Death and resurrection – applying Jonah through Jesus

We want to apply the Old Testament to our lives today but how do we best do that.  There’s a risk that if we just use an Old Testament character as an example that we end up with legalism.  The message of Jonah gives us a helpful case study.

Jonah runs away from God and his mission but is confronted by a storm that puts his and others lives at risk.  He willingly allows himself to be sacrificed to the waves but as he faces death, cries out to God and God hears his prayer. Jonah then goes on to Nineveh to bring God’s message. Now, if we just apply Jonah directly to our situation, what might we come up with.  Well, we might talk about what it means to cry out to God from the depths, we might describe how we learn so much about trusting God in suffering. We might highlight the need for obedience afterwards as Jonah goes on to Nineveh.  Now, all of those points would be good and helpful perhaps but would we be saying anything different to what we might pick up in in the Synagogue? What does it mean to read Jonah as Christians?

Jesus helpfully tells us how to apply the message of Jonah.  He tells us that God in him was giving in effect the same sign. 

For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.”

Matthew 12:40

Jesus is comparing Jonah’s experience to his 3 days in the tomb.  Jonah points to the death and resurrection of Jesus. I want to suggest that when Jesus also said that Jonah was a sign to the people of Nineveh[1] that he is primarily thinking of Jonah’s deep sea experience as the sign.  Now, the people of Nineveh will not have directly witnessed the events in the sea but they may well have heard reports of this strange incident and there may have been evidence even in terms of physical marks on Jonah that led him to testify to what God had done.  If so, perhaps unwittingly, Jonah gave them hope as he preached judgement that mercy and salvation were possible.

However, I want to suggest that the sign of Jonah, his death/tomb/resurrection experience through the storm was a sign to and for the Ninevites in a deeper way.  You see, it was only through him allowing the sailors to throw him into the water, him being swallowed by the fish and spat out that the people of the city could be saved. If that had not happened, then they would never have heard God’s Word and so never repented. We might even say that they died with Jonah in the sea and through the intervention of the fish were brought to life again with him.

In Luke 24, Jesus shows the disciples how all of Scripture has been pointing to him and his death and resurrection.  One of the passages he will have gone to would have been Jonah 1-2.  Jonah’s mini death and resurrection experience was a pointer to Christ’s greater and complete death and resurrection. Christ’s death and resurrection is a sign to us not just in that it shows us something but that it does something. His death and resurrection gives us life.  Paul in Romans 6 insists that we died with Christ so that we could live with and to him.

I want to suggest that this is crucial as we seek to apply Jonah to us.  First, it reminds us that it is all about the Gospel.  What is it that I’m specifically thankful to God for? Why is it that he can be close to me so I can cling to him in trials?  It is that Christ died and rose for me and I died and rose with him. What is it that a community around me need most of all? They need the Gospel. They need Christ’s death and resurrection.  My priority needs to be to tell them about Jesus.

When Paul in Romans 6 talks about dying and rising with Christ, he is responding to questions about ongoing sin. He is saying that if we have died with Christ then we don’t keep on in our sin because we have died to sin.  So, I believe that as we witness, people should be able to see something of Christ’s death and resurrection in us. Is there evidence that I am living a new life, that I’ve died to sin   and indeed because sanctification is a work in progress that in a sense there are lots of mini deaths and resurrections in my life as I continue to die to sin and live to Christ.

Let me give two examples from funerals and thanksgiving services.  I remember that at Mike Ovey’s thanksgiving and in some of the obituaries much was said about Mike’s character, his patience gentleness, humility, faithfulness. However, what stood out was one comment that these were not things that just came naturally to Mike. It wasn’t that he was just a nice guy. Rather, he was aware that he had to persevere at working on these things, allowing Christ to be formed in him.   That meant dying to his old self.

At my mum’s funeral I talked about how mum was brave, whether by heading off to China in later life, including frequent visits right up to her 80th year or facing a risky operation and then the difficult prognosis afterwards.  Yet, I insisted that mum was brave but not fearless. She wasn’t without ffwar but she had learnt to trust in Christ and she knew resurrection power in her life so that she could face the fears. In effect, she had learnt to die to fear. So, dying to self will include dying to selfishness, to sinful desires but it will also include dying to worry, anxiety, fear.  It will mean dying to guilt and shame. 

Is the sign of death and resurrection visible for all to see in our lives?

[1] Luke 11:30.

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