Jonah - Common grace, Common good, Common God

During this sermon I mentioned this recent study on faith and belief in NZ. Full research can be found here...

Ernest Hemingway once said:

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”


I think Jonah would resonate with this quote.


Last week we looked at how Jonah experienced the consequences of running away from God’s call on his life.

He didn’t want to go and preach at Nineveh, a city full of people he considered wicked enemies, so he ran in the opposite direction.

God stops him in his tracks. He was caught up in a huge storm that threatened to tear the ship he was on to pieces.  Today as we continue exploring the book of Jonah, and we find Jonah blissfully unaware of all that is going on. He is asleep below deck while the wind and the waves pummel the boat and the sailors try and save the day.

What happens in today’s passage is Jonah wakes up and he realizes that his life is falling apart quite rapidly.


The storm is raging and in verse 5 we hear that the Mariners are afraid. These sailors know that this storm is unusual and has some kind of divine origin. Unlike your average secular sailor they would not be checking the weather via satellite, they had a very different worldview.

The religious environment of the Ancient Near East consisted of a whole variety of gods.

We hear that the sailors each cried to his god.

The first thing they try to placate the storm is that they pray. They pray to their gods that they may be saved.

But they also take action.

They begin to throw cargo into the sea. Why?

The English translation of this passage says, “to lighten it for them.”

This could be read in two ways, one very practical and one more religious in tone.

The first sense is that they throw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship, to take the load off and help with the ships buoyancy.

The second sense present in the wording of this passage is that “to lighten it” can be read as appeasing the sea.

There was a well-known Canaanite god of the sea called Yamm. One way to read this situation was that the sailors were throwing cargo overboard as a kind of offering to this god of the sea in the hope that this might quieten the storm.

So, the sailors pray, they make an offering to the god of the sea, they clear the decks.

But none of it seems to be working.


We might imagine the hubbub, the panic, the concern and the work happening above deck.

While all of this is going on where is Jonah?

We hear this:

“Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep.”

Life above deck is falling apart, while Jonah is embracing Hemingway’s love for sleep.

He is out to it, snatching forty winks, sleeping like a log, in the land of nod. You get the picture.




Once more the story of sleep might evoke in the Jewish reader of this story a comparison with that great Biblical prophet Elijah. In the story of Elijah he ends up bone tired and falls into a deep sleep because he has been doing God’s work. Elijah faced the threat of death and he continued to preach God’s word and do what God called him to do. Yet Jonah is exhausted for a very different reason. He is exhausted from running away from God. His sleep is a very different kind. It is a kind of sorrowful and avoidant sleep. Jonah is down below deck because he has given up. 

There is a kind of apathy illustrated in Jonah’s sleep that paints him as a kind of anti-prophet.

He’s over it.

Robert Lessing says: “On Jonah’s closed door is a sign that reads ‘I don’t care!’ Like Peter, James, and John (Mt 26:40), the divinely chosen prophet Jonah is sound asleep at the crucial time when he should have been praying even more than the others were.”

There is an irony in this whole picture. Once more we see the humour in this story. What comes next really takes it the irony to the next level.

The captain comes to Jonah. They must of all been wondering where he was. They find him in the hold of the ship and the captain says to him, maybe yells at him – “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god!”

I imagine Jonah must have woke with a start!

Here is the Captain of the ship, a polytheist who moments earlier has been praying to the gods, offering sacrifices to the god of the sea. He stands before Jonah, and as far as Jonah is concerned he is a total outsider, and in Jonah’s view a person outside the promises of his God, Yahweh. Here he stands and he utters these words: “Get up, and call on your God.” As he does this the Captain echoes the very words of God to Jonah in the first part of the story.





One commentator says this:

The first words ascribed to the captain, קום קרא “Get up! Call …,” contain the two verbs God had used in summoning Jonah to preach against Nineveh in v 2…“Jonah must have thought he was having a nightmare. These were the very words with which God had disturbed his pleasant life a few days before”[1]


So, Jonah, once again through this sailor hears the word of God to him. He can’t escape it.

The sailor calls Jonah to prayer.

And he asks that Jonah may pray that God will save them.

Herein begins the lesson for Jonah.





