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January 18, 2009

“Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up… The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, ‘What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?’
‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea,’ he replied, ‘and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.’
Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried to the LORD, ‘O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased.’

Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.” Jonah 1:4, 11-16 (NIV).

Someone asked me this week: “Why did Jonah go to Tarshish? Why did he not just stay at Gath Hepher and carry on with what he was doing?”

Jonah was a prophet. That meant that he received revelations directly from God. When Jonah refused God’s call, he knew that God would no longer give him these revelations.

That meant Jonah could not continue as a prophet. If he made up his own prophecies he would be a false prophet, and the penalty for that was stoning. And if he simply stopped prophesying, Jonah’s rebellion against God would be exposed.

So Jonah’s choice was either to obey God or to quit being a prophet and start over with a new life in a new place.  It was Nineveh or Tarshish; staying in Gath Hepher was not an option.

 

Circumstances: Opportunities that may lead you further into sin

“Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port” (v3).

If you decide to go to Tarshish, there will always be a ship to get you there! If you have decided in your heart to disobey God, you will always have the opportunity to do so.

CH Spurgeon told a story about a man who had a violent temper. There was a pattern to his behavior: the man would get angry, then he would lose his temper, and when that happened, he would end up throwing something.

Spurgeon said about him “What struck me was not that he got angry, nor that he threw something when he was angry, but that whenever he was angry, there was always something at hand to throw!” [1]

Never trust circumstances when you are resisting God’s Word. If you are running from God there will always be opportunities to make your sin and rebellion worse. Jonah is running from the Lord, and there’s a boat waiting to take him out of God’s will!

Thank God that’s not the end of the story. Jonah’s sinful heart was taking him away from God, but God was intent on bringing him back.

At this point, Jonah tells us the remarkable story of how the ship’s crew became God-centered believers. These pagan men were wonderfully converted, and in their story, we have one of the clearest pictures of the Gospel in the whole of the Bible: The Gospel is about the storm and the sacrifice—the storm of God’s judgment and the sacrifice by which we can be saved.

The Storm

“The Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up” (v4).

God sent the storm. Literally, Jonah says “God hurled a storm on the sea” (v4). Storms don’t happen by chance. Nature does not operate by its own independent power. God sustains all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:3). When the disciples were with Jesus in the middle of a storm, they said “Who is this? Even the winds and the waves obey Him” (Mark 4:41).

Intervention: Sovereign judgments that release His mercy

When it comes to storms, disasters, or tragedies in your life, you have two choices in what to believe: Either God is in control or He is a helpless observer.

Someone might ask “Doesn’t it give you problems if you say that God controls all things, even storms that wreck ships?” No! I would rather live with the so-called “problem” of God being sovereign over all things than with the problem of a so-called “god” who is a helpless observer.

I remember hearing the story of a woman who lost her son in a tragic accident. She went to a pastor who told her “Even God sometimes makes mistakes.” This “god” is a helpless observer. He stands by helplessly while his own “mistakes” are played out in the world. But this is not the sovereign God we read about in the Bible.

God sends the storm. The storm is God’s intervention in Jonah’s life. Thank God he didn’t leave Jonah to his own free will! Jonah’s will was moving in the wrong direction. He was going to Tarshish!

God was graciously messing with Jonah’s rebellious will to save him from a life wasted in disobedience in a place God never intended him to be. And, at the same time, God was stepping in to redeem the ship’s crew who didn’t know the first thing about Him.

Our God is amazing: Even His judgments are means of His mercy. If He uses the crucifixion of His own Son to redeem the world, you can trust His wise and loving hand in the fiercest storms of your life.

Compromise: The silent witness of a disobedient believer

Remember that at this point, the ship’s crew did not know God. They had their own religion, but they did not know the God of the Bible. So when they found themselves in the storm, we read that “All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god” (v5).

They all had a religion. And when the boat was in a storm, they all began to pray. I don’t know how many crew were on the boat, but “each” of them cried out to his own god. So a lot of “gods” were being asked to help. But it wasn’t making any difference.

 

Jonah had gone below deck, and he had fallen into a deep sleep. “The captain went to him and said ‘get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take note of us, and we will not perish” (v6). “Our gods haven’t done anything. Why don’t you try yours!”

