Missions Reluctantly - Jonah 1:1-17
Not being willing to go “On Mission” will cost us more than we think.
Missions to our Samaria define how we go “On Mission” to our neighboring countries. To translate going “On Mission” to our Samaria to today’s language, it would seem that our Samaria could be translated as our bordering countries, or basically North America. These countries basically live like we do, have running water, infrastructure, etc. We begin studying missions to our Samaria with a study of Jonah.
Division #1: Jonah’s commission is commanded.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
We begin with a background of the events of this time. II Kings 14:25 tells us that Jonah was written during the reign of King Jeroboam II (786BC-746BC). Jeroboam was a king of the northern kingdom of Israel (Remember that the Jewish kingdom split after King Solomon’s reign into the “Northern Kingdom” or “Israel”; and the “Southern Kingdom” of “Judah”) The Northern Kingdom was then destroyed by the Assyrians under King Shalmaneser V, and they are what is now referred to as the “10 Lost Tribes of Israel”
During Jonah’s time, Israel was its own state, but the military threat of the Assyrians was a daily threat to their existence. It is this threat that was important, because the Israelites would have held the Assyrians with a lot of fear and disgust. For the years leading up to this time, Assyria had posed a serious threat to Israel. During that time, Israel had aligned itself with a group of western nations that banded together to resist the Assyrians, but this coalition was weak at best. Finally in 841BC King Jehu of Israel agreed to be an Assyrian territory and pay taxes to them in exchange for “protection”. The problem with this was that in the following years, Assyria’s influence was waning and that protection seemed unreliable. This ultimately would be Israel’s undoing, because Assyria focused their military attention on Israel and destroyed it completely in 721BC. We see that it is most certainly better to rely on God’s protection, rather than any earthly kingdom.
History for some is pretty boring stuff. Dates and names can cause even the most astute learner’s eyes to glaze over. But when we really study God’s word, history really becomes HIS STORY. Understanding the culture and surrounding events really sets the stage and gives us a deepened understanding of the stories that we think we know so well. This is proven true with the story of Jonah, because from knowing the “backstory”, we can begin to understand why Jonah didn’t want to go anywhere near Nineveh. This was the government that they had submitted to. Think of the early United States, where taxation without representation led to our war for independence. In Jonah’s time however, Israel had begrudgingly entered into a protection racket with a heathen and blasphemous bully, and Jonah was OK with them all dying without knowing the one true God. It served them right.
So the book of Jonah starts like all mission trips starts, “The word of the Lord came to…” Just like Jonah, every time we go “On Mission”, we do so at the behest of the Lord. It is He who gives us our direction and instruction. If you have been sitting in church and been urged to do some kind of missions, then your story could also begin with this same sentence, “The word of the Lord came to….. You.”
With Jonah too, we see a response that could be written just as much today as it was 2,800 years ago. God asked Jonah to go “On Mission” and Jonah ran the other way. How many times has the Holy Spirit impressed upon His church the desire to go to some other place and share His good news to a lost and dying world, and we have found excuses? “Now isn’t the right time”, “I’m too busy at work”, or “I have to stay here and watch my kids / elderly parents” are just a few modern day examples of the same response that Jonah had.
Jonah had been asked to go to Nineveh and “preach against it” or tell them the error of their ways and repent. Jonah clearly knows what God is asking him to do, and he goes in the exact opposite direction. Where Jonah goes literally “off the chart” is the scale of his disobedience. If you look at the map here, while Tarshish was in a different country and was over 2500 miles away, Nineveh was “only” 550 miles from where Jonah was at. 1 Kings 10:22 says that when Solomon’s ships made the round trip to Tarshish it took three years.
Verse 3 tells us that he went “down” to Joppa. We know from 2 Kings 14:25 that Jonah was from Gath-hepher, which is a few miles north of Nazareth. We can assume that this means that he left his hometown and traveled about 56 miles south-west to Joppa, since we know in biblical writing, when we read “going down”, it typically means traveling to a lower elevation. Jonah could have been in Jerusalem at the time as well, since we see “going down” often times means leaving Jerusalem as well. Jonah arrived in Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv) and the last part of this verse tell us his destination, Tarshish. Tarshish was the furthest place you could go, it was on the edge of the Mediterranean, before ships went out into the Atlantic Ocean.
