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The World’s Biggest Fish Story  (Book of Jonah)

One of my heroes, old-time evangelist, Dr. B.R. Lakin, used to tell my favorite fish story. “When I get to heaven, I’m going to have a mansion on the corner of Glory and Halleluiah Boulevards, right across the golden street from the river of life, and every morning I’m going to go fishing and catch fish this (and he would hold his hands very far apart) big.”

The prophet Jonah lived in the Galilean city of Gath-Hepher (about four miles north of Nazareth), during the reign of Jeroboam II, who was northern Israel’s most powerful king. During his administration the borders of the nation were expanded to their greatest extent since the time of David and Solomon.

The book of Jonah is different from the other prophetic books of the Bible. Typically, prophets issued warnings or gave instructions to the people of Israel. Instead, God told Jonah to evangelize the city of Nineveh, home of Israel's cruelest enemy. Jonah didn't want those idolaters to be saved, so he ran away. When Jonah ran from the call of God, one of the oddest events in the Bible occurred—the story of Jonah and the Whale.

Jonah was a little neurotic, this word is defined as, “psycho-neurosis, a functional personality disorder, that includes a refusal to face reality.” It goes much deeper, but that's the basis of neurosis.

Jonah was the typical backslider! He was a lot like some believers, he refused to face the reality of God's call on his life. Some believers are living in the past: “I used to: teach, preach, witness, sing, attend every service, pray…et al” Others project into the future, saying: “someday, I'm going to: teach; preach, witness, sing, attend every service, pray…” Some say, “If I ever get straightened out, then I will serve God!” One preacher, looking at a man in his casket said, “Well, he finally got straightened out.” It all adds up to evading present reality. What does God want from me now?

The Prodigal Prophet (Chapter 1)

1:1,2: Reality…God called him: “The Word of the LORD came to Jonah…, saying, ‘arise go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it…’”

1:3: Jonah tried to get away. “But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.” Jonah turns down the assignment and heads for Tarshish, the opposite direction. Nineveh is Northeast, Tarshish is West. Instead of heading toward the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, he’s going to go all the way to where the Mediterranean empties into the Atlantic. Tarshish is essentially Gibraltar. Ancient people believed the earth was flat, when you got to Gibraltar, you would fall off the world. Jonah was willing to go to the end of the world to get away from God’s call.

Why did Jonah run in the opposite direction? When God calls him to preach repentance to the Ninevites, he knows that God's mercy would soon follow. But he can’t get away from God, The Psalmist writes, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there!If I make my bed in Sheol (the grave), you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me,and your right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10).

He didn’t want to go to Nineveh, which is a long way off in the desert next to the Tigris River. In ancient times it had a population of 600,000 people, an exceptionally large city. It had been built by Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah (Genesis 10,11). As far as Jonah was concerned Nineveh was a pagan city. They were the enemy of Israel and represented everything evil that they hated. The Assyrians were brutal; they were vicious; they massacred their enemies; they mutilated their captives; they are known to dismember, decapitate, and burn people alive. Indescribable forms of torture marked their behavior toward their enemies.

Although geographic location has little to do with the will of God (God's will has more to do with what you are, than where you are), in Jonah's case it meant everything. God gave him a specific command, go to Nineveh! When God's call is that specific, you have no other choice, you must go! “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).

Let's talk with Jonah. He's in Tarshish, he looks bad, his cheeks are hollow, his eyes are bloodshot, he doesn't look as if he has slept for a while, he is haggard, worn, and sickly looking! We speak to him: “Hi there Jonah, on your way home?” “No, I'm going to Tarshish!” “Who on earth would ever want to go there? Two places in this world I don't want to go and both of them are Tarshish!” “Oh, no, I don't want to go there, I'm running away from God's call.”

He was just not strong enough to face God's call. Really? He just wanted to do what he wanted to do! So he uses theological reasoning: “I'm a Jew, one of God's chosen people, there are just too many Gentiles in Nineveh, what if I preach and they repent, God will be hard-pressed to make a decision about who His people are, so I'm just trying to help God.”

So he found a ship. He didn't accidentally board the wrong boat! He searched until he found one going in the opposite direction.

