The Bigot and the Beauty of Grace: A Biblical Theology of Jonah

Too often those who have received grace are some of the most unwilling to extend it. The apostles routinely remind us “forgive as you have been forgiven.” Jesus teaches us to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” And Jesus tells the parable of the man who was forgiven a great debt, only to turn around and imprison a man who owed him a little debt. These reminders aren’t included in Scripture just for word quotas. No, they are there because too often those of us who have been shown mercy, find it extremely hard to show mercy to others. This, in fact, is part of the picture we find in the book of Jonah. But thankfully there is a contrast between Jonah and God. While the one is begrudging mercy, the other lets it flow freely to all who seek it.

The book of Jonah involves a number of major theological themes. We will look at those in the coming week, but for now we want to consider carefully the major theme of the book and how it fits in with the whole of the storyline of Scripture. Jonah is a book about mercy and judgment, both man’s and God’s.

God calls Jonah, a prophet living in the 8th century BC, to go and preach to the pagan people of Nineveh. Instead of obeying God, Jonah hops a boat going the opposite direction. When God sends a storm to rebuke Jonah and a whale to rescue Jonah, the prophet repents and fulfills his commission. But his hope is that after condemning the nation he will get to watch God burn it up and destroy this wicked people. Instead, the people repent and turn toward God, who shows them mercy and relents of his fierce anger. The book concludes with the outrage of Jonah over God’s demonstration of mercy.

The picture we have of Jonah in this book is one of a bigot, a national racist. He hates, despises, the people of Nineveh and wants God to destroy them all. Despite knowing this God, despite having a relationship with this God, despite being shown mercy himself (particularly considering he ran away from God), Jonah still hates others. It’s not an uncommon picture we see in the church today. I recall a man telling me we ought to “put all the ‘gays’ on a raft and ship them out to sea.” I thought that perhaps I’d rather ship him out to sea, but I didn’t say that. The church often hates and belittles those “sinners” outside our community. We show them no mercy, no grace, even though we are sinners who have received such grace and mercy. This is a real problem and Jonah speaks to us today.

Unlike Jonah, God is ready to show mercy to those who turn to Him. In fact Jonah knows this to be a fact about God’s character. He states plainly:

2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. (Jonah 4:2)

For Jonah this is troubling, but it is the good news about God’s mercy that we must all take comfort in. Because we deserve the same kind of destruction that Nineveh did, but because God shows mercy to all whom He desires to show mercy to we are not punished. In fact this book draws a clear connection to the very means of our salvation, the death of Christ.

In the gospels Jesus tells the religious leaders seeking a sign of his messiahship that they will receive only one: the sign of Jonah. Now this is a somewhat complicated text. The meaning isn’t all together obvious. The emphasis in Matthew 12:38-42 is on the resurrection, but in Luke the emphasis seems to be the preaching of repentance and judgment. What might Jesus mean by this “sign” then? I think the answer is found in the context of the whole story of Jonah.

Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh brought repentance to a heathen nation, a nation that ultimately lived on to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. The sign, then may very easily be understood and extension of the saving grace of God to non-Jews. And this act would spell both mercy and judgment for Jews and Gentiles alike (see Romans 11). The racial division is no more. God is not the God of the Jews only, but of the Gentiles also.

A further thought has been proffered, as well. The sign of Jonah is not simply a move to a universal extension of the gospel. Rather it is a pointer to the prophet who sacrifices himself to save others. Jonah’s time in the belly of the whale was not arbitrary. He told the sailors to throw him over board in order that they might be spared. That is the example of our great savior, who spend three days in the belly of the earth to rescue those who deserved to perish. It’s also a pointer to the difference between Jonah and Jesus. For when Jonah comes out of his “tomb” he is still a racist bigot. But when Jesus comes out of his, he sends missionaries into all the world to proclaim the good news of salvation to all who repent and believe.

Jonah is a crazy story, but it’s about so much more than a bad prophet and big fish. It’s about Jesus and about us. It’s about salvation and the world. It’s about bigotry and the beauty of grace. It’s a lesson in both receiving the grace of God and extended such grace in the same way Jesus does (i.e. to everyone).


  1. Great articulation of the Jonah narrative. To often the reality of Jonah’s racism is painted over with strokes of theological pontification. Grace is a wonderful thing–we just have to learn to extend what we have received. Thanks for the post.


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