August 6, 2000
In the book of Jonah, we are introduced to a fantastic historical story. The prophet Jonah heard God instruct him to “arise, go to Nineveh, that great city.” Rather than listen to God’s instruction, though, Jonah ran in the other direction. Can one man’s no circumvent the eternal plan of God? In this study, Alistair Begg investigates God’s concern for all mankind and His reluctance to leave a servant in the dejection and misery brought about by disobedience.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’re going to read together, and then we’re going to pray together, and then we’re going to study the Bible together. And we’re going to read from the Old Testament, in the book of Jonah. Jonah 1:1:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’
“But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
“Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
“But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.’
“Then the sailors said to each other, ‘Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.’ They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.
“So they asked him, ‘Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?’
“He answered, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.’
“This terrified them and they asked, ‘What have you done?’ (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
“The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, ‘What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?’
“‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea,’ he replied, ‘and it will become calm. I know that [this] is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.’
“Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased.’ Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
“But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.”
Father, we pray that with our Bibles open before us you will be our teacher. We freely acknowledge that we do not have the ability to speak or hear or understand or have the Word applied to our lives without your divine enabling. And so we pray that you will set us free from every distracting influence, that we may turn our gaze to you, and that beyond the voice of a mere man we may hear you speak in a way that is life-changing. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
Now just a word of explanation for those of you who, as regular worshippers here at Parkside, are routinely anticipating that we’re going to turn to the Gospel of Luke and who know that we have now reached the end of chapter 11 and should be beginning chapter 12. I spent most of this week in preparation on chapter 12, and towards the end of the week determined that I wasn’t going to proceed into the twelfth chapter, at least not at the moment. The reasons for that are multivarious; I needn’t go into all of them. Suffice it to say that I think it’s profitable for us to take just a mini-break before we pick up in Luke chapter 12. And so, purposefully, in light, partly, of all of our missions family coming and going at the moment and turning our gaze towards cross-cultural and overseas mission; and also, in a small measure, in light of the fact that once again we want to turn our focus outward—purposefully so—as we think in terms of our open house that comes up in a few weeks from now in September; for these and other reasons, I determined that we would turn our gaze back to the Old Testament, and expressly to this book of Jonah the prophet.
Now, again, those who know the Bible will know that there are a variety of styles of writing within the Bible—that the Bible, if you like, is almost a library, it is a compendium of sixty-six books written by over forty authors, written over a period of hundreds and hundreds of years, and yet possessing a unity and a clarity of focus that points to its divine inspiration. One of the genres of literature that we find within this compendium is that which we refer to as prophetic writing. And there are some sixteen books of prophecy which come in the Old Testament. Those books begin with Isaiah and they end with Malachi, Malachi being the last book that we have in the Old Testament. Four of those books of the Prophets are referred to as Major, and twelve of them are referred to as Minor—the Major ones being Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel; the Minor ones containing this book here, the book of Jonah.
Now, the reason that they’re referred to as Minor Prophets is not because of any lack of significance in them, not because they were any less inspired or any less important. “Minor” is not an expression of the value of the book; it is simply an expression regarding the size of the book. And so, when you, for example, compare Ezekiel in all of its length to Jonah here, or to Nahum, or to one of these other smaller prophecies, you can understand why they were called Minor Prophets.
Now, each of these men, as prophets, were, if you like, in-between men. They had a responsibility to stand in between God and the day and age in which they lived. When you read the Prophets, you will discover that their personalities come through and their circumstances pervade their writings—pointing to the fact that while God’s Word, through human instrumentation, is supremely and expressly divine, that God has not picked up people and used them as a stenographer would use a typewriter. He has not used individuals as automatons, but he has taken the circumstances, the life, the background, the personality, the interests, the passions of these individuals, and coming with his Word to them and then through them, it takes into account who they are and where they’re from and the context into which they’re speaking at any given moment in time.
