Today’s OT reading is a familiar story, one we have known since Sunday School. A story set in the 8th century BC, in which Jonah swallowed by a big fish sent by God – before being spat out on dry land.
But there is far more to this story than the fish. It’s also a serious Bible story that tells us very important things about God, and about us. So before we look at it afresh, as adults, let me pray: Heavenly Father, please help us to see new things in this passage of Scripture this morning. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
God sent Jonah to Ninevah… because all sin is serious, but God is patient
Ninevah was a great city. It was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, located in northern Iraq. A place of power and prestige. But it was also a place of wickedness. A place where people sinned and where wickedness was rife. And so our story begins with God sending his prophet Jonah to preach against the city. To warn them to change their ways or face God’s just judgement.
This should remind us that sin is serious. Our good God can’t bear to see his creatures harming one another and ignoring him. The Bible warns repeatedly that one day God will judge the world, but he is being patient, waiting for people to repent and turn to him for forgiveness.
In our story today, it was Jonah’s job to warn people of God’s coming judgement and to call them to repentance. But its our job today, because as Christians we have a responsibility to tell our family, friends and neighbours about Jesus, and the forgiveness we need from him.
Jonah resisted God’s will…as we all do sometimes
Chapter 1 verse 3 tells us that Jonah didn’t fancy the job God had given him. He was a reluctant prophet. So he fled instead towards Tarshish, a journey west across the Mediterranean sea from his home in Jerusalem. God wanted him to travel east by land, but Jonah went west by sea!
Jonah thought he could out-run God, and escape his call on his life. We do the same don’t we? As Christians we know God calls us to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, 24/7. But we try to keep some areas of our life under our own control. Can I challenge us all to surrender more of our lives to Christ – to listen to our conscience and do more of what God wants you to do with your time talents or treasure?
God sent a storm and a fish…because he is sovereign and merciful
What Jonah hadn’t reckoned on is that God is sovereign. He can’t be escaped, his reach extends everywhere. He can control the wind and the waves, and even the creatures that swim in the sea. We can have confidence that when we pray, we are talking to the one in charge of the cosmos. Nothing is beyond his reach our outside his control.
And so as Jonah sets sail God sends a storm. A storm that terrifies the sailors, and brings Jonah to his senses. He thinks the only way to save the ship is to have him thrown overboard!
But thankfully God is merciful. God didn’t send the storm to drown Jonah, but to turn him around. So as the sailors throw Jonah over the side, God sends a huge fish to swallow Jonah and save him from drowning. We don’t know if it was a whale, but it must have been big – a basking shark perhaps?!
Jonah’s three days in the fish…a signpost to Jesus
Whatever it was, we are told that Jonah spent three days inside the fish. At the end of that time God commanded the fish to spit him out onto dry land. God saved Jonah so he could call the Ninevites to repentance.
In the New Testament, Jesus compares his death and resurrection to Jonah’s spell in the whale. Just as God miraculously saved Jonah from death and brought him back after three days, so God would defeat death and save his Son by brining him out of the Tomb after three days. We are to read Jonah’s experience in the sea as a prototype of Jesus’ time in the tomb. Both were God-given event – miracles integral to the salvation of mankind.
Jonah’s preaching to the Ninevites provoked genuine repentance
After his miraculous escape, Jonah learns his lesson. This time he travels in the right direction and proclaims his God-given message to the Ninevites. He gives them a forty-day warning of destruction, unless they turn from their wicked ways.
Fortunately for them, the Ninevites, do listen to Jonah. Thnakfully the residents of Ninevah do repent, from the king himself downwards. They put on sackcloth and ashes and amend their ways.
They are a great model for us of true repentance, genuine penitence for what we’ve done wrong. Rather than simply saying sorry, their actions match their words. They are sorry enough to stop what they are doing and seek God’s forgiveness.
God withholds his wrath…because of his amazing grace
Even more remarkable than the Ninevites repentance, is God’s grace, because 3:10 tells us: When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.”
Wonderfully, God withheld his wrath from Ninevah. He didn’t carry through his warning to destroy them, because they reacted the right way. He forgave them their sins. God’s forgiveness is even more remarkable, becaue the Ninevites were Israel’s enemies. They were no friends of Jonah and his fellow Jews. God’s grace extended beyond the boundaries of Israel.
In fact, God’s grace was so extraordinary that even Jonah could not understand it. The end of the book of Jonah tells us that Jonah got grumpy with God!
It seems Jonah was upset that God didn’t destroy Ninevah as he had promised. Perhaps Jonah was frightened of being called a false prophet, because the destruction he had pronounced hadn’t appeared. But more likely, he couldn’t believe that God would show mercy towards Ninevites, towards people who had been so evil, towards people so unlike him and his fellow Israelites. Jonah hadn’t got his head around the scale of God’s grace.
We too need to recognise the size of God’s grace, the amount that God is willing to forgive. The great news of the Christian Gospel is that anyone, anywhere can receive God’s forgiveness and grace if they come to Christ. Whoever they are, whatever they’ve done, they can be forgiven.
God’s grace challenges us to tell anyone we know about Christ, not edit out those we think are unlikely converts. And it challenges us to pray for those Christians sharing the gospel message in far flung corners of the world, to nations and cultures very different to our own. If the Ninevites can experience God’s forgiveness, then anyone can!
To sum up, I hope we have learnt today that sin is serious. God can’t overlook wrongdoing in his world, whether in Ninevah or nearer to home. Everyone will be held to account one day. But our patient and merciful Father calls everyone to repent, just like the Ninevites. His sovereign power and amazing grace means he is able to save all who truly repent and turn to Christ. Whoever we are, whatever we’ve done. God’s forgiveness is available because Jesus died and rose again for us, an event foreshadowed by Jonah’s famous three day spell in the sea!