RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • Will Your Church Be Dead (Jonah 1:1-6)?

    Posted on January 14th, 2011 admin No comments

    A pastor of a small Baptist church in Marshall, NC recently asked an important question that should make all of us think: “Will your church be dead in the next 10 years?”

    This pastor shared his observation that many rural Baptist churches in the United States are slowly dying. We can say the same for other mainline denominational or Bible churches. This pastor based his observation on statistics and his interaction with the people of rural churches. He believes rural churches are dying because they are focused on themselves and the world as their enemy. His main emphasis in this article was that rural churches are too inwardly focused. That is, rather than taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ out into the community, dying churches focus on what happens inside the church building. He continued to say that for many years in history, time past, inwardly focused churches did fine. The people of America respected the church and church pastors. Years ago people went to church because that was the thing to do on weekends. Today, however, times have changed. People have changed. Going to church is no longer the culturally right thing to do. It is now culturally acceptable to stay home, clean the house, go fishing, or whatever else on Sunday mornings.

    Since society has changed, we must ask ourselves, “Should the church change?” Should the people of rural churches adjust anything about the way they live their lives to make sure their churches don’t die within the next 10 years?

    It is not fun to think about any church dying, especially your own. However, the possibility of church death is real. Without an influx of new believers and without continued spiritual growth, your church can die.

    The subject question we want to answer is what must you do to join God’s mission, so your church does not die?

    Our text comes from a familiar story in the Old Testament. In this particular story God chose a man to accomplish a specific mission. This man did not want to obey God because he though the mission before him was too great. Rather than following God’s direction, this man tried to run. His disobedience caused great turmoil for himself and the people around him.

    Our text is Jonah chapter 1, verses 1 through 6.

    Jonah 1:1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 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 on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

    4 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. 5 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. 6 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.”

    I’d like to make four observations from this text. Two points will be stated negatively—as in, “you can’t”—and two points will be stated positively—as in, “you can.” We will look at the two “you can’t” points this week.

    The first observation comes from Jonah 1, verses 1 through 3:
    You can’t run from the Lord’s instruction.


    Verse 1 begins with the word “now” in many translations. That seems like a strange way to begin a story, but the Hebrew text begins with a conjunction. The story of Jonah—just like other books of the Hebrew Bible that begin with the conjunction “and”—must be a continuation of a larger narrative. This story is part of God’s story of bringing creation back into relationship with himself. We know that in Genesis 3 creation fell. Sin entered the world. People were separated from God. And, we can look forward to the Gospels where Jesus Christ lived a sinless life, suffered, died, was buried, and rose from the grave to bring us back into relationship with God. The story of Jonah fits between the fall and the cross, and it gives us truth that explains God’s mission of bringing people back to himself.

    In verse 1 we read, “the word of the Lord came to Jonah.” We read that phrase, “The word of the Lord came to,” throughout the Old Testament. God would give specific instruction to specific people. God would deliver his message to his people through prophets, or spokesmen, like Jonah.

    The instruction God gave Jonah is recorded in verse 2: “Arise, go to Nineveh, …and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” The description we read about Nineveh is that it was a “great” city. The last verse of Jonah, 4:11, also describes Nineveh as a great city. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire. It was located along the Tigris river, which flows from eastern Turkey through Iraq and into the Persian Gulf. Nineveh once stretched for 30 miles along this river, and it extended 10 miles eastward from the river. The location of this great city was between the Mediterranean and the Indian Oceans. It united the East and the West, and became the central hub for the exchange of wealth.

    God instructed Jonah to get up, to go to this great city, and to preach against it. Jonah’s task was to tell the people of this great city that God’s judgment was coming soon. Unlike the prophet Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or even the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, who all addressed specific sins, Jonah’s task was to proclaim a broader message: “God has seen your evil. He is not pleased. He will bring his judgment.”

    In some ways, that doesn’t seem like such a bad job. Just head out to Nineveh, find a street corner and start calling out against the city. “God has seen your evil. He is not pleased. He will bring his judgment.” “God has seen your evil. He is not pleased. He will bring his judgment.” In other ways, I can understand why Jonah wouldn’t want to do that. Who is Jonah anyhow? He would be a puny foreigner in this great city, with great wealth, and great power. People wouldn’t like him for speaking against their culture. They may be offended. “Who are you?” They may even try to kill him.

