On Good Friday, it is traditional to look at the narrative of that day approximately two thousand years ago when Jesus was crucified by the order of Pontius Pilate and then try to make sense of it. Jesus Himself offered an interpretation of His future suffering that appears in both Matthew and Luke; in it, He chooses to interpret His death and resurrection as “the sign of Jonah.” What could this possibly mean?
To try to gain a grasp of this, we should first consider the story of Jonah. At first it may appear that there are numerous unconnected events in the story in this book, but a closer inspection reveals a central theme in each part of the narrative: repentance and God’s mercy. For example, in Jonah 1.3-16, when Jonah is on the boat headed to Tarshish, the sea is calmed after he comes to terms with what he must do (quit fleeing) and then follows through, handing himself over to God’s mercy by allowing himself to be thrown overboard.
At this point, the others on the boat, who obeyed God’s will by throwing Jonah overboard, receive God’s mercy in the form of a calm sea. Though it might seem fishy to say so, in actually, Jonah receives mercy too. While it generally would not seem like a good thing to become a “large fish’s” dinner (1.17), it is a rather good thing for the prophet in this case. Had he not been swallowed, he surely would have drowned instead. With that perspective in mind, perhaps his humble shelter suddenly seemed a bit better.
Once inside the fish, we find Jonah has a renewed faith in God, and repents of his former ways that got him into this situation. Once again, God has compassion on Jonah by having him “vomited out” of the fish on the third day (2.10). Like his time in the fish itself, this process was (to say the least) probably not all that pleasant, but it was substantially better than the alternative of God just leaving Jonah in the fish. Jonah has had a rough time, and it is not something I would want to endure, but when all is said and done, at least he is still alive and is given another chance to do what he should have done to begin with: go tell the Ninevites that they need to repent of their evil ways.
The whole reason for Jonah’s story up to this point – his assignment to go to Nineveh and his avoidance of that mission – culminates in a final, larger scale example of the repentance and mercy cycle. Once Jonah starts literally preaching fire and brimstone to the public of Nineveh, something quite spectacular happens: the people listen and repent! Much to the annoyance of Jonah, who apparently was looking forward to an exciting display of God’s wrath, God sees that everyone from the king on down are repenting of their evil ways and fasting, and offers them mercy. Jonah may not be a willing “savior of the people,” but God still uses him to save a people who had previously been extremely evil. This is the typical kind of “savior” that appears in the Bible: the unwilling savior.
Now then, what does Jesus mean by the “sign of Jonah”? In the longer retelling of the incident that occurs in Matthew (Matt. 12.39-40), Jesus explains the connection between Himself and Jonah, noting that as Jonah was in the whale for three days, he would also be in the “heart of the earth” for three days. Considering that immersion in water is often used symbolically to refer to death, the comparison between Jesus’s literal death and Jonah’s figurative death in the whale is even more appropriate than it first appears. Both Jesus and Jonah are placed in a tomb of sorts for three days for a purpose related to God’s redemptive plan for humankind. It is interesting to note that in Jonah’s case, the part of his story that is most focused on is the whale incident, and not the story before or after it, and likewise, the most well known part of the Gospels, other than perhaps the Christmas story, is probably the death of Jesus. In both cases, far less time is spent meditating on the fact that these were not just occurrences of blind fate, but God acting deliberately to bring humanity closer to true freedom in Himself. To borrow what Joseph said to his brothers in Genesis 50.20, God used the evil “for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
The comparison between Jesus and Jonah obviously breaks down if it is pushed too far, but the contrast provided at the point where the analogy fails is perhaps just as instructive as the parts that comparison. While Jonah was most certainly not a willing servant of God, and even desired the destruction of the city he was suppose to bring to repentance (Jonah 4.1-3), as clearly portrayed in the Gospels and remarked on by Paul, Jesus “became obedient to death” (Phil. 2.8 NIV). Jonah, as a prefiguring of Christ, showed the basic redemptive cycle, but because he was not Christ; he did not execute the plan perfectly. He was an unwilling savior. Using an unwilling, and even hateful man, God offered hope and salvation to a particular city, but using a completely willing and perfect savior, God offered hope and salvation to everyone.
As we look to the death and resurrection of Christ again in this season, I would suggest we should consider whom we are most like: Jonah or Jesus. Both were used for God’s will and through that will people were saved. But, it is very easy to fall into the trap of preaching repentance as a way of elevating the self, secretly hoping to fail to bring people around to God, because in as much as they fail to hear the message, the one doing the preaching can feel “superior” to his audience. That God can use Jonah, with his serious attitude problems, to accomplish an amazing feat does not mean what Jonah did was laudable! In the end, he merely ends up an embittered and broken man. Instead, as Paul says, one’s “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2.5 NIV); not only doing God’s will but also doing it out of faithful submission. Who are we going to follow?
The wondrous, mysterious message of the cross is that Jesus died willingly for you and for me; Jesus did not go to the cross as a weak victim of the world’s most powerful government. He was not forced to go there like Jonah. He went there willingly. He preached repentance not because it made Him powerful, but because He was about to become powerless and forsaken, and even die so that our repentance could actually mean something. As a favorite hymn asks, “What wondrous love is this, O my soul?” As we reflect on God’s mercy this day, let us not follow the way of Jonah but of Christ.
Timothy Butler is editor-in-chief of Open for Business. You can reach him a firstname.lastname@example.org.