At the beginning of the twentieth century, people in Westernized nations were full of hope. The notion that humanity was getting better was a part of popular thought. Included in this notion was the idea that, in the not too distant future, wars would cease and the world would enter a utopian age. Then World War I (1914-1918) happened. A little over twenty years later World War II (1939-1945) began, and many other wars followed. The twentieth century is often referred to as the bloodiest century in human history. And the twenty-first century shows no signs of reversing this trend. The atrocities on the battlefield and those perpetrated by despotic regimes silenced thoughts of humanity’s goodness and ability to bring about world peace. And why is there all this bloodshed? The thing is people aren’t good naturally, not since the fall anyway. We are all in desperate need of rescue. We all need a savior to deliver us from ourselves.
This essay focuses on the prophetic book of Jonah. Jonah is part of a section of Scripture known as the Minor Prophets (or the Twelve in the Jewish canon). These twelve books are called minor because of their size relative to the Major Prophets, which are much larger.
The fact that a prophet writes a book does not mean it necessarily addresses future issues. On the contrary, old covenant prophets addressed both future and present issues. The majority of their messages actually focused on the present, known as forthtelling. Less than 8% of Old Testament prophecy is what one might call predictive or foretelling. This, however, does not mean there was never a predictive or future element to the prophet’s message. They predicted the fall of Israel to Assyria, the fall of Judah to Babylon, the future return of the exiles, and the coming of the Messiah.
The primary duty of the prophet was to enforce the covenant God had made with Israel. Thus, the prophets may be understood to fulfill the role of “covenant enforcers.”[i] When Israel strayed from the law, the prophet was there to call them to repent and return to serve, worship, and love the Lord.
Most prophetic books are heavy on oracles of judgment and salvation. Oracles of judgment “consist of an announcement of judgment and of reasons for it (e.g. Amos 1:3-5).”[ii] Oracles of salvation consist of “a bare announcement of salvation (e.g. Isa 2:1-4).”[iii] This does not mean that the prophetic books consist only of oracles. Some even included narrative. For instance, narrative is the key literary genre that drives the book of Jonah.
Of all the prophetic books we could look at, why Jonah? For one thing Jonah is short and can be read in about ten minutes or so. This makes it easy to see the flow of the narrative. Other prophetic books require a great deal of background knowledge to understand smaller passages. This isn’t necessarily the case with Jonah. It’s a rather straightforward narrative. Jonah also provides a good example of the progressive nature of Scripture. As noted earlier in the book, God revealed himself to human beings slowly over time. He didn’t choose to disclose everything about himself all at once. For instance, most of the Old Testament reveals Christ through types and shadows. However, when we get to the prophetic books, we get a much clearer picture of what the Messiah (the Jewish term for Christ, “anointed one”) will do. The book of Jonah’s place in the story of redemption allows us to see more easily the continuity between how God reveals himself in both the Old and New Testaments. Some of the big themes in Jonah are also the big themes in the New Testament. This is what we will look at in this chapter.
We Are All Great Sinners
The book of Jonah begins with the Lord calling the prophet to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jon 1:2). The people of Nineveh had sinned against God. The text doesn’t say, “I see how they have sinned against others.” The Ninevites most certainly had. But that isn’t the emphasis here. God is the one against whom they had sinned.
One thing that should be made perfectly clear is that the Bible describes sin as something first and foremost against a holy and righteous God. In Psalm 51:4a David writes, “Against you [God], you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (cf. Gen 20:6). David pens these words after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and conspired to kill her husband Uriah (2 Sam 11). David sinned against all sorts of people, and yet he cries out that he had sinned only against God. This isn’t because David didn’t realize he sinned against Bathsheba, Uriah, the nation, and the unborn child. But, he knew that God is always the most offended by our sin. There may in fact be some sort of sin in which no one is hurt, and yet God is still offended by it. We cannot escape the reality that when we sin, we are accountable to God for that sin. And so, the people of Nineveh had done all sorts of evil, God was witness to it, and he would judge it.
Not only did the Ninevites sin against God, but so did the prophet. Notice how Jonah responds to God’s call to go preach: “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed to Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord” (Jon 1:3). Do you see the irony here? Jonah just received a message from the Lord that he saw Nineveh’s sin and that it must be judged. And yet, Jonah decides he too will sin against God and book passage on a ship headed to the other side of the known world. Tarshish is believed to have been a city in modern day Spain. Nineveh is located on the Tigris River in what is Iraq in our day. He’s going in exactly the opposite direction. He’s not taking the long route to Nineveh. Jonah has no intention of going there and delivering the message.
Now one might not be surprised when “bad people” sin. It’s expected. After all, they’re bad. But one expects more from God’s prophet. The thing is, the Bible makes it painfully clear that all of us a bad. We are all stinking sinners. And since we all sin against God, first and foremost, we all deserve to be punished for it. We, like the Ninevites and Jonah, are great sinners. But thank God, that isn’t the end of the story.
But God Is a Greater Savior
After being thrown overboard, God sends a great fish to swallow up Jonah so that the prophet would not drown (1:17). God saves Jonah for two reasons. First, Jonah is saved from death. Second, Jonah is saved for God and his purposes (to preach to Nineveh and for Jonah’s own sanctification). We find this twofold emphasis of salvation in Ephesians 2:1-10. The first nine verses describe how we were all lost and dead in our sins, but God graciously made us alive in Christ when we believed. The last verse gives the reason for our being saved: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10). We are saved from sin and death, and we are saved to do good works for God.