That he wanted to go as far in the opposite direction as God’s will says something about how much he did not want to go where God had sent him, but the next part says equally as much, he paid the fare. You see this was no “Carnival Cruise”. Ships were used primarily for moving stuff from one place to another, so he was paying the ship’s owner to be put on a boat like cargo. Not a very comfortable way to travel for 18 months. But more than costing him comfort, disobeying God cost him a lot of money too. While traveling anywhere costs money, we will learn that his traveling to Nineveh, and our disobedience to God, will always cost us more than just the price of the ticket.
There is also some speculation as to what paid the fare means in the original text. It could mean that he just bought a ticket, or it could mean that he hired the entire ship for himself. This is immaterial because either way, the price would have been pretty high. Imagine how much a ticket would cost for an 18 month all inclusive journey, and that is just one way. When we think the economics of his decision, we are faced with another conclusion. The determination to flee as far as he could go was made when he left his home, not by chance when he got to Joppa. Remember they did not carry American Express cards then, so he would have had to travel with that money ON HIM, to pay the fare at Joppa. The roads then were not like I-85. When you walked on those roads, there were robbers and thieves (like in the Good Samaritan story) so he would have put himself at great risk traveling to Joppa carrying all that money for a ticket.
Scripture says that after he paid the fare, he got on the ship, and the ship left for the far off port of Tarshish. I must wonder what he was thinking as the ship cleared the breakwater of Joppa and entered into the open sea. Did he look back thinking that he had outsmarted God? Did he breathe a sigh of relief thinking that now he was on a ship out in the open sea and he was out of God’s reach? Further in this chapter, in verse 10 we see that Jonah had previously told the sailors that he was fleeing from his God, but did Jonah think he had succeeded? Taking those thoughts of Jonah and apply them to us today, can we sometimes find ourselves in willful disobedience to God’s commands, and as we pass those breakwaters, do we think we have outsmarted God or dodged His will or direction for our lives, for the sake of our own selfish desires?
1: Not being willing to go “On Mission” will cost us more than we think.
Application Question: When have I willfully gone in the opposite direction of God’s will for my life, or not shared His Salvation when He gave me the opportunity?
True fear is not knowing the God who commands the wind and the waves.
Division #2: Jonah’s companions cry out to their gods.
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”
Verse four begins with a storm sent by the Lord. I imagine that sailors are used to storms. We have plenty of evidence today, with reality shows and documentaries about fishermen and sailors, to see that rough seas are just part of a day’s work. For the sailors to be afraid of this storm indicates that this one was a major weather event. This was no squall. This was gale force winds and waves big enough to snap a ship in half in between waves. (When I think about this storm, the song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald keeps repeating over and over in my mind…..) In this scene, we again see the relevance of this story in our current culture. We see this scene all too often every day. When life’s storms are upon us, either in the form of a medical issue like cancer or a relationship issue like divorce, people either cling to the One who controls the wind and waves, or they cry out to anything they think of in the moment. This is why Dr. Phil and Oprah are as popular as they are. These sailors were crying out to their gods (little g) in some vain attempt to, in their humanness, control the situation, as if the power of positive thinking could control the weather. As we go “On Mission” in our culture, and as we see so many lost and misguided people, we need to share at every opportunity the real path to peace that is only found in the saving grace of Christ.
As the storm grew, the waves got higher and higher. If you look at the graphic to the right, you will see three things that can happen with a ship in stormy waters. The ship can drive bow first, down into the trough (the low space between two waves), it can ride up on the top of one wave, or it can get the bow and stern (front and back) on the tops of waves with the middle of the ship unsupported. Either of these three scenarios and combinations of them can break a ship apart out in the open ocean. Of course there is also the danger of the ship rolling, where a ship goes broadside up a wave and keels over. (The bottom of the ship called the keel is actually up and the deck of the ship is underwater) Add all of these events and you can start to imagine how terrifying it can be on a ship in a storm, especially a storm with the divine intent to get their attention! So with the graphic scenarios shown, the only way the sailors knew to save the ship was to lighten it. By casting overboard cargo and personal belongings, it would decrease the ships weight and decrease is displacement and it’s “draft” or how much of the ship is below the water line. It would also decrease the weight pressing against the keel, the backbone of the ship, so if the ship was in a trough of a wave or at the top of one, the less weight against the keel, the less likely it would snap in half. This also was a total last resort. The economic cost of losing the entire cargo overboard would have been huge and with this last desperate act, the voyage was over. There would have been no need to continue sailing to Tarshish, they had no cargo to deliver. If the ship did not sink, they would be forced to return to port and possibly face jail and have to repay all the customers who had paid to transport that cargo.
