February 3, 2019

God's Relentless Mercy

Steven Lee (North Campus) | Jonah 1:1-17

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.—Jonah 1:1–17


We had been training pastors and church leaders in Indonesia when I met him. During one of the breaks, this man shared his story of how he came to faith from a Muslim background. He was formerly a teacher of Islamic law in Indonesia. He had hundreds of students, but at age 40 he heard the good news of the gospel, surrendered to Christ, and never looked back. Since his conversion, he had experienced great trials. A former student had come to see him and proceeded to attack him with a knife. In the process of getting stabbed, the former teacher was able to break the arm of his assailant. What he did next was the surprising part. After subduing his attacker, he took him to the hospital, allowed the doctors to tend to his assailants injury, and used the opportunity to share the gospel with an enemy who had sought to kill him. This man reflected the mercy of God.

The book of Jonah wrestles with the question, How do we reconcile God’s mercy with justice? In particular, Jonah is forced to confront whether he shares God’s perspective and heart for the world. The book of Jonah unfolds in a stunning way God’s plan of redemption. Though the nation of Israel is at the center—called to reveal God’s character to surrounding nations—Jonah is the picture of a nation that can’t reconcile God’s sovereignty, judgment, and mercy.

Our plan is to look at the three scenes of Jonah and to ask the following questions: What is God doing? What is God revealing? What do we learn about God’s plan for the world?

  • Scene 1: Jonah’s Rejection of God’s Word (1:1–6)
  • Scene 2: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Jonah (1:7–10)
  • Scene 3: God’s Merciful Salvation (1:11–17)

Scene 1: Jonah’s Rejection of God’s Word (1:1–6)

The opening words of Jonah make a clear and strong statement of the historicity of Jonah—he’s a real person and this book is a record of real events. “The word of the Lord came” appears 85 times in the Old Testament and always introduces recipients of a divine word who are historical individuals.

We don’t know much about Jonah, besides being the son of Amittai, but we do know that he’s a prophet of God. Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:23–29, making him a contemporary of Amos and Hosea. He is a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II, and in the 2 Kings passage it mentions that Jonah the son of Amittai prophesied that Israel would expand its borders. Jonah is a pro-Israel prophet that seemingly has no problem prophesying when the outcome is favorable for Israel.

God’s Surprising Command

The first surprise comes as we read, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (1:2). Calling a Hebrew prophet go to preach to a foreign nation was surprising and unprecedented. Some prophets might deliver oracles of judgment against foreign nations, but they did it rhetorically before Israel. Here, God was sending Jonah into the heart of Israel’s enemies to preach. 

Furthermore, Nineveh is known as an evil city, which was later used as the capital city of the nation of Assyria. Nineveh represented Assyrian pride and power. If I say Las Vegas—you immediately call to mind the debauchery and gambling. Or a mention of North Korea brings to mind all the human rights violations that the country commits against its people. The “great city” mainly refers to its size, going all the way back to Genesis 10:11, where Nimrod, a descendent of Noah through Ham, built the city. Nineveh is known for its brutality and cruelty. Some Assyrian rulers were known for tearing off the lips and hands of his victims, or another ruler was known for tearing off the skin of victims alive and making great piles of their skulls.

So the surprise is that God would call Jonah to go to such a nation and city. Implicit in the command to “call out against it” is the hope that Nineveh would repent, seek God, and perhaps God would relent in his judgment. So we get a glimpse of God’s plan of redemption—and it is bigger and wider in scope than Jonah is comfortable with. God wants this evil, pagan nation to know that his judgment is coming. These are people who have no idea about Yahweh. They are in the dark. 

Jonah’s Surprising Response

Our second surprise comes when God says, “Arise and go.” Literally, it’s “get up and go!” What does Jonah do? Jonah “rose”—one would think to immediately obey the word of the Lord—but no, Jonah runs. Jonah wants nothing to do with God’s plan. Later in Jonah we see more clearly his motivation, but for now, Jonah rejects God’s word, disobeys God’s call, and is on the run from God. One thing to note is the literary brilliance of Jonah. Though Jonah is running westward to Joppa, the text indicates that Jonah “went down to Joppa,” found a boat, paid the fare, and “went down into it.” God calls Jonah to go up, and Jonah goes down instead—polar opposite. It’s also a picture of Jonah’s spiritual direction as he runs from God. He is headed downward toward death and destruction.

