The Gospel in Jonah

This article is part of the Christ in All of Scripture series.

Delayed Obedience

On the surface, the story of Jonah lends itself to a moralistic interpretation: God sends Jonah to the notoriously evil city of Nineveh (Jonah 1:1–2), but Jonah runs away instead (Jonah 1:3). So God sends a storm and a fish to rescue Jonah from his disobedience (Jonah 2), he tells Jonah to go a second time (Jonah 3:1–2), and finally Jonah gives in and obeys (Jonah 3:3). Then God rewards Jonah’s obedience by bringing him surprising success among the Ninevites (Jonah 3:6–10).

Some people teach us by their example; Jonah teaches us by his weakness.

But this interpretation leaves us with a number of problematic questions: Why is chapter 4 included? Why isn’t our hero, Jonah, a better model of obedience in the end? Why is he still angry after his success in Nineveh? Once we begin to pull back the layers of the story, we discover that it is not really about what Jonah is doing for God, but what God is doing for Jonah.

ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible

ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible

The ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible features 375,000+ words of gospel-centered study notes, book introductions, and articles that explain passage-by-passage how God’s redemptive purposes culminate in the gospel and apply to the lives of believers today.

What Weakness Teaches

Jonah is about the disturbing possibility that, having pledged our life to God, we could end up spending much of that life avoiding the God we set out to serve. You may have already discovered this strange contradiction that lies at the heart of all Christian experience: while loving Christ, you find yourself turning from him; while trusting Christ, you often battle fear and anxiety; while serving Christ, you sometimes struggle with disappointment about certain events in your life. You are not alone!

Some people teach us by their example; Jonah teaches us by his weakness. By confessing his own failures, Jonah holds up a mirror for us to see the struggles and enigmas of our Christian lives (1 Cor. 10:11). He wants us to discover the grace of God—which, once we see it, is stronger than all our fears, anxieties, and disappointments. The real hero in the story is God. We catch glimpses of God’s extraordinary patience with weak people like Jonah (Jonah 3:1–2; 4:4, 9–10), his relentless pursuit of lost people like the Ninevites (Jonah 1:2; 4:11), and the ultimate victory of his love (Jonah 2:9; 3:10).

This article is adapted from the ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible. Browse other articles in this series via the links below.

Old Testament

GenesisExodusLeviticusNumbersDeuteronomyJoshuaJudgesRuth1–2 Samuel1–2 Kings1–2 ChroniclesEzraNehemiahEstherJobPsalmsProverbsEcclesiastesSong of SolomonIsaiahJeremiahLamentationsEzekielDanielHoseaJoelAmosObadiahJonahMicahNahumHabbakukZephaniahHaggaiZechariahMalachi

New Testament

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