The Conversion of a Sailor
February 4, 2016 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
The conversion of the sailors in the story of Jonah is astonishing. We can assume that they were experienced sailors on the Mediterranean Sea. Who else plans to travel the entire length of the Sea from Joppa to Tarshish? Yet they encounter a storm they could not manage. They were afraid, truly terrified.
This is where we get a window into their religious beliefs and transformation. At the beginning of the crisis, they practice their known pagan faith by crying out to each of their gods (Jonah 1:5). Having sailed the expanse of the Mediterranean, they would have been exposed to all kinds of belief systems, espousing many different gods. Crises have a way of trying the fortitudes of our beliefs.
With no answer from the gods, the sailors turn to a superstitious chance-game, lots. Yahweh, the one true God, directs the lots to expose Jonah’s culpability. After being interrogated by the sailors, Jonah gives a simple, one line testimony, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord (Yahweh), the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9). In their travels, the sailors certainly would have heard stories of Yahweh, the God who wreaked havoc on Egypt, parted the Red Sea, and drove out the nations from Palestine before the Israelites. Jonah lived only 200 years after the glorious kingdoms of David and Solomon.
If the sailors ever doubted the truthfulness of those stories, their doubts were shaken in that moment. They went from being afraid (vs. 5) to being “exceedingly afraid” (vs. 10). Why? They now knew and believed the reality of that supernatural storm: it was brought about by the one true God. Their pagan beliefs already were corroding.
After some more interaction with Jonah and one last-ditch effort to save Jonah’s life, the sailors concede to Jonah’s request. Before they throw him overboard, though, they “cry out to the Lord” (v. 14). No more crying out to “the gods;” they were practicing monotheists. More than that, their prayer reveals that Yahweh was not only the God who made the sea and caused this storm, but Yahweh was also their only hope for mercy and deliverance. They have seen the power and judgment of God, just like Pharaoh in the Exodus, but, unlike Pharaoh, their hearts are softened to rely on God.
The conclusion of the story affirms the spiritual transformation of the sailors: “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows” (v. 16). Just like Abel in Genesis 4, the sailors knew the Lord would have regard for sacrifices. They understood enough that no one approaches God without the covering of blood. By making vows, they commit themselves to Yahweh.
The story is remarkable on multiple levels. The sailors are the least likely converts. Jonah was not looking for conversation on that ship. It affirms that “with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Let me encourage you with a couple of applications.
1. God works in and through storms. The storm was for Jonah. It was more effective in the lives of the sailors. If there are storms in the lives of unbelievers around you, pray that God would use the storm to awaken faith. Pray that God would use you and your testimony to bring the hope of truth in the midst of the storm.
2. We can never know when and how God will use testimonies to awaken faith. We don’t know how much the sailors knew of the stories of Yahweh or when they learned them. But those stories certainly became foundational for the awakening of their faith in that moment of crisis. Do not lose heart if you do not see immediate fruit from your efforts to share the hope of the gospel.
3. Perfect testimonies are not necessary. Jonah didn’t expect to give a testimony of his faith on that ship. He was not particularly motivated to see these pagans convert to his faith. Yet God still used his words to move the sailors to faith. If God can use the words of a rebellious, cold-hearted Jonah, he could certainly use you and your testimony, no matter how imperfect you may be. Don’t hesitate to speak the truth and trust the results to God.