    Regardless of the potential cost, God gave Jonah specific instruction: Get up, go to Nineveh, and cry out against it.

    Verse 3 begins, “But Jonah.” What did Jonah do? Rather than obeying instruction from the Lord, Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish. I don’t know the exact location of this city, but many people suggest it was in Spain. The word means “the sea coast.” Jonah’s intended destination was somewhere in the distance, to a nice, relaxing place along the sea. Jonah was heading far west, when God instructed him to go east. That’s like being told to leave Kansas and head to Washington, DC, but you fire up the Volkswagon van and head to Laguna Beach, CA.

    Note that Jonah wasn’t necessarily running from the Ninevites. Verse 3 explains Jonah’s motivation using the same words two times, “From the presence of the Lord,” “From the presence of the Lord.” Jonah was running away from the presence of the Lord. Now if God is everywhere, there was no way Jonah could get away from the Lord’s presence. Jonah must have known that; however, he thought that if he were to get far away from Nineveh, then God would choose someone else to accomplish his mission. If Jonah were sipping martinis off the coast of Spain, then God would be forced to send someone else to Nineveh—or so Jonah reasoned.

    This attempt to run from the Lord’s instruction was deliberate. Verse 3 says that Jonah paid the fare. He made an intentional investment in disobedience. This wasn’t an accident, or a short lapse in judgment. There was no looking back singing, “What was I thinking?” He knew that he was running from the Lord’s influence, but it never crossed his mind that God was on a mission of bringing people back into relationship with himself.


    Just like during Jonah’s time, today God continues on his mission of redeeming humanity. God accomplishes that mission through the agency of people whom he chooses to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus issued the great commission to the disciples in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” God’s mission for the church is now wrapped up in the command to make disciples. Sure, there are many things we can do as a church. We can send money to missionaries. We can invest our time during the week with Awana. We can meet in each other’s homes during the week. We can visit the sick at home and in hospitals. We do all of those things and more because we are on God’s mission of making disciples. We trust that the missionaries are pointing people to Jesus. We want to help kids marinade their souls in scripture. We want to encourage each other in our pursuit of Christlikeness. We want to be the hands and feet of Jesus to someone who needs to feel his love. That is the instruction God has given us today. We cannot run from it.

    God’s word makes it clear that we cannot run from God’s instruction. In Psalm 139, David unloads his discovery that wherever he goes, the Lord is there. David addresses the Lord in Psalm 139, verses 7-10: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! 9 If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”

    Where can I run from you Lord? Once you’ve placed your faith in Christ, the answer is nowhere. Sure, you can run and run. You can disobey, and live a selfish live. But God’s presence will follow you. His instruction to make disciples will eat away at you, until you fall to your face and say, “I can’t run any more. Show me what to do.”


    On the flip side, it is important to know more about God’s instruction. We want to be Christians, not political activists or moral Pharisees. Don’t think God has instructed you to call out the specific sins of the people in your town—sins like homosexual relations, pornography, or drunkenness. Before making enemies, let’s revisit the great commission. God’s instruction for you today is to make disciples, not to cast down those dead in their transgressions before God.

    Making disciples involves sharing the gospel. That means we need to tell people that Jesus is God’s answer to the sin problem. People need to know of the life-changing power that comes by grace through faith in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. Getting to the place where we can share the gospel means that we must look outside these walls to people who need Jesus. We have to foster relationships with people who are not here. We may have to buy hay from someone who has tattoos. We may have to befriend the neighbor whose dogs make too much noise. We may have to visit the doctor whose speech is hard to understand because he grew up in another country.

    Whatever you have to do to reach people outside your church—providing that outreach doesn’t cause you to sin—then you need to do it. There is a difference between being stretched and sinning. Sitting among a circle of smokers stretches me because cigarette smoke messes with my eyes, my nose, my whole head. But sitting among smokers is not a sin. Working with lost people may stretch you because lost people lack a vision for eternity, but it’s not a sin to work with lost people.

    God has given you, he has given your church, specific instruction to make disciples. If you run from the instruction to make disciples, then your church could die.

