In way of introduction, the Book of Jonah falls into a category of Old Testament scriptures known as the Minor Prophets. Note: These books are not to be considered minor in any other sense than their length. It’s been said, “They’re minor prophets with a major message.”
And yet, of all of the prophets - Major and Minor alike, the Book of Jonah is completely and totally unique. First, unlike all of the other prophetic writings, neither the Northern Kingdom of Israel nor the Southern Kingdom of Judah are ever mentioned by name.
Secondly, the Book of Jonah is unique because it doesn’t present a series of prophetic messages typically found in the prophets, but instead a three-act drama: Jonah on a boat, Jonah under the sea, and Jonah in Nineveh. In a sense the Book of Jonah reads more like the script of a play than a prophetic monologue.
What’s interesting is that the Book of Jonah only contains one, eight word prophecy recorded in chapter 3 verse 4. Jonah declares upon his arrival to Nineveh, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” With these things in mind, the importance of the Book of Jonah is not found in its prophetic overtones, but rather in its particular narrative.
And it’s to this point you need to know, contrary to popular opinion and what you probably learned in Sunday School, the story of Jonah is not about a magical whale! Yes, it’s true and fair to admit that this tale garners a lot of attention for it presents a scene whereby Jonah is swallowed by a “great fish” only to, after three days and three nights, find himself being vomited alive back onto dry land; and yet, there is much much more to this story.
Consider that while the “great fish” is mentioned 4 times in 4 chapters and the city of Nineveh mentioned 9 times, Jonah is mentioned 18 times with God being referenced 38 times!
As we work our way through this book, keep in mind the story is really not about a fish nor is it really about Nineveh. Instead, by the pure emphasis of the participating characters, this book presents a story about a gracious God and the way He handles Jonah.
One more thought before we dive into the text… Though there have been some who’ve tried to soften the supernatural elements of this story by claiming the Book of Jonah should be viewed as either mythological or allegorical, the truth is it can only be read as literal.
Now I understand a historical presentation of this story becomes complicated by Jonah and the great fish (which we’ll address is the weeks to come), but a departure from a literal reading of the Book of Jonah creates larger problems than you might have at first realized.
Aside from the fact the structure of the book provides no evidence of anything other than a literal reading - specifically referencing known places and peoples in history, to this point look no further than what Jesus said in Matthew 12:38-41. We read, “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’
But Jesus answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For 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 in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.’”
Not only does Jesus’ statement to the Scribes and Pharisees affirm a literal and historical reading of the story of Jonah and what results in Nineveh (even confirming this great fish), but Jesus also does something else of particular interest… The final reason the Book of Jonah is unique is because the story illustrates the mission of Jesus. This idea of Jesus being “greater than Jonah” is something we’ll be addressing throughout our study!
Let’s begin by reading the first two verses… Jonah 1:1-2, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.’”
In order to understand this incredible story it’s important we take a few minutes to set the scene by examining the times as well as establishing a profile for Jonah. For starters, you should know this is not the first mention of “Jonah the son of Amittai” in Scripture.
In 2 Kings 14:23-27 we read, “In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, became king in Samaria, and reigned forty-one years (a divided kingdom). And Jeroboam did evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel sin.
He restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher. For the LORD saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter; and whether bond or free, there was no helper for Israel. And the LORD did not say that He would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven; but He saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.”
During the early half of the 8th century BC, Jeroboam II came to power in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. What is noteworthy about his 41 year reign is that while Israel enjoyed political stability, economic growth, material prosperity, and territorial expansion these things did not occur because of the people’s goodness or merit.
Not only did the high places remain and idolatry continue, but Jeroboam himself “did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Ironically, while “the LORD saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter” but “there was no helper for Israel” He chose to use wicked Jeroboam anyway!
You see Israel experienced the blessings of God not because they'd earned or deserved His blessing (as a matter of fact it was only God’s mercy that was withholding a certain judgment). Instead, Israel was being blessed for one reason - God’s grace!
During these years there was an active presence of God in the Northern Kingdom… His grace was seeking to draw a wayward people back to Himself, while His prophets (men like Hosea and Amos) were actively warning of the consequences if the nation continued in their sin and rebellion. Because of the influence of Elisha the word of God was being proclaimed.
