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Jonah’s adventure is one of the most familiar stories in Scripture. Ask any child in church what it’s about and you’ll get a cogent answer. This is less likely if you ask about any other minor prophet, such as Habakkuk. But while the book is memorable, it isn’t necessarily well-understood. The stubborn prophet and large fish aren’t the focal point. Instead, the book—which ends with a question mark—demands careful consideration about the meaning of our lives in light of God’s glory and grace.

1. Jonah can help us obediently follow God.

Jonah offers a workshop on how not to respond to the God who must be obeyed. The book reveals the Lord as sovereign. He doesn’t suggest; He commands. Even the heathen sailors acknowledge God’s omnipotence, saying, “You, O Lord, have done as it pleased you” (Jonah 1:14). God acts decisively. He “hurled a great wind” (Jonah 1:4). He “appointed a great fish” (Jonah 1:17). The story is firmly under God’s control.

God’s commands are clear. His simple instructions almost sound like He’s speaking to a child: “Arise,” “Go,” and “Call out.” Jonah disobeyed not because he lacked information, felt rushed, or was pressured by outside influences. He simply didn’t want to obey, and his defiance triggered disaster. By our rebellion we too willfully reject God’s blessing and invite His heavy-handedness.

But while obedience is one proof of true religion, submission flows from a heart in love with God. Jonah boasted about his religious credentials and spouted fine theology, but he exaggerated his fear of God (Jonah 1:9). In his heart and by his actions, he was fleeing “from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3, 10). Jonah was spiritually unwell. From his pious sounding but self-congratulatory prayer from within the great fish to his angry temper tantrum near the end of the book, Jonah needed the same heart change that characterized the Nineveh revival.

The obedience of the wind, waves, plants, animals, and even heathen people stand in sharp contrast to the smug prophet’s willfulness. Let him be a warning to us.

2. Jonah is a missions manual.

This might be either obvious or surprising. Clearly, Jonah is about the mission of God. It was because of His pity for the lost that God sent Jonah to warn the Ninevites of His coming wrath (Jonah 4:2, 11). But God seemed to have picked the wrong missionary! Almost nothing about Jonah appears exemplary in this story—but it seems that is the point. Jonah’s missional reluctance ought to have shamed the readers of his book into realizing that the “light for the nations” was barely visible (Isa. 49:6). Those of us who have been shown pity ought to be eager to share with the world this message of a pitying God.

More importantly, Jonah’s failure proves that he isn’t the missionary hero; God is. Jonah’s reluctant outreach prepared Israel to expect a greater prophet who would willingly seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). Christ alone can fulfill God’s enterprising promise to bless “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3). The Nineveh revival anticipated Pentecost and the loosening of Satan’s grip on the nations. Because of God’s indescribable gift of Christ, one day “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of redeemed people will sing of the matchless worth of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 5:11–12). Truly “salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).

Jonah reveals the loving heart of God toward lost people. The prophet does this not by his own virtue but as a type of Christ. Pay attention to Jonah not because he is a model of godliness, but because we, like him, need the Christ whom he portrays.

3. Jonah is about Jesus.

When Jesus’ critics demanded of Him a sign to validate His claimed identity, He pointed His generation to Jonah (Matt. 12:39). Jesus interpreted the pivotal point of the Jonah story as a picture of His own death and resurrection. Jonah symbolically died, for the sailors believed they were killing him by hurling him into the sea (Jonah 1:14). He should not have survived the “mighty tempest” that “threatened to break up” the ship or his three-day stay in the fish’s belly (Jonah 1:4). The fish was Jonah’s watery grave; his being vomited on the shoreline began his new life. The old Jonah—the one who hated gentiles and craved selfish comfort—symbolizes the “old self” (Eph. 4:22). The new Jonah—still radically imperfect—more crudely symbolizes the “new self” (Eph. 4:23–24). Jesus also would die and arise. Union with Him is the only way to become new creatures and enter God’s reward (Rom. 6:8).

Jonah’s symbolic death and resurrection also validated his message of repentance to the Ninevites. We have even less excuse if we fail to respond to the gospel of Jesus: “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:32).

Jonah is about Jesus (Luke 24:44–47). In Christ alone we find the obedience necessary to stand before God and the help to begin our own godly walk. In Him, we experience the pity of God that alone can stimulate us to pity others.

This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.