The Prodigal Prophet

Series: Preacher: Date: May 20, 2001 Scripture Reference: Jonah 1:1-16

The first church staff position I ever held was at the Greenhill Baptist Church in Greenhill, Alabama where I served as a part-time minister of music and youth during my college years. The pastor there was a fiery red-haired preacher by the name of STEVE BUNNELL. One summer Steve was asked to help chaperone an associational youth retreat and he invited me to come along to gain some much-needed experience. Our retreat was at Alabama’s Tombigbee State Park which was your typical youth retreat location: dozens of cabins and a dining hall on the shores of a scenic lake. That week our Bible study was an in-depth look at the little Old Testament book of Jonah. And I remember really enjoying each session of the study. The teacher was excellent. I don’t remember his name but I do remember that he got me excited about the life and ministry of this particular minor prophet. In fact God used our teacher that week to show us all how the message of this OLD book was relevant to our YOUNG lives.

Well, during the first session of this Bible study my pastor, STEVE BUNNELL, decided to ignore the retreat rules, leave the youth in the care of the rest of the counselors, and sneak off to go fishing. I guess as a pastor STEVE thought he already knew all there was to know about the book of Jonah. So, he rented a canoe and headed out in the middle of the lake in the hopes of landing a few bass for supper. While out there however, he lost his balance and the canoe flipped over and sank. When it did Steve lost the canoe, his car keys, his fishing pole and gear, and an expensive pocketknife his grandfather had given him years earlier. I believe it was somewhat of a family heirloom. He swam to shore and when he finally stumbled into the camp soaking wet, he shared with us what had happened. I told Steve that he should have stayed for the Bible Study because one thing I had learned that day was if you are outside the will of God, it is not a good idea to go on a boat ride.

Well, I would imagine that many of us are like Steve in that we think we know all there is to know about this little Old Testament book. In fact most people think of this LITTLE book as not much more than a B IG fish story. I mean if you walked up to someone on the Metro platform tomorrow and said, Let’s play word association. Here’s the first word: ‘JONAH!’ They would probably respond, WHALE! But, actually only three of the forty-eight verses in the book of Jonah talk about this whale of a fish. There is so much more to this book! G. Campbell Morgan correctly said, Men have been looking so hard at the GREAT fish that they have failed to see the GREAT God! Now, to be sure, the fish in this book would be a trophy on anyone’s wall but it is not the central theme of this episode from the life of one of the prophets of Israel. No, the book of Jonah is the story of God’s great love for all the world, His plan to reach all the world, and one man’s hesitance to be a part of that plan.

Well for the next four weeks WE are going to do our own in-depth study of JONAH here at REDLAND: one chapter at a time and we’ll climax our Sunday morning study with the help of our children’s choirs as they present the musical, Go Go Jonah on the evening of June 10. I hope you will plan to join us for each of the five parts of our study of this book.

Now, to get the fullest benefit from our study we must understand that this book is not a fable or an allegory — even though many people think it is. Jonah was a real person from the town of Gath Hepher which was located about four miles north of Nazareth. In Matthew 12:40 Jesus Himself underscored the fact that Jonah was an actual person by saying, As Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. II Kings 14:25 tells us that Jonah served as God’s prophet during the days of Jeroboam II. This was the time period in which Israel was divided into two kingdoms, north and south, before any of the invasions and deportations that would eventually affect both kingdoms.

Now, Jonah’s king, Jeroboam II, was an idolatrous and immoral king who brought nothing but evil to the land. Yet God in mercy and grace told Jonah to prophesy to the nation that the territorial boundaries of Israel were going to be expanded. God was going to give territory back that had been taken generations earlier by the Syrians. And God did exactly what He had Jonah tell the people He would do. Jonah preached and prophesied an expansion and it did indeed happen. Because of this Jonah had great public success in the economic and military glory days of the northern kingdom. He was a popular prophet. Everyone liked to hear him preach! If WAVA existed back then, Jonah would have the time slot right next to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family or Charles Swindoll’s Insight for Living.

This morning I want us to focus on the first 16 verses of the first chapter. Follow along with me as I read.

1 – The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai:

2 – Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before Me.

3 – But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port.

After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

4 – Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.

5 – All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.

6 – The captain went to him and said, How can you sleep? Get up and call on your God! Maybe He will take notice of us and we will not perish.

7 – Then the sailors said to each other, Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity. They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.

8 – So they asked him, Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?

9 – He answered, I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, Who made the sea and the land.

10 – This terrified them and they asked, What have you done? (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)

11 – The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?

12 – Pick me up and throw me into the sea, he replied, and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.

13 – Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before.

14 – Then they cried to the Lord, O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for You, O Lord, have done as You pleased.

15 – Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.

16 – At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to Him.

