It's not about a fish...
The book of Jonah begins with God speaking and ends the same way. In between, we witness different responses to his commands: Jonah ran from His word, but a whole city repented at it. One man slept, wholly unconcerned about his neighbor, and another group of men trembled at an awesome God. The contrasts offered in Jonah compel us to look more intently into our hearts and see how we compare to these distinctions.
Before you begin, this is important...
If you doubt God wanted you to take Jonah’s story literally - if you doubt He commanded a large fish to swallow a man and then projectile vomit him three days later - no need to worry. God certainly doesn’t want you to get caught up in that aspect of this narrative and miss His primary message. If God is sovereign, He controls all things and can do anything, so this story could be an actual event. However, if you assume it was not true, no worry. This story is not about a fish anyhow.
The book of Jonah is about God and His relationship with humanity. We discover a God who will go to the darkest part of the deepest ocean to reveal Himself as a God of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Jonah’s response to God’s mercy leaves the reader with the responsibility of looking at their own heart and asking, “do I tremble at the word of God?” How I respond to the Word of the Lord will determine how well I bear His image to my world.
Redemption and Restoration
God's plan from before the foundation of time was to create a world where we would live and rule alongside Him. Adam and Eve rejected that privilege, but God did not abandon His plan. His promise to Israel was that a Messiah would reign in Jesus and unite the world under his kingship. However, that plan seemed to have been thwarted when Babylon overthrew Jerusalem and the Israelites were exiled out of the Promised Land. No doubt, when Babylon conquered Jerusalem, the people must have thought the nations' gods had outwitted and outlasted their God. Worse, if God was who He said He was, had they so consistently failed Him that He had finally forsaken all He promised? Had they lost everything forever? But the prophet Jeremiah promised them that, despite their unfaithfulness, God had still not abandoned His plan for His people. After 70 years of exile, the Israelites would be allowed to return home (Jer. 29: 10, 11).
As He promised, God once again redeemed His people. But redemption was not his only promise; God vowed to restore Israel as well (Jer. 30:18-22). When the call was made, "Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah" (Ezra 1:3), undoubtedly, the exiles thought this was the beginning of God's restoration and that soon the Messiah King would reign in Jerusalem. But nearly 100 years later, when Ezra penned the book of Ezra, the Israelites were still under the rule of their enemy, and the prosperity and power of pre-exilic Israel had not returned.
Therefore, when Ezra begins his book, he is unequivocal in his message: God is faithful, and His plan for the redemption and restoration of His people has not changed - no matter how unfaithful they (we) are. No one can out-sin God's faithfulness. He is faithful to His promise to redeem and restore this world, a world that continues to pull our hearts away from an ever-deepening relationship with Him, a relationship that restores all of sin's damage. Like the Israelites, we often supplant the pursuit of God for smaller, "safer" pursuits. God will not abide, however, for us settling for this kind of "fenced-in," small life. And He continues to make the call, "any of my people can return."
You see, Christ did not come to set up a new morality and teach us how to be "better" people; Christ came to set up a new Kingdom. He came to reveal himself as the King God promised long ago. God was launching His Kingdom on Earth through Jesus Christ, and we have been invited, once again, to rule alongside him. But our participation is very clear: God's Kingdom is not like any kingdom of this world. It is a Kingdom where the first are last, where love is given without limitation, and where the love of God and neighbor drives every action. The kind of participation in His Kingdom that God has offered us requires the redemption of our souls only by the blood of Christ and our continued growth in our relationship with Christ. We aren't invited to remain status-quo.
When God redeems our hearts, He begins the process of restoring everything that sin destroyed in our lives so that we can now live according to His Kingdom's purposes. In doing so, we participate with Him in restoring His creation. Just as the Israelites were set free from bondage in Babylon and came home to rebuild God's Temple, salvation has set us free from the bondage of sin and allows us to live in the freedom Christ died to provide. Our restoration (or sanctification) is about freedom in Christ, found in an ever-deepening relationship with Him that restores our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls from the damage sin created.
So many enemies fight to keep our hearts from experiencing that restoration. Doubt, legalism, anger, pride, self-pity, unforgiveness, bitterness, complacency, addictions, envy, lust, fear, gossip, bigotry, or, well, you fill in the blank. These enemies often hold us in bondage, even though God calls us "free indeed." However, if you leave the fenced-in places of a stagnant faith, God promises to lead you to the freedom of being who He created you to be — a beautiful image of Christ.
His invitation is to journey with him in the process of restoration. It will lead you to wide-open spaces of freedom where boundless joy and fullness of life are eternally experienced. Just as Ezra assured his ancient readers, we, too, can be assured that if we take the journey of restoration, God will be faithful to His promises.
Heaven is not the final goal for any of us. Our desire and hope is the restoration of this world - the new Jerusalem - where Heaven and Earth unite under Christ, our King, when he sits on his throne here on Earth. We are invited to begin living in the freedom of that new life, even here and now.
This Bible study takes us on a journey through the book of Ezra, where we see how God's faithfulness redeemed the exiles in Babylon and brought them home. The God who was faithful to them is faithful to us. As we begin a restoration journey, we will find that God's mighty hand at work in the lives of the returning exiles is still mighty and faithful to do a work in each of us. Will we answer His call to grow in our identity as citizens of God's Kingdom and choose to live in the freedom that His sanctification provides?