One Greater Than Jonah

The prophet Jonah is famous for his miraculous survival after being in the belly of a great fish for three days and nights. He was commanded, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me." (1:2) However, Jonah attempted to avoid the Lord's command by escaping on a ship leaving for Tarshish.

It was not unusual for a prophet of Israel to be reluctant at some time during his service to the Lord. Indeed, we remember the great Moses displayed such behaviour when he was first commissioned to return to Egypt. Jonah may not have seen himself as in the same league as Moses, but he was without doubt in good company. And according to Jonah he had a solid reason why he shouldn't go. He knew that if he preached repentance the Ninevites might repent, then God would forgive them and not punish them.

At the time Nineveh was the capital of the oppressive Assyrian Empire. In spite of Israel's servitude and distress under the might of the Assyrian administration, the Lord had brought about some deliverance, even restoring parts of Israel through the king, Jeroboam II and His servant, Jonah the prophet.

"In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, became king of Samaria, and reigned forty-one years . . . He restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD GOD of Israel, which he had spoken through his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath-Hepher.

"For the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter; and whether born or free, there was no helper for Israel. And the LORD did not say that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven; but he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash." (2 Kings 14:23-27)

In view of Israel's situation, one can empathize with Jonah and appreciate why he was so reluctant to bring a message of repentance to one of Israel's all-time worst enemies. In this light, he seems not so much a prophet bent on disobedience, but rather a genuine man of God who was struggling to understand the paradox of the moment. Why should God even comtemplate forgiving them when they had treated Israel so badly? They deserved whatever punishment was coming to them!

Nevertheless, Jonah, like a true man of God, swallowed his bewilderment and finally obeyed the Lord. Admittedly, he had to be thrown into a raging sea, be left to drown, and then be swallowed by a great fish, only then to survive three days and three nights of torment and horror in its belly. That in itself would have been an incredible ordeal. One wonders how many could survive the same and still be intellectually stable after the event.

Furthermore, God did not revoke Jonah's commission. Jonah, despite his continued bewilderment, went and preached repentance to the Ninevites. Who would have foreseen what great things God would do through this prophet?

The greatness of what was achieved, though, is of enormous value particularly when we consider that he preached to Gentiles, who in turn listened and obeyed. This truly is amazing! Because as Gentiles, the Ninevites would have served other gods. Why should they listen to the God of Israel? Let the people of Israel listen to Him, and obey Him! Why should they obey the word of this Israelite prophet? Certainly, they had every reason not to listen to him. In fact it was in their power to kill him, as an enemy of the state.

But they did listen, and amazingly they repented. "Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it." (3:10) Jonah had preached and thousands repented. Surely Jonah was a man of God through whom God did great things.

Undoubtedly Jonah is a type of his people, the nation of Israel whom the Lord God has chosen to be a light to the Gentiles. Just as Jonah brought the message of repentance, forgiveness and deliverance in the God of Israel, so too the nation of Israel has brought forth the Messiah and the message of salvation in Yeshua to the Gentiles.

Out of all the prophets of Israel recorded in Tenach, Jonah is the only one whose message was willingly received and acted upon immediately by the masses, without complaint or compromise. A spiritual awakening of thousands. A glorious triumph and witness to the God of Israel. A truly remarkable feat, unrivalled for many centuries, until the coming of the Messiah.

When the scribes and Pharisees requested a sign from Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth to prove that He was indeed the Messiah, He said that He would not give them a sign but rather pointed to Jonah as the litmus test. "Teacher, we want to see a sign from you. But he answered and said to them, 'An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.'" (Matthew 12:38-40)

Just as Jonah experienced three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so too the Messiah would die and be dead for three days and three nights. The Messiah would be cut off from the land of the living, in the heart of the earth. Just as Jonah returned back to the living, so too the Messiah.

The Messiah in fact would be raised from the dead with resurrection power. God declared through His prophet Isaiah the impact that His Anointed One would have on the Gentiles. "Behold, My Servant whom I uphold, my Elect One in whom my soul delights! I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the Gentiles." (42:1)

Just as thousands of Gentiles repented at Jonah's message, so too thousands of Gentiles have responded in faith and repentance to the message of salvation in Yeshua the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, and worship Him as Lord. More significant than the preaching of Jonah though, is the fact that Jewish people continue to respond in faith to the message of the Messiah, so that today, after two millennia, the multitude of believers, both Jew and Gentile, continues to grow because a greater than Jonah has come.

Messiah Yeshua warned the people in His day: "The men of Nineveh will rise in the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here." (Matthew 12:41)

Similarly today those who do not have faith in Him are cautioned: "Escape the judgement of your souls for eternity! Observe the people of Nineveh listening to a man who had been in the belly of a fish three days and nights; a man whom they had considered their enemy. Even so, consider Yeshua who has been raised from the dead after three days and nights."

" . . . God (the Heavenly Father) also has highly exalted him and given him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus (Yeshua) every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Letter to the Philippians 2:9-11)