Tuesday, November 08, 2011

How Great Is Our God? The Abiding Lessons of the Book of Jonah




Jonah is one of the smallest books of the Bible, at just four chapters and 48 verses, yet as we have seen and hopefully experienced, it makes a large impact on those who read it. We’ve spent six months and 20 sermons going through it, and I can testify that I have been comforted, challenged, and convicted by it. What do we take away from it after this lengthy study? I hope that you never look at this book again as being the story of a man and a whale. G. Campbell Morgan said that, when it comes to studying Jonah, “some people are so busy with a tape measure trying to find the dimensions of a whale’s belly that they never see God at all.”[1] And this is a terrible shame. More than a book about a fish, or a book about a prophet, the book of Jonah is a book about God.

The writer of Jonah characterizes many things in the book as being “great”: the city of Nineveh (1:2; 3:2-3; 4:11), the wind and the storm on the sea (1:4, 12), the fear of the sailors (1:10, 16), the fish (1:17), the leaders of Nineveh (3:5, 7), and the emotions of Jonah (4:1, 6). But the greatest element of the story of Jonah is God Himself. God is the main character, the primary actor, and the hero of the story. Like that treasured hymn, Jonah proclaims “How Great Thou Art!” Like the popular contemporary worship song, it asks and answers the question, “How Great is our God?” And it provides for us four specific responses to that question.

I. God’s love is greater than our circles of concern.  

When I was a student at Fruitland, our dean announced in chapel that the Badlands Baptist Association in South Dakota was seeking pastors for several churches in the area. I can remember praying several times in those early years of ministry preparation, “Lord, send me anywhere to serve You. Anywhere, that is, except Badlands, South Dakota! Please don’t send me there.” Some time after that experience, I was in a worship service at my home church in which the guest speaker challenged us to go anywhere, any time for the service of the Lord. I prayed at the altar during that service, “Lord, You name it! I will go anywhere, anytime, just let me serve You! And if possible, can I request that it not be in Badlands, South Dakota?” The next Sunday, I walked into church and was greeted by a dear friend who said, “Russ, I have had to back out of a mission trip to Kenya, and I want you to go in my place. In fact, I have already paid for it in full. I want you to go.” I said, “Wow! Africa. I don’t think I can go to Africa! Maybe you can find someone else.” As I walked away, the Lord reminded me of my prayer that I would go anywhere, anytime. The Holy Spirit convicted me, as if to say, “Russ, you say you will go anywhere, anytime, but you won’t go to Badlands and you won’t go to Africa, so where will you go?” That afternoon, I called my friend back and told him I would go to Kenya, and that experience changed my life. Had I not learned that lesson early on, I would have probably never gone to Conowingo, Maryland, to serve as a pastor, and would not have traveled to Eastern Europe, West Africa, and South Asia for short term volunteer missions projects. In fact, when the opportunity arose to return to serve the Lord near my hometown in North Carolina, it took much prayer and providence to convince me that the Lord was in that move. I had learned the lesson so thoroughly that I just assumed that the Lord would always lead me away from my comfort zone to serve Him.

Every now and then I encounter people who have yet to learn that lesson. A pastor emailed me recently to say he was looking for a new church to serve, and would consider any opportunity, as long as it was in North Carolina. I’ve had many people say to me that they want to be of service to the Lord and His Kingdom, but they don’t want to go overseas on a mission trip; they want to do it here at home. There’s nothing wrong with serving the Lord here at home, but many times, we are just offering excuses to not serve the Lord at all. One of the lessons we learn in the book of Jonah is that God’s love is greater than our circles of concern.

To Jonah’s credit, we can say that he was not in objection to serving the Lord. In 2 Kings 14:25, we read of how this prophet was already engaged in ministry in Israel. But when the call came for him to leave his home country and go outside of his own comfort zone to Nineveh, he ran away. Morgan says that the book of Jonah is “supremely” one of “missionary teaching” which reveals “the attitudes and activities of God toward the nations, and toward His own for the sake of the nations.”[2]

Several times throughout our study of Jonah, we have pointed out that God’s commission for Israel, from the very beginning of their existence as a people, was to be a light to the nations. The purpose of God’s choosing Israel as His own people was never that Israel alone would be only people of God in the world. They were to be God’s missionary people to all nations. But time and time again, Israel retreated into a “holy huddle” of exclusivism in which they sought to keep God to themselves. No individual illustrates this attitude more than the prophet Jonah who refused to follow God’s calling to Nineveh, and who became angry when God performed His saving work among them. All that Jonah experienced throughout these four chapters took place to teach him, to teach all Israel, and to teach us today, that God’s love is greater than our circles of concern: it extends to all nations.

