A Temple, a Fish, and the Prodigal Prophet (Jonah 2)

Jonah had a lot to ponder.

…if only he had more time.

As he sank lower and lower into his watery grave, Jonah couldn’t help but recollect on the events of the past few days, how his life had made such a drastic turn for the worst in such a quick amount of time. And it was all his fault. As he sank further and further into the murky dark, his life did not flash before his eyes nor did his mind come to wonder whether or not the storm above had actually calmed upon his expulsion into the open sea; instead his last few decisions – all of the regrets and interlaid guilt that came along with them – passed through his mind, assaulting his head and making the dense water seemingly press against his temples that much harder. His brain began to ache.

It had all started with one simple decision: to go or not to go. To listen or not to listen. To obey or not to obey. God had commanded him to go one way, but he had decided to go the other. He, the man of God – the one known throughout the country for intermediating God’s word to the people of Israel – had tried to run away from the Lord, fleeing from the God of all creation on a measly boat across a sea that He had created. Jonah had put others in danger by his selfish acts. He had gone below deck and tried to flee from his own failures, assuming that sleep would free him of the guilty conscience. He had been confronted by the men and had ultimately been forced to publicly confess to his sin, to pray to God and ask for repentance and ask for some sort of deliverance from the storm that beat against their ship, threatening to break it apart.

And then he had been thrown overboard, into the quaking sea that closed its mouth around him, swallowing it into its very bowels so that, try as he did, he could not make his way back to the surface. The water was strikingly cold and the current shockingly strong, pulling Jonah further and further into the darkness until, at last, he could see nothing. His lungs begged for air, but he dared not open his mouth. His eyes bulged and his skin felt tight against his face, the pressure constantly increasing as he sank lower and lower.

So he prayed. He removed himself from his present situation and looked towards the temple of God, allowing the light to shine down on him as the pain of drowning slowly slipped away. Is this what death is like? Jonah wondered to himself, in awe of the painlessness of it all. His mind was filled with words – a song to the Lord – and he would have opened his mouth to sing them if he had not at the last second remembered that he in fact was still sinking into the depths of the sea, and to open his mouth in song would be to submit himself to death.

But Jonah knew he would not die. In some sort of inexplicable sudden comprehension, his mission became clear in his mind, suddenly aware of the fact that God still wanted him to go to Nineveh. God still wanted him to bring them the Truth. God was not done with him yet, no matter how bad the odds might seem. The sea might be deep and his body might be frail, but the Lord had created both and He would surely provide.

I’ve been expelled from Your sight, Jonah thought, once again retreating into the bright dimension that was his prayer to the Lord. Nevertheless I will look again to Your holy temple. Hear my prayer, oh God, for I remember You from these depths. The waters may engulf me and the roots of the mountains may be at my side and the earth with its bars may imprison me here for the rest of time, but I remember You, God. I remember Your promises. I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay.

Jonah continued to sink. His lungs fought for breath and his body felt that it might burst, but he kept his mind calm, knowing that, even in this instant, he was forgiven by the Lord. Even if he were to die, he would be at peace with God’s decision. Yes, Jonah knew he had made mistakes, but he knew that even through those mistakes, God had managed to accomplish wonders, bringing those idolatrous sailors into the Kingdom of the one true God. It was all part of His plan. Though Jonah felt near death, he felt a smile cross his face. His lungs burned in agony, but his heart felt light with joy.

And all of a sudden air entered his lungs. He coughed multiple times and found himself lying on top of some sort of spongey surface free of surrounding water, though it was too dark to see what exactly his surroundings were. It smelt of death and perhaps could have been the experience of death itself, but Jonah knew better; he was fully alive and he was no longer drowning. Though he knew not the circumstances of his survival, he knew he was well – he was not dead – and that was all that mattered. God had heard his prayer. As he righted himself upon the spongey, sticky surface, Jonah began to catch his breath, taking notice of the deep, guttural noises reverberating from all around him.

Wait…was he inside of a fish?

Closing his eyes in thought and straining to make sense of the situation at hand, Jonah actually began to chuckle. His laughs reverberated throughout the mouth or belly or wherever he was of the fish, and Jonah embraced the stench of his new home and the inexplicability of his circumstances, the most prevalent example of the Lord’s marvelous sense of humor. He would remain in the fish for three days and three nights before being spit out onto dry land.

Salvation is from the Lord, Jonah thought to himself with a smile as he righted himself and immediately began to head towards Nineveh.

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(based on Jonah 2)

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Last time we saw Jonah, he had gotten himself into a pretty deep situation (pun most definitely intended). He had fled from the Lord, made a fool of himself, and gotten himself thrown into the depths of the sea to a most certain death all because he, the man of God, didn’t want to go and do the work of God to the ISIS of his time.

…and in all honesty, who can blame him? The Ninevites were a rough and scary crowd, so it makes sense that Jonah wanted to run. We probably would have done the exact same thing had we been put in his shoes. But the thing is…this chapter of Jonah doesn’t really focus on his fear that much. It doesn’t really focus on the foolishness of his decision or the guilty conscience that he bore.

