We all know that the story of Jonah is really the story of Jonah and his whale, right? Every childrens' Bible majors on that whale and its role in miraculously delivering Jonah from the depths of the sea. The whale is the hero of the story, the knight in shining blubber who comes to the rescue.
Except, of course, that he isn't (and may not be a whale at all since the Bible identifies him only as a "giant fish"). We just need to fast-forward a little bit and go to the life of Christ where he tells us that the story of Jonah is really all about him. Jonah is about Jesus. Jesus is the hero of the story. Here is what Jesus says in Matthew 12 after the Scribes and Pharisees ask him for a sign, a circus trick that would validate his claims.
An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
As Jesus interprets Jonah he shows that it points to him. He shows that Jonah serves as a type of Christ, a pointer to the future Savior, and says that there is a correlation between Jonah's three days in the belly of the fish and Jesus' three days in the tomb ("the heart of the earth"). This is not to say that the story of Jonah isn't real and didn't have immediate, historical application. It really happened and was really meant to teach God's people in that day. However, Jonah's story was to serve a greater and longer-lasting purpose in pointing people to a future Savior and in teaching something about that Savior. Today we read Jonah in both of these ways, as a prophetic book that speaks to God's people in Jonah's day, and as a book that points us to Jesus Christ.
As I thought about this I was struck by an application: If we are going to make the story of Jonah all about a giant fish, we should make the story of Jesus' death and resurrection all about a tomb. The childrens’ Bibles should spend a whole chapter and all kids of illustrations showing that tomb and discussing its intricacies. We should spend all kinds of time talking about the way a tomb was carved out of rock, and consider the type of rock, and what color it was, and what it would have felt like and smelled like and how a door would have been constructed and placed in front of the opening, and what it would have cost, and all the rest.
But we don't. If you were to tell me about Jesus and focus all that attention on the tomb I would say that you are missing the point. And if you are going to make Jonah the story of a whale, you are also missing the point. If we focus all our attention on the tomb and make the tomb the hero, we miss the real story which is a man who was dead for three days suddenly and miraculously coming to life. What happened inside the man is far more important than what happened inside the tomb. And the same is true of Jonah. If we focus all our attention on the fish, we miss the real story which doesn’t happen inside the stomach of a giant fish but inside the heart of a sinful and rebellious man. The fish, like the tomb, is merely the setting for the true story.
Of course we don't need to minimize the fish or be embarrassed by it. We can give it all the attention the Bible gives it, which is to say, we can point to it as a clear example of God sovereignly arranging even the path of a fish to bring about his good purposes. It is when we give it more attention than Jonah or Jesus gave it that we make ourselves vulnerable to missing the much bigger, much better point of the story.