Most interestingly, it was during this same time-period that the prophet Jonah was ministering in Israel. As we read in 2 Kings 14:25 Jonah had predicted victory for the Israel when King Jeroboam attacked a group of Gentiles nations reconquering lands that rightfully belonged to the Jews. In contrast to the dire warnings of his contemporaries, Jonah’s prophetic ministry was not one of doom, but certain glory. As such it’s likely Jonah was extremely popular with the people as well as with King Jeroboam.
Aside from all of this, Jewish tradition presents Jonah as possessing quite a profound spiritual heritage. In 1 Kings 17 we’re told of an interesting season of Elijah’s ministry… During a three year famine in Israel, God instructs Elijah to go just over the border of Galilee into a Phoenician outpost called Zarephath where a widow would provide for his needs.
Well, upon his arrival, Elijah finds this widow only to discover her situation was bleak. Because she was low on provisions (food specifically), Elijah preforms a miracle whereby her flour bin and her jar of oil never ran out. Not only would these provisions be enough so that she and her son could survive the famine, but there’d be enough food for Elijah as well.
Sadly though, in the process of time, this widow’s young son grew ill and ends up dying. And yet, in one of the most amazing miracles in all of the Old Testament, we’re told Elijah came, stretched himself out on the child three times, and cried out to God. Then most incredibly “the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back!”
I bring this story up because, according to Jewish tradition, this resurrected boy was none other than Jonah! Legend states that, once the famine was over, this woman and her son moved to the town of “Gath Hepher” where Jonah was dedicated to serve the God of Israel and would later receive his prophetic appointment from none other than Elisha himself.
If this is true (that Jonah was the resurrected boy of this widow living in Zarephath) the implications are radicle. First, this means Jonah was acquainted with resurrection. He knew first hand that the God of Israel had the power to raise even the dead to life. This idea will become more important as we look at the events of the next chapter.
Secondly, it would also mean Jonah knew what it was like to experience the grace of God. As a boy he watched as the famine depleted their resources. He saw the desperation in his mom’s face as she used up the last of the flour and oil to make bread.
But Jonah had also witnessed a miracle… He witnessed that, in the moment of their greatest need, God provided for them by sending the prophet of Israel (Elijah) to his home! He watched as the flour and the oil miraculously failed to run out. God’s grace had saved them and in the process afforded them life when their outlook had been certain death.
And while each of these points add a certain depth to our story, there is one more implication to Jonah being this widow’s son that literally changes the entire way you read the story.
Consider that in Luke 4, in response to His rejection by His hometown of Nazareth, Jesus specifically heralds this widow along with Naaman the Syrian as being examples of Gentiles who’d come to faith in the God of Israel. David Guzik writes, “Jesus’ audience wanted special favors because He was in His hometown. Jesus pointed out that this doesn’t matter to God, using God’s work among the Gentiles in the days of Elijah and Elisha as examples.”
Let that settle for a moment… Could it be that Jonah was not Jewish by birth, but was a Gentile boy who’d been grafted into the family of God by grace through faith?
Even Jewish tradition confirms this identity of Jonah. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia entry for Jonah, “According to one authority his mother was the woman of Zarephath that entertained Elijah. As this prophet, who was also of priestly descent, would have profaned himself if he had touched the corpse of a Jew, it was concluded that this woman, whose son (Jonah) he "took to his bosom" and revived, was a non-Jew.” This entire perspective is also reiterated in the 4th volume of Louis Ginzberg’s famous book “The Legends of the Jews.”
Not to descend to far down the rabbit hole, but Jonah being a Gentile makes sense as it pertains to the overarching idea of God sending someone to Nineveh. According to Deuteronomy 4 the purpose for Israel was to be an example unto the world. Never once had God commissioned missionary activity whereby He sent Jews out into foreign countries.
As one author put it, “Israel’s proselytism was to be non-verbal… Israel was not so much to preach as it was to obey and to teach.” This is what made the Great Commission of Jesus so radicle. Instead of the nations coming to Jerusalem to encounter God at the Temple, God’s Spirit indwelt people (Living Temples) who were then being sent out into the nations.
If Jonah was ethnically Jewish, sending him to Nineveh would have completely deviated from God’s core purpose for Israel. However, if he was a Gentile convert then Jonah becomes uniquely qualified to be God’s messenger for such an occasion, and in actuality becomes a foreshadowing of the church receiving the Great Commission. With this in mind, I don’t think it’s an accident the name “Jonah” means “dove” - which is a picture of the Holy Spirit.
“But wait a second Pastor Zach, if you look down at verse 9 Jonah says, ‘I am a Hebrew!’ Aside from this the first verse even opens with the mention of a Jewish father ‘Amittai’… Doesn’t it seem Jonah was Jewish and therefore not the son of this widow?” - Maybe.
As it pertains to Jonah’s statement in verse 9, I don’t believe it’s definitive either way. From Jonah’s perspective, he was a Hebrew - by choice, not by birth. He’d moved from Phoenicia to the land of Israel at a young age, was circumcised according to Jewish law, and even became a prophet. Additionally, it’s not impossible that “Amittai” was his adoptive father.
To this point, in the Law, God even created a pathway for citizenship. In Exodus 12:48, “When a stranger dwells with you and wants to keep the Passover, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as a native of the land.”
Why is Jonah being a Gentile significant? Though both his identity as either a Jew or Gentile convert would both equally contribute to his sense of moral superiority over the pagan Ninevites, if Jonah had been a Gentile recipient of the grace of God his resistance to that grace now being demonstrated to other Gentiles becomes all the more astounding.
Because it would be bad hermeneutics and poor exegesis to base the entire story of Jonah on an unsubstantiated Jewish tradition as opposed to solid Biblical fact, instead of being dogmatic (which you can’t) I plan to unpack the story of Jonah with both considerations in mind… The application of his story from the Jewish context as well as the Gentile.
Notice how the book begins, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah.” Here we find a faithful prophet, actively ministering in Israel, who’s presently experiencing success steaming from his first prophetic word that came true. Jonah’s life was in a fantastic place. Ministry was yielding incredible fruit - when out of the blue another “word of the Lord came to him.”
Though we have no idea how this “word came” to Jonah (whether it be a vision, spoken word, or dream), we do know the “word” itself proved to be unsettling. Because the “wickedness” of the Assyrian people dwelling in “Nineveh had come up before” the Lord, God wanted Jonah to “arise, go” there, “and cry out against” the people. Specifically, God wanted Jonah to tell the Assyrians judgment would come in 40 days unless they repented.
Historically, we know that, at the time Jonah received this word, Nineveh, the capital of the ever expanding Assyrian Empire, was indeed a “great city.” With a population of roughly a million people it’s likely Nineveh was the largest city in the known world. Nineveh was a metropolitan center - the seat of power which boasted of affluence and prestige.
Archeologists have discovered that the city of Nineveh (which is located under present day Mosul, Iraq) was approximately 60 miles in circumference and completely surrounded by 100 foot walls - so wide three chariots linked together could drive around it at once. Aside from this there were some 1200 200-foot-high watchtowers making the city largely impregnable.
Scholar J. Allen Blair writes of Nineveh, “In its splendor it was probably more magnificent than Babylon, but in its sinfulness it was possibly even more wicked than Sodom.” We’re told, in the intro to this story, that God was sending Jonah to Nineveh “for their wickedness had come up before Him” - literally their “wickedness had reached it’s highest pitch.”
Historically, the Assyrian people were known for vice and brutality. Once again writing to this point Blair says, “The name Nineveh stood for every possible kind of cold-blooded barbarity.”
As it pertained to the barbaric and brutal nature of the Assyrians let me read you what one author wrote, “After conquering a village they’d hold a man down on the ground - reach into his mouth - and rip his tongue out by its roots. The Assyrians were known to cut lips or ears off a man’s face. They would set fire to his wife and children before his very eyes.
Another Assyrian trademark was to set a pile of skulls outside the city gate to remind those who were left what would happen if they rebelled against Assyria. They’d secure a prisoner of war so he couldn’t move, make an incision at his fingertips, and start pealing back his skin slowly and methodically. The torturers would literally flay their victim alive – then let him bake in the sun until he was dead. They would cover the walls of the city with human skins.”
As far as Nineveh and her wickedness was concerned, from God’s perspective, the situation had reach such a tipping point that only two options remained: Immediate National Repentance or Impending Divine Judgment! Such was the purpose in sending Jonah.
Aside from the pure wickedness of this Assyrian capital, there is another element to the context behind our story we’d be remiss not to mention. Since the early formations of the Northern Kingdom the principle threat to Israel had always been Syria to the north. And yet, by the time of Jonah, the Assyrian Empire had completely decimated the Syrians.
Though this development had enabled Israel to experience prosperity under Jeroboam’s reign, sadly several northern cities in the Kingdom end up experiencing the brutality of Assyrian incursions. Once again 2 Kings 14:25 informs us that Jonah grew up in a town known as “Gath Hepher” - which was a Galilean village about 5 miles north of Nazareth.
