Did you know that if you are a Christian, then you're also a runner? I'm not speaking in physical terms but spiritual. The Christian's life is a race! Consider what the writer of Hebrews wrote in 12:1,2 - "Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of the faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
Hebrews 11 presents many heroes of the faith from antiquity (e.g., Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc.). These were people who took God at His word and obeyed. The writer of Hebrews referred to them in chapter 12 as the great cloud of witnesses. Consider the imagery, if you will, of running a race with a large crowd nearby, cheering you on to the finish! This is not just any crowd of onlookers; these are people who have already finished the race themselves. They know that the race of life is difficult, but they completed it successfully and are rooting for you to do the same.
Stephen, tell me more about my Christian life being like running a race. What kind of race is it--a sprint? No, it's not a sprint. We're talking about long-distance running; running that requires endurance. Life is not about short bursts of faithfulness; God wants us to remain steadfast and not quit. The Christian life is only successfully finished with endurance. Jesus demonstrated this truth with His own life. His ministry would have been in vain had He not endured to the end! His miracles, good works, and teaching would have been for naught had He not stayed the course. Of course, He didn't enjoy going to the cross, but He did it, nevertheless, for us! The joy set before Him was that of making the plan of salvation a reality (cf. Heb. 12:2). What great love Jesus has for us!
Besides showing the importance of faithful endurance to God's will in His own life, Jesus also spoke on the subject to His disciples - "And you will be hated by all for My name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved" (Matt. 10:22). Friend, take a look at your own life. Are you running the Christian race with endurance? I believe that there are essentially four different ways in which we can run the race of our Christian lives. We are always in one of these four stages. A perfect example of each of these four stages can be seen in the Old Testament book of Jonah. Let's now focus our attention on that inspired work.
The events in the book of Jonah took place in approximately 780 B.C. There are three fundamental themes found within its pages: (1) God's messenger is to deliver His message, (2) Jehovah is longsuffering and gracious to those who repent, and (3) Jehovah is the God of all peoples.
The book of Jonah has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some see it as a myth that grew out of some incident in the history of Israel. It is like a fairy tale or folklore story to them. Others view the book as an allegory of Israel's captivity, repentance, and restoration to its land. Others view the book as a historical narrative, literally true in every detail. There is no reason to doubt the historical view as being the correct one, especially in light of New Testament references to the book as historical truth (cf. Matt. 12:40,41; 16:4; Luke 11:29-32). If one questions whether Jonah was a real man, swallowed by a real fish, who later preached to the Ninevites causing them to repent, then he must also question Jesus' integrity in referring to Jonah as a historical figure!
Before we start reading the text and considering how Jonah demonstrated the four basic stages of the Christian walk, there is one other vital piece of background information that should be understood. The nation of Assyria had risen to prominence at that time historically, and Nineveh was its capital city. They had inflicted a great deal of suffering upon the world and were turning their wrath toward Israel. Jonah's behavior throughout the book is understandable (to a certain degree), once one realizes that Jonah was a zealous, patriotic Hebrew. He had strong nationalistic feelings and had no desire to help the Assyrians escape God's judgment of punishment that he felt they deserved. To Jonah, it seemed logical to destroy the Ninevites, for they were enemies! He had no desire to help them.
Jonah 1:1-3 reads - "Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 'Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.' But Jonah arose 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 from the presence of the LORD."
The city of Nineveh was first mentioned in Genesis 10:11. In Jonah's day, Nineveh was approximately 60 square miles (thus, a "great city"). Their wickedness could not be ignored by God anymore--action had to be taken (cf. Gen. 15:16). Jonah, because of his dislike for the Assyrian people, decided to flee from his God-given responsibility as a messenger! He vainly attempted to flee from God's presence!
Jonah 1:4-9 - "But the LORD sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up. Then the mariners were afraid; and every man cried out to his god, and threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten the load. But Jonah had gone down into the lowest parts of the ship, had lain down, and was fast asleep. So the captain came to him, and said to him, 'What do you mean, sleeper? Arise, call on your God; perhaps your God will consider us, so that we may not perish.' And they said to one another, 'Come, let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this trouble has come upon us.' So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, 'Please tell us! For whose cause is this trouble upon us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?' So 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.'"
Jehovah is so awesome! He can use anything He wants to accomplish His purposes--even a great wind on the sea! Did you catch the irony in verse 6? A pagan rebuked a prophet of God to pray to his God for deliverance. From that sailor's point of view, Jonah was acting as if he were the only atheist on board by not petitioning a deity for deliverance!
The men believed that they could learn the truth about the cause of the storm by casting lots (cf. Prov. 16:33). They were correct on this occasion. After the lot fell on Jonah, they started interrogating him. Evidently they really didn't know much of anything about him prior to this point in time.
Jonah made a rather impressive confession in verse 9, though his actions were hypocritical. He claimed to fear the LORD! Of course, if he really feared Jehovah, why was he running from a God-given duty?
Jonah 1:10-16 - "Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, 'Why have you done this?' For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them. Then they said to him, 'What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us?'--for the sea was growing more tempestuous. And he said to them, 'Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you. For I know that this great tempest is because of me.' Nevertheless the men rowed hard to land, but they could not, for the sea continued to grow more tempestuous against them. Therefore they cried out to the LORD and said, 'We pray, O LORD, please do not let us perish for this man's life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O LORD, have done as it pleased You.' So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the LORD and took vows."
