The image of “Jonah and the whale” has been plastered across so many nurseries and adorned so many children’s books that it almost seems trite. Yet embedded in this story is the very heart of the Christian gospel as well as the foundation for Christian mission.
The book of Jonah is typically classified as a book of prophecy, but it reads so differently from the other prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. While books like Nahum or Habakkuk contain long sections of instructions and judgments, the book of Jonah weaves together the story of a reluctant prophet, his drift from God, and the finding of God’s grace.
Jonah opens with God’s call to a man named Jonah:
The Lord gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.” (Jonah 1:1-2)
Jonah’s name literally meant “Dove” or maybe even “Pigeon” (!). He lived during the reign of King Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:25), placing him somewhere between 700-800 years before the birth of Jesus. God called Jonah to be a prophet—that is, a messenger, someone who speaks for God. But the people of Nineveh was among the last places that Jonah—or any Israelite—would ever want to set foot. For its Assyrian occupants were known for preserving their culture through some of the most violent and oppressive means necessary. The very mention of an Assyrian city would have sent a shiver along Jonah’s spine. The closest analogy we can find today might be the attitudes we have toward radical Islam and ISIS. Sure, we understand that God can save anyone, but deep inside us we might find a desire to see them bombed into oblivion. And God says, “Go.”
In the time after Jesus, Christians find their purpose in what we call the “Great Commission.” Before ascending back to heaven, Jesus tells his closest followers:
18 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
All Christians are called to be preachers. I don’t mean that we preach a sermon in the same way as a pastor on Sunday mornings, or finding a soap box and a crowded street corner. I’m talking about the way we share the gospel with others, the way we open our mouths and tell the story of what God has done in our lives, and what he can do for others.
Still, we might be tempted to react like Jonah did…
Jonah doesn’t exactly take to his assignment with a lot of enthusiasm:
3 But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the Lord by sailing to Tarshish.
4 But the Lord hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart. 5 Fearing for their lives, the desperate sailors shouted to their gods for help and threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship. (Jonah 1:3-5a)
All of us have something we turn to when life becomes uncomfortable. For Jonah, it was a physical place, a location that shielded him from the unpleasantness of his mission to the people of Nineveh. Maybe for you it’s sinking yourself into a hobby, into career, into a relationship. Maybe you sink yourself into the kinds of sins that numb you to the work of God. In any event, we’ll see through Jonah that disobedience separates us from God and others. Jonah disobeyed God by running away. If you were reading this story in the original Hebrew, you’d see the repetition here of the word yarad. It means “to go down,” to descend—the way that Jonah “went down to the port of Joppa.” This movement downward will have some irony as the story unfolds.
But all this time Jonah was sound asleep down in the hold. 6 So the captain went down after him. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” he shouted. “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.”
7 Then the crew cast lots to see which of them had offended the gods and caused the terrible storm. When they did this, the lots identified Jonah as the culprit. 8 “Why has this awful storm come down on us?” they demanded. “Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?”
9 Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
10 The sailors were terrified when they heard this, for he had already told them he was running away from the Lord. “Oh, why did you do it?” they groaned. 11 And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, “What should we do to you to stop this storm?”
12 “Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.” (Jonah 1:5b-12)
Jonah is strangely fast asleep through all this. The sailors were frantic. Imagine the confusion and running about on the boat as they sought to figure out what to do. Being deeply religious people, they sought to manipulate nature by appealing to their various gods. But none of their gods answered. Jonah explains why—he believes that the evil swirling around them is his fault. But the sailors deny Jonah’s instructions. Maybe in their minds they were thinking: If this is what his God is like when Jonah’s alive, how much worse might it get if he drowns?
13 Instead, the sailors rowed even harder to get the ship to the land. But the stormy sea was too violent for them, and they couldn’t make it.14 Then they cried out to the Lord, Jonah’s God. “O Lord,” they pleaded, “don’t make us die for this man’s sin. And don’t hold us responsible for his death. O Lord, you have sent this storm upon him for your own good reasons.”
15 Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once! 16 The sailors were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him. (Jonah 1:13-16)
Do you see the irony? Jonah’s disobedience prompted their obedience. The sailors are the only ones taking God seriously at this point. And what about Jonah?
17 Now the Lord had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights. (Jonan 1:17)
Jonah had started his journey by descending—first going down toward Tarshish, but now descending beneath the waves and into the belly of a “great fish.” Was this a whale? Some sort of sea monster? We don’t know, but we do know that it happened because “the Lord had arranged” it. Jonah was fleeing the presence of God, but he would never be beyond the reach of God. No one is. That’s the whole point. Jonah’s about to learn a valuable lesson in God’s grace in the face of willful disobedience.
I don’t pretend to know whether the suffering in our lives always corresponds to some piece of God’s will. But I do know that when we step back far enough and survey the events of our lives—both good and bad—we can see how God shapes and molds our character even during seasons when we think we know better than the Creator of both land and sea. No rowing can outrun the will of the Lord, and no mistake we make can place us beyond the capacity for God’s forgiveness. Jonah reminds us that even the most rebellious among us can have a place in God’s kingdom, for if God can use suffering then maybe—just maybe—God can also use our disobedience for his glory.