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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
Title:Saved through the Fish
Text:Jonah 1:17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Liturgy from 1984 Book of Praise

Psalm 84:4,6

Hymn 29:1,2

Psalm 30:1,2

Psalm 103:1

Hymn 14:1,4

Read:  Jonah 1; Matthew 12:9-45

Text:  Jonah 1:17.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ.

Two words that seem to go together are “Jonah” and “whale”.  The idea of a man thrown overboard but swallowed up by what is popularly thought of as a whale and then to spend three days and nights in the cold, dark, slimy innards of this whale has captured the imaginations of young and old. 

Of course we know that it was not a whale that swallowed Jonah, but a big fish.  The Hebrew language does have a word for big sea creatures such as whales, sea monsters and other big fish (see Genesis 1:21, Psalm 148:7), but Jonah 1:17 does not use that word; instead the text uses the common word for fish.  But it could be, however, that the idea of the fish being a whale came from the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, which did not use the common Greek word for fish, which is ichthus, but used a word that can mean whale or sea monster, or any type of very large fish.  And that’s the word also used in Matthew 12:40.  So Matthew 12:40 could be translated to read that Jonah was for three days and nights in the belly of a whale – but I’m glad they didn’t, because there is no doubt from the Old Testament that it was a big but ordinary fish that swallowed Jonah.

The story of Jonah being inside this fish for three days and nights has been ridiculed by Bible scholars who say we should not read this book literally, that Jonah is a not a true story but was made up to bring home a message.  Years ago, Bible commentators who defended the truth of the book of Jonah spent quite some energy proving that it was possible that Jonah could have been swallowed whole.  One commentator (Keil & Delitzsch) concluded that it could have been a 25 foot sea dog (a kind of shark).  They even recount an event in 1758 when a sailor fell overboard from a boat in the Mediterranean Sea and was swallowed by one of these sea dogs.  The Captain immediately shot the shark, the cannon ball struck it, the sea dog vomited up the sailor again, and the sailor was still alive and hardly hurt!

These stories are fun to read and do make the point that a large fish is able to swallow a man whole, but the miracle here is that God prepared or appointed this fish, caused it to swallow Jonah in one gulp, and then the LORD preserved Jonah’s life in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.  And it is very important that we believe this really happened, and that he really and truly did stay in the belly of a fish for three days and three nights.  First of all, the book of Jonah presents itself as true history.  Jonah the son of Amittai was a real person who came from the real place of Gath Hepher.  Nineveh was a real city, as was Joppa and Tarshish.  And further, as I’ve already mentioned, in Jonah 1:17, the Holy Spirit saw to it that the normal word for “fish” was used, and not that word for “sea monster” or “whale”.  I think that’s important:  While a sea dog or similar shark or fish would be classed as a “sea monster”, the “sea monster” is also used for sea dragons and monsters that are more of a mythological nature.  So by using the simple word “fish” the story of Jonah in the fish’s belly is underlined as being something that really happened and is not an old sailor’s yarn.

It is important to confess this.  In Matthew 12, as well as Matthew 16 and Luke 11, our Lord Jesus also speaks about Jonah in the fish’s belly as being something that really happened and that it was a sign of His own burial.  And so if we deny that the story of Jonah is true, then the truth of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is also questioned.  Therefore we must believe that the story of Jonah in the belly of the fish really and truly happened, and through this event the Lord saved Jonah and later brought salvation to the city of Nineveh.

This morning I wish to preach to you from Jonah 1:17 in the light of Matthew 12.  I have chosen the following theme and points:

The LORD Provides Salvation Through The Fish.

1.    A sign of God’s love displayed in salvation.

2.    A type of God’s plan for salvation.

3.    A call to believe in God’s work of salvation.

1. A sign of God’s love displayed in salvation.

We just read together from Jonah 1, how Jonah had run away from the LORD, how the LORD had sent a storm, how Jonah was thrown overboard and how the storm had then suddenly stopped?  Jonah was a sinner.  He rebelled against the LORD, ran away from His presence, and deserved to die.  But then comes verse 17:  “Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah.”  This was not some chance event of a dolphin swimming by, nor was it Jonah’s “lucky day”.  Just as the LORD had sent a storm to stop Jonah in his tracks, now He had sent a fish to swallow him alive and deliver him on a beach three days later. 

