The prophet Jonah got me into trouble once. I preached a series of sermons on his prophecy, and I made the “mistake” of referring to the whale as a big fish. But I was simply quoting the Bible translation we used in the pews. A woman in the church became angry with me for changing the Bible. She was in charge of VBS that year, and we covered the story of Jonah and the whale. As an award to the teachers, which she made sure I received, she gave out pins in the shape of a whale.
But Jonah’s message is so much more than a debate over what kind of aquatic animal swallowed him. The prophet was a Galilean, same as Jesus, and he tried to run from his call as a prophet by taking a ship to Tarshish, Spain, all the way across the Mediterranean Sea. This guy wanted to get away from the Lord, as far as he could! But he succeeded in running smack into God, and he had face up to his divinely given responsibility. He was supposed to preach repentance and salvation to the Ninevites, archenemies of his nation.
Jonah is about the unlimited grace of God. He cares for all humanity, and reaches out to every one of us all the time. The Lord wants to redeem us from our own bad behavior and morally corrupt nature. The mercy of God is far-reaching and encompasses even the people we would exclude.
This is not the ordinary way of seeing the Old Testament. Many people think the Old Testament God is a beast, eager to chew on anyone who strays from a narrow path. But the Lord is a God of grace in the Old Testament just as he is in the New. The prophecy of Jonah revealed this about God, as do other writers from the first two-thirds of the Bible. God is merciful. He is merciful to righteous and unrighteous.
He is not, however, nothing but mercy. The threat of judgment is firm in Jonah’s prophecy. If the Ninevites didn’t repent, they’d come under his wrath. Jonah’s own life was an illustration of the truth, too. He could not escape the Lord’s anger. He went into the water and the belly of the huge fish. His “leafy plant” was chewed up by a worm, also a punishment, although it was meant to lead Jonah to discover God’s compassion. The Old Testament God is not what people expect. He’s so much more.
Jonah’s character was a mixture of muscle and frailty. He walked in faith, and he vacillated in commitment. He was both a godly man and obstinate. He could be obedient to the Lord, though it might take a reprimand from God to get him to behave. He was childish and childlike. Jonah was a lot like me, and you, and many people.
Jesus said that the only sign people would have is the sign of Jonah. Matthew explained that as a reference to the resurrection, because Jonah was in the fish’s belly three days (see Mt. 12:39-42). But Luke took a different approach. He pointed out that it was the prophet’s preaching and the Ninevites’ repentance which is the sign. He didn’t hint at the resurrection. Perhaps the sign Jesus referred to was the amendment of life and attitude that comes when people who hear the gospel preached also repent.
It seems to me that’s what Jonah learned and taught.