It is only recently that I discovered that the term “a Jonah” could be a positive thing, at least according to the Urban Dictionary. I had always considered the term to be a negative thing, like the cursed midshipman from the film Master and Commander who was considered by the rest of the crew to be the cause to all their problems. This is because of the connection between Jonah and the storm in Jonah chapter 1 that superstitous sailors tend to make.
It comes as more of a surprise when I reflected on how much Jesus saw himself as a Jonah. But that is because Jesus understood Jonah better than I, superstitious sailors, or the Urban dictionary did. As we compare Jonah and Jesus in way that has been set up for us in the gospels, we have some great opportunities to learn more about who Jesus is. Here are five ways Jesus and Jonah should be compared.
1. Jesus and Jonah both preached
Jesus refers to the “sign of Jonah” in both Luke and Matthew (Matt 12:39, Luke 11:29). On face value we could make the mistake of thinking that the connection is that both were preaching to Gentile audiences, though that happens to be true. But this is not the point that Jesus is making in either passage. Here he is preaching to a group of people who should be repentant but are not (Matt 12:41, Luke 11:30). Jonah on the other hand preaches judgement to a gentile audience whom you would not expect to be repentant but are. Therefore Jonah’s audience will stand in testimony against those who should know better. Jesus and Jonah both preach with unexpected results.
2. Jesus and Jonah were both in Sheol for 3 days
The second explicit reference that Jesus makes to Jonah is that both Jesus and Jonah were in the belly of the fish or as Jonah calls it Sheol (Jonah 2:2). There is some debate about whether this is literal or figurative for Jonah but the point still stands. Both Jesus and Jonah are in the belly of the fish/earth and they are there for three days (Matt 12:40).
3. Jesus and Jonah were both resurrected
Both Jesus and Jonah experience a resurrection. Both have a death experience and it is not the end. For Jesus is it is the rising from the tomb, for Jonah is the vomiting out of the fish (I would prefer the former to the latter experience) but the point of Jesus referring to Jonah at this point is to predict and prepare his disciples for the expectation of his own physical resurrection.
4. Jesus and Jonah both calmed a storm
Jesus and Jonah were instrumental in calming storms. Actually, we need go back a step and mention that both Jesus and Jonah were asleep on a boat in the middle of a storm. Anyone who has been on a boat in rough weather will know what an odd thing that this is. The Gospel writers make it an important point to mention that Jesus was asleep in the storm (Matt 8:24, Mark 4:38, Luke 8:23). This detail I think, is meant to take us back to the Jonah episode of Jonah 1 (see v5). Though Jesus is tired from doing God’s work, Jonah is tired from running from God’s work.
Both Jesus and Jonah end the episode with the storm being stilled in a miraculous way. Jonah being “sacrificed” so to speak, Jesus merely speaking to the storm, showing that he is greater than Jonah. It also demonstrates that the God who can stop storms is present with the disciples in the boat, not acting as a trascendent being. The disciples understand this and thus are terrified as a reaction.
5. Jesus and Jonah were sacrificed for the salvation of others
The big difference in the storm sequences is that Jesus is not ‘sacrificed’ for the salvation of those on the boat like Jonah was. But he will be. I suspect this is why the Gospel writers are presenting the squence the way they do, by pointing us to Jonah by highlighting the fact that Jesus is asleep in a storm. We are expecting a similar outcome. And we are left half right. The storm is stilled. Jesus is shown to be greater than Jonah being the God-man with authority in the boat to stop a storm. Nevertheless, the shadow of the cross reaches even here: Jesus will be sacrificed like Jonah not just to save some sailors on a boat, but sinners who need be saved.
Why does all this matter?
If we are to read Jonah on its own, we end up with a narrative about a recalcitrant prophet. If we read the Gospels it would be easy to see the points about Jesus being powerful. Both these points are important, but seeing the Gospels in the light of Jonah gives us a better understanding of what Jesus saw himself doing.