The second part of verse five also gives us a very modern day picture of someone running, even unknowingly, from God’s will for their lives. 2800 years ago, people acted the same way they act today, and this shows again how the Bible is so relevant to us today. In the midst of this storm, Jonah had gone below deck and was asleep. HOW IN THE WORLD WAS HE ASLEEP? Seasoned sailors were fearing for their lives, they were throwing cargo and anything not nailed down overboard, but Jonah was asleep. He had paid the fare to be on this ship, and his body was paying the fare for his stress. When we are stressed, horrible things happen to our bodies. We can fall into depression, and very real ailments occur from elevated stress levels. I must think that all this running from God’s will had a huge effect on his emotional well-being. He was outside of God’s will and he knew it, and all he wanted to do was go somewhere dark and sleep. Scripture does not say he had been working 20 hour days. All he did was walk to Joppa and buy a ticket, but yet he was so tired that in the midst of a storm that scared seasoned sailors to death, he was asleep. We can’t help but think that if he had not been so worried about running from God, he might have been on deck when the storm appeared, and maybe the cost of the cargo would not have had to be sacrificed.
A recent popular movie had a very true line in it, “a commanding officer is a mighty and terrible thing... a man to be feared and respected… and the skipper always knows what to do”. We see Jonah being unceremoniously awoken by the captain of this ship, and he was none too happy. While the men were above sacrificing the cargo to save their lives, Jonah was sleeping. The captain was indignant. He was going to have all hands on deck, and that included Jonah.
The next piece of history that we need to know about this verse is the context of the idol worship that was rampant at this time. We need to understand that there were different kinds of gods. There were cosmic deities, and then there were patron deities. It is clear that the sailors acknowledged that the storm was of supernatural origins, because they were trying to find which god was responsible for it. In their quest to query the crew, they wanted Jonah in the mix. The captain certainly thought someone on board would know which god was doing this and why. It does seem odd that Jonah had already told them he was fleeing the Lord, and for them to have not already made that connection given the fact they were trying to find the deity responsible for the storm. The sailors were all crying out to any god who would listen, and they wanted Jonah’s God in the mix as well.
We also see that they were calling out for assistance, not repentance. They were calling out to their “patron” deities, in some misguided hope that they could intervene with the god who was responsible for the storm. They wanted to appease some unknown deity, so that it would argue on their behalf to assuage the god responsible for the storm. What we know is that the one and only God of the universe does not want appeasement, he wants a relationship. Don’t we see the same things today? In a lot of ways, we still live in a polytheistic culture. It is not “asherah poles” or statues of Baal these days, but it is money, or entertainment, or possessions, or pleasure, or even we make our own bodies idols. We hold these things up to everybody around us like they are things to be worshipped, and if you worship something different than me, maybe the thing you worship will help me. If we do this, we are not pointing people to the one true God, but multiple idols that do nothing but harm us in this life, and the life to come. Hopelessness is born from indifference to God. True hope comes from knowing the One who created all things and whose plan is not to harm us, but to prosper us in His grand design. If Jonah, and us for that matter, had been in God’s will from the start, or even repented at the multiple times offered to us, would we still find ourselves stressed to the max, alone, in the dark, trying to hide from the One that there is no hiding?