The Gospels and Acts make it clear to us that Jesus’ final command to the church before He ascended into heaven was to take the gospel to all nations. We read it, among other places in Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 24:46-47, and Acts 1:8. Yet, the early followers of Jesus still struggled to comprehend the universal scope of God’s love. In Acts 10, we find Peter praying, unaware that a group of Gentiles was coming to meet with him in order to learn about Jesus. In order to prepare Peter for this meeting, God gave Peter a vision that intended to teach him that God was concerned for all people, and not only the Jewish nation. Now, do you remember what Peter’s full name was? In Matthew 16:17, Jesus calls him “Simon Barjona,” meaning, “Simon son of Jonah.” Now, it is not necessary for us to believe that Peter was a descendant of the prophet, but it is ironic that his father’s name was the same as this prophet’s. Like Jonah, Peter was reluctant to embrace the Gentiles in the mission of God. And where did this episode in Peter’s life take place? It took place in Joppa (Acts 10:5), the same place where Jonah the prophet boarded the ship to flee from God’s calling. God was teaching Peter, just as he taught Jonah, that His love is greater than our circles of concern.

As we look at the world today, we find that of 11,545 specific people groups in the world today, 6,672 of them are less than 2% Christian, and 3,575 of those are virtually isolated from any gospel witness![3] It would seem that we have, by and large, not learned the lesson of Jonah. It seems that like Jonah, we have been content to stay in the confines of our comfort zones, content that we have the gospel, and we have the church, and we have our basic needs met, while much of the world does not. If we would learn the abiding message of the book of Jonah, we would see that we serve a great God, and His love is greater than our circles of concern. His love extends to all nations! There are entire nations out there, like Nineveh, who may quickly turn to the Lord in repentance and faith if only someone would come and share the good news of Jesus with them. So what are we waiting for? Why are we running from our calling to take the good news to the nations like Jonah did? Through the book of Jonah, the Lord may be saying to us, “Arise, and go into all the nations, beyond your comfort zone, and tell them the good news about Me. Tell them of My glorious greatness and the great love I have for all people and every nation.”

II. God’s power is greater than our circumstances.

Throughout the Bible there are frequent reminders that God is able “to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20, KJV). As the prophet Jeremiah exclaimed, “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You” (Jeremiah 32:17). We find this point illustrated and reinforced throughout the book of Jonah. Nothing is too difficult for “the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). We see this in Jonah by the power of God to “appoint” whatever is necessary to accomplish His purposes.

The Lord first appointed His prophet to go to Nineveh, whose circumstances were troubling (to say the least). Jonah is sent by the Lord to announce that a destruction is coming because of their sin. Contained within that message was an implicit condition that if they would turn to the Lord in repentance and faith, they may be saved! Their circumstances were troubling, but not beyond the power of God, who in His sovereignty could appoint a prophet to deliver His message to them.

Jonah refused to go initially, going instead to Joppa where he boarded a ship bound for Tarshish. Once on the ship, Jonah fell into a deep sleep hoping that he had escaped the Lord and His calling for good. But God’s power is greater than our circumstances! He “hurled a great wind on the sea” which produced “a great storm” that threatened to destroy the ship, the sailors, and the prophet. As the captain urged him to wake up and pray, Jonah began to face the firing squad of interrogation from the sailors. As he answered their questions, he testified to his faith in the Lord, and as a result the sailors went from fearing the storm to fearing the Lord. Note this: Jonah was running from God’s call to reach Gentiles with His message, but in God’s power, He used a storm to awaken Jonah and reach Gentiles anyway! The sailors, freshly converted to faith in the one true God, threw Jonah overboard at his own request, and the sea became perfectly calm for them. God’s power was greater than all of their circumstances.

