When I was a kid I thought every Bible story was a moral lesson. There was always a good thing I was to start, a bad thing I was to stop, or a potentially dangerous thing I was to avoid. The characters in the Bible were examples of people who either were graded well on their paper or who were, spiritually speaking, held back a year. I was taught to be like David–a man after God’s own heart (except for the infidelity, murder, and family dysfunction). I was encouraged to be wise like Solomon (with the exception of the concubines, extra wives, and thoroughly hedonistic lifestyle). I was pointed to Peter as a man to be admired (with the exception of his resemblance to Sleepy Dwarf during prayer meetings, being overly aggressive with his sword, and his temporary memory loss when it came to putting a name with a face).

Scripture was like Rules of Golf only longer and at times more difficult to understand. It’s no wonder when I read about Jonah I thought it was a story about obeying God the first time and doing whatever he tells me to do. There was even a song about it:

I don’t want to be a Jonah And get swallowed by a whale. So to Nineveh I will go, For the Lord has told me so, And I’ll shout aloud, “You must be born again.”

You better obey! You better do what God tells you! Don’t be like Jonah! The only problem was that I was a lot like Jonah. Jonah was rebellious and self righteous. Even during his times of brokenness he thought he was more deserving of God’s grace than the evil people who lived in Nineveh. Sadly, after all the challenges to not be like Jonah, I still have some Jonah in me.

The story of Jonah isn’t just a moral lesson about a rebellious Old Testament prophet. It’s a story that points to a righteous New Testament prophet, priest, and king. Jonah teaches us about the grace and mercy of God and points us to his perfect Son, Jesus. This is why Jesus said, “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. [41] 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.” (Matthew 12:38-41 ESV)

Jesus is using the story of Jonah to foreshadow his own plunge into death for sinners-sinners just like the Ninevites and Jonah. It’s more than a “be good” moral lesson. It’s a picture of God’s grace toward sinners-prideful, openly rebellious ones like the Ninevites and secretly self righteous ones like Jonah.

Should we listen and obey when God calls? Yes! Should cry out to the Lord in times of trouble? Of course! But our hope as we work to listen to the voice of the Lord is that Jesus did what we strive to do-only he didn’t perfectly. He is our hope. When we grasp that truth we will respond like Jonah.

    [9] But I with the voice of thanksgiving
        will sacrifice to you;
    what I have vowed I will pay.
        Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
                    (Jonah 2:9 ESV)