Recently, my friend Collin Hansen (editorial director for The Gospel Coalition) posted an interview he did with me on the gospel according to Jonah. He writes, “We’re accustomed to describing the book of Jonah as that book about the guy who survived three days in a big fish. What if we began to understand it as a remarkable testimony to God’s extravagant, persevering grace, supremely demonstrated in the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
Those are the questions I seek to answer in my book Surprised By Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels. As part of The Gospel Coalition’s commitment to Preaching Christ in the Old Testament, Collin asked me questions on how to see the gospel in the story of Jonah.
Why do you say Jonah is one of the best books for helping us get a better grip on the gospel?
Surprised by Grace started out as a series of sermons on Jonah that I preached during the hardest year of my life. Preparing those sermons and preaching them proved to be a functional lifeline for me, not because of things I learned about Jonah (everything we learn about Jonah we learn by way of negative example), but because of things I learned about God’s amazing, sustaining, pursuing grace.
I learned that God’s capacity to clean things up is infinitely greater than our human capacity to mess things up. I learned about the “stubbornness” of God to accomplish his will, regardless of how hard we may try and thwart it. In fact, as I reflect on that painful season of my life now, I can honestly say that I am genuinely thankful for all the ache I experienced. For it was during this trying time that God helped me recognize, through the story of Jonah, the practical relevance of the gospel—that everything I need and long for, in Christ, I already possess.
How does the book of Jonah reveal the contrast between God’s heart and ours?
We can’t escape a stark contrast in this story—the tribal heart of Jonah versus the missionary heart of God. These two mindsets involve fundamentally different values. The highest value of a tribal heart is self-preservation. A tribal heart exists solely for itself, and those who nurture it keep asking, “How can I protect myself from those who are different from me?” A tribal heart typically elevates personal and cultural preferences to absolute principles: If everybody were more like me, this world would be a better place. But for a missionary heart, the highest value isn’t self-preservation but self-sacrifice. A missionary-hearted person exists not primarily for himself but for others. It’s a heart willing to be inconvenienced and discomforted for the well-being of others. A tribal mindset is antithetical to the gospel. The gospel demands that we be missionary minded, because the gospel is the story of God sacrificing himself for his enemies.
Both these approaches are robustly present in Jonah’s story. Jonah represents the best of a tribal mindset, the absolute best. He’s like the trophy-winner for tribalism. And God—ever-gracious, ever-pursuing, ever-compassionate—carries the trophy for mission-mindedness. Jonah runs from his enemies; God runs toward his enemies.
How does Jesus’ treatment of Jonah help us teach it today?
Jesus says that he is “greater than Jonah.” He is the greater-than-Jonah who succeeded where Jonah failed. For instance, in sending Jonah as his messenger to sinful Nineveh, God showed his boundless grace and faithfulness. But centuries later, God sent another messenger to sinful mankind. Only this messenger went willingly and joyfully because he knew the heart of God. In fact, he was the heart of God. He would be called “the Word” because he himself was God’s message. He was everything God wanted to say to the world—all wrapped up in a person.
Instead of fleeing from God’s call in rebellion and running away from his enemies, this new messenger ran toward his enemies, in full submission to his Father’s will, despite what it would cost him. For “we were enemies” of God (Rom. 5:10)—all of us—so much so that we rejected and crucified his Son.
Fully knowing that this death was his destiny, this new messenger nevertheless pursued God’s rescue mission with a totally engaged heart. “For the joy that was set before him,” the Bible tells us, he “endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2) so that God’s enemies, you and I, could become God’s friends.
Like Jonah thrown overboard, this new messenger would be a sacrifice, with the result that others were saved.
This new messenger, like Jonah, would spend three days in utter darkness. But unlike Jonah, he would emerge with wholehearted determination to pursue his enemies with life-giving love. He went on this mission because he wanted to—not because he had to.
