JONAH #5: THE GRACE OF HARD WORDS

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

We all need to recognize some hard truths before we can truly know God’s grace. We truly need God more than anything else in the universe. We are truly morally corrupt, unable to be with God. We are separated from Him, yet, we will perish apart from Him. And there is nothing we can do about these things.

Once we accept these hard words, we can receive a flood of God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Jonah Part 5

JONAH #5. JONAH 3:1-10

Let’s remember where we are in Jonah’s book. In case I haven’t said it before, I believe Jonah himself wrote this book. He almost goes out of his way to avoid making himself look good. He seems to be trying to take us, the readers, through the same lessons that he himself had to learn.

Remember that before this, Jonah was a national hero, a patriot, who, after helping his country become great again, was called to go and preach God’s word to the enemies of his country. Instead, he ran, trying to escape God. God sent a storm, which did not relent until Jonah was thrown overboard, and he began to drown. Before he died, however, God sent a fish, and the fish swallowed Jonah, saving him from drowning. Inside the fish, Jonah repented of his sins, and praised God. Three days later, God made the fish spit Jonah out onto dry land.

Next comes our passage for today. God spoke once more, saying the same thing that he said at first: “Arise. Go to Nineveh – a great city of the Assyrians, who were enemies of Israel – and preach to them.” This time, Jonah got up and went.

Now, it would be easy for us to chuckle at this and say, “Yeah, I just bet he went, after that experience.” We think, “If I was nearly killed by a storm, then nearly drowned, and then swallowed by a fish, and then ended up on the beach lying in fish-vomit, I’d do what God said, too.” In other words,  we think that Jonah went because God forced him to.

However, I think that is a massive misunderstanding of what actually happened with Jonah. When he was drowning, literally dying, Jonah cried to the Lord. He knew that he was in that hard place precisely because he had cut himself off from God, precisely because he was rebellious and sinful. And yet, when Jonah had done nothing but rebel, God saved him anyway. So Jonah says:

9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9, ESV)

He said that while he was still in the fish. He says he will worship God, ‘sacrifice’ to him, and ‘pay what he has vowed,’ because “salvation is from the Lord. (2:9).” That is, Jonah experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, and that changed him into someone who wanted to be on the same page with God, someone who wanted to do what God asked.

It is really important for us to recognize this; it is one the major themes not only of Jonah, but of the whole Bible. Jonah knew he could not save himself, or redeem himself. He knew that salvation comes from God alone; he said as much.

In the sea, and in the fish, Jonah recognized three things:

1. His separation from God (“Then I said, ‘O LORD, you have driven me from your presence,” 2:4).

2. His need of God (“As my life was slipping away, I remembered the LORD,” 2:7, and many other sentences like that).

3. His utter inability to help himself (“I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut forever.” 2:6, among other verses).

He cried out for help and mercy, and God answered him. It is because God saved him that he gets up and does what God asks. Jonah wants to do God’s will after this. Later on we will deal with the fact that although he is saved, and he wants to obey God, he still holds sinful thoughts and attitudes. For now, understand that Jonah is not motivated by law and fear, but rather, by grace and by love.

Now, let’s go to Nineveh with Jonah. I’m going to give you “Tom’s Literal-Ish” Translation (TLIT?): “Now Nineveh was a city great to God, of three days’ travel.”

The second half of verse three has been used by some skeptics to show that the bible is inaccurate. They point out that (as far as we know from archaeology) the city of Nineveh was not three days’ journey across at that point in history (three days walking would be about sixty miles). I bring this up in case you ever encounter arguments like these. There are several reasonable answers to this objection. First of all, though there is a lack of evidence showing a walled city that large at that time, a lack of evidence cannot actually prove anything. The evidence could be yet to be discovered. Or, it may have once existed, but now be lost for all time.

