About a month ago, at the end of May, a three-year old boy somehow managed to sneak into the gorilla pen at Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio. It was all over the news for a little while, and I don’t know if you saw the video that someone shot on their phone, but it was pretty incredible. You can see this little kid being overshadowed by this giant gorilla in a moat, and at first it looks like the gorilla is trying to protect the kid and it’s being really gentle, but then it grabs the kid by his ankle and drags him like a ragdoll through the water. Unfortunately, in the end, the zoo had to shoot the gorilla to save the kid, and of course, there was outrage. People were saying they shouldn’t have shot the gorilla they should have tranquilised it; the zoo’s fencing was inadequate; the parents should be held responsible for not looking after their kid properly. I don’t want to comment on any of those debates. What really intrigues me is, what kind of kid would think that climbing into the enclosure of a 200kg silverback gorilla would be a good idea? What kind of story books is he reading to make him think that it’s going to be a pleasant experience?
I think the whole incident could have been avoided if the little boy was afraid of gorillas, if he had a fear of gorillas. I’m serious. I don’t mean a phobia of gorillas, or an irrational fear of gorillas – I mean a healthy fear of gorillas. I have a fear of gorillas. You put me in a room with a wild 200kg gorilla, I’m going to be afraid. That’s what keeps me out of gorilla enclosures. Unfortunately, our English language has lost the ability to describe fear in positive terms. So whenever we use the word ‘fear’ these days we almost always mean something negative, like a phobia or something.
But, you see, it’s good to be afraid of things. It’s good to have a healthy fear of things, especially things that can easily kill you: giant gorillas for example, or fire, or oncoming traffic. If you don’t fear things that you really ought to fear, you can get into a lot of trouble.
And the one fear you must have, according to the Bible – is the fear of God.
Now this is an educated guess, and I could be completely wrong here, but I don’t think many of us see the fear God as a good thing to have. And that’s a serious problem. Because just like having no fear of silverback gorillas, having no fear of God will get you into a lot of trouble.
This morning, we’re looking at Jonah. And Jonah is a guy who doesn’t have much fear of God, and it gets him into a lot of trouble. We’ll be looking at the book of Jonah for the next three weeks, and I’ve the entitled this series, “The Portrait of a Pathetic Prophet” because contrary to the way you may have thought about Jonah in the past, Jonah is not a guy that you’re meant to look to for inspiration on how to be a great human being.
Jonah is unique among the books of the prophets. Every other prophetic book in the Bible contains the words of the prophet. But Jonah is a story about a prophet. It’s primarily narrative, not prophecy. And it’s not a narrative that paints Jonah in glowing terms, it’s a story that paints Jonah in pretty negative terms. So it’s pretty unlikely that Jonah wrote the book of Jonah. Jonah’s one other appearance in the Old Testament is in the book of 2 Kings, and he’s depicted alongside King Jeroboam II who is one of the most wicked kings in the history of Israel, and Jonah speaks in Jeroboam’s favour. Now interestingly, the prophet Amos practically reverses Jonah’s prophecy in Amos 6:13-14. So if you’re an Israelite and you know your Bible, and you read the name “Jonah Son of Amittai” in verse 1, immediately you’re thinking, “Hmmmm. This is going to be interesting.”
As we work through the book of Jonah, we’ll see that it isn’t the portrait of an amazing man who incredibly survives three days in the belly of a big fish. This is the portrait of a pathetic prophet who a) doesn’t fear God, who b) isn’t repentant, and who c) doesn’t love the lost. And we will watch this portrait of Jonah being painted as we go through the book over the next three weeks, focussing specifically this week on chapter 1 and the fact that Jonah doesn’t fear God.
You can see this lack of fear of God in Jonah from the very beginning of the book. In verse 1, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against it, and instead, he runs away from God, and he jumps on a ship at Joppa headed for Tarshish. We don’t actually know where Tarshish was, but we know Jonah jumped on a ship at Joppa, which is here, which means he’s probably headed in this direction. Guess where Nineveh is? It’s here, smack bang in modern day Iraq, almost in the complete opposite direction. This is like God telling Jonah to go to preach to those terrible people in Sydney and he goes to Cairns instead.