    If your Nineveh is the 20-mile radius around your church, and commonsense says God’s instruction for your church is to reach those people, then how are you doing? Personally, I get in my car after services, and flee to my Tarshish, somewhere near my home. I may eat chicken at the local restaurant. I may hang out in town before each service. I certainly enjoy worshipping with you here on Sunday mornings. But other than that, I don’t invest the time to reach people here. I can say the same about my neighbors. That’s bad. I know I can’t run from God’s instruction. But I find myself doing it every day.

    We can’t run between our homes and the church building, without joining God on his disciple-making mission. Running between home and church is the same as running away from God’s instruction. Let’s not look back ten days or ten years from now and say, “What was I thinking?”

    I have a friend in Topeka who works for a company that publishes several tree-hugging magazines. I’m all for environmental stewardship, so I have nothing against this particular audience. For whatever reason, many of the people who are in this particular “green” circle don’t believe in God. They have a concept of Mother Earth, but not of Father God, his son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. My friend works with many people who are lost. Over two years ago he started a weekly Bible study in his office during the lunch hour. These people who have no exposure to Sunday morning church, come to this weekly meeting to read and discuss the Bible. My friend isn’t calling out their specific sins, but he is carrying out God’s mission to make disciples. He is doing that by sharing the truth of God’s word with people who may never hear it apart from him. His Nineveh is there in his workplace. He could flee to Tarshish during his lunch hour—McDonalds or Taco Bell—but he chooses to stay in Nineveh as he follows God’s instruction for his life.

    Are you running from God’s instruction? Are you trying to flee his presence? Stop. You can’t do it.

    The second observation comes from verses 4 and 5:
    You can’t escape the Lord’s correction.


    Verse 4 begins, “But the Lord.” The NIV says, “Then the Lord.” That’s okay; the idea is the same. The text now shifts from Jonah’s disobedient response to the Lord’s instruction to the Lord’s response to Jonah’s disobedience.

    Just as Jonah thinks he is distancing himself from the Lord, the Lord works to accomplish his will through Jonah.

    There is this saying or prevailing thought in Christendom that goes something like this: “If you don’t accept God’s call on your life, God will choose someone else” “If you don’t tell wicked Wendy about Jesus, then God’s gonna use brother Bill and brother Bill’s gonna get all the glory and you ain’t gonna get nothing.”

    Come on! Jonah 1 says otherwise. God had a mission, specific instruction, a will for Jonah. Jonah disobeyed, “But the Lord” wasn’t going to let his disobedience continue.

    In verse 4 the Lord brings a great wind upon the sea. Notice the recurring theme of “great.” The city was great. Jonah wanted nothing to do with that. So the Lord uses a great wind to bring rough seas to bring correction to Jonah.

    The peaceful blue sea turns white as waves crash into the ship. Sailors drop the sails, but the ship is tossed like a Caesar’s salad. The wooden bow creeks. Boards snap. The evil sea is about to consume the vessel.

    To get a better idea of how severe this storm was, check out verse 5. The sailors’ emotional state was one of fear. These were professional sailors. They had spent years traveling this same route. They had certainly been through rough waters before, but this time they were afraid. These rough and tough sailors were like scared puppies in a thunderstorm. Their initial response was to call out to their god. Notice that at this point in the story the sailor did not cry out to the Lord, but each sailor cried out to his own false god. They were so influenced by Baal worship that they did not know the truth of Psalm 89:8-9, which reads, “O Lord God of hosts, who is mighty as you are, O Lord, with your faithfulness all around you? You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” The Lord God was the only one who could calm the sea, but the sailors must not have known that. When their false god did not respond to their cries for help, they took further action to save the ship, and to save their lives. Verse 5 says that the sailors hurled the cargo into the sea to lighten the load.

    Verse 5 contains another structural marker that let’s us know we are about to have another shift in subject: “But Jonah.” The story began with the Lord’s instruction to Jonah. Then it moved to Jonah’s disobedient response. Then it moved to the Lord’s gracious response to Jonah’s disobedience. Now the story moves to Jonah’s response to the Lord’s attempt to correct him. As the sailors are scared shirtless, running around throwing expensive cargo into the sea, crying out to false gods, and trying with all their might to stay on board, Jonah is below the deck, curled upon on a futon, fast asleep.

