A Prophet Who Puts Himself First
Passage: Jonah 1:1–16
What does it look like to really put God first? It means instead of running from God's will, we run toward his goodness. And instead of running from God's judgment, we run toward his grace.
With the solar eclipse last month, there were tons of warnings about looking directly at the eclipse without the proper eye gear. It was possible to look at it because the sun was partially covered but that didn’t take the danger away. So, many people were looking for special glasses to look at the eclipse safely. Places were selling out. At some point, it was discovered that some of the glasses being sold didn’t actually hold up to the necessary standards and wouldn’t protect your eyes at all. To verify if glasses were genuinely safe, they needed a label that said they complied with certain standards. If they didn’t have that, they were not genuine solar eclipse glasses. You needed to look for a mark of authenticity.
Today, we are beginning a four week series in the biblical book of Jonah. Now, when I say “Jonah,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? If you think “big fish,” you aren’t alone. But Jonah is so much more than a story about a guy who gets swallowed by a giant fish. There is a deep and powerful spiritual message in this book of the bible. It’s because this book isn’t primarily about Jonah. This book is primarily about God and how he shows grace to the least deserving of us.
Let me give you a brief introduction to Jonah and the type of book this is. Jonah was a real person who lived eight centuries before Jesus. Jonah was a “prophet” meaning he was a spokesman for God. God would give him messages and he would deliver them. He worked as a prophet to God’s people, Israel. Jonah lived in the time of an evil king named Jeroboam II, son of Joash. And yet, even though this king was evil, God chose to use him to restore the borders of Israel that had been pushed in by other nations. God used Jonah as his messenger to tell Jeroboam he was going to do this. You can read about it in 2 Kings 14.
So Jonah is a prophet living in the land of Israel. But the book of Jonah is much different than the other prophetic books in the bible. Those are focused on the prophet’s message. This book is focused on the prophet himself. But the story of Jonah’s experience was written down because it has an important lesson to teach us which we will discover as we go through the story over these next four weeks.
One question many people have wrestled with is whether Jonah is historical or fiction. I mean, the guy gets swallowed by a huge fish. How can that be real? Until the last 100 years, Jonah was assumed to be historical by the church. In fact, the Jewish people who wrote the Old Testament believed it was historical. And Jesus himself thought this was the case. And the book is written as if it is historical, giving us Jonah’s exact name and telling us real places he went. So we are going to treat it as historical.
The first chapter of Jonah is all about genuine faith and authentic worship of God. Just like solar eclipse glasses that will actually protect your eyes from the sun needed to have a mark of authenticity, so true reverence for God has certain marks of authenticity.
The big question this passage answers is: what does it look like to really put God first? What does it look like to really put God first?
With that question in mind, let’s dive into the story.
God Calls, Jonah Flees (1:1-3)
1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:1-3)
We are introduced to the main human character, Jonah. And as I said, Jonah was a prophet - a spokesman for God - to the nation of Israel. But here God is asking him to go to another nation. He wants him to go to the city of Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. And if you are familiar with the bible, the Assyrians eventually conquer Israel and take them into captivity. The events in this book are happening several decades before Assyria does that. But at this time, Assyria isn’t as big of a power because they had internal and external issues. Internally, their monarchy had fallen so local governors were acting like kings and ruling things. Externally, another nation was putting pressure on them from the north.
God says to Jonah, “their evil has come up before me.” God is aware of Nineveh’s evil. The Assyrians were notoriously ruthless in how they fought battles. Their goal was to induce terror. They would impale people alive on sticks, pile people’s heads at their enemy’s gates, and sacrifice children. There are other things that are more graphic but you get the picture. They used terror to defeat people in war.
God tells Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh.” But what does Jonah do? In verse 3, “But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish.” Nineveh is east and Jonah goes the exact opposite direction to Tarshish which was in southern Spain. For people in Israel, this is the equivalent of saying I’m going to Timbuktu. It is just some place way out there. Jonah goes down to Joppa on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and finds a ship to get to Tarshish and then he goes down into the ship. Maybe he’s thinking, “I don’t want to be the next person the Ninevites impale on a stick. I want to keep my head, thank you very much.”
God has called Jonah to a task but Jonah flees in the opposite direction. How good of a spokesperson is Jonah showing himself to be? God wants him to do something but he tries to flee from it. How many of you have been in this place? How many of you have run from God? How many of you are running from God now?
Let’s continue to see what happens to Jonah.
