Ministry Resources

A Big Fish Story

Author: Dr. Craig Keener

It has been said that God is not responsible for billions of people not knowing about his wonderful love for them; we are. He gave us the Great Commission, yet many of us are more consumed by other passions than by passion to live for Christ and his commands.

The Bible tells us about someone who ran from God’s call. When we think of Jonah, we usually think of him being swallowed by a large marine creature, but sometimes miss the fuller message of the book’s 48 verses (such as God’s concern for all people). We also often focus more on Jonah than on another major character: God.

Sometimes we get proud of our gifts or God working through us, but forget that gifts are given, not merited. God worked through Jonah in spite of himself. Jonah was not trying to evangelize the sailors carrying him to Tarshish, yet they repented (despite his example of disobedience, Jonah 1:10-16). Jonah certainly was not hoping for Nineveh’s repentance, yet they repented. God did not use Jonah because he was godly. The sailors in the ship, who worshiped other gods, showed more compassion on Jonah (Jonah 1:13-14) than Jonah showed toward Nineveh. Jonah, who earlier praises God for saving his life (Jonah 2:2, 6), decides that he would rather die than see Nineveh spared (Jonah 1:12; 4:3) or, for that matter, than suffer heat (Jonah 4:8). Jonah is not the story’s hero; God is.

God fulfills his purpose, despite Jonah. He sends the storm that ultimately converts the sailors and (in a different way) Jonah. More significantly, the narrative four times uses the verb “appoints,” or “prepares,” with regard to God (8 percent of the Hebrew verb’s uses appear just in this little book). God “appointed” a large sea creature to swallow Jonah (Jonah 1:17), both to persuade him and to get him back to land, so he could go to Nineveh. Once Nineveh was converted, God set to work converting Jonah more fully. God “appointed” a plant for his shade (Jonah 4:6); then “appointed” a worm to kill the plant (Jonah 4:7); and finally “appointed” a hot east wind to make Jonah value his previous shade (Jonah 4:8).

God’s compassion includes not only warnings of impending judgment (such as Nineveh received) but actual discipline (such as Jonah received) to correct our attitudes and turn us to the right way. If it seems that Nineveh got off lighter than Jonah, we should remember (as the Veggie Tales version also reminds us) that Jonah was a prophet: God’s standards are higher for those who ought to know better.

The book especially teaches us about God’s character. When God spares Nineveh, Jonah complains that he expected as much, because he knew that God was “gracious and merciful” and “slow to anger” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah knew that this was a description that God offered about himself in his covenant relationship with Israel (Exodus 34:6). Jonah did not feel that God should squander his grace on pagans, indeed, the enemies of Jonah’s people. Jonah was happy for mercy when he received it himself (Jonah 2:1-9), but unhappy to see it applied to others. God reminds Jonah that there were in Nineveh many people (and animals) innocent of the city’s crimes (Jonah 4:11). The reason God acts the way he does in the Book of Jonah is his unchanging character of compassion.

When we think there are groups of people undeserving of God’s mercy, we act like Jonah. When we find ourselves frustrated by God’s ways, as if they are unfair, we act like Jonah. When we are reluctant to obey God, we act like Jonah. When we hesitate to commit ourselves to God’s calling—which at the least for all Christians includes the Great Commission—we act like Jonah. God will probably not send a large sea creature to swallow us, and may not even destroy our shade; yet in his care for us and those to whom he has called us, maybe he will do something else. How much better, though, to obey without needing extra persuasion.

This is adapted from an article Craig wrote for the Missionary Seer in 2006.

What's Next

We would love to answer any question you have or help suggest next steps on your journey.