Now the question you’ve got in the back of your head when you read that Jonah is running away is, why? What’s so bad about preaching in Nineveh?
Well, imagine this for a second. Imagine that we live in the year 2028. Donald Trump is serving his third term as President of United States, he’s completely abandoned military support of Australia, and as a result, North Korea has come down and bombed Australia with the nukes they’ve been building, they’ve wiped out most of our army and there’s only one part of Australia that’s held out against the invaders: Victoria. The North Koreans have conquered and invaded the rest of the country – they’ve painted Kim Jong Un’s face onto the Sydney Opera House – and they’ve captured and imprisoned about 20 million Australians and taken them back to North Korea. And for some reason, God has told you to go to Pyongyang, the largest city in North Korea. How do you feel? You’re probably not over the moon about it.
And that’s exactly how Jonah felt about going to Nineveh. Nineveh was one of the biggest cities of Assyria, and Assyria was the giant empire that conquered and exiled the Northern Kingdom of Israel where Jonah’s hometown was. Only the southern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of Judah, remained. This all happened in Jonah’s lifetime. And the Assyrians were brutal people. The Jewish writer Hayyim Lewis writes,
The Assyrians were the Nazi storm troopers of the ancient world. They were pitiless, power-crazed foe. They showed no quarter in battle, uprooting entire peoples in their fury for conquest. For Jonah, Nineveh, then, was no ordinary city; it carried doom-laden, tragic memories, it stood as a symbol of evil incarnate.Another commentator adds, “To go to Nineveh means, for Jonah, to go to hell.”
And so, Jonah does what any Israelite reading this would have sympathised with, and he runs away. Here’s the problem. There’s one thing more frightening than going to Nineveh, and that’s getting on the wrong side of God.
Jonah’s on his boat headed for Tarshish when God sends an epic cyclone. Verse 4. Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. This is the storm of all storms. This is God demonstrating that he is not a God to be trifled with; he is a God to be feared.
Now from this point on in the story, the narrator deliberately contrasts the great fear of the sailors with the little fear of Jonah. Verse 5. The sailors are terrified, they’re all praying and throwing the cargo overboard. But where’s Jonah, and what’s he doing? It turns out he’s gone below deck and fallen asleep. He doesn’t seem afraid at all – he’s trying to sleep through this storm, like someone trying to fall asleep on a roller coaster. The captain comes, verse 6, he’s petrified. It’s never a good sign when your captain is wetting his pants. He goes to Jonah and says: “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he’ll notice us so that we won’t die.”
And then things get even more interesting. Verses 7 and 8: the sailors figure out that it’s Jonah who is responsible for angering the god who has caused the storm, so they grill him about his background. And then Jonah responds to their questions in verse 9, and he literally says, in the original language:
“I am a Hebrew and I fear Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”Yahweh is the name of the God of Israel, and Jonah doesn’t seem to have any fear of Yahweh, unlike the sailors. When the sailors learn that Jonah’s God is Yahweh, not just the god of the sea, but the God of heaven who made the sea, and the dry land too, they’re terrified, verse 10. You can imagine what’s going through their heads. “Your god is the God who made everything, and you’ve managed to make him angry somehow? Are you insane? What have you done??”
Meanwhile, the sea is getting worse and worse and worse, verse 11, so they ask Jonah what they should do to stop the storm, and he fearlessly tells them in verse 12 to chuck him overboard. But they don’t want to do that because they are afraid of getting the blood of a prophet of Yahweh on their hands. But they’re running out of options. Rowing back to land’s not working, verse 13. So they do something incredible. They pray to Jonah’s God. They pray to Yahweh. Verse 14.
“Please, Yahweh, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Yahweh, have done as you pleased.”Then they take Jonah, verse 15, they throw him overboard, and the raging sea immediately goes calm. And how do they respond? Verse 16, the men greatly fear Yahweh, and they offer a sacrifice to Him and they make vows to Him.
Now this is all incredibly ironic, isn’t it? Jonah is a prophet of God of all people, but he has less fear of God than these pagan sailors. And because of his little fear of God, he runs away from God. When God sends the storm, he doesn’t turn to God to pray. He has to be told by the pagan sailors to pray. This is like a priest on an airplane that’s going down, and everyone on the plane including all the atheists are praying, except the priest. You’re meant to read this story and find it comical. The sailors have an incredible fear of God. When Jonah doesn’t pray to Yahweh, the sailors pray to Him instead. At the end of the story, they’re sacrificing to God and making vows to Him, all because of their great fear of Him. You see, the author of Jonah is trying to show us how important it is to fear God.
And other Biblical writers say the same thing. The writer of Proverbs, King Solomon, writes that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. The prophet Isaiah writes “The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.”
So it’s clear from the Bible that we ought to have a healthy fear of God. But why? Why should we fear God? The clearest explanation for why we ought to fear God comes from a certain person in Matthew 10:28 who says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” You see? All of us should have a healthy fear of God, because just like God has the authority to get Jonah thrown into the sea, God has the authority to get us thrown into hell. And what should make us more afraid is that we all deserve to go to hell.
Here’s the bad news. All of us, like Jonah, have sinned. All of us, like Jonah, have rejected God, we’ve all rebelled against God, and gone our own way. We’ve all sailed off to our own Tarshish instead of fearing and obeying God and going to Nineveh. And because of our rebellion and sin, we all deserve to be punished by God. God has the power and right to destroy both our soul and body in hell, because of our sin.
But there’s some good news: a few hundred years after Jonah, there was another man asleep on a boat in a storm, and his name was Jesus. And when his disciples wake him up and say to him “don’t you care that we’re going to die,” he gets up and he tells the storm to be quiet, and it stops immediately. And then he rebukes his disciples for being afraid. And what’s their response? They’re terrified. Of him. Because he has authority over the wind and the waves. They don’t realise it yet, but the man sleeping in their boat was Yahweh, not the god of the sea, but the God of heaven who made the sea. The God of heaven who came down as a man to die on a cross, to take our rightful punishment for us. And because of his death on a cross, in the words of Paul in Romans 8, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. Jesus is the one who said, “Be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” but he is the one who has the authority to send you to hell, and to save you from it. And if you follow Jesus and you call him your king, you no longer need to fear wrath or condemnation. You no longer need to fear even death itself.
But once you start following Jesus and calling him your Lord and king, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to fear him anymore. I don’t think that fear is the primary way God wants to relate to us. The primary way God wants to relate to us is love. Nevertheless, you should always have a healthy fear of God, and even though fear isn’t the primary aspect of our relationship with God, it’s an important aspect of our relationship to God.
And it’s the same with parents and kids, especially little kids. You want your kids to have a healthy fear of you. You don’t want your kids to live in fear of you, you want a loving relationship with your kids. But you do want them to be afraid if they blatantly and deliberately disobey you. Not because you hate them, but because you love them, and you don’t want them to get hurt; you want them to flourish and grow. God does the same thing with us. He doesn’t want us to live in fear of him, but because he loves us, he commands us to have a healthy fear of him, a healthy fear of making him angry or upset, a fear that drives us away from sin and things that separate us from his love.
And the cross serves as a reminder of that. Every time we’re tempted to sin, the cross reminds us of the terrible penalty of sin. Jesus took that penalty for us, but the cross still reminds us that sin is deadly, and God takes sin extremely seriously. We shouldn’t muck around with sin, we shouldn’t toy around with rebelling against God, because the cross reminds us that penalty for ultimate rejection of God is terrifying. And God wants us to know that, not because he hates us, but because he loves us.
And you notice God’s love when you read through Jonah. Even though Jonah didn’t fear God, and even though God sent the terrifying storm, God still loves Jonah. God still treats Jonah with mercy and kindness. And even when the sailors throw Jonah into the ocean, God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah so that he will be kept safe. And it’s not just Jonah God loves, as we’ll see. It’s the Ninevites as well. God sends Jonah to preach to the Ninevites and tell them that they’re about to be destroyed, not because he hates them, but because he loves them. He doesn’t want to destroy them.
And as we continue to look at this portrait of a pathetic prophet over the next couple weeks, we will continue to see a kind and merciful God who loves all sorts of people. Even people who rebel against him. People like Jonah. People like us.