But Jonah is silent. He cannot pray. How can you pray to God when you are actively disobeying His word? Christians running from God are of no use to lost people in a storm. R.T. Kendall says:

“One of the most embarrassing things that can happen to a backslidden Christian is to have somebody come up to him and say: ‘I want you to pray for me.’” [2]

Maybe you see yourself in Jonah here. Your witness is silent. Your ability to help lost people is compromised because you are locked into an unresolved conflict with God.

Jonah was silent because of his secret sin. His rebellion against God was hidden. The life of every person on the ship was on the line, and the one person on the ship who knew God had nothing to offer, because he was immobilized by his own sin. Thank God it doesn’t end there.

Exposure: The love of God brings hidden sin into the open

“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” (v7).

God steps in to expose Jonah’s sin, and He does this in an unusual way: God used tumbling dice to expose the secret sin of His rebellious servant. God is sovereign even over the role of a dice.  “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33).

The lot fell on Jonah, and Jonah’s secret was out. If God exposes your sin, it is because he loves you. “The Lord disciplines those he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). God loves Jonah, and He will not let him go.

I think Jonah must have been relieved when his secret was out. He was carrying the burden of a secret sin and he was unable to pray. At one time King David carried a secret sin in his life. He writes about what that was like:

“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away… For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer… Selah (which means “think about that.”)

Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah” (Think about that!) (Psalm 32:3-5).

Exposure: The judgment of God brings hope

When God exposed Jonah’s sin, it was the beginning of hope for Jonah and for the entire crew of the ship. The crew peppered Jonah with questions: “What do you do? Where do you come from?” Jonah tells them he is running from the Lord (v10).

The crew want to know about the God Jonah is running from: He tells them, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” (v9).

When Jonah’s sin is exposed, his silence is broken. Now he is able to tell the crew about the God of the Bible who is unlike any other gods. He is the God of heaven who created the earth. He rules over winds and waves, and exposes His rebellious servants. He is the God who sends storms, wrecks ships, and the God who saves them too.

 

The storm is a judgment from God. An ordinary bunch of guys, who have been this way many times before, are caught in this storm of God’s judgment that is going to wreck their ship and end their lives. The beginning of his judgment is poured out in this life, but the eye of the storm will come after we die: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

This points us to an awesome Bible truth: All humanity is under the judgment of God. God is against us and stands opposed to us on account of our sins. When the crew gets a glimpse of who God is, they say to Jonah: “What should we do? (v11). How can we pacify the anger of God? What can we do to placate him?”

That is the single most important question in the Bible. If God is against us, we have no hope and no future. What can we do? That takes us to the second great theme of this story:

The Sacrifice

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea… and it will become calm” (v12).

“If you want to be saved from the fierce anger of God—ditch me!” How did Jonah know that the sea would become calm if they threw him out of the boat? There can only be one answer to that—God revealed it. In other words, Jonah was receiving revelation from God again.

When Jonah’s sin is exposed, God’s silence is ended, and Jonah speaks as a prophet again: He tells the crew what they must do to be saved: “Pick me up and throw me into the sea.” This is a marvelous moment in the story.

Refusal: Our first instinct is to row instead of listen

“Instead, the men did their best to row back to land” (v13).

I want you to notice that the first instinct of the crew is to refuse the sacrifice. I’m sure that sprung from their desire to spare Jonah’s life, but it was also in direct contradiction to the prophetic Word of God.

The crew felt that they could get through the storm without sacrificing Jonah. “We can beat this storm. We don’t need the sacrifice.” So they row harder! That is a sure way to avoid a God-centered life.

I want you to feel the weight of the picture. God has spoken through the prophet: “Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm.” Sacrifice Jonah and you will be saved from the storm. But these men think they can save themselves without the sacrifice! So they row harder. They made a phenomenal effort to get back to the shore.

The strength of this impulse to refuse the sacrifice is significant. There is a deep-seated pride in the human heart that says “We can make it through the judgment of God,” and as long as you feel that you will avoid a God-centered life.

There is a poem by William Ernst Henley called Invictus that catches the spirit of these men:

Out of the night that covers me,

     Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

     For my unconquerable soul…

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

     How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate;

     I am the captain of my soul. [3]

There’s great courage in that, but there’s also extraordinary resistance to God: “I am the Lord of my life. I am the captain of my soul. It doesn’t matter what judgments God throws out, I’m in charge!” That is the polar opposite of a God-centered life!

