Dive into the Book of Jonah to Find Unexpected Gospel Connections

Borrowed Light
Dive into the Book of Jonah to Find Unexpected Gospel Connections

I can’t hear the name Jonah without immediately launching into the Veggie Tales chorus: 

“Jonah was a prophet
but he really never got it
sad but true!
and if you watch it you can spot it
he did not get the point!”

Jonah is the story about a reluctant prophet who gets swallowed by a whale, gets spit up on shore, preaches the message he was supposed to preach, and then gets really made when his enemies repent and aren’t destroyed. It ends with Jonah throwing a fit because his plant died. 

How do we find the gospel in this story? 

How Do You Find the Gospel in the Old Testament? 

I suppose before understanding how to find the gospel in the OT, it’d be helpful for us to define the gospel. The simplest definition is one given by JI Packer: God saves sinners. If you’d like to put a bit more meat on your gospel presentation, I use two different frameworks with four points each. The first is God—Man—Christ—Response. The second is more of a story: Creation—Fall—Redemption—Glory. 

The first presentation centers upon God’s character and how humanity fails to meet God’s holy standard, as such the judgment of God is upon us. But the good news is that Jesus Christ fixes this by fulfilling what is required through his life, death and resurrection. Our only fitting response, then, is to respond to Him in repentance and faith. When this happens, we are united to Christ and his record becomes our record. 

The second presentation centers upon the overarching story of the Bible. God lovingly created us to love Him and enjoy Him forever. We were made for rest, rule, and relationship. But we made shipwreck of this, and so rather than having the blessings of obedience we are under the curse of disobedience. Rather than having peace (rest), purpose (ruling), and healthy relationship we often experience the opposite. Ultimately, we are alienated from God. But thankfully God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to bear our curse and to fulfill what God intended for humanity. As such we now experience the blessings of Jesus’ obedience in our place. He restores the rest, rule, and relationship we were created to enjoy. Someday everything will be ultimately restored and we will live in a new heaven and a new earth. 

We could write entire books focusing on these various themes of the gospel. But every gospel story follows this basic skeleton. No matter where you find yourself in the Old Testament (or the New Testament) you can find one of these various threads. Every place in Scripture is either telling you something about God, something about our rebellion, something about His rescue, or something about our future restoration. If you can spot this, then you can fill out the rest of the story. 

How Do We Find the Gospel in Jonah? 

Jesus gives us one of the easiest connections to Jonah when he tells us, “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.” In some ways then, Jonah prefigures the death and resurrection of Jesus. But there are other connections to the story of the gospel as well. 

Jonah is my favorite book in the Old Testament. It is beautifully written, and I’ve absolutely loved preaching through it. There are so many layers to this story. It appears simple on the surface, but there are so many threads here which tie into the whole story of the Bible. Let’s pick up one of those, that of being a messenger. 

Jonah is likely set in the 8th century BC. And during this time things aren’t going so well for Israel. Stuff is actually looking pretty bad. The enemies are winning. And this isn’t just some minor thing, for the enemy to be winning it would mean at least in their minds that Yahweh — their God — was losing. That would cause a great deal of confusion; they were supposed to be the ones winning. God is the one in charge of everything — so how in the world can the evil and wicked nations be winning?

‌What kind of message would you like to hear in such an environment? When your borders are shrinking, when it looks like promises from God aren’t being kept, when things in your land are just in a terrible and deplorable state? You want to hear a message that is comforting. You want to be told that everything is going to be okay. And if you were a prophet, I’m certain that this would be the type of word of the Lord you’d be ecstatic to bring. You’d want to encourage your countrymen to hang in there — that things are going to get better.

But Jonah is given a different message. His message is to go to the enemies — that wicked nation Nineveh — and preach to them. It’s not a “God saves Israel” message. It’s a “God saves Nineveh” message. And the prophet hates it. So, he runs away. The Israelites were called to be a light to the nations, but they haven’t been. They are stiff-necked and self-focused. 

When God calls Jonah to this mission – love God, love Nineveh – he runs away. He’s a picture of the people. If the prophet doesn’t respond, the people aren’t going to either. So how do you get them to do a 180? Jonah’s running is a picture of the nation’s own running away from the purpose of God. 

Then Jonah gets swallowed by a giant fish. In the belly of the fish, he repents. He cries out to God. He is in desperate need of salvation, and God graciously gives it. Jonah then goes to Nineveh and proclaims the message which God gives him. Nothing more, nothing less. And the people repent. 

We’d like to close the story here, wouldn’t we? Jonah gets a second chance. He gets it right. Nineveh is restored. The prophet is also restored. All is well. But it doesn’t close here, because God isn’t after mere obedience. This is a story about the heart of Jonah, not the actions of Jonah. Yes, Jonah was a prophet, but he really never got it. It ends with an angry prophet. 


What is the story doing? Why is it in the Old Testament? It ends as it does with a challenge, but it’s also crying for one who is greater than Jonah. One who would be a faithful messenger. One who would embrace the message that salvation belongs to the Lord. One who would happily give salvation, instead of begrudgingly offering hope.

Jesus does what Jonah didn’t do. 

It’s not a story of getting it right after a second chance. It’s a story of our inadequacy to be the people that God calls us to be. It’s a picture of the failure of the Israelites to obey the law. It’s a picture of our failure of even keeping the creation mandate of being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the earth with God’s glory. It ties to the gospel in a similar way that Judges does – it leaves us desperate for a faithful messenger. 

Jonah 1-2 and the Good Samaritan

I think the story of The Good Samaritan is a modern retelling of Jonah. It’s doing much the same thing. The Good Samaritan is set against the backdrop of a theology nerd trying to squirm out of God’s calling upon his life. “Who is my neighbor?” He’s trying to theologize his way out of a heart of compassion. How do you engage the heart of someone like this? You tell him a story. 

You tell a story about a traveler who gets beaten up by robbers; you put him in the ditch and have all of his buddies go past him and have him only rescued by a hated Samaritan. Jesus invites that theology nerd into the ditch of despair, so that he can realize that “who is my neighbor” is a really dumb question when you’re the one in the ditch. That’s a question you ask when you’re on the road, safe and privileged — just as the Israelites were with possessing God’s Law. 

If you’re in the ditch you don’t have those conversations. You don’t care about who the neighbor is, you just want someone to be a neighbor and get you out of the ditch. And this is exactly what God does with Jonah in the belly of the great fish. He makes Jonah desperate. 

The icy cold water splashes upon him. He’s drowning. Gasping for air. Do you think I should have pity upon Jonah? YES! Mercy! Grace! Oh Lord, save me from the depths! Salvation belongs to the LORD… “Oh Lord, save me!”, cries Jonah. 

‌And what of Nineveh?

Did Jonah get it, eventually? Did the theology nerd who asked Jesus that question, ever get it? The text doesn’t answer those questions. And it’s intentional. Because they are invitations for us to put ourselves in that ditch of despair and realize the stupidity of our racism, the ignorance of our self-focus, the rebellious nature of our tribalism, and to call us into following Jesus. To reach out our hand and be rescued by Jesus and then to be about the business of rescuing other rebels. Why? Because…

“Salvation belongs to the Lord.”

Related articles
Seeking the Gospel in Malachi, the Last Book of the Old Testament
Where Do We Find Jesus in the Old Testament Book of 2 Samuel?
Where Do We Find the Gospel in the Book of Daniel?

Photo credit: Unsplash/Ian Espinosa

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake.