Sovereign Over All: In the series introduction to Jonah’s story, we see all sorts of unexpected things. We see a prophet running from God. We see pagan sailors praying to and praising God. Most importantly, we see a God who is sovereign over all of creation, including the wind and the waves, the seas and the storms. Recorded on June 5, 2022, on Jonah 1, by Pastor David Parks.
This message is part of our “Sovereign to Save” sermon series from the book of Jonah in the Bible. Jonah’s story is well-known both in and outside the church for his encounter with the great fish. But Jonah is really about the incredible heart of a sovereign God to save even his enemies.
All year, we’ve been focusing on, The Greatness of God. And today, we’re starting our last sermon series under that annual theme called “Sovereign to Save.” This series is from the book of Jonah in the Bible. The basic story of Jonah is well-known in and outside the church. But when you dig into what it actually says, you find a God who is sovereign, with divine power/authority over all. In Jonah, we see that this is a very good thing, because we find the great compassion and love of God, even for his enemies, and we see the lengths he went to save them. Our God is sovereign to save. Today, we’ll start the story by considering the sovereignty of God over all of creation. If you have a Bible/app, please open to Jonah 1. Jonah is a narrative, but since we’re working through a whole chapter, we’ll unpack it as we go. V. 1.
Jonah 1:1-3 (NIV), “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.” Ok, let’s pause here. So why in the world would a prophet of God run from God? The answer really is because Jonah had a major problem, not with the message of God’s word, but with the intended audience. You see, God had called Jonah to go and preach to the great city of Nineveh, which was not in Israel. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. To give some context, we know from 2 Ki 14 that this was happening during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel who reigned from around 750 – 800 BC, in other words, Jonah lived during a time of utter chaos/crisis for his people. The Assyrians were the most powerful empire in the world at that time and would eventually conquer Israel and kill many friends and family members of Jonah. Historians sometimes point out that the Assyrians were the first empire we have who used phycological warfare to terrify and subjugate the peoples they conquered. Let’s look at a map here. But when Jonah, son of Amittai, a prophet from the city of Gath Hepher in the northern kingdom of Israel was called to go some 700 miles to the northeast to Nineveh, instead, he flees to Tarshish, a city somewhere in the far west in the Mediterranean, perhaps in modern Spain, some 2,000 miles in the other direction. Why would he do such a thing? Later in chapter 4, we learn that Jonah did this because he knew what God was like, that God was gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love. And he knew that if the Assyrians listened to his preaching and repented (the goal of any good preacher), the Assyrians would receive the grace/mercy of God. And Jonah would rather disobey God than see his hated enemies receive the grace/mercy of God. How would God respond? Would he throw up his hands? Would he stomp his feet? Would his plans be somehow frustrated? Not for a second. v. 4.
Jonah 1:4-6 (NIV), “Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”” Let’s pause here. So the Lord responds as only a God who is sovereign over all could respond. No one else could pull off something like this. God sends a great wind and a violent storm. He took the professional, hardened men that sailors typically are (no matter when in history they live) and made them so afraid, that they were willing to throw valuable cargo overboard so they wouldn’t drown. Everyone was praying and crying out to their own god, but then they noticed someone was missing. The captain found Jonah sleeping and made him get up and call on his God, just in case it might help. But do you see the irony of this? Pagan sailors compel Jonah to wake up and pray to the one true God. A prophet running from God is told to turn back to God by those who did not even know the God of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob. We’ll see irony throughout Jonah’s story. V. 7.
Jonah 1:7-10 (NIV), “Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)” Let’s pause here. Casting lots (think rolling dice) was a common way in ancient times to determine God’s will. So they cast lots to find out if one of them was the cause of the storm and the lots fell on Jonah. As if the sailors weren’t afraid enough in the midst of the great wind and violent storm, they find out that Jonah was running away not just from the god of his city or of his region or even nation, but the God who created all things, including the seas and storms. Jonah was running away from the One who was sovereign over the seas and the storms. No wonder they were terrified. Another irony. Jonah was running from a call to turn the hearts of those who terrified their enemies and here Jonah, through his disobedience, was bringing terror and threat of death on these poor men. v. 11.
Jonah 1:11-14 (NIV), “The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”” Here, Jonah admits that he knows his actions were wrong and that it was the Lord who was behind the storm. But instead of asking the crew to bring him back to their port so he could obey the word of God, he asks them instead to throw him overboard. If disobedience didn’t deter the Lord from his plan for the people of Nineveh, maybe his death would do it. But again, ironically, Jonah’s failure as a prophet resulted in these pagan men actually crying out to the Lord, the God of heaven! Jonah is silent but they pray for mercy from a God they now believe is sovereign over creation, a God who is both merciful and just, who might hold them responsible for not saving the life of one of his prophets. All of this takes great faith. v. 15.
