Responding to the Storm (Jonah 1:1-16)
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Responding to the Storm
(One Lord: No One Like You)
October 7th, 2018
I. Neglected, But Necessary
Have you ever heard the expression, “to put the fear of God into someone”? Typically, in recent times, that phrase means to terrifying someone to the point of compliance or submission. And even though “God” is central in the wording, it's normally used in reference to things like school rules and mom's list of dos and donts.
When it comes to having a relationship with God, in most cases, fear isn't a popular subject. For example, stop and think about all the praise songs that encourage us to “fear God” or that even reference the “fear of the Lord”. Struggling to think of any? You're not alone. There are very few songs like that. But why is that the case? Why is this subject of fearing God so scarce in our songs (even our hymns,) in our prayers, in our encouragements to one another?
Maybe it's peripheral in our lives and in our worship because the topic is peripheral in the Bible. Well, if we thought that, we would be horribly mistaken. The main Hebrew word for fear, the word yaré, appears 435 times in the OT. Almost 350 of those occurrences, that is, almost 80% of those occurrences, are in reference to the fear of God. And that's not factoring in the thirteen additional Hebrew words often connected with this topic; words like “terror”, “dread”, “dismay”, and “trembling”. And as we'll see today and in this series, this topic is also 'not peripheral' in the NT.
I think it's fair to say, based on God's word, that fearing God is one of the most fundamental features of a right relationship with God. So on one hand, this topic is sadly neglected. But on the other hand, God tells us it's supremely necessary. Somewhere, somehow, there is a serious misunderstanding when it comes to this subject.
So...what should we do? We should turn to God and his word, shouldn't we? We should turn to God and seek his guidance. Let's do that by turning to the book of Jonah.
II. The Passage: "I Fear the LORD" (1:1-16)
Now, this morning, we're going to look at verses 1-16 of Jonah chapter 1. Since our topic is the fear of God, I'm not going to unpack all of the ideas contained in these verses. If you are interested in the book of Jonah, and how this chapter fits into the fuller story of a forgiving God and his fleeing prophet, I'd encourage you to take a look at my teaching series entitled, “Jonah: Fleeing or Following the Heart of God”. It's from just a couple years ago, and both the text and the audio are available on our website.
But again, as we explore the idea of fear in this chapter, we are not exploring a peripheral theme. I think you'll see that. So if we break this passage into three parts, I think the first thing we discover, in verses 1-6 is what we might call...
1. Uninformed Fear (vs. 1-6)
Listen to what Jonah 1:1-6 reveals...
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.”
So clearly the focus of this chapter is on the man after whom the book is named. We read in verse 1 that God has called Jonah to be his prophet, to take his message to the city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire. There's only one problem. Jonah, like so many people in that region, [Jonah] hates the Assyrians. And because he hates the Assyrians, he'll have no part in reaching out to such a destructive and domination-minded people.
And so...Jonah runs. He picks a direction (in this case, west) and tries to go as far away as he can. The city of “Tarshish” was probably in Spain. So that meant a long ocean voyage across the Mediterranean. And this is how we first meet our friends, “the mariners”. No, I'm not talking about the baseball team from Seattle. These were ancient sailors. And from what this passage reveals, these guys were pagans...that is, they worshiped false gods.
Now even though Jonah is the main character of this chapter and this book, I think it can be very helpful for us to focus on what God's word reveals about these mariners; specifically what God's word tells us about these sailors and the fear of God.
Notice that verse 5 simply tells us these men were afraid. There's that Hebrew word yaré. Why are are these men afraid? It's right there in the previous verse: there was a great wind... and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. These guys are fearing for their lives. As sailors, they understand the power of the wind and the waves. Understandably, they are scared. I think all of us get that.
But it's important to point out that this is spiritually uninformed fear. The only time this kind of fear rises about the material world is when the sailors call out to their gods for help. And as we see in verse 6, they want Jonah to do the same. But if we continue in this passage, the next set of verses tell us something about...