Jonah did not deserve this.  He deserved to die, to be separated from the love of God forever.  But as Jonah sank into the sea, weighed down by the burden of his sin, the God of grace and mercy provided salvation in the form of a fish.  Jonah is saved not because he deserved it, but by the grace and love of God his Saviour.

Seven hundred years later, that other Prophet from Galilee, Jesus Christ, referred back to what happened to Jonah and applied it to Himself.  “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”  (Matt. 12:39)  So why did Jesus use the sign of the prophet Jonah as a sign to prove that He truly was the Messiah?  Was it just the connection of Jonah being three days in the fish and Jesus being three days in the grave?  Or is there something deeper here?

In Matthew 12, we read of a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees that became quite intense.  We began our reading in verse 9, where on the Sabbath day Jesus heals a man with a withered hand.  The Pharisees were angry that Jesus would do this on the Sabbath to the extent that they “plotted against Him, how they might destroy him.”  (Matt. 12:14)  Then in verse 22 Jesus healed a demon-possessed man that caused the people to ask, “Can this be the Son of David?” that is, the Christ?  And then the Pharisees get even more upset and say that rather than being the Messiah, Jesus is demon possessed himself!

I do not think that the Pharisees had a simple case of jealousy against Jesus.  Where they were upset that Jesus was stealing the limelight and so He needed to be pulled down a peg or two.  The Pharisees hated the very nature of Jesus, what He stood for, what He taught, and what He was doing.

By the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Matthew highlighted the difference between Jesus and the Pharisees by describing in verse 18 to 21 what Jesus is like.  When Jesus walked on this earth, He was seen as One who loved justice, who did not quarrel, argue or shout in anger.  He was gentle, One who reached out to “bruised reeds” and “smoking flax”.  He was One who could be trusted and who called people to come to Him to find rest.  Jesus was the One who taught elsewhere that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

The Pharisees were not like that.  “We are children of Abraham” they boasted.  “There is a line-up to get into heaven, and we will be the first to get in” they claimed.  “We know the law, we will police the law, and we are the ones to judge how the law is to be obeyed.”  The Pharisees were waiting anxiously for the Messiah, but they expected Him to come with power, with an iron fist, with the law to ram down the throats of all those prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners and other wayward children of Abraham while patting them on the back and declaring them to be good and faithful servants.  They did not expect a Man who was gentle and lowly of heart.  They did not expect One who would show love to outcasts.  They did not expect One who would offer a Gospel of salvation apart from the road of obedience to the law.

And so they said concerning Jesus, “He’s a fake!  Jesus Himself is demon possessed.  He is under the control of Satan.”  And then they said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.  They did not want a sign to convince them to believe.  They had already seen a demon possessed man who was blind and mute healed.  What they wanted was a sign to prove that He was not who He claimed to be.  In Luke 11 we receive further information that the sign these Scribes and Pharisees were looking for was a “sign from heaven”.  A sign that did not originate with Jesus, but a sign that came from God.

What would such a sign look like?  Did they want a new star to appear in the sky?  Did they want Jesus to call down a host of angels to sing “Glory to God in the highest” to him?  Did they want Him to call for God to speak, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him”?  Did they want Moses and Elijah to come down and speak with Him?  Had the Pharisees seen any one of those events, would it have made a difference?  The Lord Jesus could see straight through their hypocrisy.  “You are an evil and adulterous generation” he declared.  The Pharisees refused to accept the truth that Jesus was the eternal Son of God.  They refused to accept the very nature of God, the love and mercy of God, as displayed in the way that Christ showed love for sinners.  Because the love of God was not in them and they hated the Lord’s Christ, Jesus called them evil, or corrupt and adulterous for they were unfaithful in serving the LORD as He revealed Himself in His Word.

John 1:10,11 says, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.  He came to His own, and His own did not receive him.”

But our Lord Jesus can not give the sign that the Pharisees are demanding.  He Himself could not call down a voice or another sign from heaven to prove beyond doubt that He is the Son of God.  The eternal Son of God had take upon Himself the flesh and blood of his mother Mary.  And if He was to give the sign from heaven that the Pharisees were after, to convince them that He is God, He would have had to lay aside the humiliation of His true humanity – the human nature that had to suffer and die to take away our sins.

