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Restrain God’s Praise on Account of Your Pain

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February 22, 2009

“Salvation comes from the Lord.” Jonah 2:9 (NIV)

If you want to emphasize something that is really important, there are three ways of doing it: Put it at the beginning—that is what newspapers do. The headlines tell you the things that really matter. Put it at the end—so that it is the final thing you hear, leaving you with a lasting impression.

Or if you want to emphasize something you can put it in the middle—that is what Jonah did when he wrote his book. You can sum up the whole book of Jonah in one sentence: “Salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). That’s what this book is about, and Jonah puts that message on center stage.

A Remarkable Testimony to God’s Grace

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea… and it will become calm for you… They took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm… The Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:12,15,17)

Jonah disobeys God by refusing to go to Nineveh, and God intercepts his disobedience by sending a storm. Jonah knows the storm is a judgment from God, and he tells the ship’s crew to throw him overboard. They do it reluctantly, and immediately the sea grows calm. Then God provides a saving fish. This was an amazing miracle, and there is no doubt in my own mind that it really happened.

You will not be surprised that some writers suggest that this was just a parable, or that it was just a story or just a fable, rather than a historical event that really happened, that is used to teach us about God. But there is nothing in the story itself that suggests that.

The Lord Jesus said “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was a historical event, and Jesus speaks about what happened to Jonah in the same way.

What happened to Jonah doesn’t belong among the parables; it belongs among the miracles. In fact, there are really three miracles here: First—that God provided the fish at just the right time to save Jonah from drowning. Second—that Jonah survived three days and nights inside the fish. Third—that the fish vomited him out onto dry land safely.

Now, it’s good to know that God did an amazing miracle to save Jonah’s life, but the important question is: What does this have to do with us? Jonah wrote chapter 2 to answer that question. Out of his experience, Jonah writes this song of praise to tell us how God saves sinners like Jonah, how God saves sinners like you, and how God saves sinners like me.

The message of Jonah 2 is simply this: God saves guilty, believing, desperate, repentant sinners.

God Saves Guilty Sinners

“You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.” Jonah 2:2-3 (NIV)

Jonah recalls what happened when he first hit the water: “All your waves and breakers swept over me.” Waves and breakers are obviously on the surface of the water. Jonah tries to keep his head above water, but the currents pull him under. Bobbing up and down, fighting for air and for his life, he manages to gulp a breath of air, but then a great wave comes crashing over him, and he goes under again.

Later, when he is inside the fish, he thinks about what happened and he says “God did this! God sent the storm. You hurled me into the deep… Your waves swept over me” (v3). Jonah could have said “The ship’s crew threw me into the deep,” but he’s coming to a distinctly Christian view of life. Behind the human events, Jonah sees the hand of God.

People view their lives in different ways. Some people see their lives as a series of events strung together by random chance. They feel that they are lucky or unlucky, and they talk like that all the time. Others see their lives as a series of events controlled by other people. They feel that they are victims. Other people see their lives as a series of events that they control. They feel that they are heroes, and they talk about themselves like that all the time. But Jonah knew that behind the crew and beyond the storm, God was at work in his life, exposing his guilt and confronting his rebellion.

Jonah knew he was in the water because of his own sin and rebellion against God. He had suppressed his guilt for a long time. He had done it so well that he could fall asleep in the boat. But in the water, he comes to his senses, he sees his own sin clearly and he knows that he is under the judgment of God.

Owning your own guilt

You hurled me into the deep… All your waves… swept over me” (Jonah 2:3).

God saves guilty sinners. God saves us, when we come to the place of acknowledging, owning, embracing our own guilt before Him. Owning our sinfulness means getting beyond this idea that so many people have that we deserve something better from God. If you’re going through life with this idea, get that out of your mind.

The Bible says that “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Wages are what is due for work done—what we have earned. What I am owed for what I have done, by God, is not abundant life, but eternal death. That is what I am owed. That is what I deserve.

Owning your own sinfulness is the first part of believing the gospel: “I am a sinner, a rebel by nature and by practice, and what I deserve from God is eternity in hell.” If you don’t honestly believe that about yourself, you do not yet believe the Gospel. You are not yet being saved. Because God saves guilty sinners, and if you do not yet see that, then you are not yet in the position where God is saving you.

Jonah owned his own sin right there in the water. With the waves pouring over him, he said these words: “God, these waves are Your waves. I am under Your judgment. And I deserve to be under Your judgment.”

God Saves Believing Sinners

“From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord His God.”

Jonah 2:1 (NIV)

When did Jonah first call on the Lord? When did he first ask God for help? Was it in the fish or was it in the water? Notice what he said inside the fish, in the past tense: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry” (v2).

