THE IMPORTANCE OF JONAH

 

The book of Jonah in the Old Testament is tiny, occupying but one or two pages in the Bible. Because his story is so short, Jonah is often mistaken for the most minor of prophets, interesting to us only for his adventure with the fish where he gets swallowed alive and comes out of it still living. But if this is true, why did Jesus refer to him several times in a way that makes Jonah out to be a pretty important person? As a matter of fact, Jesus seems to puff him up out of all proportion to anything that Jonah might have done to deserve this honor. But then, we already appreciate that the Word of God is far deeper than we might see from a quick reading of it.

At first, the story of Jonah makes him out to be anything but noble. Jonah had run away from God after He had told him to preach to the inhabitants of Nineveh to repent of their wickedness. He went aboard a boat that was going in the opposite direction from where God told him to go.

“But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man to his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them . But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep. So the shipmaster came to him, and said to him, What are you about, O sleeper? Arise, call upon your God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we don’t die.

“And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us draw straws, that we may know who is responsible for this evil. So they drew straws, and Jonah got the short straw. Then they said to him, Tell us, we ask you, why this evil is upon us; What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?

“And he said to them, I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who has made the sea and the dry land.

“Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said to him, Why have you done this? . . .Then said they to him, What shall we do to you, that the sea may be calm to us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.

And he said to them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm to you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you. . .So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.

. . .Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. . .”

When Jonah was expelled from the fish he went on to serve the Lord by preaching to the Ninevites. From the king on down they heeded his words, so that to him was attributed the saved souls of the entire city (which now is overlain by the city of Mosul, in Iraq).

The reason for Jesus’ promotion of Jonah to the ranks of the great prophets is that Jonah was allowed to represent the sacrificial Jesus who willingly laid down his life for his fellow man. In being swallowed by the sea creature and eventually being vomited out, Jonah also represented the Jesus who descended into the claustrophobic grave for three days and was resurrected.

Jesus recognized Jonah’s contribution to His nature and purpose by the most intimate of methods: He re-enacted the essence of Jonah’s Old Testament drama in the New Testament, and by so doing notified His disciples that He, too, must die and descend into the grave for three days and three nights. The account is given in the eighth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel:

“And when he was entered into a ship, his disciples followed him. And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but he was asleep. And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we’re about to die.

“And he said to them, Why are you fearful, O you of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.”

As a side point, there are several accounts, some as recent as the past century, in which whalers have been swallowed whole by their quarry and emerged alive through the ordeal, some having been trapped for several days. In one of the modern events of this nature as related in a Readers’ Digest story, the seaman was blinded by the gastric juices and remained an albino for the rest of his life. But he lived.

In John 21:15-17, after Jesus’ resurrection, He forgave His disciple Peter three times for the three times Peter denied Him. In this instance, Jesus again refers to the prophet Jonah, this time applying the name to Peter.

“So when they had dined, Jesus said to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these? He said to him, Yea, Lord; you know that I love you. He said to him, Feed my lambs. He said to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me? He said to him, Yea, Lord; you know that I love you. He said to him the third time, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me? Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, Do you love me? And he said to him, Lord, you know that I love you. Jesus said to him, Feed my sheep.”

Peter eventually must have figured out that instead of grieving over Jesus’ repetitive commands, he should have been very grateful, for in commanding Peter three times to feed His sheep, Jesus was also forgiving him three times, once each for Peter’s three denials of Him. As described in Acts, Peter did indeed go on to feed Jesus’ sheep three times: in the first incident, given in Acts 2 Peter brought three thousand people to salvation in Jesus; in the second, described in Acts 3, Peter saves five thousand; and in the third, according to Acts 10, Peter through the conversion of the Italian Cornelius, extends salvation to the entire Gentile community.

Why did Jesus label Peter as the son of Jonah? Probably because, like Jonah, Peter feared the anger of those around him if he were to try to fulfill what God wanted to do with him. In Jonah’s case, God had told him to preach repentance to the citizens of Nineveh. Jonah tried to duck out of this responsibility by boarding ship and sailing away as far as he could from that business. In Peter’s case, he tried to distance himself from Jesus in the face of the crowd’s clamor for Jesus’ punishment and death. Both Jonah and Peter eventually mustered the courage to complete God’s tasks for them, at considerable risk to their lives. Peter himself was eventually crucified for his commitment to the risen Jesus but by then, of course, he had the comfort and guidance of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

As another side note, Nineveh’s repentance lasted only a little over a century. The city’s debauchery eventually grew to such an awful extreme that God was moved to destroy it through the armies of Nebudchadnezzar in 612 B.C. This sad event was foretold by the prophet Nahum in the book of that name in the Bible. Eerily, this book reads like a modern news account of trends in the United States and God’s response to them.

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