Second, in a crowded city, a person is extremely unlikely to average twenty miles a day walking. In ancient cities, the streets were narrow, crooked, and choked with traffic of all sorts: donkeys, donkey-carts, camels, caravans, cattle, street-vendors, beggars and business-people of all sorts. If you have ever been in a third-world city in modern times you realize that most of the residents spend their time outside, in the streets. It would be even more so in ancient times. So you would be lucky to go even ten miles a day through a populous city, which would shrink the size of Nineveh by at least half. In my opinion, it would be impossible to go even ten miles in a day, so that makes it even smaller.

There are other possible answers to this objection. Although Nineveh “proper” (say, the walled portion) may not have been three days journey across, there were three other cities (as well as a few smaller towns) close by, and these were sometimes included when people spoke of Nineveh. If you include these, and outlying “suburbs,” you have a “Greater Nineveh Area” that certainly would take three days to travel through. (See Genesis 10:11-12, if this topic interests you)

But I think these solutions, while possible, are unnecessary. First, as you see from my TLIT, the Hebrew leaves things open to interpretation. It could mean Nineveh was so large it took three days to journey from one side to the other – but that’s not exactly what it says. It might also mean that it took three days to see all the important parts of Nineveh. However, if we simply pay attention to the context, it is clear what the author is getting at. The NLT puts it most clearly.

4 On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” 5 The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow. (Jonah 3:4-5, NLT, italic formatting added for emphasis)

Nineveh was a big city, and it was going to take Jonah three days to complete his work of preaching, in order to make sure everyone had a chance to hear. Even so, on the very first day, the people responded to God’s word. The point is this: the people listened to God immediately, even before Jonah had completed his assignment. That is the point of the three-day comment. It is about Jonah’s mission, and it is there to show us that the people repented even before Jonah was halfway done.

It may surprise some people to read that every single person in the city responded with fasting. Some cultural information is helpful here. In those days, the community was much more important than the individual. In matters of religion the people decided together which gods they would worship, and how they would do so. In these decisions, the community leaders had the most important voices. Therefore, I think verse 5 describes the outcome (everyone gets on board with fasting), while verses 6-9 are an explanation, showing exactly how this came about. Basically, the king and his nobles led the entire community into repentance for their sins.

I want to take a moment and think about what provoked this immediate and drastic response. We are not told exactly what Jonah said in his preaching, other than this: ““Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” (NLT). It is safe to assume that Jonah said more than that, and that this is just a kind of summary. I think we can read between the lines here, and, with a knowledge of the rest of the Bible, get a sense for Jonah’s main message.

Remember Jonah’s background. He was a hero to his own people, an Israeli patriot. Now, God has called him to go preach to Israel’s enemies. Although Jonah has experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, it has not yet filtered down to change all of his thinking and attitudes. So, he doesn’t like the people of Nineveh. He doesn’t understand why God is concerned about them. He doesn’t care that they experience God’s grace and forgiveness and salvation. In fact, he doesn’t want them to. Therefore, he states God word as unappealingly as possible. Basically I think he said this:

  • You all are full of sin and evil. Your actions, and your very lives, are offensive to the one, true, living God. (Jonah might also have preached about the specific kinds of sins that they were committing.)
  • Because your sins have separated you from that one true God, you will be destroyed in forty days’ time.

Jonah did not expect this sort of preaching to be effective. I don’t think he wanted it to be. But two things were going on of which Jonah was unaware. In the first place, before anyone can truly experience God’s grace, they must come face to face with their own sin and evil, and their own helplessness to be better. This is exactly what happened to Jonah in the ocean and fish, but he still didn’t realize that God loves all people, not just Israelites.

If you think you can make yourself into a better person, you cannot experience the grace of God. If you think you aren’t so bad, or that God compares you to other, more sinful people and says, “She’s not so bad, compared to _____,” you cannot be saved. In order to be saved, we must both admit that we are hopelessly sinful, and that we deserve nothing good from God, and that we cannot do anything about this predicament. Jonah helped the people of Nineveh by bringing them face to face with their own depravity. They heard his preaching, and thought, “We need God’s forgiveness, but we have separated ourselves from Him! We cannot do anything to fix it!”

