by Rev. Jeremiah Cheung
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Last time, we studied chapter one of the Book of Jonah on the topic “Are You Quitting, Too?” We concluded the message with three `but’s’.
The first `but’ is Jonah’s refusal to obey – v.3 `But Jonah ran away from the Lord.’
The second `but’ is Jonah’s downward spiral – v.5 `but Jonah had gone below deck.’
The third `but’ is God’s grace – v. 17 `But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah’ because The Lord didn’t want to see Jonah slide any further downhill!
When Jonah was in the fish belly, he offered up a prayer. This prayer is unique in that it was made inside a fish belly; if one can pray inside a fish belly, then there isn’t a place we cannot pray. God, who answers prayers, is omnipresent; He hears our prayer no matter where are; however, the problem is our failure to pray.
As I reflected on this chapter, I realized that mankind is depraved while God is a redeeming God. But when depraved man and the God of redemption enter into a relationship, depraved man becomes saved man. This is the Gospel, this is the good news we ought to tell the world. However, how can depraved man and the God of redemption enter into a relationship?
I. Acknowledge man’s rebellion and accept God’s discipline
The sick needs a doctor, sinners need a savior. But if we do not know that we are sick, we will not go see a doctor. If we do not realize that we are sinners, neither will we realize our need of a savior. Humans are depraved, there is no goodness in us. Genesis 8 records that after Noah came out of the ark, the first thing he did was to offer a sacrifice. This pleased the Lord- Genesis 8:21 “The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.”
The Bible tells us that the human heart is evil from childhood. Jeremiah 17:9 says “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The Bible is a history book on the depravity of man and God’s deliverance. Jonah’s name means ‘dove.’ but he was a dove which defied his master. His master wanted him to go to Nineveh, he went to Tarshish instead. He told the Lord, “I quit!” As we read the Book of Jonah, we will see that in defying the Lord , Jonah took a path that spiralled downwards. In Jonah 1:3, he went down to Joppa, then down below the ship’s deck, after that he was thrown into the sea, then swallowed by a big fish and brought to the depths of the sea, Jonah spiralled downwards.
Jonah prayed: “In my distress I called to the Lord.” What brought on Jonah’s distress? It was a result of his rebellion against God. Had he obeyed the Lord and gone to Nineveh, no violent storm would have occurred. Of course, not every adversity occurs due to rebellion against God. When we meet adversities, we must examine ourselves; if the adversities we face are a result of our having defied God’s will, then we must repent. There is a main theme in the Book of Jonah and it is one of repentance. Repentance occurs in every chapter.
In Chapter 1, all those on the ship repented.
In Chapter 2, Jonah made a superficial repentance.
In Chapter 3, the whole city of Nineveh repented.
In Chapter 4, Jonah genuinely repented.
Repentance occurred as a result of God’s discipline. In Jonah 2:3, Jonah said: “You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas…” Jonah did not say the sailors threw him into the sea, he knew the Lord used men to throw him into the sea, this was not man’s doing, it was God’s. This came from the hand of God.
Hebrews 12:5-6 “And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” The author of the Book of Hebrews reminds us we must be thankful for God’s discipline, for it shows that when we turn away from God, he doesn’t leave us, instead he disciplines us. The Bible tells us two important attitudes we must have in facing discipline from the Lord: 1. Do not make light his discipline 2. Do not be discouraged.
1. Do not make light his discipline
When the Lord raised a violent storm to discipline Jonah, Jonah made light of God’s discipline. He went down the ship’s deck and slept. Later on, he told the sailors, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm.” What he meant was that even if he dies he wasn’t willing to repent. Later on, the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow him up. He was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. When did Jonah pray? He was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, on which day did he pray? I believe that it was not on the first neither the second day, most probably it was on the third day. After he was swallowed by the big fish, he remained unrepentant, unwilling to pray, he was adamant. But God was not willing that he should die. Jonah made light of the Lord’s discipline, as a result, he suffered for 2 days inside the fish belly. Jonah was a very strong-willed prophet. May the Lord help us, may we not make light of the Lord’s discipline, lest we suffer more tribulations!
