Runaways – Jonah
Pastor Kevin Sadler
An excerpt from the newly published book, Runaways.
“On New Year’s Day, 1929, Georgia Tech played [the] University of California in the Rose Bowl. In that game a man named Roy Riegels recovered a fumble for California. Somehow, he became confused and started running 65 yards in the wrong direction. One of his teammates, Benny Lom, outdistanced him and downed him just before he scored for the opposing team. When California attempted to punt, Tech blocked the kick and scored a safety which was the ultimate margin of victory.
“That strange play came in the first half, and everyone who was watching the game was asking the same question: ‘What will Coach Nibbs Price do with Roy Riegels in the second half?’ The men filed off the field and went into the dressing room. They sat down on the benches and on the floor, all but Riegels. He put his blanket around his shoulders, sat down in a corner, put his face in his hands, and cried like a baby.
“If you have played football, you know that a coach usually has a great deal to say to his team during half time. That day Coach Price was quiet. No doubt he was trying to decide what to do with Riegels. Then the timekeeper came in and announced that there were three minutes before playing time. Coach Price looked at the team and said simply, ‘Men the same team that played the first half will start the second.’
“The players got up and started out, all but Riegels. He did not budge. The coach looked back and called to him again; still he didn’t move. Coach Price went over to where Riegels sat and said, ‘Roy, didn’t you hear me? The same team that played the first half will start the second.’ Then Roy Riegels looked up and his cheeks were wet with a strong man’s tears.
“‘Coach,’ he said, ‘I can’t do it to save my life. I’ve ruined you, I’ve ruined the University of California, I’ve ruined myself. I couldn’t face that crowd in the stadium to save my life.’
“Then Coach Price reached out and put his hand on Riegel’s shoulder and said to him: ‘Roy, get up and go on back; the game is only half over.’ And Roy Riegels went back, and those Tech men will tell you that they have never seen a man play football as Roy Riegels played that second half.”1
Many have run the wrong way in life and have been “Wrong Way Riegels.” But many turn their lives around when the grace of God gets a hold on them, and they live for the Lord with all they have.
The Apostle Paul is a great example of this. He ran the wrong way, fully believing he was running the right way in persecuting those who believed Christ to be Israel’s Messiah, risen from the dead. But when the risen Christ and God’s grace got hold of Paul on the road to Damascus, he turned his life around and ran the course of the Christian life with extraordinary zeal.
Jonah also ran the wrong way away from the Lord, but Jonah got turned back around by the Lord to take His message to the people of Nineveh. However, Jonah’s attitude and prejudice didn’t get turned around right away. Jonah had a lot of unlearning and learning to do, and it took time for God to deal with his hardheartedness (Jonah 4:1-11). For those who run away from the Lord, it’s easy to get off the right path rather quickly, but often, as it was in Jonah’s case, they recover slowly, and the road back can be difficult and painful.
“Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:1-3).
This may sound like a pretty obvious thing to point out, but Jonah very likely wrote the Book of Jonah. Yet when we read it, we find that Jonah does not portray himself in a flattering light. We read of his disobedience to God and his hardheartedness toward the Ninevites, and yet he was open about how he truly felt and what he did.
I believe that writing such an honest book about himself shows that Jonah finally had a change of heart and mind because of the things the Lord showed him. And he desired to share that experience with the people of Israel so they might change too, because, at that time, they were all just like him in their attitude toward the nations. Like Jonah, they wanted Nineveh to experience God’s judgment, not God’s salvation.
Jonah didn’t skip over what he did or what he was thinking, because it teaches something. The mistakes we make with our beliefs, attitudes, and actions, and the lessons we learn from them, are often something God uses to help others. Jonah’s mistakes continue to teach others to this day.
The Book of Jonah is full of miracles. For this reason, the book has been ridiculed, questioned, and doubted by skeptics. It’s been tossed to the side, even by liberal Christian denominations, as mere myth, legend, or allegory. However, we should not “run away” from the miracles in the Bible. The clear miracles within Jonah include the storm, the selection of Jonah by lot as guilty, the sudden subsiding of the sea, the great fish appearing at just the right time, the preservation of Jonah, the gourd, the worm, the east wind, and the greatest of all the miracles in the book: the repentance of the entire city of Nineveh.
Not only does the Book of Jonah contain miracles, the entire Bible is filled with accounts of miracles. Our Lord’s earthly ministry was filled with miracles that He performed in demonstrating that He is Israel’s Messiah and the Son of God. If we were to exclude the miraculous from our Bibles, we wouldn’t have much left. Our God is a miraculous God.
We must believe in the miraculous. Our eternal destiny depends on it. In order to be saved from an eternity of conscious suffering in the Lake of Fire and have eternal life, you must believe in the miraculous substitutionary death and resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ, that Christ died for your sins personally, was buried, and rose again the third day (1 Cor. 15:1-4).
When we know God though, we know that nothing is too hard for Him (Jer. 32:17) and nothing is impossible with Him (Luke 1:37). God is all-powerful and all-wise. Thus, we know that all the miracles recorded in the Bible were simple for Him to perform. When we trust God and His Word with child-like faith, it becomes very easy to believe all the miracles in His Word. Thus, we know and trust:
- God created everything in the universe by the Word of His power in six, literal, 24-hour days.