Now, that is to remind us of the fact that ultimately, the message of the Prophets is not natural, but rather, it is supernatural, and each one is distinct in its emphasis. Jonah is different from the other eleven in one particular way. If you read the other Minor Prophets, you will discover that what you have there is largely the record of the things that they said: “The Word of God came to Nahum, and Nahum said this, and then he said this, and then he said this, and he said that, and he said that,” and then it ends. And the same as you go through the rest. When you come to the book of Jonah, as some of you would notice, you are introduced not to the pronouncements of Jonah, which are actually very, very few, but we are introduced to a narrative, to an unfolding tale, a story—an historic story, but one that picks us up and carries us along as we read of the events surrounding the life of this particular servant. In this respect, it is akin to what you find in the book of Kings regarding Elijah and Elisha. Because when you read the stories of Elijah and Elisha, you read these amazing stories, and you’re swept along in the narrative—tremendous, miraculous things taking place as Elijah and Elisha do and say what God demands of them.
Now, that ought not to be a surprise to us, because when you’re seeking to put Jonah within a historic framework, you will find that he is a contemporary of Elisha—that he is, if you like, the generation coming behind Elijah, and he would be a younger version of Elisha, a successor to them both. And it is, of course, quite interesting that this little book is full of the miraculous as well. It is impossible to read the story of Jonah without bumping up against things that immediately we say of them, “How in the world could that possibly take place? This doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Now, what are we dealing with? Well, we’re dealing with the fact that God has intervened in his time-space capsule in a way that is distinct from the run-of-the-mill unfolding of the laws which God has himself established for our benefit and for our wholeness and for our discovery.
Now, that is a stumbling block immediately to some who are agnostic. And indeed, there may well be some here this morning, and you frankly have stumbled over the whole issue of the Bible and Jesus and everything else, all because of this matter of the miraculous. And you’ve been saying to yourself, “You know, if I could get over this miraculous question then maybe I could get on to the question of who Jesus is. But since I stumble over all this miraculous Old Testament stuff, I can never get to Jesus.”
Well, can I suggest to you that you turn your search the other way around? Because in actual fact, to reject the miraculous wholesale actually lies outside the realm of rational argument. This is not the purpose of my dissertation this morning, but let me just mention it going past. It lies outside the realm of rational argument. It goes like this: “I do not believe that miracles happen; therefore, this could not have happened.” So it is a decision that is made: “I do not believe that miracles happen; therefore, miracles do not happen.” It is an a priori argument.
Now, that is based on faith. It’s not based on science. Because science has nothing to say about miracles. Science deals in the realm of repetitive activity. Science can ultimately only comment on that which can be put in a laboratory and produced and reproduced again and again and again. And scientific deduction is then made on the basis of the fact that this thing happens again and again and again and again. But by very definition, miraculous events are not like that. Therefore, it takes it beyond the realm of science.
When I as a believer say that I accept the miraculous, what am I actually saying? I am saying that by an act of faith I believe that God’s Word is true. When an agnostic says that he or she rejects the miraculous, they’re saying the same thing: “By an act of faith, I do not believe that God’s Word is true.” For the agnostic, faith, then, is grounded in the ridiculous notions that such things could possibly be true. And they say to themselves, “No sensible person would ever believe that, and since I am sensible, I therefore do not believe it.” The Christian, on the other hand, comes to the miraculous via the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For this is the touchstone and the cornerstone of the apostolic emphasis concerning the nature of Christianity itself.
Paul, who himself was totally opposed to Christianity, regarded Jesus as an impostor and regarded his followers as crazy, eventually becomes the great evangelist and the great proponent of the particular claims of Jesus of Nazareth. And what was it changed him? Well, it was an encounter with Christ. How could he encounter Christ? Because Christ was alive. And so Paul says, “It is the resurrection which gives basis to everything else.” Once settle the matter of the resurrection, and then Jonah and the great fish simply slots into line. Once settle the matter of the resurrection, and then the Genesis 1–11 narratives settle into place.
And so that’s the real issue. Is there sufficient evidence in the New Testament—in the unfolding arrival of the church, in the transformation of the disciples, in the absence of a body in the tomb, in all that is involved—is there sufficient basis there for us to say, “All of the evidence points to the fact that the only reasonable explanation as to why this Christianity could ever be true is that Jesus is himself alive from the dead”? And it is there that we start, and then from there we go to the rest.