1:3: So he paid the fare. Whenever you run from your responsibility of serving God, you will always pay the fare! Look at the Children of Israel: Forty years of wandering and wondering. There are always consequences when you run from God! It seems that many problems always follow a refusal to answer God's call. Ephesians 4:30: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit, by Whom you are sealed until the day of redemption.” Ephesians 5:1: “Be followers of God…” Luke 9:62: “No one, having put his to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Ephesians 4:1 admonishes us to “Walk worthy of the calling with which you were called…”

1:4,5: God hurled a storm into the sea. Where is our Prophet now? Imagine this little boat in the middle of a hurricane. Only a neurotic could sleep through a storm like that. (I have a tendency to sleep when stress comes. Once, in Texas, I slept though a hurricane, while my family was awake and frightened). For Jonah, he is still trying to escape reality.

1:6: So the captain came to him, and said, “What do you mean, sleeper? Arise and call on your God…” I think he was probably saying, “We've done the best we can with ours.” They wanted someone who was on speaking terms with God! The evangelist, B.R. Lakin used to say, “When the hearse backs up to the door, everyone wants the old time religion.” A Navy Chaplain, attached to the Marine base at Camp Pendleton, told me, “Any chaplain will do for most of the Marines until they are getting ready to ship out to a danger zone, then they look for an Evangelical Chaplain who can share the Bible with them.” When people are in trouble, they seek out someone who can tell them what God says!

1:7: The sailors said: “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.” Casting lots was kind of like a coin toss, the ancients way of resolving difficult decisions. “You're it, Jonah!” You cannot get away from God's call. God is saying, “I called you, Jonah, and I have not changed my mind.”

1:8: They ask Jonah, “What is your occupation?” He had told them nothing…no testimony. Backsliders never want anyone to know they are believers. Why didn't he want them to know? Because the world expects certain things from believers. Their rules are more strict than the Bible rules. Jonah may have been afraid of the questioning he would get from these mariners. A High School student who was a Christian, said, “whew, I made it through the whole year without anyone finding out I was a Christian.”

1:9: “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord.” Yea, right! When someone is in a crisis and comes to us for help, do we ever answer, “I’m a Baptist (Look at some famous Baptists, the robber Barron John D. Rockefeller, the serial killer, Son of Sam, and outlaws, Jessie and Frank James were all Baptists). “I'm a Presbyterian, I’m a Methodist, or I'm a Catholic?” How about some preachers I've known, who declare, “I'm a Bible-believing, Bible preaching, Bible thumpin', pulpit poundin', loud shoutin', King James only, pre-millennial, pre-tribulation believer,” yet their lives and ministry do not fit their calling.

Jonah's ten-cent testimony had nothing to do with the crisis they were facing. Confession without commitment shows the world nothing. The world is looking for something. What do we have to give them? Hopefully, something more than some denominational hocus-pocus. At the “Gate Beautiful,” Peter, James and John encountered a lame man, “expecting to receive something from them.” Peter says to him, “Silver and gold, I do not have, but what I do have I give you, in the name of Jesus Christ…rise up and walk” (Acts 3:1-3). We can only give what we have, Jesus our Savior and God's holy Word. Do you really think they believed Jonah when he said, “I fear the Lord, the God of heaven?”

1:10: The men knew that he had fled from the presence of the Lord, because he told them. You cannot hide your spiritual condition from your loved-ones, friends, your church or the world. Your condition will be obvious to every believer. And you can't fool God!

1:11,12: “What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us? Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you.” Why didn't he just jump overboard? He was still trying to escape reality. He didn't have enough nerve to visit Davy Jones Locker on his own. The neurotic is now saying, “I'm not fit to live, throw me overboard.”

1:13-16: “Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to bring the ship to land…” These were decent men, they tried every way to escape certain death. They even prayed, “O, Lord, please do not let us perish for this man's life.” But God had other plans for them that included His backslidden Prophet. Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.”

1:17: “God prepared a great fish” to swallow Jonah and he a was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Was it a “whale?” This fish was a special creation of God, the word actually translates, “huge fish, a large sea creature or sea monster.” Jesus indicated that Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish.” (Matthew 12:40). I believe it was a specially prepared live submarine. One old preacher said, “The world has its Willy Mayes, but God has His catchers. So God says to the fish, ‘get in catchin' position, I've got one of My Prophets comin’ right at you! And you'll recognize him, 'cause there ain't nothin' else in the water like him!’” I heard one old time preacher declared, “If the Bible said, Jonah swallowed the whale, I’d believe it.”

Jonah had to die! Jesus said in John 12:24: “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” There are four elements in physical death…Death is complete, You can never go back to your old life. Death is costly, it will cost you your friends, fame, fortune, and family, you give them all up when you die. Death means change, You will never be the same again. And there is an element of calm that is unlike anything in this world. The same is true when we die to self. “I am crucified with Christ…” (Galatians 2:20). “And those that are Christ's have crucified the flesh…” (Galatians 5:24). “Therefore put to death your members which are on earth…” (Colossians 3:5).