Jonah is called on to pray but he doesn’t. In this passage Jonah is utterly silent. His silence is deafening. It speaks of his attitude. As far as Jonah is concerned these sailors are outside of God’s promises, just like the Ninevites he was called to preach to in the first place. Jonah doesn’t seem to think that going to Nineveh is worth his effort, and he doesn’t seem to think that the sailors are either. Jonah has an entire belief system that provides a buffer between him and anyone outside of his religious club. As far as he is concerned it seems that this isn’t his problem, this isn’t his battle to fight.


The irony is that the captain and his crew are presented as “pagan” or as “outsiders to the faith of Israel” yet in this story they are the only ones to pray. Jonah acts like an atheist in the storm, refusing to open his mouth. And he doesn’t seem to act either. Jonah sleeps, while the sailors work for the common good of all on the boat.

Jonah’s attitude is one of apathy towards his neighbours.


To get an idea of Jonah’s attitude we might take a leaf from one of Emily Bronte’s characters in Wuthering Heights. She describes a servant Joseph, a religious man saying:

"Joseph, the servant; you saw him, I dare say, up yonder. He was, and is yet, most likely, the wearisomest, self-righteous pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself, and fling the curses on his neighbours... [p42]

It was his vocation to be where he had plenty of wickedness to reprove." [p66]


That image of raking the promises to himself and flinging the curses on his neighbours is quite powerful isn’t it. We might have encountered such a person, we might have been or are such a person. Jonah certainly expressed similar qualities, yet God doesn’t give up on Jonah. Through the captain and crew of the ship, God teaches Jonah an important lesson about common grace, the common good, and a common God.



Common Grace

The first lesson Jonah learns is the lesson of common grace.

As Tim Keller puts it:

“The doctrine of common grace is the teaching that God bestows gifts of wisdom, moral insight, goodness, and beauty across humanity, regardless of race or religious belief.”

Jonah, it seems found this doctrine rather unpalatable. Yet as the sailors encounter the storm they seek divine help wisely and it turns out they have a lot to teach Jonah about prayer.



Recognizing common grace means that we ought never think that we have a monopoly on truth because we are Christians. We can learn a lot about God and a lot about the world, and a lot about love from people who hold very different religious perspectives from us. God gives the gift of life and his love and grace to all – it is commonly offered in that sense.

Seeing God’s common grace also recognizes that we are all equally in need of God’s saving grace, we are all sinners caught in the storm, we are all in need of help.



Whether or not Jonah likes it, the reality is that Jonah is on the same boat as the sailors. Jonah and the sailors are connected by this reality. They are in on it together, they are all in the same storm and they are all on the same boat. They all face the same trial and trouble.

Jonah is very much put to shame by the sailors who pray and work for the common good while he wallows in self-pity and exhaustion below deck.

We are reminded by the story of Jonah that the church is rightly held to account by the world for its commitment to work for the common good of all people or not.

Miroslav Volf is a wonderful writer and theologian who has reflected on this a lot. In a recent book entitled “A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good” he says this:

“Because there is one God, all people are related to that one God on equal terms. The central command of that one God is to love neighbors—to treat others as we would like them to treat us, as expressed in the Golden Rule. We cannot claim any rights for ourselves and our group that we are not willing to give to others.”





Volf’s quote brings us to the point that our commitment to work for the common good and recognize common grace is grounded in the reality that we all share a common God. Whether we worship and acknowledge this one God doesn’t change this reality. The Scriptures attest to God as God of all. They attest to God as the creator of all. Every person regardless of where they come from or what they believe, are made in God’s image.

In the midst of the storm on the boat Jonah encounters God once again in the words of the captain and he is taught about common grace, the common good and the common God.




So, what might all of this mean for us?

The ship we all share is this land called Aotearoa. The Churches of this land, like Jonah, are called to have a prophetic role in sharing the Gospel, that is the good news of God, the message of salvation and freedom through Jesus Christ.

We, as the church, must listen to those we live and work and play with, our neighbours and family and friends. We must hear their struggles and doubts, their thoughts and ideas, their stories and we must ask where is God in all of this? How can we minister with love and compassion rather than check out with apathy?

Will we be awake? Will we be alert in prayer and action?

Will we learn from Jonah’s mistakes and see the common grace, work for the common good and serve the common God – the one most clearly revealed to us in Jesus Christ who said:


14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)


Josh Taylor