If you have grown up in the Church, or have simply been around it for more than a couple of months, you’ve likely heard the story of Jonah at least once. Even non-Christians are familiar with the story.
This is how the story goes: Jonah is told to go to Nineveh and tell the people there to stop their evil deeds before they are destroyed. Jonah refuses, and instead catches a ship to Tarshish (the opposite direction). God causes a storm, and Jonah is thrown overboard. He is swallowed up by a great fish, and then he is spat out after three days. He goes to Nineveh and does what he should have done in the first place. He tells the people of Nineveh that they will be destroyed. They listen, turn from their evil acts, and God shows them mercy.
Whenever we think of the story of Jonah we think of him being swallowed by a great fish. And that is pretty much it.
But what if the story of Jonah is not about the fish? What if there is a much bigger meaning behind this incredible story?
In order to find out what the main message in the story of Jonah is, we have to ask an important question: why did Jonah run away from God when He asked him to go to Nineveh in the first place?
This question is left unanswered until the final chapter of the book. After Jonah gets vomited up by the fish (I know, gross!), he goes to Nineveh to give a message from God to the people of Nineveh, which is “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” This is probably the shortest and most depressing sermon ever given. Here’s the amazing thing though: the people of Nineveh repent (which is a churchy way of saying they turned away from their evil deeds and turned to God)! They recognize that the way they are living is evil, so they turn back to God. And, because they repented, God shows mercy to Nineveh. Jonah must be stoked right? Wrong. He complains to God for showing them mercy. In this chapter (Ch. 4, which is the final chapter of the short book of Jonah), Jonah reveals why he ran from God in the first place: “That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people” (Jonah 4:2 NLT).
So this is why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh: He didn’t want to give the people a chance of repenting, because he knew that if they repent God would show them mercy.
This is the bigger picture of the story of Jonah: it is a story of God’s willingness to show radical mercy to people who we would not want to show mercy to.
So who is your Nineveh? Who are your enemies? Who are the people you would be angry with God for showing mercy to? What if we believed whole-heartedly that God loves our enemies, and that He is calling us to radically love our enemies too? After all, Jesus calls us to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44).
The story of Jonah is not about the fish. It is about God’s amazing, and sometimes uncomfortable, mercy and love.