(This is modified from a message preached on April 19, 2015 and can be accessed here)
Some of you have seen these and are probably great at drawing out the image. I'm not. In fact, I have never seen the hidden picture (and probably never will if it is yet to happen). Maybe I just don’t have the knack, or the patience to stare at them long enough…
The stories we read in the Bible are kind of like stereograms. The longer you look at them, the more you’re able to see. New pictures and truths begin to emerge as we soak ourselves in the plot and try to understand the characters, their situation, and God's desires for them. This certainly happens as we look at the story in Jonah. The picture that we easily see at first glance is that there was a man who was swallowed by a giant fish, but there is far more in play than that.
So, I want to look beyond the big fish, and take note of a couple of truths that emerge from chapter one, that may not be so evident when we first read it.
I. Just because a door opens, it doesn’t mean you should walk through it.
It might be that your opportunity to act is not a gracious gift from God. It’s not a door that he has opened to give you what you want, but instead a door he has opened to test your obedience and faith.
What do you think was going through Jonah’s mind when he got to Joppa and started asking about ships leaving port? He didn’t get there and find all of his ways to leave barricaded by God. He didn’t find himself unable to go. Instead, he found it pretty easy- almost too easy. He had been wanting to get as far away from God as possible, and what luck! There’s a ship going to Tarshish, and it’s about to leave.
Now, I’m not sure what he was thinking, but some would have seen that as a sign from God that they should get on board… “I mean, that’s what I was hoping for, and there it is. Sure, he was telling me to go to Nineveh, or was He? Maybe I was confused…or didn’t hear him right. Yeah, that’s it! I think God really wants me to go to Tarshish now. Otherwise, this boat never would have been here ready to go. It’s like it was just waiting for me.”
If you aren’t willing to obey what God clearly tells you in His Word (which clearly came to Jonah at the beginning of the story), don’t believe all of the doors are open for you to walk in. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
God uses our experiences. He uses our circumstances, and even oversees them. But our experiences and circumstances never take priority over what He says. It’s easy for us to misinterpret what’s happening to us. We can misunderstand why things are what they are, but God's Word is to be a steadying force when things are unclear.
There’s a reason lighthouses are built up and down the coasts of our country. They stand on solid, unshifting ground to guide ships to safety that could easily lose their way or crash on the rocks. They aren’t suggestions. They are sure guides. That’s what the Scriptures are supposed to be for us. They aren’t good suggestions about who God is or what he desires for us. They’re a light to follow when the way gets foggy.
God was not proposing to Jonah that Nineveh might be a good place to get away for the weekend. God clearly told him what he was to do. When Jonah refused to listen, he could no longer trust that his steps were secure. That boat he boarded wasn’t God’s revealed will no matter how much Jonah wished it was, and the fact it was sitting there ready to go wasn’t God’s stamp of approval.
The primary way Christians grow is by understanding and applying the Word of God in submission to the Holy Spirit. It is not by chasing emotional experiences with God. It is not found primarily in the proverbial opening and closing of doors. It is found by working through everyday challenges as He guides us in wisdom and power from what He has spoken. Only then can we be certain that we are following His will.
II. The line you say you won’t cross could become a moving target.
Jonah was used by God. There were surely days when he sat back amazed that he was God’s servant. He probably had friends that looked up to him for being a prophet of God, and these people never would have expected that the prophet would have wandered this far from the right path- literally, onto a boat away from God. And Jonah never would have expected it either.
Sin is not just something you do. The Bible describes it as a force opposing God that lives inside the heart of every person. It’s the largest disease in the world and everyone has it. Its purpose is to lead you to think wrongly, to have the wrong desires, and to act upon those in a way that displeases the Lord and draws you away from Him. So, because of its power in Jonah, it was possible for him to end up rejecting the Word of God and embarking on a defiant journey that he probably never thought was possible.
Could that happen to you? These things rarely happen overnight. I doubt Jonah was faithfully following God one day, and waking the next, was called to Nineveh and said no. More likely, the sin that remained in him slowly opened his heart to listen to what it had to say. It was slowly persuasive.
If you’ve been to Niagara Falls, you’ve probably seen a chart that shows the erosion rate that has happened there over time. The power of the water slowly has slowly eaten away at the bank, causing the giant cliff to recede and form what we now call the horseshoe falls. Surveys of the erosion started in 1842, and for the next 85 years, about a meter/year was lost- about 250 feet. The reason they had to measure it over time, was because no one could see it happening. They couldn’t watch the erosion take place minute to minute. It was the thief that stole and no one could see it.
This is how sin works. It wants you slowly losing ground in your walk with God daily- nothing dramatic- just a small victory every day. No one will be able to tell from one day to the next, but measured over time- it will have eroded far more than we would think.
Now, you might have everything under control, but let’s just imagine you don’t…If sin would slowly destroy you over time, how would it do it? To the edge of what cliff would it slowly push you over time, until you were ready to fall off? Could it be doing that right now??
The line that you used to say you’d never cross- you’ve now crossed it (and it doesn’t even seem so bad anymore), and you’ve just moved the line further down. This is what sin does.
Surely, a year earlier, Jonah would have laughed at the thought of himself getting on a boat to Tarshish when God didn’t send him there. He was God’s man doing God’s ministry. But sin was slowly eroding his walk with God, until he walked onto that boat and went down into it and fell asleep. Don’t think it couldn’t happen to you.
Let me close with two things that I hope will help you make progress as you think how these truths relate to your life.
1. Because sin wants to move the line you say you won’t ever cross, stay as far away from it as possible. We have a tendency to dismiss danger, the closer we get to sin. It’s like the person who’s afraid of heights wanting to get as close to that ledge as possible to look over.
It may be that you need to say, right now, I can’t be around that person anymore because of what happens- or I know it’s not wise for me to go to that place anymore because of how strong the temptation is. You wall yourself off from the danger, just like a fence that would keep intruders out or animals in.
2. Fences Help, but they don’t defeat the impulse of sin. They just hold it back. We want sin continually overcome. For that to happen we need to receive God’s grace daily in the Gospel. We need to be reminded every day that God’s grace and mercy have been given to us in Christ. He gave his life so sinners like us could have strength to battle and overcome temptation, and when we fail- to find comfort and forgiveness through the sacrifice He made. The only way we get tranformational help- for healing, forgiveness, and peace- is through Jesus Christ and His Gospel.
For His Glory,