    Jonah’s condition should cause us to question another commonly held theological view held by many Christians. One answer to the common question, “How do you know if you are God’s will,” is “peace.” People say, “If you are in God’s will, he’ll give you peace. You will sleep better than ever. However, in Jonah 1 we see that Jonah has been disobedient. He has tried to run from God’s instruction. But here, he is fast asleep. He seems to be in a temporary state of peace. Just because you can sleep well doesn’t mean you are in God’s will. Your heart can be so hard that you are clueless to God’s instruction. Yet God in his grace will send the wind that brings the storm in an attempt to bring correction to your life. God in his grace wakes his children up from their false sense of peace for the purpose of turning their hearts back to him.

    The band Better Than Ezra sings in their song “Absolutely Still,” “This Grey room, This bunker, The air is humming us to sleep. While outside, the city hurries, the endless worries are out of reach.”

    Where are you this morning? Are you below the deck of this church, curled up on a futon fast asleep? As the air hums you to sleep, outside this church, people hurry. They are plagued with endless worries. They need to know that Jesus loves them. They need to know that he died as a sacrifice for their sins.

    Last night a friend and I had dinner at Johnny Carinos after our Saturday evening church service in Topeka. Our waiter was a nice young man named Dan. He was working two tables in addition to ours. I had that burden to find out more about his spiritual life. Did he have a church home? Was he a Christian? I know other Christians on his college campus who would love to meet him. Yet rather than asking a few short questions, I reasoned my way back to sleep: “Ah, he’s busy. I don’t want to distract him. I don’t want the couple adjacent to us to think we are wacko.” And so on. Rather than pointing that kid to Jesus, I paid the bill and went home. I know what it means to be fast asleep in the midst of the storm.

    In verse 6, the captain confronts Jonah. “What are you doing? Get up. Call out to your god!” Even this pagan captain knew that Jonah should have been praying. Even this pagan captain knew that their only hope of survival was in a supernatural power beyond their own. This pagan captain said, “Perhaps. Maybe. If he shows us compassion, then perhaps your god will not let us die.”

    Jonah could not escape correction. The Lord brought correction with the storm, and now he uses a pagan captain to put heat under Jonah’s seat. “What are you doing? Get up. Call out to your god!”


    As children of the living God, we cannot escape the Lord’s correction. Because of God’s compassion, because of his grace, he does not allow us to keep running from him. He either makes life so miserable that we turn back to him, or we die and meet him face-to-face. Our compassionate God brings corrective discipline upon his children to turn their hearts back to him.

    Hebrews 12:5-6, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” Hebrews 12:11, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”


    While God can bring corrective discipline upon his children, he also expects us to practice church discipline as a body of believers. That doesn’t mean that Mark is going to call us into the basement, bend us over his knees, and start whipping us. Church discipline is the practice of confronting members of the body over areas of sin for the purpose of edification. Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Mark would not call me into the basement to whip me, but say, “Hey, I love you.” He would then talk to me about whatever issue. His goal would not be to belittle me, but to help me see how God expects me to live differently. Mark would give me time to change, and if it became apparent that I wasn’t growing, then he would call me back to the basement, and we’d talk more. (Now anytime Mark calls anyone to the basement they are going to be concerned…).

    I’ll tell you this, I’d rather have God bring correction through Mark than through a storm. I’d rather have someone pull me aside in love, and build me up, than have the God of all power and might simply puff and push me to the brink of death.

    We can’t escape the Lord’s correction. Let’s open our lives to each other, and allow God to work through this body as he conforms us into the image of his son.


    This morning we asked the question, “What must you do to join God’s mission, so that your church does not die?” First, stop running from the Lord’s instruction to make disciples. Second, open your lives to each other and welcome the Lord’s correction.

    In 1993 a Waco couple divorced. The woman was awarded primary custody of the couple’s toddler. The man did not like that. He fled into hiding with their young child. A felony warrant was issued for the man, but he and his kid were never found.

    On August 29, a Waco, TX paper ran a story about this toddler’s 1993 disappearance. The now 20-year-old son stumbled across this article. He insisted that his father turn them in. As of last Thursday, the missing toddler, Steven, has been found. His father remains in custody in Houston.

    This boy’s father has been running, living a lie, for 17 years. However, this week he learned that he can not run from truth forever. And this week he learned that he can not escape correction.

    The truth is that God has given us instruction as a church. We can’t run from that. If we are to survive as a church, we must join God’s mission.


    Leave a reply