Jonah: the Reluctant MissionaryTo understand the Book of Jonah, you first need to understand a little about the Assyrians. The Assyrians were a mighty, fearsome people, who were known for their brutality against their conquered foes. They were the feared enemies of the Israelites in Jonah’s day. Knowing this helps us understand why Jonah did not want to obey God and go to Nineveh, Assyria’s capital, to preach against it (Jonah 1:1-3). While preaching against Nineveh seems to be what Jonah would want to do, the prophet understood that the point of this preaching was not to seal the city’s condemnation, but rather to offer it the opportunity to repent. And repent is the one thing Jonah did not want Nineveh to do. It was good that their evil had come before God. And it was good that God was just. Now, all Jonah had to do was slip out of the way and without his preaching, the Assyrians—Israel’s enemy—would be punished by God. Or so he thought. Jonah thought he could run away and hide from God, but he should have known better. He should have known that God is all-knowing; there is no place outside of His gaze (Psalm 139:7-12). Jonah should also have known that God—in His love—will not tolerate a wayward prophet. Could God have allowed Jonah to run away and raised up another prophet? You bet! He could have sent an angel—an angelic army even. But God’s heart was not just for the people of Nineveh to hear, it was also for Jonah to go. So God, as is His nature, pursued after Jonah. After spending a three day detour in the belly of a fish, Jonah relented and went to Nineveh as God had instructed him. But notice that Jonah was still far from willing. He was anything but joyful in his mission. He went, but he went reluctantly. We have to be careful as we interpret Jonah’s one day walk (Jonah 3:3). It might mean that he rushed through in one day what should have taken three. Or, it could mean that on the first day of his travels, the people responded. I would not suggest we make a case for Jonah’s reluctant attitude on that verse. Rather, we see his reluctance in the final chapter of the book. After Jonah preached and the people repented (this was surely a temporary repentance based on what we know would happen after this), the prophet plopped down on the top of a hill overlooking the city to sulk and wait. What was he sulking about? God’s goodness (Jonah 4:1-3). What was he waiting on? God to destroy the city, despite their repentance—as if Jonah had talked him into it (Jonah 4:5). The book ends with God asking Jonah a pointed question: Jonah was concerned about a plant that was not his, shouldn’t God have the right to be concerned about a city that was His? And shouldn’t Jonah find the compassion in him for that city, or if not, at least for the animals within it? Don’t miss that last part. It is a sharp rebuke against the prophet’s hardened heart.
Jesus: the Willing SaviorThe story of Jonah stands in sharp contrast to the story of another prophet whom God sent to deliver a message of repentance: Jesus. While Jonah was the reluctant prophet who spent three days in the belly of a fish and preached a message he hoped his enemies would reject, Jesus was the faithful, willing Messiah who spent three days in the belly of the ground and preached a message he wants his enemies to accept. In this way, Jonah is like Sampson—showing us the greatness of Jesus by being more of an opposite. How is this for being opposite to the ending of Jonah:
For the joy that lay before [Jesus], he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2 CSB)Jesus went to the cross with joy. Now, that does not mean he was foolishly happy. Remember that joy is deeper than happiness. They may overlap, but need not overlap. One can be joyful and in pain and tears at the same time. Jesus obeyed God with joy as He laid down His life for those who betrayed Him because He knew it brought glory to the Father. His sacrifice was for God’s glory and our good. And that was cause for joy.
The Church: Like Jonah or Jesus?The book of Jonah leaves us hanging, and it ends that way for a reason. We want to know how Jonah responded. Did he repent? Or did he double-down in his stubbornness and hard-heartedness against Nineveh. We might want to know the answers to these questions, but we do not need to know them. Because ultimately, the Book of Jonah is not about him. It is about Jesus first, and us next. As we finish reading this book, we should sit back in our chairs and ponder these questions: “What about me? Do I care for people? Am I like Jonah, or am I like Jesus? Am I living sent, or am I refusing to go or even running.”
The only real solution to my disobedience isn’t behavior modification, but belief transformation. Only when we begin to believe God is more valuable than anything else will we begin to live as if it is true. Like a loving parent, God is after our hearts, not our behavior.” — Spence Shelton Preschool Tip: This is one of the harder stories to believe. Jonah in the belly of a fish is often used by unbelievers as the example of the Bible’s supposed foolishness. For us, however, this book should not be trying. If God is powerful enough to create the universe out of nothing, if He is able to bring the dead to life, why is sustaining a man in a fish out of question? As you share this story with your little ones, be sure to emphasize that it is true—lay that foundation. And as you do, be careful to be accurate (e.g. a fish not a whale). Kids Tip: Jonah provides another great opportunity to remind your kids of how to read the Bible—not assuming every main character is a “hero.” While there might be some aspects of Jonah we can emulate, there is more that we should turn from. Help your kids see how Jonah is the opposite of Jesus in many ways and draw them to the beauty of Jesus.  Spence Shelton, in The Gospel According to Jonah, by J.D. Greear (Nashville, TN: Lifeway Press, 2013), 18-19.