Consider a number of things we can note about Jonah running from God. Jonah runs in the opposite direction and is explicitly attempting to run “away from the presence of the Lord” (mentioned two times in 1:3 and once in 1:10). Nineveh is northeast of Israel. Joppa is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and he heads as far west as he possibly can to Tarshish (likely modern Spain; mentioned three times). In today’s terms, God comes to you in the Twin Cities and tells you to go up to Toronto to preach to those pagan Canadians. Instead of going, you hitchhike your way to the west coast of California, and then commission a boat to take you to Hawaii. Jonah’s response is that of full-throated rebellion. One commentator describes it like this:

By fleeing from the Lord’s presence Jonah announces emphatically his unwillingness to serve God. His action is nothing less than open rebellion against God’s sovereignty.[1] 

A prophet of God certainly knows that he cannot flee from God’s presence: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from you presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:7–8). Every Israelite would have known this reality. Jonah himself later asserts that God is the “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Jonah is acting like a toddler that covers his eyes and thinks, “If I can’t see you then you can’t see me!” Jonah’s sin and disobedience blinds him to the absurdity of his actions. 

God’s Sends a Storm in Pursuit of Jonah

God brings some firm fatherly discipline to Jonah in the form of a violent storm. Verse 4 says, “But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.” God pursues Jonah in his disobedience; his rebellion does not go unanswered.

The storm is so intense that experienced, grizzled and career sailors are calling out for help. “Mighty tempest” is a severe understatement; it was the worst storm of their lives. In the same way that the Polar-Vortex was life-threatening with its temperatures, this storm was life-threatening in its ferocity. The sailors immediately go to foxhole-behavior, crying out to their gods for help—they are clearly a group of pagan idolaters. They begin to throw things overboard. They don’t care about the journey, they only want to get out with their lives. In their desperation, they do humble themselves and cry out for help.

Contrasting Responses of the Sailors & Jonah

The sailors look to God—though they are ignorant of him, which is contrasted with Jonah who does not call out to God, but instead sleeps. Jonah is unaware of the danger upon him and those around him. Ironically, Jonah refuses to be used by God, while God uses the wind, the sea, and even the ship for his purposes.

Jonah’s disobedience and rebellion against God not only puts his life in danger, it spills over and puts others’ in danger. Jonah rejects God’s word and wants nothing to do with God’s plan of redemption. Jonah repudiates God’s call for him to preach in a place such as Nineveh. God’s plan of redemption is wholly unlike what Jonah expects. Jonah lacks God’s perspective and heart. How can God want such an evil, wicked, ungodly, and cruel people to hear from him and perhaps repent?

Where do we lack God’s heart and perspective? In what ways are we like Jonah? How might we live and act like Jonah? How might we attempt to run from God’s call on our life? Jonah ought to know better. Disobedience has consequences. Is there an area of life we have not surrendered to God? Is there something God has called us to do—perhaps share the gospel with a coworker or neighbor—to which we refuse? Is there an area of life that we need to repent of our disobedience? Is God calling you to take a step of faith that feels risky or distasteful; will you obey or run?

Scene 2: God Relentless Pursuit of Jonah (1:7–10)

Next, in verses 7–10, we see that God’s hot pursuit of Jonah intensifies. Running from the all-knowing, all-seeing, and ever-present God is futile. The sailors realize that the storm is from God. They cast lots, and it falls to Jonah. Jonah gets interrogated by the sailors. What could you have possibly done to anger the gods? Where are you from? What did you do? Who are you? Jonah reveals, “I’m a Hebrew.” That Jonah first talks about his ethnicity and nationality before talking about his religion is striking. Jonah is proud of the fact that he is a Hebrew. It’s the first thing that comes out of his mouth.

Jonah’s Surprising Admission

Jonah surprisingly responds by saying, “I fear the LORD the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9) … which is contradicted by his behavior. Jonah lacks true fear of God. He has his theological ducks aligned and knows what to say, but he doesn’t actually live it out. Jonah doesn’t believe in faith such that he obeys, such that he is transformed by that belief. Jonah lacks an undivided heart before God. In chapter 4, it’s clearer that it’s idolatry. On one hand, he knows God is ruler of all, and on the other, he runs. He knows God is to be feared, revered, and worshiped, and yet that “fear of God” doesn’t prevent him from making a literal shipwreck of his life by running from God’s presence. Jonah is spiritually divided.