What makes this significant is that during the reigns of Jeroboam’s predecessors (King Omri, Ahab, and Jehu), when Jonah was still a young boy, Scripture tells us the areas of Sidon and Galilee were the site of some of this Assyrian aggression. It is highly probable that as a young Jonah had witnessed the brutality of the Assyrian people up close and personal.
Imagine then you’re Jonah and “the word of the Lord comes” to you with such an instruction as to “arise” leaving everything you know behind (including a successful ministry), “go to Nineveh,” and “cry out against it!” In the Hebrew these words “go” and “cry out” are presented in the imperative. This means God wasn’t making a suggestion to Jonah. He was issuing a direct command. As His servant Jonah was being given new matching orders.
And yet, from Jonah’s perspective, there is no doubt he was keenly aware this new mission could really only yield one of two results: The Ninevites would either reject his message and killed him or they receive his message, repent of their wickedness, and be spared God’s judgment! Neither of these two options sounded good to the prophet Jonah!
Though I’m sure Jonah possessed a natural fear over the prospects of entering the lion’s den - especially with a personal knowledge as to how sadistic the Assyrians could be, the truth is that this natural fear was superseded by a much larger and deeper concern.
Chapter 4:2 records that, in response to the Assyrians repentance and the demonstration of God’s grace, Jonah erupts with a complaint revealing his original fear of traveling to Nineveh with such a message… “LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.”
As Jonah mulls over this command his chief concern becomes mission success, not failure! Jonah knew God! He had a relationship with the Lord. Jonah knew the inexhaustible nature of God’s love in the presence of a repentant man. Jonah knew that if the Ninevites repented God was going to save them from judgment and forgive them of their wickedness.
What’s interesting about the story of Jonah is that it emphasizes an aspect to God’s plan that is often difficult to fully understand… It’s a mystery, but God has determined to use people to reach people. If God had a word of warning for the citizens of Nineveh, why couldn’t He have appeared to them or better yet sent an angel to testify. Why call and send Jonah?
Once again we return to what this story is all about… God chooses Jonah because He was seeking to do accomplish something in Jonah! The whole story is about God and Jonah.
You see whether Jonah was a Jew presently experiencing the blessing of God because of grace or if he were a Gentile grafted into God’s family through grace, it’s my belief the purpose behind the command to take this word to Nineveh was that God desired to deepen Jonah’s understanding of the power of grace.
Next Sunday we’re going to look at Jonah’s response, but in closing I want to explain how this reality that God wanted to demonstrate grace towards the Ninevites proved to challenge Jonah - even before he made a decision to accept or reject his mission.
It’s important to note - The very fact God was willing to demonstrate grace to Nineveh challenged both Jonah’s moral framework as well as his hatred of the Assyrians.
If we operate under the premise that Jonah was Jewish, we understand then that the entire basis for his relationship with God was based on two religious foundations: His obedience to the Law and His ethnicity. And it was directly on account of these two religious beliefs that Jonah proved to be two things: A racial and spiritual bigot.
The truth is that this belief that being a Hebrew automatically made him a member of God’s people fostered a sense of ethnic superiority. Sadly, the Jews had mistaken their unique privilege as being the evidence of a heightened standing. You see the command for Jonah to go to Nineveh was designed to challenge his racial prejudice. Demonstrating grace to the Assyrians was God’s way of making it clear to Jonah that He loved all people equally.
But Jonah was also a spiritual bigot… Jonah had come to view his obedience to the law as being the mechanism for his right-standing before God. And it was such a view that created a moral structure whereby he viewed himself as being morally superior to the Ninevites.
Once again Jonah’s understanding that God was likely to save the city of Nineveh was designed to challenge his religious prejudice. Demonstrating grace to the Assyrians was God’s way of making it clear to Jonah that since His grace was the only way any man could be saved Jonah had no right to see himself as being any better than the Ninevites.
I pray you know that all racism is an affront to God’s grace and has zero place in the body of Christ. No man has a right to claim he’s superior to another either on the basis of ethnicity or religious moralism. And note: I’m not saying this because it’s socially relevant or because the mainstream media is mandating what pastors should be saying from the pulpit. That’s not their job and frankly current events don’t dictate what we teach on Sundays!
This morning I’m speaking to this issue for one simple reason… In the providence of God He has led us to a text whereby He’s wanting to communicate His truth. How interesting that months in advance God determined we’d be studying Jonah for such a time as this.
