Sabbath School Commentary for discussion on July 25, 2015.
The main reason my wife and I recently moved from the East Coast back to the West Coast was to be near our children, and especially our young granddaughter. I am hoping that as she grows more comfortable being around me, I can tell her some stories that will rival her current interest in, and love for, Disney's Frozen.
Perhaps I will tell her my two favorite stories when I was growing up – Arthur Maxwell's The Secret of the Cave, and the biblical story of Jonah and the great fish. (The Bible doesn't say it was a whale and we need to be careful about what we assume the Bible says or doesn't, as we so clearly learned recently.) I’m sure I will get her interest as we count together the many miracles in this great story.
Many wonder today if the Jonah story really happened or whether it was just a parable – a fairytale – with a great moral.
Jesus mentions the book by name. (Give yourself bonus points for knowing how many Old Testament books Jesus mentions by name. Extra bonus points are available if you can name them.) If Jonah is fictitious, it seems unlikely that Jesus would mention it as He did. "No sign will be given an unbelieving generation," He stated, "except the sign of Jonah." Jesus goes on to equate Jonah's three nights and three days in the depths to His own coming experience in the grave. It has always bothered me that by our reckoning Jesus only spent one full day and part of another (He was gone by sunrise on Sunday) in the grave. It seems strange that we should not expect the days to be as literal as creation days if they are to be a sign to an unbelieving generation.
Does Jonah (or perhaps the great fish) represent God's people and remind them to be instrumental in saving others, even if they are way outside their comfort zone? The story has a great ending like any great movie. You can almost hear the music crescendo as the screen fades to black. In fact, it's an ending that would make PETA happy!
"And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:11). One can easily make the observation that the people of Nineveh deserved no consideration, but God's mercy extended to the cows! It's a simple, but profound point. If God cares for the animals, don't ever assume He doesn't care for you! God cares for all of His creation. Why are we letting Pope Francis beat us, who keep the Sabbath as a memorial to creation, to this realization?
The story also contains maybe the greatest prayer of Scripture. His prayer causes the fish in the depths of the sea to explode (vomit actually) Jonah unto dry ground when he utters, "But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (3:9)
Think of the effect it had on the people of Nineveh if they saw this! Think of the effect it would have on us. We will continue to wander around in the muck and the mire on this earth with the proverbial seaweed wrapped around our head until, like Jonah, we realize the same thing he did – from alpha to omega, salvation is God's act alone. Try thinking about the second coming as being vomited into heaven—it may be uncomfortable just before it happens, but when it’s over, talk about the relief! However you choose to visualize it, know that the transition is dramatic and entirely God's doing.
But why wasn’t Jonah willing to go to Nineveh in the first place? We know of the wickedness and viciousness of the people there. In facing a similar evil situation, even believing in the power of God's protection, it would give you pause. But what was the reason? Let me theorize on a few possibilities.
"Warn my enemies? You've got to be kidding!"
If Jonah really asked if he had to warn his enemies, God's answer was "absolutely!" Jesus Christ has only one completely original teaching and it's not the golden rule. The Greek philosophers had already enunciated that, though not in the positive – "don't do to others…" Jesus' one original teaching and one that makes Him unique is to "love your enemies."
Jonah is monumental for clearly demonstrating this character trait not only in God's expectation of us as humans, but in God’s treatment of His creations. In heavenly perspectives, no one is beyond the transforming power of His grace.
“I had a dream of being in heaven,” my aunt used to tell me (a story I thought was original with her until I heard it shared by many others), “and I was surprised by some of the people I ran into there. But when I spoke to them they were shocked to see me there.”
Wasn’t it Luther who said that he could see how someone could be saved? What he hadn’t figured out was how a person is lost. I grew up believing that God was watching every little move to keep you out of heaven. Jonah’s story demonstrates the lengths God will go to bring you back into His arms.
"As an evangelist, I have to think of my reputation."
While I admit it is unlikely that this was a principal concern of Jonah's, it probably would be today. Success as an evangelist is predicated on results, and then financial contributions. So research into possible baptisms, followed by good preparation on the ground, would be the smart move. Notoriety is also helpful, but there are very few evangelists who would take on a campaign with odds as daunting as these. However, God's response is clear. He seems to say, "This is not about your reputation, it's about Mine!" As one who worked in church public relations, I will confess that I could have remembered that more often.
"That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster."
Yes, I realize that Jonah actually said this, but I sincerely doubt that he meant it. These words came from the same man who prayed in the great fish, "Salvation comes from the Lord!" Then, only a short time later, Jonah is upset that the people of Nineveh were saved, and they were saved by realizing the same thing he did.
He’s so unnerved by this development, Jonah wants to die. I would've granted his wish after two, certainly three appeals. However, God demonstrates His love for Jonah in His lack of a punishing response.
So if you end up telling the story to someone, don‘t conclude with your listener just knowing the story of Jonah, the son of Amittai. Make sure your telling leads them to the greatest story ever told—the one about the love of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That will really make it a story worth telling and retelling.
Fred Kinsey, a former pastor, conference and division communication director, college professor, and speaker/director of the Voice of Prophecy, lives in California and is unemployed.