On our honeymoon Kayla and I were listening to a podcast from Gateway Church in Dallas when the book of Jonah was suddenly referenced. The reason why it came up was only an aside to the rest of the message but the preacher essentially said “The book of Jonah is the one book Jesus used to say that he would die and raise from the grave as a sign to His generation.”
For some reason this short phrase stuck with me for our drive across North Carolina and several days afterwards. Sometimes God uses little curiosities like this one in order to direct me to something exciting. Once I made it back to College Station I devoted a little bit of time to reading and asking God for something new from the book of Jonah.
I have a very strong connection with the book of Jonah. When I was saved my freshman year of college I went to Breakaway regularly and during one Tuesday night a guest speaker shared a brief message from the book of Jonah and a very clear presentation of the gospel that I was able to internalize. I was already saved, but it was at that point that I had a solid understanding that would allow me to communicate it to others. I don’t even remember if it was from Jonah specifically, but for some reason the gospel and the book of Jonah are glued together in my mind. I have studied the book of Jonah a few times but I haven’t been able to see much of a picture of the gospel in it on my own, but I knew it was in there somewhere.
After my time reading Jonah recently I got a few points that I’d like to share.
When I read the Bible, depending on my time allotted I read it from a couple of different perspectives.
This first perspective is based on the type of literature. The Bible has numerous literature types and each book may even include multiple types. One list of these literature types could be as simple as narrative, poetry, and discourse. The book of Jonah is commonly thought of as historical narrative- telling a story of something that actually happened. There is some debate around the “historical” part, but at the very least the book of Jonah must be thought of as prophetic regardless of its historical accuracy because Jesus specifically uses “the sign of Jonah” to point to the sign of His own death and resurrection. Of the 12 minor prophets, Jesus directly quotes from five of them throughout the gospels with Jonah being the smallest. The prophet Jonah clearly had a big importance to Jesus and His ministry. (I share this because it may come to a surprise to you that many people who believe in Jesus rightfully use their understanding of history and textual analysis of ancient documents to determine their authenticity. I believe the simple fact of Jesus referencing the book of Jonah makes it prophetically accurate at minimum and historically accurate at most.)
There is something interesting about this story of Jonah though. All of the characters behave different than you would expect them to. And I mean totally different! Think about it. (If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you do so now. It’s so short!)
Character: Prophet Jonah
Expected Behavior: Boldness, Authority, Powerful preaching
Actual Behavior: Running, Unfaithfulness, Overly dramatic selfishness
Character: Pagan Sailors
Expected Behavior: Godlessness, Sinfulness
Actual Behavior: Recognition of God, Repentance, Vows made to God
Character: King of Nineveh
Expected Behavior: Violence, Oppression of opposition, Calling on false gods
Actual Behavior: Urgent Repentance, Knowledge of God’s mercy, Righteous leadership
Expected Behavior: Mindless instinct
Actual Behavior: Fasting
This story is almost perfect satire. The definition of satire is “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.” God used this story to expose His people’s vice as it relates to their relationship with Him and others. This prophet would rather ignore his God and see national enemies destroyed (things that Israel always seemed to be focussed on) rather than respond to the heart of God.
For me this satirical story brings my mind to another point. There are definite expectations that are not being met here and God uses those unmet expectations to teach us. In addition to calling out the extreme vices of His people, He drew my attention to His even more extreme character. Notice how God’s behavior isn’t satirical. In fact, instead of them being satirical, His incredibly generous actions to the extremeness of Jonah highlights God’s immense and often under-exaggerated faithfulness. God was willing to use a storm, a miraculous encounter with a giant fish, and a one-on-one conversation to call out a man’s prejudice while also using him every step of the way.This is exactly what he was doing with His people, calling them out through the prophets while using them to redeem the world despite their unfaithfulness. Even in Jonah’s childish fits and selfish unfaithfulness God transforms the lives of communities and nations!
The Prophet’s Process
Now because we are reading the Old Testament there is a little bit of general context that we should make sure we use. Prophets were a big deal. Prophets still exist in the New Testament but it is for a very different purpose. The author of the book of Hebrews says this as clear as day:
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” Hebrews 1:1
According to Hebrews, God’s communication was through prophets. (Key word was.) God did this at many times (meaning quite often) and in various ways (which could certainly include satire-filled historical narratives… if that’s even a thing).
In this second perspective, God desires us to know Jonah’s story so that we can relate it to our own. Through God’s process with Jonah, I can understand part of God’s process with me.
