Before we begin our study of Jonah, I’d like to take this evening to take stock of where we are. First let’s remind ourselves of the reasons we’re all gathered together here on a Friday evening…
- Worship of God together in prayer
- Seeking God’s will and nature by study of His Word
- Fellowship with like-minded brethren until He comes
Those who know me realize, I hope, the reverent regard in which I hold the Word of God. In studying, and rightly dividing His sacred Word, it has been said that, “If the literal sense makes sense, there’s no sense seeking another sense.” Having said that, tonight I’m going to say some things that you will (I hope) find offensive. I’ll be playing the part of the enemy’s advocate in the interest of making a point. So please don’t get upset. I haven’t abandoned my beliefs and principles.
Before we launch into our study of Jonah, I think it’s important that we tackle one of the problems with this book – namely the worldly idea that Jonah is merely an allegory, not to be taken literally. The story of Jonah is attacked by the enemy and by non-believers as simply unbelievable – a good moral teaching which can’t possibly be literally true.
Any kid who went to Sunday school (and many that didn’t) is familiar with the story of Jonah. It’s the kind of story that appeals to the simple mind of a child – Jonah – a reasonably good guy who made a simple mistake – cast into the ocean for disobeying God, but miraculously preserved inside a great fish until he repented, and rescued by God from the fish to carry on with his life and his calling from God.
Of course, we’re going to take a thorough look at how this story may be applied to our own lives and missions, but tonight I’d like to take a quick look at the premise itself, because many even within the ostensibly Christian church see the outrageous story of Jonah as an allegory that couldn’t possibly be literally true. Throughout the years, the book of Jonah has been held up by non-believers as proof that the Bible can’t possibly be the true Word of God or at least that it shouldn’t be taken literally, and this compromise is tragically running like wildfire through the Christian church itself. I propose to you that this trend away from belief in the inerrancy of God’s Word threatens the very souls of those who call themselves Christians. It’s Satan’s best lie yet, and goes all the way back to Genesis 3.
Isn’t it interesting that Henry Drummond’s assault on the believability of the Bible begins with Jonah. It’s also notable that Drummond didn’t even bother to elaborate on the question. In modern, secular society, the idea that Jonah can’t be literally true is taken as a given.
Quite reasonably, Bible critics ask how a man could possibly remain alive in the depths of the ocean for three days. After all, it only takes a few minutes for a person to drown. Furthermore, the digestive systems of fish and other animals contain chemicals which are specifically designed to break down flesh so that the extracted nutrients can be absorbed into the animals’ blood. This process takes place within a matter of hours, not days. No one’s body can withstand the onslaught of these chemicals for more than a very few minutes and continue to live. The account we find in Jonah is indeed a ludicrous one, so it’s quite understandable that people might scoff at it. Maybe, they’re right. Maybe the story of Jonah is just an allegory, and we shouldn’t take it literally. It might contain a valid moral lesson, but couldn’t possibly be literally true.
How about this for an outrageous “fish tale?”
Numbers 22:21-3321So Balaam rose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab.22Then God’s anger was aroused because he went, and the Angel of the LORD took His stand in the way as an adversary against him. And he was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23Now the donkey saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand, and the donkey turned aside out of the way and went into the field. So Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back onto the road. 24Then the Angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on this side and a wall on that side. 25And when the donkey saw the Angel of the LORD, she pushed herself against the wall and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck her again. 26Then the Angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place where there was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. 27And when the donkey saw the Angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam’s anger was aroused, and he struck the donkey with his staff.28Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”29And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have abused me. I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!”30So the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?”And he said, “No.”31Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand; and he bowed his head and fell flat on his face. 32And the Angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to stand against you, because your way is perverse before Me. 33The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times. If she had not turned aside from Me, surely I would also have killed you by now, and let her live.”
Isn’t it interesting that Balaam didn’t seem a bit surprised when his donkey began to speak? I think I would have taken note that something was a little bit unusual if an animal began to speak to me. I might possibly start to question my own senses or whether the experience was just a dream. But Balaam seems to just take it in stride. That’s a pretty ridiculous story. Maybe God intended this to be just an allegory too. Maybe there never was an actual talking donkey, or even a Balaam son of Beor. In fact, isn’t it possible that Moses – the author of the book of Numbers – just made this story up to teach a lesson, and that this book isn’t actually a God-breathed scripture?
