There are a lot of stories in the Bible that people find hard to believe. For example, in the Scriptures we hear about seas and rivers parting so people can walk through them on dry land, food falling from heaven six days a week for forty years, city walls crumbling down at the sound of trumpet blasts, sick people being healed, the dead raised, and a lot of other things that aren’t part of our everyday experiences.
Another example is the story of Jonah. It begins with God telling Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and ‘preach against it’ because of its ‘wickedness’ (Jonah 1:2 NIV). Jonah evaded God’s call by sailing in the opposite direction. After a severe storm threatened the ship he was in, Jonah was thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish where he remained for three days and three nights (1:17) until he changed his mind and followed God’s instructions to go to Nineveh.
I can understand why a lot of people find it hard to believe that a fish could swallow a grown adult, and that person could survive in the fish’s stomach for three days. While this sounds impossible, what happened next can be even harder to believe. Jonah went to Nineveh and warned them that God was going to destroy the city. In response to his sermon, the whole city of more than 120,000 people (4:11) recognised the error of their ways, repented, and turned back to God.
What do you find more difficult to believe – that a fish would swallow a grown man, or an entire city would turn to God because of a sermon preached by one person?
If we put ourselves in the position of the people of Nineveh, would we listen to someone who claimed to come from God, and called us to change our ways by turning back to God? I suppose that not many of us would think that we are as wicked as the people of Nineveh were supposed to be. But when we look at our own lives, in what ways are we like Jonah? Through Jesus, God calls us to repent (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15), to turn away from our self-centred lives, to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. It sounds simple, but this kind of love is focused on God and other people, and not on ourselves. It requires a change in us. In some ways, people who think that Jonah’s story is about going in the opposite direction to the way God wants might have a point. Through Jesus, God calls us to love him and others, but too often we can be like Jonah and head in the opposite direction by focusing more on ourselves.
The first miracle we encounter in Jonah’s story is what God did in Jonah’s heart. While he was in the fish’s stomach, Jonah realised that ‘Salvation comes from the Lord’ (2:9) and he learned to trust in God’s saving love. While some read Jonah as being about obedience and doing what God tells us, I believe it’s actually a lot more about encountering God’s saving love in the dark, lonely, messy parts of our lives. Most of us won’t get stuck in a fish’s stomach for three days and nights, but we all find ourselves in dark, lonely, messy places in our lives in one way or another. Like Jonah, that’s where we can find God’s grace and saving love which sets us on a different path in life. For Jonah, this difference was in trusting God enough to follow his call. For the rest of us, it might be as simple as learning how to trust God and love others like Jesus teaches us.
So Jonah, cleaned the fish guts off himself, headed towards Nineveh, preached his message, and the whole city of Nineveh, from the highest king to the lowest slave, repented and turned back to God. You’d think that Jonah would be celebrating the revival that had come to a foreign city! What happened, though, was that Jonah got angry because, to him, ‘this seemed very wrong’ (4:1 NIV). This is where we find Jonah’s reason for not wanting to go to Nineveh in the first place. He knew that God is ‘gracious and compassionate … slow to anger and abounding in love … who relents from sending calamity’ (4:2 NIV). That upset Jonah! He wanted to see the people of Nineveh get punished and their city destroyed. As a person who encountered God’s saving love in the fish’s belly, the last thing he wanted was for the people of Nineveh to encounter that same saving love because they didn’t deserve it!
This brings us to a better understanding of Jonah than the usual interpretation of doing what God wants before a fish swallows us to teach us a lesson. Jonah’s story is about God’s grace and saving love, not threats and coercion. Jonah encountered God’s goodness in the fish’s stomach. The Ninevites found it in Jonah’s message to them. We can find it in this story as it points us to Jesus. We all struggle with life in one way or another, at one time or another. We all want to live in ways that seem best to us rather than in faith and love as Jesus teaches us, just like Jonah and the people of Nineveh. However, God wants better for us. He wants us to give us life! He gives us this grace when he calls us to turn to him, to trust him, and to love others in the same way he loves us in Jesus. This faith gifts us with the life of Jesus which is stronger than death.
As people who encounter God’s grace and life-changing love in Jesus, we have good news for the people of our city, just like Jonah had good news for the people of Nineveh. I don’t encourage you to go through Tea Tree Plaza calling people to repent the way Jonah did through Nineveh. However, when we know people who are struggling, who might be battling their way through life because of the pandemic or its effects, because of physical or mental illness, because of grief, worry, fear, or any reason, we can encourage them to walk closer with Jesus who is the embodiment of our God who is ‘gracious and compassionate … slow to anger and abounding in love … who relents from sending calamity’ (4:2 NIV).
Jonah’s story is about a person who wanted to go his own way rather than walk with God. He encountered God’s grace and saving love in a dark, lonely, messy place, and it changed his life. He still needed to grow in his faith in God and love for others, but his encounter with God’s saving love set Jonah on a different path as God worked through him to bring the people of Nineveh back to himself. In the same way, God wants us to learn to trust him and follow his ways. When we do, we have good news to bring the people of our city, so they can encounter God’s saving love through us.
More to think about or discuss:
- Imagine that you lived in Nineveh and heard Jonah’s message. How might you have reacted to his sermon? Give some reasons for your answer.
- How do you think you might react if Jonah turned up at our church with the same message from God? Why might you react that way…?
- What do you find more difficult to believe – that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish or that an entire city turned back to God after hearing Jonah’s message? Why you think that way?
- In what ways can we be like Jonah and be reluctant to take the message of God’s saving love to people? Why do you think we can be like that?
- Who do you know that might be stuck in a dark, lonely, or messy place in life? How can the message of Jesus be good news for them? How might you be able to share that good news with them this week or not the future…?
- What do you hear this story telling you about what God wants you to do?
- What do you hear this story telling you about what God has done, is doing, or will do for you? What is good news in this story for you?
- How will you take the message of this story seriously in your life by living in faith and love?
You can find a video of this message at https://youtu.be/wJS8r9aWbk4
God bless you as you live in the reality of his saving love in Jesus so you can bring that good news to everyone you meet this week…