Over the past nine weeks, I have been preaching through the book of Jonah, unpacking it in the original context as well as applying the book’s message to our own life, in our own context. Throughout those weeks I gave glimpses of how the entire book of Jonah points us forward to, and is fulfilled by, the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. This past week, however I preached an overview of the whole book with this Christocentric focus in view. Here are the notes.
The Sign of Jonah
In Matthew 12, we are told that, “some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you’” (12:38). Jesus has been teaching and healing and performing miracles and he’s gaining a following from the people. They are flocking to him and listening to him. In light of this, the Jewish religious leaders want to see some proof of his credentials. They are standing in judgment of Jesus, wanting to him to perform some sign that would assure them that He is truly a prophet.
But Matthew says, “[Jesus] answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here’” (Matt 12:38-41).
Jesus argues from the greater to the lesser. Jonah went to pagans who believed his word, yet One greater than Jonah—Jesus himself—has come to God’s own people and yet they have not believed. The only sign that will be given to them is this: that Jesus himself, in a greater way than Jonah, will descend to death and rise on the third day. And in the process, he will not just proclaim salvation, but will achieve salvation for sinners.
Jesus: the Good and Better Jonah
Jesus came as the good and better Jonah, and we see this as Jesus stands in sharp contrast to Jonah himself.
1. Jesus Willingly Obeyed God’s Call
The book of Jonah opens right into the story with little fanfare—immediately, we are into the action of the story, and it’s not pretty: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ 3But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord” (1:1-3).
Even after all these weeks, it seems too unthinkable: here is the prophet Jonah, called to speak God’s word. But instead of obeying the call of God, he rejected it. He ran away from God’s mission, rather than embracing it. In contrast, stands Jesus. In Hebrews 10 we read, ‘Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; 6in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. 7Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book’”’ (10:5-7).
Jesus, the Son, was commissioned by God the Father to come into this world to take on flesh. In fact, the author of Hebrews frames this prophetic psalm in such a way as to suggest Jesus is standing on the threshold of eternity as he is commissioned by the Father, turning back to say to him “a body have you prepared for me . . . Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.” See you in thirty-three years.
Jesus didn’t run from God’s mission—he embraced it; he fulfilled it. More than, though, Jesus did so willingly. He didn’t obey the call begrudgingly or with second thoughts. For example, after seeing the women at the well come to saving faith, in John 4, the disciples come to saying, ‘“Rabbi, eat.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work”’ (John 4:31-34).
My food, my food. Food is what keeps us alive. Food gives us nourishment. Food gives us joy, as the complex combinations of tastes and textures come into, causing our taste buds to explode with pleasure. Sometimes, it’s not the complex; sometimes it’s just the simple pleasure of fresh bread. But all of this, Jesus says, comes for him, not just by eating food, but by doing the will of God. Satisfaction, fulfillment, joy—these things came to Jesus when he obeyed God’s call.
2. Jesus Displayed Compassion for the Lost
Throughout the entire book, Jonah seems completely indifferent to everyone around him. As he runs from God, he hops on a ship to flee and then we read, “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep” (1:4-5).
The storm is blowing, the ship is creaking like it’s going to bust, and panicked sailors are yelling and screaming as loud as they can, hoping their pagan deities will help them from dying. Yet Jonah just sleeps. Jonah eventually goes over the side, nearly drowns himself, and God rescues him from the sea by having him swallowed by a great fish. Jonah is thankful for the rescue and then he is vomited up on the sea and given the same commissions as before: “go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it” (3:2).
So, that’s what he does. He says, “forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4). Short, to the point, and no hope whatsoever. Despite that, the whole city is saved. It’s amazing! They all believe Jonah’s message and turn away from their sin in humble repentance, in the hope that may relent and not destroy them. God does relent and Jonah fumes! Chapter 4 says, “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:1-2).
Jonah knows that God is compassionate towards sinners—he shows them grace and mercy, he is patient rather than extending judgment as soon as our rebellion begins. Yet Jonah shows no compassion towards sinners. More than that, he doesn’t want sinners to be saved; at least, not these sinners. These are foreigners, pagans. They are idolaters who deserve judgment in Jonah’s mind.
But when you read about Jesus, you see something different. Matthew 9 says, “Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:35-36). Then, just two chapters later, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (11:28-30). Jesus loved sinners. He sought them out. He spent time with them. He had compassion on them. But more than that, he came to save them.
3. Jesus Died to Achieve Salvation
Jonah has an amazing near-death experience. He was picked up and thrown into the sea when the ship was in the storm. And in a prayer to God, he remembers what happened. Jonah says, “you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me” (2:4).
Jonah is dropped into raging sea. He tossed into open water in the middle a violent storm. He goes in and immediate waves crash in over his head, driving him down into vastness of the water. He says, “The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head 6at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever” (2:5-6). The churning sea has dredged up all kinds of muck and mire which is wrapped all around Jonah. Sea vegetation is swirling around, even around his head, in his eyes. He can’t breathe, he can’t see, all he can do is flail around and sink farther and farther into the salty depths of death. But we read that “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (1:17).
