Jonah is the only Old Testament prophet to whom Jesus compares Himself. Jesus was and is both God and human. Jesus is sinless. Jonah, by contrast, was a sinful man. When God called Jonah to rise and speak God’s Word to the Ninevites in the kingdom of Assyria, he ran in the opposite direction. When God the Father sent Jesus to die for our sins, Jesus was “obedient to death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8) It would be hard to find an Old Testament prophet less like Jesus than Jonah. Yet when a Pharisee asks Jesus to show a sign of His deity, Jesus says, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:39-40)
What is “the sign of the prophet Jonah” exactly? Jesus’ resurrection is one part of the sign of Jonah. But so is death. Jonah prays to God in tonight’s lesson: “From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help…” (Jonah 2:2) In the belly of the fish, Jonah was at first, as good as dead, with no reason to think he could survive such an ordeal. And, Jonah was as good as dead because he had sinned against God. “The wages of sin is death.”
Like Jonah, Jesus has died for sin. The difference is that while Jonah would symbolically die before symbolically rising from the belly of the fish for his own sin, Jesus would actually die before actually rising from the dead for our sin. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 says of Jesus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” God has gone to the lengths of enduring death itself to reach us with His forgiving love. Do you want to see what God is like and how much He loves you? Look at His death, when like Jonah, buried in the depths of the sea, God the Son lay dead in a tomb for your sin. This is the sign of Jonah that Jesus gives to us.
In our reading from Jonah tonight, we see that God didn’t give up on Jonah or on the people of Nineveh. He wanted to call them to repentance and faith in Him. In the belly of the fish, Jonah repents for his rebellion against God and “the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” (Jonah 2:10) God delivers Jonah from death for a reason. Jesus has also delivered you and me from sin, death, and eternal separation from God for a reason. 1 Peter tells baptized believers in Christ: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” Those are blessed things to be; but then Peter tells us why God, through Christ, makes us a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” It’s this: “...that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:10) Faith shared, grows; faith unshared is stuck in perpetual immaturity, likely as not to die. God saved Jonah from death in the deep not just to save Jonah, but also so that Jonah could take life with God to others. In Christ, God has saved you and me to do the very same thing in our world and in our time, not as an obligation, but as a joyous privilege.
And so, saved from death in the deep, Jonah becomes the only prophet in the Old Testament that God calls (or has to call) twice. God once more tells Jonah: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Jonah 3:2) God doesn’t say, “All right, Jonah, go to Nineveh and get it right this time.” When God forgives our sins, it’s as if they never happened. Forgiving Jonah, God again sends the prophet on his mission to the Ninevites.
Over the course of several days, Jonah delivers God’s message to the Ninevites: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4.) The original Hebrew in which Jonah is written literally says, “Forty days yet and Nineveh shall be neh·pā·ḵeṯ.” That last word can be translated as overturned. But it can also be rendered as changed. God’s message to the Ninevites was, “In forty days, CHANGE is coming!” This isn’t much different from our message as Christians to the world, “When Jesus comes back, things are going to change. We can be on the right side of that change with Jesus or we can be on the wrong side of the change against Jesus.”
The Word of God that comes to the Ninevites through Jonah is both Law and Promise. The Law says, “God condemns your sin and without repentance, you won’t like the changes coming.” The Promise, like the Gospel that comes us through Jesus, tells the Ninevites, “When you repent and believe in God, there will be a change in your relationship with God. And when you believe in God, He will set out to change you to be more like Him.”
In ancient Israel’s history, God had sent prophets to His own people, the Jews, and their calls for repentance and faith were often rejected, the prophets killed. But: “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” (Jonah 4:5) Later, the king himself will repent and believe in God and say, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:5)
The trusting attitude of the Ninevites is remarkable! They repent and believe in God. They accept that God is entitled to bring any changes to their lives He wants.
Change, in fact, is the essence of the life of faith in God. When we live in daily repentance and renewal, we accept that God is likely going to make changes in our daily lives. He’s going to call us to do things we don’t want to do, to change the ways we think about other people. We will either curse the changes that God brings to us, as Jonah did when God wanted him to change from being a prophet just to his own people and to reach out in love to people he hated as well, or we will embrace God and trust Him through all the changes that He calls us to make in our lives. Friends of ours had a negative view of people who came to America from other countries. But when God called them to help their local church teach English to immigrants who spoke Spanish and Arabic, they didn’t run in the other direction like Jonah. They embraced the call God placed on their lives. It meant changes in their lives. Big changes. But it has also brought them the joy that always belongs to those who are open to the changes God wants to bring to our lives. How is God calling you to change your life tonight?
The Ninevites trusted in God. “When God saw what [the Ninevites] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened,” Jonah 3:10 tells us. God loves to destroy our old sinful ways of thinking and living and forgive us, then sets us free to live out the lives He is daily changing, to face the new callings He sets before us each day.
While the repentance, faith, and life of God-driven change we see in the Ninevites inspire us, Jonah presents a different story. More on that as we conclude our series next week.