He is looking back to what happened before he was in the fish, when he called on God in the water: “In my distress I called on the Lord… From the depths…” (v2), or from sheol, the place where people are separated from God. We would say hell. “From the depths of my hell, I cried out to God for help.” Here’s a man who has been running from God, but now he suddenly realizes that he is on the brink of an eternity without God.

The fight of your life

“I said ‘I have been banished from your sight’” (v4).

It isn’t easy to ask God for help when you know you have sinned, and you feel that you are under His judgment. When you feel your own guilt it takes courage to ask God for help.

Jonah’s heart at this point condemns him completely: “God, there is no hope for me now,” he is saying to himself. “I see and I feel the weight of my guilt and my own failure.” He came to the conclusion that he was beyond forgiveness, and he felt in his heart that God had pulled the rug out from under him. He had no future. There was no hope for him now. Some of us may have been there. He came to a point where he really believed that: “God doesn’t want me now.”

But there is a battle going on in Jonah’s mind, and it is a battle that you will experience if you seek to find your way to faith. On the one hand: “I said, I have been banished from your sight…” (v4). There’s no hope for me. I’m an outsider. I’m gone! “Yet I will look again toward your holy temple” (v4). That is a marvelous statement of faith.

But it comes out of a great battle that is raging in Jonah’s soul—right there in the water. He wants to pray, but he feels so far from God that he feels he can’t possibly pray “God’s not going to listen to me!” The flesh tells him “God doesn’t want to know you.” But somehow, something from within him rises up “I’m going to cry out to God. I’m going to put my hope in God.”

Don’t expect coming to faith to be easy. Jonah struggled to believe. Your life and eternity hangs on this so don’t be surprised if finding faith is the fight of your life: “I said, I have been banished from your sight, yet I will look again toward your holy temple.” Make these words your own, in your struggle to believe. “Even though I am under Your judgment, yet I dare to hope in You.”

Daring to hope in God

“You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

How could he dare to hope in God? Because Jonah leans hard into what he knows of the God of the Bible. Here is an amazing thing: God was for Jonah even when he was against him! God is for you even when he is against you. It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us. God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5).

Some folks have the idea that you need to clean up your life before God can save you. That’s like saying “If you swim to the shore, then God will send you a lifeboat!” That’s no salvation at all!

Jesus told a story about two men who came to pray. One man told God about the good things he was doing in his life, and then he went home. The other man told God about his sins, and said “O, God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said “That second man, not the first one, went home right with God.”

How can God make guilty sinners, who reach out to him in faith, right with him? How could God do that? The answer, at the very heart of the Bible, is simply this—and it applies backwards retrospectively into the Old Testament, as well as forwards proactively into our lives today—God makes guilty sinners right with him through the Cross where the Son of God gave himself for you.

Jesus Christ put himself under the judgment of God, so that he could deliver you from it. The Lord Jesus Christ bore the guilt of your sin so that he could take the weight of that guilt off of your shoulders. He entered into hell itself so that he could save you from ever going there. That is what Jesus did for you on the cross. And that is why the Apostles say in the New Testament “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

You’re never going to do that until you come to realize that there is sin from which you need to be saved. But when you come to own your own guilt, you believe on this Lord Jesus Christ, and what he has accomplished on the cross for you, then the benefits of his sacrificial death and resurrection will be applied to you, and you will be saved.

If it’s the biggest struggle of your life to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, if you find that Satan himself is pounding your mind saying “God doesn’t want to hear from you. You can’t come to God. You’ve gone way too far!” You fight through to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s the fight of your life and your eternity hangs on it.

God Saves Desperate Sinners

“The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me” Jonah 2:5 (NIV)

What happens when Jonah believes? The answer is that his problems get worse. God allowed Jonah to go down to the bottom, before He sent the fish.

He’s not above water now. His strength is gone. He’s sinking. “Seaweed was wrapped around my head” (v5). He has gone down so deep that he is surrounded by weeds on the ocean floor: “To the roots of the mountains I sank down” (v6). It seems clear that he went all the way to the bottom.

Remember that the storm at the surface had stopped. If Jonah had stayed on the surface, perhaps he could have held on to a piece of wood and saved himself, but God takes him down to the bottom of the ocean. He hits rock bottom. He has no way out. He is absolutely hopeless, and then God sends the fish:

“To the roots of the mountains I sank down;

the earth beneath barred me in forever.

But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God.” (v6)

Did Jonah see the fish coming? Was he conscious when he was swallowed, or had he passed out? But then once he is inside the fish he breathes, like a man spluttering back from the brink of death.

God saves people who cannot save themselves. Thousands of people have the idea that salvation is basically getting your act together, and that we do it with some moral effort, good works, family values, the ten commandments, and of course, believing in Jesus along the way.

