After the people on board wake up Jonah, he then lays down his life for the Gentiles. He tells them to throw him overboard. In other words, he tells them to put him to death. It is his disobedience that caused this mess in the first place and the only way to avert the calamity is to remove the cause. This is prophetic of Jesus’ mission. Even though Jesus never ran from his calling, he did stand in the place of those Jews who were running from the mandate of God. Jesus, the ultimate Jew, allowed the Gentiles to put him to death in order to appease the wrath of God.
Jesus’ death saved both the Jews and Gentiles from God’s burning judgment.
Even though the crew did their best to get back to land (salvation) without sacrificing Jonah, there was no hope. Like Pontus Pilate they did not want to kill an innocent man. The sailors said, “Please, Lord, do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man” (Jon. 2:14). Pilate also tried to escape crucifying Jesus but saw that he could not calm the uproar: “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’” (Matt. 27:24, TNIV).
Immediately when Jonah was thrown overboard, the raging sea grew calm. This moved the men to greatly fear the Lord. Consequently, they made sacrifices and vows to God. The whole point is that Jonah’s “death” motivated the Gentiles to turn to the Lord.
In the Gospels the Gentiles’ conversion through the cross is especially typified in the confession of the Roman Centurion: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15:39, TNIV). This confession was the fruit of this soldier’s vision of the cross. When Jesus cried, “It is finished!” the storm of darkness ended and the sun began to shine (Mark 16:33-39, Matt. 27:45-54, Luke 23:44-49). Surely this, as well as the way Jesus died, was a spiritually arresting sight.
What happens next in Jonah’s story is even more startling: “Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). At this point we see one of the tanninim—the great sea creatures (monsters) that God created on the fifth day. These great sea creatures invoked man’s greatest fear in regards to the sea. They were man’s chief sea enemy. But in the above verse we discover that the Lord provided the great fish. What was once man’s chief enemy is now man’s greatest provision.
The thing that man fears the most is death, but the death of God’s Son––the sacrifice of an innocent man––is now God’s greatest provision. Just as God created the tanninim (they were not the creation of the devil or the gods) God foreordained the laying down of his life––it was not an accident, nor was it the overcoming of good by evil. The cross is God’s provision chosen before time began (2 Tim. 1:9-10, Titus 1:1-3, Eph. 1:4, Rev 13:8).
What looked like the greatest darkness for Jonah actually turned out for his mercy as well as mercy for the Gentiles (Nineveh). Jonah’s disappearance in the belly of a huge fish for three days and nights is a picture of Christ’s death and burial. All hope seems to be lost! Jonah is “deep in the realm of the dead” (Jon. 2:2). But God has a greater plan! When Jonah finally says, “Salvation comes from Yahweh,” then “the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (Jon. 2:9-10). Jonah’s statement before his “resurrection” is the ultimate thing that Yahweh desires to reveal to his people––“salvation comes from Yahweh.” This ultimate revelation of God is found in the name of Jesus, which means “Yahweh is salvation.” Jesus is the full and complete embodiment of God and salvation only comes from him.
In this story we clearly see that death and burial is not the end of the story. Rather, God’s resurrection salvation is the climax. The first to receive God’s salvation after Jonah’s resurrection is Nineveh, a Gentile city. In the same way the Jews rejection of Jesus meant salvation for the Gentiles (Rom. 9-11). Like Jonah, the Jews had a hard time comprehending the mercy given to the undeserving nations that had a history of severe hostility toward them. Nevertheless, in the end Yahweh gives Jonah a fuller understanding of his mercy, and this parallels what God is beginning to do now with his chosen people, Israel. The Lord is showing the riches of his grace to the Jews through the Gentiles. God surely has not rejected the Jews, but he wants them to have the same revelation that the Gentile believers possess of himself as Jesus. At this point we must join in unison with Paul and proclaim: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Rom. 11:33, TNIV).
Now we can understand more fully what Jesus meant in his response to the Jews demanding a sign from him (Matt. 12:38, Luke 11:29).
“But He answered them and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here'” (Matt. 12:39-41, NASB).
God used the sign of Jonah and a tanninim to reveal his glory, “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious mystery, which is Christ, in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:26-27).