In Chapter 2, Jonah reflects on how it felt for him to sink beneath the waves, certain that he was going to die and become entombed on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea. But the power of God was greater than Jonah’s circumstances. He sovereignly appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and within the belly of that fish, Jonah was saved and preserved alive for three days and three nights. The fish carried him back to shore where he was once again presented with an opportunity to obey God’s calling.

In Chapter 4, we find Jonah after his mission trip to Nineveh, sitting out in the desert. Physically, he is in discomfort. Emotionally, he is angry. Spiritually, he is still hard-hearted toward the purposes of God. Those are not good circumstances to be in, but the power of God is greater than his circumstances. To save him from his discomfort, the Lord appointed a plant to grow up over him to provide him shade from the sun. But in order to deal with Jonah’s emotional and spiritual circumstances, the Lord also appointed a worm to destroy the plant, and a scorching east wind to bring Jonah to the end of himself.

All of this speaks to us today because we are so prone to focus on the unpleasantness of our own circumstances rather than on the all-surpassing greatness of God’s power. Do you feel like you are drowning in your present circumstances? You must not forget that God’s power is great enough to send His divinely appointed fish to rescue you. Do you feel like you are sweltering in the heat of your season in the desert of life? Remember that God is able, in His great power, to appoint a plant to grow up over you to give you shade and shelter. Do your present circumstances reveal a heart of disobedience or indifference to the Lord? Well, He can also do something about that. He can send storms your way to turn you back to Him. He can send His divinely appointed worms and winds to bring you to the end of yourself and turn your heart back to Himself! What we see in the book of Jonah is that God is powerful and sovereign over all creation. He can make  people, plants, animals, and even the weather to become His servants for His purposes. And so Jonah teaches us this abiding lesson: that God’s power is greater than our circumstances.

III. God’s grace is greater than our sin.

A favorite hymn of many that is commonly sung today is Julia Harriette Johnston’s “Grace Greater than Our Sin.” Throughout the hymn, she speaks of the misery of sin. In the second stanza, she writes, “Sin and despair, like the sea waves cold,
threaten the soul with infinite loss”; in the third she says, “Dark is the stain that we cannot hide. What can avail to wash it away?” But the song lifts our gaze beyond the cold waves and dark stains of sin. Throughout we are pointed higher to the “marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt.” And in the refrain, we sing repeatedly, “Grace, grace! God’s grace! Grace that will pardon and cleanse within! Grace, grace! God’s grace! Grace that is greater than all our sin!” This song could be the theme of Jonah’s life and of Nineveh’s experience.

We find God’s grace displayed toward Jonah the prophet. In his stubborn rebellion, he flees from the Lord and is eventually thrown into the ocean to drown. Sin and despair, like the sea waves cold, threaten Jonah’s soul with infinite loss. But God’s grace is greater than Jonah’s sin. As a just Judge, God has the full right and ability to administer perfect justice. He can see to it that everyone, including Jonah, gets what they deserve. He could let Jonah sink to the ocean floor, and die a miserable death. If Jonah dies in Chapter 1 or 2, we would have to say, “He got what he deserved. God is just.” But although God is just, He is not only just. He is also abundantly gracious. And in His great grace, He saves Jonah from drowning, and brings him back to shore by means of the fish. But there is even more! In 3:1, we read, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time.” He is the God of second chances, and in His grace He gives Jonah a second chance. Did he deserve this? No, of course he didn’t. But instead of justice, Jonah received grace! He received a grace from God that was greater than his sin.

Nineveh, the great city of the Assyrian Empire, could also say that they had experienced the marvelous grace of our loving Lord. Dark was their stain, and it could not be hidden. In 1:2, the Lord said, “their wickedness has come up before Me.” He knew of their evil deeds. We recounted some of them in our study of the book—how their own historians boasted of their ruthless and vicious torture of the inhabitants of other lands. Surely God knew of all their wickedness. It had arisen before Him; He was aware and took notice of it. And He promised to also take action on it. His message to Nineveh through Jonah was one of justice: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” But this message moved the people of Nineveh to repentance. They acknowledged the wickedness of their ways, and turned from the violence which was in their hands (3:8), and God “relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (3:10). Nineveh found the grace of God which was greater than their sins!