Jonah’s “Fear” vs. the Sailors’ Fear (1:4-16)
4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” (Jonah 1:4-6)
God begins thwarting Jonah’s plans to flee from him. A great windstorm sends the sailors into a panic. Their ship is threatened to break apart and so they are afraid and each is crying out to their god, hoping one of them will listen. And as they do, they hurl cargo over. Just as God hurled a great wind upon the sea, so they hurl cargo overboard. And meanwhile, as all this panic is going on, Jonah is asleep below deck.
As they take cargo from below deck, the captain notices Jonah and awakens him. He exclaims, “Arise, call out to your god!” This must have felt like a bad nightmare to Jonah. God had told Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh and call out against it.” Now this captain awakes him with the same words, “Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” In other words, perhaps your God will hear us and take notice of us so that we do not die in this storm.
Let’s continue in verse 7:
7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.”
Casting lots was like rolling dice. They could be used to make decisions or in this case, to chose someone. The sailors recognize that this storm has come upon them because of someone on the ship. One of the gods is angry with a passenger.
So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.
You can hear all their heads turn to Jonah. They start interrogating him.
8 Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:8-9)
“A Hebrew” was how others knew the people of Israel. He identifies himself as one who fears the LORD. In the Hebrew language, this is, “I fear Yahweh.” Yahweh is the personal name for the God of Israel but when Israelites would read his name in Hebrew they would say the word for “Lord” instead because they believed his name is so holy they shouldn’t say it. When you see “LORD” printed in all caps, that is Yahweh in Hebrew. So Jonah worships Yahweh. That is who he follows. Yahweh, he says, is the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. With that knowledge, Jonah should have known there was nowhere he could go to escape his God. How do the men respond? Verse 10:
10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. (Jonah 1:10)
Jonah is fleeing the God who made the sea. And he has boarded their boat. And now Jonah’s God has sent a huge storm against them. The men were afraid of the storm, but now they are exceedingly afraid. They are terrified because Jonah is fleeing from the God who made the sea. Look at verse 11 (through 12).
11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:11-12)
They know Jonah is the guilty party. The God he worships is the God of the sea and dry land so there is nowhere Jonah can go from his presence. Jonah is under God’s judgment. The man God called to take his message to Nineveh has run the opposite way and God isn’t just going to let that slide. Rebelling against God has a cost. But even though Jonah has given them the way to escape God’s judgment, they try to make their own way. Look at verse 13 (through 15).
13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. (Jonah 1:13-15)
Maybe they hoped to just drop Jonah off on land so they didn’t have to go through with Jonah’s suggestion. Obviously they were distraught about just throwing him into the sea. But finally they take Jonah’s advice. God had hurled this storm upon them as punishment for Jonah’s disobedience. They had hurled their cargo overboard to try to survive it. Jonah said the way to calm the storm is to hurl him overboard. He’s the only cargo that needs to be hurled into the sea. After trying their own way, they finally hurl Jonah over while asking Yahweh to not let them perish because they have thrown this man overboard. They are no court. Who are they to decide if he is guilty or innocent?
They started by each crying to his own god, but now they are crying out using the personal name of Jonah’s God: Yahweh. After Jonah is thrown overboard, the storm immediately calmed. It was like someone just flipped a switch and everything was fine. How do the men respond? Verse 16:
16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. (Jonah 1:16)
The sailors started with fear of the storm and each praying to his own God. Now they fear the LORD and they’ve prayed to him and now they are showing their reverence and worship of him with sacrifices and vows.
This whole story is surprising. At the opening, we are expecting to hear the message of a prophet. God’s word - God’s message - comes to Jonah. He is given an assignment. But the first twist is that Jonah runs the opposite way God told him to go. He wants to get as far away as possible.
So he boards a ship full of sailors who know nothing of Jonah’s God. They each give allegiance to different gods. But as time passes, we see a comparison between Jonah and these sailors. In the end, who truly fears God? “Fear of the LORD” is something the bible talks about. In fact, it is the starting point for a life pleasing to him. So what is it? “Fear” doesn’t mean we are afraid of him like a grouchy boss or a monster. “Fear” means “reverence.” It means we have a proper understanding of who he is and who we are.
Perhaps we could compare it to a seeing a high schooler mouthing off to a police officer. A police officer wears a uniform, carries a gun, and has the authority to enforce the law. They deserve a respect and honor. We don’t need to be afraid of police officers (unless we’ve done something wrong). But if we see a high schooler mouthing off to them and treating them with disrespect, we might wonder, “What are you doing? Don’t you know you should respect him? Don’t you realize he can arrest you?” The officer has power and authority over us. The same is true of God. He has power and authority over us because he created us. We need to have a proper understanding of who he is and a proper understanding of ourselves in relation to him. If we don’t have that proper understanding, we will not live in a way that pleases him.
