The Cross and the Sea 3 Fish

Journey to find a more Christ-like God.

These past 2 weeks – Some big concepts!

Week 1:

Week 1: How humanity has grown in our understanding of how good God has always been. We made some silly guesses – the sea, sea creatures, etc. – But then we encountered the cross and that set our thinking straight.

God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known what God is like – but now we do. (Brian Zahnd)

Reason that that’s important for you – when it comes to the bible, what you read is our growing understanding of who God is.

The infallible, perfect word of God perfectly documents humanity learning who God has always been.

You have to understand where you are in the story.

Week 2:

Cruciform THEOLOGY – Everything else we understand about God comes under (NOT NEXT TO) Jesus on the cross.

Stops us from doing what is so common for humanity: Using the bible to make a God that reflects ourselves.

  • Angry
  • Political
  • Obama-antichrist.

So when – hear opinions – end times, God’s wrath, etc

So when we hear opinions about the end times, God’s wrath, etc etc etc, all those opinions are counted a less true than Christ on the Cross.

The bible actually confirms this.

Hebrews 8 – Paul says when Jesus came, the old covenant (a huge portion of the OT) was rendered ‘obsolete’.


Deserve a break. Too much theology can just make you feel like you don’t know what the heck is going on.

So, we’re going to take our principles:

  1. We’ve grown in our understanding of God.
  2. All understanding of God has to fall in line with the cross.

And apply them to some classic bible stories and see where we get.

We have tools, now let’s try to use the tools.

1. What does this passage/story/poem/verse/book tell us about how people understood God at the time?

  • Ex: David & “the sea”.
  • Ex: Cencus – think it’s God, but a couple hundred years later, change it to be Satan.

2. If these people understood the cross, how might they have thought differently?

Principle of accommodation – Thought God was. / Liked.

3. How does this passage/story/poem/verse/book point us to the cross?

(Cruciform theology. – The purpose of the bible is to point us to the cross.)

Purpose – bible – cross.

Perfect tool for that. But it’s not a perfect tool for stuff it’s not a perfect tool for. You might have the perfect hammer, but it’s not the perfect tool for flossing your teeth.


I believe god is honored by our humble seeking – “i still have much to learn”

Permission to – Think / Question / Doubt / Seek

Jesus – Matthew 7 –

“those who seek, find.”

Start Easy.

Talk about one of my favorite bible stories of all time!

It’s fun, but also incredible challenging in it’s message.


Fish – Specifically, fish that swallow people for three days and then vomit them up.


Assyrians – mean. Nasty, brutish, violent, oppressive – made life miserable for Israelites. Year after year

Slaughtered Israelites by the 1000’s.

Huge parts of the minor prophets (books in the OT) dedicated to the Assyrians.

“Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath! (Isaiah 10:5)

Therefore this is what the Lord, the LORD Almighty, says: “My people who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians, who beat you with a rod and lift up a club against you, as Egypt did. (Isaiah 10:24)

As with lots of people who are living in oppression, we hated the Assyrians.

During this time – story emerged – a man named Jonah. Israelite – God: “take a message to the great city Nineveh.”

Nineveh – in Assyria. Not just any city, it’s the ‘Capital City of the Assyrian Empire

Book of Nahum – Entire book is the prediction of the bloody, horrific demise of Nineveh. – He describe Nineveh is ‘the city of murder and lies.’

Book starts:

A prophecy concerning Nineveh. (Nahhum 1:1)

The LORD has given a command concerning you, Nineveh: “You will have no descendants to bear your name. I will destroy the images and idols that are in the temple of your gods. I will prepare your grave, for you are vile.” (Nahhum 1:14)

Nineveh? The capital city of our worst enemy? The people have been killing us generation after generation?

You want me to go – do something good for them? I’d rather die!

Jonah – ship – opposite direction.

Of course he does. We would too.

STORY in 20 seconds: Jonah gets on the boat, a storm comes, there’s a discussion among the crew about the cause of the storm, they determine Jonah’s the problem, they throw him overboard, he’s swallowed by a fish, he prays in the belly of the fish, the fish spits him out, he then goes to Nineveh. To everyones surprise, the Ninevites are fantastically receptive to his message, and then the story ends with him so depressed he wants to kill himself because of a gourd.