Now, there is a great deal that Jonah’s experiences can teach us and a first lesson we can glean from his life is that…

1. …God does speak to us. He invites us to join Him in His work!

We see this right in verse 1 where God called to Jonah and GAVE him a specific MESSAGE and a specific GROUP OF PEOPLE of people to tell it to. We don’t know what method God used to speak to Jonah. For Moses He used a burning bush…for Elijah it came as a gentle whisper. For Obadiah and others it was through a vision. We don’t know HOW He spoke to Jonah but we DO know that He did. And this is just like God…History shows that He is always speaking to people like you and me, guiding us through life in ways that allow us to know His will. In Isaiah 58:11 it says, The LORD will guide you continually. In Psalm 32:8 God says, I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go. One of the verses I have clung to in life is Isaiah 30:21 where it says, Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’

This morning I want to bear witness to the fact that I have seen these scriptures fulfilled numerous times in my own life as God has told me what vocation He wanted me to pursue…who He wanted me to marry. Each week He helps me prepare a message. When I face difficult counseling sessions and don’t know what to say, if I ask, He always gives me the wisdom and words I need to use.

I’m not sure I can explain HOW God talks to me but He does! It’s not usually an audible sound. In fact it’s better than that because I hear Him speak in my innermost being. This means He communicates His intent to me…even in the midst of turmoil when I might not be able to hear audible sound. I’m saying that since I am a Christian, God has a direct line into my heart. And it has come to the point that I yearn for His gentle voice. I can’t imagine having to guess at what I should do or say in life. I don’t think I could bear the loneliness of feeling that I could only talk to myself. The words to that old song are so very true, He walks with me and He talks with me and He tells me I am His own. And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.

If you are a Christian who has learned to rely on God’s spoken guidance and companionship, then you know what I mean. There is nothing more fulfilling than HEARING God’s voice. The other day my son came home thrilled that while he was at work parking cars at the Woodmont Country Club, THE MICHAEL JORDAN had waved at him. Well, as thrilling as I am sure that was, it is nothing compared to the feeling of actually hearing the voice of the Creator and Redeemer of the Universe.

2. God DOES speak to us. But you know sometimes He will tell us things that sinners like you and me don’t like to hear.

He may ask us to do things that we don’t want to do and that is what happened to Jonah.God told him to go to the people of Nineveh and declare His judgement on them because of their wickedness. The Living Bible paraphrases the last part of verse 2 by saying that the wickedness of Niniveh was such that it …smelled to high heaven. And that is not a bad translation, because the Assyrian Empire was well known in all of the ancient world for its wickedness and cruelty. One of their kings, Ashurbanipal was accustomed to tearing off the lips and hands of his victims Another Assyrian ruler, Tiglath-Pileser, flayed victims alive and made great piles of their skulls. The SOLDIERS in the Assyrian army had no qualms abut scorched earth military tactics. Typically after destroying an enemy’s fields and cities, they slaughtered the conquered people or hammered iron rods through their noses or lower lips and led them away as slaves. Now, Isaiah had prophesied earlier (7:17 ff) that the Assyrians would successfully invade Israel; And, Jonah of course was familiar with this prophesy. In Jonah’s day the Assyrians were making forays into the northern kingdom of Israel…sort of pre-invasion attacks. When the Assyrians were doing this…penetrating into a nation they hoped to conquer, they would make a surprise attack upon the city, take captive the women, and then brutally slay the men and children. Well, Jonah lived in a northern town so perhaps he had personally witnessed some of these attacks. He may have seen his own father and mother brutally slain before his eyes or he might have seen his sisters raped by the Assyrian troops.

I tell you this so you can comprehend Jonah’s hatred of the Assyrians. He understandably wanted nothing to do with helping these brutally wicked people. He knew that if he preached the sermon God had given him to the Assyrians in their capital city of Nineveh there was a chance that they would repent. And if they repented, Jonah knew that our compassionate God would forgive them. Listen to what Jonah said in verse 2 of chapter 4 after that indeed had come to pass, I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God Who relents from sending calamity.

In his hatred for the Assyrian people Jonah did not want that to happen. Like you and me, so often when we are wronged we don’t want to forgive. Instead we want our oppressors to be punished. We want them to hurt at least as much as they hurt us. This attitude is why Philip Yancey describes the book of Jonah as …a true-life study of how hard it is to follow the biblical command, ‘Love your enemies.’ And if we are to have any impact on the lost who live with us in this fallen world of ours, we must learn this lesson. We must love as God has loved us.

We must learn to yearn not for the punishment of our enemies but for their repentance and the restoration that comes with it. Remember, in Ezekiel 33:11 God says, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. As Yancey says, the reason the gospel is good news in the first place is because, …the free offer of God’s grace extends not just to the undeserving but to those who in fact deserve the opposite.

