Matthew 12:38-41; Jonah 1:1-4
In Matthew 12 Jesus is rebuking these Pharisees because they require a sign to prove that Jesus is who he has said he is. They were rebellious and stubborn and their hearts were hard. Their hearts were so hard that Jesus points out that they are further from God than even the people of Nineveh. Jesus is comparing them to the Ninevites as evil and they are even more evil than the Ninevites. Tender-hearted people don’t require signs from God in order to believe, but instead our hearts should be leaning into a desire to trust God. God’s people should be quick to repent when confronted with the truth. When I mention the term “repentance”, I mean the idea of admitting your way of thinking and your resulting actions are wrong and then changing your convictions with the resulting change of actions.
Jesus rebukes these Pharisees for their exceeding hardness of heart, and yet, He says that He will give them a sign because the Lord is merciful. The sign will be similar to the sign of Jonah, which will prove that their hearts are harder than the people of Nineveh however the sign will be much greater and still they will not believe. Jesus tells them that he will be delivered from the belly of Hell after 3 days. The mention of this story by Jesus affirms that the story of Jonah is real. The rest of our messages will be focused on the story of Jonah and what we should learn from the experience of a rebellious prophet of God.
I want to approach this study from 2 different ideas. First, I want you to put yourself in Jonah’s sandals. In what ways do I sometimes act like Jonah? Secondly, I want us to see Jonah as symbolic of the modern church. In what ways does the church sometimes act like Jonah?
In verse 1 God speaks to Jonah the prophet. Who is Jonah? In II Kings 14:23-27 Israel was about to be destroyed. Jeroboam was king of Israel, and he was evil. There was nothing good that caused God to save Israel, but it was not His will to see them destroyed. To save them, he raised up a prophet named Jonah and through the prophesying of Jonah the borders of Israel were restored. So, Jonah was an established, successful prophet before the time of our story.
In our story, God is ready to use Jonah again in an even bigger way. I say it’s a bigger way, because Nineveh was much more powerful than Israel and what God was asking Jonah to do was very dangerous. It also involved reaching many thousands of unsaved souls.
Before we look at the story closer, I want to point out something that will be seen throughout the story and that we often don’t notice. This thought is really very important when we consider how great our God is and how valuable it is to remain humble when God chooses to use you for His glory. Paul says in Romans 12 and in I Corinthians 4 that any gifts of the Holy Spirit that you have were given to you by God’s grace. None of us earned or deserved any anointing that God has given us and none of us can be proud or can boast about the ministry God has given us. We must remain humble, and it is also our responsibility to remain faithful in obedience to the Lord. You can’t convince God to use you as a prophet just because you fast and pray. He decides what He wants to do with your life. In I Corinthians Paul describes us in the body of Christ as hands and feet and ears and eyes. Just because I want to be an ear, fasting and praying won’t convince God to make you an ear if He’s already chosen to make you a foot. And, sometimes we think those who hear God’s voice are special or more spiritual or more important than those who God uses to instruct through study of His Word. Our hearts might think that they have it so much easier or God blesses them so much more, but the Bible makes it clear that there is a much more accurate listener than any prophet. There is an ear that listens and obeys, and God uses more than any prophet, and that’s creation! Creation always recognizes His voice and always obeys His commands! I have never met a Christian who was more able to hear or more faithful to obey God than nature. In Jonah 1:1 God speaks to this great prophet, and he runs from the voice of God, but in Jonah 2:10 God speaks to a fish and the fish obeys. Never let your heart become proud for being a servant of Christ, even the wind and the sea obey Him. So, who is the faithful servant in this story? Is it the prophet or the fish?
Let’s talk about Nineveh for a minute. What was special about Nineveh? Nineveh was a major enemy of Israel and an evil and very violent place. It was the capital of Assyria. It was the oldest and largest city of its day. Its walls were 22 meters tall (72 ft.) and so thick that 10 chariots could travel around the city on top of the wall. Its wickedness was so horrible that the wall was covered with the skins of their enemies. Its name means, the place of the fish. I find that especially interesting considering Jonah’s experience. According to Genesis 10:8-11 Nineveh was built by Nimrod who was the first mighty man on the earth. He is called a “mighty man” because he built the first kingdom or nation and was the first ruler on earth. Jonah 4:11 says that there were 120,000 children in Nineveh. The description of not knowing their right hand from their left indicates that they were young children. It almost appears that God’s mercy was motivated by the many young children that would die if judgment fell.