Instead, Jonah chapter 2 is all about deliverance. In this chapter we see God come down to Jonah and deliver him from a most certain death in the most unlikely of circumstances. Imagine Jonah’s reaction to the whole situation: he’s sinking and sinking and sinking, and suddenly the idea of making it out of the situation becomes that much more unlikely as he realizes that the sea in which he sinks will be his grave. And then, at the last moment, right as he feels he is about to pass into the next life…

He wakes up in the belly of a fish.

Jonah’s reaction must have been hysterical. Though he was underserving and though God was unobliged, Jonah finds himself receiving an unbelievable gift from the heavenly Father whom he had been openly fleeing from.

And you know what that is called? That’s called grace.

Let’s look at this a little more in depth (once again, pun intended). Despite being so seemingly far away from life, sunken to the point of death, Jonah is able to call out to God, and God hears him! And when God hears Jonah’s call, He doesn’t say, “Well, you had your chance, buddy. Should’ve thought of that earlier.” No, He doesn’t call Jonah’s actions into question or play hard-to-get – He would never do such a thing! He doesn’t care that Jonah ran away from Him, for those transgressions have been removed from him as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). God is perfect in love, and as we know, perfect love keeps no record of wrongs, but instead casts out fear (1 John 4:18, 1 Cor. 13:4-8). As Jonah looks towards God’s temple, God hears his cries and He takes away Jonah’s fear. He deposits him into the belly of a fish, the most unlikely of scenarios that just further proves God’s love and power.

And what is Jonah’s response? He breaks out into praise, because that’s what happens when you experience grace. When you realize the depths at which God is willing to dive for you, you can’t help but praise Him. God could have just lifted Jonah to the surface of the water and had a boat providentially come pick him up, but no, God wanted to prove that He can work in even the most unlikely of situations in the most unlikely of ways.

Now you might be wondering: what does it mean to “look towards God’s temple,” as we read of Jonah doing in both verses 4 and 7? Think about it like this: a temple is a place where man can be in union with God. You see, after Adam and Eve, God could no longer walk with us directly because God cannot be part of any unholy union, so he establishes this idea of a temple, where man and God, after atonement for man’s sins, can once again be together for a brief period of time. So whenever Jonah looks towards God’s temple, he is remembering God’s grace, how despite our unholy nature, God was willing to communicate with us, though He is unobligated to do so. Jonah looks towards the temple because it represents grace, and when he realizes how undeserving he is of that grace, even the belly of a fish seems like heaven to him. He begins praising God.

And this is where it starts to get good, because about eight centuries after this story took place, another man of God would arrive on the scene, and with Him came a new law, a law not written on stones that would be placed in the center of a physical temple, but a Law that would be put in our minds and written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33). This man’s name was Jesus – or Yeshua, as the people of His day would have called Him – and through Him, we no longer need to look towards any physical temple, because our bodies themselves have become temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Like Jonah, all we need to do is look towards the temple – ourselves – to see a living and breathing testament of God’s grace. And the great thing is, whereas the temples of old only gave the people direct access to God for brief periods at a time, we have constant access and we can speak with Him whenever we please, for the Spirit is in us, allowing us to do so (Heb. 4:16).

Like the people of the Old Testament, our salvation is still covered through the blood of a lamb, but our lamb is the Lamb (1 John 1:29), the living Word who became flesh to take on our sins and die for us. Like Jonah, all we have to do when we are at our lowest points in life are look towards the temple – look towards Jesus – and, like Jonah, we will be given a second chance. For, as Ben Stuart (former director of Texas A&M’s Breakaway Ministries) so gracefully put it, grace is “when an undeserving people, receive from an unobligated Giver, an unbelievable gift.”

You want to know why this is all possible, though? Why our bodies are now temples and why we can experience this same grace that Jonah experienced?

Because that man, Yeshua, also sunk into death, just as Jonah did. Like Jonah, Jesus spent three days in the heart of the earth, encapsulated by darkness, before once again emerging into the light and going to preach the message of God once more to the world (Matt. 12:40). The only difference is this: Jonah did it to himself, whereas Jesus did not…we did.

That’s what grace is, folks. And when Jonah experienced grace, he began to praise God, so we should do the same. Through Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection three days later, He bestowed upon us a gift that, like Jonah, we did not deserve: life. For our old selves died with Jesus on that cross, and our new selves were resurrected along with Him (Rom. 6:8, 2 Tim. 2:11), so that when God looks at us, He sees not the sinful humans who live in constant rebellion, but He instead sees the sacrificed Lamb, whose blood covers our sins and declares us righteous (Rom. 5:1-2).

The best way to honor the giver of a gift is to enjoy the gift with gratitude, so take this life you have been given and use it to honor God. “Thank you” won’t cut it, so go out and enjoy your life! When you are at your lowest of lows, remember that God looked down and thought you a person worth dying for. Remember the unbelievable gift He has given to you. Look towards the temple; see what love the Father has lavished. Remember the story of Jonah and remember that you are Jonah. We all have our boats to Tarshish and we have all been thrown overboard, sent sinking into some unknown depths.

So surrender yourself and watch as God lifts you up and gives you the grace that none of us deserve. For our God is a God of second chances.