What They Didn’t Teach Me in Sunday School about Jonah

File:Michelangelo jonah.jpg
The depiction of Jonah in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

You know the story of Jonah and the Whale – the story that is widely taught to children around the world about the guy who gets swallowed by a sea monster.

I thought I knew it too. But in preparation for teaching it to the Milan Free Methodist (Michigan) Winterblast kids last Friday night, I was struck by a major story detail that never before caught my attention.

I have learned about this story since I was a child myself. I studied it in college and even debated with fellow classmates over whether it was written as a literal account or as a metaphorical parable. But quite honestly, whether the story is an historical account or a parable does not take away the theological lessons the book intends to teach.

So here’s the major theological lesson I got from the book: God’s grace.

In his commentary on the book of Jonah (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), Leslie C. Allen points out that we spend too much time focusing on the greatness of the fish and not enough time on the greatness of God in the Jonah narrative.

The story of Jonah is about the greatness of Yahweh.

Jonah disobeys God’s command to preach to Nineveh by hitching a ride on a boat to Tarshish (the other side of the known world). As a punishment, God sends a storm over the boat. The sailors throw Jonah overboard once they discover that he is running from his God. The storm subsides once Jonah is gone.

Then comes the twist in the story: the fish. I used to think the fish was part of God’s punishment for Jonah – spending three days in the dark belly of a fish. But the truth is quite the opposite. God sent the fish to save Jonah from drowning. Furthermore, the fish carried Jonah back to dry land and spit out Jonah so Jonah could finish the job God set forth for him in the first place. Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the fish is not an act of Jonah earning back God’s favor. Rather, the prayer is a confession of how great God is – a prayer of thankfulness that God had saved him.

And that is grace. Jonah deserved to die a miserable death. Jonah, like Eve and Adam, blatantly disobeyed God’s command and a punishment is then required for justice to be done. But God does not treat us as our sins deserve. He lovingly brings us back into his flock despite our sin, shame, and disobedience. Our prayers and righteousness are not ways of earning God’s love, but rather of simply pointing all glory and credit to God for His greatness.

How is justice served then? If God allows us to return to him after our disobedience, how is the price we owe paid? The cross. Jesus Christ is the only possible solution to man’s sin against God – the sacrifice of a perfect human.

Even Jesus compared himself to Jonah by saying that as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days, so also Jesus would be in the grave three days (Matthew 12:40). And just as the whale was salvation for Jonah, so Jesus’ journey to death and back means salvation for man.

I love how the Bible comes full circle in so many ways.


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Dr. Jesse Joyner travels nationwide as a speaker and entertainer. His primary role is that of a performing juggler spreading joy and the love of learning to family and kids events. H earned his PhD in Educational Studies at Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL). He enjoys playing the piano, bird watching, and old houses. He lives in Richmond, VA with his wife, Sarah, and their three kids - the perfect number for juggling children.