Now, if you read the great apologists, you’ll find they do the same thing. And Francis Schaeffer in the ’60s and ’70s was absolutely crystal clear; any of his writings start always from that cornerstone. So if you’re agnostic today and you’re stumbling over the miraculous, I’m glad that you’re here, and I want to encourage you to think the issue out perhaps the reverse of what you’ve been doing. In other words, start with this real issue and then work from there. And with Paul you can conclude very quickly, if Jesus Christ is not alive from the dead then the whole thing is a shambles, and there’s really no reason for us to consider it at all.
Now, that’s just a discursus on the miraculous as we go past, and the reason I do it is because one of the reasons that people fiddle around with the book of Jonah—they call it a parable, they call it a story, they call it a mythology; and I’m talking about people who are teaching in Christian colleges and universities—one of the reasons that they do this is because they just are unprepared to bow their hearts and minds to the fact that God is God and he can do anything he wants, anytime he wants, with anyone he wants, in any way he chooses. ’Cause he’s God! See? But as soon as there is no place here, then, of course, we’re going to have to remanufacture all the material.
Okay. What is the key to this book? I think it’s in the final sentence—4:11, the question that God asks, a rhetorical question: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” One of the things we need to learn to do is answer the questions that God is asking. What we want God to do is answer the questions that we are asking. And that’s okay. But there is tremendous profit in addressing ourselves to the things that the Bible raises. And you’ll find a whole selection of them as you read your Bibles. And God is asking the question here of his servant, “Don’t you think I should be concerned about the city of Nineveh? After all, it is such an unrighteous and dreadful place.”
Now, with that in our minds as the key to what’s taking place, let’s go right back to the first word of the book: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh.’” Actually, in the Hebrew, the first word is “arise, go,” and the NIV has dropped “arise.” Maybe they regarded it as superfluous, ’cause you can’t go unless you arise, or I don’t know what the translators did. But the fact is, the word “arise” is an important word. Because God is not saying, “If you ever happen to be passing Nineveh, maybe you could drop in and preach for a little while.” He’s actually arresting Jonah in the midst of his life, and he’s saying, “I want you to get up, right now, and I want you to go to Nineveh. I want you to arise, I want you to reorientate your thinking, and I want you to proceed in the direction that I am telling you.”
Nineveh was a fairly attractive place. It was in northern Mesopotamia. It was on the east bank of the Tigris River. It had developed to a substantial city. And indeed, if you take a contemporary map and you find the city of Mosul—M-o-s-u-l—then it was opposite that that this city of Nineveh had been built. So that is the place that’s involved, “the great city of Nineveh.”
Incidentally, there are a lot of things left unstated in this little book as well. The style of it is terse; it’s punchy, you know. It doesn’t take a lot of time. It just says, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh.’” You know, it’s like, “Let’s get this thing going here!” Who was Amittai? Nobody says. Where was his mother? We don’t know. All those kind of questions. Why? Because of the purpose and direction of the book. It is punchy in the way that a newspaper article may be punchy rather than more laborious. It is not, if you like, a leader. It’s not one of those boring essays in the middle of the thing. It is far more just getting the material out and getting it out quickly.
That’s the place. Here’s the proclamation. What are you supposed to say? “Well, I want you to go to the great city of Nineveh,” he says, “and preach against it,” the reason being that “its wickedness has come up before me.”
Now, which part of this is difficult to understand so far? “I want you to go here. You know where?”
“I want you to say this. You understand that?”
“Yes, I do.”
“So you’re to go and you’re to denounce the wickedness of Nineveh.”
Why would God be allowed to go into this city and denounce it? Because he is the judge of all the earth. Is the reason why Nineveh should be singled out for its wickedness? Well, apparently. It was one of the most wicked places of the then-known world. If you doubt that, you can read in Nahum chapter 3 the striking words of God through his prophet Nahum concerning the city of Nineveh and listen to the nature of its condition:
Woe to the city of blood,
full of lies,
full of plunder,
never without victims!