Let's look at Jonah's journey so far: He went down to Tarshish, down to the sea shore, down to the wharf, down to the ship, down to the bottom of the ship, down to the belly of a great fish, and the fish took him down to the bottom of the sea. Every step away from God is down, down, down. Now we find our Prophet in God's undersea classroom. The “University of the Mediterranean.” Oh, the lessons we learn in God's classroom! I've been there more times than I like to remember. I've even had to sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap on several occasions. When God takes you to school, you learn fast. Let me tell you, if you ever find yourself in the gastric juices of a huge fish, you become quick learner!

The Praying Prophet (Chapter 2)

2:1-10: “Then Jonah prayed!” It's about time! But that's so typical. When we reach the pits of despair, we remember the LORD. Listen to him, “Out of the belly of hell I cried…” “Then I remembered the LORD.” One version has it, “In my distress I called out”. I don’t know about you, but I suspect the word distress is putting it lightly. Jonah was sinking to the bottom of the ocean. He must have been freaking out! I know I would be, wouldn’t you? Jonah thought he was going to die, but God heard Jonah, and He was gracious and provided a way out that Jonah could never have imagined. Have you been there? Where all that was left was to cry out to God? “Help me LORD!” Maybe you are in this place today, in the depths…so cry out to Him, He will hear you! Even though Jonah was running from God, God had not given up on him. God has not abandoned him. God hears him! And God hears you! God is a God of second chances (and third, fourth, fifth, and 1000th chances). Jonah gets a second chance.

Verse 3 (NIV) “You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.” Jonah knows that God was still with him. God was the One who put him there. Wait a minute! I read that the sailors threw him in! Jonah is clearly making the point that God is sovereign. God is in control of this whole situation. While it was men who threw Jonah into the sea, it was God’s plan for it to happen. God was in control.

The Preaching Prophet (Chapter 3)

Look at him! He didn’t look like some modern-day Evangelists or television Pastors. He was not wearing a thousand-dollar Armani suit, a thee-hundred-dollar shirt, a two-hundred-fifty-dollar Gucci tie, five-hundred dollar shoes, and a five-thousand dollar Rolex diamond watch. Just look at our famous evangelist, Jonah: slimy, muddy, wet, and smelly, with seaweed tangled around his body. Backsliders are always a stench in the nostrils of God, and the church. Jonah lost his taste for fish and chips that day!.

3:1-3: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” (Go and do what I told you to do in the first place). God had not changed His mind! Then Jonah preached, saying, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! So the people of Nineveh believed God…and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.” We are forever grateful for a merciful, the God of the second chance.

But for Jonah this is unacceptable! Jonah was thinking, “Here I am, the greatest evangelist in Israel, and You made me look like a fool! I told them You were going to destroy them and You didn’t do it! This is unacceptable!” Then he says to the LORD, “I knew You would do this, I knew You were gracious and compassionate and slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness. I knew You would relent on Your judgment on those people.” Here comes the neurotic again, “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” Wow! “Kill me! I can’t stand seeing the Assyrians being converted.” This was his worst nightmare. That’s some attitude for a prophet. He had a lousy attitude at the beginning; and you can see how really bad it was at the end. He wanted to be killed the first time: “Throw me in the water.” And now he wants to die again.

He is full of prejudice, and pride, and he can’t tolerate the magnitude of God’s grace to this barbarian nation. Listen to God’s Word, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 NASB).

The Pouting Prophet (Chapter 4)

Verse 5-11, “So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city. And the LORD God prepared a plant, and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to comfort him in his misery. (God was still caring for His backslidden Prophet). So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. But as morning dawned the next day, God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered. And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished for death for himself, and said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’ Then God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’ And he said, ‘It is right for me to be angry, even to death!’ But the Lord said, ‘You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh…’”

Jonah was angry! He was full of contempt! He wanted to see God condemn the whole city to hell. He was so certain that God was going to destroy the Ninevites, that he decided to go sit on a hill overlooking the city and wait for God to send down fire. Yeah, he’s going to plant himself there and watch God kill them. Surely God will change His mind, and totally destroy this bunch of heathen Gentiles. Their repentance could not have been real. They didn’t mean it. And if I just sit here and wait, God will destroy them all.