The sailors ask Jonah a reasonable question. In essence, they wanted to know why he fled from the God who was Lord of heaven and Creator of the sea and dry land? They seem to have more sense than Jonah in understanding the impossibility of what he was attempting! At least Jonah can be credited with telling them the truth, rather than lying and further complicating his situation.
They inquire as to what should be done to remedy their difficult circumstances. Jonah instructs them to throw him overboard to solve their problem. It is easy to see that these sailors are honorable men; they tried their best to save him. They didn't want to obey Jonah's suggestion, which they were confident would lead to his death.
In verse 14, the sailors use Jehovah's name twice. They aren't Hebrews, but they are praying to the heavenly Father. They are petitioning God for two things: (1) Do not let us perish because of what this man has done and (2) Do not charge us with guilt for what we are about to do.
The sailors, when they felt as if they could wait no longer, threw Jonah into the sea; the waters ceased from their raging. "Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the LORD and took vows" (1:16). There is not enough information given to know if these men worshipped the LORD exclusively from then on or if they simply worshipped Him in addition to their idols. In either case, Jonah, through his disobedience and honesty, led these men to be thoroughly impressed with Jehovah (though he didn't plan to accomplish such). It is ironic that God can use the sins of men to bring glory to His name.
The chapter closes with verse 17 - "Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights." A fish large enough to swallow a man is not a miracle (such has been documented in modern times). But, the fact that the fish was in the right place at the right time shows God's providence.
This first chapter of Jonah contains some intriguing contrasts between Jonah and the sailors: (1) He was a Hebrew with a rich history of Jehovah's faithfulness; they were Gentiles with no history of Jehovah. (2) He was monotheistic, believing in the one true God (verse 9); they were polytheistic, worshipping many false gods. (3) He was properly related to the true God; they had no relationship with the true God. (4) He was spiritually insensitive, running in the wrong direction away from God (verses 3,5); they were spiritually sensitive, moving in the right direction toward God (verse 5). (5) He was indifferent toward God's will in spite of knowing Him; they were concerned before God in spite of little or no knowledge of Him. (6) He was uncompassionate with Nineveh (verse 3); the sailors were compassionate toward him (verses 11-14). (7) He was rebellious and therefore disciplined, but not destroyed (verse 17); they were motivated to worship and make certain vows (verse 16).
In summary, Jonah 1 depicts the prophet as RUNNING FROM GOD. Jonah ended up in a fix on a ship because of his disobedience. Although he tried, it is truly impossible to run from God or from divine obligations. We should learn this lesson from Jonah's mistake. To avoid God-given responsibilities is foolish and only asking for problems. To disobey God is to run from Him! No one can successfully run away from the Lord.
Jonah 2:1-9 - "Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the fish's belly. And he said: 'I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, and He answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; and Your billows and Your waves passed over me. Then I said, 'I have been cast out of Your sight; yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.' The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; the deep closed around me; weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever; yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer went up to You, into Your holy temple. Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own Mercy. But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD."
"Jonah prayed to the LORD his God" (2:1). Though Jonah had sinned, Jehovah was still his God. It is ironic that although he had tried to escape God's presence, he is now hoping that the LORD will hear him in the belly of the fish in the middle of the sea!
Jonah casts himself before God, praying for mercy. Here we have a beautiful psalm that records some of the thoughts of Jonah as he meditated about his situation in the blackness of the fish's belly in the depth of the sea (cf. Psa. 18:4-6). These verses paint a picture of terror and helplessness (e.g., absolute darkness, water pressure, limited oxygen, stench, weeds, etc.).
Verse 2 indicates that God answered Jonah. Is he surprised? "After what I did, God is still hearing me?!" Jonah knows that although the men literally cast him into the sea, the action was from the Lord (verse 3).
Jonah confessed in verse 7 - "When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD." Certainly this is a good time to remember God, but one shouldn't have to be brought so low in order to remember Him. Of course, remembering Him when at the end of one's rope is better than not remembering Him at all!
Jonah declared in verse 8 - "Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own Mercy." The prophet realized the emptiness and impotency of idolatry. Worshippers of idols do not have any idea how powerful the true God is; they don't realize that He is their only hope for mercy.
A considerable change is seen in Jonah's attitude in verse 9 in comparison with chapter 1 - "But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD" (cf. Psa. 3:8). What had Jonah vowed to the Lord? Perhaps to go to Nineveh if the Lord spared him? It was true then as it is today: physical and spiritual salvation is of the Lord! Jonah had probably preached about God's salvation before, but now he is starting to internalize it the hard way.
The chapter closes with the Lord instructing the fish to deposit Jonah onto the land. Jonah had learned some things in the fish's belly. However, we will see later that he didn't learn all that he should have.
Dear listeners, when we come to our senses and realize that we have been running from the Lord in disobedience, what must we do? We must then RUN TO GOD, as Jonah did in chapter 2 through his prayerful repentance. When Jonah found himself in a fish, he pleaded for mercy from the One he had been trying to hide from. Jonah realized that the only way for him to be saved was to stop running away from God and turn back to Him. Such is still true today. No one can run with the world and God simultaneously (cf. Matt. 6:24). No one can run from God and expect to be saved. Prayer and repentance are always two excellent tools for getting one's Christian life refocused.
May we always strive to be running toward God in our lives and not away from Him! We will conclude this study in our next feature lesson. Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.