Bible Passage: Jonah 1-4
God commanded Jonah to bring the message of repentance to the wicked Gentile city of Ninevah. But Jonah didn’t want to, and the disobedient prophet set sail in the opposite direction! So God sent a storm upon the sea. In order for God to calm the storm, the sailors threw Jonah overboard, where he was swallowed by a great fish. Jonah then famously spent three days and nights in the belly of the fish, before it spat him up safely on dry ground. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus tells us that what happened to Jonah anticipated his own death and resurrection. He says, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so must the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” But that’s only the beginning! Learn how the story of God’s reluctant prophet anticipated the far greater ministry of Jesus, a Savior who offers the gospel of repentance freely to the Gentiles!
Listen to Dr. Warren Gage & Dr. Robey Barnes discuss the story of Jonah, and how it teaches the gospel by pointing us to the suffering and resurrection glory of Jesus!
The Gospel Connections
In Luke 24, Jesus taught his disciples that every story in the Bible points directly to him! He explained that we simply need to look for the gospel pattern of “suffering followed by glory.” That is, we need to look for something that points to his suffering on the cross, followed by something that points to the glory of his resurrection! Use the gospel chart below to help you find “the story within the story!”
The Suffering & Glory of Jonah
The Suffering & Glory of Jesus
1. Jonah disobeyed the Lord who sent him to preach to Nineveh. He was asleep in a boat taking him to Tarshish when God brought a storm upon the sea (Jon 1:1-4).
1. Jesus obeyed the Lord to preach to Jerusalem (Isa 40:2). Once he was asleep in a boat when God brought a storm upon the sea (Mark 4:35-37).
2. The sailors awakened Jonah, and the captain asked him to cry out to his God that they might not perish (Jon 1:5-6).
2. Jesus’ disciples awakened him and asked why he didn’t care that they were perishing (Mark 4:38).
3. Jonah arose and told the sailors that they must throw him into the sea to calm the storm (Jon 1:11-14).
3. Jesus arose and commanded the storm and the sea to be calm (Mark 4:39).
4. Jonah was hurled into the sea and the storm stopped (Jon 1:15). The Lord prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah and carry him in its belly for three days (Jon 1:17).
4. Jesus foretells that, like Jonah, he will be in the heart of the earth (the grave) for three days (Matt 12:40).
5. On the third day, Jonah was delivered up from the fish onto dry ground (Jon 2:10).
5. On the third day, Jesus was delivered up from the grave (1 Cor 15:4).
6. Jonah then preached to Nineveh after all. He warned them of judgment to come after forty days (Jon 3:4).
6. Jesus preached to Jerusalem, but they rejected the preaching of one greater than Jonah (Matt 12:41). Their judgment would come in forty years.
7. The entire city from the king to the most humble servant repented before the Lord, and they were saved from judgment (Jon 3:5-10), much to the consternation of God’s rebellious prophet (Jon 4:4, 9).
7. Jesus said the king of Nineveh will condemn Jerusalem in the judgment (Matt 12:41). The sign that will be given to Jerusalem (Matt 12:39) will cause consternation, for it will be the repentance of the Gentiles (Matt 28:19-20; cf. Isa 42:4; Gen 12:3).
Gospel Study Notes
Jonah rebelled at the Lord’s commission to bring the gospel of repentance and mercy to the wicked city of Nineveh. God purposed to send Jonah before he sent great judgment against the eastern city. But the prophet went down to Joppa and booked passage to Tarshish, in the farthest west. Because God was angry with his disobedient prophet, he sent a great storm upon the sea. Jonah was sleeping inside the ship. Fearing that the sailors were soon to perish, the captain awakened Jonah and asked him to cry out to his god. The sailors cast lots to determine who had angered the gods and the lot fell to Jonah. Jonah confessed his disobedience and said the storm was because of him. He said they should throw him overboard. The death of the prophet would propitiate the wrath of God. So the sailors, after trying everything else, did so. The storm immediately stopped and a sudden calm came over the sea. The sailors from Tarshish then acknowledged and worshiped the Lord of Israel.
Jesus was obedient to teach the gospel to the crowds in “Galilee of the Gentiles,” those who came from every quarter. After a day of teaching, Jesus told his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was in the stern fast asleep when a great windstorm arose. His disciples feared they were perishing. They awoke Jesus and the Lord rebuked the wind and the sea. An immediate calm ensued. Then the disciples, who had feared the storm, now began to fear Jesus. They wondered, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41).
A comparison of the two passages in instructive. Jesus’ identity as Israel’s Messiah and the Son of God was recognized because he was like the ancient prophets (Mark 8:27-28). In the storm upon the Sea of Galilee, Jesus’ sleep in the stern of a ship during a storm recalls the account of Jonah. But the differences are instructive, too. Jesus, unlike Jonah, is not disobedient. The storm is not punitive. It serves rather to highlight his difference with Jonah. Jonah’s emblematic death (being thrown overboard) causes the Lord of heaven to calm the storm. But for Jesus, he arises (emblematic of his resurrection) and displays his own divine power to still the storm. The evangelist preserves the question of the disciples, who witnessed all this, to confront his readers with the gospel message of the divine nature of the Savior.