Besides, whether or not we believe the stories like those of Jonah and Balaam are literally true, isn’t really that important, right? These are just minor narratives in the vast panorama of God’s Word, right?
What about this story, then?…
Genesis 7:7-247So Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, went into the ark because of the waters of the flood. 8Of clean animals, of animals that are unclean, of birds, and of everything that creeps on the earth, 9two by two they went into the ark to Noah, male and female, as God had commanded Noah. 10And it came to pass after seven days that the waters of the flood were on the earth. 11In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. 12And the rain was on the earth forty days and forty nights.13On the very same day Noah and Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them, entered the ark— 14they and every beast after its kind, all cattle after their kind, every creeping thing that creeps on the earth after its kind, and every bird after its kind, every bird of every sort. 15And they went into the ark to Noah, two by two, of all flesh in which is the breath of life. 16So those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the LORD shut him in.17Now the flood was on the earth forty days. The waters increased and lifted up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18The waters prevailed and greatly increased on the earth, and the ark moved about on the surface of the waters. 19And the waters prevailed exceedingly on the earth, and all the high hills under the whole heaven were covered. 20The waters prevailed fifteen cubits upward, and the mountains were covered. 21And all flesh died that moved on the earth: birds and cattle and beasts and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every man. 22All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, all that was on the dry land, died. 23So He destroyed all living things which were on the face of the ground: both man and cattle, creeping thing and bird of the air. They were destroyed from the earth. Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark remained alive. 24And the waters prevailed on the earth one hundred and fifty days.
This is no unimportant bedtime story we might tell to our children. This is a major historical event – God completely destroying human civilization and every land animal except the few preserved in the ark in judgment of the evil deeds of mankind. But how can this story of Noah be literally true? How could Noah have possibly fit two of every kind of animal into the ark? What about the plants? How could they have survived inundation by salt water? If this flood really happened, shouldn’t we find evidence of mass extinction of people and animals around the world just a few thousand years ago? Maybe the story of the flood is another allegory. Maybe the flood wasn’t really worldwide, but was contained within the Mediterranean basin when the Black Sea was created by the Mediterranean breaking through an ancient land bridge at the site of the modern Bosporus strait at Istanbul.
Let’s look at another incredible, yet significant historical story…
Exodus 14:13-3113And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever. 14The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.”15And the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward. 16But lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it. And the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea. 17And I indeed will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them. So I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, his chariots, and his horsemen. 18Then the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gained honor for Myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.”19And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. 20So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night.21Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. 22So the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. 23And the Egyptians pursued and went after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.24Now it came to pass, in the morning watch, that the LORD looked down upon the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud, and He troubled the army of the Egyptians. 25And He took off their chariot wheels, so that they drove them with difficulty; and the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the face of Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.”26Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen.” 27And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and when the morning appeared, the sea returned to its full depth, while the Egyptians were fleeing into it. So the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. 28Then the waters returned and covered the chariots, the horsemen, and all the army of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them. Not so much as one of them remained. 29But the children of Israel had walked on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.30So the LORD saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31Thus Israel saw the great work which the LORD had done in Egypt; so the people feared the LORD, and believed the LORD and His servant Moses.
This account is brought up to remembrance throughout the Bible. Time and again God identifies Himself as the One who brought the people of Israel out of Egypt by His strong hand. But this account can’t possibly reflect a supernatural miracle as it seems to on its face, right? There must be some natural explanation. Maybe this event didn’t happen in a place where the sea was very deep at all. Maybe it happened somewhere very shallow and there was just an unusually low tide combined with a strong surface wind that made this shallow marsh even shallower. Maybe the weather had been particularly dry so the bed of the marsh was already hardened by the time Israel reached this place. But if so, how would that account for the story of the inundation of the Egyptian army? Maybe that part never actually happened at all. After all, if it had, wouldn’t there be a mention of it in the Egyptian record?
