Jonah 1: Downward Spiral

Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
5 November 2017
Texts: Jonah 1
The Gospel according to Jonah
Ordinary Time
Listen or Download Audio

This story is not about how you ought to imitate Jonah, act like Jonah, follow Jonah’s example. This story is about Jesus Christ and his gospel. We will not be looking for moral exemplars in Jonah. We will be looking for Jesus, just like the prophets and angels did. 1 Peter 1:

Canonical Reading

Contexts: Cultural and Biblical

God called Jonah to preach among the Assyrians in the great city of Ninevah. Ninevah was a “mega-polis” — a large city by Ancient Near East standards.

It was the capital of the Assyrian empire (modern Iraq). It had walls a hundred feet high and so broad that three chariots could run side by side around the top of them. Within the walls were gardens and cattle (James Boice). It contained such luxuries as public squares, parks, botanical gardens, and even a zoo (ESV Study Bible).

Like all megacities, the city was full of violence, deceit, theft, murder, prostitution, and witchcraft. (Nah 3:1-7)

The Assyrians were mortal enemies of the Hebrews. Jonah’s town had experienced Assyrian terrorism first-hand. So Jonah had developed a deep seated animosity and hostility towards the Ninevites.

According to 2 Kings 14 Jonah was a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam, king of Samaria. A king which did evil in the sight of the Lord for forty plus years.

The Assyrians had threatened to overthrow Samaria. They wreaked havoc on the border towns.

Jonah had called on the king to secure the borders according to the word of the Lord. Not quite a #MAGA campaign, but still very close.

Jonah was called to preach to the Assyrians at a time when they were experiencing political conflicts and economic turmoil like famine. As a result the same time the Hebrews were enjoying a season of relative peace and prosperity. They were even able to fortify defenses and secure their borders against Assyrian threats.

To help you feel what Jonah felt, imagine if God called you to go to Iraq and preach against ISIS. We know what happens to professing Christians in areas controlled by ISIS — persecution, torture, execution.

Now you have a better appreciation for Jonah’s dilemma.

As we will see going forward, Jonah was about as patriotic and nationalistic as some American evangelical pastors who want to make America great again. He was a devout Jewish prophet who believed that God and his word were for Israel alone, not for the Nations at all, even when Israel was doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord. (Relative righteousness is a real problem. “We are bad, but not as bad as X.”)

Given the political situation, the spiritual conditions of Samaria, and the ethnocentric / racist bias of Jonah/Israel, it makes sense that Jonah wanted to get as far away from Ninevah (and Samaria) as possible.

So Jonah fled from the face of the Lord (as if that were possible) towards Tarshish.

Jonah was

Jean Paul Sartre considered living under the gaze of God as a kind of hell.

Ninevah (modern day Mosul, north of Baghdad) was about 500 miles away from Joppa (Jaffa, modern Israel) as the crow flies. Tarshish (southern coast of Spain) was about 2500 miles from Joppa. 300 miles away from Ninevah. Zero miles away from the face of God.

Jonah fled from the face of God towards the far side of the world.

He went down to Joppa and paid the fare to Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, down to the ship yard, down to the ship’s hold.

Story: Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals Conference in Jackson, MS / Sinclair Ferguson emphasized that “Jonah went dow-wun, dow-wun, dow-wun.”

Jonah is on a downward spiral. This is what our sin and rebellion and disobedience cause us to do — a spiral down and away from the Lord; it puts us in a flat spin, a free fall that will not end well.

Jonah was (literally) circling the drain. And he will go down the drain in just a moment.

God hurled a great wind of the sea to stop the prophet in his tracks and to get his attention. The wind caused a violent storm that threatened to destroy the ship that carried Jonah and to drown the crew.

Think of this as the Holy Spirit resisting the prophet, not just the prophet resisting the Holy Spirit. Though it might not seem like it, this is irresistible grace.

Story: One of my favorite movies Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World — In Master and Commander, thirsty and mentally strained, the crew members make Midshipman Hollam responsible for the appearance of the “phantom” ship and the extreme lack of drinkable water. They claim that the “phantom” ship only appears during Hollam’s watch. The believe in this tradition is so strong that Hollam himself begins to believe that he was the “Jonah” and commits suicide in an attempt to bring good fortune back to the ship. Hollom’s death is followed by the return of good weather and plentiful water. Source

The pagan sailors attempted to calm the storm by their own will and efforts. Each one called out to his own god. They hurled cargo into the sea. They cast lots to single out the troublemaker.