- God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians by parting the Red Sea, and they all walked through it on dry ground.
- Elijah called on God to bring fire down on Mount Carmel, and fire came down.
- The ax head that Elisha caused to float in the water really floated.
- Christ multiplied those five loaves and two fishes to feed the 5000 men and their families.
- Christ walked on the water of the Sea of Galilee in that storm.
- Jonah was swallowed by a great fish. He spent three days and three nights inside its belly, and afterwards he was God’s instrument to bring about history’s greatest revival.
- And the greatest miracle of all: Christ did rise again from the dead on the third day.
If we choose not to believe one of these miracles, it casts doubt on all the rest of the miracles of the Bible. We are not left with the option to pick and choose. By faith, we know that they all happened exactly as God said in His Word.
Billy Graham once said, “Jonah swallowed by a fish? I’d believe it if Scripture said Jonah swallowed the fish! It’s not difficult to believe if you believe in a God of miracles.”
The name Jonah means dove. It is an ironic name, because Jonah did not have the heart of a dove. His heart was hardened toward those outside his nation.
As the book begins, Jonah doesn’t tell us very much about himself, only that he was “the son of Amittai” (Jonah 1:1). Knowing this one thing, however, when we compare Scripture with Scripture, we learn a little more about Jonah. Speaking of Israel’s King Jeroboam II, 2 Kings 14:25 tells us that
“He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He spake by the hand of His servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gathhepher.”
We learn from this verse that Jonah was from Gathhepher and that he ministered during the reign of King Jeroboam II. Gathhepher was a town in the northern kingdom of Israel and was located in Galilee about three miles northeast of Nazareth. Authorities believe King Jeroboam II reigned from 793 to 753 B.C. Sometime during this forty-year period is when the events of the Book of Jonah took place.
King Jeroboam II was one of Israel’s strongest military leaders. During his reign, he expanded Israel’s borders by recovering lost lands and ushered in a period of great peace and prosperity. Israel having no foreign threats during that time, its peace and prosperity led the nation into a spirit of spiritual complacency, moral decline, and nationalistic pride. The attitude of superiority of that time blinded Jonah and God’s chosen people to God’s purpose for Israel: to be a light to the nations so they might be saved from God’s judgment.
God therefore sent Jonah to Nineveh to crush Israel’s pride and remind them of their calling to show God’s mercy and to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3; 26:4; 28:14). Today, with God’s program with Israel temporarily set aside, it is the Church, the Body of Christ, that is God’s channel of blessing and light to the world as His ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20; Phil. 2:15-16). Even though it was written to Israel, the Book of Jonah has many principles that challenge us, the Church, the Body of Christ,
and how we take God’s love to the world.
The Book of Jonah is a narrative of a single mission. The mission began with God’s clear and unmistakable command to Jonah: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2).
Jonah was commanded by God to go to this massive city and preach against it and its wickedness. This is unique. Never before had a prophet of God been sent to a heathen nation to preach against it. Typically, God called His prophets to preach against Israel and her wickedness and unbelief. Jonah’s situation is also unique in that never before had a prophet refused to carry out his commission.
Instead of trusting and obeying God, Jonah rose up and tried to run away by booking passage to Tarshish (1:3). Tarshish was in the exact opposite direction of where God wanted him to go. It was about as far away as you could get from Nineveh and Israel. Tarshish was a coastal city in what is now Spain and was 2500 miles away from Israel on the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea! Nineveh was located about 500-550 miles northeast of Gathhepher, Jonah’s hometown, but the prophet attempted to run 2500 miles the other way to Tarshish.
After determining to flee to Tarshish and directly disobey “the Word of the Lord,” Jonah went down to Joppa to catch a boat and he paid the fare to Tarshish. Then he went down into the belly of the boat, “to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (1:3). Now, you’d think that a prophet of God would know better, that you can’t flee from the presence of the Lord, but Jonah was stubborn and hardhearted.
While we might shake our heads at Jonah, how many times do we, who have “the Word of the Lord,” stubbornly dig in our heels, refuse to soften our hearts, and run away, as it were, from God’s clear will and instruction for our lives? We all have, and we all do.
Later in the book, Jonah himself tells us why he ran away and why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh: “And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that Thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest Thee of the evil” (4:2).
Jonah ran away from the Lord, from His direct command, because Jonah was afraid that God’s message would be successful among the Ninevites and accepted by them. He bristled at the prospect of God being merciful to an undeserving, pagan people. Jonah did not want them saved; he wanted them judged. This is sometimes a mentality among believers to this day. However, this way of thinking is not consistent with the heart of God. God is a Savior, Who desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3,4).
As you probably know, Jonah never made it to Tarshish. God had other plans. Jonah went from the belly of a boat to a different belly.
To be continued in Pastor Sadler’s newly published book, Runaways.
1. Haddon W. Robinson, “1929 Rose Bowl,” Bible.org, published February 2, 2009, https://bible.org/illustration/1929-rose-bowl; reprint from Christian Medical Society Journal.