OAKRIDGE BIBLE CHAPEL

Reflecting God’s Compassion … Obediently (Jonah 1:1–17)

While obviously preferring obedience, there are times when parents allow their children to experience the consequences of their disobedience. So it is with God and his children. He has been clear in his parental instruction, inviting us to enjoy the abundant life he offers and warning us against activities that will rob us of it. And when we disobey—and we do disobey, don’t we?—there are times he wisely and lovingly allows us to experience the consequences of our disobedience.

As we begin our study of the book of Jonah, we find an example of just that. Jonah disobeys the Lord and is then allowed to experience the consequences of that rebellion. So, this prophet ends up serving as a negative example to us and a reminder as to what’s at stake when God calls you and I to obey his voice.

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The other day I was watching my two oldest boys ride their bikes in front of our house. As I watched, a game developed in which the younger was determined to not only catch his brother on his bike, but hit his brother with his bike … while both were still moving at full speed. Recognizing the many ways that game could not end well—probably from experience—I called out them, “Stop doing that, you’re going to get hurt.” 

He obeyed … for a minute. But soon “the call of the wild” lured him back into the same risky, and now disobedient, game of bicycle bumper-car tag.

In those moments, everyone who has ever cared for children, has a choice to make. Assessing the potential harm, do you correct the disobedience or do you allow them to experience the consequences of their disobedience?

The Bible tells us that God parents his children in a similar way. He has been clear in his parental instruction, inviting us to enjoy the abundant life he offers and warning us against activities that will rob us of it. And when we disobey—and we do disobey, don’t we?—there are times he wisely and lovingly allows us to experience the consequences of our disobedience.

As we begin our study of the book of Jonah, we find an example of just that. Jonah disobeys the Lord and is then allowed to experience the consequences of that rebellion. So, this prophet ends up serving as a negative example to us and a reminder as to what’s at stake when God calls you and I to obey his voice.

The book famously begins with the disobedience of Jonah

The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh.”

Jonah, son of Amittai, was a real prophet who’s ministry is alluded to in 2 Kings 14. There, as was typical for prophets, he is recorded as bringing God’s word to God’s people, Israel. Well, Nineveh is not Israel. In fact, it was city in Assyria which had been, and would be again, an enemy of Israel. And, as we continue reading verse 2 we see they really were the bad guys.

Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”

The imagery is that of evil being piled so high it eventually comes before God’s face in heaven. This important Assyrian city, Nineveh, was utterly depraved and their wickedness had reached a critical point but, instead of immediately delivering judgement as would have been the prerogative of a holy and just God, the Lord shows his compassion by taking time to send them a message through his prophet. At least, that’s what he’s intending to do.

However, that extension of gracious compassion is immediately met with disobedience: 

But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.

For the original audience, this is a shocking opening few verses. Not only did God send a prophet to Israel’s enemies but that same prophet disobeys God and runs in the exact opposite direction as far away as he possibly can. His disobedience is extreme.

It’s also intentional:

So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.

Not only has Jonah decided to disobey God, he’s willing to spend time, energy, and money to do it. Whereas God is being extremely and deliberately compassionate, his prophet is being extremely and deliberately calloused.

And Jonah’s compassionlessness, his ungodliness, his callousness is highlighted throughout the rest of the chapter by way of contrast to the pagan sailors he encounters on that Tarshish-bound ship.

The Lord hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up. Then the sailors became afraid and every man cried to his god, and they threw the cargo which was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down and fallen sound asleep.

These are seasoned boatman—career mariners. They know storms enough to know the severity of this one is supernatural. In other words, this is no normal tempest. So, what do they do? Verse 5 says “every man cried to his god.” In contrast, where’s Jonah? He’s doing the most passive and indifferent thing he could do: He’s sleeping.

So the captain approached him and said, “How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish.”

The captain finds Jonah, wakes him, and tells him to join them in begging the gods for mercy. One of the deities must be responsible; perhaps it’s this stowaways’ God—the other ones don’t seem to be listening.

Each man said to his mate, “Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us.” So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

Desperate to find the object of the gods’ anger, the men turn to a game of chance, but we know there’s no chance involved in the answer they get. With all signs pointing to Jonah they interrogate him and eventually pry a confession out of the runaway prophet in verse 9.

Now, as I read his confession, notice that, while up until this point the sailers had been beseeching generic “gods”—elohim—here Jonah drops the covenant name of Israel’s “Lord God”—Yahweh Elohim. 

He said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.”

The God I serve, the Lord God, created that which is about to kill us—‘the sea’—and that to which we long to see again—‘the dry land.’ My God not only runs them and owns them, but created them.”

