The book of Jonah is more than a story about a single prophet from long ago who lived an interesting life. It is a story about Israel who erected walls and refused to look beyond its borders. It is a story about us when we put God in a box and project our own beliefs and feelings on him. This is a story much like the good Samaritan. It is designed to challenge us and confront the parts of our lives that are not conformed to the will of God.
The story of Jonah is exhilarating. Something new is happening with almost every verse. It is very important that we don’t misread the story. If a person stops at various points in the book, then they may miss the message. Sometimes when Jonah is told as a Sunday school story the teacher will stop after the second or third chapter. The story becomes all about disobedience. If you disobey God and try to run away, then God will send a big fish to swallow you up. This makes a nice point about why we should obey God, but I think the story is more complex.
At the end of the story Jonah is obedient. He has done everything God has asked him to do, but this does not mean God is pleased with Jonah. Obedience does not necessarily equate to acceptance. Jonah is still the same person he was in chapter 1. He is bitter. He feels sorry for himself, and he wants to die. His heart is full of hatred and he refuses to love. This is not the life God wants for Jonah.
The story of Jonah is a conversion story gone wrong. We must read this story in light of the bigger story of the Bible. Jonah goes down into the heart of the sea. He spends three days in the belly of a fish. He encounters death (2:2). God delivers Jonah from “the pit” (2:6). What has happened? Jonah has been saved. He has encountered death and been delivered. This is what happens to us in baptism. We go down into the waters of baptism and we die to our old self. We are then raised to live a new life.
Anyone who has had to deal with death knows that death tends to linger. Conversion is often followed by testing. The people of Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea only to face testing in the wilderness. Jesus was baptized and then immediately led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tested. Jonah encountered death and then was delivered by God. Now he is called a second time to go to Nineveh. The message he delivers is, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4). Forty is a number that is found frequently throughout the Bible and it often refers to a time of testing. The people of Nineveh quickly accept the word of the Lord, but Jonah sulks. As the people of Nineveh repent, Jonah is being tested.
Jonah was chosen by God. He was a prophet. He had dedicated his life to serving. He was good at this as long as he did not have to go beyond the borders of Israel. Jonah was obedient. He was reluctant at first, but so were many other followers of God. At the end of the book, Jonah has done everything God has asked him to do. The book of Jonah is not about obedience or disobedience. It is about transformation. The point of conversion is to be transformed. We are to leave our old life behind and begin a new life. God’s intent for all of us is to be transformed into the image of his Son.
Obedience is important to God, but what he really wants is our hearts. He wants hearts that love him completely. He wants us to love others just as he does. This is God’s desire, but Jonah didn’t get it. Instead of allowing love to transform him, he would rather die. Bitterness and hatred can drive us to extremes. Love will reshape our heart, but for some that is more scary than death. Love is powerful. Love will overcome, but love will not force itself upon us. We must choose love. We must give ourselves to God and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
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