So the fact that Jonah was so harsh and clear about their doom was actually very good and helpful. (Again, however, I don’t think he actually wanted them to repent).

The second thing Jonah didn’t think about was this: God is loving, gracious and forgiving. And so, even though Jonah was trying to simply condemn his enemies, the Ninevites, even though he thought maybe he had succeeded in doing it, God will make his grace known to anyone who is willing to listen. Think about it for a moment. How in the world did God’s grace come through Jonah’s harsh preaching? Hint: in the New Living Translation it is four words. In the ESV, it is three words.

Here are the words of grace, from the NLT: “Forty days from now.”

These words may not sound that amazing to you, but imagine the people of Nineveh. They heard God’s word, and they believed it. They believed that their souls were riddled through with sin. They accepted that they were evil, and deserved to be destroyed. Most importantly, they accepted that there was nothing they could do about it. Put yourself in that position and then ask: “Why forty days from now? Why not destroy us immediately?”

There’s only one logical answer: “Because God doesn’t want to destroy us.”

So they responded with earnest and true repentance.

6 When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he issued a decree in Nineveh:
“By order of the king and his nobles: No man or beast, herd or flock, is to taste anything at all. They must not eat or drink water. 8 Furthermore, both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth, and everyone must call out earnestly to God. Each must turn from his evil ways and from the violence he is doing. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish.” ( Jonah 3:6-9, HCSB)

Sackcloth was basically the cheapest, ugliest, most humiliating and uncomfortable thing you could wear. It was usually very roughly made out of goat-hair. Goat hair clothing is smelly and itchy, and they deliberately made it utterly unstylish. People wore it in order to show that they were full of extreme grief, remorse and repentance. Ashes were dumped on the head for the same purpose. To wear sackcloth and sit in ashes was to humiliate yourself, to show extreme sorrow and shame and regret.

When they heard that God was going to give them forty days, they believed that meant he might forgive them after all. Since his forgiveness was their only hope, they turned to him. In short, they turned away from the path of sin, and they put all of their hope in God alone. Once more, we find the gospel – the good news – even in the Old Testament, even from a prophet who didn’t want to preach it.

Let’s begin to apply this to our lives right now.

First, think again about why Jonah now obeyed God. It would be easy to think that God forced him to go. Certainly, there was still work to be done in Jonah’s heart, but I think the evidence we have is that he went as a response to God’s grace. I wonder if sometimes we almost have an attitude toward God that is like this: “If you want me to do this (or stop doing that) so bad, why don’t you just make me?” When we think this way, it shows that we don’t understand God’s grace. We may not truly believe that we would be cut off and without hope if it wasn’t for His love and forgiveness. Maybe we think we’re not such bad people, and God’s love is only a small favor that he does for us. If you are having trouble with your behavior, try meditating on God’s incredible love and grace.

Second, let’s not miss the big message. In our natural state, we, like all other humans, have sin wrapped up in our bodies and minds. It cuts us off from God, and there is nothing – nothing – we can do to fix this problem. Yet God says this:

Let the wicked one abandon his way
and the sinful one his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD,
so He may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for He will freely forgive. (Isaiah 55:7, HCSB)

Listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit today!

JONAH #4: THE FAITHFUL LOVE THAT SAVES US

Jonah, influenced by the world around him, unwilling to listen to God, found himself banished from God’s presence, dying. He turned back to the Lord in his distress, the and Lord saved him. This is the gospel in a nutshell, and we find it today in the Old Testament. We are separated from God by our own sin, and yet God’s faithful, covenant-love saves us when we cry out to him, when we trust him to do what we cannot do.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Jonah Part 4

I just said something briefly last time about the miraculous nature of Jonah being in the fish. For Christians today, I think it might be worth spending some more time on the relationship of faith, miracles, and science. A miracle, by definition, is when the normal laws of physics, biology, etc. are set aside by God. Because of this, science cannot either prove or disprove the existence of miracles. Science can’t study them. Many people who pride themselves for being rational thinkers, say that this makes miracles bogus. If they can’t be studied scientifically, why should we believe they are real at all?

