“An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.” – Matthew 12:39
The story of Jonah is well known because of the vivid nature of the narrative and because of its evident lesson that what truth we know should be used in service to others and not kept selfishly to ourselves. Yet because of the miracle involved the story has been the basis of criticism of the Bible as the Word of God.
When He was on earth the Lord prophesied that the time would come when He would no more speak in proverbs but would tell us plainly of the Father. That time is now come. It is now possible to enter intellectually into the mysteries of faith, for the Word has been opened to meet the needs of the human mind today.
Isaiah writes, “It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.” This mission the Jews had forgotten, and they were bent solely on promoting their own interests. The story of Jonah illustrates this. The book of Jonah was recognized by the Jews as belonging to their Scripture canon, and it has added interest for Christians in that it was quoted by the Lord Himself.
In the story Jonah has been directed to preach repentance to the Ninevites. He rebels against the mission to the Gentiles, and flees to the most distant part of the world known to him, thinking that he will then be beyond the reach of the Lord’s jurisdiction and power. He should have been familiar with the truth expressed by the Psalmist, “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.”
The description of Jonah’s preparation for his voyage, and the picture of the shipmaster and his crew are drawn to life. When the storm comes, they think that it is due to wrong committed against some god, though which god and for what offense is not clear. Each man calls upon his god except Jonah, who is discovered asleep in the hold. He is awakened and bidden to call upon his God. Then by lot it is revealed that Jonah is the cause of the storm, and Jonah confesses and says, “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you.” One of the striking things in the story is the generosity of the Gentile sailors toward the selfish Jonah; they are reluctant to take action against him, though the ship and the lives of the crew are endangered. They labor hard to avoid destroying Jonah, but when all else is found to be of no avail, they finally cast him into the sea, but with the petition, “We beseech thee, O Lord, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee.” Then the story continues, “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Then follows the prayer of Jonah, his being vomited forth upon dry land, and his continued reluctance but final obedience to the Lord’s command that he go to Nineveh.
We can easily see that this story in its letter is about the Jewish Church. But the Word was written for all people for all ages to come. The Word of the Lord is always timeless and relates to each individual soul. The story of Jonah takes place within the individual soul. Jonah represents the church within each one of us. No one is really a member of a church unless the church exists to some degree within him. The essence of the church is to love what is good and to think what is true, both having their source in the Lord. So within us the knowledge and understanding of the Word which we have received in our affection is Jonah.
The men of Nineveh are Gentiles. They, too, are to be thought of as representing activities within our individual lives. We may think of them as standing for our secular in contrast to our religious activities. And so many of our activities are gentile. There are our business activities, our social and political interests, our leisure employments – to mention only a few. To minister to these, to preach the truth to these for their better ordering and more rightful direction the church within us is called. The will of the Lord is that there should be no departmentalizing or separating of the religious from any aspect of life. The teachings of the Word are for the guidance of all human activities.
A very common temptation is to flee from the command to give up pride in self and to love and to serve, and instead to be satisfied with mere knowledge of the Word and particularly of the letter of the Word alone, trusting in the very outmost things of religion – fleeing to Tarshish, the farthest west. Such a separation of knowing and doing, of religion and life, is not however of Divine intention. Refuge sought in knowing the letter of Scripture is of no avail. There can be no escape from the need for the practical application of knowledge. If an attempt to escape is made, storm and distress ensue. The comfortable doctrine that it does not matter what one does on week-days if only on Sunday he thinks about God and the Divine purposes for us soon leads into trouble. Our ship encounters storms. Life becomes irrational, principles lose their coherence, and disaster looms ahead. One may seem driven to the desperate decision to throw the church overboard altogether. Indeed, by many the church has been discarded, as having merely brought them into confusion. It seems to them that their only hope is in following the dictates of natural reason, untrammeled by the church, dogma, and religion.
But how does this work out? Can a man extinguish the church within himself? What other incentive can take its place? Ease and comfort? Love of honor? Love of power? Self-interest in any form? These all bring contradiction and conflict. None of them will permanently satisfy. So when Jonah was cast overboard, “the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” Man is incurably religious, and the religious motive must find some place in his life. Jonah lives on in the great fish.
Because the church has shirked its mission, it has been swallowed up by various isms – nationalism, socialism, internationalism, and so on. These “great fish,” despite their secularism and their inadequate teachings give a temporary home to the love for something greater than self. But the true light is wanting. Human nature is not changed for the better, life is unsatisfactory, and the soul is enveloped in darkness.
Then “the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.” The church is always raised again. So it has proved in the past. So it is happening today – in the America of our times, in Russia, and the world over. It has always been the duty of the church to preach unto the men of Nineveh. The Gentiles are not merely the non-Christian peoples of the world. They are all those who have not come to know the Lord Jesus Christ as the only God of heaven and earth. And they are all our own states of ignorance and disbelief. If we do not believe in the Incarnation and Glorification of the Lord, we have no basis for belief. No other sign can be given than the sign of the prophet Jonah. “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The “sign of the prophet Jonas” is the only valid sign of authority for the church. Secular movements may serve some needs of mankind for a while, but always in the end there will be the need for that teaching which alone serves him as a spiritual being.
The story of Jonah brings vividly to our attention the fact that the everyday duties of our occupations must be carried on from a principle of religion for the Lord’s sake. We are commissioned to carry the Word as it can now be intellectually understood to Nineveh – to the Gentile world. We need not fear or be despondent. “The sign of the prophet Jonas” has been given anew, because new difficulties perplex the world which could not have arisen in an earlier age before intellectual and scientific progress had brought all nations into such close contact that a new sense of responsibility to the neighbor and a deeper understanding of the needs of all men had become vital. The mission of the church of the new age is the same as that of the church in every age: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”