Why Jonah?

This Sunday, July 21, we will begin a short sermon series from the book of Jonah. This is one of the best-known Bible stories, famous in Sunday schools everywhere for that big fish that swallowed God’s prophet. Yet it also one of the least understood. What is Jonah all about? Why read Jonah? What difference can it make in our lives here in our city today?

My experience reading and studying this book reminds me of something the early church father, Gregory the Great said, “Scripture is like a river…broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.” At first glance, this fishy story might seem simple and shallow, but wade in further and the water gets deep quickly. Is this story about patriotism gone too far? About God’s control over nature and cities? About the wayward hearts of the people of God? About the call to love enemies and outsiders? About God’s compassion? Missionary heart? Yes, and more. How, then, can we summarize what is here for us?

In brief, I think we can safely say this little book will set our attention on three things:

  1. God’s compassion and mercy, both to his hard-hearted, rebellious prophet and to pagan sailors and to citizens in Nineveh.
  2. The dangers of God’s people being happy to be God’s insiders but indifferent or even hateful to lost outsiders.
  3. The hope of a prophet greater than Jonah: Jesus Christ who gives the sign of Jonah and personally extends God’s saving mercy to his enemies.

A Strategy for Reading

In order to get the most out of this short book, here are four suggestions for reading.

First, keep your eye on Jonah. Unlike other prophetic books, this one focuses not on the prophet’s message but on the prophet himself. Jonah’s preaching takes up all of one verse! So don’t lose sight of Jonah! Watch him run from God, sleep in the ship, pray from the fish, preach to the city, and wait impatiently for the city’s demise.

Second, follow the pagans. They are the foils to Jonah: we always see them in response to Jonah and in contrast to Jonah. In this strange story, these pagans respond to God’s word, offer prayer and sacrifices to God, and repent with fasting and hope for mercy. And these are the bad guys?

Third, listen to God. God calls Jonah to preach to Nineveh, warning them to repent of their evil ways. Later, he recommissions Jonah. When Jonah fumes over God’s mercy for Nineveh, God probes with a simple question, “Do you do well to be angry?” And God has the last word in the story, chiding Jonah for loving a plant more than the people of Nineveh. As we listen to God we hear his hatred of evil, his compassion and mercy to sinners like the sailors and the Ninevites, and his incredible patience with Jonah, his rebellious and self-righteous prophet.

Fourth, look ahead to Christ. Jesus comes as the one greater than Jonah. Jesus comes to his enemies and never wavers in his sacrificial love for them. Jesus gives the sign of Jonah, three days in the ground, followed by his resurrection (Matt. 12:40). Jesus is the prophet who always speaks God’s word while also demonstrating God’s holy and merciful character.

We live in times when the culture around us is growing increasingly non-Christian. We live in times when nationalism and racism are on the rise. We live in times when we have to decide how we will respond to outsiders and enemies, here and abroad. Will we be indifferent, like Jonah with the sailors? Will we be hard-hearted and hateful, like Jonah with the Ninevites? Or will we be compassionate and merciful like the missionary God who brings good news into the world even at the cost of his own life?

The book of Jonah, coupled with the Holy Spirit’ power in responsive hearts, can stir us to compassion for people who “do not know their right hand from their left,” can warn us of the dangers of self-righteousness and idolatrous racial and national pride, and can give us joy in Jesus, the greatest missionary ever.

How to Get the Most Out of the Series

  • Ask for the Spirit’s help to be a hearer and doer of this book.
  • Read the book of Jonah several times before Sunday. You can read it in less than 15 minutes.
  • Read The Prodigal Prophet by Tim Keller as a companion to the series. It’s in the bookstore or available here or here, and the audio is here.
  • Watch the Bible Project video on Jonah. You can find it here.
  • Talk about what you’re learning in your Community Group or with a friend.