So the Lord wants to use Jonah. He desires to do a work in Jonah, to change his head and heart. Part of what the Lord wants Jonah to get is that his mercy is great. It was big enough to spare the lives of the sailors and to save Jonah’s neck. And this is the God we are confronted with throughout Scripture. He wants to save a people for himself. He wants to see them transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. And no one is beyond his reach. His arm is not too short. His grace is greater than all our sin. There is no person alive who has sinned so much that God cannot or would not save them. He provides for us a perfect sacrifice for our sin, his own Son. Jesus actually sees Jonah’s experience in the fish as a shadowy pointer to his own sin bearing, sinner saving death, and his triumphant and glorious resurrection (Matt 12:40). Our sin is great, but God is a greater Savior.
God’s Mission Is Great
So Jonah arrives in Nineveh and begins to preach the word the Lord gave to him, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Jon 3:4) Now Nineveh was a “great city” (1:2). We read at the end of the book that over 120,000 people lived there (4:11). This would have been considered large in the ancient world. This great city full of great sinners was not too great a mission for a greater Savior.
And how do the Ninevites respond to God’s word? “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth,” (3:5, emphasis added). God’s message eventually makes its way to the king, and he too shows contrition for his and his city’s sin (3:6). He then decrees that the nation, including its livestock, fast from food and drink, put on sackcloth, call out to God, stop sinning, and throw themselves upon the mercy of God (3:7-9).
What we find in chapter three may be described as a genuine revival. And we find in it some of the elements usually associated with true revival. First, the word of God is proclaimed (3:4). Now I don’t think we have everything that Jonah said to the people of Nineveh. For starters, there’s no mention of why they will be overthrown or who will do the overthrowing. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest that based on the remainder of chapter three, Jonah explained that their sin against one another, other nations, and ultimately against God was the reason for the judgment he pronounced. And this message, although harsh to our ears, is a gracious message from God. The Lord could have left the Ninevites in their sin and simply judged them accordingly. He would have been absolutely just, had he done so. But he sends his mouthpiece, the prophet Jonah, to declare a word from him to them, a word that he knew would ignite a revival in the hearts of the people and ultimately lead them to experience the mercy and grace of God. Second, the people believed what God said through his prophet. They not only believed his word; they believed God himself (3:5). Third, they repented of their sin and sought to put away their sinful way of living (3:6-8). This is where the mention of sackcloth and ashes fits in. Wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes was a typical sign of repentance in the Ancient Near East (cf. Job 42:6). True repentance means forsaking your former way of life and turning to a new way, a better way. Fourth, they placed their hope in the only one who could change their outcome, the one whom they’d sinned against, the Lord himself, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish” (Jon 3:9).
And then we read, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (3:10).
The situation of Nineveh is the situation of all persons at some time in their lives. If you’re a Christian, you were in Nineveh’s place. You had sinned against God. God’s word came to you through someone. God applied the word to your heart by his Spirit. It ignited life. It enabled you to see the depth of your sin against God and your need to be forgiven of it. And you repented, and you trusted Jesus as your only Savior, and God forgave you. He relented from condemning you to eternal death and applied the work of Christ, his righteousness, his perfect life and sacrificial death, as payment for your sins. And he clothed you in the spotless righteousness of his Son, so that God no longer sees a sinner for his anger to burn against, but he sees someone who is righteous and his beloved child.
If you’re not a Christian, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3 still apply, “Whoever believes in him [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18). The good news is, Jesus said just a few verses earlier, that it doesn’t have to be this way since “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (3:16-17). If you’re a sinner separated from God, you don’t have to be. Jesus invites you to repent of your sin, turn to God in faith, trusting that Jesus paid the penalty for your sin, that his work alone makes you acceptable to God, and he will forgive you and make you his child.
God’s mission has always been to save a people for himself from every people group. When we get to the last book of the Bible, Revelation, we find a great assembly made up of people from every people group, including those who at this moment have never heard the name of Jesus. And this gathering proclaimed, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom of priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9-10, emphasis added). No doubt, the people of Nineveh who believed the word of the Lord and repented will be among those who sing this song (cf. Matt 12:39-41).
Theological Reflection & Application
- The God we encounter in Jonah is a God who loves the lost and makes himself known to them in a variety of ways. God reveals himself through the words of Jonah and through nature. Theological textbooks often make a distinction between God’s self-disclosure as illustrated in Jonah 1 as special revelation (God’s words) and general revelation (God’s creation). Although all don’t respond appropriately to God’s revelation, both special and general, God nonetheless desires to make himself known to each of us.
- God’s singular plan to fulfill his mission is through the local church. We find the mission for the local church summarized in Matthew 28:18-20, “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Because Christ has been given all authority, the church is to primarily “make disciples of all nations [people groups].” The means of disciple making is: (1) baptizing new believers and (2) teaching them to obey the word of God.
- I hope you’ve seen that throughout the entire book of Jonah God is the one who is active. He calls Jonah. He sends the storm. He causes the fish to swallow Jonah and later vomit him on dry ground. He calls Jonah a second time to go and preach to Nineveh. He appoints the plant, the worm that eats the plant, and the scorching east wind. If there is to be change, godly, heartfelt repentance, turning from sin, and trusting Jesus alone for salvation, God is going to have to do it. If believers are going to be moved to repent for a lack of gospel fervor, and be moved to love the lost, God is going to have to do it.
[ii] S. Dempster, “Prophetic Books,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000; Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 123.
[iii] Dempster, “Prophetic Books,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 123.