Finally, sometimes God uses the least likely people to bring us back into His will. The very words issued by the captain have so much truth in them. He said “Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish”. How much truth did this captain unknowingly speak? We could take this half of a verse and take this message to the world, it stands alone. Not only is Jonah’s God the only God, but he is the only God that takes notice of us, and he is the only God who can save us from perishing! In 2 Peter 3:9 God says that He “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” and in 1 Timothy 2:4 Paul writes “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”. God wants a relationship with us, and His very heart is that we be with Him for all eternity. Our mission while we are here on earth is to share that invitation to everyone we can.
2: True fear is not knowing the God who commands the wind and the waves.
Application Question: When have I seen someone in fear and not shared the peace that passes all understanding?
The result of our disobedience to God affects us and other people, as well as damages our testimony.
Division #3: Jonah’s contempt is caught.
Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
The captain now has everyone on deck, and they did something that seems strange, given they were doing this in the middle of an epic storm. They gather around and “cast lots”. Casting lots was a common practice, like rock-paper-scissors, drawing straws, or flipping a coin, but it was used in these times to ascertain a decision. The “lot” fell on Jonah, so he was to be questioned. They probably did this by each man reaching into a small pouch and pulling some kind of dice or bone out, and the one who pulled the odd color or shape was whom “the lot fell.”
I would think, given the questions they asked Jonah, nobody onboard wanted to go first. To be questioned about the most intimate parts of their lives appeared to be seriously invading their personal space, but during this storm, they were not playing. They needed to see if they could find out who was responsible for this storm, so they could then have a plan of action.
It is interesting here that Jonah had already told them he was fleeing God, but that had not been much of an issue for them. That was his problem, not theirs. Now the issue of running from God was a problem for everyone on this ship, and they needed to deal with it. As we share our faith, we can use our trials to point people to God. We begin to see Jonah do this here, and we need to pay specific attention to one thing. At no point did Jonah turn to idols. His hiding was done, he knew that there was no escaping God’s correction, and he held firm to his faith.
When they finished their questions, he answered truthfully and honestly. I wonder if he started with more of an “I told you I was running from the Lord, but what I didn’t tell you was that my Lord is the Lord of All, the creator of the Universe and the only one and true God.” He explained to them he was a Hebrew, and he included details to prove to them that his Lord was who made the heavens and the earth and the sea.
Now, this terrified the sailors for a number of reasons. When they learned that this storm and the peril of the ship was because of a cosmic deity, and not a patron deity, their knees were knocking. With their polytheistic religions, angering a cosmic deity was no small infraction, and being unfamiliar with Jonah’s God, they had no point of reference as to what to do to try to “appease” him. When the author records that they said “What have you done?” there really needs no more translation. I can just hear them screaming over the howling wind and the waves crashing over the deck. “What have you done? You have killed us all!!”
As we look at this scene the author describes, we can also apply it to our Christian witness. How can we be effective in witnessing to people if the result of our actions is chaos and discontent? We must always be mindful that our actions, and even other people’s perception of us, will affect how our testimony is received. Not only can we bring unsaved people down with us when we fail to obey God’s will, we also hamper our ability to be effective missionaries when we say we are Christians but go along living like the world. We are called to be set apart, and we should act like the children of the King that we are. Brennon Manning wrote “The greatest cause of atheism in the world is Christians, who profess Christ with their lips and deny Him with their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” It was true in Jonah’s time and it is true today. We simply cannot afford to conform to the temporary leaning of the modern culture.
3: The result of our disobedience to God affects us and other people, as well as damages our testimony.
Application Question: When has my testimony been damaged by my actions? When has my disobedience affected my wife or kids, my parents, my church, etc.?
No amount of human effort can relieve sin’s affect or its penalty, the only hope a lost world has is for us to share His saving grace.
Division #4: Jonah’s correction is clear.
So they said to him, “What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?” - for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.” However, the men rowed desperately to return to land but they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them. Then they called on the Lord and said, “We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O Lord, have done as You have pleased.” So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. Then the men feared the Lord greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.