The book of Jonah can ALSO teach us the importance of learning to trust God’s perspective on all people no matter how depraved they may seem. In II Corinthians 5:16 Paul reminds us that once they embrace God’s grace all believers should, …regard no one from a human point of view. This means that once we become Christians we must look at people not from our own perspectives of hostility. We no longer evaluate them based on our own sensitivities. We learn to view people-all people-the way God does-from a heart of love. We must trust that God sees more than we see. He is able to look at the heart of an individual which is how He knew that the people of Niniveh were ripe for repentance. God looked deep and saw that if the Assyrians heard from Him they would respond and this is why He sent Jonah to these wicked people in the first place. But Jonah didn’t want any part of this. In fact, his hatred of these people consumed him such he abandoned his call to be God’s prophet or spokesman. I think Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse hit it right on the nose when he said that calling Jonah to go to the Ninevites was like asking a Jew from New York to go to Hitler after the holocaust and tell him that God loved him and that everything would be forgiven if we would repent.

Jonah couldn’t stand the thought of these people being forgiven and coming into relationship with His Heavenly Father so he reacted with the heart of a jealous, unforgiving son and disobeyed.

Now I think if we are honest with ourselves we will have to admit that we are often just like Jonah. We defy God when He guides us in directions we don’t want to go and it is for this reason that I think it is so important that we study this text because we can learn a great deal about the DANGERS of disobedience from Jonah’s experience. This leads us to another lesson we can learn from this little book:

3. When we disobey God…when we run from Him…the adversary always provides handy transportation.

God told Jonah to go east to Nineveh and which direction did he go? WEST. He headed for the port of Joppa and when he got there he just happened to find a boat heading in the right direction.

In fact this boat was bound for the Spanish fishing village of Tarshish which was the westernmost town in the known world at that time. To reach it would require a journey of a year and a half. It was literally as far as Jonah could go in that direction away from Niniveh.

Now, do you think it was a coincidence that there just happened to be a boat heading in that direction at that time? I don’t, because the devil always makes it easy for us to disobey God. In Matthew 7:13 Jesus warned us of this when He said, Wide is the gate, and broad is the road that leads to destruction and many enter through it. If you want to disobey God; if you want to do things that are against His will you can count on plenty of demonic assistance. But be forewarned; satan will never do anything to help you get anywhere but closer to pain and heartbreak, which is exactly what happened to Jonah. Almost as soon as they were out of the harbor verse 4 says that …the Lord sent a great wind on the sea and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. Now, this was no typical storm. It was more perfect than the perfect storm in that George Clooney movie. In fact the Hebrew here literally says that the storm was so bad that …the ship itself thought it was going to break up.

The sailors on this Tarshish-bound ship were probably Phonecians, some of history’s greatest sailors. They were well-acquainted with storms at sea and THEY knew this was no NATURAL storm and that in fact it was SUPERNATURAL in origin so they cried out to their pagan gods for help and threw cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

Now while all this was going on where was Jonah? Down in the hold, sound asleep. How could he sleep at a time like this? Well, I think the answer to this question provides us with another lesson from Jonah’s disobedience school…

4. You see, running from God-disobeying our Heavenly Father-is tiresome business.

This is because we are DESIGNED to walk in relationship with God and when we disobey Him we break that relationship. In relationship with God…in obedience to God…we have access to His strength. But when we disobey Him, when we break fellowship with Him, we are reduced to trudging through this sinful world on our own power. And you and I can’t make any headway against the storms of life on our own strength. Sin slows us down by draining our strength. It’s like trying to swim with a stone tied around your neck. In Psalm 32 verse 4 David says that when He disobeyed God his, bones wasted away…his strength was sapped as in the heat of the summer. So this is why Jonah slept. This prophet of God who was used to relying on God’s strength had lived the past few days on his own. Like an astronaut returning to earth’s gravity after weeks of weightlessness in space he quickly grew exhausted.

And then, a fourth thing I want us to note is that, as a Christian…as a disciple of Jesus…

5. …You can’t live disobedient life and it not show.

As Numbers 32:23 warns, You can be sure that your sins will find you out. And this is what happened to Jonah. As soon as he paid his fare, he didn’t talk to anyone or introduce himself. He headed to the hold and fell asleep. But when the storm broke the captain came to him and encouraged him to join them in praying to their individual gods for help in dealing with this perfect storm. Can you see the irony in a heathen captain having to beg a Hebrew prophet to pray? Well, they cast lots to see whose fault this storm was and the lot just happened to fall on Jonah. Of course this was no coincidence. God was at work.

I read somewhere that a coincidence is a miracle for which God chooses to remain anonymous.

And that is what happened here. God CAUSED Jonah to get the short straw and when he did the spotlight fell on him. The sailors pestered him with questions, saying, Who are you? What have you done to cause this storm? And Jonah had to fess up and tell them his story. Then in verse 9 he said, I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven who made the SEA and the dry land.