Behind that sort of attitude is an assumption that science is the only true way of knowing things. The idea is that if something can’t be studied by science, it isn’t real, or true. Or, to put it another way: everything that exists can be discovered and studied and known by science.

Even though many people think like this, it is utterly ridiculous to believe that science is the only way of knowing anything, or even that it can (eventually) know everything. In the first place, science itself cannot prove that it is the only way of knowing anything. That is a completely non-scientific proposition. It is an example of what we call “a circular argument,” that is, an argument that depends upon itself in order to be true. To simplify, it is like saying, “science is the only way of knowing anything, and the reason we know that is because science is the only way of knowing anything.”

In fact, we can think of many things that normal people consider rational, but cannot be proven by science. We believe that some things are good, and others are evil – yet we cannot know that by the scientific method. Science uses math and logic, but it cannot prove the validity of either one – that would be another circular argument (I can’t use logic to show that logic is real).

We encounter things that are outside of the realm of science every single day. Take for instance, love. If someone were to study love scientifically, they would have to ask questions like these: “How much does love weigh? How long is it? How high? At what speed does love travel? Which molecules are used to build love-units? What does it look like under a microscope? How does it behave under laboratory conditions?” Obviously, these sorts of questions do not apply to love.

However, just as obviously, love exists. So do dozens more such things that profoundly affect our lives, but which science can know nothing about. Another example is freedom. What is the specific mass of freedom? What happens when you mix freedom with water? Again, silly questions. Science is excellent for studying the physical world. All Christians should rejoice at the way science has helped human beings. But obviously, there are more ways of knowing than science, and human beings couldn’t function if we knew nothing other than what science knows.

In fact, in order to do science, we must first accept, without evidence, that human thinking is rational, that our senses do not deceive us, and our thoughts correspond to reality, and that it is possible to discover what it true. In order to do science, all of those things have to be taken as “givens;” that is, we must simply believe that they are true, that is, we have faith that they are true. In other words: science could not exist without faith. Therefore, while science is a powerful way of knowing, faith is also a powerful way of knowing, and in some ways, faith is necessary for science to work.

I want to make sure that we Christians understand that there is no necessary conflict between faith and science. They are not at war. They are complementary ways of knowing things. It is true that some scientists try to use science to attack or undermine faith, but when they do that, they are being unscientific. When a scientist says something like: “this proves that there is no God,” or “this proves that miracles do not happen,” those are not scientific statements. Science cannot pass judgment on matters of faith without becoming unscientific.

All right, let’s look once more at the prayer, or psalm, that Jonah composed while he was (unscientifically) in the belly of the whale. It is important that we do so with the foundation of last week: In the belly of the sea creature, Jonah was saved, and yet, his salvation was not yet complete. So we too, have been saved, but our salvation won’t be complete until we stand with Jesus in the New Creation. Therefore, what Jonah says at this time is very relevant to us.

The Psalm starts with this: “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me.” This is the main point. Jonah says he cried for help from “Sheol,” which means “the place of the dead.” He doesn’t think he died, but he thinks he was knocking on death’s door. Jonah recognizes that he needed salvation because of his own sin and wrongdoing. He says, (as I pointed out last time) that it was the Lord who cast him into the sea, and he says he was banished from the sight of the Lord. In other words, his own sin and disobedience separated him from God. Jonah was almost beyond hope. He says he was near death, banished from the sight of God by his own sin. You can’t get any closer to lost than Jonah was. It reminds me of several different New Testament verses, including:

1 Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. 2 You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. 3 All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.
4 But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, 5 that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!  (Ephesians 2:1-5, NLT)

Jonah, in his desperate situation, looked to the Lord alone for salvation. When we recognize our need and distress, when we know we have no hope apart from the Lord, and we call on him, he saves us. No one who trusts him will be put to shame. All who call on him will be saved. This is the basic message of the whole Bible.