The crack of whips,
the clatter of wheels,
and jolting chariots!
flashing swords and
piles of dead,
bodies without number,
people stumbling over the corpses—
all because of the wanton lust of a harlot,
alluring, the mistress of sorceries,
who enslaved nations by her prostitution
and peoples by her witchcraft.
“I am against you,” declares the Lord Almighty.
“I will lift your skirts over your face.
I will show the nations your nakedness.”
Pretty dramatic stuff. God is enraged about the circumstances in Nineveh. So he goes to his man and he says, “Jonah, you’re my man for the moment, this is the place, and here’s the proclamation. Go in there and denounce it for its wickedness.”
Now, the interesting thing is this: that when you read the denunciations of God, you discover that it is always in the heart of God to long that, as a result of his declaration of judgment and condemnation, it may stir within those who hear it a heart of repentance and of faith, so that what he says he will do in judgment, he will end up not doing on account of his mercy.
And again, the Bible answers any question that may be in our mind concerning the validity of such an assertion. In Jeremiah 18:7, this is what God says, this time through Jeremiah: “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.” Okay? So he says, “I want you to go to Nineveh, and I want you to denounce it.” Both God and his servant know, they have enough theology—at least Jonah has enough theology—to understand that if he goes and pronounces condemnation, the possibility is that the people will turn in sackcloth and ashes and repent. And that, as we shall see, unsettles him.
So the place is clear. The proclamation is clear. And what about the purpose? What about the purpose? What is the purpose of this little book? Why is it even in the Bible? Do you ever think that when you’re doing your Bible reading, and you come to this, and it starts off, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai”? And it makes you think about your tie, you know; you start saying things like, “Amittai, have a tie, do I have a tie, where’s my tie?”—stuff like that. Before you know where you are, you’re completely nothing to do with the Bible at all. You’re going through it as fast as you can. “How many verses am I supposed to read?” You look up your sheet: “Seventeen. Okay, let’s go. Seventeen, let’s get through seventeen of them. Oh good, that’s the whole chapter. Fine, lovely, okay. Jonah, yes, I must come back to that sometime. Sometime. I don’t know when, though.”
Now, the fact is, we don’t know why it’s there. So we need to ask the question: Why is the book even there? What has God left the book in the Bible for? Well, there are more answers than we can even give. One is to make perfectly clear to the people of his day, and to us, that God’s ways in dealing with nations and cities and individuals are not our ways—that it is impossible for us to explain the world geographically, historically, sociologically, psychologically. All of these things may point us in a certain direction, but ultimately, we cannot make sense of the rise and fall of empires, the advancement of cities and their demise, except for the fact that God is the God who is judge over all the earth, and he sets things up and he brings them down. Now, much of that will not be apparent to us until finally we get to glory, and we are then treated to a huge panorama of world history, and we say, “Oh, so that’s why that happened! So that’s why that place never prospered. So that’s why this came to nothing at all.”
And the book of Jonah is a classic reminder to us that the actions of God, in judgment and in mercy, are not constrained by our understanding of what’s taking place. In other words, we don’t have to understand everything so as to give credence to the hand and the heart of God. Indeed, the fact of the matter is that our very finitude prevents us from understanding everything, and if we make the understanding of everything the basis whereby we determine what God can or cannot do, then, of course, we put ourselves in the place of God, and he does only what we see fit.
And the book of Jonah—classically to Jonah, says, “I’m God. You go. I’ll do what I’m going to do.” And Jonah is a sulker. Jonah is a defiant. I bet Jonah was a right wee rascal when he was a boy. I bet he knew how to stamp his foot and say that he wasn’t having any more cereal, and he wasn’t doing this, and he wasn’t doing that, because here his personality comes to the fore.
“I said go!”
“I said no!”
Now, is that the end of the purposes of God for Nineveh? Can one man’s “No!” circumvent the eternal plan of God? Our capacity to understand and approve of what God does, does not establish the standard to which God is supposed to adhere.