Here we go back to what Jesus said. That the people of Ninevah believed the preaching of Jonah, and he ties it to this event—to this span of three days in the fish. What are we to make of this? Well, most scholars think that Jonah’s experience wasn’t lost on the people of Assyria. Nor was his rescue by the fish a random event. You see, one of the most popular false gods worshipped by the Assyrians was Dagon—a fish-god. Think about that. These people worship a god of the sea, embodied by fish, and one day a great fish comes right up to the shore vomits a man out. This man begins travelling right to the capital and begins preaching. Now, what are you going to do? You’re going to listen to him!
But more than that, you’re going to spread the news to those that weren’t there. You’re going to tell you family, your friends, your fellow countrymen about this man who came up out of fish. But more than that—what if the sailors who tossed him overboard landed at port first. What if they turned back and went to Assyria instead of Tarshish and they told people about this prophets who was tossed into the sea and apparently died because he never came back up? What if they told them about the prophet’s God to whom they prayed and who calmed the storm?
Now, there’s no way to know if any of that happened, but it fits what we do that happened. It fits with what Jesus says about Ninevah judging the people of his day. Why? Because Jesus just didn’t appear dead. He didn’t just have a near-death experience. Jesus died. His body was put into the ground. And like Jonah, he arose after three days.
Peter sums it up well in Acts 10. He preaches to the Gentiles and says, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:38-43).
This is the reality to which the sign of Jonah pointed—a perfect, final prophet who experienced death and resurrection, and who’s preaching we should listen to. Because Jesus didn’t just preach God’s salvation—he preached himself and the salvation that he would accomplish for sinners.
4. Jesus Is the Word of God
As a prophet, Jonah receives God’s word. Twice in the book we read, “the word of the Lord came to Jonah” (1:1; 3:1). This is common in all the prophetic books. The word of the Lord comes to the prophets that they might speak it to the people God directs them. Sinclair Ferguson says, “Jonah belonged to that privileged band of men who had stood in the presence of God and felt the pressure of his will upon their spirits. They heard his unmistakable voice telling them what he was about to perform among the nations.”
Imagine the thrill, the excitement; imagine the weight and privilege of filling your mind and heart swell with the immediate, powerful presence of God as his word begins ringing in your ears—a word for the world from the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Jonah stood among a group of few people, knowing an experience with God that other never will. He received and spoke the Word of God as a prophet of God.
But Jesus comes and trumps Jonah. He comes as the good and better Jonah, as the perfect prophet, as the final prophet because Jesus didn’t receive the word of God, he didn’t just proclaim the word of God, he was the Word of God! The apostle John explains that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. . . . 14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . 16And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:1-3,14,16).
Every time there is a major earthquake, there is almost always an aftershock. Sometimes there is even more than one. Aftershocks are smaller earthquakes that come as the tectonic plates continue to shift and settle. But sometimes an aftershock is even more powerful than the first earthquake. When that happens, the scientists revise their data—they designate the second more powerful shock as the real earthquake and the first quake as a foreshock. In the same way, every prophet throughout the ages were foreshocks anticipating the main event. No matter how powerful their ministry, no matter how potent their messages, they were simply future echoes—foreshadowings—of the one, true prophet, Jesus Christ.
Thus, the author of Hebrews says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:1-3). Everything culminates in him and the message he brings, the message that he literally embodies. Jesus came as the good and better Jonah because he didn’t just bear a message, he didn’t just receive the word of God, Jesus was the Word of God.
Unlike Jonah, Jesus willingly obeyed the call of God. Unlike Jonah, Jesus had compassion on sinners. Unlike Jonah, Jesus actually experienced death and was raised to life again, not simply declaring, but securing an eternal salvation. And unlike Jonah, Jesus was the very Word of God made flesh. In all of these things, Jesus is the good and better Jonah. He succeeds where Jonah failed. He brings to the fulfillment the pattern of Jonah’s life and prophetic ministry. Jesus becomes the focal point of our lives and faith.
But more than that, Jesus becomes our example to follow. Jesus calls us to trust—not in us and our own righteousness and what we can do to make ourselves right with God—but to trust in him. He calls us to trust him as the one who lived and died and lives again, all as a substitute for sinners, bearing God’s wrath in his death, giving us righteousness through his life and resurrection.
It was for us that he willingly obeyed the Father. It was to us that showed compassion and mercy. It was for us he gave up his life as the Incarnate word of God. Jesus ministry was for sinners like us. And because of that, Jesus calls us to trust him with our very lives—not just in eternity, but now in this life too. Essential to that trust is following him. That means following his teaching and following his example. And we shouldn’t be surprised when Jesus tells his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).
Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and we should do the same. Not that we are to die as a ransom for many—no, Jesus alone did that. Instead, we are to follow his example, by obeying God’s call to spread the gospel and make disciples. We are to go willingly, showing compassion for the lost. We are to proclaim the ministry of Christ—his death and resurrection for sinners. We are to listen to him as the Word—to the commands of Jesus himself, that we might live and serve in ways that bring glory to his name.
Therefore, in all of this, when we read Jonah we cannot help look Jesus, the one who is greater than Jonah. He is the source of our life with God. And because we have life and forgiveness through faith in Christ, because he is our Savior, we find ourselves willing to follow his example.