By J. Vernon McGee
Using Jonah as an example, may I say to you, we ought to be very sure when we get on board ship that we are in God's will. I talked to a couple here several years ago who were going to the mission field. I questioned them, "Are you sure this is what God wants you to do?" Oh yes, they had God's leading! And what they told me was His leading is not leading at all; but they thought it was. I'm sorry to say, they came back inside of a year. They were casualties. They will never go to the mission field again, I'm confident. My friend, before you buy your ticket, be sure that you're in the will of God. We need to do a great deal of testing today concerning that.
Now there is a storm breaking over this boat because there is a backsliding prophet aboard.
So the captain came to him, and said to him, "What do you mean, sleeper? Arise, call on your God; perhaps your God will consider us, so that we may not perish." (Jonah 1:6)
This is embarrassing for Jonah. Imagine having the pagan captain of that ship come down and rebuke him because he is the one asleep--and he should have been leading the prayer meeting! May I say to you, Jonah is far from God. He's really out of fellowship with God, and yet he could sleep.
A lot of Christians are asleep as well. It doesn't bother them that they're out of fellowship with Him. I'm sure that a great many people on the outside observing Christians today would say under their breath, "If I believed as you believe, I wouldn't live like you are living." Well, this captain doesn't mind rebuking Jonah.
And they said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this trouble has come upon us." (Jonah 1:7)
These sailors are accustomed to the Mediterranean, and they detect that this is no natural storm.
... So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, "Please tell us! For whose cause is this trouble upon us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?" (Jonah 1:7, 8)
They cast lots to find out why or who on board is responsible. The critic has said, "That's superstition!" And if you want to know my view, superstition is exactly what it was. Somebody says, "You mean to tell me that God is going to use that?" Yes, God is going to use superstition to accomplish His purpose. We have several examples of this in the Word of God. In the days of Moses, when God carried on a battle with Pharaoh, He dealt with him in terms he could understand. Every one of the plagues was leveled at a particular idol in the land of Egypt. God communicated down on their level.
And when God wanted to speak to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon who worshiped idols, how did He speak to him? Through an idol, that multimetallic image he saw in his dream. God came down to his level. And God used that method also with His own people. I've always wanted to know what the urim and the thummim were in the high priest's garments. I'm confident that they were used in determining the will of God. Now somebody again is going to say, "You don't mean to tell me that God's people used something mechanical?" Yes. Let me ask you, child of God, how do you determine the will of God? I know some folk who come at it like this: They open the Bible at random with their eyes closed, then read the first verse they see. And whatever it is, that's going to be God's will for them. Now don't laugh, because many Christians have used that method. In fact, I have used it.
Many years ago when I was considering a call to a certain church, I put my Bible under my arm one night and told my wife, "I'm going over to the study, and I'm not going to leave it until I know what God's will is for me." So I went over there, and I got down on my knees and said, "Lord, I'm staying here until You show me." And I should probably still be there because I don't think He did show me. But I opened the Bible and turned to a verse which was, "Woe to the worthless [or idle] shepherd who leaves the flock! ..." (Zechariah 11:17). I took that as meaning I wasn't to go to the church that had called me, and I'm sure I made a mistake by using that method.
Now I'll grant that this type of thing is superstition, but I have discovered that God sometimes uses these methods. I'm of the opinion today that God is wanting to communicate with the human family more than He has ever wanted to before. I'm confident of that. And I think God uses many methods today to direct us. Let me give you one more illustration of how He can use superstition.
When I was pastor in Nashville, Tennessee, we had in the Sunday school one of the most precious little girls I've ever seen. Every now and then one of those comes along, a Miss Personality, an attractive child whom everybody notices. And she had the meanest father that I've ever met. He was a godless man. The child came to Sunday school, and twice a year she'd bring him to church--on Christmas and on Easter. At the first Christmas she told me that he was going to come, and I alerted everybody to be sure and shake hands with him and make him feel at home. And they did. So his criticism was, "They make over you too much in that church. I don't like it." His little daughter had told me this; so at Easter time I said to the folk, "This time rather ignore him, because he doesn't like to be made over." And after the service he made the statement, "They're certainly a cold crowd in that church. They're not friendly at all." You can't win with a fellow like that! It was my first pastorate, and I went by his home one day to talk to him about the Lord. That was a great mistake. He ordered me out of his house. He said, "I do not want to talk to you about that. My religion is my business, and I don't intend to talk to you at all." And so I just decided that this man was beyond being reached.
