By Anthony Casperson
Part of my time spent with God this week involved reading through the book of Jonah. It’s one of the more well known stories of the bible. A prophet of God is told to preach to a foreign nation. He doesn’t want to proclaim God’s judgment to them because he knows God is a compassionate God willing to forgive sins, if those committing them repent.
Jonah runs away, or rather sails away, in the opposite direction. A storm comes up and the sailors learn that it’s because of Jonah. They throw him off of the ship and the storm stops, causing them to praise God. A big fish swallows the prophet, entombing him for three days. Jonah eloquently speaks a poem of repentance. And God, who as an incorporeal being is unable to dry heave at this showing of religiosity, causes the fish to vomit the prophet back up.
Jonah goes to the city of Nineveh and half-heartedly proclaims the coming judgement. His proclamation is, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” In the Hebrew, that’s only 5 words he speaks. Still, repentance comes to the city from the king on down to the rest of the people. And Jonah gets angry at God for being merciful. The prophet cares more for a plant that gave him shade for a day than the thousands of people who will live because of God’s grace.
There’s not a single event in the book that shows the prophet performing his job well, and yet God works in the lives of thousands of people because of him. I sat there wondering why the people of Nineveh listened to a half-hearted prophet from a foreign land who served a God that they didn’t. And then a thought came to me.
Jonah had been in the stomach of a fish for three days, and then still had to make the trek over land to the city of Nineveh. This guy had to look terrible. Skin and hair bleached by the stomach acid, body looking malnourished, and who knows if he got a new set of clothing on the way, or was walking through the city in stomach acid-washed clothing.
One look at this guy, and they might be wondering, “If the God of Israel is willing to do this to his prophet, what’s he going to do to us?” It’s like, if God’s willing to do that to someone he likes, what about the people who are his enemies? How bad is our punishment going to be?
I wonder how much of Jonah’s rebellion aided God’s message to the people of Nineveh. Sure, if Jonah had just followed the plan of God, he’d have worked in a different way. But it makes me think about how God is so incredible that he’s able to take our rebellions, our mistakes, our failures and use them for his glory.
Not only does it seem that thousands of people were saved from the wrath of God because a man who got thrown up by a fish hobbled through town with acid bleached skin, but that same man became an example, an image, of the one who would spend three days entombed so that billions of people could be saved from the wrath of God.
Jesus tells the Pharisees, in Matt 12 and Luke 11, that no sign will be given to them other than to sign of Jonah. The Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah, but the Pharisees would not repent at the sign of one greater than the prophet.
The rebellion of Jonah was used by God as a sign of his plan of salvation for the world. Look at that sentence again. Thousands of years later, the repercussions of a rebellious act points to the truth of the only one who can free us from our rebellion. It’s amazing!
We’ve rebelled. We’ve gone against the will of God. We’ve run from the direction that God wanted us to go, or even went the way we should go before he was ready for us to go. But none of that means that God is unable or unwilling to use us for the good he has planned for us. Some of us will be forever marked with the pain of our rebellion, but that very pain may be the thing that causes others to listen to us.
Rebellion doesn’t disqualify us from serving God. If we truly return to him (which is what I believe the writing of the Book of Jonah represents in the life of the prophet), then God can use our story for millennia to come for his glory…fish vomit and all.