I lead one of the medium-sized Community Groups at my church (Life Bridge Community Church). We are currently in a series working through the Old Testament book of Jonah, and I have been asked to make some of the materials I’ve covered in our group available online. So, I thought the best place to do that would be here. It’s the first time I’m trying something like this, so we’ll see how it goes. Please feel free to your comments below.
Jonah is an unusual prophet. He is unique in his mission, sent by God to a pagan Gentile nation to declare their destruction, so that God can turn them from their sin and show His glory and grace in this surprising context. We see anger and bitterness and conflict in Jonah, and his potential to represent all of us. But in his story, we also see God’s gracious and loving character brilliantly on display, as well as a number of typological moments that point to Jesus.
Week 1: God’s Foolish and Disobedient Prophet
Slides: 2018-08-05 LIFT – Jonah 1:1-3 (with introduction to the text)
Jonah is a prophet of Yahweh who lived and prophesied in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II in the early 8th century BC. He is a “latter, minor prophet” in Israel’s history. We know little about him, really, except for the amazing story told in the 29th book of the Old Testament, which you can find about 2/3 of the way through the Bible (maybe 50 pages before Matthew 1:1).
Jonah is the only prophet in Scripture called by God to prophesy to a Gentile nation. He is sent to Nineveh, an important city in the Assyrian empire — just a few decades after Jonah’s adventure, Assyria, with Nineveh as its new capital city, will invade and destroy the kingdom of Israel — to declare that God is painfully aware of their wickedness and pronounce His judgment upon them.
Shockingly, though, Jonah “flees from the presence of the Lord” (Jon 1:3) and tries to escape to Tarshish, a well-known port city on the other side of the known world. This would be like living in Kentucky, and when God sends you to Washington DC, you start hitchhiking to Seattle to get out of your assignment. It’s ridiculous, but Jonah does it anyway. Why? Because he knows God, who is gracious and compassionate and quick to forgive, and he hates the Ninevites, whom he feels are not worthy of God’s love. He knows that if He goes to Nineveh and tells them God is about to destroy them, that they will repent and God will spare them. He’s so disgusted by that idea, that he runs away. He would rather die than see God’s grace poured out on such wicked people.
- Fleeing from the presence of the Lord = Telling God “no”
Week 2: Jonah’s Sovereign and Personal God
Jonah may have talked himself into thinking that he can get away from God, but of course he can’t. Jonah hitches a ride of a ship sailing across the Mediterranean, and God appoints a great storm which tosses the boat around like a rubber ducky in God’s bathtub. Everyone’s life is threatened, but while the experienced pagan sailors fight to save the ship (and their lives), Jonah pouts and eventually just goes to sleep below deck.
In this drama, we are given a front row seat to what it means to lack Christian maturity. Jonah tells God “no,” which is what “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” really means, and won’t even lend a hand to help those whom his unfaithfulness has put in jeopardy. We too face this choice. Will we be faithful and obedient to God’s command? We are called, increasingly, to say “yes” to God, whatever He asks, both quickly and joyfully.
Looking at God’s leading role in the story, we learn that:
- God is personal – He relates to Jonah and even the sailors, by His personal name, Yahweh.
- God is sovereign – His fundamentally controls nature (v4), because He created it (v9).
- God is to be taken seriously – How could Jonah really think he could get away with telling God “no” and running away?
Amazingly, this sovereign, personal, all-powerful God is committed to pouring out grace. He abounds in hesed (saving covenantal faithfulness). He sovereignly orchestrates every aspect of this story to His redemptive ends. He saves the sailors from destruction, He saves Jonah from drowning, and we will see that He is relentlessly determined to save the Ninevites — even Gentiles benefit from God’s grace; through His people Israel, and ultimately His Messiah, all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen 12:3) —, and through this story and its preservation across the millennia, His grace extends even to us.
- Christian maturity means, increasingly, telling God “yes,” quickly and joyfully
- God is always doing something something greater than we understand (or would do)
Week 3: A Demonstration of the Fear of the Lord
In stark contrast to Jonah, when faced with imminent death from a raging storm, the sailors’ first instinct is to pray. Jonah doesn’t want to pray, because, ironically, he knows exactly what’s going on. It seems like he’d rather die (and take everyone else with him) than to obey the Lord. As the sailors’ fear mounts and hope begins to dwindle, they cast lots to determine who’s to blame for this catastrophe … hoping that a way out will present itself. Of course, God sovereignly directs the lot to fall to Jonah.
So, the sailors interrogate him, “Tell us who is to blame for this trouble we’re in. What is your business, and where are you from? What is your country, and who are your people?” (Jon 1:8). Jonah responds with a declaration of allegiance and ownership, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jon 1:9)
That’s ironic! Though Jonah is the one person on the ship who actually knows the Lord and should rightly belong to Him, he’s the one who acts the least like it. Ultimately, Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard, knowing that this will direct God’s anger away from them. Only Jonah needs to die. But faced with an opportunity to take a life to save their own, the sailors hesitate. They are afraid of further angering Yahweh. The reality is that pagan sailors demonstrate a better-developed fear of the Lord than Yahweh’s own prophet.
