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Jonah I: Away From the Presence of the Lord - Jonah 1:1-3

How do you respond to the grace and mercy of God? Jonah has to face that question on the smallest level when he considers the mercy of God in causing shady plants to grow, and on the biggest level when at the end of the book God turns back and doesn’t destroy the most wicked nation on the earth. Along the way he encounters the sovereignty of God over the natural world, widespread true repentance, and grudgingly embraces the task of evangelism, but most of all, whales and worms and cattle and angry prophets teach us to respond to the grace and mercy of God in the face of sin and wickedness.

As strange as it seems from how his story begins, Jonah is going to lead us to the cross. Jonah was one of Jesus’ favorite illustrations of His own ministry, and Jesus is God’s clearest and most satisfying answer to all of our questions about justice and mercy, because it is on the cross where Jesus died as the sin-bearing sacrifice in our place that justice and mercy meet.

As we start this journey, there’s a lot of background that we need to know, starting in v. 1. “Now the word of the Lord came…” – this is the most common way that God commissions His prophets – “…to Jonah, the son of Amittai.” Jonah first appeared in 2 Kings 14:23-25, prophesying blessings on Israel, even though she was being ruled by the wicked King Jeroboam II. Take note of that: Jonah’s prophecy about Israel comes true, and God’s people receive mercy instead of judgment.

In v. 2, God tells Jonah to “Arise, and go to Nineveh, that great city”. Ninevah wasn’t yet the capital city, but it does seem to be the center of the wickedness that is emanating from Assyria. What God wants Jonah to do is to “call out against” Nineveh, not just as a warning to Israel, but by actually going to announce God’s judgment in the heart of Assyria itself.

“Nineveh’s evil has come up before me.” God is aware of all iniquity and evil, but He waits to respond until a certain point, a point which Nineveh has now reached. History records that Assyria was one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty nations on the face of the earth, known for beheadings, flaying, dismemberment, and all sorts of cruelty to young and old alike. If ever a nation needed to be condemned by God, it was Assyria. And so God called Jonah to go and speak in His name.

As we get to verse 3, Jonah does arise and go, but in the wrong direction. God had said to go east to Nineveh, one of the easternmost points of Israel’s known world, but Jonah “flees from before the face of the Lord to Tarshish,” the westernmost point that he knew of. Tellingly, Jonah’s flight is described not just as going “west” or “away,” but going “down”. Jonah goes “down to Joppa,” and then goes “down into a ship,” and he’s going to go much further down soon, down to the very bottom.

Jonah’s flight “away from the presence of the Lord” is not a foolhardy flight from God’s omnipresence; Jonah is running from God’s special presence among His people, much the same as people today who run from God stop going to church and reading their Bibles. His precipitous action raises a question that our text today doesn’t answer: Why does Jonah flee from God and His call? You can skip to chapter 4 and find the answer, but the author leaves that information out of chapter 1. Maybe we’re supposed to think about for a while, and the answers we come up with might tell us something about our hearts, and how comfortable we are with what God asks us to do.

But before we see Jonah’s response to God’s mercy, the book starts by showing us God’s response to our sin. What is God going to do about Jonah? We’ll see the answer in Jonah’s life later, but as people who live in light of the cross, we must always remember that Jesus is God’s answer to our disobedience and sin. When we run away from God, God does not abandon us or allow us to get away with our sin; He comes for us!

When the wickedness of the world came up before God, He called for His Son Jesus, and told Him to go into our wicked world announcing a message of salvation, and accomplishing a great redemption. God sent Jesus to atone for our sins by shedding His own blood on the cross, so that we might be brought back and reconciled to God, and Jesus gladly obeyed. Aren’t you glad that Jesus is a better prophet than Jonah?

Posted on Wednesday, February 06, 2019 by CJ Bowen