By Nathaniel J. Wilson, Ed.D.
Who is this Jonah and why is he so important for the subject of formation of ministry and spirituality? Of all the biblical models in which spiritual formation takes a person into the deep, Jonah is certainly the most literal example. There is a reason for this. Jonah is a much more important character than the size of the book bearing his name may indicate. Christ uses Jonah as a type of Himself, revealing that His and Jonah’s journeys to the deep parallel one another. By doing this, Christ also reinforces our belief that all of these examples are intended to be taken together to move us toward the development of a theology of spiritual formation.
Jonah harbors a strong resistance to God’s call. He is fearful. He is biased and opinionated. He is prejudiced. He thinks resistance can free him from his call to spiritual leadership. However, his destiny is irrevocably intertwined with fulfilling the ministry to which God has called him. Try as he may, there is no life for him outside of obedience. He is a stalked man-stalked by the call of God. His disobedience not only jeopardizes his life personally, but the lives of those who travel with him, as well as those who hear not the message of God because of his rebellious refusal to preach. Finally, rather than step into the deep, Jonah is violently thrown into the deep.
Scholars admit surprise that the hook of Jonah is even included in the canon of scripture. This surprise is not because the book contains incredible events, such as a man being swallowed by a great fish and then being cast upon the shore. Nor is it because Jonah is an embarrassment due to his disobedience. It is, rather, that Jonah is such an indicting microcosm of the failure of Israel as a nation to fulfill the mission God committed to them-that is, to be a blessing (through the preaching of the gospel) to the rest of the world.
Israel was never a people who God intended to be isolated upon the earth (Kaiser, 1978). From the first call of Abraham, God clearly identified that the reason He was blessing Abraham and his descendants was so that, through Israel, the nations of the earth could be blessed (Genesis 12:3). They were to be the transmitters of the “blessing of Abraham” to the rest of the earth. This was their purpose. While some may doubt that “missions” is found in the Old Testament, the record is emphatically clear that God’s intent from the beginning was for His called-out people to take their blessing from Him and to share it with the nations of the earth. The psalmist declares:
“God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us; Selah.” Psalm 67: 1
The psalmist prays for blessing, then quickly states the reason:
“That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations.” Psalm 67:2
The people of Israel, like Jonah, were a minority called to serve a majority. They were specifically called to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19). It was meant for them to serve in a mediatorial role between God and the world and they were meant to be set apart to God and His service. They were expected to abstain from worldly interests and focus on worldwide ministry.
Israel failed miserably in this assignment. They thought God had saved them for themselves, and failed to realize that He had saved them for His purposes and His mission. They misconstrued their blessing, their enablement, and their giftedness, and came to view others condescendingly as lesser human beings beneath their dignity. Their blessing led them to prejudice and spite. They detested the Gentile “dogs.”
No one personifies this national attitude more precisely than Jonah. Called and blessed of God, he is directed to go to Nineveh, but his disdain for the Ninevites is blatant. He despises them. To him, they are unworthy of his message and incapable of obedience. He has become so fixated on self that he no longer has God’s view toward the nations of the world. He maintains a resolute unsubmissiveness to the call of God. God has chosen Jonah to take His message to a city that is the epitome of Gentile power and gods. He refuses to go. Jonah is the exact opposite of an apostle. God’s will is to spread the good news to the world. Jonah’s will is to keep it contained within Israel alone. Jonah is the carnal man who attempts to sabotage God’s worldwide plans.
To portray the depth of this rebellion, the writer of the book of Jonah uses minute details to show that the winds obey God, but not Jonah. Jonah sleeps while the world about him perishes. God can guide the wind, the sailors, and the great fish, but not Jonah. Jonah prays for deliverance. Ironically, he who refuses to take God’s deliverance to the Ninevites prays for deliverance.
But Jonah is not the only one who is stubborn. God delivers him, then immediately repeats His orders. God has His own purposes. He will not let up. In the whale’s belly, Jonah declares, “Yahweh is salvation.” God responds by saying, “That’s true. Now go tell that to the Ninevites.” God resolutely insists that Jonah tell Nineveh that God is concerned about them.
Jonah is very unhappy. He finds it exceedingly distasteful that God is intending to share the blessing of Abraham with Nineveh. The book ends with Jonah obeying God resentfully and his obedience is still a subject of question. God has sent Jonah to Nineveh, the second oldest city in the world, the home of Nimrod, the home of every man-made religion and foul spirit. God has sent him there to show His universal power over all that Nineveh represents. Jonah sees the message as having a smaller sphere than this. God sees
the message as powerful enough to bring down universal principality, power, and dominion. He then proceeds to prove it. His message is more powerful than the world’s, even though it comes from a half-hearted prophet.
Jonah is one of those who finds going to the deep traumatic beyond words. It is doubly so for him because of his unsubmitted will. His rebellion, evidently never completely resolved, gives him a ministerial life of tumult and smoldering resentment. The deep love God has for the lost is something Jonah never grasps. He never comes to a place of ultimate trust, thanksgiving, and resignation to God and His will. God’s greatest challenge is not. the storm, the fish, or the Ninevites, but the unsubmitted will of the prophet. Bigoted, prejudiced, and narrow-minded, Jonah, along with the stiff-necked kings of Israel, resists God. In contrast, the most violent king, who is a heathen, along with an entire heathen city, humbles himself before the living God.
As mentioned before, Christ likens Himself to Jonah in that both go to the deep. However, in terms of understanding God’s mission, the comparison between Christ and Jonah becomes a stark contrast. Whereas Jonah grows increasingly more angry that God would even extend mercy to those outside of Israel, Christ has a long list of ministry to lost Gentiles. He:
* Commends the wisdom of Sarepta, a Gentile city, at the beginning of His ministry (Luke 4);
* Delivers a Gadarene Gentile from demonism (Matthew 8:28-34);
* Heals 10 lepers, only one of which-a Samaritan returns (Luke 17:12-19);
* Gives some of the greatest theological truths ever to a lone Samaritan woman of questionable reputation (John 4);
* Rewards the faith of a Canaanite woman by healing her daughter (Matthew 15:24);
* Gives a miracle to a Centurion, an alien commander of an alien army of occupation (Matthew 8:8 11, 12);
* Attracts Greeks (John 12:23, 32). The deep interest of the Greeks is evidence that the world is ready to receive the good news of His redemptive mission; and
* Reiterates the purpose of the people of God to go into all the world and preach the good news (Matthew 28:19).
Certainly, a greater than Jonah is here.
This article “Jonah – Walking The Plank”� by Nathaniel J. Wilson is excerpted from his book The Defining Moment: Ultimate Leadership Vol. 1, 2003.