But there’s more! Because Jonah’s fulfillment of this commission would have helped to fulfill the role of provoking the people of God to respond to God. And I don’t have time to delve back into this, but you find it all the way through the Old Testament and right into the New. It’s most common to us in Romans chapter 10, where God talks about the fact that “if you go to the pagans and the pagans turn in repentance and faith, then it will provoke my people to return to me in the way that they should.” That you find in Deuteronomy; that you find through the Prophets. You’ve got Amos coming and just absolutely hammering the people. Then you’ve got Jonah coming and taking it in a different way. And through it all, God is working his plan and his purpose out for us who are his own people. And the dramatic thing here is this: that he is doing this with people that are the most unlikely people to be saved. And it is this, as we shall see, which absolutely annoys Jonah. Because Jonah doesn’t like the fact that these people may possibly be converted.
This, of course, is nothing new to us, because in Luke chapter 4, when we were reading way back then, we discovered that Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees of his day that he was prepared to take the message of the gospel everywhere. And you’ll remember he says, in Luke chapter 4, around verse 24, he points out Elijah, and he says, “You know, Elijah was surrounded by widows in his day, many people that he could have ministered to; and yet it was to a widow from Sidonia that he went. Elisha was surrounded by lots of people who had leprosy, and yet it was to Naaman the Syrian that he went.” The mercy of God is not limited in this particular way.
So he says, “I want you to go to Nineveh, I want you to go and say this, and I want you to do it now.” And then verse 3: “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and [he] headed for Tarshish.” “Tarshish” actually means a refinery or a smelter. The word is used of a number of medieval sites where Phoenician traders had gone and established these various smelting projects. When Tarshish is mentioned in Isaiah and in Psalm 72, it is simply referred to as a remote and a distant place. So Jonah determines that he won’t go to God’s place; he’ll run away to his own place, and he’s going to get as far away as he possibly can.
Now, the question that must arise if we’re thinking is simply this: Why didn’t Jonah go? I mean, you read all the other Prophets and it says, “And God came to Isaiah and he said, ‘Do this,’ and he did it; and he came to Jeremiah and he said, ‘Do this,’ and he did it; and he came to someone else and he said, ‘Do this,’ and he did it; and the word of God came to Jonah and he said, ‘Go here,’ and Jonah ran away from the Lord.”
Now, there’s no answer given to us in the opening verses. You have to get to 4:2 in order to understand just exactly what was going on in his mind: “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That[’s] why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you[’re] a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” What’s he referring to? He’s referring to the fact that when the people of Nineveh heard the message of judgment, they repented in sackcloth, and Jonah didn’t like it.
Why didn’t Jonah want to obey? I think the bottom-line answer is simply this: because he didn’t want the Lord to spare Nineveh. He didn’t want the Lord to spare Nineveh. He had previously been involved in propounding a message of prosperity to his own people: in 2 Kings 14, they were going to take back territory from Assyria, and now it would appear that if he does what God asks him to do, the chances are that the Assyrian people may prosper so much that they may come and take back the territory all over again, and he frankly doesn’t fancy that. After all, these people were pagan. These folks were hostile. These people deserved judgment.
“Why can’t God keep it all nice and tidy? Why can’t he just save the nice people like us? What’s he doing going over there and dealing with those other people? We’re not going to do that, God. We’re not going over there with those ugly people. Why should we go over and then speak to those sinners and tell them there’s a message of judgment, that there’s hell to pay for their actions? What about if we tell ’em that and they say, ‘Well, is there an answer to our hell?’ and we have to say, ‘Yes, there’s a heaven,’ and then they say, ‘How do you get there?’ and we say, ‘By the cross,’ and then they get there! They don’t deserve to get there! They shouldn’t be there! They’re bad! They’re pagan! They’re hostile! They’re disinterested! They’re not churchgoing people! They are not the right kind of people.”
Now, somebody looking down from a high vantage point may be forced to conclude, in looking at the average church congregation in suburban North America, that that is exactly how we all feel about everything—that we have bought into the church growth notion that the way that you reach people is just by reaching people that are peculiarly like you. And unless a person is really like you, they’re not going to like you, and therefore, you can’t say anything to them. Therefore, there’s no point in going to people who have their hair painted forty-five different colors, have rings sticking out of every orifice of their body, and look like nothing on earth. There is no reason to go to those people. “Ah, they’ve made their beds, let them lie in it. Look at them. Let’s take a drive and see if we can look out the window at some of them. Look at these pagan, hostile people.”