This final division exemplifies what happens when we try to take measures into our own hands. The text shows us that the sailors now asked what needed to be done. With the sailors being polytheists, they needed to know what rituals or actions needed to be taken to assuage the wrath of this deity. The storm had not subsided; it had gotten worse. This storm was so fierce they had already thrown all the cargo overboard, given up their trip to Tarshish, and it still was escalating. For the storm to get them to this point was bad enough, but it was getting even worse by the minute. Jonah told them the only answer was to rid them of his presence. Jonah knew the predicament that they were in was a direct result of his fleeing from God’s command, so the only logical thing to do was to remove him from the equation. Jonah was not thinking that a fish was going to come eat him, he probably thought God was going to require his death.
He could have jumped off the boat by himself, but if he drowned that would have been considered suicide, and that was forbidden by Jewish law. Though it would be written 450 years later, (the principles of this would have been observed at this point in history) the Jewish Talmud says “For him who takes his own life with full knowledge of his action, no rites are to be observed. There is to be no rending of clothes and no eulogy”. So as he was now endeavoring to be faithful to his religion, he asked the sailors to throw him overboard. How many times do we pick and choose which of God’s commands to follow? We pat ourselves on the back for keeping the “thou shalt not kill” command, but are we as quick to own up to our coveting of what our neighbors have?
Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard, but they were not willing to take things that far. Jonah knew that it was because of his disobedience that they were in this position, and the only way he saw to save everyone was for him to be removed. Even in fear of their own lives, they were in the midst of experiencing the control over the weather by Jonah’s God, and killing Jonah might make this deity even more angry with them, so throwing him overboard was not an option that was high on their list. What they tried instead was to handle their situation themselves. With the wind howling, it was logical to conclude that they had furled or stowed their sails, so they began to try and row in the direction of shore. Here we see the absolute folly of lost people. Any effort to attempt Salvation while in defiance of God is pointless. We cannot save ourselves, it is only by grace through faith that we can have any hope, and these sailors were clueless. The only one on that boat that knew the path to their Salvation was the one they were ignoring.
Verse 13 gives us a clear illustration to what happens when we try to defy God. They rowed and rowed, and the sea became even rougher. Mentally picture the progression of this storm. It was very bad when this started because they were ditching cargo, how bad had it gotten by this point? In verse 11 the seas grew stormier, and in verse 13 the seas were “even stormier against them”. I can imagine that there were some very sea sick people by this time. This is a picture of us today though. We are stubborn and stiff necked people. When we run into a roadblock on the path to a selfish desire, we push against it. How far did that get the sailors, and how far does that get us?
They finally saw the folly in their efforts against God, and they agreed to do the unthinkable. They agreed to throw Jonah overboard. It is against the very fabric of a true sailor’s being to leave someone to the fate of an angry sea. Even to this day “the law of the sea” is that no matter the flag or country of origin, a vessel must render assistance to another vessel in peril. The consternation of these sailors to willfully throw a man overboard shows the terror they felt. They said a prayer to ask God not to hold them accountable for Jonah’s death, and they heaved him overboard.
Jonah’s feet hit the water and the storm came to a screeching halt. The wind was perfectly calm. The rain stopped. As the sun shone down on the boat, as the sea water dripped from the mast and the lines, and as the water on the deck poured overboard, I can’t help but imagine the looks on the sailor’s faces. What was their conversation? Did they talk among themselves about how the God of Jonah really was the God of the universe? Verse 16 says the men feared the Lord greatly and offered sacrifices and made vows. We can assume they did not start a fire on the deck of a wooden ship and burned offerings, but they could have taken grain and thrown it into the sea in an act of a makeshift grain offering. We do not know if the text here implies that they came to faith in God or if they were just fearful and did acts that they also did to other gods. It is clear, however, that they got a big wakeup call on who the one true God is.
We know from the rest of the book of Jonah that God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah, and he spent three days and nights in the belly of that fish. The fish, in obedience to God’s will, swam to the shore of the sea, probably along the coast somewhere near Joppa where Jonah began his journey, and spat him out. Jonah walked onto dry land, and we see in verse 1 of chapter 3, God giving Jonah a mulligan (do-over). Just like verse one of chapter one, the word of the Lord came to Jonah again, and this time Jonah obeyed.
4: No amount of human effort can relieve sin’s affect or its penalty, the only hope a lost world has is for us to share His saving grace.
Application Question: When have I tried to cover my sin by my own means? What was the outcome?