Calvin makes an interesting observation about the sailors – (paraphrasing) The sailors each looked past their own sins. They each considered themselves relatively blameless. There’s no way my sins would be the cause or reason for this storm. They were looking for a scapegoat.

Cast lots = gaze at liver / tea leaves / draw straws

Providence is not lucky, sovereignty is not chance. Proverbs says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.”

Jonah carried in his heart his own executioner. He knew that he was a fugitive and that God was his judge. (Calvin) He could not escape the long arm of the Lord or hide from the hound of heaven.

Two Responses: Confession of Faith and Confession of Sins

Jonah’s Confession of Faith. “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

Despite the fact that he was running away from God, Jonah still acknowledges that God is sovereign over all things; that Yahweh is the Creator, the almighty maker of the world.

His confession of faith caused the sailors to fear.

This is the power of a creedal and confessional faith. This one reason why we confess the Apostles’ Creed each week. The Apostles’ Creed shapes our heart, mind, life — our worldview. Example — Note how it conserves orthodox truth and contradicts Darwinian Evolution.

Jonah’s Confession of Sin: “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.”

In other words, I am fleeing from the face of the LORD. That is why the sea is a raging tempest and you are in danger of shipwreck and drowning.

Finally, the sailors lifted Jonah and cast him into the sea. The sea grew calm and the sailors worshipped the God of Jonah, the Creator of the sea and dry ground.

Their prayer reminds us of Matthew 27: s

They called on the name of the Lord and were saved, but Jonah sank to the depths of the sea and perished in their place.

If we end here, all we have done is told a story from a Jewish (non-Christian) perspective.  But, according to the Lord Jesus Christ, the story of Jonah is a sign of the gospel. (Mat 12:38-41).

So, what does this story have to do with Jesus? How does it reveal the good news of Jesus Christ to us?

Christ is the end-goal, the ultimate point, of all the Law and Prophets.

Christotelic Reading

Jonah was sent on mission to preach to the Gentiles, to a great city, to people hostile to God, enemies of God in thought, word, and deed.

Jonah descends from on high and goes down below.

As Jonah was lifted up by the hands of pagan men and cast into the deep sea, so Jesus was handed over, lifted up on the cross, and killed by the hands of wicked men, and buried in the heart of the earth.

As Jonah was offered up as an atoning sacrifice for the sailors, so Jesus’ was offered as the atoning sacrifice, not only for our sins, for the sins of the world.

As Jonah’s “death” satisfied God and calmed the storm, so Jesus’ sacrificial death satisfied God and turned God’s wrath away from us.

All of this is consistent with the words of Christ and the apostles:

As Jesus proclaimed to a crowd of seekers, And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:34-36)

As Peter preached at Pentecost, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23-24)

As John wrote in his first epistle, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:8-10)

In all these things we hear echoes of Jonah 1.

Jonah’s shadows are cast by Jesus’s substance.

To sum up: hear what French philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul says about all these things.

Jonah takes up the role of the scapegoat. And the sacrifice he makes saves the sailors. The story points to an infinitely vaster reality. What Jonah could not do, but his attitude announces, is done by Jesus Christ. He it is who accepts total condemnation. It is solely because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that the sacrifice of Jonah avails and saves. It is solely because Jesus has accepted the malediction that Jonah’s acceptance has something to say both to the sailors and to us. (quoted in Salvation Through Judgment and Mercy by Bryan D. Estelle)

Applications and Conclusion

Earlier I said that pastors and commentators seem to make excuses for Jonah’s decision to flee from the face of God, to flee away from Nineveh and out of Samaria. (They’re trying to explain but not necessarily justify his decision by pointing to world conditions outside of Jonah. But Jonah’s problem was not the conditions of the world out there, but the condition of his own heart in here.

We can relate to Jonah and identify with him in this matter.

Hook — End with Jonah swallowed by a Great Fish. This is good news for people who love bad news. (Modest Mouse)


Jesus is the true and better Jonah who left crowds to cross the sea; who slept in a boat during a ferocious windstorm; who calmed the wind and waves; who terrified his fellow passengers with a word from his mouth; who was lifted up by the hands of sinful men and cast into the abyss of death; who perished to protect others; who was sacrificed to please God and punish sin; who sunk as a sinner to save the nations from sin; who was swallowed up by death and spewed out unto life, according God’s set purpose and foreknowledge. #christotelic #readingforwardandbackward

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