Besides, if the number of people the Bible talks about had actually traveled through the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years as it says in Exodus and Numbers, there should be some archeological evidence of their passage. We should be able to find the bodies of these who died in the wilderness, and the wreckage of the Egyptian army at Migdol. If God wants us to believe this story where is the evidence to back it up? If this account is truly God-breathed, why did He not preserve for us the knowledge of the exact location, so we could go and uncover the physical proof?
So far, at least, we haven’t dug up any physical evidence or extra-biblical documents to prove that the events described in Exodus and Numbers actually took place. But are they really that important? Does it really matter exactly how the nation of Israel came to occupy the land of Canaan? Maybe we should just take this story as an allegory, too.
What about this one?…
Matthew 1:18-2518Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. 19Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. 20But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.”22So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 23“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”24Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, 25and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.
Okay. Now this is the most ridiculous claim we’ve heard so far tonight. Any adult knows how children are conceived, and “overshadowing by a spirit” isn’t how it’s done. What an outrageous claim! Why does it matter anyway? Jesus was a great teacher and a good man. Why do the details of His birth matter at all? His teaching would be just as applicable to how we live a good moral life regardless of how he came to be born. Isn’t it more likely that Mary just committed a little indiscretion? It’s no big deal, right? Everybody does it. As a matter of fact, it makes Jesus’ moral teachings even more “relevant” if we know He was so much the more just like us, and rose above the circumstances of Mary’s poor choice. And what a wonderful testimony this is to Joseph’s compassion and love for her that he saved her from being stoned to death by her own family as would no doubt have happened if she’d been caught.
Let’s take a look at just a couple more Biblical accounts…
Genesis 11In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.6Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” 7Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. 8And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day.9Then God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. 10And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas. And God saw that it was good.11Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth”; and it was so. 12And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13So the evening and the morning were the third day.14Then God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; 15and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. 16Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also. 17God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19So the evening and the morning were the fourth day.20Then God said, “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens.” 21So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23So the evening and the morning were the fifth day.24Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind: cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth, each according to its kind”; and it was so. 25And God made the beast of the earth according to its kind, cattle according to its kind, and everything that creeps on the earth according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.26Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”29And God said, “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. 30Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food”; and it was so. 31Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
Here’s another beautiful allegory. The primitive ancient audience that this account was written for by Moses needed a reassuring story to explain the mysteries of the world around them. But with modern observation tools, we know that the universe is billions of light years wide. How could God have created all that in just a matter of days? Even if He did, how could the light from galaxies billions of light years away have reached the Earth for us to see if the universe itself isn’t billions of years old. The speed of light is finite, and the laws of nature can’t be violated. Therefore, the universe must be at least that old. Besides even if God did create the universe, who or what created God?
And now the most ridiculous and incredible claim of them all…
Mark 161Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. 2Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. 3And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” 4But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large. 5And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. 7But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”8So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.9Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons. 10She went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept. 11And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.12After that, He appeared in another form to two of them as they walked and went into the country. 13And they went and told it to the rest, but they did not believe them either.14Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen. 15And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. 17And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; 18they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”19So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. 20And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen.
Of course, belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the very heart of our Christian faith. Indeed, as the apostle Paul says…
1 Corinthians 15:16-1916For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. 17And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! 18Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.
God’s Word is One, just as God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit is One. I submit to you that belief in the entire scriptural canon as God-breathed – His very Word – is essential to our Christian faith. God calls us to honor His Word even above His Names, just as He Himself does. If we believe in life everlasting through the resurrection of Christ, we must believe He is Himself raised from the dead. If He is, we must know why. He came to live and die and be raised again for a specific purpose – to save us from condemnation in our sins by His substitutional sacrifice.
Homework for discussion next time – Why is literal belief in the Bible stories we’ve looked at tonight (and the Bible as a whole) – starting with Jonah, and ending with the Great Commission – essential to our hope in Christ’s resurrection? Come prepared next week to discuss each instance. Bring instances of your own, along with your explanation why they are essential to our faith. Then the following week, God willing, we’ll launch into our study of Jonah.