It’s quite a reverent statement from this unfaithful prophet, isn’t it? While Jonah may be running from God, he knows well the God he’s running from. He’s not fleeing in ignorance. He’s well-aware of Who it is he’s disobeying. The rebel has good theology.

How do the sailors respond to Jonah’s declaration? 

Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

The sailers are confused as to how someone can believe what he believes about his God and still run from that same God, a God obviously far more powerful than any of the gods they’ve ever known. 

They ask Jonah what can be done to appease Yahweh Elohim, the God of the Hebrews, the God of the heavens, the God who made the sea and the dry land. From this point on there is no more mention of generic “gods,” but only the Lord God.

So they said to him, “What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?”—for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy. 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 on account of me this great storm has come upon you.”

Instead of repenting of his disobedience or telling the sailors to take him back to land so he can fulfill his assignment, Jonah would rather die. It’s clear God won’t let him run away but that doesn’t mean he has to obey. He’ll take death at sea over obedience … but he won’t do it himself. Instead, he asks for sailor-assisted suicide, not because he wants to save their lives but because he doesn’t want to save Nineveh.

However, the men rowed desperately to return to land but they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them.

The sailors now know throwing this stranger—a stranger who has endangered their lives and livelihoods—into the water will save their lives, yet they try everything they can to not do that. The pagans sailors show compassion for the well-being of a rebel—exactly what Jonah was supposed to do at the beginning of the book, but didn’t. 

The irony here is thick. God, a compassionate God, wanted his servant, Jonah, to show that same compassion to the wayward Nineveh. Instead, we have godless, pantheistic sailors showing God’s compassion. They’re looking more like Yahweh than Yahweh’s prophet!

Then they called on the Lord and said, “We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O Lord, have done as You have pleased.” So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging.

With God stripping away every other option they had, the sailors reverently call out to Yahweh Elohim for mercy and then reluctantly toss Jonah overboard, and the sea goes to glass.

Then the men feared the Lord greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

The sailors didn’t know a lot about Yahweh Elohim, the God of the Hebrews, the God of the Bible, the one true living God. But what they did now know moved them to awe and adoration. They knew enough to be moved to action.

Jonah, on the other hand, knew God well, yet his stubborn disobedience found him sinking to the bottom of the sea.

The chapter closes as it opened: With God’s compassion on display. 

And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.

Just like God could have destroyed evil Nineveh so too God could have let rebellious Jonah die. But, in both cases, he determines to send help.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai and Jonah disobeyed the word of the Lord.

Whenever I read this chapter I find myself shaking my head at Jonah in condescending disapproval until I remember how easy it is to replace Jonah’s name with mine in that sentence: The word of the Lord came to Josiah son of George and Josiah disobeyed the word of the Lord.

As clear a directive as “Arise, go to Nineveh” is, so too is “in your anger, do not sin,” “do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,” “honour your father and mother,” “Do everything without grumbling or arguing,” “rejoice in the Lord always”, and “devote yourselves to prayer.” 

And the word of the Lord came to Josiah. Does he obey or run away? And the word of the Lord came to you. Did you obey or run away? 

Years ago I was pulled over for speeding in northern Ontario. It was cottage season and the highway was busy and, when the officer came to my window, I pointed out that I hadn’t been going any faster than anyone else. The officer said, “That’s nice. Here’s your ticket.” I could complicate the issue by trying to justify my actions but the bottom line was that I had disobeyed the speed limit.

If we’re honest, most of the time obedience is not that complicated. We confuse it with rationalizations and justifications but much of the time it’s pretty simple.

Jonah disobeyed God. Period. But he didn’t do so without a reason. In fact, the text makes clear the desired result of his disobedience, that is, what he was trying to accomplish by fleeing.

But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. … Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

Why did Jonah run? What was the desired result of his disobedience? He wanted to get away from the Lord. Jonah wanted to remove himself from God’s service, God’s will, and God reign. He wanted to get away from the presence of God.

But he couldn’t do it, could he? In spite of his efforts to flee God’s presence, God’s presence was constant throughout the chapter. It was on display in the storm that he hurled upon the sea (4), made worse (11, 13), and then stopped all-together (15). God was present in the storm.

God’s presence was on display when the fearful sailors cast lots to determine who had angered the gods and the lots “just-so-happened” to fall on Jonah. God was present in the lots.

God’s presence was on display as the great fish came upon the sinking Hebrew and spared his life.

The desired result of Jonah’s disobedience was unobtainable. What he desired most—to be away from the presence of God—he could not have.

And neither can we. The God of the Bible is fully present everywhere always. 