And God says, “I want you to go down there and tell them that there’s a judgment coming.”
“I’m not going down there and tell them there’s a judgment coming. Let them face the judgment! If I go and tell them there’s a judgment coming, they may ask if there’s a way to escape it. And then what’ll happen? Then they’ll start becoming… Then we’ll have to have them here! We don’t want ’em here!”
That’s Jonah, the prophet… who doesn’t want to preach! No—the prophet who wants to preach, but only wants to preach where he wants to preach. The guy who only wants to preach to whom he wants to preach!
Did he really expect to change anything by running away? To run away from the presence of the Lord, down to Joppa, modern-day Jaffa? We just landed in Jaffa—we berthed in Jaffa—a few weeks ago, some of us. About thirty-five miles away from Jerusalem. I forgot about it, when we pulled the boat up beside it. I wish I’d remembered. ’Cause that’s where he was. Down in the travel agent’s at Joppa: “And what are you looking for today, Mr. Jonah?”
“Oh, I was thinking I’d just take a trip.”
“And anywhere in particular?”
“No, nowhere in particular. Just, basically, I’d like to get out of here.”
“Any distance in mind?”
“No, really, just as far away as possible.”
“Have you ever thought of a cruise?”
“I’m not much of a sailor. We Hebrews don’t do a lot of sailing, but I suppose if that’s all you’ve got, I’m prepared… I’ll have a go at anything.”
Listen: when you and I want to run away from the Lord, we will have a go at anything. We will get outta here on a bus, on a bike, on our hands and knees, any place, to run if we might from the presence of the Lord. Anyone running this morning? The Lord has spoken very clearly to you about some issue in your life, through the Bible, through the context and circumstances of your lives. And you’ve decided, “I’m just gonna run away from the Lord.” Do you think you’ll achieve anything by that?
This is, of course, what Adam and Eve thought they would do. Soon as they fouled up, they said, “We’ll make a run for it. Let’s go run and hide in the trees.” And the Lord came and sought them out, said, “Where are you?” Of course, he knew where they were; he wanted them just to answer. Jonah wanted to avoid the one he had offended. I think he probably wanted to be away so that when his replacement went in and preached, he wasn’t there to see exactly what had happened. And so, in his attempt to get as far away as possible, he’s prepared to take anything to get anywhere.
It’s a quite striking verse, isn’t it? “He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port”—i.e., the port of Tarshish. He probably justified it in his mind: “See? If I’d been supposed to go to Nineveh, there wouldn’t have been a ship here waiting for me. And I’m sure that I’m really supposed to go to Tarshish, because after all, there’s a ship here, and I want to go on a ship, and there’s a ship, and there’s…”
Do you do that? “God, I frankly don’t want to do this.” Now, over here we’re trying to rearrange our lives. Say, “Well, if the car hadn’t been there, if she hadn’t been there, if that hadn’t been there, I’m not supposed to do this,” and we play around in our minds with all kinds of nonsense. Look very carefully at what it says: that “he found a ship bound for [the] port. [And] after paying the fare, he went aboard.” I tell you what, the devil will always have a conveyance waiting for you when you’re determined to run away from the presence of the Lord. You can be guaranteed a way out of town. But be very careful; you will pay the fare. He may provide the ride, but you will pay the fare.
And what does it tell us? It tells us that the man who was called to “arise” is on his way down, because the course of disobedience is always down until the Lord intervenes. Verse 3: “He went down to Joppa.” This spiritualizes it a little bit; it is quite naughty, but I can’t miss the chance. “He went down to Joppa.” Verse 5: he went “below [the] deck,” where he fell asleep. We’ll come to that later on. The prophet sleeps while the pagans scream. What’s wrong with this picture? He went down to Joppa, he went down below the deck, and in 2:6: “The engulfing waters threatened me … to the roots of the mountains I sank down.” And so he probably said to himself, as he grabbed his backpack and he pulled it up, and he got on board, and he looked at the motley crew of the sailors and said, “Boy, I bet there’s some stories on this boat,” and then he went down below the deck, and he said to himself, “Well, sweet dreams to Nineveh! I’m glad I’ve got that over with. Just me now, and the sailors, and Tarshish here I come!” But it wasn’t that simple. And it never is.