Jonah knows a lot about the Lord, but fears Him only a little.
The Sailors know only a little about the Lord, but fear Him a lot.
It’s scandalous and disheartening, and a cautionary tale. It’s possible to know a lot about God or look good in the right circles or even have a position of influence in the Church, but none of that matters compared to right worship … the right exercise of religion. The question is: Do you fear the Lord?
- Faith is not a matter of knowledge or position only, but of trust and obedience
Week 4: God’s Perpetual Movement toward Redemption
Knowing their lives depend on it, and having prayed to ask God not to hold it against them, eventually the sailors throw Jonah overboard. In a squall in the middle of Mediterranean, this is of course a death sentence. But God “appoints” (keyword in Jonah) a great fish to save him. It swallows Jonah whole, and God facilitates a three-day time out for Jonah in the belly of the beast … waiting for Jonah to come to his senses.
Why three days? At least in part, this is to establish typologically “the sign of Jonah”…
An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s preaching; and look — something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:38-42; c.f. Luke 11:29-32)
Jonah’s story exists, because Jesus’ story exists. Isn’t it amazing how God is always orchestrating and superintending and redirecting history to point to His Son, Jesus? Throughout all of history, the Father is facilitating through Him the redemption of humankind and the restoration of all things. From you to your pet chinchilla, from your prize daffodils to the physics governing the least significant chunk of rock in a remote galaxy, the plan of the Father and the work of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit is for the renewal of all things. Hallelujah!
In the belly of great fish, Jonah finally decides to pray. His prayer is all about salvation. In a watery grave of almost certain death, God made a (totally unexpected) way to save him. That’s always the way God works. There is always a way out, always a way of salvation.
… will be saved!
Jonah ends his prayer with a beautiful statement of acknowledgement of God’s grace and sovereignty and (I think) Jonah’s resignation…
Those who cherish worthless idols abandon
your hesed for them,
but as for me, I will sacrifice to you with a voice of thanksgiving.
I will fulfill what I have vowed.
Salvation belongs to the Lord.”
- God intentionally orders history to point to Jesus
- God always makes a way of salvation
- Those who cherish worthless idols abandon the hesed God intends for them
Week 5: Jonah Comes to Nineveh; Grace Comes with Him
Jonah’s prayer, at first blush, looks pretty contrite. But is it really? Notice what he doesn’t say… That God was right and he was wrong, or that he’s onboard with God’s plan to extend grace to the Ninevites. God might have a heart for the lost, but Jonah doesn’t. He’s thankful that he didn’t drown, and he acknowledges that God saved him, and he’s thankful. But Jonah’s heart is fundamentally focused on club membership … He’s for Israel, not for filthy Gentiles like the Ninevites. So, his prayer is one of resignation and the (still disheartened?) acknowledge that God has the right to do what He wants to do. Jonah, for his part though, doesn’t have to like it.
So, after getting barfed onto a beach somewhere, when God summons Jonah a second time and commands him to proclaim judgment upon Nineveh, Jonah arises and goes to Nineveh according to the Lord’s command (Jon 3:1-3; a classic prophetic formula). Hopefully after a shower. Once there, Jonah immediately begins to preach, and the people immediately repent … literally in sackcloth and ashes.
- What God has made clean, do not call impure. (Acts 10:15)
Week 6: Nineveh Repents; God Relents
Slides: 2018-09-09 LIFT – Jonah 3:6-10
“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. Then he issued a decree in Nineveh…” (Jon 3:6ff)
It wasn’t just a few people that responded to Jonah’s (evidently very simple, maybe even a bit residually-hesitant) preaching. But “from the greatest of them to the least,” the people of Nineveh turned from their wicked ways and called out to God. So did the king and his nobles. And as a result, a decree went out to all the land demanding fasting and prayer, sackcloth and ashes, and repentance from wrongdoing. Even animals were included in the king’s decree, signifying just how seriously he’s taking their sin and their need for repentance. This is the only time in Scripture we see a bunch of Gentiles in sackcloth and ashes.
“Who know?!” the king says, “God may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish” (Jon 3:9). Translation: “We deserve judgment and destruction, and God, the righteous Judge, may very well visit it upon us. But who knows? Perhaps He’s so gracious that He will actually spare us.”
God saw their actions — that they had turned from their evil ways — so God relented from the disaster he had threatened them with. And he did not do it.” (Jon 3:10)
We are all the king of Nineveh. We are all wicked and deserve death. We all must take our sin so seriously that we would tear off royal robes and involve even our animals in demonstrating the fruit of repentance. And because Jesus took the penalty for our sin and imputed to us His righteousness, if we turn from our wicked ways, God will relent from the disaster He had threatened us with. And He will not do it.