But then it happened. He ran a dry cleaning place, and he had a cashier working for him who told him one morning, "I went to a fortune teller last night."
"You did? What did she say?"
"Well, I'll tell you what she said. She told me that I was going to die suddenly, be killed accidentally, and that the man I work for would die shortly after that."
A few days later that woman stepped off a streetcar, and an automobile that didn't stop for the unloading of passengers hit her and killed her. You know what that unsaved fellow began to think--that he was next! He believed that his time was short, and he became desperate. One night in the manse where I lived I heard the door rattle so loud I thought somebody was knocking it down. When I opened the door I had never seen such a wild-eyed man as he was. He came in, and he said, "I want to talk with you."
"What do you want to talk about?"
"I want to talk about getting saved. You wanted to talk to me about it; now I want to listen."
"Well, what brought you to this?" And he told me the story about his cashier. He said, "I guess I'm next, and I want to get right with God." Then he said, "You were talking about dispensations when my daughter brought me to the church one night, and frankly I was a little interested in that. Would you explain it to me again, because that sort of began to open the Bible to me." So I got a piece of brown wrapping paper and a pencil, and we both got down on our knees on the floor while I drew a chart of the dispensations like I always use. We went from the dispensation of creation to the dispensation of innocence, the dispensation of conscience, then promise, then the Law, and then we came to grace. And that's when I began to talk to him about the fact that God, in this age of grace, was asking of man nothing but faith, that we need only to trust Christ as Savior. When I looked up from the chart and into the face of this man, I saw by his expression that he was ready to be saved. So I said to him, "Wouldn't you right now like to accept Christ as your Savior?" He said, "I sure would." We didn't even have to get down on our knees because we were already on our knees; and that man, right there and then, received Jesus Christ as his Savior.
He became, may I say, a different man. I knew he was converted because he began to come to all the services, and he laughed at my jokes after that! My friend, God used superstition. He used a fortune teller who, to my judgment, was as big a fake as they come. Her prediction just happened to work out for the cashier. But it was the means of bringing to Christ that man, the father of a precious child in our Sunday school. I'm confident nothing else would ever have brought him to the Lord. You say to me, "This was superstition." Sure it was, and God will get down to your level if it means reaching you, my friend.
Now back in the days of Jonah, God used the superstition of casting lots to reach a bunch of pagan sailors. When the lot fell on Jonah, they began pelting him with questions.
Then they said to him, "Please tell us! For whose cause is this trouble upon us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?" (Jonah 1:8)
Jonah was a talkative fellow. It seems that he had talked a lot when he first came aboard, but he hadn't told them the thing he should have told them. We don't hear him telling them that God could save them. Apparently he was not a witness for God. They never would have asked him what nationality he was if he had said he was a Hebrew, since a Hebrew was a Hebrew because of his religion as much as his nationality. And if Jonah had just said to them, "I'm a Hebrew," it would have opened the door for him to witness; but he hadn't said that. Instead he talked about other things. It's amazing when you are out of fellowship with God that you don't want to talk about Him--any more than the unsaved man wants to talk about Him, by the way. And you're not a very good witness at that time.
Now will you listen:
So he said to them, "I am a Hebrew [and that gave it all away] and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." (Jonah 1:9)
These men were idolaters. They worshiped the sun, moon, and stars. Now Jonah tells them that he does not worship these things, but he worships the Creator of these things, the Maker.
Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, "Why have you done this?" For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them. (Jonah 1:10)
When you, as a child of God, are out of the will of God, you'll rationalize your actions. And if you rationalize your actions, you're going to confide in somebody. Have you ever done that? You're not sure about what you're doing, so you go and talk it over with somebody--maybe a friend or your pastor. I'm confident that a great many folk who have come to me for counseling did not want my advice. They only wanted me to agree with what they had already decided to do. You see, they were rationalizing, and they wanted to get me over on their side.
I have a notion that when the ship got underway Jonah stepped up to the pilot and said, "How do you like your job?" The pilot said, "Fine. Where are you going?"
"Well, I'm going all the way with you. I'm going to Tarshish."
"Ever been there?"
"No, never been there."
"Well, you're going to find out that's a jumping-off place. It is way out there."
"I know, but I'll let you in on something. I've really been called to go up to Nineveh, but the way I look at it ..."
When anybody starts talking to you like that, you know he is rationalizing. "The way I look at it is that I should not go to Nineveh. To begin with, I don't care for Ninevites at all. Do you know anything about those people?"
"Yes, this ship was attacked by the Ninevites."
"Yes, we got away from them, but they got another ship, and they killed every sailor."
"Well then, you understand my feelings of not wanting to go to Nineveh."
The pilot patted him on the back. "I think you're doing the right thing," and Jonah went away feeling good, so good he could fall fast asleep.
But now in the midst of the storm, Jonah is on deck and has been singled out as the reason for the ship's terrible predicament.
Then they said to him, "What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us?"--for the sea was growing more tempestuous. (Jonah 1:11)
You see, these men are moving cautiously. Actually, these pagans show up much better than Jonah does here at the beginning.
And he said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you. For I know that this great tempest is because of me." (Jonah 1:12)
Jonah knew now that God was speaking to him.
"Nevertheless the men rowed hard to return to land...." I'm sure some would say these pagan sailors were uncivilized, but they act very civilized to me. They did not want to throw Jonah overboard. Do you notice, he said to them, "Throw me into the sea." In their hearts they were saying, "Oh, no; not that! We'll make another effort to try to get this boat into port somewhere."
Nevertheless the men rowed hard to return to land, but they could not, for the sea continued to grow more tempestuous against them. Therefore they cried out to the LORD... (Jonah 1:13, 14)
Do you notice what's happening? They're crying out now to the Lord! Something did happen, didn't it? These pagan sailors are not bowing down to an idol to ask for mercy, nor are they entreating the sun, moon, and stars; but they're speaking now to the Creator.
... and said, "We pray, O LORD, please do not let us perish for this man's life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O LORD, have done as it pleased You." (Jonah 1:14)
In other words, they are calling upon God to forgive them for what they are going to do because they have no alternative.
So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. (Jonah 1:15)
You can be sure these men were startled at the sudden calm! This was a positive confirmation that the storm was supernatural.
Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the LORD and took vows. (Jonah 1:16)
Did they fear their gods? No. They feared the One who is the Creator of the sea and of the land.
I believe these men came to a knowledge of the living and true God. They did two things: They made "a sacrifice to the LORD." I believe that sacrifice, which was obviously a burnt sacrifice, pointed to the Lord Jesus Christ. And I believe that in the best way they could, with the little knowledge they had, they looked in faith to God.
And then it says they "took vows." A vow in the Old Testament was very important. I had this impressed on my mind when studying the Book of Leviticus. And the writer of the Proverbs says that when you make a vow to God you be sure that you pay it, because if you don't, He will hold you to it. God doesn't like anyone making an idle vow to Him, and that's my reason today for believing that we ought to be very careful of what we promise God. Oh, how many people under the emotion of the moment make a promise to God that they never keep. I believe God holds us to our vows.
These sailors made vows, which means in Old Testament language that they not only came to the true God at this time with a sacrifice, but they also promised to serve Him. And I think we have a right to believe that these men, through this tremendous experience, turned to the living and true God. So something good was accomplished by the storm, by Jonah's being on board the ship, and by his being cast overboard. But the mariners disappear over the horizon, and we do not know what actually happened to them.
