Majoring in the Minors: Jonah

               Of all the Minor Prophets, perhaps Jonah is the most read and beloved, and certainly not for its brevity but for its extraordinary story – a story of a prophet running from God, of being thrown overboard in the midst of a storm, of being swallowed alive by a whale of a fish, and upon being spit out three days later, the account of the revival of the heathen and godless Ninevites. And when it comes to the Christo-telic thrust of Jonah, we have a clear reference that Jesus himself makes in Matthew 12:40 – “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” It’s divinely established typology.
            But even beyond this clear typological connection, Jonah provides a wealth of Gospel connections that both foreshadow the person and ministry of Jesus Christ but also the inbreaking of Christ’s world-wide Kingdom. And it is this latter focus which is of special interest. In one sense, Jonah himself serves as a representative of Israel. He, like Israel in his day, had forgotten and forsaken the role they were to have to the wider world.[1]  Genesis 12:2-3 is a clear statement of what God wanted his people, the Jews, to be: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing... in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Likewise, Isaiah 49:6: “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Their role to the world is clear, but it’s also clear that both Israel, and Jonah himself, have forgotten that role.
            Hugh Martin makes this point beautifully, that Israel drifted into the wrong conclusion “that the heathen nations, as to their moral and spiritual interests, were, among Israel, objects of simple contempt and neglect, and were dealt with as if Jehovah, the God of Israel, utterly neglected them also - as if, in short, they were beyond the pale of his government; or, in other words, as if Jehovah's government were not universal, but limited to their own nation alone... [But] Jehovah is the God of the spirits of all flesh, and ruleth over all the nations. Any other or more limited idea of His government reduces Him, if not to the level, at least to the company, of the local, territorial, geographical gods of heathendom. And thus, by taking a wrong view of the relation of heathendom to the living and true God, the God of Israel, Israel virtually imbibed the very views of heathendom itself.”[2]
            It is this very connection of Israel’s wider purpose (as well as their covenantal failure in that purpose) that Paul makes mention of in his letter to the Ephesians. “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision... remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world... And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Ephesians 2:11-17). Here Paul views Jesus in Jonah-like terms, one who is both a true Israelite and true Israel himself, and in whom even the godless and uncircumcised Gentiles can find reconciliation.
            What was there in God’s call to Jonah was only a dimly-lit picture, a veiled foreshadowing of something greater – it was, in the Biblical sense, a true mystery[3]. But this account of Jonah certainly pointed forward to what Paul says was the unfurled “mystery that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6; see also Col. 1:26-27). The Scottish preacher William McEwen (1735-1762) notes that “this is the first time we read of a prophet sent to reform a Gentile nation and doubtless was a prelude of His granting to the Gentiles in future times repentance unto life.”[4]
            Of course, throughout Israel’s history, there were faithful men and women who knew that God intended to “make the nations [His] heritage” (Ps. 2:8), and that through Israel God’s “way may be known on earth, [His] saving power among all nations” (Ps. 67:2).  And yet by the time of Jonah that promise had been forgotten, covered under the darkness of Israel’s own pride. How marvelous then that God raised up such a prophet from out of that darkness and commanded him to “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:1). And how much more marvelous is it that Jonah ends with these merciful words from God: “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle” (Jonah 4:11)?

            Ah! Here then in Jonah is a little glimmer of light, foreshadowing that brighter light to come, Jesus Christ, who upon His birth and presentation to the Temple was declared to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] See James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment (Crossway, 2010), pp. 246-247

[2] Hugh Martin, Jonah (Banner of Truth, 2021), p. 7

[3] The term mystery in the New Testament means something that was once obscure and veiled under the Old Covenant but now, in the light of Christ’s appearing, has been made known and clear and is being taught by the Apostles (Ephesians 3:5).

[4] William McEwen, The Glory and Fullness of Jesus Christ: In the Most Remarkable Types, Figures, and Allegories of the Old Testament (Reformation Heritage Books, 2022), p. 81


Stephen Unthank