This is the message of faith that we proclaim:9If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.10One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.11Now the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on Him will not be put to shame,12for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord of all is rich to all who call on Him.13For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Rom 10:8-13, HCSB)

This is the gospel in a nutshell, and here it in the book of Jonah, in the Old Testament, seven hundred and fifty years before Jesus! 

I want us to pay special attention to verses 8 and 9. The best English translation of verse 8 is the HSCB: “Those who cling to worthless idols//forsake faithful love.” That’s really all it says in Hebrew. I think it is implied, however that the faithful love they forsake is the love of God. In the New Testament there is a Greek word that describes the unconditional, never-ending, sacrificial love of God: agape. In the Old Testament, there is a Hebrew word that is the equivalent of agape. That word is cHesed. (I add the small “c” for pronunciation. It’s like starting to softly clear your throat). It means: “faithful, never-ending love; covenant-love.” That is what Jonah says idol worshippers forsake. God offers us never ending, faithful love. He loves us so much that he sent Jesus to die in our place. But we can’t have both our idols, and also, at the same time, God’s love. If we choose to live for human relationships, or money, or achievement, or pleasure, or art, we forsake God’s love.

Now, all of the things I just named are good in their rightful places. Not even pleasure is evil in and of itself. But if we make any of these more important than God, or if we think of any of them as the “ultimate thing,” we forsake the love of God. If we must have something (other than God), or if we run to such things, rather than God, to bring us comfort and hope, we are in danger of idolatry. Jonah realizes what he almost gave up. Nothing is worth more than God’s cHesed , his covenant-love. But idol worshipers ignore what is eternally precious in the pursuit of things that only temporarily satisfy.

In verse 9, Jonah says he will sacrifice to the Lord, and do what he had vowed. God called Jonah to preach His word. Jonah accepted that call. But when God sent him to Nineveh, he balked. Now, he says, “I will do what I was supposed to do.” Notice that this comes after God has saved him. He is not trying to pay for his salvation. He knows he can’t earn it. But because God showed Jonah his power, and because God saved him, Jonah will live in obedience. It is a response to God’s grace, not a way to earn something from God. He has remembered (with God’s obvious help) that he is in a covenant with God, a cHesed covenant. That means, among other things, that he will go where God tells him, and do what God asks. He does this, not in order to get saved, but because God has already saved him, and given him covenant-love.

Jonah’s ending statement basically reiterates this main point. However, the words he uses makes it truly stunning.

Salvation is from the lord!” (Jonah 2:9, HSCB)

OK, maybe it doesn’t seem that stunning to you. This will take a bit of concentration to understand, but it is worth it, so listen closely. In the book of Exodus, God revealed himself personally to Moses as “I am that I am.” The Israelites took that to mean that God’s name was literally, “I am that I am,” or, as they pronounced it: “Yahweh.” They believed that God’s personal name was Yahweh. God commanded them not to take his name in vain. As time went on, the Jews took this command very seriously, and so, when the Old Testament text said “Yahweh,” they felt it was too holy to pronounce. Instead they said “The Lord.”

Most English Bible translations use this same practice. So, in most English translations, when you read “The Lord,” the Hebrew actually says, “Yahweh.”

Fast forward to New Testament times. For the first Christians, the basic confession of faith was this: “Jesus is Lord.” Those who said that did not mean: “Jesus is an important person (a lord).” They were saying: Jesus is THE LORD, the one true God who revealed himself to the people of Israel in ancient times. In other words: Jesus is Yahweh.

Now, one other thing. Jesus is our English way of saying his name. In Hebrew, “Jesus” is pronounced “Yeshua” and it means, “(the Lord’s) salvation.” Almost certainly, when his disciples said his name, they would have said, “Yeshua.”

Now let’s return to Jonah 2:9. There are only two Hebrew words in this verse. It is translated, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” But let me give it to you straight from the Hebrew: “Yeshua Yahweh.”

In other words: Jesus is Yahweh.