It was hot in this desert country, Jonah was roasting. So he built a little shelter that wasn’t adequate. While Jonah was angrily pouting, (I love this), God miraculously created a shade tree to grow over the prophet’s head. Jonah was so comforted by the shade this miracle plant provided that he actually smiled for the first time in days. His smile, though, would be short-lived. The next day, God sent a worm, and right before this pouting prophet’s eyes, the worm began to gnaw on the plant. Before Jonah could squash the worm, the plant withered and died. If that wasn’t enough, when the sun was at its brightest, God sent a burning wind to scorch His miserable prophet. As the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, he became so disconsolate that he wanted to die.

God asked him, “Do you have the right to be angry about the death of the plant?” “I’m angry enough to die!” Jonah retorted. “Jonah, you have been grieved over the death of a plant that you neither planted nor tended. How dare you question my love for the inhabitants of Nineveh who were so blinded by their own sin that they could not even tell the difference between right and wrong?”

In other words, Jonah was asking God to judge the very neighbors that he should have invited under his shade tree!This desire for comfort and the lack of concern for the lost may well be the greatest sin of the church today. While millions are searching to find the God they so desperately need, the majority of Christians are basking in the comfort of their salvation. While millions are dying and going to a godless hell, the church waits for God to judge the culture they have come to hate.

Now, You would have thought that Jonah would be so thrilled about God’s great work, that he would have gone back to Israel and said, “Folks, I’ve just got to tell you what happened. I’m telling you, you’ve got to hear the story. The whole city of Nineveh repented…the whole city, the king, everybody. They came down, put on sackcloth and ashes (a symbol of humiliation). But It greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. That is just so strange.

So what have we learned? This is all about God. On the surface, it’s about Jonah, but underneath it’s about God. What does it tell us about God? Well, allow me to draw a few simple lessons.

First of all, God is the ultimate hero of the story. He’s the one who rescues Jonah. He’s the one who gives Jonah the message. He’s the one who makes the people hear the message, believe the message, repent and be converted, and come to worship Him. It’s all about God.

It is God who hurls the storm into the sea. It is God that causes the sailors to question Jonah. It is God who causes the sailors to cast lots. It is God that causes the lot fall on Jonah. It is God who prepares the great fish. It is God who directs Jonah right into the mouth of the fish. It is God who then calms the sea. God protects Jonah. God causes the huge fish to expel Jonah, F.O.B. (free on bank). It is God who gave the Ninevites the gift of faith. It is God who grows the plant that shelters Jonah. It is God who sends the worm that eats the plant. It is God who whips up the hot wind the next day. It is God who has power over creation. Even the pagan sailors recognize God as the Creator. Incredibly, Jonah is the only person in the story who resists God. God is in the business of doing a mighty, massive work through people that, from a human viewpoint would be discarded. And that should be encouraging to all of us ’cause we’re all flawed.

Second, we not only learn that God is our Sovereign Creator who controls everything, but we learn that God is a Supreme Judge. The message that Jonah was to give was the message of judgment…”Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed…” by divine fury and divine wrath. Recognizing their doom was imminent, so the Ninevites repented.

And that takes us to the third and final element that we learn about God and that is that God is gracious. His loving kindness is not limited by our prejudices, our pride, or our indifference. His loving kindness, compassion and grace is not limited to good people, but to brutal, murderous, idolatrous pagans. “I have not come to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent” (Luke 5;32). “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost” (Luke 19:10).

These three truths are the essence of the gospel. God is our Creator. We have sinned against our Creator. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Wrath and judgment has been pronounced on us. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our LORD” (Romans 6:23). We have been given the Gospel, which offers us forgiveness through faith in the LORD Jesus Christ. You really see the gospel in the heart of God in the story of Jonah. The Creator God, sinned against, warns about judgment and fully forgives those who repent and embrace Him.

I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,

Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more,

But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.

Love lifted me!Love lifted me!

When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

–James Rowe–

If this has been helpful to you, please respond by email to You have permission to use any of the message for teaching or preaching. Dr. John

Unless otherwise noted, the New King James Version of the Bible was used. Also The New Living Translation (NLT); The New American Standard Bible (NASB); The Message (MSG); The New Century Version (NCV); The Amplified Bible (AMP); The King James Version (KJV), The New Life Version (NLV); English Standard Version (ESV); J.B. Phillips New Testament; Easy to Read Version (ERV); Common English bible (CEB); NET Bible (NET) and The Living Bible (TLB). Contemporary English Version (CEV).

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