There is coming a great storm upon the disciples when Jesus dies and is buried. These same disciples will be cast about by the storm fear and doubt. But when Jesus awakens from death on the third day, all their fears will be supernaturally calmed. Mark presents Jesus in his true humanity as a new Jonah, both of whom were exhausted and sleeping through a powerful storm. But Jesus awakes and calms the storm himself, just as the Lord had calmed the storm in the days of Jonah. So Jesus is true humanity and true divinity. As true humanity, he is able to offer a sacrifice of his own body and blood for our redemption. And because he is also true divinity, his death is infinite in its value and as such can pay the infinite debt our sin had accrued when we sinned against an infinite God.
Ironically the disciples of Jesus awakened him with the rebuke, “Master, don’t you care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). The answer to their question is given in John’s gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
The pivotal passage in the Jonah narrative is his journey in the great fish followed by his being delivered onto dry land on the third day (Jon 1:17, 2:10). Jesus himself tells us that Jonah’s journey through the sea and his third day deliverance prefigured the Lord’s own burial and third day resurrection from the grave (Matt 12:40; 1 Cor 15:4). The pattern of the gospel is suffering followed by glory. The suffering in a prefiguring narrative gestures toward Jesus’ death and burial, while the glory points toward the resurrection and ascension of the Savior. This narrative of Jonah and the great fish precisely corresponds to the gospel of Jesus. The explicit and dominical word of the Savior (Matt 12:40) lays an interpretive foundation for understanding that there are metaphorical prophecies of death and resurrection that do not involve clinical death and resuscitation. Jonah is one example. Jonah’s death is clearly metaphorical. He compares his suffering in the fish belly to death, but it is figurative only, as is his “resurrection” deliverance (Jon 2:2, 5-6).
Jesus himself testified that he was greater than Jonah. He said this in the context of his comparison of Nineveh and Jerusalem (Matt 12:20). The Lord said that the repentant Ninevites would rise up and condemn the generation of Jerusalem that refused to repent. By so stating his warning to Jerusalem, Jesus highlights the hardness of the hearts of his own “evil and adulterous” generation (Matt 12:39). What were the advantages of Jerusalem that aggravated her rejection of Israel’s Messiah? The message of warning was brought by a greater prophet than Jonah, even the Son of God. Jesus came with a more compelling gospel. Jonah warned only of coming judgment, offering no hope to the Ninevites. Jesus pled with Jerusalem and prayed for her. Jonah gave a space of forty days for Nineveh to turn from her sin. Jesus would give a space of forty years to Jerusalem before destruction came upon her. Jonah expressed his contempt of the Gentiles. Jesus pleaded with his own to repent and seek gospel mercy. But while the Ninevites turned from their wickedness, Jerusalem persisted in her rebellion against God.
God used the spiteful disobedience of Jonah to bring sailors from the farthest western region of the Mediterranean Sea to a saving faith in the Lord of Israel (Jon 1:16). God likewise used the grudging obedience of his prophet to deliver the most wicked city of his generation from destruction (Jon 3:6-10). Nineveh is to the east of Jerusalem. So from Jonah’s disobedient ministry Gentiles were saved from east (Nineveh) and west (Tarshish). God used the perfect obedience of Jesus to set forth a perfect gospel such that many will come from east and west to share the messianic banquet of heaven with Abraham (Matt 8:11)! The dynamic of the lesson of Jonah foretold much about the gospel age of the New Covenant, for the disobedience of Israel brought salvation to the nations (Rom 11:11). Now if Israel’s disobedience led to rich mercy for the Gentiles, what will the full inclusion of Israel in gospel mercy mean (Rom 11:12)?!
- Jonah’s reluctant and tearless preaching saved the greatest city in the world in his day. There could be no greater proof of the gospel as the power of God unto salvation, just as Paul said (Rom 1:16). Jonah’s gospel witness looked to judgment only: “yet forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed” (Jon 3:4). God’s prophet offered no hope. He gave no plan of salvation. But God had sent him. And the gospel power of that one sentence brought repentance and saved the city. If God has sent us too (Matt 28:19-20), what will be the effect of our gospel if we more passionately speak it with the compassion of Christ for sinners? What cities of wickedness might repent and kingdoms of darkness see the light?
- What should be the disposition of the church toward Israel? How could anyone, after Jesus’ example of grace to us, begrudge the mercy of God to the Jew? What will gospel hope, seasoned in compassion and grace for all, proclaimed, or better, sung, from redeemed hearts—what will the demonstration of the power of the gospel be but the salvation of the world? To the Jew first, and afterward to the nations!
- Jonah was justly offended by the sin of Assyria and Nineveh. His response was to close his heart to the Assyrians. No one could be more offended by the sin of Assyria than the thrice-holy Lord himself. Yet the Lord God nonetheless sent a messenger of gospel mercy to Nineveh. Jesus taught us that God sends his rain on the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). He challenged us from this observation of nature to have the perfect (complete) love of God in our hearts and not to begrudge mercy to anyone. We too were once lost in sin and under the judgment of death. But God, who is rich in mercy, sent a gospel messenger to us. Remembering our own so great salvation, let’s ask God to give us hearts like Jesus toward one another. Teaching us to be kind to one another, being tender-hearted, having forgiving hearts. Jesus, we must remember, went into a city far more wicked than Nineveh (Matt 12:42), all to win our salvation! What a Savior!
Dr. Warren Gage © 2022.