The story of Jonah and the whale is one of the most beloved of children’s stories, but in my opinion, for all of the wrong reasons. As we look back on salvation history we should see the story of Jonah as a bright light, a clue pointing forward to the days of Jesus. When we consider the city of Nineveh, we should marvel at the effort God will go to in order to save a wayward people. When we consider the prophet, we should protect ourselves from that special kind of selfishness that would actually prefer to keep salvation all to ourselves. And when we become too occupied by questions of a sea creature’s ability to swallow a man whole and have him live for several days, it is time we ask ourselves what this story could have possibly meant to the people who first heard it.
Jesus, as we know, pointed to the story of Jonah as the only sign that this ‘adulterous generation’ would receive to really understand who He is.
For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! (Matthew 12:38-42)
Jonah, according to the first half of the book, is one who experienced a continual descent. He would go down to Joppa and then down into the hold of a ship. He would be thrown overboard only to sink to the bottom of the sea. While there, Jonah would experience one final descent into Sheol, the abyss, where it was believed, one cannot even cry out to God. And yet, even in death God had power to raise Jonah up, as he says ‘…you brought up my life from the pit’ (Jonah 2:6)
Why then would this story be the sign given to any generation? How could this story prove, beyond any shadow of a doubt, who Jesus is? Because Jesus too will wrestle with death. For three long days He too will remain in the place where all believed there could not be life. But unlike Jonah, Jesus will raise Himself up on the third day.
The narrative of Jonah was not meant to be a children’s story. It was meant to point to Jesus so that we could recognize who He is when He came.
God is with us, and even death cannot keep Him from bringing the Church back to life.