2. Informed, But Uniformed Fear (vs. 7-10)
Let's look together at verses 7-10. As we do consider how the mariners' fears are, in a way, evolving over the course of this harrowing experience. We read in verse 7...
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.
So as we see in verse 7, these mariners have moved on from crying out to their gods. Now, they are hoping to hear from their gods. And they do this by casting lots. Of course, they don't realize the only true God will in fact answer them, so that Jonah's stubbornness can revealed.
But here's what I want us to see: did you notice how their fear changed when Jonah revealed the reason for his ocean voyage? It says in verse 10, Then the men were exceedingly afraid, literally, “they feared with a great fear”. And again, that's our Hebrew word, yaré. But why did they become “exceedingly afraid”? Had the storm intensified? It doesn't say that (not yet at least). Was the hull of the ship beginning to split? It doesn't say that.
The sailors' fear evolved because now, they were dealing not just with the reality of drowning; they were dealing with the reality of a deity. What at first seemed like impersonal forces of nature had just become personal. The issues went from meteorological to theological. Death was bad. But divine judgment was worse.
Now, it's clear their uninformed fear is being spiritually informed, right? But at this point, all they know about Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, is that he is (v. 9) “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land”. Obviously, that's enough to scare them silly. But as we know, there is much more to know about God. Therefore, at this point, we could describe their fear as informed, but uninformed. But look at how that changes in the next section. In those verses we finally read about...
3. Informed Fear (vs. 11-16)
Listen to what the writer tells us, beginning in verse 11...
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.
I think, like these sailors, most of us would try every other option before resorting to human sacrifice, right? But knowing there is a powerful deity involved, these men soon realize they have no other options apart from what Jonah has revealed.
Jonah's unwillingness is the reason for the sea's violence. Thus only Jonah's willingness can calm the waves. But notice how this hard truth changes the mariners. Did you see how it changed their prayers? Earlier in the chapter, these men were crying out to false gods. Now, they are crying out to Yahweh, the one, true God.
But there's more, isn't there? In light of our focus this morning, verse 16 reveals an amazing change. The sailors who felt yaré because of the crashing waves in verse 5, who then (in v. 10) were gripped with yaré in light of God's judgment, now are struck with yaré in light of a calm sea.
But there's something different about this fear. Yes, the same Hebrew word is throughout this chapter, but something's changed. Obviously, they are not afraid of smooth sailing. Instead, as it says in verse 16, these men now “feared the LORD exceedingly”. But does that mean they were, at this point, afraid he would destroy them? No. He just spared them. So what exactly is going on here?
I think a key to understanding this change is found in the last half of verse 16. Consider what this fear motivated them to do: and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. These men are responding to God's power. To whatever extent they truly believed that the storm was a result of God's power, they have just witnessed God's power to still the sea, as well stir it up. They have just experienced God's power to spare, as well as to judge.
So what began as a fear of death in light of the storm's power to kill, became a fear of God in light of His power over all things. And rightly, that drove these men to worship. We could say that these men became, in some way, the very thing that Jonah claimed to be in verse 9: someone who fears Yahweh.
What I don't want you to miss is how the same Hebrew word covers all of this. I think that's important because of how it exposes the inadequacy of our modern English word “fear”. That word “fear” seems to work fine in terms of the uninformed fear we see in Jonah 1; maybe even the partially informed fear we read about in this story. But our English word simply does not do well with the informed fear of verse 16. But our word's inadequacy is not an excuse for our indifference or inaction.
III. Fear as a Foundational Feature
Brothers and sisters, friends, we need to reclaim the fullness of that word. We need to walk in the fullness of that word. I can confidently say that because of how the NT speaks to followers of Jesus. Here's just one example: Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (II Corinthians 7:1) I think Paul makes it clear there that fearing God is not simply an OT idea. And as I said, there are many other passages like that in the NT.
