A nice thing about the book of Jonah is that you can read the whole thing in about 15 minutes and you’ll pick up the whole story pretty quickly. There is nothing complicated going on. After reading it through a couple of times you will have it down pretty well.
However, there is one thing you won’t see when you read Jonah, something Jonah himself was not aware of, and something which most sunday school teachers do not cover when they tell the story to their kindergartners.
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The reason Jonah wasn’t aware of the biggest character in his own book is that the character isn’t in the book. The book is about a dog not barking, a person in hiding. He is nowhere to be found. Jonah is the only person in the book who has a name. The rest are simply extras. “The sailors.” “the people of Ninevah.” “The king.” No names, just roles. It is book titled “Jonah,” about Jonah, written by Jonah. Nobody else even gets a name.
And that is the problem. Jonah was nobody special. He was a lot like me and you. He disobeyed God, he complained to God, and he tried to do things his own way every chance he got. A book about Jonah will teach us all kinds of things, but it will miss the most important thing.
You see, Jonah is not just a story of a guy who runs away from God, gets swallowed by a big fish, and then obeys God. He is a guy who fundamentally disagrees with God on the most important issue in the world. The missing character is Jesus and Jonah is the exact mirror opposite of Jesus. When you start to see this, you will understand the meaning of the book of Jonah and gain a deeper love and trust in Jesus.
The first thing to understand is that Jesus died in order to save the people of the world and Jonah tried to do the opposite. Remember when the storm was rocking the boat and the sailors asked Jonah what to do? He told them to toss him out. He wanted to die in order to prevent God’s forgiveness from getting to Ninevah. Ninevah was the biggest and most powerful city in the world during Jonah’s life, and Jonah was afraid it would conquer Israel if he warned them of God’s approaching judgment.
Israel was Jonah’s homeland, and Ninevah was the capital city of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians were already threatening Israel, and Jonah wanted God to punish them. He did not want them to repent, and he did not want God to forgive them. He was willing to drown in the ocean rather than allow God to forgive the people. That is the opposite of Jesus. Jesus was willing to die in order for God to forgive the people while Jonah was willing to die in order for God NOT to forgive people.
Jonah clearly states his intentions word-for-word after God blesses Ninevah for its repentance. In Jonah 4:1-3 Jonah says he knew that God was compassionate, and he did not want God’s compassion to reach the people of Ninevah. He then adds that he would rather die than see God’s mercy go to Ninevah.
He is the opposite of Jesus. While we were still sinners Jesus died for us. Jonah would rather die to prevent sinners from being saved. Jesus would rather die while we are still in our sins in order that we may be saved.
You can see other ways in which Jonah is the opposite of Jesus. There is a story in the Gospels about a major storm on the Sea of Gallilee in which Jesus walked across the stormy water. When he got into the boat, the storm suddenly ended. Jonah is the opposite. The storm ends when he is tossed out of the boat.
Once out of the boat, he is eaten by a big fish and sits there for three days. While he is in the fish he sings a song about it. The song indicates that he may have died and was resurrected inside the fish, and many scholars believe he did, and was raised back to life after three days. Its hard to say what exactly happened. Its hard to imagine a person surviving such an ordeal, but the Bible never clearly says that he actually died or resurrected. Either way, he was in there three days, and was assumed to be dead by everyone. In the same way, Jesus fulfilled this pseudo-death by actually dying and being dead for three days, and then resurrecting.
Ninevah and Rome
There is also a Christian history lesson within the story of Jonah. Jonah is a Jewish prophet, called by God to spread the word among Gentiles. In the time of Jonah, Jews were forbidden from associating with Gentiles, and Gentiles were regarded as dirty. Jesus was not afraid to associate with Gentiles, and frequently did miracles for Gentiles, even so far as healing a Roman military officer’s son. Jonah was afraid of the people of Ninevah because he feared they might conquer Israel. Jesus was willing to heal the Romans, who had already conquered Israel.
Jonah was angry and asked God not to forgive people of Ninevah hoping they would be killed. Jesus asked God to forgive the Romans while they were in the process of killing him.
In the book of Jonah, Jonah himself comes out looking like the bad guy. On each step of his story he encounters Gentiles who know very little about God, but are always earnest to obey him. Meanwhile, Jonah is a prophet of God who knows God well, and does his very best to disobey.
The first encounter is in the boat with the sailors. The sailors quickly determine that God is angry with them, and do their best to find out why. Upon hearing from Jonah that they must throw him overboard to save themselves, they first try to save him. They try harder to steer the boat out of the storm. It is not until they have exhausted all of their options that they decide to toss him out, and even then they pray to God to forgive them for throwing him overboard. God does forgive them, and immediately the water is calm again. The sailors don’t know anything about God, but they ask for forgiveness, and he forgives them. Jonah knows all about God, and does not ask for forgiveness. He would rather be thrown overboard than ask forgiveness and turn back to God. Nor does he offer to forgive anyone else, as Jesus did on the cross.
Jesus, who was thrown overboard by his own people, whipped, bloodied, and mocked, was hung on a cross to die. He did this in obedience to God, despite not wanting to. What happened to Jesus is exactly what Jonah feared would happen to him, and didn’t. The night of his arrest, Jesus prayed to God to “take this cup from me,” meaning, he would prefer not to die on a cross. Nonetheless, he said “Not my will, but yours be done.” He was willing to put aside his own life in order to serve God. Jonah was willing to put aside his own life in order to disobey God.
You might think that three days of being digested in the stomach of a fish would be enough to teach Jonah a lesson. You would be wrong. He keeps his non-forgiving attitude even when he does finally go to Ninevah. As soon as the people hear what Jonah says, they immediately pray to God and beg for forgiveness. Once again God honors the prayer of pagan Gentiles and forgives them just as he forgave the sailors.
Meanwhile, Jonah says he knows God is a compassionate God, yet does not want God’s compassion to show (4:1-3). The gentiles who know nothing about God come out ahead of the guy who does. The Gentiles in Ninevah accept God’s instruction based on Jonah’s word. Jonah rejects God’s instruction on God’s own word. Jonah rejects it again, even after seeing the storm on the sea, and even after surviving the ordeal inside the fish. He was stubborn.
This is why Jesus, in Matthew 16, says “no sign will be given to you except the sign of Jonah.” He goes on to say that just as Jonah spent 3 days inside a fish, Jesus will spend three days under the ground (meaning dead and buried) and then come back to life. He points his finger at those around him and indicates that they will see him rise from the dead, and still reject him, just as Jonah himself was resurrected from inside the fish and continued to reject God.
Meanwhile, the people of Ninevah will stand in judgement against those who reject Jesus, because they accepted Jonah’s teaching, and “behold, someone greater than Jonah is here.”
The moral to the story is that you and I need to recognize God’s mercy and compassion, celebrate it, live our lives in it, and tell others about it. Jesus was willing to forgive the very people who nailed him to the cross, while he was still in pain, without them asking for forgiveness. In the same way, we must also forgive others who hurt us.
If you ever find yourself judging someone else based on how bad their lives are, or wishing ill upon someone, just remember that you are being like Jonah, the opposite of Jesus.
When you are wronged by someone, forgive them, just as Jesus forgave the soldiers on the cross. When you see someone who has repeatedly disobeyed God and their lives are falling apart because of it, you need to point them back to Jesus, rather than judging them and concluding that they must deserve their punishment.
The book of Jonah is about God’s compassion and forgiveness. Jonah himself is a bitter man who wants God’s blessing on himself, but not others. It doesn’t go well for him. If you want God’s mercy, you must be ready to share it with others. Otherwise you are rejecting God.
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