I recently came across an article that, using data provided by Bible Gateway, has listed the 10 least popular Bible books – that translates to least read on Bible Gateway, the first book on the list was Jonah.
The story of Jonah is well known, I suspect not only for those who have grown up in church. It’s the story of a rebellious prophet, called to take Gods message of judgment to the city of Nineveh, but instead ran in the opposite direction. After a storm, he was thrown overboard and swallowed by a large sea creature. Three days later he’s puked up on shore, preaches to the city of Nineveh and sees a great move of God. He then goes and sits on a hill and moans to God about what has happened.
As a result, for as long as we have had the Bible, we have known Jonah to be a rebellious, disobedient prophet. But that isn’t all there is to Jonah’s story.
In the synoptic gospels we have an account of Jesus speaking about Jonah, specifically the sign of Jonah. This comes as the Pharisees demand a sign from Jesus to prove that he is the Messiah. But here’s the interesting point…
In Luke 11:32 Jesus says, “one greater than Jonah is here” now this statement means nothing if all that Jonah is, is a disobedient, rebellious, moaning prophet. It doesn’t say much about Jesus, because it doesn’t take much be better than someone like that. Jesus only needed to be obedient and he would be greater, if that were the case.
To understand what is meant by this let’s go back and ask the question, why did Jonah run away in the first place?
The answer to this is found in Deuteronomy 32:21 – we read these words..
“They made me jealous by what is no God and angered me with their worthless idols. I will make them envious by those who are not a people; I will make them angry by a nation that has no understanding.”
This forms part of a section known as the ‘song of Moses’, they are some the final recorded words of Moses to the Israelites before they entered the promised land under Joshua. Here in particular we see that God is speaking through Moses to the people of what will be the result of their unbelief and rebellion.
In particular are the word’s quoted above in which God declares that he will bring jealousy among the people of Israel by bringing blessings to those ‘who are not a people.’ Paul quotes from this passage in Romans 10 where he speaks of the gathering in of the Gentiles to the kingdom of God.
How does this apply to Jonah? Well, I believe that as this message comes from the Lord to go to Nineveh, Jonah knows what is going on. He knows that God is bringing judgement upon his people and Jonah, most likely doesn’t want to be the prophet that pronounces that.
This doesn’t excuse his decision to run in the opposite direction, nor should it, but it should help to give some reasoning as to why Jonah ran in the first place. The easiest thing for us to do is to jump to judgement of Jonah, but I feel that Jonah deserves a little more than that.
In fact in running in the opposite direction, Jonah goes on to provide an amazing sign not only to the people of Nineveh, but as Jesus spoke of, also to the Pharisees of his day. In running away, Jonah inadvertently showed that thousands of years later God, through the death and resurrection of His Son, would bring an ultimate fulfilment to the words of Moses, as the gospel message goes out from the Jews to the Gentiles.
I suspect the familiarity of the book has led to people not reading the story, but I also think that this self same familiarity is continuing to paint a picture of Jonah that, ultimately minimises the words of Jesus, because as God entered into humanity, truly “someone greater than Jonah” was there, and not just because Jonah was nothing more than a disobedient prophet, but because he took God’s message to outside of God’s people, and through a picture of death and resurrection he foreshadowed what was to come.