But to walk in light of this foundational truth, we need to make sure we understand this foundational truth. And I think the biggest stumbling block to this idea is the popular notion that fearing God is generally the uninformed or partially informed kind of fear we find in Jonah 1; that is, that fear of God is mainly 'Zeusian'; that the God of the Bible is like that god of the Greeks, sitting around, just waiting to throw lightning bolts at people...therefore...be afraid.
Now combine that with another popular notion, that fearing God and loving God are incompatible. It would be strange for someone to love a deity who is only interested in squashing him or her like a bug under a boot. But That's not the God of the Bible, is it?
As we've already seen, divine judgment is certainly a sobering aspect of our creaturely response to the Creator. As rebellious sinners, human being should be afraid of a perfectly just God. But again, there's much more to this fear response. Listen to a few OT examples:
Do you not fear me? declares the LORD. Do you not tremble before me? I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea, a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail; though they roar, they cannot pass over it. (Jeremiah 5:22)]
I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me.  And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it. (Jeremiah 33:8–9)
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?  But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Psalm 130:3–4)
So in those passages, there is no threat of divine judgment. Instead, we hear about God's power to create, God's power to bless, and even God's power to forgive. And there are many more examples confirming this idea that informed fear is informed by the whole character of God, by the perfection of his attributes, by his incomparable holiness, by the mind-blowing magnitude of everything that makes God God.
Therefore, informed fear is best understood as involving what we might call awe. It is an appropriate response to the bigness of God; the overwhelming-ness of God. And no, that is not totally distinct from partially informed fear. It is simply fuller. It's not a partial picture. It's the whole picture.
I think an image from the chapter can help us think about this more carefully. Consider the storm. Consider any storm, even the storm you may have heard in the middle of the night. A thunderstorm is a demonstration of power, isn't it? The wind. The massive clouds. The lightning. The rain. The sound...the thunder.
But think for a minute about the different ways you might experience that storm. Watching one of our monsoon thunderstorms from a distant mountaintop (or from any safe distance) is an awe-inspiring experience. But what if you were on that mountaintop when the storm hit...that mountaintop? Or what if you were in a airplane passing through that storm? Even being in house during a powerful thunderstorm can make us uneasy, right?
But do our reactions mean the thunderstorm is bad? Of course not. In a parched land, whose air is filled with pollutants, the wind and rain of a thunderstorm is an incredible blessing. In the original sense of the word, a thunderstorm is an awesome thing to behold and to benefit from. But for those who are in an unsafe position, a thunderstorm can be downright terrifying.
Brothers and sisters, friends, God is like that storm.
The power of his god-ness as God should drive each and every one of us to consider our spiritual position. Are we in a safe position, or an unsafe position spiritually. Being in an unsafe spiritual position means we are fully exposed, in our guilt, to the overwhelming justice of God, and the overwhelming power of God to condemn the guilty. If that's where you are this morning, than yes, you should be afraid.
But God is calling you and me to a fully informed fear, which means understanding the over-whelming grace as well as the overwhelming justice of God. And fully informed fear is meant to lead us to gospel-informed fear. Through the Good News about Jesus, every person can find that safe position in which we were made to flourish; that safe position from which to behold and to benefit from the awe-inspiring magnitude of God's majesty...the power of his perfections...His unrivaled god-ness as God.
On the cross, Jesus Christ took the storm's fury for us. Jonah was cast into the sea because he was guilty. Jesus threw himself into the sea of God's wrath as one who was perfectly innocent. But he did it because we were and are guilty. He did in it love. He did it to save us.
So how will you live in light of these things? Let's be clear, there is no life without fear. Either the fear of God will rule you, or some other fear will take its place. If biblical fear truly involves things like awe and worship, then we have to acknowledge that we were made to do those very thing, but with God as our focus. And when God is not our focus, then we will fear/worship/tremble before other things. That is what the Bible calls idolatry. And in the end, our idols will fail us in the face of the storm.
But when we are, by grace, through faith, in Christ, we can walk with God, with a gospel-informed fear, beholding and benefiting from his greatness. That's the life we want to explore in the coming weeks. Let's pray and ask God to help on this journey.