A Teaching Outline for the Book of Jonah

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“You know, this is not really a book about Jonah. It’s not really a book about a big fish. It’s a book about God, isn’t it? It’s about God’s sovereignty.”[1] So says expositor Derek Thomas concerning this short, four-chapter, minor prophet. And he’s absolutely right. Although this book is among the better-known accounts in Scripture, its meaning is not. To the secularist, this is nothing more than a ridiculous story of an impossible event. To the very young, this is nothing more than a fanciful tale of a strange event. But to the born-again student of Scripture, this is a miraculous account of a sovereign God.

Ministering during the reign of Jeroboam II, around 760 BC (just prior to the ministry of Amos), the prophet Jonah was commanded by God to preach a threat of judgment to the city of Ninevah: “Arise, go to Ninevah the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jon. 1:2).[2] This Gentile city was among the most prominent of the nation of Assyria—a nation which had yet to rise to world dominance at the time of Jonah’s preaching. But rather than obeying, Jonah turned and literally went the other way, unwilling to preach to them out of a sinfully callous fear that they might actually repent of their sins and be saved from judgment (cf. Jon. 4:2). As the rest of the book describes, God ruined Jonah’s plan of escape, rescued him from drowning using a large fish (the Hebrew word is generic for “fish,” rather than “whale”), re-commissioned him for the task, and rebuked him for being disappointed when those in the city of Ninevah ended up repenting of their sins.[3]

During the time Jonah spent in the belly of the fish, he made the astute comment that “salvation is from the Lord” (Jon. 2:9). Rather than salvation being a product of man’s entitlement, lineage, or supposedly free will, this powerful statement uttered by Jonah emphasizes the fact that God sovereignly ordains all that occurs in His universe—salvation included. Everything in time and space is a product of God’s decree, and His plans can never be frustrated (cf. Job 38:3-5, Isa. 14:27, Psa. 115:3).

Charles Spurgeon commented on this critical point as well, saying,

That is one of the grandest utterances that any man ever made: “SALVATION!” Write it in capital letters. It is a very emphatic word in the Hebrew, and I might read it, “Mighty salvation is of Jehovah.” This is real, old-fashioned Calvinistic doctrine spoken centuries before John Calvin was born. The whale could not endure it, and he turned Jonah out directly when he said, “Salvation is of the Lord.” The world does not like that doctrine, and there are many professing Christians who do not like it. They say, “Salvation is of man’s free will; salvation is of the works of the law; salvation is of rites and ceremonies;” and so on. But we say, with Jonah, “Salvation is of the Lord.” He works it from beginning to end, and therefore he must have all the praise for it forever and ever.[4]

But that raises an important question: why would God have ordained Jonah’s disobedience, only to have Jonah end up obeying in the end anyway? As Spurgeon intimated, salvation is ultimately about God’s glory. Thus, by ordaining Jonah’s disobedience, and subsequent rescue, the prophet became an instrument in God’s hand by which God displayed His supremacy over all false gods. When Yahweh sent the storm, He showed His sovereignty over the false god Baal, whom the sailors likely believed was in control of the weather (cf. Jon. 1:6). When Yahweh sent the large fish, He showed His sovereignty over the false goddess Nanshe (a fresh water deity) and the false god Dagon (the half-man, half-fish god), idols worshiped by the Ninevites, Philistines, and other nations. And when Yahweh sent the prophet, overriding his rebellion and disobedience, He showed His sovereignty over the human will—an idol worshiped by many today. Indeed, Yahweh is God of gods and Lord of lords (cf. Deut. 10:17). The entire account of Jonah’s disobedience, therefore, was the means by which the Lord made manifest His power and reign over and above all else. It’s no wonder then, that in Matthew 12:40, Jesus drew a direct comparison between Jonah’s time in the fish and His own time in the grave (confirming that the account is to be understood literally): Yahweh’s sovereignty is even manifested over and above the last enemy—death (cf. 1 Cor. 15:26). Because of this sovereign Savior, there is hope for mankind!

With a climactic question to end the book, God provides us with two important points of application.

First, Jonah was upset that grace was a matter of God’s sovereign choice. When God gave grace to the Ninevites, sparing them from destruction, Jonah was angry. And when God took away grace from Jonah, withering the plant over his head, Jonah was angry. In both scenarios, it was the creature who was angry with his Creator over the issue of sovereign grace. Today, many still shake their fists at God because of His sovereign grace. God chooses whom to spare, and whom to destroy; He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires; He unconditionally predestines some men unto eternal life, and others unto eternal death (cf. Rom. 9:18, Acts 13:48, 1 Pet. 2:8, Eph. 1:4). As a potter working with clay, He does as He pleases, both with nations corporately and people individually (cf. Jer. 18:5-8, Rom. 9:21-24). To those who question or oppose this, God simply says, “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?" (Rom. 9:20).

Second, Jonah was more concerned with plants than people. Hoping to see Ninevah destroyed, Jonah had no love for the lost. He wished he had never preached to them, even admitting it: “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jon. 4:2). Today, many claim to love the lost, and yet never preach the Gospel to anyone. They don’t physically flee to a faraway country, but they just as quickly abandon their evangelistic duties. They may not sit outside a city, waiting to see it destroyed, but they just as soon sit at home, waiting for God to judge the wicked world outside. In either case, it’s sin—whether sinful disobedience, or sinful indifference. Love for the lost manifests itself in evangelism.

God is sovereign. He decides whom to send. He decides whom to save. He decides whom to spare. He decides whom to scold. When Job learned that the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, he responded in praise (cf. Job 1:21). But when Jonah learned that the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, he responded in anger (cf. Jon. 4:4, 9). May your response be guided by the account of this prophet’s failures, and may God sovereignly bless you as you deliver this book verse to verse to others.

Sovereign to Send (Jonah 1)

The Prophet (Jon. 1:1-3)

The Storm (Jon. 1:4-16)

The Fish (Jon. 1:17)

Sovereign to Save (Jonah 2)

Petition (Jon. 2:1-4)

Provision (Jon. 2:5-7)

Praise (Jon. 2:8-10)

Sovereign to Spare (Jonah 3)

Sent Again (Jon. 3:1-4)

Born Again (Jon. 3:5-9)

Gracious Again (Jon. 3:10)

Sovereign to Scold (Jonah 4)

Grace Given (Jon. 4:1-4)

Grace Taken (Jon. 4:5-9)

Grace Explained (Jon. 4:10-11)


References:

[1] Derek Thomas, “Belly Prayer” (presentation, Midweek Service, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC, July 8, 2012).

[2] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005), 1006

[3] Ibid., 1010.

[4] https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/spe/jonah-2.html