And if we have a proper understanding of who God is and who we are, we will put him first. That’s what it means to fear God. We put him first - he holds the highest place in our hearts and minds - because of who he is and who we are in relation to him.
This is why the big question this passage answers is: what does it look like to really put God first?
Jonah tells the sailors: “I am a Hebrew and I fear the LORD, God of heaven and earth.” Does Jonah really fear the LORD? Does he really have a proper understanding of who God is and who he is? Does he really put God first? God asked him to do something and he ran the opposite way. He thought if he just got far enough he could get away from God.
So let’s answer this question: what does it look like to really put God first?
First, instead of running from God's will, we run towards his goodness. Putting God first means instead of running from God’s will, we run towards his goodness.
When the sailors pray to God, they recognize: what God desires, he does. Meaning God’s will is going to be accomplished. Jonah, on the other hand, runs from God's will and it's all downhill. He goes down to Joppa. Down into the inner part of the ship. Then, as we will see next week, down into the depths of the sea. Jonah is running from God but it only takes him down, down, down.
We’ve all been Jonah in our lives. Jonah thinks his plans for his life are better than God’s plans for his life. How many of you have thought that as well? I’ve thought it. I’m thinking it now with hard things Katie and I are going through. We think that if we were in charge, we would run things better than God. And we have all gone down paths that only took us deeper and deeper into a hole. They only led downward.
When we run from God’s will, usually it’s because what he wants us to do disrupts our comfort. If we had it our way, we would not do anything stressful or difficult. We all want that picture of a relaxed life, lounging by the beach. We want things to go our way with no challenges or obstacles. God asked Jonah to do something difficult that he didn’t want to do. He didn’t want to leave his country. He didn’t want to travel hundreds of miles to Nineveh. He didn’t want to bring God’s message to a people who impale people on sticks and endanger his life. Like Jonah, we want to run as far away as possible from hardship and challenges. Jonah didn’t put God first in his life and neither do we.
But you need to know this: that God’s will for your life is what is best for you. God’s will for your life is what is best for you. Why? Because he is good. God is perfect goodness. And instead of running from his will, we need to run toward his goodness, knowing that what he asks us to do is what is best for us.
However that can be hard to believe sometimes, can’t it? We can see what God is asking us to do and we just don’t want to do it because it will hurt too much or be too difficult and will take us out of our comfort zone. We want to be in the Lazy Boy with no troubles.
From our limited vantage point, what God asks us to do may not seem like it’s what is best for us. But our picture of things is taken with a phone camera. Phone cameras can do a pretty good job, but they are nothing compared with the top of the line cameras. They get more of the details. They capture the lighting better. You can put a wide angle lens on and take way more in. With our limited phone camera, we just don’t see all the details, the lighting is off, and we don’t have the full picture. But God can see it all. He sees the full picture with all the details and with the right lighting. He sees the darks and lights in their true colors and he has a good plan. With our small lens, the picture doesn’t look that great. But God can see it all.
Even when we don’t understand, instead of running from God’s will we can run towards his goodness and believe he is doing what is best for us. When he asks us to love our enemies. Or to give up resources for others. Or to tell others about Jesus. Or to go through a time of suffering and make hard decisions, we can believe that his plans for us are good even if from our limited vantage point, we can’t see that. Oftentimes parents need to make decisions for their kids that their kids don’t like. But the parents know it is what is best for their child. From the child’s limited vantage point, they can’t see that. We need to trust our heavenly Father when he makes decisions for us that we may not like.
When we look at the New Testament, Jesus knew this well. He knew that he was sent to give his life as a ransom for many. Meaning he was going to die so that others could be freed from captivity - captivity to sin, Satan, and death. And the night before he was going to die, he went to a grove of olive trees and asked God to take this hardship from him. He saw the road ahead and wanted to go down a different path. But unlike Jonah who saw the road ahead and ran the other way, Jesus said: not as I will, but as you will. He knew his heavenly Father’s plans were good and he surrendered himself to him.
Jesus taught during his life that if we try to save our own lives, that we will destroy them. If we close our hand and hold tight onto our own will for our lives, it only leads down. But if we open our hand and we surrender our lives to him, then we will find life - we will find true joy, true rest, true hope.
So with Jesus, let’s start saying: your will be done. God, your will be done with this difficult situation at work. God, your will be done in my child’s life. God, your will be done in this sickness I have. God, your will be done in my life. I trust your goodness, and I am surrendering to you.
There are many people we interact with every day who believe God exists but are running from him. They know that if they embrace him that their life will have to change. They will have to put him first. Perhaps that is you right now. Perhaps you are resisting him and running because you know that it means putting him first. But isn’t it good news to hear that putting God first is what is best for us? That he is good and we can trust him?
