is to believe in a very small God. God is not confined to the natural laws, for He is above them. He created them, thus He is not subject to them. Why is it more difficult to believe that Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days than it is that Jesus rose from the grave after being dead for three days? The second miracle seems more miraculous to me.
But even if this is not enough evidence to convince you that Jonah was a real prophet, I believe the trump card should be with the words of Jesus. Jesus had no trouble believing that Jonah was a real prophet and the events that are recorded in the book of Jonah actually happened. He used these events to relate them to God’s ultimate plan of salvation.
“Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”
The men of Nineveh were very wicked, but they believed the word of the Lord by the preaching of Jonah. The Pharisees had one who was greater than Jonah, but they would not believe. See, for this to make any real sense, Jonah had to be a real person and the city of Nineveh had to be a real, wicked place, who had repented at the preaching of Jonah. If Jesus had no problem believing that Jonah was real, then why should we?
2. Jonah ran away because he was scared of the people of Nineveh.
In our children’s stories of Jonah it is often imply that Jonah ran away because he was scared of the people of Nineveh. Though the people of Nineveh were indeed the enemies of Israel, and they did do very ruthless and frightening acts to any who opposed them, this was not the reason that Jonah ran away. The reason he ran away might actually surprise you.
“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
Jonah ran away because he knew what God was doing! He knew God wanted him to preach to the city of Nineveh that they were going to perish in 40 days in effort to give them an opportunity to repent and have God turn His anger away from them. Jonah knew God would do this, because he knew the character of God. And he couldn’t stand it. He would rather run to the opposite side of the world then have any part in saving Nineveh. He would rather die than preach to Nineveh, not because he was scared, but because he hated them that much. This comes out all through the story of of Jonah. He runs away. He sleeps on the boat instead of praying to God. He asks to be cast overboard instead of going back and doing the will of the Lord. And even when he preaches to Nineveh, his message is still filled with harshness and hatred!
“Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
3. The story ends in joy as the people of Nineveh repent and God turns away from His anger- everyone is happy.
As a continuation of the last point, after Nineveh repented, Jonah didn’t change his mind, but rather asked God to kill him because he was so angry. The story in no way ends in joy for the prophet of the Lord, but in anger. You should read chapter 4 closely, because it is filled with Jonah’s whining and complaining. Jonah does not grow a love for the people, but is still mad at God for sparing them. He did not think this was the right thing to do. But God did not give up on Jonah just yet. One of the most interesting things to me about the book of Jonah is the end. The book ends on a question that God asks Jonah. The question, though somewhat rhetorical, is never answered. The book just ends. In context, God had caused a plant to grow up over Jonah to give him shade in a very sunny place, and then caused the plant to die to teach a lesson. This is how the Jonah responds and the book ends:
“When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 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?”
Jonah cared more about the plant then he did the people of Nineveh. There was no rejoicing from Jonah when the people repented. There was only deep frustration.
4. God needed Jonah to save Nineveh.
Sometimes we look at the story of Jonah from the wrong perspective. We see Jonah, we see him reject his call and then we see God chase after him. God goes after Jonah because He needs him to preach to the people of Nineveh, right? Wrong. God didn’t need Jonah. God could have used anyone. When Jonah ran away from the Lord, God didn’t have to chase after him. He could have called on another prophet, or used a different means altogether. So why did God chase after Jonah?
Jonah needed God.
The story of Jonah is as much of a story about God trying to teach one of His prophets a lessons as it is a redemption of Nineveh mission. Jonah had an internal problem. He was sound religiously- his knowledge of scripture was profound, his theology was on point. But Jonah had a heart problem. He would not stand for salvation coming to anyone other than Hebrews. Jonah hated these people, and God was trying to redeem Jonah just as much as He was trying to save Nineveh.
There was a point made in the sermon series that I thought was rather profound. Isn’t it interesting that everyone in the story of Jonah listens to the word of the Lord except for the Lord’s prophet himself? Think about it. The men on the ship listen to the word of the Lord. The people of Nineveh listen. The storm listens, the plant listens and the worm listens. When God speaks, everyone actually listens. Except for Jonah, the prophet of the Lord. How ironic is that?
There was a reason that God chased after Jonah, but it was not because He needed him to accomplish His will. God wanted to redeem Jonah as well. We need to remember that God does not need us to accomplish His will, He can use anyone, whether for or against Him. But He wants us to accomplish His will, and that’s why He pursues us. God is about redemption, and He is calling all who will hear. Could He be calling you?
These are just a few of the misconceptions of the story of Jonah, and I’m sure there are more. Come back tomorrow and we will discuss some of the lessons that I think we can gleam from this interesting story and make application to our live. God called Jonah to do a task that he did not want to do. Might He not do the same for us? Stay tuned.
Suggested Daily Reading: Jonah 1-4.
Walk in the will of the Lord.