If you’ve ever tried doing a runner from God, you know it isn’t that simple. Number one, you can’t do it on your own. You get everybody goofed up with you—your family, your friends, your business associates, and even casual people that you meet in bus stations, when you’re running from God. The whole thing goes haywire.
And that’s where we leave him. But let me point this out to you as I finish. There are multiple lessons here. One of the lessons is simply that God is concerned for all mankind. We’re going to see this unfold, that he is “not willing that any should perish,” that he loves saving people. And that one of the challenges that must be coming to us again and again, as a church and as individuals, is the challenge to our parochialism. If it is God’s plan for us to remain in Cleveland, if it is for us to live out our lives in this way and in this place, then so be it; we will do that to the glory of God. But if God is stirring within our hearts concerning the Muslim world and sacrificing ourselves and our notoriety and our future for the seeing of unbelieving Muslims coming to faith in Jesus Christ, then if God says go, we daren’t say no. What are we gonna do with the teeming masses of India? What are we gonna do with the vast, vast hordes of mainland China? Who is really there in Taiwan to add to the voice of those declaring the glory and the power of forgiveness in Jesus? Ninety-eight percent of the power, the personnel, the money, the influence that is generated in the United States of America, that has the capacity to make a radical impact on the world—the largest percentage is being utilized right here in the continental United States.
It also contains a warning against disobedience; I’ve made that point. It also gives to us a display of divine grace, in that it conveys the great reluctance. Because the great reluctance that you find here in the book of Jonah is actually not the reluctance of Jonah to do what he’s told, but it is the reluctance of God to leave his servant in dejection and misery brought about by his disobedience. What a great God! That he comes to us again and again and again, even when we put our fingers in our ears and run off down the street, said, “I’ve had enough of that. I’m not doing that anymore. I’m not going there anymore. I’m not obeying that anymore.” And by the whisper of a child, by the loss of a tire on the freeway, by the rising of a great storm, he pursues his wandering child, because he loves us so much that he doesn’t want to leave us in the belly of a great fish.
Well, we’ll discover more of this later, but for now let’s ask God to bring his Word home to our hearts.
Father, out of all of these words, I do pray that we might hear your voice. I pray for some this morning who came to church and they said, “You know, this is my last Sunday. I have had enough of this. I’m going to say no to God and no to the Bible and no to everything else.” And they can’t believe, when they thought they were going to be able to slip out under Luke chapter 12, that they ran slap-bang into Jonah. Thank you, Father. Show yourself strong in their lives.
Others of us who have determined that you really are only interested in saving nice people like us need to have a baptism of clear seeing and need to be reminded of the extent of your mercy. Because we’re so proud, we think we deserve to be saved. We don’t realize how ugly and willful and defiant we are. And if we understood how wretched we really are, then we would realize that there is no reason under heaven why all these pagan, defiant, apparently distasteful individuals should not be the recipients of the message of mercy in judgment.
Father, I pray that you will turn the gaze of us as a congregation out. Don’t allow us to become a marina here. Don’t let us sail our boats around and congratulate one another on a new headlight and a little more horsepower. Send us out, Lord, onto the sea, we pray, to “rescue the perishing” and to “care for the dying” and to “tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.”
And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be our abiding portion, today and forevermore. Amen.
 See 1 Corinthians 15:13–19.
 1 Corinthians 15:17 (paraphrased).
 Nahum 3:1–5 (NIV 1984).
 See Romans 10:18–21.
 See Deuteronomy 32:31.
 Luke 4:25–27 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 3:8–9 (paraphrased).
 Jonah 2:5–6 (NIV 1984, emphasis added).
 2 Peter 3:9 (KJV).
 Fanny Crosby, “Rescue the Perishing” (1869).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.