God causes a gourd plant to grow. Jonah is happy with the gourd. god causes a worm to go eat the root of the gourd, the gourd dies, and Jonah wants to die because he’s so upset.

Fish later – First: Weird Story

Where do we start? We’ll get to the swallowed by a fish part shortly, but first, I’ll start with the sheer strangeness of this story.

You would assume that a story told by Israelites about Assyrians would stick to fairly straightforward categories of good and bad, right and wrong, righteous and evil.

But GOOD GUY- runs opposite direction

Boat – Violent Storm comes.

Note: evil of the sea.

Pagan, heathen sailors – figure out why this storm has come – Jonah is the problem, something Jonah knew all along.

And then, when he finally does get to Nineveh, after he’s resisted God again and again, these horrible, mean, nasty Assyrians turn out to be open to God’s message, really open-so open that the king orders

The king orders …”Let man and beast be covered in sackcloth.”

Sackcloth was what you wore when you were crying out to God, when you were acutely aware of your sins, when you were asking for God’s mercy. The king orders everybody to repent and wear sackcloth-including the animals!

(Animals repenting? Wha….? A fairly surreal detail, to say the least. One of the many hints that the author has a larger point in mind…a point we’ll get to shortly.)

We’re familiar in the modern world with frameworks that see things in dualistic terms: there are the good people, and then there are the bad people, there is the right thing to do, there is the wrong thing to do, there are the people who need saving, and then there are people who do the saving.

Lines blurred

  • Good guy – defiant, lazy
  • Bad guys – receptive, open
  • Good guy – so upset – wants to die

He says to god:

I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.

Weird story b/c no one does what you expect them to

To our questions…

1. What does this story tell us about how people understood God at the time?

This story reinforces the idea that people attributed evil to the sea.

This story shows us that God’s people thought that God hated their enemies.

Writing poems about a God with a bloody sword coming to destroy the wicked people.

Which was wrong of them. – Which is shown in the twist ending. – God responds to murderous horrible people with forgiveness and patience.

2. If these people understood the cross, how might they have thought differently?

What people? Could be – narrator (the census) – characters.

In the case of Jonah, had Jonah understood the cross, he would have understood God’s desire to show mercy, not wrath.

The Sailors didn’t understand God. Right before they threw Jonah into the sea they said “Please, LORD, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, LORD, have done as you pleased.” (Jonah 1:14)

Not horrible theology.

Here’s my point: Don’t let them teach you who God is and isn’t. They didn’t know, but now we do.

3. How does this passage/story/poem/verse/book point us to the cross? – Gets interesting…

Now this is where it gets interesting…

First: story about a man, but really about a nation

Can Jonah forgive assyrians = can Israel forgive Assyrians?

When god forgives them, Jonah is mad. of course he is. it stinks when good things happen to people you hate. Academy Awards – pretend happy.

Larger theme: god has been calling Israel from early on (genesis 12) to be a light to the world. show gods redeeming love. – haven’t lived up to.

Question: can you forgive your worst enemy and allow god’s redeeming love to flow through you to them?

Question for jonah b/c question for Israel

Here’s how the book ends:

The gourd tree dies.

Jonah: “Kill me now!”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” (Jonah 4:9)

Then the LORD said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. (Jonah 4:10)

But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:11)

Not just theoretical. Asking people w/ reasons to say… ‘no’.

What about the fish part?

We talked about the important part, now let’s talk about the part that makes no difference.

Perfect example: Insane discussions about the bible – massive distractions from ‘what the bible is all about’ that ultimately just serve as massive distractions.

2 responses:

  • Really? It’s 2015! Haven’t we moved past all that magical/mythical thinking? Haven’t we outgrown these ridiculous fairytales? Aren’t these the exact sort of claims that have turned off so many people from the Bible-let alone God and faith and Jesus and all that?
  • If the Bible says a man was swallowed by a fish, then a man was swallowed by fish! If you deny that this story happened as the author says it happened then what about all the other stories? If you deny this one, then aren’t you denying all the others with miraculous elements in them? And if you deny this one but affirm others, aren’t you just picking and choosing which ones you want to believe?