Friend, Jonah missed what so many do… If all mankind (including every tribe and tongue) has been created by God specifically in “His image and likeness” then no one ethnic group had any authority or right to stand superior to another - including the white supremacist.
Racism is a cancer the Bible diametrically opposes and is a concept that has no place in the church where all differences are dwarfed by the one Strand that binds us all together - The fact we’ve all been saved by Jesus and the grace He demonstrated independent of us!
The very command God gave for Jonah to go to Nineveh left this man with a choice… He could accept the reality that favor with God was not determined by ethnicity or his obedience but through repentance leading to grace, and therefore repent of his racial and religious prejudice… Or he could resist God’s grace and seek to run from the presence of the Lord.
And yet, if Jonah was a Gentile the very prospect of God demonstrating grace to Nineveh served to challenge something else entirely… Once again, in his own words, Jonah says he didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he “knew the Lord was a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.”
Consider… How did Jonah know it was in line with God’s character to save these wicked, Gentile Assyrians instead of judging them? Answer: Because Jonah knew first hand what it was like to be a wicked Gentile saved by the Grace of God. Jonah knew from personal experience how incredibly gracious and loving the God of Israel really was!
Though Jonah had done nothing to earn it, through Elijah, God’s grace had changed the trajectory of his life. Sadly, this presents Jonah as an example of a man who while a recipient of God’s grace was unwilling to see that same grace extended to others.
What's happening - God’s grace was directly challenging Jonah’s hatred of the Ninevites. Sure Jonah loved God, but he hated the Assyrians. Because of their brutality and likely his own exposure to these things Jonah didn’t want to see these people experience salvation. Because of hurt Jonah craved wrath, judgment, destruction - not deliverance.
And the truth is that Jonah’s hatred was in many ways justifiable. The Assyrians were a deplorable people. They were wicked. They were some of the worst scum to have ever walked this planet. What is truly shocking about God’s command for Jonah to go to Nineveh is that in light of this reality God still loved them and preferred salvation over judgment.
God wanted the Ninevites to repent so that they could be saved… So He called Jonah to lay aside his hurt and hatred in order to be the conduit of His love and grace.
Let me apply this idea in the most extreme way I can… What is the appropriate Christian response to the white supremacist? Sure, we should call it what it is - sin; and yet, does Jesus want us to angrily shout them down, protest their existence, or throw urine-filled balloons at them? Is the appropriate response to condemn them from the church marque?
No! That shouldn’t be our response to the white supremacist any more than it should be the Christian response to abortion clinics or gay pride parades. Here’s a provocative thought… Jesus died on the cross for the sin of white supremacy. You see God loves even the most deplorable sinner and wants to free them from their sin. And to do this He sends people to people to demonstrate His love and grace knowing it’s the only way repentance manifests.
In Romans 2:4 we’re told that it is “the goodness of God that leads a man to repentance!” MLK (who brought about change) understood what our society has completely forgotten… The worst and least effective response to hate is more hate, because all it does is inflame passions. Christian, you should hate white supremacy, but you should remember the only power to transform the white supremacist is God’s grace being demonstrated through you!
You see the remedy to racism isn’t war (we tried that once and we’re still dealing with the problem) - the remedy is revival (when people filled with the Holy Spirit, respond to God’s call to go out even to the deplorable, to be a conduit of God’s love and grace).
It’s a fact the one force more powerful than human hate is God’s love! This is why Jesus commanded us in Matthew 5:44 to “love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who spitefully use and persecute us.”
Yes, it’s extreme, but the Book of Jonah illustrates the fact that God’s grace is extreme! Grace challenges not only racism, but how we approach the racist. In the context of his hate and hurt the very command for Jonah to go to Nineveh left him with a choice: He could experience freedom from these things by demonstrating to others the very grace he’d once received… Or he could resist God’s grace and seek to run from the presence of the Lord.
It’s important we end this mornings message without immediately looking at Jonah’s reaction, because he had a choice. There was a moment in time where Jonah had a decision to make. Understand, like Jonah, all humanity has but one of two responses to God’s grace: We can open our hand to receive His amazing grace and then be a conduit by which that grace can be demonstrated to others or we can close our fist in defiance.
Friend, as we’ll consistently see throughout the story of Jonah, “Resisting Grace” will not only yield tragic results in your life, but will ultimately reveal you’re resisting God.
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