We see a great deal of irony contrasting the sailors and Jonah. Jonah does not pray, despite the captain’s pleas (1:6). Jonah doesn’t care about the ship, the cargo, or even the sailors. At this point, Jonah offers minimal information, but he reveals that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord (1:10). This is the God who made the sea and the dry land, contrary to the idols and household gods of the sailors. So Jonah has right theology at one level, but wrong behavior. Jonah wants nothing to do with the pagans in Nineveh, and yet now he’s stuck on a ship full of pagan sailors that are interrogating him about his God.

Functional Unbelief

Jonah reveals his functional unbelief. He fears God like Satan fears God—not a reverential, humble and awe-inducing fear of God, but a prideful, disdaining and angry fear. This is a dangerous way to live your life. It is like saying, “I believe that a seatbelt can save my life, but I refuse to wear one.”

Consider for a moment where we functionally disbelieve in God. Where we know what’s “right” but don’t actually act upon that knowledge. Theologically we have the answer, but in the moment that has no impact on our behavior.

For Jonah, his blind spot came because of his nationalistic pride with no room to see God’s heart for the nations around him. Jonah has no intention to go to Nineveh to preach. He does not repent and he does not pray. Some question to ask of ourselves:

  • Do we denigrate or stereotype certain groups of people?
  • Do we lack compassion and love for certain groups of people?
  • Do we believe that our nation is at the center of God’s plan of redemption, or do we believe that God uses all nations and calls all people to himself?

Does our faith in Jesus really affect every part of life? Our money, time, friends, who we marry, where we live, and so forth. If faith in Christ doesn’t have an impact on you at the deepest levels, then are you really swearing allegiance to Christ? For Jonah, he lacked God’s perspective and failed to understand God’s plan of redemption.

God Uses Imperfect People for His Purposes

Beautifully, we see that God does not relent, but pursues Jonah. Jonah is such a deficient prophet, and yet, that gives us hope. God’s mission of redemption is to be accomplished by imperfect means, like Jonah. He’s about as imperfect as they come. He doesn’t pray when the captain tells him to pray. He doesn’t repent or cry out. He knows God’s power, but resists his commands. God uses imperfect people to accomplish his perfect plan.

For some of us, this is what we need to hear. God uses imperfect people to accomplish his purposes. Perhaps we’re a lot like Jonah, with blind spots and narrow perspectives. Yet, God can use even imperfect people for the exaltation of his Name.

Scene 3: God’s Merciful Salvation (1:11–17)

In this third scene, the storm still rages on, and the sailors are at the end of their rope. So Jonah goes overboard. Jonah knows he’s responsible. When he suggests that he go overboard in verse 12, it could be seen as an honorable sacrifice to save the sailors, but I think it has nothing to do with that. Jonah knows that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, relenting from disaster” because he quotes it in chapter 4. 

Jonah’s Hardness of Heart

Jonah doesn’t repent. He knows that God is a God of forgiveness. We’ll read some of that in chapter 2. He doesn’t turn. He doesn’t cry out for mercy, and he knows God is merciful. Nor does he really care about the sailors. If he did, he’d just jump overboard. Instead, he presses their hand to make them throw him over. Essentially, “My blood is on your hands.” We either all die together, or you throw me over. This was not honorable on Jonah’s part, but that is the result of running from God and doubling down on disobedience. Jonah would rather die than go back and preach to Nineveh; essentially “over my dead body” will I go preach to Nineveh. O how I pray that if you’re in that place today, you would run to God rather than run from him, hide in him rather than from him, and flee from sin rather than from God’s presence. 

Jonah’s behavior is striking when we see it in light of the sailors. They don’t want to throw Jonah over, so they rowed harder. They realize all hope is lost and their last resort is to throw Jonah in, so they pray a prayer preemptively to ask for forgiveness. This is a prayer of faith. Verse 16 says they fear—no longer of the storm—but of something much greater: an encounter with the living God.

I believe the sailors are saved because they offer sacrifices and vows after the storm is calmed. Many people make vows in the foxhole so the calamity will go away, but here the sailors fear and revere God after the storm is calmed. This points to faith at work in their lives.