But I do know what happened to Jonah.
Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17)
Here is the crux of this story. It has been assumed that Jonah spent three days and three nights inside the fish like you would spend a weekend in a comfortable motel--that somehow or other he spent three days alive inside the fish.
Years ago I took the position, which I still hold today, that Jonah was not alive inside the fish but that he died and God raised him from the dead. I have been verbally attacked for this position. In fact, a theological professor in this area said that because Jonah was a backsliding prophet he could not have been a type of Christ. And yet this same professor taught that King David is a type of Christ! I think Jonah makes a better type of Christ than David, if you're going to measure him by the sin in his life. Neither of them is a type of Christ when it comes to their sin or their backsliding. Jonah is a type in only one area, and that is in his death and resurrection. And that's the way the Lord Jesus put it when He was asked for a sign. He said,
An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 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. (Matthew 12:39, 40)
Now, my friend, was the Lord Jesus alive or dead? "Well," you say, "He was dead for three days." Yes. Was Jonah alive or dead? He had to be dead in order to bear out what our Lord is saying. I do not think that the Scripture passage makes it clear that this man was alive for the three days.
And then may I add this: If I'm wrong, and Jonah was alive--and if in heaven someday Jonah comes up to me and says, "Boy, did you misrepresent me!"--then I want to say to him, "I'm very sorry, Jonah. But you should have made it lots more clear for this poor preacher."
If Jonah had stayed alive inside the fish, that would not have been a miracle. You say, "Not a miracle?" No. Did you know that other men have been swallowed by fish and have lived to tell the story? It's nonsense for anyone to argue that it's impossible for a fish to swallow a man whole. I have read of seven or eight instances. In fact, there are several accounts on record of men being swallowed by large fish and living to tell the tale. Grace W. Kellogg, in her excellent little booklet on the subject, The Bible Today, has compiled a list of the records--which have been authenticated--of the experiences of living creatures in fish who later were rescued alive. We are quoting in full from this section of her book:
There are at least two known monsters of the deep who could easily have swallowed Jonah. They are the Balaenoptera Musculus or sulphur-bottom whale, and the Rhinodon Typicus or whale shark. Neither of these monsters of the deep has any teeth. They feed in an interesting way by opening their enormous mouths, submerging their lower jaw, and rushing through the water at terrific speed. After straining out the water, they swallow whatever is left. A sulphur-bottom whale, one hundred feet long, was captured off Cape Cod in 1933. His mouth was ten or twelve feet wide--so big he could easily have swallowed a horse. These whales have four to six compartments in their stomachs, in any one of which a colony of men could find free lodging. They might even have a choice of rooms, for in the head of this whale is a wonderful air storage chamber, an enlargement of nasal sinus, often measuring seven feet high, seven feet wide, by fourteen feet long. If he has an unwelcome guest on board who gives him a headache, the whale swims to the nearest land and gets rid of the offender as he did Jonah.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently quoted an article by Dr. Ransom Harvey who said that a dog was lost overboard from a ship. It was found in the head of a whale six days later, alive and barking. Frank Bullen, F.R.G.S., who wrote, The Cruise of the Cathalot, tells of a shark fifteen feet in length which was found in the stomach of a whale. He says that when dying the whale ejects the contents of its stomach.
The late Dr. Dixon stated that in a museum at Beirut, Lebanon, there is a head of a whale shark big enough to swallow the largest man that history records! He also tells of a white shark of the Mediterranean which swallowed a whole horse; another swallowed a reindeer minus only its horns. In still another Mediterranean white shark was found a whole sea cow, about the size of an ox.
These facts show that Jonah could have been swallowed by either a whale or a shark. But has any other man besides Jonah been swallowed and lived to tell the tale? We know of two such instances.
The famous French scientist, Msr. de Parville, writes of James Bartley, who in the region of the Falkland Islands near South America, was supposed to have drowned at sea. Two days after his disappearance, the sailors made a catch of a whale. When it was cut up, much to their surprise they found their missing friend alive but unconscious inside the whale. He revived and has been enjoying the best of health ever since his adventure.