If you could save yourself, why would Jesus have come into the world and why would He die on the cross? God sent the fish because Jonah couldn’t save himself. He’s right at the bottom, and that’s why God sent Jesus.

One evidence of true faith is that you know that, apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, what he did for you on the cross and what he is still doing for you now—interceding for you at the right hand of the Father—you would be completely, utterly and hopelessly lost.

Do you see that? Do you feel that? Is that clear to you? If it is, there will be praise and worship and love and thanksgiving to Jesus in your heart today. God saves desperate sinners. That’s the hope of the Gospel.

God Saves Repentant Sinners

“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” Jonah 2:8 (NIV)

Salvation from sin involves both faith and repentance. When God saves Jonah from what looks like certain death, he does not get on the next ship to Tarshish. He does not continue in disobedience, he does what God commands him and goes to Nineveh.

Salvation, if you are really saved, involves a complete change in the direction of your life. You can’t hold idols and receive grace. This total change of direction is true, even if you lived a very moral life before you came to Christ. Who you live for changes. Turning to God means turning away from whatever had His place in your life before.

When Christ saves you, you are no longer your own. You are bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). What a price it was! You belong to Christ. You are in him and he is in you. You are a new creation in Christ, created for good works (Ephesians 2:10).

Turning to a new life

When Christ saves you, you go through a spiritual death and resurrection that is symbolized in baptism. Like Jonah you go down under the water and then back up again, to live a new life in Christ. (Romans 6:4) Thank God baptism doesn’t include going to the bottom of the ocean!

Repentance has two sides: We turn from idols. We turn to the Lord. “But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord” (v9). Think about how amazing this is… praise and thanksgiving are flowing out of Jonah. The man is singing while he is in the belly of the fish! (v1).

Talk about worship venues. This is the most unusual worship venue of all time. We talk about folks who will be worshipping at Douglas and folks who will be worshipping at the Grove. What about the folks who are worshipping in the belly of a fish!

This was the strangest sanctuary in human history. It was dark, and can you imagine the smell? You would think he would say “Lord, get me out of this place!” But he doesn’t say that. Instead the highest praise comes from this darkest place.

So why is Jonah so full of gratitude inside the fish? When Jonah was in the water, he was sure he would die. When he was in the fish, he was sure he would live. How could he be sure? Because if God had intervened in his life in such a miraculous way, what could be more certain than that God would complete it? What God begins, He always completes (Philippians 1:6).

Jonah worships in the belly of the fish because however uncomfortable his experience is at that time, he knows that God is saving him. And that’s all he needs to know.

Pursue a God-Centered Life Today!

From inside the fish he prayed. He looks back on what God did for him in the water, and says:

“Oh, God, when I was in the water I called to You for help and You listened to my cry. You were the One who threw me into the deep. Your waves swept over me. I was on the brink of hell and I felt I was gone forever. But I said ‘I will look again to You. I cried to You for help.’”

“I sank to the bottom, and here’s what you did, O God, You brought my life up from the pit! What you have done for me is so amazing that with a song of thanksgiving, I worship you, and I pledge myself to you. From this day, my life is Yours. I want to tell you right here and right now, that what I have vowed I will make good.”

God is ready and able to save you. As someone who has, perhaps, sat on the fringes of Christianity, I want to invite you to take four life-changing steps today:

  1. Will you own your own sinfulness today?

Will you confess to God today: “I am a sinner and a rebel by nature and by practice. What I deserve is not abundant life, but eternal death. Lord, I own my guilt and sinfulness before You.” Will you take that step today?

  1. Will you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ today?

The Son of God loved you and gave himself for you, when he died on the cross for your sins. He rose from the dead and, he is ready and willing to save all who put their trust in him.

Will you ask Jesus Christ to save you? “Lord Jesus Christ, deliver me from sin, and death and hell through Your shed blood on the cross.” You may find that this is a great struggle, because of the spiritual dynamic that is going on right now.

  1. Will you trust Christ, whatever happens in your life?

Jonah trusted God at the bottom of the ocean, and in the belly of a fish. I’m inviting all who believe—those who’ve believed for the first time today, and those who already have faith—to trust in Christ, whatever happens.

He said “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Trust Him in that.

He said “I will never leave you I will never forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Lean on that. He has said “My grace is sufficient for you, my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Hang on that! Trust Him whatever happens. Those who trust in Him will never be put to shame (Isaiah 28:16).

  1. Will you commit yourself to a new life of obedience to Jesus Christ as your Savior, Lord and Master today?

Will you turn from all that God’s says is wrong? Will you pursue all that God says is good with the help of his Spirit? Christ saves guilty, believing, desperate, repentant sinners. If you are taking these steps today, He is saving you!



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