Many have dismissed Jonah as mere fiction, because it tells of a fish swallowing a man. But 2 Kings 14:25 mentions Jonah as living in the time of Jeroboam II. Jesus himself refers to Jonah as a historical person (in Matt. 12:39-41). Not too long after the ministry of Elijah and Elisha, Prophet Jonah appears in the northern kingdom of Israel.
In chapter 1:2, the word of the Lord came to Jonah saying: “Arise and go to Nineveh, that great city and cry against it; for their evil has come up before me.”
What if God commanded you to go to North Korea, and publicly preach the Gospel to them? As a Christian, would you go to a nation that considers you enemy?
Jonah does not want to go to Nineveh. Why? Nineveh was a great Assyrian city, a foreign, Gentile city. The city was located on the east bank of the Tigris River, north of present-day Baghdad and northeast of Israel. And the word “great” is used 14 times to refer to Nineveh. It was also the largest city in the world for some fifty years. The Assyrians were ruthless people known for their brutality toward their enemies. Was Jonah afraid of the Assyrians? Is that why he didn’t want to go? We’ll find that out later. In the meantime, instead of obeying God Jonah heads toward the opposite direction: to Tarshish (which is on the other side of the Mediterranean). So the Lord sent a great wind upon the sea and the ship threatened to break up (1:4). And when the sailors found out Jonah was running from God, they were dismayed. The sailors knew Jonah was the answer to this problem.
So in verse 6, “..the captain came and said to Jonah, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” They wanted Jonah to use his faith for the public good. That’s a vivid picture of the world saying to Christians: “Call out to your God; help us!” And Jonah says to them:
“Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”(1:12).
So after praying for forgiveness they toss Jonah overboard. And verse 17 says, “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” (If Jonah was a Japanese, maybe he would have survived inside the fish by eating “sushi” i, e, raw fish). But, he was a Hebrew. And so out of his distress Jonah called to the Lord, and the fish spat him out on dry land (in 2:10).
In chapter 3: 1, 2, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying,“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time” after the fish spat him out on dry land. And God says again, “go to Nineveh to that exceedingly great city.” “God was determined to do the work through Jonah, so He did not give up on the reluctant prophet” (Spurgeon). Similarly, God does not give up on us if He wants to use us. And finally, this time, Jonah obeyed. But what was his message? He went throughout the city and called out saying, “Yet 40 days and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (verse 4). “Overthrown” is the same verb used for God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. That was all Jonah preached. That’s the shortest message ever! All Jonah did was pronounce God’s judgment on the city for its wickedness. That’s not a complete Gospel message, isn’t it? It may not even fit quite well with our modern day sentiments. But, would you believe what happened? Verse 5 says,
“And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.” (3: 5)
A spiritual awakening came over the entire nation! Not only that, but the king himself repented. Verse 6, says, “The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” What word reached the king? Not just any word; but “The word of the Lord” that God gave to Jonah reached the king.
Note: God’s word has authority over kings! All authority belongs to God! And notice how the king responds to God’s word in verse 9: “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” Right there we see the hope of the gospel revealed in the words of the king. Jonah’s message was strong and short. He said, “Yet 40 days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” But it was the king who hoped for God’s mercy. He says, “Who knows? God will turn from his fierce anger and spare us.” Remarkable! And chapter 3: 10 says,
“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.”
God is holy and merciful at the same time. When the people of Nineveh repented, God relented. Jesus is coming back and God will judge the nations one day. But there’s a message of hope for the nations. So that they may not perish; and escape the coming wrath of God. So, finally we come to the key to the book. Here is the reason why Jonah had headed for Tarshish instead of Nineveh. Listen to Jonah’s confession in chapter 4: 1, 2.
“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.”
Jonah knew all along that God was “gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” So he confesses saying, “This is why I quickly ran away to Tarshish. Because I knew that You are a gracious and merciful God. But I am Hebrew; and Nineveh is a Gentile nation! I knew if I preached your word, you would be merciful to Nineveh! That’s why I ran away.” Jonah didn’t like the free mercy of God for Nineveh. Because he has a sense of Jewish superiority over the Gentiles.
Unlike God, Jonah didn’t want the Assyrians to experience God’s grace. Jonah wanted judgment. Jonah wanted justice. Jonah wanted destruction. Jonah wanted to sit on the hillside and watch God pour out His fury. Just like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal, Jonah couldn’t stand the free mercy of God for Nineveh. But the story of Jonah isn’t primarily about Jonah. The story of Jonah is about something far more grand in scope- as we will see.
# How often do Christians look down on non-Christians? How often Christians are tempted to say: “For many years now only less than 1% of the population are Christians in Japan! This nation has a heart of stone!” And how often do we run from sharing the gospel to our non-Christian friends and families! If we know God is merciful and gracious, why aren’t we sharing the gospel as we ought to? Or do we even truly believe God is gracious and merciful? How often do we feel superior to the non-Christians? If salvation is by grace alone, do we have any grounds for boasting over the non-christians? If salvation is by grace, shouldn’t we want others to know God’s grace as well?
Jonah had not yet learned his lesson, so God continues to educate him in verse 6. Earlier, God had mercifully appointed a fish to save the rebellious Jonah. And now He appoints a plant to give shade to the angry Jonah. God is a very patient teacher. And He has been patiently teaching you and me over the years. Next, God appoints a worm to kill the plant and ruin Jonah’s shade (in verse 7). Imagine how annoyed must Jonah be! Then God appoints wind and heat to make Jonah miserable (in verse 8). Jonah is angry that his shade is gone, and he implies to God that he pities the plant (in verse 9). Some of us get annoyed or angry when we’re pushed out of our comfort zones.
And Finally, God gets to the heart of Jonah (verse 10, 11).
“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. 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?””
In essence God was saying, “You pity the plant, Jonah? You don’t labor for it; you didn’t make it grow; it came and went away in one night. But, Jonah, I did labor over Nineveh City, I made it grow. I’ve been at work on Nineveh not one night but for years; I have been patient over this city for years. And shouldn’t I pity the 120,000 people and all the cattle? If you are angry that your plant no longer gives you shade, shouldn’t I be angry if this city fails to give Me glory? I love this city Jonah!”
The story is not just about God sending a massive fish to save a rebellious prophet from drowning. The story of Jonah is centered on the grace of God toward rebels like you and me. In an Asian group conformist culture we tend to err by not saying what we ought to say. Jonah’s disobedience and our disobedience is no different; except that our reasons may be different sometimes. Because of group pressure the one who sticks out can be viewed as the “bad guy” even if he is telling the truth. So we’d rather not say anything. We would rather choose false peace instead of truth.
Jonah’s call was to forsake his ethnocentric pride. He had to die to his nationalistic pride and follow God’s direction. God had boundless compassion not just for (Jonah and the Israelites); but also for (the pagan sailors and Ninevites). Jonah’s call was to, ‘be merciful as [his] father in heaven is merciful’ (Luke 6:36). God has great compassion not just for “us” who are being saved, but also for the unsaved out there.
God was saying to Jonah: “Look at this “great city” of Nineveh! There are 120, 000 people. Shouldn’t I have compassion on them?” If you care about people, you’re going to care about cities. People are moving into cities much faster than churches. It’s going to take more than just one preacher or a church to reach an entire city. God loves cities, and so should we! About 40 years ago, less than 3 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities. It is estimated that 4 million people a month are moving into great global cities. Tokyo is one of the most strategic global cities. God says, “I want you to go to your friends and families and share the gospel to them. I want you to go and make disciples. I want you to go & show Christ in your workplace.” Every 2 months 8 million people move into cities. More than half of the world’s population are living in urban areas. And there are at least 25 unchurched cities in Japan. Will you pray, will you go, will you give your time and money? We disobey because there is a difference between what we assume to believe and what we actually do believe. Do you really believe you have been saved by grace alone? Is the gospel really Good News to you? Why not share it if it is that good to 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.” (Matt. 12:39-41)
Something greater than Jonah is here! Just as Jonah was 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the great fish, so was Jesus buried for 3 days and 3 nights. And he rose again on the 3rd day to offer forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who would believe in Him. # Jesus is the perfect Jonah. He is greater than Jonah. Jesus was cast out into the storm so that we would not be an outcast, and brought into the Kingdom of God.