Jonah (1) — Running Away From God

            It is often said that Christianity is a religion of grace, which it certainly is. We talk about grace in our sermons and Bible classes, we sing about grace, and if anyone were to ask us, we certainly believe in grace.  But I want to ask you a question this morning — Have you ever been offended by grace?

            Now, that may strike you as a strange question, because you’re thinking, “Offended by grace?  Of course not!  Grace is amazing, right?  That’s what we sing.  Amazing Grace.  Grace is fantastic.  We love the grace of God.  Offended by grace?  Never!”

            It might surprise you to find out that God’s grace can be offensive.  In fact, I would agree with Kevin Youngblood when he said that “it might even be questionable whether you can really understand grace before you’ve been offended by it.  Being offended by grace might actually be a requisite to really grasping grace.”

            Philip Yancey has said that part of our problem is the nature of grace itself.  Grace is very difficult for us to accept.  And if you don’t believe that, think about how you react when a telemarketer calls you and says, “I’m not trying to sell you anything. I just want to offer you a free trip to Hawaii.”  And, automatically we want to know what the catch is, because we’ve all been taught “nobody gives away anything for free”, which is really just another way of saying, “There’s no such thing as grace.”

            One of the reasons that grace offends us because of what it does for sinners. Grace teaches us that God does for others what we would never do for them.  Because, you see, if it were up to us, we would only save the not-so-bad folks.  But God’s grace is extended even to prostitutes and murderers.  God’s grace is a gift given to those who don’t deserve it and sometimes don’t even appreciate it.

            You see, here’s the thing.  God is a lot more gracious than I am.  God saves people that I wouldn’t save if I were God.  God blesses people that I wouldn’t bless if I were God.   God uses people in his service that I wouldn’t use if I were God.

            And so, this morning, I want us to begin a series of lessons studying one of God’s prophets who had a really tough time accepting the grace of God — Jonah.   And I think I’m safe in saying that Jonah was probably the worst missionary of all time.  

            Since we were kids, we’ve all heard the story of Jonah and the big fish.  But, as we begin this journey with Jonah, I want to make sure that we all understand one thing — Jonah is not the hero of this story. God is! 

            The story of Jonah is a story about God and about God’s relentless grace for his prodigal sons and daughters who run away from him.  And as we read through the story of Jonah, I think we’re going to find that we can all relate.  Because there’s a little bit of Jonah in all of us.  Which is why we are all so much in need of God’s grace.

            Now, there are several things I want to note before we actually get into the text:

            First of all, the story of Jonah is a short story — only four chapters, 48 verses.  You can read through the whole book in about 15 minutes.  Someone has summarized the story of Jonah in this way – chapter 1 is Jonah running away from God, chapter 2 is Jonah running back to God, chapter 3 is Jonah running with God, and chapter 4 is Jonah running ahead of God.

            Second, the story of Jonah is a true story.   Contrary to the critics and the skeptics, I believe this book is historical truth.  I’m sure you’ve heard the story about the little girl who was talking to her teacher in school about Jonah and the whale (and yes, I know the Bible says it was a “big fish”, not a whale).  The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human being because even though they are a very large mammal, their throat is very small. 

            The little girl said she still believed that Jonah was swallowed by a whale.  The teacher said that nobody in their right mind would believe that ridiculous story.  She asked the little girl, “Just how do you explain it?

            The girl said, “I’m not quite sure how it happened.  I guess when I get to heaven, I’ll just ask Jonah how it happened.”

            The teacher said, “What if Jonah didn’t go to heaven?”

            She said, “Well then, you can ask him.”        

            It’s certainly true that there are a lot of very unusual elements in the story of Jonah, but like that little girl, I believe that it all happened just as it is recorded in the word of God.  That is, there really was a man by the name of Jonah who really did flee to Tarshish, who really was swallowed by a great fish, who really did survive for three days in the fish’s belly, and who actually was vomited up on dry ground.  It’s not a myth or a legend or a fable or a parable.  Jonah is a true story. 

            2 Kings chapter 14 tells us that Jonah was an actual prophet who preached during the days of Jeroboam, king of Israel, around 765 B.C.

            There’s a very interesting Jewish legend about Jonah.  If you go back into I Kings 17, there’s this story about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.  You may recall that she was the one who gave Elijah some food and, as a result, she always had flour and oil.  But then, her son died, and Elijah raised him from the dead.  Jewish legend has it that that little boy grew up to go to the school of prophets to be trained by the great prophets to become a prophet himself.  And that little boy’s name was Jonah.

