When I was in grade 8 I had a chance to play football at the Junior High School I attended. I went to a few practices but I did not enjoy the context. There was a lot of swearing going on and language and talk that made me very uncomfortable, so I quit. Although I had always attended a public school, I had never experienced, what shall I call it, the ways of the world so intensely. It was not a world I could easily live in.
In grade 9 I went to a Christian High School, then in university I hung out mostly with Christian friends and following seminary, as a pastor, I have spent most of my time with church people.
In some ways this is a contradiction of my convictions. I believe that the most effective way and the way God wants us to do evangelism is to get into the lives of those who don’t know Jesus. This is the same method God used to redeem us, that is through becoming flesh. I don’t think that this is an unusual story for Christians. Naturally we are most comfortable in the context of other believers.
When we participated in the Arthritis Society Marathon in the Cayman Islands in December, we had a chance to meet many others who were also participating, many of whom did not know Jesus. One day we joined a group of them on a tour to one of the islands tourist attractions, Stingray City. The first stop on the tour was to the liquor store and that pretty much defined much of what happened on the rest of the tour. I have to admit that it is still uncomfortable for me to participate with those who don’t know Jesus in this way, but I also believe that that is where God wants us to be. This means that we better learn how to do it. For those who are missionaries to Muslims, such a ministry of presence is absolutely essential and it is no different for us, yet most of us do not find it a natural or comfortable thing to do. All of us have contact with people who do not follow Jesus and I suspect we would probably describe our feelings in some of those encounters as apprehensive, inadequate and fearing.
The story from the Bible we will look at today is from Jonah 1:1-17. We are quite familiar with this story in which Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh to preach a message of repentance. We recall that Jonah didn’t want to go and ran the other way and we are intrigued with the way in which God used a large fish to bring Jonah back to complete his task. The points which are often preached out of this story relate to the unwillingness of Jonah to serve God in this way and the challenge to follow and obey; or the call to repentance and the response of the people of Nineveh. Today I will not talk about those things, but would like to focus on the way in which God and Jonah encountered people who were not believers in God. When looked at from this point of view, the story of Jonah has some important things to teach us about relating to unbelievers and those are the lessons we want to discover today.
Before we focus on these points, I would like to remind you of the story once again, first of all by reading Jonah 1 and then by reviewing some of the interesting points in the story.
This is not the only place that Jonah was mentioned in the Bible. He is also mentioned in II Kings 14:25 as a prophet in Israel. In Jonah, we read how God’s word came to him quite clearly and directly that he was to go to Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire and was a large and powerful city. The reference to three days journey probably meant that the area in which he was to preach was the city and the surrounding area which was bounded on three sides by three rivers and on the fourth side by a mountain range. It was the largest and most influential city of the time, the New York of the ancient world.
When Jonah received the message, instead of heading east towards Nineveh, he went down to Joppa, which was on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and found a ship that was going to Tarshish, as far as possible in the opposite direction, as the map shows. As a prophet we can hardly imagine that he believed that God was only the God of the land of Israel and that leaving the land would put him out of God’s reach. That would have been a pagan way of thinking. It is hard to imagine that he would have thought that way, yet here he was running away from God and from the assignment God had given him.
But God wasn’t going to let him away that easily and so he sent a great storm upon the boat. It is hard to imagine how Jonah, in the midst of a terrible storm and with the storm of a guilty conscience in his mind could sleep, but that is what he was doing. Perhaps he slept as a way to escape the storm within him.
In desperation, the ship’s crew were trying anything they could to avoid shipwreck and finally they discovered that this was no ordinary storm, that God was its source and that Jonah was its cause. With reluctance they eventually threw Jonah overboard and were spared. Although they thought they had killed Jonah, God found a way to bring Jonah to where he wanted him. The animal that swallowed him was likely not a whale. The word used is “large fish” and some have suggested that a whale would not have a throat large enough to swallow a man, but a certain type of shark would. Whatever happened here God was in it and used this method to accomplish His purposes.
As you can see there is a significant encounter in this story between Jonah, God’s story and the pagan, unbelieving world. What can we learn from this story?
I have structured the message to focus on three points – God is the Lord of the World, God is at work in the world and God cares for the world and we will examine the story around these three themes.