2. Do not be discouraged
Nonetheless, Jonah had a good trait – he didn’t give in to discouragement. Verse 4 “I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’” Verse 7 “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” Jonah knew the Lord is righteous and loving. He meant that although you (the Lord) have pursued me, yet I will look again toward your holy temple, my prayer rose to you and reached your holy presence. We will be rewarded if we do not lose heart. A pastor shared this testimony: He asked the famous preacher Rev. Paul Shen to teach him how to preach. The pastor was so happy when Rev. Shen agreed and told him, “Meet me here by 7am tomorrow.” The next day he arrived at Rev. Shen’s office at 7:15a.m.; he was 15 minutes late. Rev. was very angry and said: “Go home, come back tomorrow!” He was so embarrassed that he arrived the next day at exactly 7a.m., but Rev. Shen was already in his office, and told the pastor angrily: “Go home, you obviously aren’t ready to learn. Where do you find a teacher waiting for his student? Come back tomorrow!” If you were in his shoes, won’t you be discouraged? The pastor said he arrived at 6:45 the next morning, but Rev. Shen was there before him again. He got scolded once more. The next day he arrived at 6a.m. and waited for Rev. Shen. This time, the reverend was very pleased and said, “You really have the heart to learn.” Thus, this pastor became a famous preacher in Taiwan. We must not make light of the Lord’s discipline, neither be discouraged because of it.
II. Cry Out to the Lord
For depraved man to have a relationship with God, first, he must recognize and acknowledge that he is depraved and need God’s discipline. Second, he must cry out to the Lord, because the Lord answers the cry of a sinner. Verse 2 says “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.” Verse 7 “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” Jonah cried out to the Lord from inside the fish belly. He was in the deepest place in the ocean but what is amazing is as he opened his mouth to pray, his cry reached the Lord’s temple and came before God’s presence, and the Lord answered his prayers. From Jonah, we learn two things about prayer: 1. We must call out to the Lord in prayer 2. We must call out to the Lord in faith.
1. We must call out to the Lord in prayer
I am not saying that we need to cry and shout aloud for fear that God will not hear us. We need to cry out to God in prayer. We know that even before we ask, the Lord knows our needs, yet if we do not ask, he will not answer. James 4:2 says “You do not have because you do not ask God.” Why does God require us to ask? I came across a piece of news recently: Because of China’s rapidly growing economy, many Chinese have become increasingly busy. They have money but they don’t have time. An elderly couple who was quite well-to-do had grown children who used to visit them while newly married; but after a time, with families of their own and work keeping them busy, they no longer went home to see the parents. The parents’ requests for more visits were met with reasons of how busy they were earning for their living. Hence, the parents thought up a scheme which made their children come home more often. Every time they came home, the elderly parents would give them a thousand RMB each; when they bring the grandchildren, each grandchild would also be given a thousand RMB; as a result, everyone came home to visit more often. Of course, it sounds a little odd, but it illustrates how much the parents love their children, they long to see the children and grandchildren they love.
God loves us and longs for us to be in touch with Him, thus He set this principle – `if you don’t ask, then I don’t give ’. His purpose is so that we will commune more with him. Jonah was in the fish belly 3 days and 3 nights (72 hours). Bible interpreters believe this fish was a whale. A whale can swim 55- 60 kilometers per hour, it means it may have swam 4000 kilometers in those 72 hours. It could have travelled to various places during those 72 hours. The reason it took 72 hours was Jonah’s own refusal to pray. After he was swallowed by the big fish, Jonah didn’t pray, as a result, the Lord kept him in the fish belly until he opened his mouth and called out in prayer; then, the Lord begun his work of deliverance.
2. Cry out to the Lord in faith
James 1:6-7 “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” We must pray in faith, but we must distinguish the difference between faith and self-confidence. Self-confidence is trust in one’s self. There is nothing wrong with having self-confidence. Some people have no confidence in themselves at all; they always feel that they can’t and as a result they really are unable to accomplish anything. Christians, we must have self-confidence, but more so, we must have confidence in the Lord. This means we acknowledge that we can’t but our God can.
The best example can be found in Numbers 11. For almost two years the Israelites had been eating manna, longing to taste some meat, they complained and grumbled. In modern-day context, the Israelites were demonstrating, lifting placards that say `we want meat!’. The Lord told Moses: “Now the LORD will give you meat, and you will eat it. You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month.” Upon hearing this, Moses quickly questioned its possibility. He reasoned that there were six hundred thousand men on foot, not including the old people, women and the young ones; there were at least 2 million people, how much meat would that require? Let’s just say that if twenty people can consume one cow in a day, they would need 100,000 cows a day, in a month they would be consuming 3,000,000 cows. No wonder Moses questioned the idea. But the Lord told Moses, “Is the LORD’s arm too short? Now you will see whether or not what I say will come true for you.”
