Seeing and Preaching the Gospel of Jesus in Jonah

I have occasionally written on the importance of seeing the Gospel of Jesus in the Old Testament–specifically seeing God's plan of redemption woven throughout biblical history–all of which point ultimately to the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. But in the past, I dealt with the argument of why this doctrine is important. This time, I want to show how we might approach this concept practically by looking at a familiar book in the Old Testament: Jonah.

Most people (even non-believers) know the story of Jonah. But many people either see it as an interesting tale about a man who was swallowed up by a fish or they see a story about why we should obey God, otherwise we might get swallowed up by a fish.

Several years ago I heard a sermon series through Jonah and the main point was a typical, principle-seeking approach, and its main focus was why we should not be like Jonah. The argument was that Jonah's life would have been better if he had just obeyed. If Jonah only listened, the sailors would not have been put in danger, and he would not have been swallowed up by a fish, and so on. This is a common way the Old Testament is preached and interpreted today, but let's pause here and not make the mistake to isolate this story from God's overall redemptive work, which Christ graciously tells us to do (Luke 24:44-47, John 5:39).

Morally and principally speaking, if God calls us to go somewhere, unlike Jonah, we should obey and go. Common sense alone leads us to that conclusion. Contrary to what many preachers and interpreters say, that is not the primary point of Jonah. The primary point of Jonah is not about how Jonah should have obeyed, it's about how God continued his redemptive plan despite Jonah's disobedience.

To be clear, preachers often use the illustration of the fish who swallowed up Jonah as a threat to motivate the congregation into obedience. However when God appointed a fish to swallow up Jonah, it was not so much punishment for disobedience (though God does discipline the disobedience of his people), but God's sovereign plan to put Jonah where he wanted Him in order to continue His own work. Even Jonah saw his fate of being swallowed up by a fish as an act of salvation from God (2:1-9).

That interpretation is hard for many Christians to understand because we get stuck on our believer to-do list. Yet so much of the Bible is not centered on what we should do, but on what God is does. And Jonah is a prime example.

When we stop focusing on what Jonah should have done and rather see what God did, we see that the central, recurring theme throughout the whole story of Jonah is God's sovereignty over everything. Consider the follow verses:

"And the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea..." (1:4)

"And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah." (1:17)

"And He spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land." (2:10)

"And the LORD appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah..."  (4:6)

"God appointed a worm that attacked the plant..." (4:7)

"God appointed a scorching east wind..." (4:8)

You get the point. Clearly, the story of Jonah is not about Jonah, but about what God does through Jonah. It's no coincidence that the story begins with Jonah running away from God's plan, and ends with God fulfilling his plan anyway, despite Jonah's reluctance. With that in mind, we must also see that the work God did through Jonah was, in fact, his plan of redemption, which is found ultimately in the person and work of Christ. We can see this by looking at the key events throughout the narrative.

God orchestrates a storm so that Jonah is cast into the sea to save the lives of pagan sailors (1:12-16). God then appoints a fish to swallow up Jonah, who remains in the fish for three days (1:17). On the third day, God raises up Jonah out of the fish (2:10). Jonah then proclaims the good news of salvation to Nineveh, Nineveh repents, and God graciously saves them (3:4, 8-10).

Jonah was in no way perfect like Jesus was (he was far from it), and we certainly should not desire to imitate Jonah. But as disobedient and self-centered as Jonah was, God still used him to not only continue his plan of redemption, but to paint a beautiful picture of the Gospel. Every chapter in this story points forward to the Gospel of Jesus. His sacrifice for pagan men, his resurrection on the third day, and the proclamation of God's message of salvation are fully realized in the person of Jesus. Jesus himself made these parallels in Matthew 12:40 and Luke 11:30.

So next time you read (or preach) Jonah, don't simply see some irrelevant story of a guy who disobeyed God, but see the story of God's relentless plan to redeem his people, found only in Jesus.