            Now, all of that is just conjecture, but the thought among the Jews was that Jonah was called to be a prophet from a very early age.  And we do know from 2 Kings 14 that Jonah was a prophet of Israel, a very powerful man, a man who had great influence among all those he was around.      

            Third, the story of Jonah is an unusual story.  Jonah is one of the 12 minor prophets.  But what makes Jonah so unusual is that it’s mostly a story.  Other prophetic books mostly contain the words of the prophets, with a few details here and there to give those words some context.  But the book of Jonah is unusual because it tells a story.  The only words of prophecy spoken in the entire book is contained in one sentence – “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

            Jonah is also an unusual prophet because the way things were supposed to work between God and his prophets was this:  First, the word of the Lord would come to the prophet; and then, the prophet would go and say or do whatever God told him to do.  But, as we’re going to see, it didn’t quite work out that way with Jonah. 

            Now, it started out that way.  Because in chapter 1, our story begins with these words:  “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai” (Jonah 1:1)

            In this regard, Jonah is a lot like each of us.  Because the word of the Lord comes to us, too.  Not in a voice, like it did with Jonah.  But God’s Word does speak to us, and there are times when we know that God wants us to change something in our lives, or he wants us to move in a new direction, or he wants us to be obedient to what he tells us to do.  And whenever that happens, you have a choice.  You can either do what God wants you to do, and be obedient to his word, or you can do what Jonah did and say, “Not gonna do it.” 

            But, the Word of the Lord will come to you.  That’s the good news.  The challenging news for of us is this — Whenever God comes to you, he will often ask you to do some things that you don’t want to do.  And the reason we don’t want to do them is because a lot of times we like to think that we know what is best.  And that’s what’s going on with Jonah.

            Again, beginning with verse 1: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’” (Jonah 1:1-2)

            Jonah was told to go to Nineveh and “call out against it.”  This was not a “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” kind of sermon.  Go to Nineveh and preach against it.  The time had come for God’s judgment.

            Now, you might wonder, “Well, Jonah is a prophet and that’s what he does.  He preaches God’s Word, so why didn’t he just obey this very simple assignment?”  But, when you understand the history of Nineveh, you begin understand what Jonah was thinking. 

            Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria.  It was one of the largest cities of that day.  It’s estimated that it had a population of about 600,000 people in the days of Jonah, which made it about the size of Washington, DC.  According to one record, the walls around the city were 100 feet high and were so wide that four chariots could ride around it side by side.  And inside the walls, there were great palaces and beautiful gardens.  It was a beautiful place to live, but it wasn’t a very nice place to live.

            Because when God said that Nineveh was wicked, he wasn’t kidding.  The Assyrians had a reputation for cruelty that’s hard for us to even imagine.  Whenever their armies captured their enemies, they would commit terrible atrocities.  One inscription from an Assyrian king said, “Many of the captives…I took alive; from some I cut off their hands to the wrists, from others I cut off their noses, ears and fingers; I put out the eyes of many of the soldiers. I burned their young men, women and children to death.” In another inscription, he wrote: “I flayed the nobles as many as rebelled; and [I] spread their skins out on the piles.”

            And so, it comes as no surprise that the Jews hated the Assyrians.  Hated them for their bloodthirsty cruelty.  Hated them for their idolatry.  For a Jewish man to be told to go preach to Nineveh was disgusting.  As far as Jonah was concerned, Nineveh could go straight to hell. “Go ahead, Lord.  Push the button.  Open the trapdoor.  Let ‘em fall straight down into the pit.”  That’s how Jonah felt about Nineveh.

            And when you understand just how wicked the Assyrians were, maybe you can cut Jonah some slack when he said, “I don’t want to go there.  I hate these people.”  It might have been that Jonah had a relative or a friend, or someone he knew who had actually experienced those cruelties at the hands of the Assyrians.  He despised them.  And so when God came to him and said, “Jonah, I want you to go to these people and try to get them to repent so they can be saved”,  in Jonah’s mind, he had legitimate reasons why he didn’t want to obey God.  And perhaps you can relate. 

            Because there are times when the word of the Lord will come to you, and you know what God wants you to do, but in your mind, you’re thinking, “Okay, I understand that’s what you want me to do, but I don’t want to do that!”  Maybe there’s someone who has wronged you and hurt you, or they’ve hurt someone that you love, and you know that God wants you to forgive them.  But you say, “I don’t want to.  They don’t deserve it.  I don’t feel like forgiving them.  I know that’s what God has told me to do, but I don’t want to do it.” 

