A prophet of God sleeping in a boat at sea during a particularly violent storm which has everyone else on board panicked. The prophet is rudely awakened and miraculously causes the storm to cease.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The more I study the story of Jonah, the clearer it becomes that Jesus based a lot of his ministry and teachings on the life of Jonah. The connections become obvious to anyone paying attention. In fact, Jesus makes it obvious for us by coming right out and telling us that “something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12).
So how is Jesus the new Jonah?
We’ll look at this throughout the story, but let’s just stay in chapter 1 for now.
THE WORD OF THE LORD
The opening phrase of Jonah’s story should perk the ears of Christians. “The Word of the Lord…” doesn’t that have some significance?
Look at how John’s gospel begins: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Jesus IS the Word of God. Jesus’ story is inextricably connected to Jonah’s from the opening phrase.
GO TO NINEVEH
God calls Jonah to leave his home (Israel) and go to a foreign, hostile land (Nineveh) to proclaim God’s message. Jonah, somewhat understandably, is hesitant to do this. Instead, he runs away from the call to foreign missions.
Where is Jesus in this? How is Jesus the new Jonah in this regard? The answer is best summarized in Philippians 2:
Who, being in very nature God,
Did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
Rather, he made himself nothing
By taking on the very nature of a servant,
Being made in human likeness,
And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled himself
By becoming obedient to death –
Even death on a cross!
Looking back at John 1, The Message version puts it this way:
The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.
Jesus was sent on a mission from God to leave his home in heaven, to come to a foreign land (the world), to preach to a hostile population, and ultimately to be killed for it.
Jonah didn’t want to leave Israel and go to Nineveh for fear of what might happen. Christ left heaven and came to Earth fully knowing what would happen. Christ is the greater Jonah.
THE STORM AT SEA
Then there’s the storm. I want to draw your attention to all the parallels between Jonah 1:3-16 and Mark 4:35-41.
Sailing in the opposite direction/other side
- But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. (Jonah 1:3)
- That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” (Mark 4:35)
Violent windstorm on the sea and imminent danger of ship’s sinking
- Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. (Jonah 1:4)
- A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. (Mark 4:37)
Deep sleep during the storm
- All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. (Jonah 1:5)
- Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. (Mark 4:38)
Rude awakening by frightened shipmates
- The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 1:6)
- The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38)
Calming of sea by protagonist’s actions
- Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. (Jonah 1:15)
- He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. (Mark 4:39)
Shipmates’ awestruck fear at divine power
- At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. (Jonah 1:16)
- They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41)
Before you start crying “Coincidence!” I must remind you that it was Jesus himself who drew the parallels between his ministry and Jonah’s. Jesus’ earliest followers purposefully pointed to these connections in the way they told their stories.
God was trying to teach Jonah (and subsequently Israel) the lesson that God cares about the Gentile nations, too. As Peter and Paul would put it, God wants all people everywhere to be saved (Acts 17:30; 2 Peter 3:9). God loved the world to the extent that he sent his one and only Son (John 3:16).
Not long after Jonah, the Assyrian Empire would rise in power once again and overthrow the evil kingdom of Israel, taking their people into exile and erasing them from the annals of history. Even in the face of this unspeakable tragedy, God still had a bigger plan in mind:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
To restore the tribes of Jacob
And bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
That my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
Jesus, with this very passage in mind, would tell his earliest followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5).
Jesus is Jonah. So am I. So are you. Each one of us is called to leave the comfort and security of our own tribe in order to take God’s word to the nations.