There are two stories which demonstrate the Lordship of God over the world. The first is the encounter which the sailors had with the great storm. The worldview of most of them would have been a pagan worldview in which every part of nature was understood to be related to or animated by or controlled by a god. They believed that many gods inhabited the world and the task of the poor human beings of the world was to discover which god was controlling what was happening. The sailors would have been attached to different gods and when this terrible storm came upon them, each would have worshipped his own god in order to try to appease the anger of the god and hope that the storm would go away. They desperately called upon their gods and everyone participated, except Jonah. So the captain went to him and asked him to pray to his god as well. Jonah, of course couldn’t because he knew that the storm was his fault and he was not in a good relationship with God. When they cast lots to discover who was at fault and the lot pointed to Jonah, they launched a pretty direct inquiry at Jonah, wanting to know what was going on. The reply of Jonah presented a perspective that was entirely new and different to them. He indicated that he worshipped, “the Lord, the God of heaven who made the sea and the land.” This information terrified them. Never before had they encountered God who was not a god over some aspect of nature, but was the Lord who had created all of nature.
The second story is the one which happened at the end of the story when they threw Jonah overboard and discovered that the claim of Jonah was accurate. They obeyed the God whom Jonah had introduced as the creator of the world and they discovered that He indeed had the power Jonah said He had. The storm stopped immediately and the response of the sailors was once again fear, but this time a fear that led them to worship God.
As we encounter people and situations in this world, we come into contact with perspectives, worldviews and powers which do not take God into account. From the question of origins to the formation of values, we live in a world which is permeated by a worldview without reference to God. Often when we come into contact with that world or enter into it to tell it about the living God, we are filled with fear and apprehension. We don’t know how to respond to the claims made by this world, claims which seem so obvious to so many people; claims which are lived and believed by the majority of people around us. This intimidates us and we shy away and we act as if the claims of the worldview without God are actually true.
What this part of the story of Jonah does for us is remind us that the God we serve is the one who made heaven and earth. When we remember that, we can have courage, boldness but also humility in that world. We can respond, not fearful arrogance or blunt boldness, but with humble courage to be, to believe and to live according to God openly because we know that He is the Lord, the God of heaven and earth.
When we spend all our time with Christians, we may come to the same conclusion which many in Israel believed and that is that God is our God and He does not work among those who are not believers. The story of Jonah dispels that kind of thinking and reminds us that God is at work in the whole world to accomplish His purposes.
The first story in this chapter which speaks about that is the main theme of the story in the first place. God sent Jonah to Nineveh. Nineveh was a large, powerful and very wicked pagan city. The fact that Jonah was sent to this pagan place reminds us that God is at work in the world. He is not only at work among those who are in church or at work among those who already love Him. Although most of God’s words have been spoken to his chosen people and most of his actions have been done among his chosen people, that does not mean that He does not work in the rest of the world.
The second story which reminds us of this truth is the one about casting lots to determine who was at fault. It would be unusual for us to make decisions in this way. A lot is used to make a decision with something like the roll of a dice or flipping a coin. We would not take that as God’s leading. As Christians, we have the Word of God and the Spirit of God to guide us into understanding the way of God and we don’t need the lot to seek God’s way. Because they did not have God’s full revelation and not every believer had the Spirit, Israel at that time did use the lot. Therefore, we can understand that God would honor that method of decision making among his people. Pagan people who had even no connection with God also used the lot, but only as a superstition. In this story, we have pagan people, who in the midst of their pagan practices of worshipping their gods and appealing to them to stop the storm also use the lot to determine who is at fault. What surprises us is that God answers their appeal and reveals His truth through the pagan use of the lot.
These two stories open our eyes to something that we do not always see and that is that God is much more at work in the world than we sometimes think. People who work among Muslims tell us that in these closed societies there are instances in which God gives dreams to some of them and they respond to Jesus without ever meeting a Christian or reading a Bible.
The Bible reveals that He works among unbelievers in other places, for example, in Jeremiah 25:9 Nebuchadnezzar is identified as “my servant…” This should encourage us to recognize the possibility that God is at work in our world in ways that we don’t understand to accomplish His purposes.
What are the implications of this for us today? I have heard stories about churches which while negotiating with government agencies are prevented from making their plans because of a refusal by those authorities. It is easy to become frustrated and try to force the hand of the government, but when we remember stories like this in Jonah, we are reminded that God is at work in the world. We are encouraged that His work will not be stopped by laws or law makers. One illustration of that is what happened during the years of the communist revolution in Russia and also the communist rule in China. In both countries statements of extreme atheism amounted to confidence that churches and the name of Christ would be eradicated in a short period of time. That has not happened. The church in Russia continues to exist and communism has lost some of its power. The church in China is growing faster than any other church in the world. God is at work even among those who do not believe in Him and even in contexts where He is not believed.
Therefore, we don’t have to manipulate God’s work in the world, we can represent Him graciously and patiently knowing His will is being accomplished.
Not only is God the Lord of the world and not only does he work in the world, we also find that he loves the world.
Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh speaks volumes about this. God told him to go and he ran the other way. Why? We may think that it was because he knew that he would have a lot of opposition. Can you imagine going to Bagdad to announce that the city will be destroyed if they do not repent and turn to God? The opposition would be pretty severe. Perhaps it was because he thought it would be too much work. Can you imagine going to Mexico City and have only 40 days to warn the whole city that they will be destroyed? You have to remember that this was in the days before mass media. It would have required diligent all day work every day to accomplish the task. Perhaps it was because he would have seen it as hopeless work. Nineveh had a reputation as a wicked city. What hope was there that anyone would respond to the message?
All of these reasons make sense in our mind, but they are not the reason that Jonah was reluctant. The reason he was reluctant was because he knew that God would demonstrate his compassion and he didn’t like that. He believed that the wickedness of the city demanded judgment and destruction. He completed the task of announcing judgment, which I suspect he must have done with some enthusiasm. After he was done he went outside of the city to watch it burn. But God did not burn the city. The people repented and God spared the city and in Jonah 4:2 we find that this was the problem Jonah had in the first place. We see his reasoning when, "He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity." He knew God was gracious and compassionate and he didn’t want to see Nineveh spared. He wanted to see it burn.
In spite of this terrible attitude of Jonah, the love of God shines through. It is a love that is not just for the chosen people, but a love that is also for these desperately lost people. It is true that God hates evil and that he will judge all who abide in their wickedness, but it is also true that God cares deeply about His whole creation and does not want to see it destroyed, but wants to see it redeemed.
The other part of this chapter which reminds us of the love of God is the experience of the sailors. After Jonah had been identified as the problem and they had their eyes opened to the power and authority of the Lord of the universe who created it all, they were in a terrible pickle. On the one hand they were at the mercy of the God of the universe who had sent a terrible storm. They were in danger of perishing in that storm. On the other hand they had been told by Jonah himself to throw the messenger of God overboard, which in their minds meant that they would kill him. They were reluctant to do it and they tried to find another solution by rowing towards shore so they could drop him off there. When that didn’t work, they cried out to the God whom they had just gotten to know. I believe that the Hebrew suggests that they made two requests which touch on the dilemma they found themselves in. The first prayer was “don’t let us die on account of this man.” The New Living Translation puts it this way, ““don’t make us die for this man’s sin” which I think is a good way to put it. It is a prayer that they would not die because of the storm caused by Jonah’s disobedience. The second prayer touches on the other side of their dilemma and that is that they would not be held accountable for throwing Jonah overboard. They obeyed the instruction of Jonah, which was the instruction of God and God did not destroy their ship, but calmed the storm and spared them. It would not be difficult to imagine that God could have destroyed the whole ship and sent the fish to retrieve Jonah from among all the sinking bodies, but God is not like that. He was compassionate, even towards those who had not followed Him.
These stories remind us of the wonderful truth so evident in all of Scripture that God loves those whom He has created. We know from passages like John 3:16 that this is what God is like. This truth rebukes the attitudes we sometimes have toward sinners. When we see a sinner being punished by the consequences of their sin and we are tempted to applaud we do not have God’s attitude. When we set up categories of sinful and righteous and have hatred towards those who are sinful, we are not living with the attitude which God demonstrates towards sinners. Although He hates sin and in the end will judge those who refuse to repent, His attitude towards sinners is compassion for them in their lost condition. These stories speak to us about the attitudes we should have towards those who don’t know Jesus. What does it mean to love those who are lost? What kind of attitudes or actions will we have towards them if we are following God’s way? We will certainly not have attitudes of being “holier than thou” and we will not fear them so much that we refuse to get to know them. May we learn what it means to relate to those who don’t know Jesus so that we can show the compassion of Jesus to them!
The wonder of this story is that in the end pagans come to God. In spite of the lousy witness of the messenger of God, God comes through with love and we watch as the people of Nineveh repent of their wickedness and the sailors fear God and sacrifice to Him and make vows to Him. The love of God comes through to accomplish what God wanted to accomplish.
As we witness and interact in the world we will see God at work, we will see the love of God shine through and we will also see people respond. The stories we have seen today rebuke our sometimes holier than thou, sometimes fearful attitudes towards those who are not now God’s chosen people. They teach us to hope in the God who is the Lord of the whole world, and the creator of it. They teach us to keep our eyes open to see what God is doing in the whole world and not just in our Christian world. They teach us to adjust our attitudes to line up with the compassion we see in God and to get rid of our prejudices and fears of those who are not believers.
Sometimes our lives will be a rebuke to them and sometimes our truth will be a rebuke to them. But we need to be careful that our attitudes are not “holier than thou;” our words are not judgmental and that we do not avoid relationships with them. May God’s way become our way!