4 Reasons You Should Preach through Jonah
When I arrived at my church nine years ago, I began rotating back and forth between Old and New Testaments and genres. I quickly chose to preach Jonah. I thought, “Who doesn’t like Jonah? It’s a whale of a tale. Right?” Eh. Maybe not. But even as a young preacher, my congregation and I quickly discovered that Jonah’s great big fish is really just a submarine-like prop used to transport this AWOL-prophet even further than he could imagine from God only to discover that even in the utter depths of the sea, God was still there. Pursuing him. Preparing him. Sending him.
God never lost sight of his prophet, and God never lost sight of Nineveh. Jonah is a great book for young preachers looking to preach a minor prophet. We could almost re-title Jonah Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God except that J. I. Packer already claimed dibs on that title and I’m not in the habit of changing the names of the books of the Bible.
Jesus himself seems to clearly affirm Jonah as a historical figure (Matt 12 and Luke 11), a rough contemporary of Amos and Hosea, who seems to represent a typical Jew. Likewise, 2 Kings 14:25 argues for the historicity of Jonah by setting his prophecy during the reign of Jereboam II, King of Israel, circa 793–753 BC.
God sends him on a mission to warn the Ninevites saying, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). At first blush, this message sounds simple and sweet, yet bleak. But Jonah runs to Tarshish (1:3), the opposite direction from Nineveh. His disobedience was perhaps as theological as it was geographical. Notice that Jonah ran “to flee the presence of the LORD” (1:3). David Stronach of UC Berkley offers an example of why Jonah might have bolted, “In a stone pillar, one Assyrian ruler boasted of ‘nobles I flayed.’ He reported: ‘Three thousand captives I burned with fire. I left not one hostage alive. I cut off the hands and feet of some. I cut off the noses, ears, and fingers of others. The eyes of numerous soldiers I put out. Maidens I burned as a holocaust.” You can’t blame a preacher for not wanting to visit a place like that—either then or now.
In Jonah 2, God puts Jonah in the belly of a fish for three days before spitting him back on shore.
In Jonah 3, Jonah obeys God’s command, and finally delivers the message to Nineveh. Amazingly, the Ninevites repent, and God relents. But how does Jonah respond? You’d think this missionary prophet would rejoice. Not so. Jonah 4:1 tells us the opposite: “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” Why? Jonah 4:2 unpacks this adding an important flashback detail intentionally left absent from the beginning: “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah didn’t run because he feared the Ninevites killing him; he feared God saving them. For Jonah, Niniveh didn’t represent danger to his body as much as his will.
FOUR REASONS TO PREACH THROUGH THIS BOOK
1. Jonah confronts all of us with God’s sovereign will.
God says go. Jonah says no. Long before Kevin DeYoung wrote Just Do Something, people eagerly sought to understand the will of God. But not so with Jonah. God reveals his will to Jonah, and he runs away from it, not after it. While Jonah’s message and mission was unique, the ebb and flow of his wrestlings with the clearly revealed will of God is common to all of humanity. One of the striking contrasts in this book is the dichotomy between how Jonah responds to God’s Word, and the way that the Ninevite pagans respond. Jonah runs, but Nineveh repents. Furthermore, we can all relate to that feeling when God’s Word reverberates in our souls and begins to dislodge some sin, desire, or practice. What do you do with that feeling? Do you grab your track shoes and run? If so, which way are you running?
2. Jonah shows us there is nowhere to retreat from the gaze of God.
In Psalm 139:7, David asks God: “Where shall I flee from your presence?” Jonah answers David’s question in a vivid, punctuated fashion. God speaks. Jonah runs. As he runs, God runs alongside him without breaking a sweat, and provides a boat to help him think he’s escaped. But just to highlight that God’s not impressed by how hard and how far Jonah sprinted, God awakens him from his victory nap only to carry him to utter depths of the sea, deeper than Sheol.
There, Jonah discovers his flight was booked by God; God carried him to the depths so he’d learn not only that he can’t escape the presence of God, but also that God might raise Jonah’s gaze back up to the God whose gaze never left him. Don’t miss this. Sin leads to sorrow, and holiness to happiness. Sometimes, it takes getting swallowed by a great big fish to rescue us from our disobedience. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not become fish bait before getting puked up on shore for a second shot at obedience.
3. Jonah displays the heart of God behind the will of God.
This book reveals just as much about God’s “heart” as it does “God’s will”—and there’s no disunity here. God’s Word of judgment against sin pulsates with God’s heart to save sinners.
Consider how different this is from Jonah himself. God seeks the good of his enemies even while his human prophet’s heart proves quite the opposite. The book of Jonah works a little bit like Memento, one of those movies that withhold a critical detail from the opening scene until later in the story which, in effect, completely changes the meaning of everything that preceded it. Here, that detail emerges at the end in Jonah 4, where his understanding of God’s intention behind the warning. Jonah functions as the inverse of Isaiah, the prophet who tells God “Here am I; send me” and God responds by telling him no one will respond. Here, God sends his evangelist to those who seem furthest from God. He preaches. They repent. God relents. And, Jonah is . . . depressed? Wait. What?
