I once heard a prominent British preacher say the book of Jonah might well be the most underrated book in all of Scripture. Having just taken a Bible study group through this little book, and having also taken a local church through it in recent years, I agree with that statement.
The book of Jonah was written around 770-750BC. This was at the time of Uzziah’s reign in Judah, Jeroboam II’s reign in Israel and Assurdan III’s reign in Assyria. It was also the era of Isaiah’s birth.
So what does this book and its main character Jonah have to say to the contemporary church?
Let’s start by taking a look at chapter 1: ‘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. But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord’ (vv.1-3).
Jonah, it turns out, had strong reasons for not wanting to go to Nineveh. He was already an established prophet and had come to know something of the character of God, especially his mercy. Jonah had been called on by God to bless the reigning king of Israel, Jeroboam II, even though he was on the ‘wicked’ list of Israel’s kings (2 Kings 14:25). Clearly, Jonah must have felt that Jeroboam deserved judgment rather than mercy.
What if God was merciful to the barbaric Ninevites also? Maybe Jonah did not want the reputation of blessing those who, on a human level, should be cursed.
Could this have a significant bearing on us as churches today? The mandate of going into all the world to make disciples has not been removed from the church. We have a continuing mission to reach out to those around us with the gospel.
However, we are living in days when this mandate carries a real cost, and that cost may not simply be a reputation for being a religious zealot, but could mean the loss of job, friends, social status or even safety.
And yet, we are called, like Jonah, to ‘cry out’ with the message of God’s mercy and the claims of Christ. But there is a temptation to say, like Jonah, thanks, but no thanks.
Jonah was running away from Nineveh in a ship, but God sent an almighty storm after him. The storm is going on all around him, yet he decides to ignore it by sleeping in the ship’s depths.
There can be no doubt that in Britain today an almighty storm is taking place. Politically, we seem adrift; economically, we seem unsure and afraid; spiritually, we seem more at ease in sleep than rising up to face the storm, with the banner of Jesus Christ and his missionary call. Could we be following in the reluctant prophet’s footsteps more than we realise?
In the end, Jonah is awakened out of his slumber by the panic-stricken crew. He tells the ship’s captain the real reason for the swelling storm. He then tells the sailors to throw him overboard. They would have to kill him to still the storm.
He actually chose death over an obedience to speak! It is a stark reminder of the stubbornness of even God’s prophets at times. I wonder if we are any different? Are we opting for spiritual disobedience, rather than, in these undoubtedly dark and stormy days, speaking of Christ, his death and resurrection and deep relevance to the world?
The sailors threw Jonah overboard and the storm was stilled. However, ‘the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights’ (v.17).
Many have mentioned the similar incident at the beginning of the twentieth century in which an unfortunate Falkland Island fisherman was swallowed by a whale, yet survived after the whale was cut open three days later. But the issue here is that, in the midst of Jonah’s rebellion, God visited him in this dramatic way because he wanted to show mercy to the Ninevites (as well as to Jonah). The great fish was sent, not as a judgment on Jonah’s reluctance, but as a messenger of grace (albeit, wrapped in an unusual package).
Is it possible that God may have booked you in, like Jonah, to ‘Fish hotel’? In other words, are circumstances cajoling you to witness at this hour to the glory of God, even at a very real cost?
Let us seek to win our nation for Jesus, even if there is a backlash, rather than falling asleep in the storm.
To be continued
William Wade is an Army Scripture Reader, with SASRA, in Colchester.