But there was a sign that Jesus could point to.  A sign focusing on His humiliation.  A sign pointing to the depth of His love, to how far He would go for “bruised reeds” and “smoking flax”, to show how great His love for sinners really is. 

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”  Jesus gives as proof that He is the Son of God, the Saviour of the world by pointing to a runaway prophet who is lying in the belly of a damp, dark, slimy, wriggling fish?  What kind of sign is this?

But in Matthew 12, Christ does not simply point to the man Jonah; the sign is what happened to Jonah.  Jonah is a sinner and deserves to die.  He himself had rejected the LORD, had run away from Him and His calling on His life.  He wasn’t “first in line” to get to heaven; he wasn’t even at the back of the line: he’d opted out of a relationship with God.  But the God Who Saves brought back Jonah from the deep, from the gates of hell, and so rescued a man who should have died.  In Jonah we see “the grace and love of God for those who have sunk into the depths of their sin.”[1]

When Jesus was on the cross, the Jews walked by blaspheming Him wagging their heads and saying, “IF You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”  (Matt. 27:40)  And the soldiers, getting in on the action added, “IF you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!”  (Luke 23:37)  Show us a sign and we will believe You are who You claim to be.  Take off Your humanity and show us Your divinity and we will bow down to You!

But God had prepared another sign to prove that Jesus is the Son of God, the Saviour of the world.  Death on a cross and being laid in a tomb.  A sign of God’s love displayed in salvation.

2. A type of God’s plan for salvation.

The way that Jesus uses the story of Jonah is a great lesson in what the meaning of the Old Testament is, and how we are to explain the stories in the Old Testament.  S. G. de Graaf, in his introduction to the books “Promise and Deliverance” says that the most common way to read these Old Testament history books is to learn about men and their actions, what they believed and how they sinned.  God enters the picture of course, but just to give rewards or punishment.  And so the moral of the Old Testament stories becomes “be like Jonah” or “don’t be like Jonah”.    If you are good, God will bless you; if you are bad, you will be punished.[2]

But that is not the best way to understand the Old Testament.  We need to see the Old Testament stories as part of the “history of redemption.”  And so we don’t look at Joseph or Joshua or Jonah in the first place, but we ask, “What is God teaching us about Himself here?  How does this story help us better understand our salvation in Christ?”  As we study the book of Jonah, we need to get a sense not just of a sin-filled Jonah, but of the grace-filled Gospel of Jesus Christ.

What is exciting about Jonah 1:17 is that Jesus Himself takes this text and applies it to His ministry.  “For 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.”  What Jesus is teaching here is that what happened to Jonah is a type or a shadow of what will come later.  The LORD saving Jonah through the fish and Jonah being in the belly of the fish for 3 days and nights is a type, a model of how God would bring salvation to us through the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

In Jonah 1:17, Jonah is not the main character.  And nor is the fish.  The verse begins with, “Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah.”  This Bible text teaches us about the LORD and His work of redemption.  He prepared a fish.  He chose to send the fish to where Jonah was sinking beneath the waves.  He decided to save Jonah and miraculously enabled Jonah to be saved.  In saving Jonah, the Lord showed Himself to be full of grace and truth.

When we compare Jonah to Jesus, then we can see what a powerful sign Jonah was to the Jews, and how the Jews had no excuse for not receiving Jesus as the Son of God.  Compare the person and message of Jonah to the person and message of Christ:

·      While God had sent a minor prophet, Jonah, to call Nineveh to repent, He had sent His only Son, Jesus to call the Jews to repent.

·      While Jonah was sinful, rebellious and lacking in love, Christ was sinless, full of wisdom and compassion.

·      While Jonah preached a message of doom and destruction, Christ preached a message of grace, pardon and free salvation.

·      While Jonah had no miracles to show the people of Nineveh, the message of Christ was accompanied by great signs and wonders that displayed the free grace and salvation offered in Christ.

·      While Nineveh had no prior knowledge of the LORD and His ways, Christ was preaching to God’s covenant people who had “Moses and the Prophets”, who could have known that the Messiah would come as one who was “gentle and lowly of heart” (Matt. 11:29).

