Seeing Jesus in Jonah

The Bible leaves no doubt that there are deep connections between the story of Jonah and the story of Jesus, but it is easy to get caught up by Jonah’s story and not recognize them. Twice Jesus explicitly points to the Jews of His day back to the story of Jonah (Matt. 12:39-42; 16:4), indicating that this story of a wayward, disobedient prophet was, somehow, also the story of Him – the perfect, divine God-man.

How in the world does this work? Of all the Old Testament characters for Jesus to model His life and ministry around, why Jonah?

The reason, in short, is the same reason that Jesus’ life and ministry so often paralleled the story of Israel as a whole: These Old Testament stories were marked by sin, disobedience, and defiance. In taking these roles upon Himself, Jesus (and the authors of the Gospels) are demonstrating just the opposite in Him. Where Israel and Jonah failed, Jesus succeeded. Where they sinned, Jesus demonstrated radical righteousness. Where they rebelled, Jesus obeyed.
Jesus is not just “another Jonah” – He is a perfect Jonah. “Behold,” Jesus Himself declared, “something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:41; cf. Luke 11:32).

This is only the beginning of the story, though. The connections between Jesus and Jonah are actually far more substantial than these two specific incidents in the life of Jesus. It is not only what Jesus said that connects these stories, but also what He did.

There are two incidents, both found within the first half of Jonah, that point in remarkable ways to the life of Jesus. There is, first, the story of the storm, and then there is the story of Jonah being tossed overboard.
The Storm
Jonah, we know, fully missed the onset of the terrible storm sent by God to get his attention, as he was fast asleep in the bottom of the ship. If we are paying attention and have read the Gospels, this episode ought to be remarkably familiar.
On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as He was. And other boats were with him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But He was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” 
- Mark 4:35-40
There can be little doubt that this famous story from the life of Jesus is intended to draw the reader back to this moment from the story of Jonah. But what are we to make of this connection? Why is this a story that would demand to be relived, particularly in the life of Jesus? In the case of Jonah, the act of descending into the hold of the ship, asleep and ignorant until being awakened by the ship’s captain, served to reveal both his own sin and the sin of the nation of Israel (who had been sleeping through their own storms) – but what of Jesus? While it’s clear that many of the story beats are the same, the motives, as well as the outcome, are radically different. And this difference is precisely why it is meaningful.

For Jesus the story of sleeping during the storm is obviously not a story of rebellion, nor of ambivalence or apathy. It was not a lack of concern for His disciples that led Jesus to continue sleeping even as the storm rocked the boat and terrified those aboard. Where Jonah did indeed later acknowledge God as ruler over the sea, and thus the one responsible for the storm (1:9), he fundamentally failed the test that God gave him by refusing to repent of his rebellion and to acknowledge that his own sin had led to the calamity.

When, in the Gospels, Jesus is in the ship reliving the story of Jonah, it is the disciples who are being tested. If they only knew, if they only understood, just who it was asleep in the hold of the ship, then they might not have come to Him in such terror, crying out “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38) But

Jesus’ purpose was not only to test, but to teach. He was laying bare the disciples’ preconceptions of who He was. As Jesus played the role (so to speak) of Jonah, He was asking the disciples to play the role of the sailors. Who would they cry out to when the storm threatened the boat? If they recognized Him for who He was, then they would not cry out to various gods, but to Him. He was causing them to question their entire perception of Him by performing a feat that, in all of Scripture, had only ever been performed a single time, and that by God, in Jonah 1. This same God to whom the pagan sailors would turn after His power over the storm was revealed (v. 16), was the “teacher” who now shared a boat with them.

Jesus, then, played not only the role of Jonah, but also the role of God! He is both the true and faithful prophet of God and He is God Himself!

Tossed Overboard
Jesus saw his coming death through the lens of the most famous incident in the story of Jonah.

“For just 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” - Matt. 12:40

Jesus, like Jonah, would be “swallowed up” by death – He would descend into the “belly” of His tomb before His miraculous deliverance by the power of God. This would be a sign, Jesus told the Pharisees, that was far more dramatic and compelling than any of their old stories – it ought to more than enough to lead them to repentance.

This event obviously does come to pass in the life of Christ, but in a way that bears even more connections with the story of Jonah. This becomes particularly evident as the sailors, hesitant to throw Jonah overboard, cry out to God, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood…” (Jon. 1:14). This is a cry that foreshadows the words of Pontius Pilate – yet another sympathetic pagan character, who would also prove reluctant to sacrifice a life in order to quell a storm:

“So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and our children!’ Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered Him to be crucified” - Matt. 27:24-26

This connection is remarkable. Both Pilate and the sailors (who ought to have been the villains of the stories) are resistant to see a man killed; but both see a storm around them threatening to do far more harm, and so both act in a way that even they find deplorable. In both cases, they capitulate and throw the men to the storm (in the case of Jesus, to the Jewish mob), and in both cases the result is death (though for Jonah the death is symbolic). After this, in both cases, the men are “swallowed up” for a time, culminating in a sort of resurrection (for Jesus the resurrection is literal, for Jonah it is figurative).
The extent of these connections is certainly no accident, and therefore we should not be surprised. Jesus can look back on the story of Jonah’s “death” and “resurrection” as a type of His own story because it is really a type of the whole story of the Bible!

The many stories that make up the Scriptures work together to tell one larger story – the story of man’s exile from the Garden (a type of death), and God’s work to bring about reconciliation (resurrection). It is the story lived out by Israel as a nation, and Jonah as a person – and it is a story that finds its ultimate fulfillment and meaning in the life and work of Christ.