The Lord meant do you think I am old and powerless? Faith is unwavering trust in God’s power. Nothing is impossible with the Lord. With prayer, it is not a question of possibility, but of willingness. If the Lord is willing, then it will be done. When the man who had leprosy approached Jesus, he told the Lord, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” He didn’t say if the Lord can, because he knew it wasn’t a matter of possibility, but of willingness. This is having faith in God, no wonder the Lord Jesus told him, “I am willing, be clean!” Inside the fish belly, Jonah prayed and believed God’s power to deliver him; it was just that initially, he was angry and wasn’t willing to pray, but when he opened his mouth to pray, he prayed with faith in God, as a result he was delivered.
III. Know that man’s dead-end is the beginning of God’s deliverance
For depraved man to enter into a relationship with God, first, he must recognize his own depravity and acknowledge his need of God’s discipline. Second, he must call out to the Lord. Thirdly, he must know that man’s dead-end is the beginning of God’s deliverance. Do you still remember the first blessing in the Sermon on the Mount? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In “The Message Bible” by Eugene Peterson, the verse is translated “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.” God’s work begins when man reaches the end of his rope. How can a cup be filled unless it is emptied? Unless a man is humble how can he be taught? Unless a man is sick, he wouldn’t go see a doctor. Unless a man realizes he is sinful, he will not find the need for a savior. We often say: `Pray, pray’.
What is true prayer? Hallesby said in his prayer book: “Helplessness is at the heart of prayer. Prayer and helplessness cannot be separated. Only a man who truly feels helpless can offer up true and authentic prayers.” In the belly of the fish, Jonah realized he had come to the end of his rope and so he cried out in prayer to the Lord, v.8 “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” v.9 “But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, `Salvation comes from the LORD.’” Verse 10 tells us the Lord heard his prayers: “And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” In verse 9, Jonah told the Lord he will make good what he had vowed. What was Jonah’s vow? I personally believe that he must have told the Lord – `O Lord, if you do thus, then I will do this. O Lord, if you save me, I will serve you all my life.’
Genesis 28 records a man, Jacob, making his vow. Because Jacob deceived his father and brother, he had to flee his own home. When he reached Luz, the Lord appeared to him in a dream. When Jacob awoke, he made a vow to the Lord, Genesis 28:20-22 “ Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”
In this vow, he asked the Lord for two things: 1. He asked the Lord to be with him. He wanted God to go with him, to provide him food and clothing, he was asking for material provisions. 2. He asked the Lord to protect him so that he will return safely to his father’s household. He asked for the blessing and preservation of his life. He told the Lord, `If you give me material blessings and blessings in life, I will do three things: 1. You will be my God 2. I will build you a temple 3. I will give you a tenth of all I have.’ Have you noticed that Jacob’s vow was very self-centered? In the Chinese Bible, the word `I/me’ appears 11 times in Jacob’s prayer; in the English Bible, the word appears ten times. At this point, Jacob was still very self-centered; yet the Lord, being a most gracious and merciful God, answered his prayer. After 20 years, Jacob had cattle, sheep flocks, servants, and his whole household returned to Canaan safely. The Lord was with him all those 20 years, protecting and blessing him.
When we are at the end of our rope, we must call on the Lord, because man’s dead-end is the beginning of God’s deliverance. I am not against you making vows to the Lord, but remember, if you do then you must make good your vows. Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 says “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfil it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfil your vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfil it.” God is faithful, he dislikes falsehood. Let me share a testimony about one of our deacons. This deacon had back trouble that needed surgery. If the surgery was unsuccessful, she would be unable to walk all her life. If she didn’t go through surgery, she will have to lie in bed all her life. Not having much choice, she decided to have the operation.
On the eve of the operation, I visited her and asked if she had faith. She answered, “Fifty-percent.” I said, “Fifty-percent isn’t good, let us pray.” After we prayed, I asked her again if she now has faith, she said 80%. I said, “Eighty-percent isn’t enough, we must have 100% faith in God.” She replied, “If the Lord lets me walk again, I will spend my life doing his work.” I said that is good and we prayed again. Today, our sister is up and walking, she has really made good her vow to the Lord. A few years back, when our church held the 40 Days Movement, she opened her home to conduct a small group, and many were led to the Lord through this small group. Later on, it became a fellowship, and the fellowship has led many people to the Lord. We must make good the vows we made, then the Lord’s grace will abundantly be upon us.
For depraved man to enter into a relationship with God, first, he must acknowledge that he is a sinner and accept God’s discipline; second, he must call upon the Lord; thirdly, he must realize that man’s dead-end is the beginning of God’s deliverance. Do not be discouraged, continue and do the work of the Lord!