An Unbelievable Fish Story: God's Abundant Grace
Have you ever heard a good fish story? You know, “You should have seen the one that got away!” Typically, the fish story stretches details to mask the true story that is not quite as impressive. Mention the story of Jonah and the Whale and most people will talk about Jonah’s disobedience and how God worked it out so he would obey and go to Nineveh. This seems like an amazing fish story! However, closer examination reveals that in this fish tale the real story is an even more unbelievable fish story about God’s abundant grace.
The first point to remember about Jonah and the Whale is that there are really four stories: the back story, Jonah’s story, Nineveh’s story, and God’s story. The back story provides some context that helps the reader gain a better understanding of Jonah’s reaction to God’s directive. 2 Kings 14 reveals that Jonah was a successful prophet in Israel. While the maxim "a prophet has no honor in his own country" seemed to hold true for most of the Old Testament prophets, this was apparently not the case with Jonah. Verse 25 says that Jonah prophesied that Israel would increase its boundaries, and it happened just as he said under the reign of King Jeroboam II. Jonah may have enjoyed Rock Star status! In addition, to the East of Israel the nation of Assyria was in decline after many years of terrorizing neighboring countries including Israel. The Assyrians were known as brutal warriors who did unthinkable acts to the people they defeated. For example, they would flay the conquered nobles and lay them over the mounds of dead corpses.
So, when God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, his personal experience and understanding of God’s promises do not jive with the latest directive. In an effort to demonstrate his pro-Israel commitment, Jonah is willing to go to the opposite ends of the earth (possibly modern day Spain) so he doesn’t have to offer God’s message of salvation to Nineveh (modern day Iraq). However, God uses severe storms and a 3-day stay in the belly of a fish to prompt Jonah’s repentance. Eventually, Jonah obeys, travels to Nineveh, and preaches God’s warning of destruction. When the Ninevites respond with repentance, Jonah becomes angry at God for saving such ungodly heathens. In fact, he tells God to kill him! That’s Jonah’s story and he’s sticking to it…except for the plant. Jonah did feel bad for the plant that died!
And Nineveh…what about Nineveh. They are minding their own business, happy with their banal, hedonistic, ungodly lives. Then a stranger appears preaching a message of hate and unkindness. The natural response would be to ignore him, seek out the authorities, or run him out of town. Based on the reputation of the Assyrians, it seems they could have had some real “fun” with Jonah. But on the contrary, the simple proclamation, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”, provokes repentance in the inhabitants of Nineveh and over 120,000 people are saved! The king even makes a proclamation to worship God. An argument can be made that this great revival is THE Story. As God expresses to Jonah in chapter 4:3, He saved 120,000 people “who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” What an amazing story!
But wait…there’s still God’s story. His is a story of abundant grace in every situation. God shows grace to a disobedient Jonah and sends a fish to rescue him. Then God shows grace to an obedient Jonah and gives him a second chance to go preach God’s message in Nineveh with great success. By sending Jonah with a warning, God shows grace to a disobedient Nineveh even though they were content in their gross sin and not seeking after God. Then, God shows grace to an obedient Nineveh who repents as He relents from destroying the city. Finally, God again shows grace to a disobedient Jonah who is angry and sulking because God was gracious. He provides a plant and an explanation to Jonah. In every situation, God’s abundant grace was present and sufficient! That’s an amazing story!
There are a few lessons to be learned from these stories:
1. God’s grace is abundant and not dependent on our actions/attitudes. The Apostle Paul commended the Macedonians for giving generously out of their great poverty as he wrote in 2 Corinthians 9:8-9, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: ‘He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.'” In the context of being a cheerful giver we are encouraged to look for God’s grace in the good and bad days – He is sovereign.
2. Sometimes our success causes us to lose perspective. The repeated cycles of obedience and disobedience by the Israelites recorded in the Bool of Judges illustrate this principle. When God blessed and life was “successful”, the Israelites would forget God and follow after false gods. He would use a time of bondage and oppression to focus their attention and reliance back to Him. Likewise, the disciples became enamored with the thoughts of success in Christ’s Kingdom that they often argued about who would sit in the seats of prominence. The last of these debates took place at the Last Supper in Luke 22 as Christ was instituting the Lord’s Supper, identifying His betrayer, and making final preparations for His death by crucifixion. Too often our success prevents us from hearing and believing God’s clear message.
3. Our “faithfulness” can become an obstacle for genuine faith. This principle held true for Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. In their attempt to be “faithful” like other believers in the church, they were willing to lie. Likewise, Paul calls out the “Super Apostles” in 2 Corinthians 11 because they seem to seek glory for themselves and enjoy popularity by polluting the message of the Gospel. We must be careful live by faith and not just focus on being faithful.
4. “The Struggle” is often the best Teacher. Again, the history lesson recorded in Judges demonstrates that God used captivity to arouse repentance and faith in the Israelites. James 1:2-4 also teaches that the testing of our faith produces patience. Whether or not we pray for patience, our loving Heavenly Father will use trials and tribulations to grow our faith.
5. Genuine faith is simple…even childlike. Just as Jonah’s message was simple and the repentance of the Ninevites seemed anti-climactic, genuine faith does not require jumping through hoops or great acts to appease God. The story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal are a good illustration of this truth. Romans 10:17 says that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” That’s what happened in Nineveh. That’s what happened when Christ told the disciples to cast out their nets after a night of unsuccessful fishing. That’s what happens when God saves a soul. We are called to walk by faith, not by sight. (2Cor. 5:7)
May we hear God’s message, believe, repent, and receive God’s abundant grace. And then we will tell others our unbelievable fish story!