What do I think? I think it doesn’t matter what you believe about a man being swallowed by a fish.

If you don’t believe it literally happened, that’s fine. It’s not what the story is about anyway. Lots of people of faith over the years have read this story as a parable about national forgiveness. They point to many aspects of the surreal nature of the story as simply great storytelling because the author has a larger point, one about the Israelites and the Assyrians and God’s call to be a light to everyone, especially your enemies.

Right on. Cool. Just 1 problem: some deny it’s truth just because “those things just don’t happen”

Question: Why not?

  • Do we only affirm things that can be proven in a lab?
  • Do we only believe things we have evidence for?
  • Do we believe or not believe something happened based on…whether we believe that things like that happen or not? (weird sentence)
  • Can we only agree with things that make sense to us?
  • Are we closed to everything that we can’t explain?

If we reject all things – can’t explain, shrink world to what we Understand. no fun.

Of course he was swallowed by a fish, that’s what the bible says!

Right on. Cool.

Just one caution. It’s possible to affirm the literal fact of a man being swallowed by a fish, making that the crux of the story in such a way that you defend that, believe that, argue about that-and in spending your energies on the defend-the-fish-part miss the point of the story, the point about allowing God’s redeeming love to flow through us with such power and grace that we are able to love and bless even our worst enemies.

Original audience – tough – open wound – Bless Assyrians?

Hard b/c it insists that

Your enemy may be more open to God’s redeeming love than you are.

Religious people – us & them – good/bad – sinners/saints – holy club/wicked world – not here

The ‘us’ guy: furious – God & ‘Them’ close now! – Rather die.

Back to fish:

Which takes us back to the fish: it’s easy for the debate about the fish part to provide a distraction from the tensions of the story that actually have the capacity and potential to confront us and disrupt us with God’s love, the kind of love that can actually transform us into more mature and courageous people, people who love even our enemies. (Nod to Jesus there.)

Possible to defend ‘facts’ – miss part changes – heart.

People have spent their lives defending the possibility of an air pocket in a fish.

It has been well established that the phrase “three days and three nights” in ancient Hebrew usage was an idiomatic expression meaning simply “three days,” and was applicable even if the beginning and ending days of the period were only partial days. Thus refers to a period as short as about 38 hours. Furthermore, much like people, whales can have gas. in that case, air accumulates in the whale’s stomach, and, as long as the animal it has swallowed is still alive, digestive activity, technically, will not begin. Thus, Jonah’s experience happened entirely within the framework of natural law. (

We’re talking about bitterness in our hearts.

You can argue endlessly about fish, thinking you’re defending the truth or pointing out the ridiculous outdated nature of the man-in-fish-miracle, only to discover that everybody in the discussion has conveniently found a way to avoid the very real, personal, convicting questions the story raises about what really lurks deep in our hearts.

In closing:

Learn to ask the right questions – Don’t – find facts – heart

Learn who God is.

Use the bible to enter into the experience of humanities evolving understanding of God. Ultimately landing on a crucified Christ.

Closing Statement:

The book of Jonah is not a story about what lurks deep in the ocean, it’s a story about what lurks deep in our hearts. It’s not about a man swallowed by a whale, it’s about a nation swallowed with hatred for their enemies. Neither Jonah nor any other character is there to tell you how to act, it’s a story designed to challenge your heart. The literal story is not the story here. The heart of Israel is the story. Their hearts are the main characters, and the book ends with their fate still undecided. Will they choose to forgive? Or maybe for us today, the question is really: Will you choose to forgive?

Learn to read the bible with the right eyes. Look for Jesus. Look for redemption. Look for love. If you look for arguing points, and ways to prove the goodness of ‘us’ and the wickedness of ‘them’, you’ll be frustrated. Because the bible isn’t about drawing lines to separate the good from the bad, it’s about Jesus coming and eating with all. The bible is about redemption, and forgiveness. The bible is about God making wrong things right. As bible puts it, it’s about God reconciling all things to himself. And making all things new.