            God said to Jonah, “Go preach to these wicked people.”  Even though they were terrible sinners, God wanted to reach out to them.  Because, as Peter said, God “is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). 

            And so, even though he might not have wanted to, you would expect that Jonah – being God’s prophet – would do what God told him to do.  Now, there were a few times when we were raising our children that our children disobeyed me when I told them to do something.  And while I don’t have any memories of it, there is at least the possibility that I may have disobeyed my parents a time or two when I was growing up.  But I can’t begin to imagine God coming to me personally and saying, “Alan, I have something I want you to do” and then refuse to do it.

            And so, when God said, “Arise, Jonah. Go to Nineveh and preach against it,” you would expect the next verse to read, “And Jonah arose and went to Nineveh.”  But, of course, we all know that’s not what happened.  What did happen was this:

            “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish.  So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.” (Jonah 1:3)

            Jonah’s name meant the dove. And true to his name, Jonah flew the coop.  It helps to know a little bit of geography at this point. Nineveh was about 550 miles north and east of where Jonah was located.  It was a major city on the banks of the Tigris River.  In contemporary terms, it would be in Iraq, just outside the city of Mosul.

            Tarshish, on the other hand, was far to the west.  We’re not sure of its exact location, but it was probably was in what is now called Spain.  If so, it was the most distant trading post of the Phoenicians.  And if Jonah had succeeded in getting there, he would have been about 2500 miles from Nineveh!  It would like God telling you to go to Washington, DC to preach and you go the airport and grab the first flight to San Diego.  Jonah’s intent was to get as far away as he could from the spot where God told him to go. 

            But it wasn’t long before Jonah discovered that a person can’t really run away from God.  Now I don’t think that Jonah was so ignorant as to believe that he could actually run away from God and hide.  But I do think that what he was trying to do was to run away from his responsibility to God.  And that makes me realize that I’m a lot more like Jonah than I’d like to admit.

            Because while I would never have the audacity to tell God to his face, “I’m not going to do what you tell me to do”, there are a lot of times when I know what God expects me to do and I just don’t do it.  And I think, “Maybe if I get involved in doing enough stuff over here, then God won’t notice that I’m not really doing what he told me to do over here.” 

            It may be that some of you are running away from God, like Jonah.  Not physically.  You’re smart enough to know that you can’t actually run away from God.  But you stop going to all those places where you know God is.  Maybe you don’t come to worship quite as often because you don’t want to be reminded of what you know God wants you to do.  Or maybe you avoid your Christian friends.  Or maybe you don’t pray nearly as often as you used to, because you feel guilty, and you think that somehow if you stay away from God that he won’t notice those things going on in your life.  The truth is, we’re all a lot like Jonah.

            But why was Jonah so hesitant to go to Nineveh?  There are several possible reasons for his disobedience.

1.         Maybe Jonah was afraid – he was fearful for his life.

            After all, as I said, the Assyrians were a violent and brutal people. They were barbaric in the slaughter of their captives.  In every city they conquered, the Assyrians built a pyramid of human skulls.  That’s not exactly the kind of place that everyone is anxious to go visit. 

            Have you ever noticed that whenever someone mentions mission work in Hawaii or the Bahamas, everybody wants to go?  But, if there were a place where they kill people and build a pyramid out of their human skulls, I would imagine there wouldn’t be nearly as many people eager to get in line for that mission trip.  So maybe Jonah was afraid to go.  But the Bible doesn’t tell us that he ran away because he was afraid.

2.        Maybe Jonah thought it was a lost cause – what difference could one man possibly make?

            Imagine being sent to the middle of a city like Los Angeles.  You see all the corruption and immorality on the streets.  And God says, “Start preaching.  You just go up and down the streets and tell them they have 40 days to get their lives straight or I’m going to destroy this city.”  I don’t know how you would react to that, but my reaction would be, “You’ve got to be kidding!  There is absolutely no way that’s going to make any difference.”

            And that’s the way Jonah must have felt.  In the midst of this wicked city, who in the world is going to listen to Jonah – some Jew who lives hundreds of miles away?  “Lord, didn’t you say something about casting your pearls before swine?  If ever there was a group of people who qualified as swine, this was it.  These people don’t care about anything of a spiritual nature – that’s obvious.  There’s no sense wasting my time.” 