What we learn from Scene Three is that God’s plan of redemption is in accord with his character. God graciously uses Jonah’s disobedience to bring about the salvation of some: these sailors. God is that compassionate—that even a small ragtag band of sailors is worth saving. God is merciful. No life is too insignificant for God to save. But Jonah doesn’t get it; he lacks God’s heart of compassion. 

If we’re honest, we all in some ways lack God’s heart of compassion and mercy. We struggle to forgive those who have done hurtful or horrible things to us or to those we love. Perhaps we lack God’s compassion for those who are different from us: in race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, political allegiances or socioeconomic backgrounds. In theory, we know God loves them, but functionally, we don’t love them, we don’t pray for them, we don’t cry out to God for them, we don’t go out of our way to reach them. We don’t let it become inconvenient for us to help others who are different from us. 

Closing: Look to the True & Better Prophet Jesus

How do we develop a heart of mercy like God’s heart of mercy? Answer: Taste God’s mercy afresh. Our main takeaway is to look not mainly to Jonah, but to the true and greater Prophet who has come. Verse 17 says, “And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Now turn with me to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 12:38–40.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”—Matthew 12:38–40

Jesus quotes Jonah 1:17 to draw comparison between Jonah and himself. The book of Jonah is not ultimately about Jonah, but it calls us to look at the one true Prophet: Jesus. In the same way Jonah “died and rose again” in the belly of the fish after three days and three nights, Jesus truly does die and rise again from the grave after three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Jesus is showing the Pharisees the lesser to the greater. Something much greater than Jonah is here, and even evil Nineveh repented; how much more should those teachers of the law repent as they have witnessed Jesus’ miracles. 

Jonah lacked God’s perspective. Jesus understood God’s plan of redemption that was for all people and all nations, and by Jesus’ death on the cross he tore down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile. Jesus don’t just advance God’s plan of redemption, but he finishes it, brings it about, seals it so that it is a sure and undeniable reality.

Where Jonah functionally disbelieved, Jesus never wavers in who he is, what he came for, and how he would accomplish his task. Sleepy Jonah was awakened in the bottom of the boat. Jesus, too, was asleep in a boat in a terrible storm. Jonah was powerless; Jesus was in full control. Jonah was fearful; Jesus had all authority and power. Jonah hardened his heart before God; Jesus perfectly obeyed his Father. Jonah suggested he be thrown in; Jesus calmed the storm with his word. Jonah refused to preach God’s judgment; Jesus went to the cross to purchase sinners by conquering death. Jesus brings everlasting life.

Where Jonah lacked compassion, Jesus’ mercy and compassion lead him to Calvary. He is the true and better Prophet who doesn’t run away from telling others of God, but he lays down his life so that every nation, tribe, people and language will be gathered around his throne.


[1] Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (vol. 19B; The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), pp. 226–227.


Sermon Discussion Questions

Main Point: God will stop at nothing to display his heart of mercy to sinners, despite disobedience that threatens to thwart his purposes.


  1. Scene 1: Jonah’s Rejection of God’s Word (Jonah 1:1–6)
  2. Scene 2: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Jonah (Jonah 1:7–10)
  3. Scene 3: God’s Merciful Salvation (Jonah 1:11–17)

Discussion Questions:

  • What are some “surprises” in Jonah 1?
  • Why might Jonah be hesitant to go to preach in Nineveh?
  • What are some repeated or contrasting words or phrases in Jonah 1?
  • What are some differences between Jonah’s behavior and that of the sailors?
  • How is Jonah’s suggestion to be thrown overboard not a humble act of sacrifice?
  • Does God save the sailors in the boat? Why or why not?
  • What are some differences between the prophet Jonah and Jesus?

Application Questions

  • In what ways are we like Jonah? In what areas of life are we most prone to respond like Jonah?
  • In what ways do we rebel against God’s plan and purposes for our life or against his plan for the redemption of the world?
  • How can we share God’s heart for unbelievers? What are some practical steps we can begin taking in a positive direction?
  • If God uses imperfect people like Jonah to accomplish his purposes, how is that an encouragement to us?
  • Take a moment to marvel at God’s relentless mercy in saving you and how he accomplished that in the person of Jesus Christ.

Prayer Focus
In light of God’s relentless mercy to pursue and save sinners, spend time thanking God for his love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. Confess any sins or areas of life that you have not surrendered to Jesus, or how you have failed to share God’s heart of compassion and mercy. Ask God to help you experience more of his love so that you would reflect his heart of mercy to others.

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