If that doesn’t get you fired up, then your wood’s wet.
- The speed of the leader is the speed of the team
- God’s law and our sin must be taken seriously
- God’s grace must be taken even more seriously
- Talk is cheap; God’s “hears” your repentance by in your heart and your life
Week 7: Jonah’s Temper Tantrum
You would think that God’s choice not to destroy the city would be cause for rejoicing … and it is, for everyone but Jonah. Instead, Jonah storms out of town, flops down on top of a hill and fumes. This time, his bad attitude comes complete with a full-tilt whiny temper tantrum…
“See, Lord, isn’t this exactly what I said would happen before we came out here? This is exactly why I tried to run away. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in hesed, and one who relents from sending disaster. And now, Lord, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jon 4:2-3 paraphrased)
In other words, Jonah’s “worst fears” have been realized. God took pity on a giant group of sinful Gentiles, and when they turned to Him, He forgave their sin. Now, Jonah’s kinda hacked off. That whole prayer-in-the-fish thing was nice and all, but it’s pretty clear he was cherishing a barely-concealed hope that maybe God would get all Sodom-and-Gomorra on the wicked Ninevites after all. Alas, it was not meant to be. Instead of fire and brimstone, they get grace. [Insert Jonah’s exasperated curses here.]
The result? Yet again, Jonah waxes fatalistic, “Just kill me, God! If you’re going to save Gentiles too, I’d rather not be alive to see it.” How sad!
Essentially, Jonah is accusing God of injustice. And that takes us from sad to scary-wrong! And the takeaway is obvious, who are “those people” for you? Who are the ones that “don’t deserve” God’s hesed?
In truth, nobody but Jesus deserves anything good from God. The rest of us wretched sinners are all on the grace plan — right alongside the Ninevites, and Jonah for that matter — assuming we’re contrite enough to throw ourselves on the mercy of the Sovereign Judge. It’s not club membership that saves you, but the grace of God poured out in the blood of the Messiah Jesus. Clearly, Jonah has yet to learn that.
- Nobody deserves God’s hesed, except Jesus
- God pours out His hesed on the children of Abraham (Gal 3:27-29) — not Abraham’s biological descendants, but those whom God chooses (Exod 33:19) and who choose Him by faith (John 3:14; Rom 1:13)
Week 8: Is it Right for you to be Angry?
Slides: 2018-09-23 LIFT – Jonah 4:5ff
God has saved Nineveh, extending lavish, totally-undeserved grace to a people not His own, who have for centuries done what is evil in the eyes of the Lord. As a result, Jonah is really, really angry! He stomps out of the city, flops down on top of a hill, and broods. And it continues to go downhill from there.
God shows Jonah kindness too, by miraculously growing up a plant to shelter Jonah from the sun. And this turns Jonah’s attitude around. We might be tempted to be happy for him now that he’s finally found some happiness, until we think about how perverse that is. Jonah doesn’t give a whit about all the people in Nineveh who could have gone straight to hell; instead, he’s all energized over a plant dedicated to preventing his personal sunburn. Selfish to the core is our friend Jonah, wouldn’t you say … and demanding, and unmerciful, and filled with angry judgment. He’s all the things God isn’t, as He flings mercy around everywhere in our story.
So, the Lord — as He often does — turns this into a teachable moment. As quickly as He appointed a plant to keep the sun off Jonah, He appoints a worm to kill the plant and a hot, oppressive desert wind to beat on Jonah and make him miserable. And it works. Again, Jonah careens into the pits. “If you’re going to take away my plant and sit out here in the hot sun and sandy wind, then I’d rather just die. I renew my request for death. And btw, I’m still angry with you for showing grace to those wicked people, God!” Wow, if that were the heart of God, the human race would never have made it out of the Garden of Eden.
God’s response ends the book. He asks a critical question that the writer of Jonah just leave hanging in the air. God asks,
You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. But may I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left, as well as many animals? (Jon 4:10-11)
Doesn’t God have the right to care about people? Shouldn’t we be filled with joy when He brings salvation, even to those people? Who are those people to you? People of other colors or races or cultures or even faiths? People who have done terrible evil? Aren’t they people too? Shouldn’t our hearts be for God to heal and restore them as He has healed and restored us? Because if my heart is like Jonah’s heart — superior and judgmental and clearly believing that my club membership has earned me a spot at the front of God’s line — then I might be shocked to find out someday that I have never really known the Lord. And that should be the most terrifying thought any of us has ever had.
- The Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in hesed, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. (Exod 34:6-7)
- God does whatever He pleases. (Psalm 135:6)
- God has the right to do whatever He pleases (Rom 9:14-24; Isa 45:9-12)
- God’s children have a heart for the things of God; if we want to be known by Jesus we must, by the Spirit’s power and also by God’s amazing grace, be transformed to become more like Jesus (Rom 8:1-11, 12:1-2; Matt 7:21-23, 25:31ff)