            But again, the Bible doesn’t tell us that Jonah ran away because he thought it was a lost cause.

3.         Maybe Jonah thought the message God gave him was a bit harsh.

            And it was a harsh message, wasn’t it?  “Forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.  Turn or burn!  Get your lives straight with God or he’ll wipe you off the face of the earth!”  Nobody likes to preach a message like that.  Maybe Jonah wasn’t too keen on preaching fire and brimstone.  But again, the Bible doesn’t tell us that Jonah was unhappy with the message.

            What we are told is that:

1.  Jonah didn’t care about Nineveh.

2.  He didn’t think God should care about Nineveh.

3.  He didn’t want Nineveh to repent and be saved.

4.  And finally, he didn’t want a God who loved people like that.

            As I said earlier, it was perfectly OK with Jonah if God sent them straight to hell. In fact, that was his preference.  Ultimately, we’re going to see that Jonah’s problem wasn’t so much with Nineveh.  Jonah’s problem was with God.  His problem was with God’s grace.  And Jonah was offended by God’s grace.

            So Jonah decided to run away from God.  He headed for Joppa where he just “happened” to find a boat that was going where he wanted to go.  I mean, what are the chances of that?  Isn’t that an amazing coincidence?  It’s a long way from Joppa to Tarshish.  It wasn’t like Greyhound.  They didn’t have a boat leaving for Tarshish every day.  

            Let me assure you of this — Whenever God tells you to do something you don’t want to do, you can always find a boat that is headed in the wrong direction.   There’s always a boat headed where we want to go.  And there’s always room for one more passenger.  When we decide to run away from God, Satan is happy to provide the transportation. 

            Some of you know what I’m talking about.  You know what God wants you to do and maybe even there’s a part of you that wants to try to do what’s right.  But all of a sudden, your old buddy comes up and says, “Hey, don’t do it that way.  Let’s go back to what we used to do.  Let’s go back to the old life.”

            Or, for a lot of us, it’s not so much that we’re running away from God as we are drifting away from God.  Have any of you ever been to the beach, and you get busy swimming, having fun.  And then all of a sudden you look up, and your blanket is nowhere to be seen.  In fact, you may have drifted hundreds of yards away from where you went into the water.  You didn’t intend for it to happen.  It just did.

            And sometimes the same thing happens to us spiritually.  We start out serving God, we’re really on fire, but something happens and we miss a few worship services.  And we find that we don’t read the Bible as much as we used to.  And we don’t pray as much as we used to.  And then, we look up and find that we’re a long way from where we used to be.  It’s not that we were running from God, we just unintentionally drifted away.

            But whether we are running from God or just drifting away from God, the result is the same.  We find ourselves trying to separate ourselves from God, like Jonah tried to do.  And when that happens, we can always find a boat sailing in the wrong direction.  Satan will make sure.

            There’s one more question that I want to consider before we close.  How far will God let us go in sin?  And it appears from the story of Jonah that sometimes the answer is that God will let us go pretty far.  God doesn’t always stop us.

  • God could have arranged things so that the ship wasn’t available that day
  • He could have arranged things so the ship didn’t have enough room for Jonah.
  • He could have arranged things so that a thief robbed Jonah of his money and he couldn’t buy a ticket.

            But sometimes the judgment of God is that God lets us continue in our sin so that we have to face the consequences of our own disobedience.  And I think that’s what Paul meant in Romans 1 when he said three times that “God gave them over” (Romans 1:24,26,28).  When a society decides that it doesn’t need God, his response is not always to immediately bring out the thunder and lightning.  More often, God says, “I’ve warned you time and time again not to jump off the cliff, but if that’s what you want to do, I’m not going to stop you.”

            Now, I began this lesson by saying that the message of Jonah is a message about God’s grace.  And you may be wondering, “Where’s the grace of God in these few verses?”  And I think the answer is this – in his grace, God let Jonah disobey.  He didn’t kill him on the spot.  He gave him the freedom to mess up his own life.  That didn’t seem like grace at the time, but it was.  

            God works even in the midst of our disobedience to bring us back to him. Sometimes God lets us go way off course so that when we finally see our sin for what it is, we’re ready to return to him.

            But sometimes God needs to rattle our cages just a bit to get our attention and call us back.  That’s what happened to Jonah, and that’s what we’re going to take a look at next week.  I hope you’ll be back for that lesson.


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