Unrelenting Grace to the Undeserving

Jonah 1:7-17 |ian thomas

July 14th, 2019

God sovereignly pursues the undeserving with unrelenting grace, inviting us to respond with repentance and worship.

I. A Fragile Identity (1:7-10)

Since Jonah has been silent and indifferent on the ship up to this point, the sailors cast lots (something like dice) in order to determine what is going on with the divine displeasure of the storm. The lot fell on Jonah (cf. Prov. 16:33), who they already suspected at this time.

The sailors are asking key identity questions here. They are wanting to know Jonah’s:

  1. Purpose: “What is your occupation?”

  2. Place: “Where do you come from? What is your country?”

  3. People: “... of what people are you?”

Jonah responds to their questions by leading with his ethnic identity (“Hebrew”). Though this has religious connotations, this was the primary way foreign nations would have identified the Israelites ethnically and racially. The fact that Jonah leads with his race hints that this is the most important part of his identity.

While Jonah had faith in God, it appears not to have been as deep and fundamental to his identity as his race and nationality… if his race was more foundational to his self-image than his faith, it begins to explain why Jonah was so opposed to calling Nineveh to repentance. The prospect of calling people of other nations to faith in God would not be appealing under any circumstances to someone with this spiritually shallow identity. Jonah’s relationship with God was not as basic to his significance as his race. This is why, when loyalty to his people and loyalty to the Word of God seemed to be in conflict, he chose to support his nation over taking God’s love and message to a new society.” ~ Tim Keller

Then Jonah tells them who he worship: “The Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” This is both deeply ironic (he is fleeing the God of the sea on a ship) and deeply inconsistent (Jonah’s words ring hollow about worshipping the Lord).

Jonah’s fragile and fractured identity make him blind to the situation he finds himself in. His words here ought to serve as a warning for us to consider how we are building and understanding our identity. 

It is not only what Jonah includes that is instructive for us, but also what he does not say. Jonah never answers what his “occupation” and mission is because he is now in flux as a prophet of God. He has lost his sense of purpose and mission, which is the inevitable consequence of running from God and building an identity apart from him. 


II. Substitution at Sea (1:11-16)

The storm continues to intensify, so the sailors now ask Jonah what they should do, since he is the problem. Though we are unsure of Jonah’s motives,  he urges them to hurl him off the ship so that they might be saved. He does not seem ready to deal with God quite yet, but he does finally have some level of sympathy for those who are at risk because of him. 

The sailors continue to act admirably in trying to save human life, but it is clear that no effort of their own will save them or Jonah. Out of options, they cry out to Yahweh, the God of Israel, for there to be justice and no retribution for the reluctant action they are about to perform. 

Even though Jonah is a messy, imperfect character with mixed motives at best, this is ultimately an act of love to spare the lives of these sailors. There are echoes of Christ in his substitutionary and sacrificial act. 

Mark 4:35-41: On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

 Jesus refers to himself as “something greater than Jonah”(Matt. 12:41), because his substitutionary sacrifice is even greater than Jonah’s. In Christ, it was God himself who substitutes himself into the place of an undeserving humanity, so that we might receive mercy and grace. 

“Jonah’s willingness to die for the sailors points us to an infinitely greater sacrificial love that brings infinitely greater salvation. Unlike Jonah, Jesus was not thrown into the waters, because Jesus came to save us from a far greater peril than drowning. Jesus was able to calm the storm on Galilee and save his disciples because later, on the cross, he was thrown into the ultimate storm of divine wrath so he could save us from sin and death itself.” ~ Tim Keller

Tracing the escalating “fear” of the sailors helps us to see the proper response to the gospel:

  • They generally fear the violence of the storm (1:5)

  • They fear the God behind the storm (1:10)

  • A “fear of the Lord” that is reverent worship, including sacrifice and vows (1:16). We are called to respond in the very same way to the sacrificial and subtituationary work of Christ. 


III. Mercy at the Bottom (1:17)

Jonah’s “downward” running now finds its end as he goes “under the sea” (the realm of death in Hebrew thought). But God’s mercy meets Jonah at the very bottom, through another surprising instrument of mercy: a great fish. 

The issue of Jonah being swallowed by a “great fish” and surviving for three days and three nights gives many modern readers skepticism regarding the account of Jonah. Rather than trying to prove this scientifically, we should seek to let the text stand by itself, which clearly claims that God miraculous and divinely acted to bring about this salvation from death. 

Likewise, there is little evidence that this story is just a “parable” or a “fable,” with a fictitious account with a true message. Jonah is a real person, Nineveh is a real place, and the story of the fish is presented in a straightforward account (not embellished in any way). 

Most importantly, Jesus was quite comfortable talking about the fish in Jonah, and he does so to point us to his own death and resurrection. (cf. Matt. 12:38-41). The true and miraculous story of Jonah and the fish is meant to point us beyond themselves to the greater true and miraculous story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“The fish represents an “unbelievable” theology: Yahweh wants to save the rebellious and the violent. Through the agency of the big fish, Jonah is forgiven and saved. Also unbelievable, the storm is stilled and the sailors worship the true God, and the Ninevites receive the message from Jonah, repent, and are saved. In this way the bigness of the unbelievable fish is finally about God’s saving way in the world. The big fish makes a specific point of God’s extravagant, unrelenting, pursuing, and saving love.” ~ James Bruckner

The “sign of Jonah” is offered to each of us. The message of Jonah is that we have run, rebelled, questioned God’s plans, and are undeserving. The good news is that God’s mercy meets Jonah when he reaches the end of himself. God’s unrelenting grace is offered to us, the undeserving: will we continue to run or will we respond with worship and repentance to the kindness of God? 


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