You know, we think we can sin and no one know but that is not true. God always knows! In Job 24 it says, When the daylight is gone, the murderer rises up and kills the poor and needy; in the night he steals forth like a thief. The adulterer watches for dusk, he thinks, ‘No one will see me,’ and he keeps his face concealed. In the dark, men break into houses. God may let [disobedient people] rest in a feeling of security but His eyes are on their ways. God always sees what we do and sometimes, as Jonah discovered, He allows others to see the folly of our disobedience as well. God does this because often it is the shame at being found out that drives us to repentance. I think this is why in Luke 12:3 Jesus said, What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. And then, the last lesson I want us to learn from Jonah’s disobedience is that…

6. ….when we disobey God, we aren’t the only ones who suffer.

Our sin hurts others as well. I mean think about it. Those sailors suffered because of Jonah. The merchants whose cargo was lost suffered. We don’t sin in seclusion. Like second-hand smoke, our disobedience wounds the people around us. When we defy God’s law we establish a downward spiral, like a whirlpool or a funnel that seizes us and others and pulls us down. A few years ago one of my dear friends decided to divorce his wife of 20 years and marry the mother of his son’s fiancĂ©. A mutual friend called me and we prayed about it and decided to confront him with his sin. We tried to help him see that this action was disobeying God…that it would hurt him and others. But he would not relent. He said he was tired of being unhappy and felt he deserved to do what he wanted. Less than a year later, while driving in the car with his new wife, he died suddenly of a massive heart attack. And I truly believe that his journey away from God played a role in his death. But he was not the only one devastated by his sin. His wife and his sons…his church family…all have been greatly hurt by his disobedience. This is the way it is with sin. When we disobey God, the consequences of our sin are widespread.

And, Christians, the greatest damage we do when we disobey God is that we often push the lost away from personal faith in Christ. One of the greatest causes of unbelief today is the sinful lifestyles and hypocrisy of believers.

Well, these sailors asked Jonah what they should do to stop the storm. He instructed them to throw him overboard which shows He would rather drown than witness to the Ninevites. Instead these men did all they could do to row back to land. They cared more about Jonah than he did about them or the Assyrians! When rowing didn’t work, they did something Jonah still had not done at this point. They prayed to God and then they followed Jonah’s instructions and threw him into the sea. Immediately the raging waves fell to serenity, like the waves in the wave pool at SIX FLAGS when the motors are turned off. Instant calm. These pagan sailors responded to this calm by worshiping God, making thank offerings to Him, pledging to live lives of gratitude for His saving grace. It’s a very strange twist, if you think about it. Jonah wouldn’t go to Nineveh to prophesy to the Gentiles there, but through his own choices, when he tried to escape, he was put into a situation where Gentile sailors put their faith in the one true God because of Jonah’s weak, brief, and halfhearted witness given under duress.

Well, today as we remember Jonah, a man who was disobedient to God, I want us to also remember another Man, God’s only Son Who, when commissioned by God did NOT run, even thought He was sent to a planet full of sinful people…enemies of God….people who would despise and reject Him…people who would treat Him so cruelly that He would become well-acquainted with sorrows. Jesus was the only One in fact Who has ever been perfectly OBEDIENT to God. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ was…

…in very nature God, [HE] did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became OBEDIENT to death even death on the cross.

Jesus faced the most difficult command God ever issued. He knew the unimaginable pain and separation He would suffer on our behalf if He were to obey. He even asked God if there were another way .but when the answer was NO Jesus was obedient and we are here today enjoying relationship with God only because of that obedience.

As we come to remember Jesus’ submission to God’s will through the observance of the Lord’s Supper let me invite all Christians present to partake with us. Even if you are not a member of this church, if you are a Christian; if you are His, this is Yours.


As we close our service this morning I want to affirm the fact that here at Redland we believe that God DOES speak to people today…people like you and me. In fact we close our service each week to give you an opportunity to listen and hear what He is saying to you. Today if you stop now and listen you may hear God use one of two words.

He may be telling you to GO Just as He told Jonah to GO to the people of Nineveh, there may be someone God is commissioning you to GO to…and tell of His love. Perhaps there is someone you have a hard time loving, someone you need to forgive. If that is true then I urge you not to make Jonah’s mistake. Obey God. Commit right now to go to that person.Or, you may hear another word from God.

He may be whispering in your innermost being the word COME.…inviting you to come to Him in repentance and faith…professing your belief in Him, claiming Him as your Savior and Lord. Or, inviting you, if you are already a Christian, to come and join this church…to become a part of our ministry here. As God speaks to you we invite you to share it with us. Walk forward as we stand and sing and share your decision with myself or Steve.

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