I don’t want to create any misunderstanding. Jonah had no idea that one day God was going to come into the world as a man named Yeshua. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Lord inspired Jonah to use those exact words. To me, it is sort of like finding an Easter egg hidden by God, or maybe like having God wink at us. He’s saying, “Here I am! In case you were wondering if it’s all really true, look, I’m everywhere.” Seven hundred years before he came into the world, the Lord dropped that little breadcrumb there for us!

Thoughts for application:

  • Though some scientists are antagonistic to Christianity, there is no necessary conflict. What are ways that you can praise God for the wisdom he has given the world through science? What are concerns that you might want to turn over to the Lord?
  • How has your own sin and disobedience separated you from the Lord? What about the world, or temptations? Have you called on the name the name of the Lord? Hear the word of the Lord through Jonah that all who call upon him (which means, also trusting him) will be saved!
  • Consider meditating on God’s covenant love for you, his commitment to love you, even to his own death. Receive his love by thanking him for it (and possibly singing, or responding in some other creative way)
  • What is the Lord saying to you today through his word?

JONAH #3: IN THE BELLY OF THE WHALE

Photo by Red Brick on Pexels.com

So, we too have been saved from our sin and evil by Jesus. Yet we are not yet in the “dry land” of the New Creation. Our salvation is not yet complete. However, like Jonah, we can trust that what God has begun, he will carry through to completion. We can, and should praise God for our salvation. Even when we don’t understand everything he is up to, we know we can trust God’s compassion, love and grace.

We are in a situation much like Jonah. He was saved from drowning, but he was still in the ocean, in the belly of the whale, not yet on dry land. Even so, he trusted what God was doing. He praised and thanked God for salvation even before he was completely safe.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Jonah Part 3

JONAH #3. JONAH 1;17-2:9. PART A

We ended last time with a fish swallowing Jonah. The Hebrew word for “fish” really just means: “really big sea creature,” so it might have been a grouper, or a whale shark, or a sperm whale, or some other creature that has since become extinct, or one that humans have yet to discover. It doesn’t really matter, because the Bible is not asking us to believe that this incident conforms to the normal laws of the physical world that God put in place long ago. It is clearly portrayed as a miracle.

I have pointed out before that when God said “get up!” Jonah started “getting down.” He went down from the mountains to the coast. He went down from the wharf onto the ship. He went down into the lower parts of the ship. Last time, he went from there, down into the sea, and now, down into the belly of the sea creature. Finally, Jonah has hit bottom.

In many ways, chapter 2 is the heart of the book of Jonah. It is the beginning of Jonah’s journey back “up.” Verses 1-9 are a psalm – that is a prayer, or song of worship – composed by Jonah. Judging from the psalm, especially verses 3-5, Jonah started to drown after he was thrown overboard. It was quite possible, perhaps even likely, that he didn’t know how to swim, since there were no swimmable bodies of water near his hometown. If he did know how to swim, the storm was drowning him anyway. From the descriptions in those verses, he was not keeping his head above water, but instead was sinking down, and all but certain he was about to die.

But the fish, by swallowing him, saved him. There, inside the fish, Jonah composes the psalm, which, no doubt, he perfected and memorized and wrote down later. I can’t imagine there is much else to do inside of a sea creature. It is interesting to me to notice that once he is inside the fish, he already feels that he is as good as saved. If it had been me, I would have been thinking, “OK, at least I didn’t drown, but what am I supposed to do now? How am I going to get out? Won’t I die of thirst, with no fresh water?”

I think there are two reasons that Jonah praised God before his deliverance was complete. I mentioned last time that he had probably absorbed some of the beliefs of the worldwide culture, and, while he officially believed that God was God of all things, practically speaking, he acted like God was just a territorial god from whom Jonah could run away. In the middle of the storm, his eyes are opened, and his faith was taken to a new level. Remember, he acted courageously and selflessly, telling the sailors to throw him overboard. I think during those moments, Jonah was almost like a new convert. He was in awe of God’s power. Even inside the fish, he was probably thinking: “Oh my word! It’s all true! Everything I’ve heard about God is actually true!”