Another version of the James Bartley experience has been recorded in The Old Farmer's Almanac, 1971 edition:
We were recently reminded of the true story of a man SWALLOWED by a whale who lived to tell about it! It concerns one James Bartley, a crewman aboard The Star of the East, a whaling ship off the Falkland Islands in February of 1891. Bartley was a member of the boat crew that was overturned by a large bull whale already wounded by a harpoon thrust. When another boat picked up the survivors, Bartley and one other man were missing. Later that afternoon, two other boats saw the same whale, captured it and drew it alongside. The Star of the East Captain, Mike Dolan, describes what then took place:
"With lines around its stomach, the crew hoisted the whale to the deck of the ship. Something moved inside the covering. Working feverishly with sharp knives, they quickly slit the stomach of the whale open and found James Bartley quivering and unconscious.
"Dashing salt water over the still form of Bartley they seemed to revive him. After he had been washed and a few sips of brandy forced through his pale lips, he was carried to the ship's cabin.
"For two weeks he hovered near death. When he finally recovered, he told a weird tale.
"Remembering being dashed high in the air when the giant whale struck the boat with his tail, Bartley said he heard a rumbling sound like a train roaring over a bridge. He imagined the noise was caused by the whale pounding the sea. In the darkness he said he made an effort to reach out and his hand touched a slick substance which yielded to his feeble efforts to escape. Then he felt himself being drawn forward into a chamber where there was more air.
"Each time he tried to crawl forward in the black chamber some invisible force seemed to draw him back. Then his terrible plight dawned upon him. He was inside the body of a whale. The heat was terrific. Weak from the strain and the heat, he sank into oblivion. Death seemed dreadfully near. He collapsed and remembered nothing until he awakened in the ship's cabin. And although his skin never quite regained its natural color, he regained his strength and lived for many years, continuing to fish in the dangerous waters where he almost met his doom."
So, was Jonah alive or dead inside the fish?
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the fish's belly. (Jonah 2:1)
I know, somebody is going to say, "Preacher, your theory is upset already; it has gone by the board because the Bible says that Jonah prayed to the Lord inside the fish's belly." Well, my question is, when did he pray? Did he pray on the third day? Maybe he said, "Now I'm in a tight place. I've got to figure on a way of getting out of here. The thing for me to do is to pray about this. I want to pray the right kind of prayer, so I'll have to give it some thought." So he composed a prayer, then prayed it on the third day. Now may I say, if that's the way it happened, I admit my theory is no good at all, because that means he was alive if he prayed this on the third day. But I don't think he waited until the third day, do you? When would you have prayed if you had been swallowed by the fish? May I say to you, before I got through the gullet of that fish and dropped into his tummy, I would not only have prayed the prayer, but I would have covered the Book of Jonah, something you can do in three minutes. My friend, Jonah prayed this before he lost consciousness. "Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the fish's belly."
I have a friend who was for years pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Summerville, Tennessee. His index finger had been cut off, and it was nothing more than a stub below the second joint. When anyone would ask him about his call to the ministry, he would hold up that little stub and wave it. Then he would explain what he meant. "Well," he'd say, "I'll tell you...." Then he would tell the story of his call to the ministry.
His father was an elder in the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Memphis. They were having evangelistic meetings in the church, and to obey his dad he would go every night and sit on the second row. He said, "That evangelist was getting to me, and I knew if I stayed another night I would accept Christ as my Savior. I also knew that if I did accept Christ as my Savior I would go into the ministry, and at that time I did not want to. So after everybody in the family had retired for the night, I put my extra shirt under my arm, slid down the rain gutter from my upstairs bedroom, and headed for Mississippi." He found work in a sawmill down there, and his job was to take these great logs and run them on the conveyor to the saw. If you have seen an old-time sawmill, you know how they'd do that.