That’s where the sailors were: “We can get through this. We can out row God’s storm. We’re not going to sacrifice you, Jonah!”

Turning: Recognize the impotence of your rowing

“They did their best to row back to land. But they could not for the sea grew even wilder than before” (v13).

“But they could not…”—these four words are another turning point in the story. When the crew realized that they could not beat the storm, they turned, in their desperation, to what God has said through the prophet: “We’ve only one hope Jonah…” Jonah says “Do it!” And they staked their lives on the sacrifice of Jonah.

The storm of God’s judgment is stronger than you are. You can’t overcome sin enough, nor can you make yourself good enough to survive God’s storm. The storm of God’s judgment will wreck you, unless you are saved by the sacrifice of Someone else.

Do you see how beautifully this paints the picture of why Jesus Christ came into the world? This is why He went to the cross: He was cast out as a sacrifice to placate the wrath of God on your behalf. He died on that cross so that you should survive God’s judgment against sin in this life and in the world to come.

 

How to Pursue a God-Centered Life

 

Turn to God and ask Him for mercy

“Then they cried to Yahweh!” (v14).

The ship’s crew see that the religion they have pursued is worthless. They abandon their own gods. What matters is that they find peace with the God of the Bible, who made the land and the sea, who sends storms, and who speaks through prophets to tell them how they can be saved:

“Then they cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased’” (Jonah 1:14).

Lord, have mercy on us! Do you see their recognition of the sanctity of life? They know that they are guilty for throwing Jonah overboard to his certain death.

Folks have asked me why Jonah didn’t just thrown himself overboard.  I think the answer to that is that the whole Bible is given to us to help us know and understand Jesus Christ.  The great events of the Bible story were shaped by God to throw light on what we most need to understand about our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus did not take His own life. He was crucified. That truth is pictured in the crew throwing Jonah overboard. We are guilty of the crucifixion of the Son of God, just as the crew were guilty of throwing a man who had done them no wrong overboard. Yet amazingly the sacrifice in which we incur guilt, becomes in God’s amazing grace the means of our salvation!

Abandon all hope of self-rescue and stake your life on Christ…

            who was cast out as a sacrifice…

                        to placate the wrath of God for you

“They took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm” (v15).

These men saw their guilt in the sacrifice as they were responsible for taking Jonah’s life. Yet to their amazement they found salvation through the sacrifice.  God’s storm ended when Jonah was thrown overboard. We crucified the Son of God—that’s our guilt in the sacrifice. Yet He chose to lay down his life as a sacrifice for us— that is our salvation through the sacrifice.

There is this obvious and very great difference between Jonah and Jesus: Jonah was thrown into the sea on account of his own sins. Jesus was nailed to the cross on account of your sins and mine. He was without sin. He became the sacrifice for our sins. He bore our guilt. And in His death He absorbed the judgment of God on our behalf.

Pledge your redeemed life to Jesus Christ

“The raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to Him” (v16).

We have all been moved by the remarkable deliverance of these folks on the plane that came down in the Hudson River this week. Every one of them lived to tell the tale. What a remarkable example of the gracious deliverance of God.

There were many reports of people praying as the plane was going down. You and I would have done that too. But what matters most is not what you say to God when the plane is going down, but what you say to God after you survived the plane going down.

Many people make promises to God in the middle of a crisis. What is impressive here is that these men made vows to God after he delivered them from the storm. That shows a real change of heart, a genuine conversion.

These men feel that they have come back from the dead. The life they now have is like a resurrection. This new life has been bought with a price, and the only thing they can do with this new life is give it back to the God who saved them. They feel that they are no longer their own, so they pledge their redeemed lives to God.

As I was checking William Henley’s poem on the internet, I found an alternative version written anonymously by a person who clearly loved the Lord and wanted to show how different the life of a Christian is:

Out of the night that dazzles me,

Bright as the sun from pole to pole,

I thank the God I know to be

For Christ the conqueror of my soul….

 

I have no fear, though strait the gate,

He cleared from punishment the scroll.

Christ is the Master of my fate,

Christ is the Captain of my soul. [4]

[1] Cited in Sinclair Ferguson, Man Overboard, p. 35

[2] R.T. Kendall, Jonah: An Exposition, p. 41

[3] Found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invictus

[4] Found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Invictus



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