Therefore, when he was swallowed by the fish he understood that to be God’s miraculous way of saving him. If he was able to think logically, it was a million-to-one that he would be swallowed by a sea creature and live, so God must have sent the fish. And since God sent the fish when he was drowning, obviously, he didn’t want Jonah to die yet.

One of the major themes of the book of Jonah is that God is in control of all things. He sent the storm. He stopped the storm exactly at the moment Jonah was swallowed by the fish. He sent the fish. Later we will see he directed the fish to the coast and caused it to vomit Jonah out. We will also see that he caused a plant to grow, a worm to eat the plant and a hot wind to bother Jonah. God is not “out there somewhere” doing his thing. He is intricately involved in nature, and in the lives of human beings. Verse three reiterates that God is in control: “For you cast me into the deep,// into the heart of the seas, // and the flood surrounded me; //all your waves and your billows // passed over me. [By the way I am using this: “//” to indicate a new line. It saves space here in the written version of the message.]

So, pay attention to what Jonah was saying. Even though it was Jonah’s own decision to flee by ship, and even though it was actually the sailors, with Jonah’s own encouragement, who threw him overboard, Jonah declares that it was God who cast him into the deep. He recognizes that behind even his own decisions, and the actions of others, God was at work.

God allowed Jonah to choose his own path, and yet, at the same time, God was completely in control. He allowed the sailors to make their own choices, and yet those choices were the outworking of God’s purposes acting in human affairs. Jonah’s choice to run resulted in God’s purpose, which was that the sailors come to know Him, and that Jonah’s faith be revived. So understand this: The Bible does teach us that we are free to make our own choices. It also teaches us that God is completely in control of everything. However, (listen carefully now): The Bible does not teach us how to reconcile those two truths with one another. It is true that I am fully responsible for the consequences of my actions. It is also true that God is in control, no matter what I do. Jonah understood this, and it did not lead him to blame God for that, but rather to praise him for being in control of the whole world. That is what it supposed to do for us also. We can have peace knowing that God is in control. We can praise him, knowing that we do not have the power to thwart the purposes of God. That is freeing and wonderful knowledge.

I realize, however, that if we were to accept that God is so completely in control, it causes problems for the way we think. If God is so involved, what about when storms or droughts destroy lives? What about when people are doing their best to follow him, and tragedy strikes?

 The book of Jonah does not try to answer all of those sorts of questions, though, we will see at the very end, it does provide one sort of response. However, I don’t want to raise the issue and leave it completely alone, so I’ll point out three main ideas to consider.

In the first place, we often conveniently forget our real position before the Lord. Think of it this way: Joseph Stalin was a communist dictator who ordered the brutal torture and murder of millions of people. If a storm came and destroyed his house, would we say that it isn’t fair, that God is unjust? No, in the case of Stalin, we might say, “fair enough,” or even, “God should have done even worse to him.” But the same thing that was inside of Stalin, the thing that caused him to perpetrate such injustice and cruelty, is also inside of me. It is called sin, and it is like cancer. Perhaps I have reigned it in better than Stalin did, but maybe, if I had as much power as he did, I would not have controlled myself, and maybe I would have been even worse than him. And frankly, in my case, the only thing that has caused me to fight against that sin inside me is the Holy Spirit given to me by Jesus. In other words, the only true good inside of me comes through Jesus, not myself. This is true of every single human being on the planet. Any good in this world originated with God, and this is true even for those who don’t know it. Therefore, no one – no one – no, seriously, no onedeserves any good from God. Maybe the cancer doesn’t grow as large in some as in others, but we all have it.