The big question this passage answers is: what does it look like to really put God first? The first answer is: instead of running from God’s will, we run toward his goodness.
The second answer is this: instead of running from God's judgment, we run toward his grace. Putting God first means instead of running from his judgment, we run toward his grace.
God is the Creator of the sea and dry land. He is the Creator of each of us. That means we answer to him. Instead of answering to him, Jonah disobeys and goes the opposite direction. He tries to hide from God and run life his own way. Because of that, God sends a storm on Jonah’s boat and everyone on it recognizes that this storm is tormenting them because of someone on their boat. God is sending his judgment on Jonah. But Jonah is trying to tune it out: he goes to sleep in the bottom of the boat. He tries to forget about God, about what God asked him to do, and about the consequences he knows that he deserves.
The sailors know that someone who disobeys God must be held accountable. They cast lots to find the person who has brought the storm upon them and when they discover it’s Jonah, they know something must be done. When the storm is raging, the captain wants everyone to pray to their god in hopes of receiving grace so they won’t perish. When they take Jonah’s advice, they pray to Jonah’s God to receive grace to not perish for tossing a man overboard.
In our lives, we are all guilty. The lot has fallen on each of us. Each of us has been created by God and that means we answer to him. But we run from him. We want to do life our own way. Like Jonah, we disobey and run the opposite direction God wants us to go. For running from God, we each deserve his judgment. Jonah knew what he deserved: he deserved to be tossed into the sea of God’s judgment. What he earned because of his rebellion is death. And that’s what each of us has earned too.
Know that our only escape from God’s judgment is God’s grace. For running our own way, we each deserve spiritual death. Instead of running from God’s judgment, we need to run toward his grace and throw ourselves upon him as the only one who can save us from what we deserve.
But we so often try to escape our own way. Jonah told the sailors what they must do to escape God’s judgment. But at first they tried it their own way by rowing hard to get to shore. But they couldn’t. None of us can escape God’s judgment by our own efforts. As hard as we may row with our good deeds, our generosity, being a good person, and doing religious things, none of it can ever free us from God’s judgment. We know each of us deserves it. Romans 3:23 says all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. We’ve all fallen short of putting God first. None of us do it. We put ourselves first. And for that, we deserve separation from him and spiritual death.
In the New Testament, we see that Jesus did not run from God’s will. Jesus embraced it. In him, we see the ultimate display of God's goodness as Jesus chooses death for our sake. Jesus died the death we deserve. And because of that we see the ultimate display of God's grace. He took the judgment we each deserve for running from God. The sailors hurled the innocent Jonah overboard to calm the judgment of God’s storm. The innocent Jesus hurled himself overboard to calm the judgment of God’s storm against us. He died on the cross to create calm in the sea for us. He died the death we deserve so we can live at peace with God instead of the raging sea of his judgment.
So when you feel guilty about something you have done and you know that you can’t measure up to God’s standard, don’t run from his judgment. Run to his grace. Grace means you get what you don’t deserve. Run to Jesus. Run to his cross. Because of Jesus we can have a relationship with God. Don’t try to row hard to make your own away and escape God’s judgment by your efforts. You can’t. It’s only because of what Jesus has done. Throw yourself to God’s grace and nothing else.
Many people in our lives are running from God’s judgment. They are either just avoiding it like Jonah did in the bottom of the boat. Or they are trying to escape it by their own efforts like the sailors. Neither of these solve the problem. Wouldn’t it be good news for people to hear that they don’t have to hide from God’s judgment and they don’t have to try and escape by working hard? Wouldn’t it be good news to hear that God himself has provided the solution in Jesus? That the storm of God’s judgment is calmed in our lives by our trust in his Son’s work on our behalf?
The big question this passage answers is: what does it look like to really put God first? The first answer is: instead of running from God’s will, we run toward his goodness. The second answer is: instead of running from God’s judgment, we run toward his grace.
In this opening of the story, we see Jonah’s “fear” of the LORD compared with the sailors’ fear of the LORD. Jonah has all the right labels. He is a Hebrew. He’s a prophet. His God is the one true God. Yet, we see in Jonah a man who is religiously close to God but relationally far from him. Despite the appearance of closeness in Jonah’s life, his heart is far from God. He doesn’t put God first. He puts himself first. Just like those fake solar eclipse glasses looked like the real thing but actually did no good in the end, faking putting God first does us no good. So let’s be a people who truly put God first. Let’s be a people who run toward his goodness and who run toward his grace.