When God’s mercy was shown to Jonah and to his enemies, Jonah was intensely angered. But this new messenger was the happy extension of God’s grace toward his enemies—not angry and embittered, but “anointed . . . with the oil of gladness” (Heb. 1:9). Jonah is all about self-protection; this new messenger is all about joyful self-sacrifice. So Jesus and his Good News, rescue of sinners, is all over this story of Jonah.
How did you see your congregation respond when you preached the gospel from Jonah?
Most people inside the church, including ours, assume that the gospel is something non-Christians must believe in order to be saved, but after we believe it, we advance to deeper theological waters. The truth is, however, that once God rescues sinners, his plan isn’t to steer them beyond the gospel, but to move them more deeply into it. After all, the only antidote to sin is the gospel—and since Christians remain sinners even after they’re converted, the gospel must be the medicine a Christian takes every day. For our church, it was through probing the story of Jonah that we came face-to-face with the fact that the gospel is not just for non-Christians but also for Christians.
We also came face to face with our own idolatry. Jonah was just as much in need of God’s grace as the sailors and the Ninevites. But the fascinating thing about Jonah is that, unlike the pagan sailors and wicked Ninevites, Jonah was one of the “good guys.” He was a prophet. He was moral. He was a part of God’s covenant community. He was one who “kept all the rules” and did everything he was supposed to do. He wasn’t some long-haired, tattooed indie rocker; he was a clean-cut prep. He wasn’t a liberal; he was a conservative. He wasn’t irreligious; he was religious.
If you’ve ever read S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders, than you’ll immediately see that the Ninevites and the sailors in the story were like the “greasers” while Jonah was like a “soashe.” It’s easier for Christians to identify worldly idols such as money, power, ambition, greed. It’s the idols inside the church that we have a harder time identifying. For instance, it was easy for Jonah to see the idolatry of the sailors. It was easy for him to see the perverse ways of the Ninevites. What he couldn’t see was his own idolatry, his own perversion. Idolatry is not just a problem for non-Christians; it’s a problem for Christians too. For instance, we know it’s wrong to bow to the god of power—but it’s also wrong to bow to the god of preferences. We know it’s wrong to worship immorality—but it’s also wrong to worship morality. We know it’s wrong to seek freedom by breaking the rules—but it’s also wrong to seek freedom by keeping them. We know God hates unrighteousness—but he also hates self-righteousness. The book of Jonah wrecked all of us by revealing our idol-making hearts. Thankfully, while our idolatry reaches far God’s amazing grace in the story (and ours) reaches farther.
What do you mean by saying Jonah is a storied presentation of the gospel?
It is a story of sin and grace, of desperation and deliverance. It reveals the fact that while you and I are great sinners, God is a great Savior, and that while our sin reaches far, his grace reaches farther. This story shows that God is in the business of relentlessly pursuing rebels—a label that ultimately applies to us all—and that he comes after us not to angrily strip away our freedom but to affectionately strip away our slavery so we might become truly free.
What books, articles, sermons, etc., helped you preach Christ and the gospel from Jonah?
I consulted almost every commentary on Jonah. Some were helpful (such as Calvin’s), some weren’t so helpful. Bryan Estelle’s book in The Gospel According to the Old Testament series entitled Salvation Through Judgment And Mercy: The Gospel According to Jonah was very helpful. But it wasn’t so much material specifically on Jonah that helped me see the gospel in and through the story as much as preachers and teachers who have taught me over the years to read the Bible Christocentrically: my professors at Reformed Theological Seminary like Richard Pratt, Mark Futato, Reggie Kidd, and Steve Brown, along with men such as Ed Clowney, Tim Keller, Scotty Smith, Jerry Bridges, Paul Tripp, Mike Horton, Sinclair Ferguson, Bryan Chapell, and so on.
I would recommend that preachers soak their hearts and minds in robust gospel theology, because only then will they be able to see the Christ-centered plotline that runs throughout the entire Bible and therefore be able to preach the gospel from every text.