Jonah and the Gospel of Grace

As we continue our tour through the Old Testament, let’s make a stop in the familiar story of the prophet Jonah. His story is about much more than just a big fish.

Jonah was a Hebrew prophet called by God to preach a message of warning and repentance to the pagan city of Nineveh. But Jonah was not too keen on the idea and immediately set sail in the opposite direction. God sent a mighty storm of such magnitude that the superstitious crew cast lots to see who was at fault. The lot fell to Jonah. He confessed his disobedience, and convinced the sailors to throw him overboard. Immediately, “the sea stopped its raging” (Jon 1:15).

A large fish scooped Jonah out of the water and it spit Jonah out three days later. God called Jonah again and Jonah complied. He preached God’s message in Nineveh, and the city – all the way up to the king – repented. God spared the city. Chapter 4 is an object lesson with a plant regarding God’s compassion.

1. What gospel themes are present in the book of Jonah?

The book of Jonah is a picture of God’s grace and compassion shown throughout the story. In chapter 1, God spared the crew from the storm, and He ultimately spared Jonah through the means of a great fish. God showed compassion and grace to Jonah and the crew.

In chapter 3, Jonah is given a second chance by God’s grace to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s message. And by God’s grace, the people of Nineveh repented and were spared the calamity that had been predicted.

Finally, Jonah’s complaint in chapter 4 is exactly a complaint about God’s gracious nature. Jonah is actually upset with God’s forgiveness of Nineveh and lodges this angry complaint, saying to God, “Was this not what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in mercy, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jon 4:2).

2. What tension remains unresolved in the story that is solved in Christ?

In the Old Testament, God’s grace – just like His Holy Spirit – was intermittent. It appeared at appropriate times as God saw fit. It came and it went. Because God’s grace was not an indwelling presence, failure to obey, just as Jonah did, was somewhat inevitable for the Israelites. Their track record of complaining, murmuring, and leaving God’s path is a large part of the story of the Old Testament.

How is this solved in Jesus? The short answer is that through Christ’s death in our place, we are now under a permanent grace, a permanent indwelling of God’s Spirit. God’s grace has appeared (Titus 2:11) to bring us pardon and power.

The pardon of grace is being set free from the penalty of our sin. The power of grace is the energizing of His indwelling presence to live the Christian life. The Old Testament saints and prophets were living under a law system that only brought condemnation, sin, and death, and was powerless to bring about real change.

Self-effort and sin-management cannot bring lasting change. The inevitability of failure is one of the pictures we see in the book of Jonah. The New Testament message, the gospel of Christ, is full of hope, life, and God’s Spirit inside us. Our failure is not inevitable. The tension of how we live the Christian life with power was solved in Jesus.