Whale of a Time

January 17, 2020 by Gregg DeMey

When modern people encounter the story of Jonah, an inevitable question follows:
“Did he or didn’t he really get swallowed by a fish?”

At Elmhurst CRC, we’ve been diving into the short, winsome book of Jonah this January (aka Jonahuary). I’ve heard some version of the questions above repeated dozens of times already. This blog is meant to give you answers!

Last March I was in a Bible study where the story of Jonah came up, along with the “could this have really happened?” question. The next day, the story of Rainer Schimpf broke. Rainer, a South African photographer, was accidently and briefly gulped by a 15-ton Bryde’s Whale. Rainer survived the ordeal unscathed and took great pleasure recounting the tale later that day to his son named (not kidding) Jonas.

I have two serious responses to the perennial-Jonah-question, both of which may seem like weaselly cop outs at first blush because they aren’t direct “yes” or “no” answers. However, if you read on, I hope you will find some spiritual satisfaction!

Question: “Did he or didn’t he?!”
Response 1: Does it really matter?

Christians believe that the Bible is infallible in what it intends to teach. What does the book of Jonah intend to teach God’s people? Here’s my top three list of the major teachings from this unique book of prophecy.

  • The human heart is prone to wander, even the hearts of those who hear regularly from God
  • Repentance is always possible, change happens. Rescue and salvation come from God
  • God is compassionate, even to the people who are our least favorites. Are we okay with this?

Notice that nowhere on the list is anything to do with fish biology or whale-to-human relations. Whether it happened or not doesn’t really impact the deep truth or spiritual challenge of Jonah.

Same Question: Did he or didn’t he?!”
Response 2: Jesus didn’t seem to have a problem with it!

Jesus referenced the story of Jonah without any apologies or hiccups, so we should, too. On one of the occasions when Jesus’ detractors sought to humiliate him by asking for a miraculous sign of proof that he was God’s Son, Jesus responded, “No sign will be given except for the sign of the prophet Jonah. Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Jesus not only compared himself to Jonah, but connected Jonah’s time in the dark belly of a whale to his own death and burial. In other words, Jonah’s story of death and resurrection points to Jesus’ ultimate reality of death and resurrection. And Jesus’ story guarantees that your story will be connected to his: not only your inevitable death, but also the glorious hope of your resurrection.

We have now gotten far beyond fishermen’s yarns into the heart of the Christian life.

Every story from God’s storybook is ultimately a resurrection story. How amazing is that?! May God give you eyes to see and ears to hear the signs of this power at work in you, even now!

~ Pastor Gregg

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