Of course I believe them, was my forthright answer. They are in the Bible! But his response was that they were simply allegories and parables. He did not quite descend into to labelling them fables, fiction, myths or legends but my friend, the nominal churchgoer, was really quite cynical. Jonah? A whale of a story! Sunday School stuff! You’re surely not going to swallow that.
Well, for me it is enough that God tells the story of Jonah and Jesus approves it. I don’t need more than that! And I believe, too, that there is a very strong prophetic message for all of us from the book of Jonah.
Simply, as the story goes, Jonah was summoned by God to go to preach to Ninevah about their great wickedness. Jonah fled and boarded a ship but God raised a storm. Finally Jonah was tossed overboard and swallowed by a whale. He spent three days in the belly of this whale and was finally spewed out on to dry land. God then called Jonah a second time and he responded and this time obediently went to Ninevah, preaching sin and repentance. There was a massive response and God had mercy on the people, postponing the judgement. This didn’t please Jonah because he felt he had been made to look a fool!
But let’s examine it more deeply. The “word of God came to Jonah,” challenging him to go to Ninevah. That, I believe, is constantly the most relevant, up-to-date prophetic and gospel challenge to us -- you and me, the church.
Nobody will argue that worldwide wickedness and godlessness is on the alarming increase. It is worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, say the pundits. How we would measure that I don’t know, but clearly time is short, as evil abounds and deception is rife. And it’s time for a “watchman,” for someone to stand in the gap, for the prophets to sound the trumpet. It is time for the “church” to arise and address the modern “Ninevah.”
But Jonah fled and, likewise, so has the church. Jonah sought refuge in a boat and we, too, have our own modern Titanic! It’s a seeker-friendly, super-computerised, “unsinkable,” all-roads-lead-to-God, self-confident, technically arrogant, prosperous, self-indulgent, worldly and apostate church! It is both “super-spiritual” and “holistic,” accommodating all the right jargon but, sadly and tragically, it is a “titanic” dead on course for its godless iceberg! It is a church of “relevance,” “liberalism” and “political correctness,” rather than “rhema” and “revelation!”
It has been intimidated by the world into a state of compromise and this has rendered it powerless! The “church” has fled its obligation and its calling to preach the true gospel and oppose evil. It is no longer salt and light. It is an organisation, not an organism.
Outside there was a massive storm, but Jonah was in the lowest part of the ship. He had fallen asleep, like those virgins. What is the problem, the crew asked?
Well, the world today is asking the same question. They cast lots for an answer, but Jonah knew the cause of the storm. “I am the problem,” confesses Jonah. He was the believer, the church, but he had fled his mission and reneged on his calling. Indeed, the raging storm was because he had turned his back on God and was no longer standing for the truth.
Plain and simply, Jonah had been too scared, selfish or indifferent to confront the burning issues. But now he recognised the hand of Almighty God in nature, in the waves and wind. That should send shivers down our spines!
It’s interesting that the “crew,” for a short time, showed a misguided loyalty to “mankind” and the “brotherhood” of man by rowing on. But personal hardship and inconvenience soon revealed their true colours. So they tossed him overboard! And the modern world, like the crew, has done the same with the church and the Word of God. Both have been tossed overboard as irrelevant and out of date.
The modern crew has fancy names! Post-modernism. Syncretism. New Age. But they have undermined the church, tossed her overboard. God has allowed it all to happen because judgement will start with the house of God, as will revival!
God has His ways and His answers. He always does. The answer back then was the “whale of deliverance” and it’s that self-same “whale” that is still waiting, figuratively and spiritually, to deliver the modern church from its carnality and worldliness.
What happened in the belly of the whale? Down there in the deep, Jonah’s affliction caused him to “look up,” and it was then that the penny finally dropped and he realised that being sold out to the “world” is worthless; that only God is the answer and that we all make our own choices and finally become the victims, or otherwise, of those choices.
Furthermore it became pretty clear to Jonah that knowing God is about sacrifice and obedience. In other words, it is about denying self and dying to the ego, and giving up our independent right to ourselves. And, what’s more, being hugely thankful about it!
It involves a big cost, putting the hand to the plough and not looking back. Of course, all of that is far too much to expect of anyone, or even to contemplate in this modern day and age. It is going overboard, some would say! After all, we have got lives to live; jobs to do; families to run. Give us a break!
Jonah had run away. He had backslidden, forsaken God’s call. It was only in his distress that he had finally called out from the depths. Only in the whale’s belly did he discern that the world had devoured him, that he was camping on the outskirts of hell. But, most important, there in the belly he was drawn back to the simple basics. The truth of a godless world stared him in the face and he realised that salvation comes only from God.
Friends, the church needs to get back to those simple basics, back to Jesus! Then, like Jonah, a new man will be spewed out to go to the modern “Ninevah” and confront evil.
This new man will preach the truth. He will preach judgement, heaven, hell and the gospel of repentance. The “new Jonah” will be radical and fundamental with no compromise. To all and sundry, from prince to pauper, the clarion call of Jesus Christ will be heard. There will be sackcloth and ashes, from the greatest to the least and, as in Ninevah, there will be response and revival. People will turn from their wicked ways and repent.
Interestingly enough, though God responded and postponed judgement, Ninevah did finally disappear off the face of the earth. All cities, and nations, will finally disappear with the new heaven and a new earth. But until then, God will, as always, give “Ninevah” a chance! He is into grace, mercy and salvation.
God is in the people business, desiring none to be lost. From the creation of Adam and Eve, God’s intent was to make man in his own image so that He could have fellowship with His creations. Finally, into eternity, this will be achieved, but only with all those who choose to come to Him through His Son Jesus Christ.
There is but one way! That is why God’s true prophets are called to encourage the only route -- repentance unto salvation.
The Holy Spirit convicts on sin and judgement, always offering a way out. God speaks “straight” not because he delights in judgement but because “straight talk” causes “turning” and lives to change.
The prophet’s job is not to judge but to warn. Only God judges, and again we note that the prophet’s office and calling went against his own emotions. Nationalism, culture and patriotism all tend to take our eyes off the gospel.
Our attitude to the book of Jonah reveals our attitude to God. We can either go the route of naturalism and miss it, or open our ears, eyes and hearts to the super-naturalism of the sign of the prophet Jonah and be blessed, encouraged and motivated. Again the choice, as ever, is ours!