Jonah 1:15-16 (NIV), “Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.” Now, before we continue I’d like to address a question many people have about Jonah. Whether you’re talking about God miraculously causing and then calming a storm here or in the next chapter where Jonah survives for 3 days in the belly of a great fish, many wonder if this fantastic-sounding story really happened. Now, one possibility is that the whole book is something like a prophetic parable. That it’s not necessarily a historical account but is a parable that communicates true things about God and his kingdom. On one level, this wouldn’t be a problem for me. We don’t get mad at Jesus for telling the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son or demand that they really happened in order to gain much insight into the kingdom of God from them. But the problem with jumping to this interpretation is that there’s nothing in Jonah that explicitly says it’s a parable. A bigger problem with this line of thinking about the miracles in the Bible is often rooted in unbelief, or rather, the belief that God doesn’t interact with creation. Or even that God can’t intervene or act in a special, supernatural way. To be clear, I do not believe that is a view that can be reconciled with the God who is revealed in the Bible. If God created everything from nothing, can he not cause/calm a storm? If God created the great fish of the sea, can he not use them (or any creature) for his plans/purposes? Miracles would be entirely consistent with the doctrine of creation. It is God’s world and he can do whatever he pleases.
With that said, let’s consider the final irony of chapter 1, Jonah disobeyed/ran/remained silent before finally being thrown into the sea as a sacrifice to save the sailors. As a result, we have a crew of sailors who knew nothing of Jonah’s God when they left the port of Joppa, who by the end here have put their faith in Yahweh, the God of the Bible, the God who made the heavens and the earth. They prayed to him, they saw his sovereign power over the seas and the wind and the storm and they worshipped him by offering a sacrifice and vows to him to thank him for saving their lives. Was this fruit a result of Jonah’s obedient, faithful ministry? Just the opposite. It came as a result of Jonah’s disobedience. But God was only doing what God always does. As the old saying goes, only God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick. Only God can bend circumstances to his will, resulting in his glory and the saving of many lives. Notice also that God was willing to save these men, even though they had just broken the first of the Ten Commandments when they called out to their gods before they were told about Yahweh. But still, it was in this context that we see the grace and mercy of God. Isn’t that amazing? This is who God is.
But our series is emphasizing the sovereignty of God. Was there even one second of Jonah chapter 1 where God wasn’t in control of the situation? Where God didn’t know how things would turn out? Or where the plans and promises of God were in jeopardy? Not one second. I believe God sent Jonah to Nineveh knowing that he would run to Tarshish so that he could save those few sailors on his winding road to Nineveh. Only God could orchestrate something like that, the threads of so many lives woven together in just the right way. But one thing is sure from this chapter of the story (and frankly, every page of the Bible), that God is sovereign. The Lord is the creator, the maker of the heavens and the earth. He has active power and authority over every piece of creation, every galaxy, every particle, including the wind and the waves, the seas and the storms. We’ll see in the weeks ahead that God is sovereign over every nation, over life and death, over salvation, over all. You can try to run from him, you can try and live in denial of him for your whole life. But that will not change the fact that he is sovereign over all. Now this wouldn’t necessarily be good news. A God who is sovereign over all would be a scary thought, as it was to the sailors that day, but it depends entirely on what this God is like. Is he good? Does he care for people? How does God use his sovereign power? The sailors saw something that day that generations of Hebrew people had seen, and that we can see today from God’s word. God uses his sovereign power as a tool of his grace, to save those who are far from him, to love and to save even his enemies.
But nowhere do we see this aspect of God’s character more clearly than in the story of one who lived about 700 years after the time of Jonah. It was Jesus who taught that the whole Bible was about him, that he is the interpretive key. This means that we must understand Jesus and the gospel in order to properly understand Jonah. But once you start looking, there are so many signs pointing from Jonah to Jesus. Jonah functions as both a type of Christ, but also as a type representing the opposite of Christ. Here in chapter 1, Jonah is sent from his hometown to Nineveh to preach a message of peace to the enemies of God’s people; instead, he runs away. This is not very Christ-like. But did you know that Gath Hepher, Jonah’s hometown, was in the territory of Zebulun, only about 3 miles from Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up? This is why, in the generation after Jonah, Isaiah the prophet wrote, “In the past [God] humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations…The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.“ For Jonah, his land and his people were being humbled and were walking in darkness. But Jesus was the light who would come to provide hope and life to Jonah’s people from his ancestral home. But Jesus wasn’t just sent from Nazareth, he was the Son of God, sent from heaven. And, of course, Jesus didn’t run away, he ran towards those who were the lost, and the last, and the least of these. He ran towards us to seek and to save the lost. And whether or not Jonah had pure motives in sacrificing himself by throwing himself into the sea, we know that Jesus had his face set toward Jerusalem, we know he knew what lay in store for him as the ultimate sacrifice, providing forgiveness of sin and eternal life to all by his sacrifice on the cross of Christ. One final sign pointing from Jonah to Jesus is Jonah sleeping in the boat during the storm. Jesus, too, had a story like that. The Apostle Matthew writes in Mt 8 that when the disciples encountered a great wind and violent storm, many of whom were also sailors by trade, they found Jesus sleeping in the boat like Jonah. “The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (Mt 8:23-27). What kind of man is this? Jesus was the One who, hundreds of years earlier, Jonah had disobeyed, Jesus was the One to whom the sailors prayed and worshipped, and Jesus was the One who had proven he was sovereign over all. Jesus was the One who had made the waves, so he can walk on the waves, he was the one who made the wind, so he could quiet the wind with but a word. And he was the One who used his sovereign power for the good and for the saving of many lives. This is who God is. This is who Jesus was and is and ever will be: A God who is as great as he is good, and, as we’ll see throughout Jonah, who is sovereign over all. Let us pray.