In our second essay examination of Jonah, we turn to the process of fleeing, and do so by holding Jonah in comparison and contrast with a New Testament character. Parallels can be a great way to wrap our minds around complex truths, and Jonah is certainly ripe with complex truths.
In The Prodigal Prophet, Timothy Keller parallels Jonah’s story with Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son. In the first half of the book, Jonah is like the younger brother, running from home, while in the latter half he is the elder brother, upset with his father. Keller aptly points to the question mark at the end of each story, with the Jonah question being asked by God to his pharisaical prophet, and to that asked by the father to his pharisaical son. I love the parallel, but I’d like to explore one of my own.
I see heavy shades of Peter in the character of Jonah. It’s not an easy comparison at first glance. Peter has no whale, and no blatant hatred against the people to whom he is sent, but in some ways, Peter has the same issues on the inside that Jonah lives out. Both have an encounter with the supernatural voice of God, and both have arguments against the mission they are given. The contrast is where the beauty lies. Peter ends where we wish Jonah would, and Peter gives us hope that we too can overcome whatever prejudices and misunderstandings we bring to the table.
From the outset, the mission and the geography link our characters. The Lord tells Jonah to “Arise, go to Nineveh,” but Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish by leaving from Joppa (modern day Jaffa, which is encompassed by Tel Aviv). Several hundred years later, the Lord appears to Peter, residing in a house by the shore in Joppa. It may be too much to ask that Peter is within eyeshot of the same dock from which Jonah fled, but whether that little piece of drama is real or not, what we do know is that the mission given to Jonah and that given to Peter are primarily the same: “look at what you call unclean and be prepared to watch me work a miracle.”
Jonah is in Joppa simply to catch a boat, with Tarshish being his destination. Peter is in Joppa because he came from Lydda to raise Tabitha from the dead in Acts 9:36-42. While praying on the roof, Peter had a vision of a large sheet filled with animals. The animals were of the unclean variety, those which a Jew would not have touched, much less partook of.
Both Jonah and Peter are models of zeal. Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knows the goodness of God, and one of those definitive characteristics of goodness is mercy and long-suffering. If Nineveh repents, God will forgive, and Jonah wants no part in a Nineveh revival. Peter refuses the Lord’s invitation to “Rise, kill, and eat,” claiming that he had never eaten anything common or unclean. Peter would be commended in our circles for his dedication to biblical purity. Leviticus 11:4 was pretty clear; those animals were off limits.
What Peter would come to realize is what Jonah had to learn: God doesn’t see people the way we do. To Jonah, Nineveh deserves wrath, not mercy. To Peter, the lesson of the animals will play out as an invitation to the Gentile house of Cornelius where Peter will share the gospel and watch in awe, as the Holy Spirit moves through the unclean as easily as he had moved through Christ’s own at Pentecost. At Joppa, both men are faced with a decision, and both land in a similar place: “No thanks God, I’d rather not.”
To be fair, Peter does treat Joppa a little differently than does Jonah. Peter at least takes God up on the challenge, accepting the invitation to the house of a Gentile. Perhaps he is curious, or maybe clueless, but in any case, he goes. No whale is necessary for Peter. However, the beauty of the comparison of Jonah and Peter is that in some odd way, Peter has already had his whale, and what we see in his Joppa experience is the best possible outcome for all of us who are confronted with a challenge to our sensibilities and sensitivities. If we have learned a lesson somewhere in our past, we just might be valuable to the Cornelius’s of the present.
Peter didn’t have a literal whale, but he had a whale of a moment. It was Peter that was so sure he would not deny the Lord that he challenged Jesus. “If you are going to die, so am I.” Somewhere in the distance, you can hear the rooster.
After the failure of denial, we see Peter return to his fisherman ways, on board a vessel going the wrong way (can anyone say ‘Jonah?’), when he is confronted by the mystery man on the shore, beckoning him to cast his nets to the other side. When Peter is rewarded with a boatload of fish, he responds to the goodness by jumping into the sea and swimming to shore. Where Jonah is vomited onto a beach and given another opportunity to do the right thing, Peter is vomited onto a beach and given another opportunity to do a very similar thing. Both are instructed to feed the lambs.
Jonah never grasps that the Ninevites are indeed God’s lambs, and Peter is slow to grasp as much with the unclean house of Cornelius. But to Peter’s credit, his story of denial, and fishing, and breakfast by a charcoal fire with Jesus is enough to shape his obedience. He may not agree with the unclean animals in the sheet, and he may not approve of the lifestyles of the Italian house that he is called to, but his encounters with the man Christ Jesus have shaped him into the kind of man that will share the gospel and then leave the increase to God. And his own acceptance of the grace of God has made him a man happy to watch that grace work in others.
Jonah struggles with embracing the Ninevites because Jonah misses the great lesson taught to him by the whale. He was spared, though he did not deserve to be. He had run, and put lives at risk, and yet, here he was, alive and well on the beach near Nineveh. But did he accept this act of grace and mercy as indicative of the heart of a Father that loved the others with the same ferocity as he loves his own? Obviously not, because though he was obedient to go to Nineveh, he still saw grace as an act best showed to him and his kind and kept from everyone else.
The great tragedy at Joppa is not the whale, any more than it is Peter’s initial refusal to eat the unclean animals for lunch. The tragedy at Joppa is found in experiencing all that the chaos of the whale has to offer and walking away with the same attitude you had before. Had Peter shrugged off his vision, refused the invitation to the house of Cornelius, and maintained his attitude of preference to his own over all others, God would surely have moved on to someone else. Let’s be honest, God wins. But the beauty of the story is that God didn’t have to move on to someone else because Peter had already landed on a new shore. He was ready, though a bit slow, to embrace a new way of thinking, and to watch the God of great mercy and forgiveness showcase those qualities to the rest of the world.
Admittedly, my parallel is not perfect. Jonah’s story is short and compared to the richness of the narratives involving Peter, rather thin. But at Joppa, I see a moment of comparison that I cannot help but believe was designed by the Spirit, on purpose. Both men are in the same spot, and both are given the same basic word. Neither are quick to accept because none of us are quick to include the others. But one is trapped in an Old Covenant world and his thoughts are filtered through all that implies. The other stands on the back edge of the Old Covenant world, and risks being trapped there, but then Peter peers into the fullness of the New Covenant and takes a step forward. He was ready because he had tasted that fish by the fire with Jesus, and maybe when he heard God describe the animals in that sheet, he could smell that breakfast all over again.
Peter is our bright moment of optimism. We may be dwelling at Joppa, ready to run from our destiny, but if we will lean back into what we learned in our own whale, we just might find ourselves not only valuable, but indispensable. If we choose the Jonah route, and we often do, then hopefully we survive our whale, face our beach with a new perspective, and give Nineveh all we have. In the end, God wins either way. Nineveh repents and is saved, and Cornelius and his house experience the same. But wouldn’t you rather be Peter than Jonah? Wouldn’t you rather have a revelation of Jesus so powerful that, as Peter put it, though you haven’t seen him, you love him, and, “yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:7-8)?
If I’m going to Joppa anyway, I hope I can end like Peter.
Grace to you.