As you and I read this book, we may be like the king of Nineveh, who was “struck” by the word of the Lord, as we see our own sins. We may wonder, like he did, if God may “turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish” (3:9). We may be like Jonah, who said, “While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to You in Your holy temple” (2:7). And if we are struck in this way concerning our sin, and we turn to the Lord in repentance and faith, we will find that His grace is greater than our sins. We will find that He is a God of second and third chances. And this is so, not because of what we do about our own sins, but because of what God has done about our sins. Jonah recognizes that “Salvation is from the Lord” (2:9), and it is the Lord who has dealt with our sin fully and finally in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s great grace does not merely overlook our sin; it faces our sin, and fights it, and destroys it in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, Jonah and Nineveh are saved by a great grace of God that was yet to be revealed in its fullness. You and I can see that grace demonstrated vividly, perfectly, and fully in the substitutional sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. This grace was, as the hymnwriter says, “yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured, there where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.” “Look!” the hymn-writer says, “there is flowing a crimson tide!” And in that crimson tide of Christ’s blood we are washed, cleansed of sin and forgiven. We see God’s great grace portrayed in the story of Jonah. Yet, it is in the cross, and only in the cross, that we see most clearly that the grace of God that is greater than our sin most clearly and most vividly! And this brings us to the final abiding lesson of Jonah, one that the Lord Jesus Himself made.

IV. God’s Son is greater than Jonah.

Recently, the noted atheist Richard Dawkins launched yet another attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular when he said, “Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today.”[4] Obviously, Dawkins thinks he has access to more information than Jesus, that he is smarter than Jesus! What an arrogant and audacious claim! Yet Dawkins is not the first to claim that he knows more than Jesus, and he undoubtedly won’t be the last. When it comes to the book of Jonah, there have been many who have claimed to know more than Jesus knew. When critical scholars say that there is no historical truth being told in the book of Jonah, they seem unaware or unconcerned that Jesus spoke of the story of Jonah as if it was a historical fact.[5]

Jesus said to the people of His generation, “The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41; Luke 11:32). He refers to Jonah and to the people of Nineveh as real, historical figures, and He speaks of Nineveh’s repentance and of the preaching of Jonah as real, historical events. But more importantly, He says that the people of Nineveh will testify against the people of Jesus’ generation because, although they repented at the preaching of this severely flawed prophet, the people of Jesus’ generation had not repented even though one greater than Jonah was among them.   

This leads us to ask the question: How is Jesus greater than Jonah? We can point first to Christ obeying His calling. When Jonah’s call came to him, saying “Go!”, the prophet’s response was a resounding, “No!” Aren’t you glad that the Lord Jesus didn’t say “No!” to the call of His Father to redeem a lost and dying world? Paul explains it this way in Philippians 2:6-8:

Although He [Jesus] existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 
He is greater than Jonah! We can point secondly to Christ calming the storm. As we read the account of Jonah asleep the boat while the storm rages upon the sea, we are reminded of another storm on another sea. In Mark 4 we read about the Lord Jesus and His disciples encountering a great storm on the Sea of Galilee. Like Jonah (Jonah 1:5), Jesus was asleep in the stern of the boat (Mark 4:38), undisturbed by the raging storm. Jonah’s traveling companions woke the sleeping prophet and compelled him to pray, saying, “Get up, call on your God. Perhaps your God will be concerned about us so that we will not perish” (Jonah 1:6). Jesus’ companions similarly woke Him up saying, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). But here is where the similarities end in these two accounts. Unlike Jonah, who could only suggest that the sailors throw him overboard that the sea may become calm for them, the Lord Jesus “got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Hush, be still’” (Mark 4:39). Immediately, “the wind died down and it became perfectly calm.” Jesus’ companions were saying, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mark 4:41). Jesus shows that He is greater than the prophet Jonah. While Jonah was on the receiving end of God’s power to appoint the wind and seas to do His bidding, Jesus had the power to command the wind and seas to obey Him.
Thirdly, we can point to Christ conquering the grave. When Jesus was asked by the scribes and Pharisees to produce a sign that would convince them that His claims about His divine nature and His mission of redemption were true, Jesus said, “no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-40; cf. 16:4; Luke 11:29-30). Of course, by this, Jesus was referring to His death and burial, in which He would be three days in the tomb. But the glory of Jonah’s experience in the belly of the fish was not that it swallowed him, and not that he was preserved alive within it for three days. For Jonah, the glory of that ordeal was that, at the command of the Lord, “the fish vomited Jonah up on the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). And Jesus is greater than Jonah. He was swallowed by death. His body was prepared and wrapped for burial and He was sealed in the tomb by a massive gravestone. But on that third day, just as Jonah was vomited by the fish, so the Lord Jesus was vomited from death, alive in resurrected glory. Repeatedly, Jesus told His disciples that He would suffer and die, and that He would rise on the third day (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; et al.). Those statements would be utterly ridiculous, unless He could actually do it. And His resurrection from the dead is the sign that validates His claims that He was the divine Son of God who had come to save humanity from sin.