One day they ran out of good logs. They had some put aside that were knotty; in fact, some of them had already been to the saw, and it had ripped them partly through before they were found to be inferior and the process reversed. It was decided, since they didn't have good logs, that they'd run these through as second class or third class lumber. He was rolling one of these logs that had been ripped almost through, and just as he let it drop onto the conveyor belt his index finger caught in the gash. The gash snapped shut, and it held him. He found himself being pulled toward that great band saw. He said, "I yelled at the top of my voice, but by that time the other end of the log had hit the saw, and no one could hear me. There I was--helpless. Between there and that saw, I covered my entire life. I prayed to the Lord and asked Him for forgiveness for every sin I'd ever committed. I accepted Him as Savior; I agreed to go in the ministry; I made any other promises that the Lord wanted me to make. Since it takes only 45 seconds for a log to go through, I did all of that in 45 seconds!"
When you get in trouble it's amazing the amount of ground you can cover! He said that when the saw got to the place where his finger was, it cut off his finger. That released him, and he rolled to the side. "I hit the ground running. I did go by the doctor's office, but then I didn't stop running until I got back home and told my dad what I'd done. And I started studying for the ministry. That was my call to the ministry."
My friend, don't you know that Jonah prayed his prayer the minute he went inside that fish? Then he lapsed, I'm sure, into unconsciousness and then death. And God raised him from the dead. He was dead inside the fish; he didn't spend a weekend in a comfortable motel. This man spent time in the tummy of a fish, being churned up and down. He says, "Weeds were around my head." He's not trying to tell you he was alive at all! He says
... The earth with its bars closed behind me forever; yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God. (Jonah 2:6)
The important thing for you and me to recognize is that this explanation gives young people a tool to defend the Word of God against godless professors in many of our schools.
The first time I took the position that Jonah died and was resurrected, I was a seminary student serving at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, as the interim pastor before Peter Marshall came there and had his first famous pastorate. As a student, I was frightened to begin with, and for the first evening service I spoke on the Book of Jonah for the great company of young people who were there. God blessed, and several of them accepted the Lord. On my second Sunday night I was standing in the back when a young fellow came up to me and said, "Mr. McGee, I'm a student over at Georgia Tech. I'd like to accept Christ, but to be honest with you I have trouble with the Book of Jonah."
"What's your trouble?"
"Well, I have a professor who teaches mathematics, but he never misses an opportunity to ridicule the Book of Jonah. He always talks about 'that man who lived for three days inside the fish.' And I have trouble with it. How could a man live for three days inside a fish?" And I asked him, "Who told you the man lived inside that fish?"
"Well," he says, "I've heard preachers say it."
"I know, but what does the Bible say?"
"Doesn't the Bible say it?"
"Mine doesn't say it." And so we opened the Bible right there, and I went over it with that young man. He said, "Boy, wait until I get back to class!" And that young fellow accepted the Lord. When I saw him the next Sunday I asked, "How did it work out?"
"Well, my professor always mentioned Jonah, but we had a class Monday morning, and he didn't mention Jonah. We had a class Wednesday morning, again he didn't mention him; and I thought I was sunk, because I wanted him to mention it. So Friday morning, here he came. He said, 'Now about that fellow that lived for three days inside of a fish,' and the class laughed."
So this young fellow said to him, "Doctor, who told you the man was alive three days and three nights inside of a fish?"
He fumbled for a moment, "I've heard preachers say it."
"Yes, but what does the Bible say?"
"Well, I think the Bible says it. We'll get one."
When they finally located one, the student went over it with him, and the professor said, "Well, this is certainly a new approach, and I don't have an answer for it."
Friend, you may have been brought up to believe that Jonah was alive all that time, and if you want to believe it that way, go ahead. But for goodness sake, give some of these young people an anchor to use in these godless schools. Back there in Georgia that professor said to the student, "Oh! Then Jonah was raised from the dead!" He answered, "Yes, and so was Jesus. And if you have trouble with one, you'll have trouble with the other."
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. (Matthew 12:40)
Was Jonah alive or dead?