“Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them.” (Jonah 1:13)
The Prophet Jonah stands out among his fellow prophets for his attitude toward his calling as a prophet. When God called Jonah to warn the Ninevites of His wrath, Jonah defiantly ran in the opposite direction (verses 2-3)! The Bible expressly tells us that “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft” (1 Samuel 15:23). So Jonah’s rebellion placed him in a position to receive the wages of his sin. We see then, that Jonah represents the presence of sin and God’s judgment thereof.
As Jonah boarded a ship to Tarshish in order to flee the Presence of the Lord, his rebellion placed the lives of the shipmen in jeopardy. We are told:
“But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.” (Jonah 1:4)
The hand of God is not restrained so that His wrath can be escaped by geography, and such thinking characterizes those who fail to address the presence of sin. This fact is perfectly illustrated in our picture of the mariners’ frantic efforts to save the ship, while sinful, rebellious Jonah “was fast asleep” (verse 5).
In our text verse, we see that the men “rowed hard” to bring the ship to land. They knew that their safety was threatened by the storm. They also knew that the storm was meant for Jonah, and that his very presence was because of his rebellion to the Lord his God. Not only so, but Jonah had also told the mariners that their lives would be saved if they would but cast him (as a type of sin) into the sea and rid themselves of sin’s presence (verse 12). “Nevertheless” the men continued to labor for their salvation (verse 13).
Let’s examine several points about the labor of the mariners to see the parallel in mankind’s striving to earn salvation through vain works of the flesh.
First, Their Labor was Commendable
The first point we will examine is the fact that the labor of the shipmen was commendable. Our text tells us that they “rowed hard” to land the ship. This was no half-hearted effort. They full-well knew their condition as they were tossed about on the raging sea – the wind and waves beating violently against the ship. It is not just that they were beginning to take on water and sink, but that the ship itself was in danger of being broken to pieces with no chance of restoration or repair. Along with the ship, its entire cargo and crew were set to be destroyed because of the presence of sin.
Their labor was commendable. These men were united in purpose and effort to save the ship and themselves. They exerted all their might as one man in order to bring the ship to land. If it were possible through the sheer force of will or the strength of man, they certainly would have been able to accomplish their objective. We are reminded of those whose religious zeal is such that they engage in great efforts – whether through charity or austerity – to earn salvation apart from the grace of God. The mariners’ labor was commendable, but it failed to offer them the security they sought.
Second, Their Labor was Contaminated
The efforts put forth by the mariners to save themselves were contaminated by the sin they allowed in their midst. They rowed hard to save themselves, instead of getting rid of the rebellious prophet. And so all their commendable labor was in vain, because they refused to acknowledge the cause of their peril and remove the sin in their midst. All our own labor is in vain if we are working against the truth. God hates sin and will judge it wherever it is found. All our own righteousness is as filthy rags, contaminating our very best works. In the sight of God, to ignore the presence of sin is just the same as partaking in that sin.
Many people have tried to establish their own righteousness even as they ignore the contaminating presence of sin. Religious movements abound which promote reformation, but cannot offer regeneration. Reformation without regeneration is like cleaning up a corpse – after all the rigorous effort to cleanse it, you still have a dead body. This body of death (sin) putrefies and contaminates our labor. Works of the flesh are contaminated by the flesh and, no matter how commendable, they are unacceptable to God.
Third, Their Labor was Corrected
Finally, the labor of the mariners was corrected by obedience to the revealed will of God. The mariners knew that they needed saving. They had been told that the cause of their soon destruction was indwelling sin. They even knew by clear command that they were to remove that sin (Jonah) from their midst. It isn’t enough that we have the answer to a question; we have to make the application of the answer in order to benefit from such. The shipmen had to get rid of the rebellious prophet before the storm calmed. All other labor was commendable, yet contaminated.
The mariners were saved from the storm when Jonah was thrown overboard. The storm symbolizes the wrath of God on sin. In a perfect picture of substitution, we see Jonah as a type of Jesus Christ who was made to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) in order to bear the wrath of God for sin. The billows of wrath fell upon our Lord Jesus Christ so that we may have peace with God. Now, we (like the mariners) have entered into the Rest of Grace; and we are to offer the Sacrifice of Praise to God (Jonah 1:16; Hebrews 13:15).