In the Belly of the Great Fish, Introduction
This is the first installment in a five-part series covering the book of Jonah. Where is Jesus in Jonah? This is the chief question with which this series will deal.
It’s not always easy to put yourself in the shoes of Old Testament saints. Thinking about their ancient context and their obscure circumstances sometimes makes it difficult to see how God is speaking to us through those particular passages. The commonalities we do find are almost completely negative—our sin is like their sin. The point of Old Testament literature is to reveal—then as well as now—a desperate need for a Redeemer. The prophet Jonah is no exception to this rule. Jonah needed a Redeemer just as we all need a Redeemer. But the story is more complex than that.
Yes, Jonah needed a perfect Savior; but is it true that God used this failed prophet as a way to prefigure Jesus Christ about eight centuries before the gospel accounts were written? This is the meat of the matter, and the primary focus of our excursion through Jonah over the coming weeks: the gospel according to the book of Jonah.
In the middle two weeks of July I will have the opportunity to preach through the last two chapters of Jonah. Because of this, I thought it might be a good idea to write a short chapter-by-chapter series covering the entire book, with special focus on the last two chapters of the narrative.
What can we expect as we travel through this biblical account of Jonah the prophet? It’s a short book, only four chapters. A person could read it in less than 20 minutes. Though brief, this section of God’s Word is packed full of doctrinal riches and prophetic nuggets, allowing the reader to see Jesus before they even get to the New Testament. Thus, this tale of a rebellious prophet, a pagan boat crew, a massive fish, and an unprecedented national revival has much to tell us—the New Testament people of God—about God and His redemptive plan.
What Does Jonah Tell Us?
For 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.
— Matthew 12:40 (ESV)
Jonah was the son of Amittai. He was a prophet of Israel during one of the nation’s prosperous eras. He served under king Jeroboam, who was notably wicked in the sight of the Lord (2 Kings 14:23-25). It’s also helpful to note that Assyria was on the upward trend to becoming a threat to the nation of Israel. This growing Assyrian threat accounts for much of Jonah’s reasoning throughout this colorful tale. But, as we shall see, Jonah’s reasoning is not God’s reasoning.
The book starts out with God commissioning Jonah to “go to Nineveh,” and to “call out against it, for their evil has come up against me (v. 2).” Immediately Jonah rebelled and charted a course toward what is now modern-day Spain, a town called Tarshish. He was running from God. It’s interesting that this all transpires within the first three verses in the book, so things begin declining for Jonah almost as soon as God addresses him.
Why does Jonah run in the first place? One commonly observed reason is because Jonah saw the unrighteousness of Nineveh. They were not a people chosen by God, he thought. They were worshippers of pagan deities. Sexual immorality and blood-thirst characterized their culture. Another, less observed reason is that it’s possible Jonah lived during a time when Israel, by virtue of prophecy, knew that Assyria would eventually come against Israel.
In 2 Kings 8:12, 13 Elisha prophesies that Hazael will become king of Syria. He will, “set on fire their fortresses… kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women.” This prophecy comes to be fulfilled in chapter 13. Considering the book of Jonah within that context allows the reader to clearly see why Jonah was bewildered at God’s command for Jonah to call them to repentance. “Why,” Jonah probably thought, “would God want to give a nation a chance to repent despite the inevitability of their future attack?”
Upon this consideration, the prophet is seen descending—retreating—into the bowels of a ship. A rather dark picture is painted, representative of Jonah’s spiritual drift away from the Lord (Jonah 1:3b).
Jonah is sharing this ship with a pagan crew, and because of his rebellion, God begins thrashing the vessel with wind and waves to the point of near-capsize (v. 4). The men eventually cast lots to discover the wrongdoer. Jonah is the prime suspect. Thus, he volunteers to take himself, along with God’s wrath, overboard—away from the crew—to preserve their lives.
What’s important to keep in mind, especially by way of introduction, is that Jonah is boldly Christocentric. One cannot responsibly preach through the book of Jonah and completely miss Jesus. There are interesting parallels which I hope to bring out in full throughout my series such as: Jonah being asleep on a boat in a storm (Jonah 1:5b; Mark 4:38), and Jonah sacrificing himself that the crew may live (Jonah 1:12; 1 Cor 5:7; Matt 12:39, 40).
The book of Jonah tells us an account of redemption as seen through the eyes of an imperfect servant of God. Throughout Jonah, we will find themes such as God’s mercy, God’s sovereignty over salvation, human sin, protological substitutionary atonement, and more. I hope that as I read and preach through Jonah, we can learn more about our covenant God together.
Mark Your Calendars!
Throughout this series, I will include links to the Sermon Audio profile on which the Jonah sermons can be found. Join me in prayer over the next few weeks as we explore this marvelous portion of God’s Word.