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Finding Christ in the Prophet Jonah

With the fast of Jonah fast approaching for both the Syriac and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, it is a suitable time to reflect on the character of Jonah and the events of his life. The 3-day fast which commemorates the repentance of the Ninevites at the hands of their reluctant hero Jonah bids us to recall the all too familiar story of Jonah and his adventures at sea (as well as below it!). And whilst it is easy to see how the prophet Jonah resembles each of us in his many failings and shortcomings in his dealing with God, the unwilling prophet seems like the most unlikely character to prefigure Christ Himself, but that he does…

Jonah – the only messenger of God who was unhappy to see God’s call to repentance being heeded by the Ninevites, in many ways is a type of Christ. And it is Chrst Himself who identifies Himself with Jonah when He was asked for a sign by the doubting Scribes and Pharisees (Matt 12:40-41). The very fact that Jesus likened Himself to Jonah puts the prophet in the limelight with many of the patristic exegetes.

St Cyril of Jerusalem for instance, contemplates on the many aspects of Jonah’s life that closely resemblance that of Christ’s,

‘Jesus was sent to ‎preach repentance; Jonah also was sent: but whereas the one fled, not knowing what should come to pass; ‎the other came willingly, to give repentance unto salvation. Jonah was asleep in the ship, and snoring ‎amidst the stormy sea; while Jesus also slept, the sea, according to God’s providence, began to rise, to show ‎in the sequel the might of Him who slept. To the one they said, “Why are you sleeping? Arise, call ‎your God, that God may save us;” but in the other case they say unto the Master, “Lord, save us.” Then ‎they said, “Call upon thy God”; here they say, “save Thou”. But the one says, “Take me, and cast me into the ‎sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you”; the other, Himself rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a ‎great calm. The one was cast into a whale’s belly: but the other of His own accord went down, where the ‎invisible whale of death is. And He went down of His own accord, that death might cast up those whom he ‎had devoured, according to that which is written, “I will ransom them from the power of the grave; and from ‎the hand of death I will redeem them”.’ – St. Cyril of Jerusalem

But why is this so? Why would the Son of God find it suitable to identify Himself with the less-than-perfect prophet Jonah? For starters, there is a massive contrast between Christ and His earthly ministry, as compared to that of Jonah’s. In contemplating the stark differences between Christ and Jonah, St John Chrysostom eloquently highlights the shortfalls of the type (Jonah) as compared to the original (Christ); emphasising that the type will always fall short in comparison to the original.

‘For Jonah was a servant, but I am the Master; and he came forth from the great fish, but I rose from death. He proclaimed destruction, but I am come preaching the good tidings of the kingdom. The Ninevites indeed believed without a sign, but I have exhibited many signs. They heard nothing more than those words, but I have made it impossible to deny the truth. The Ninevites came to be ministered to, but I, the very Master and Lord of all, have come not threatening, not demanding an account, but bringing pardon. They were barbarians, but these – the faithful – have conversed with unnumbered prophets. And of Jonah nothing had been prophesied in advance, but of me everything was foretold, and all the facts have agreed with their words. And Jonah indeed, when he was to go forth, instead ran away that he might not be ridiculed. But I, knowing that I am both to be crucified and mocked, have come nonetheless. While Jonah did not endure so much as to be reproached for those who were saved, I underwent even death, and that the most shameful death, and after this I sent others again. And Jonah was a strange sort of person and an alien to the Ninevites, and unknown; but I a kinsman after the flesh and of the same forefathers.’ – St. John Chrysostom

Ultimately, the prophet Jonah, like several other men in Scripture, is granted the honor of prefiguring Christ. Undoubtedly this is not on account of Jonah’s righteousness, rather it is likely due to Jonah’s defining, climactic and sincere return to God in heartfelt repentance. Regardless of Jonah’s many foolish actions, it was his repentance that ultimately pleased God, spared his life, and gave him the opportunity to fulfill God’s request. In short, God rewarded Jonah’s repentance in the belly of the great fish by intervening to overcome his eminent death; typifying the Lord’s defeat of death and glorious resurrection.

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