1LORD, hear my prayer. In Your faithfulness listen to my plea, and in Your righteousness answer me.2Do not bring Your servant into judgment, for no one alive is righteous in Your sight. (Ps 143:1-2, HCSB, formatting added for emphasis)

20There is certainly no righteous man on the earth who does good and never sins. (Eccl 7:20, HCSB, women are also intended as part of this statement ;-/)

9What then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin,10as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one.11There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.12All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. (Rom 3:9-12, HCSB)

If you think I don’t have sin in me, that is only because you don’t know me well enough. If you think you don’t have sin inside yourself, that is only because you don’t know yourself well enough. There is some good inside of people, a remnant of the original intention of God when he made us. But it is not enough. If the standard is perfection (and it is) than all things that are imperfect fall short. There are no degrees of perfection. Either I am perfect, or I am not. And I am not. Being close doesn’t count.

What if you are 95% good? All right, imagine someone served you a hearty stew. You could see chunks of meat, and potatoes and carrots, and also little dark chunks of something else. The stew smells of good meat, but also of something else that seems repulsive to you. You ask your host, “What is the rest of this stuff?”

Your host says, “95% of the stew is good stuff like beef, and carrots and potatoes. Only 5% of it is dog feces.”

Would you eat it? 95% of it is good, why not eat it? Because even 5% spoils the entire thing.

Really a better analogy would be 5% of the stew is deadly poison. Only 0.0000001% is needed to kill whoever eats it. Any amount of deadly poison in your food is too much. It destroys the value of all the good parts.

So, to say, “Yes, I have some sin in me, but also a lot of good” is like saying, “yes, there is some deadly poison in the stew, but also a lot of good stuff.” Or, “there’s only a little bit of cancer in your liver.” Any amount changes everything. In the same way, any amount of sin separates us from God. Therefore, even though we may have some good within us, any amount of sin is too much, and separates us from God.

 Therefore, if a storm destroys my house, the truth is, I never deserved to have a house in the first place. Sin is a cancer, and God will destroy every last bit of it in the end. Without Jesus, we would have to be destroyed with it, since we cannot overcome it ourselves. Our only hope of escaping the destruction is through Jesus. His death provides the only effective treatment for sin. There is no such thing as a truly “good person” who actually, truly deserves good things. If you are honest, when you look inside yourself, you know, at the very least, that you are not a thoroughly good person. I know I am not.

Secondly, when we think about God being entirely in control, we need to remember that He is infinite, and we are not. He knows incredibly more than we do. The entire universe cannot contain his knowledge, while all of my knowledge is contained within my three-pound brain. Therefore, we do not know – we cannot know – that God is being unreasonable, or unjust or cruel when he allows bad things to happen to people. We simply don’t know enough to judge God’s actions (or lack of actions).

Third, even though we deserve nothing good, God still piles good things upon billions of human beings, daily, including you and I: life itself, and everything that sustains life, like food clothing, family. He allows us to inhabit this beautiful planet. Frankly, I think I’ve got more than my share of good things. And in addition to these “everyday good things,” he sent Jesus so that we can eventually live in a world where there will be no sorrow, mourning, or suffering.  Anyone who desires it can come through Jesus, who calls himself “the door,” and, “the way, the truth and the life.” He offers us far more than everything this mortal life has to give. In fact, He offers far more than we could possibly lose here and now. We cannot always understand God’s ways, but because Jesus died for us, we can understand that he is good, gracious, and loves us far more than we could ever deserve. We can know that what he offers us will more than compensate for anything we suffer in this life:

18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:18, HCSB)

16Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day.17For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory.18So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2Cor 4:16-18, HCSB)

We are in a situation much like Jonah. He was saved from drowning, but he was still in the ocean, in the belly of the whale, not yet on dry land. Even so, he trusted what God was doing. He praised and thanked God for salvation even before he was completely safe.

So, we too have been saved from our sin and evil by Jesus. Yet we are not yet in the “dry land” of the New Creation. Our salvation is not yet complete. However, like Jonah, we can trust that what God has begun, he will carry through to completion. We can, and should praise God for our salvation. Even when we don’t understand everything he is up to, we know we can trust God’s compassion, love and grace.

Ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you now about his control of all things, and about your salvation.