Just your average, run-of-the-mill spiritual experience, right? Well, there’s more to the story, and it really comes to life for us when we come to terms with how Jesus himself interprets it, as well as when we understand there are layers to stories like this, not just one point. In fact, it’s helpful (even necessary), especially with biblical narrative, to read it as though it has a “divine” and “human” side to it, in the same way that Jesus himself, the Word in flesh, is both divine and human. In this way, Jonah is both a picture of us and a picture of Christ at the same time. Sprinkle on top some law/grace contrasts and I think you have a well-rounded theological “take” on Jonah 1 that doesn’t just leave us with an overly simplified moralistic lesson, but shows forth the entire story of redemption in one fell swoop.
Commands lead to disobedience
The story begins with shockingly quick, almost instinctual disobedience. God called Jonah to go prophesy against the city of Nineveh. But then, immediately in verse 3, he fled in the opposite direction and set out to sea, away from the presence of the Lord. But God pursued him and “hurled a great wind upon the sea so that the ship threatened to break apart.”
Alright. Lesson #1: Jonah is not unique. He is just one more person in a long line of stubborn human beings like us to run the opposite direction when God gives a command. Patterns underscore significant truths in the Bible and this is a big one to see. When God gives commandments or laws, people immediately disobey. In Genesis 3 when God says, “Don’t eat the fruit of this one tree,” a few verses later Adam and Eve are sinking their teeth into it, like they can’t help themselves. In Exodus 20 when God gives the ten commandments to Moses, soon thereafter the people are already breaking them by throwing the world’s first frat party, fashioning a golden calf, and bowing down to the works of their hands. Even in the New Testament after Jesus clearly commands the healed leper not to tell anyone about the healing, he immediately tells everyone anyway. The point being: the Bible wants us to see that commands lead to disobedience. When the law comes in, it incites, exposes, and provokes. We simply cannot keep the standard; even worse, most times we don’t even want to. So, another solution is needed altogether, and in Jonah’s case, it looks like God pursuing him mercifully, in spite of his blatant disobedience — the storm not being punishment per se, but an expression of God interrupting his flight with loving force.
The futility of rowing
The crew in Jonah’s boat teaches us the same thing. After the storm picks up in intensity, Jonah realizes that he’s the reason for the storm, and offers a surprising solution: “Throw me into the sea and the storm will quiet down for you.” But, what did they do? They rowed hard against the waves to try to get back to land themselves. But the harder they rowed, the worse the storm got. So, at wit’s end, they threw Jonah into the sea and the storm immediately stopped.
Note first that the men disobeyed Jonah here, like Jonah disobeyed God. Commandments, again, led to stubborn disobedience. But the bigger thing to see is the contrast between the works of the hands of the crew and the “work” of Jonah’s death. The more we try to rescue ourselves by rowing out of our own storms of sin, the worse things get. Like those building the tower of Babel, the more “good” we do (or think we do) the farther from God we find ourselves. The only solution is the grace of God, seen here in the throwing of Jonah overboard, which — according to Jesus — is a forerunning picture of his own death. In Matthew 12:40 Jesus says, “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.” Note how Jesus helps us connect the stories here: in both cases a prophet who is known for falling asleep on boats during storms is killed (willingly!) to save others from “perishing” (Jonah 1:14, John 3:16), but also saves them from their futile efforts to save themselves.
There are many ways this “rowing against the grace of God” can look in our lives — and I mean for Christians, not just people who have yet to believe — whether it be our feeble attempts at keeping God’s perfect laws themselves, thinking we are something when we are nothing, beating the drum of “if you put your mind to it, you can do anything,” or looking down on others for not living up to your “level” of Christian spirituality.
Put down your oars!
But the good news of Jonah 1 is: put down your oars, put down your swords, and look to God, a God who saves not by demanding but by dying.
He has sent his son from heaven to be thrown into the storm of sin and the belly of death for you. He has taken the brunt on the cross and replaced — with his body — our failed attempts at “rowing” the commandments, like the glorious New Testament replaces and fulfills the failures of the old system, so that we can yet again come to see and savor the fact that sinners like us are saved by Jesus’s spilt blood, not by our works.
And in the end, though the law drives a wedge and makes the storm worse, it’s God’s grace alone that softens our hearts. It interrupts our selfishness, and gives us the right motivation to love, because we can only love rightly after we’ve come to the end of ourselves and have realized that we’ve first been loved by God to the uttermost, to the belly of the beast, to hell and back, undeservedly.