The usual way we read Jonah—the subject of my next sermon—is to stand in judgment of him, but on what basis can we possibly do that? Because you and I have never heard the word of the Lord and then done exactly opposite of what that word said? I agree that at his worst Jonah is pretty bad (again, who among us isn’t?), but at his best he’s not bad at all. In fact, he’s positively Christ-like. Jesus thought so, too.
Phillip Cary, in his amazingly good Brazos Theological Commentary, agrees. He says that Jonah’s despair is much like Job’s, who wished he had never been born.
And yet in handing himself over to God in this way, Jonah is also at his most Christlike. He gives up his life so that others might live. He propitiates the wrath of God by submitting to it himself so that others may be freed. We would all be doing well if we were as much like Christ as Jonah is. Though Jonah may give himself up in despair, he does have his priorities straight: he treats the lives of these good sailors as more valuable than his own. There is enough real love in this to be the beginning of good things, including Jonah’s own obedience. In Jonah 2 he turns to God in heartfelt prayer and trust—but only after he has given himself up to death for the sake of these people he hardly knows. Greater love has no man (John 15:13).[†]
For my many fellow Christians who think it’s inappropriate to talk about propitiating—or doing something to satisfy—God’s wrath (assuming they believe that God even has wrath), please notice that this is exactly what’s happening here. Jonah’s sacrifice foreshadows the cross. It’s more evidence for the central place of substitutionary atonement in our understanding of the cross.
† Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 66.