[Jer 23:24] “Can a man hide himself in hiding places so I do not see him?” declares the Lord. “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the Lord

[Psa 139:7–10] Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me.

The God of the Bible is fully present everywhere always.

If we are living in disobedience and lying to ourselves like Jonah, thinking we can out-run and out-maneuver God, the reality of his omnipresence should be haunting. He is everywhere!

But if we are walking in obedience, it’s life-giving. In times when we feel alone, scared, vulnerable, helpless, the reality of his omnipresence offers comfort and peace. He is everywhere!

Isaac Watts once wrote: “Within thy circling power I stand / On every side I find thy hand / Awake, asleep, at home, abroad, / I am surrounded still with God.”

Jonah disobeyed God’s word and the text reveals the desired result of that rebellion, a result that was impossible. So, what was the actual result of his disobedience? To say it another way, what were the consequences of his disobedience that God allowed Jonah to experience?

We see in this passage that, while his disobedience didn’t remove Jonah from God’s presence like he wanted, it did remove him from God’s blessings. Let me quickly point out three such blessings that Jonah forfeited because of his rebellion. These are consequences of his disobedience.

First, Jonah surrendered the blessing of being used by God. In the opening two verses Jonah is invited to be an extension of God’s compassion to the Ninevites. But by running the opposite direction, he forfeited that privilege.

Second, Jonah surrendered the blessing of safety. Now, obedience to God doesn’t guarantee physical safety, but in the case of Jonah, his disobedience brought disciplinary and corrective danger. And the poor sailors were caught in the crossfire! Because of Jonah’s rebellion, not only was his safety in question, but so was the safety of those around him.

Third, Jonah surrendered the blessing of being a faithful witness. While he had forfeited the privilege of being God’s mouthpiece to Nineveh, God graciously gave him an audience with the pagan sailors. But, so cemented in his rebellion was Jonah, that he failed to represent God well even in that circumstance. He gave up the blessing of being a faithful witness for his God.

While the desired result of his disobedience was his removal from God’s presence, the actual result of his disobedience was his removal from God’s blessings—blessings of being used by God, of safety for himself and those around him, and of being a faithful witness.

Disobedience is never free. Do we even realize all we give up when we rebel against our Heavenly Father? Do we understand all we forfeit? Peace? Assurance? Joy? Future rewards? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

What about the ability to be a faithful witness for him in this world and to those God has placed around us? 

What about safety? Passages like 1 Cor 11:30 and Acts 7 make it clear that disobedience to the Lord can bring about physical illness as discipline and correction, for us and those around us.

What about the blessing of being used by God? In Revelation 3, Christ is speaking to a group of believers who allowed themselves to become apathetic and useless for his work, and he says “I will spit you out of my mouth!” In other words, your aversion and apathy to being useful to God is disgusting.

You see, like Jonah, when we disobey God and run from opportunities to demonstrate his compassionate character to others, we are never removing ourselves from his presence, but we are removing ourselves from his blessings, blessings he longs to bestow upon us but which we sacrifice in our rebellion.

And so, through Jonah chapter one, God’s people are being reminded and called to obey and enjoy! Obey the word of the Lord and then enjoy the blessings that he desires to shower upon us, not the least of which is the privilege of being conduits of God’s compassionate character to those around us. Obey and enjoy!

In the hours following this message, I want to encourage you to try this: Type into a search engine on your phone or computer something like “New Testament imperatives” or “New Testament commands.” You’ll find a huge list but we’ll narrow it down. Scan through that list and find one that comes from an epistle, a letter like Ephesians, Philippians, or Colossians. Narrowing the search this way not only makes the list manageable but also ensures easy applicability for us today as those letters were written specifically to post-pentecost believers like us.

Now, pick one that strikes you as particularly and personally difficult. One that you know you need to learn to obey.

For example: “Speak truth … to your neighbour” (Eph 4:25). “Children, obey your parents” (6:1). “Let your gentle spirit be known to all” (Phil 4:5). “Set your mind on things above” (Col 3:2).

Once you’ve selected one command, write the reference of that command in your Bible next to Jonah 1 and pray two things as you look at that reference: “Help me” and “thank you.” Help me God, be obedient to this command and thank you for the blessings to come.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah, and Jonah disobeyed the word of the Lord. Inso doing, he didn’t remove himself from God’s presence like he wanted, but he did remove himself from God’s blessings, particularly the blessing of being used by God as a conduit, an agent, of God’s compassionate character to those around him. 

We can, and must, learn from the example of the wayward prophet. Brothers and sisters, we can, by the power of God, obey God. And we will, by the grace of God, enjoy his promised blessings. Obey and enjoy!

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Josiah Boyd

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