As religious people, we tend to look at others in authority as being more holy than us. We all certainly would have done that to God’s prophets from ancient Israel (assuming we could recognize them as such, which ancient Israel mostly didn’t). The scene here is of a man who is not so holy despite his holy title. Jonah was actually already seen as a proven prophet of the Lord earlier in the Bible (see 2 Kings 14:23-25) so his behavior is extra surprising. Here is how the book of Jonah starts:
“The Word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.” Jonah 1:1-3a
Jonah has heard the voice of the Lord before but for some unknown reason he flees this time around. The natural question is “Why?” It’s that exact question that God brings Jonah to confess later on. After ((SPOILER ALERT)) Nineveh repents and God relents from bringing destruction on them, it reads:
“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.'” Jonah 4:1-3
Jonah, prophet of the one true God, throws a fit because God does exactly what he knew God would do. Jonah knows God’s character accurately, so Jonah’s issue is that he disagreed with God. (God’s prophet disagreeing with God…) God doesn’t condemn Jonah for the disagreement though. As always, He wants to get to the heart of the matter. Jonah knows God’s righteousness but has a heart disconnect that initially led him away from the will of God. For Jonah to truly understand God it looked like yielding to God and actually tell God how he felt- having a conversation. It was only then that he was able to correctly get his heart connected to God in intimate conversation even after he completed his appointed work.
For many of us, we know God’s character and the truths about who He is. He is for us. He will not leave us or forsake us. He has numbered our days and written our name in the book of life. He has good works prepared for us to do. Yet, we often respond like Jonah for a whole laundry list of reasons. We live a lifestyle of running from the life we should live because we aren’t connected with God Himself. We know one thing in the textbook of our mind but our lives fail to express true understanding of it in our heart. God is willing to walk with us and even use us throughout the process, but the process is as important to Him as the work. He has both in mind.
God is calling us to live out our knowledge of Him. He wants to impact (and based on this story redeem) people in your life. The only question is, how can we better live out what we know? After you ask God this question it has to look like a conversation. A conversation with God will lead to Him speaking (through one way or another) and a connection being formed through which an understanding of God leads to a life lived for and with God.
I could stop there, but there is one more thing I want to point out from this story. God did call out the vices of His people, but He is not a God who stops there. For God, it is all about how He makes a connection with Jonah and, as we will see, this is how He makes a connection with us. God, as He normally does, starts with a question:
“But the Lord replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?'” Jonah 4:4
The meaningful part about this is that God asks the easiest “head knowledge” questions. The answer is there, but this conversation isn’t about the answer. It is about connection, a relational understanding. The answer is clearly “No,” but Jonah leaves the city to see what would happen to it. God follows him out there where a few events take place. Here they are in order:
God provides a shady tree for Jonah. Jonah’s discomfort is eased and now feels “very happy.”
God provides a worm to eat the plant, hot wind, and a lot of sunlight. Jonah grows faint and throws another fit saying “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
God then asks the same question as before just this time about the plant. “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” Jonah over dramatically responded “It is. And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
Now think about how you would respond to Jonah. I personally have a really hard time looking past the terrible attitude, lack of foresight, and the overall selfishness of Jonah. I expect a rebuke. I expect the answer to this question to be the same as before, “NO!” Here is how God begins his response.
“You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up over night and died over night.” Jonah 4:10
Sounds like a “NO!” to me, or so I always thought. But keep reading.
“And should I not have concern for the great city of Ninevah, in where there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left- and also many animals?” Jonah 4:11
The text purposely doesn’t give us an answer! Why? Because we need to hunt for it for ourselves! God is inviting us to engage in conversation with Him through the text. So that’s what I did.
The “answer” I found as I was trying to decode what God was saying meant so much to me. Instead of rebuking Jonah, God was using how Jonah unjustifiably felt about the plant to justify to Jonah how He felt about Nineveh, and therefore why He relented. God used Jonah’s present and intense emotions to justify His own.
In order to communicate this more clearly, I am going to summarize the essence of the conversation in my own words.
God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
Jonah responds, “YES! I am so angry! I would rather die than live and not have that plant!”
God responds, “That’s how you feel even though you did nothing to make it happen. In the same way, I would rather die than live without the people of Nineveh! Can’t you see that?”
Jesus referenced the book of Jonah in His ministry as recorded in Matthew 12:39,40. From a first glance Jesus was referring to the three days and three nights aspect of the story, but I think Jesus did for more than that. If anyone heard Jesus reference Jonah they would have had to reassess the whole book based on Jesus’ teaching and eventual resurrection. Jesus wasn’t just referencing a fact of timing. He was referencing the heart of God that was communicated to the prophet as something directly prophetic of His heart for the world. Just as Jonah went three days and three nights in a giant fish in order to get to a place of relational understanding with God, so Jesus was in the earth for three days and three nights in order to make a way for all of humanity to come to relationship with God the Father.
Just as the issue for Jonah was a relational, heart-level connection with God, so it was for the first century Jew hearing the teaching of Jesus, and so it is for all of us. True connection with God’s character and purpose comes when we realize He willingly died that we might have right relationship with Him instead of the wrath we deserved.
I would rather die than live and not have the world. -God
It is my hope that you to meditate on this reality of God’s character, see if you can discover it in your own Bible, and then simply ask Him, “God, now that I know this, how do I live my life in response?”