But the real power in the sign of the prophet Jonah is that this was indeed the ultimate “sign from heaven” that anyone could wish for.  Jesus is not shown to be the Son of God by calling down fire from heaven to destroy the Pharisees, but by going the way of the Cross to die, to be placed in the belly of the earth for 3 days and 3 nights.

The Pharisees did not want to hear this sign.  For the Pharisees, God was a harsh and judgmental God, One who demanded perfect obedience to His law before one could come into His presence.  For the Pharisees to receive the sign of the prophet Jonah, they needed a new theology!  A new way to read the Old Testament.  A new way to understand the law.  A new way to understand God.  They must learn that the Gospel is free, that salvation is from the LORD, that they deserve God’s favour no more than those prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners.  But that if they received Christ as their Saviour, they would have the right not just to be children of Abraham, but redeemed children of God.

3. A call to believe in God’s work of salvation.

Jesus “was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.  He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.”  That’s the tragedy of the refusal of the Jews to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as the son of God.

“Show us a sign so that we might believe in You.”  God Himself provided the sign:  after Christ was in the belly of the earth for three days, God raised Him up.  Christ has risen, burst His prison. 

But no one saw it.  No one witnessed the greatest sign of all, the moment that Christ rose from the dead.  This was a direct act of God, but even this sign does not take away the call for faith.  The resurrection must be preached, and believed by all those who hear.

The Lord Jesus goes on in Matthew 12:41, “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.”  The people of Nineveh did not see a grey, sickly looking Jonah spewed up on a beach.  But they believed the word of this prophet of the LORD.  For the people of Nineveh, the sign of Jonah’s salvation through the fish combined with his message of judgment gave the message that God is gracious and willing to give life to needy sinners, to  the lost and hurting ones who beg to Him for mercy.

We do not just have the sign of the prophet Jonah.  We have the sign of the Saviour Jesus.  The sign of an empty tomb.  And what is your response?  Not just to the sign, but to what this teaches us about God and His way of salvation?

In the early Christian Church it was not easy to believe in a Christ who was foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews.  The world that refused to receive the Christ also refused to receive His followers.  They were hated for the sake of Christ and many were killed.  To escape persecution, they went down into the belly of the earth, into the catacombs of Rome.  These catacombs were a rabbit warren of passage ways that were dug out of the soft rock.  For hundreds of years the people of Rome were buried there.  It was the realm of the dead.  But the Christians met there in secret.  And they had a secret symbol: the sign of a fish.  No, we can not link this sign directly to the fish that swallowed Jonah.  There isn’t a strong record of that link, and the word for the fish that swallowed Jonah in Matthew 12 is not the normal word Ichthus, but another one meaning “great fish, sea monster or whale”.  But why did those early Christians choose the sign of a fish?  The sign of the fish did not come from the Jews.  Perhaps the early Christians got the idea from their heathen neighbours, from the religious story that one would ride into the afterlife on the back of a dolphin, being carried by a fish.  But the greatest meaning was found in the letters of the Greek word for fish, Ichthus.  Each letter stands for the first letter of the following:  Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Saviour.  And down in those catacombs, they etched the sign of the fish on the wall, pointing it in the direction that one must walk to find the Christians who had gathered to find the God of life in the midst of the tombs of the catacombs.

Ichthus.  For their heathen neighbours the word simply meant “fish.”  For the Christians it meant Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Saviour. 

The LORD provides salvation through the Fish.  And through the ages, the call comes to each of us:  Do you receive Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Saviour?

The Pharisees did not.  They were hard.  They were proud.  They were legalistic.  “We are Abraham’s children. God’s favour will shine upon us because we obey the law.  We have made ourselves righteous.”

Nineveh will rise up in judgement against them and accuse them.  When Nineveh was confronted with the God of justice and mercy in the person of Jonah, they believed.  But now One greater than Jonah has come.  Now the One in whose Name the Gentiles will trust (Matt. 12:21) has come.  Believe in Him.  Believe in His work.  Believe the message that He has proclaimed.

For as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name:  who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.  (John 1:12,13)

Jonah.  The fish.  Ichthus.  Jesus Christ.  God’s Son.  Our Saviour.  Amen.

[1] Hendriksen on Luke 11.

[2] Promise & Deliverance, vol 1, p19.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2009, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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