Finally, we point to Christ proclaiming salvation. Jonah came into Nineveh preaching a very short sermon: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4). His message was one of judgment and condemnation. But, “God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17). Jesus came to us preaching good news, the Gospel (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:18; 20:1). Jonah offered salvation only by an implicit and unstated condition. Jesus’ message of salvation was explicit, clearly stated, and offered freely as an alternative to the condemnation that our sins deserve. The promise of Jesus was that “whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And while He made no bones about the fact that those who do not believe will be condemned, He made it clear that He had come on a mission of redemption to reconcile men to God.

In Jonah 2:9, the prophet exclaims, “Salvation is from the Lord!” In the Hebrew text, that word salvation is the Hebrew word yeshua. This is same word from which we get the very name of Jesus. And when His birth was announced to Joseph, the angel said, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus did not merely come proclaiming salvation. He came as salvation from the Lord, and in His death, burial and resurrection, He accomplished that salvation for those who believe upon Him. Salvation was His name, His message, and His mission, and in that, we see that Jesus is greater than Jonah.

And so as we close the book on Jonah, it seems that all we have encountered here in these pages over these several months is pointing our eyes upward so that we can gaze upon the greatness of our God. His love is greater than our circles of concern. His power is greater than our circumstances. His grace is greater than our sin. His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is greater than Jonah. So, if this is the abiding message of the book of Jonah, how do we know that we have learned the lesson?

1. If we have comprehended the greatness of God’s love, we will enlarge our circles of concern to encompass every nation and all peoples. We will be compelled by love for the Lord to be involved in His task of proclaiming salvation to the ends of the earth.

2. If we have comprehended the greatness of God’s power, we will understand that our circumstances are never beyond His ability to intervene by any means necessary to accomplish His will. We will rest in the assurance that all creation can be summoned in an instant to do His bidding. If we are walking in faithfulness with the Lord, this will be a great and precious comfort for us. But if we are in rebellion like Jonah was, this truth should cause us to tremble and repent before the Lord, knowing that we will never escape Him or His purposes for us.

3. If we have comprehended the greatness of God’s grace, we will be quick to turn from our sins and quick to forgive others of theirs. We will not envision ourselves as better than others or more deserving of God’s favor, but will understand that none of us are righteous; none of us deserve the blessings of the Lord. But because we have received God’s grace which is greater than our sins, we will readily give it away to others when they sin as well.

4. Finally, if we have comprehended the greatness of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus, we will turn to Him in repentance and faith, calling upon Him to save us from our sins according to His promise and His atoning work. And once we have called upon Him as our Lord and Savior, we will seek to share the good news of this great salvation and point others to Jesus.

When we have seen beyond the fish, beyond the storm, beyond the plant, the worm, the wind, and even beyond Jonah and Nineveh, we will see the greatness of God through the pages of this book and we will exclaim with joyful adoration:

O Lord, my God, when I, in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to Thee: How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing, sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in: that on the cross, my burdens gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin. Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to Thee: How great Thou art! How great Thou art!


[1] G. Campbell Morgan, The Unfolding Message of the Bible (Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1961), 188.
[2] Morgan, Bible Survey, 299-300.
[3] This information was current according to the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, November 2, 2011.
[4] Billy Hallowell, “Richard Dawkins: ‘Jesus Would Have Been An Atheist if He Had Known What We Know Today.’” http://www.theblaze.com/stories/richard-dawkins-jesus-would-have-been-an-atheist-if-he-had-known-what-we-know-today/. Accessed October 27, 2011.
[5] For more on this discussion, I would commend the background study at the beginning of this volume. 

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