A Whale of a Reflection


One year ago on this coming Sunday, I started a teaching series called “Route 66” (not original to me, but a catchy title in America). It is a “through the Bible” series in which I give each book of the Bible a full treatment in one teaching setting. Granted, this may not seem completely fair as some books are longer than others (e.g., Genesis’ 50 chapters compared to Obadiah’s 21 verses). It has been an excellent study, one in which my youth, my youth leaders, and myself has all benefited. Personally, it has been a wonderful discipline for me to preach expository through a whole book in one shot. It is a discipline that I encourage other pastors (especially youth pastors) to someday at some point in their teaching/preaching.

This past week, I taught my students the book of Jonah. I know the story. You know the story. My students (all of whom grew up in this solid, healthy, mature, Bible-teaching church) know this story. So why would I spend a whole week studying and teaching Jonah? What is the point? Two reasons pop into my head as answers: (1) repetition is the key to learning and the key to learning is repetition (thank you Dr. Farnell), and (2) I found out that I didn’t know this book as well as I thought I did. I would like to share those “I-hadn’t-thought-of-those-before” reflections today.

Before I begin, if you need a fresher on the book, The Bible Project has the best less-than-ten-minute overview of Jonah. It is well worth your time!

Reflection #1 – Jonah’s Fish “Death” is Our Promise of Resurrection

Now this is not immediately obvious because there is no mention of death and resurrection in the story of Jonah. And you are right. However, when we jump to the New Testament—in Matthew 12—Jesus points to Jonah’s watery “grave” as a sign of coming resurrection.

Just before Matthew 12:38ff, the religious leaders (scribes and Pharisees) had been working hard to discredit Jesus, while Jesus had been showing them over and over again that they were actually unsaved, haters of God, who were evil and would face God’s condemnation in the future (12:33-37). The religious leaders then came up with another attack in which they thought they could trap Jesus: demand a special sign to prove He was from God and the Messiah.

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ 39 But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.’”

So, these religious leaders wanted proof of Jesus’ being Messiah. Jesus said a sign had already been given and that is Jonah’s 3-days and 3-nights in the big fish. In other words, Jesus was saying, “I am going to die and be resurrected after 3-days. When that event happens, THAT will be your sign that I am Messiah.” So they do get what they asked for, but it is delayed and won’t be believed anyway (cf. Luke 16:31). Jesus, in v. 41, then condemns these religious leaders because Nineveh repented of their sin even though Jonah’s preaching was a mere 5-words long (in Hebrew) and unclear (no mention of sin, repentance, or God), while these “religious” men are standing in the midst of the Son of God, who preached a clear gospel and backed it up with all kinds of miracles, and yet hardened their hearts. The reflection I am pointing to here is that Jesus was going to be resurrected and so will the repentant Ninevites of Jonah’s day (they will stand with Jesus to condemn the false religious leaders of Jesus’ day).

This fact of resurrection should give us great peace and joy because the promise of the resurrection unto eternal life is absolutely essential to the Christian’s belief and proclamation. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Paul:

“if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised;  and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. But now Christ has been raised from the dead … so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Cor 15:13-22)

Reflection #2 – Jonah’s Story is a Mirror for Us

The book just before Jonah is Obadiah (a book that is overlooked and rarely read, though only 21 verses long). In it, Obadiah condemns Judah’s neighbor Edom for their pride and wickedness toward God’s people (my friend James has a good overview of Obadiah). Yet Edom is not the only nation in view. Edom is just a representative of the nations (Obad 1:15) and the coming condemnation of the nations for the cruelty toward God’s people – a theme that is also repeated throughout the prophets (cf. Isa 13-23; Jer 46-51; Ezek 25-32; Dan 2, 8-12; Nahum; Zeph 1-2). After reading Obadiah, the reader would be tempted to believe that God wants His people to avoid and have nothing to do with God’s enemies. After all, won’t they influence and corrupt God’s people?!

Enter Jonah. Jonah, as a representative of the northern tribes of Israel, believed he was a member of an exclusive club of “God’s chosen” and that he should remain exclusive to them. However, this is simply not the point of God’s setting apart of the Jews. They were to be a blessing to “all the peoples on the earth,” (Gen 12:3) and to be “a kingdom of priests” for the nations (Exod 19:6). Israel was to “declare [God’s] glory among the nations, His marvelous works among the peoples” (1 Chron 16:24; Ps 96:3) and be a “light for the nations,” so that” salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isa 49:6). They were to pray that God might be gracious to them as a nation, to bless them, and to cause His face to shine on them so that “[God’s] ways may be known on the earth, Your salvation among all the nations” (Ps 67:1-4). In this regard, the Old Testament clearly shows that they failed and Jonah is the proto-type attitude of that failure.

So what does this matter to you? To the church? Well, Jesus’ last words to His disciples show the church now has this responsibility: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you …” (Matt 28:19-20). These are Christ’s marching orders to all the church. GO! Make Disciples! John MacArthur sums up this command very well in last year’s issue of Expositors Magazine:

“Jesus wasn’t sending His followers to redeem their culture, do social work, vanquish slavery and other injustices, or upgrade public morality. All those things gradually happened as the gospel permeated the Roman world, but they were side effects and secondary benefits. The apostles’ clear objective was simple to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth and continue teaching everyone who responds in faith. Go. Make disciples. That remains the singular duty of the church. Jesus’ final earthly instructions to His followers have not been revised or amended for these postmodern times.”

God “loves the world” (John 3:16) and gospel of Jesus Christ is the only way for the world to be saved (1 John 2:2; 4:14). Even Jonah knew this: “I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

Do you have God’s compassion and love for your enemies? Before you were saved, you were a sinner, an enemy of God (Eph 4:17ff). Now, by His grace, He has saved you and now by His love and compassion that you have experienced, how are you doing in spreading the message? Or is the message of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ unto eternal salvation for every sinner who believes exclusive to you and your church?

The book of Jonah is an excellent mirror to remind you and me that our marching orders from Jesus Himself is to go proclaim the good news.

“For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Rom 10:11-15).

Oh, by the way, in case you are too scared to “GO!,” remember Jesus’ final promise: “I am with you always.” That is good motivation to go to our jobs, go to our schools, go to our homes, go to our families, and go to our friends with the gospel call.