The flashback makes sense of Jonah’s response:
O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.
Jonah didn’t run due to his fear of Nineveh, but his hatred of them. They were cruel. They were wicked. Jonah saw them as less than human, less valuable than the plant that brought him shade.
In short, Jonah was a racist. He didn’t view others with the heart of the God of Abraham who promised that he would bless all nations through him in Genesis 12.
God’s judgment didn’t send Jonah running. The Ninevites’ violence didn’t send Jonah running. God’s mercy toward Jonah’s hated enemies sent Jonah running. Jonah anticipated God’s mercy, and he hated it. The book of Jonah asks us if our hearts beat with God in such a way that we gladly anticipate God saving people quite different from us, even our enemies, that he might glorify himself with an open display of his mercy.
4. Jonah points to Jesus.
One can hardly miss the connections to Christ. I’ll try to limit it to the three clearest.
First, both Jonah and Jesus gave their lives to save sinners.
The eternal Son of God never flinched at coming to rescue rebels and enemies, and bring them to himself at the cost of his very life. In the Old Testament, water represents the chaos that separates man from God. One can hardly miss the foreshadowing of Christ in the sailors chunking Jonah into the sea to silence the storm that threatened to sink their boat (Jonah 2). Jonah argued that his substitutionary death would save their lives, even if temporarily. Of course, the irony of ironies is that Jonah’s running from God’s will to save those sinful Ninevites actually led to the salvation of even more Gentiles—the sailors he hoped would help him escape God.
Second, Jesus submitted his will to God’s in his humanity, while Jonah valued his will over God’s.
To be clear, Jesus submitted to God the Father in his humanity not his deity. God the Son and God the Father never disagree. The triune God has one will; it’s that simple. But contrasting Jonah with Jesus helps us exalt Christ. Jonah’s death appears almost suicidal, and nothing leads us to think that his death wish pictures a surrendering to the will of God to preach to the Ninevites. In fact, his depression in response to the Ninevites’ repentance and salvation confirms that while Jonah’s heart toward God may have changed in Jonah 2, he didn’t fully embrace God’s will from his heart.
Of course, Jesus is greater than Jonah. The sea Jonah faced looks so small as we consider Jesus standing on the shore looking out upon the seemingly unending sea of God’s wrath, as we consider him in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked if this cup might be removed from his lips even as he proclaimed, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
The New Testament picks up on Jonah as a type of Christ who illustrates Jesus going down and being swallowed by death before being raised up to life demonstrating victory over the chaos that separates man from God. That fish was like an amphibious hearse carrying Jonah down to death for three days. Of course, the death Jesus faced was more than metaphorical, and his salvation lasted for more than day (Matthew 12). This world is also a type of Nineveh, and God will overthrow it on the last day. But today is the day of salvation for all who will hear the voice of Christ, for all who repent and believe the good news that there is forgiveness and redemption with the God whose heart beats with mercy and grace. Praise God for Jesus, the greater Jonah!
We could do this all day, but there’s one final connection when comparing Jesus in Mark 4 with Jonah 2.
Third, Jesus is the God-man.
The sailors throw Jonah in the water for fear of the storm. But here’s a startling detail you might have missed. When the storm ceased, the sailors got really, really scared: “Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows” (2:16). In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, the construct for this fear is essentially “mega scared squared.” That phrase is used almost exclusively in Greek to describe a theophany—when people engage with God.
Interestingly, Mark’s Gospel is likely sourced by the sermons by another guy familiar with Joppa and boats, the Apostle Peter. You can hardly read Mark 4 without feeling the impulse to turn back to Jonah 2. I think Mark and Peter want us to think that way. And yet again, the discontinuities highlight how Jesus is greater than Jonah. In Mark 4, Jesus simply awakens from his slumber to join the disciples who are fearful of a great storm. Jesus wakes up and calms the storm: “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39)
Few have taken note of the striking similarity between the response of Jonah’s sailors and Jesus’ disciples in Mark 4:41; the disciples were “filled with great fear.” That’s the same construct we find in Jonah 2:16: mega scared squared. They sensed an encounter with God. Why does this matter? Jonah’s sailors marvel at the power of Yahweh when the storm ceases; Jesus’ disciples marvel at Jesus, asking the question: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The answer? This is the God-man who will calm a greater chaos at the cross. In other words, the man Jesus is God himself.
If you are looking to preach this book soon, I’d recommend the following commentaries:
- Leslie Allen
- Stuart Douglass
- Sinclair Ferguson
- Jack Sasson
- Hans Walter Wolff
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You can read the rest of the articles in this series here.