There are 2 comparisons throughout the story of Jonah. Notice in Jonah 1:3 “But Jonah fled from the presence of the Lord” then look at the first phrase in verse 4, “But the Lord”. One of my favorite phrases in the Bible is, “But God”. Remember when Joseph was talking to his brothers and said, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Psalms 73:26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” In our story the first comparison is that Jonah keeps trying to avoid the Lord, but the Lord keeps pursuing him. Throughout this story we see over and over that God shows mercy on Jonah and that He is a merciful God to the unsaved. The Lord’s mercy is truly new every morning for Jonah and for Nineveh. And we’ll see later that Jonah is very aware of God’s mercy.
The second comparison is that the Lord continues to prepare things in Jonah’s mission. We will see that over and over the Lord is preparing things to teach Jonah lessons about His mercy and faithfulness. But I want to look first at 3 great things the Lord did in the story. First, God created a great wind!!! Jonah 1:4 literally says that God hurled a great wind onto the sea. There are many places in scripture that speak of great winds being used by the Lord for His purposes. God is in control of nature, and He uses it for His glory. Psalms 107:23-32 (read) the stormy wind is often His instrument to make us aware of how great He is. In Jonah’s situation God uses the stormy wind to put Jonah back on the path of obedience, but He also uses it to show His glory to the unsaved. Jonah 1:8-16 (read) notice the many issues in these verses. Jonah says that he fears the Lord!!! But it appears that it’s the unsaved who really do fear the Lord. The Bible says that the Lord reveals Himself to those who fear Him, and in this case the Lord reveals Himself to these unsaved sailors.
The second thing that God prepares is a great fish. The words used here indicate that this fish was exceptionally large. There are reports of men being swallowed whole and living. In fact, there is a report of a man just last year (2021) in June who was swallowed whole, and they managed to save him. I find it interesting that God used the largest creature on earth but also, when He used the worm later in the story, He was using one of the smallest creatures on earth. It makes no difference to God. He uses the least and the greatest, and He uses them for His great glory. The fact that the Bible teaches that God uses nature and creatures to fulfill His will should encourage all of us who desire to be used by God. If the Lord will use creation, surely, He will use His chief creation if we are willing and faithful.
The last great thing in this story is the city of Nineveh, Jonah 1:2. This must have been one of the largest evangelistic meetings in the Bible. Jonah 3:5 says that the people of Nineveh believed God. All of us want God to use us for great things, but in this story “great” is not what most of us would imagine. I think that happens a lot. We imagine great things, but when God works in our lives, the great things we imagine are usually the things we desire least. None of us long for great storms or to be swallowed by a great problem or to be sent to a great enemy. Our faith cannot grow or become pure without us facing problems that challenge us. But God has called us to love our enemies and sometimes that really does mean that we are to focus our attention on them when we really would prefer to be sent to some other imagined great place or people.
The primary thought in this first chapter is, so, Jonah fled from the presence of the Lord. Jonah is saying no to God, he really doesn’t want to do what God is telling him to do. I find it interesting that the Bible indicates that disobeying the Lord is the same as trying to escape His presence. Most of us deeply desire His presence. Most of us enjoy meetings where God’s presence is so real and close, and we love those times in His presence. But His presence is His glory, and His glory is for the purpose of changing us, II Corinthians 3:17-18. And change happens because He challenges us. He stretches our faith and our trust in Him. He never allows us to enter into His presence without changing. His presence is often uncomfortable because He challenges us to change. The presence of the Lord always makes demands on our lives and I think that deep down we all know that.
In 2018 I had a vision concerning our church in St. Louis. In the vision I saw people standing behind a high wall of bushes and they were peeking into a service that was taking place in our auditorium. In the service the Lord’s presence was moving and these people behind the bushes were really excited by His presence, but they wouldn’t come out from behind the wall of bushes because they knew the presence of the Lord would bring demands. In the vision the Lord knew that the people were there watching and enjoying His presence but not fully committing to His presence and then I saw a fire from heaven fall on the bushes. There came a strong sense of the Holiness of God and then the Lord spoke from the wall of bushes and began calling people to His purpose. It was the same experience that Moses had with the burning bush, and in the vision many of the people were making excuses, just like Moses did, but the Lord was demanding their obedience.
In the story of Moses and the burning bush, the mountain where the burning bush was, is the same burning mountain where the 10 commandments were given. You can study that in scripture and you will see that I’m right. When Israel traveled to that mountain in Exodus, in the presence of God, the people trembled, and the will of God was given. The challenge of His presence is a place of Holy calling. Holy ground is dangerous ground to those who do not fear the Lord. But to those who fear the Lord, it is the beginning, the starting place of wisdom and service to Him. I believe that the Lord wants to give many of His people Holy ground experiences that call them to His service. We should desire a heart that is drawn to the burning bush experience. We cannot run from the call to an undesired people or situation.