Sunday, July 24, 2022

Sunday Sermon: "Jonah's Great Fish" (Jonah 1:17)


SERMON:Jonah’s Great Fish

SCRIPTURE: Jonah 1:17

As we walk throughout life, some of us will have a near-death experience: a serious accident, a grave illness, a terminal disease, or any number of other health-related emergencies. Whatever the life-threatening crisis may be, our only sure hope is to turn to the Lord and trust Him. 

Being saved through a terrible crisis is the subject of our scripture today. Remember that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord’s call upon his life. For Jonah in his flight from God, it has all been down, down, down. He went “down to Joppa” to find the ship bound for Tarshish (Jonah 1:3). He went “down into the inner part of the ship” and slept while the crew was in peril (Jonah 1:5). When the lot fell to him and the storm continued to rage, Jonah was cast overboard into the sea, and down, down he went into the deadly depths. So, it is with everyone who rebels against the Lord – and make no mistake – Jonah was a rebel.

Nevertheless, the Lord was determined to keep His dear prophet from throwing his life away. The Lord would do whatever it took to lead Jonah to repentance and submission to his new call. Thus, the Lord caused a great storm to arise, a storm so violent and turbulent that the ship was literally about to break up. Jonah knew the terrifying storm was not a natural event but instead the hand of God disciplining him. The prophet also knew that he deserved death …

—because he had refused to go preach to the thousands upon thousands of souls in Nineveh

—because his refusal to accept God’s call had doomed thousands to death and separation from the Lord

For these reasons, Jonah was convinced that if the sailors removed him from the ship by throwing him overboard, the Lord would calm the sea and save the sailors. And he was correct. But as Jonah would later discover, the Lord would also save His prophet’s life and restore his ministry.

But even he discovered the grace of God in the deep. He too, as a child of God, discovered the power of the resurrection, so that in the abyss he found the saving grace of God.


Jonah 1:17 introduces the most famous creature in this book, since it tells of the great fish that rescued Jonah from the deep. Whenever a person thinks of Jonah, they think of this fish. It’s important to note that the Hebrew word is a generic word for fish, not necessarily a whale. We do not know what kind of great fish God prepared, though there are whales and sharks capable of swallowing a man, such as the sperm whale and whale shark. It states that “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” It’s very easy at this point to make several mistakes as Bible students. We can become so obsessed with what kind of fish this way, or what was going on inside the great fish that we miss the greater point: The subject of the sentence is not the great fish, but the LORD, so our attention should be on what God did and not on the fish.

You will recall from our previous sermons that it was Jonah’s disobedience to God’s call to go and preach that got him into this mess. Which brings us to the “great fish.” In this unusual way, the appointment of a great fish to swallow Jonah, God was going to teach Jonah to obey God because God is sovereign.

If God was not sovereign, He could have never done such a thing. He would not have had the wisdom and power to create such a great fish as this, let alone to appoint the fish to swallow Jonah. But He has both, infinite wisdom and power. It is because God is sovereign over His whole creation, and over all creatures that He has made, that He personally directed all of the minute details of what would happen to Jonah in His discipline of him. This was indeed a great fish – it had a great belly that could hold Jonah alive in it.

Again, it's very easy at this point to get distracted by the fish. Most of us do. But don’t miss the main point here, which is that God will help his people, with good providence or even, punishing providence, to do His holy will. You see, we’re being helped to understand God better. 

God is infinite in His understanding of how He should deal with each one of us. He considers what we in particular need to learn, and then He prepares the particular providences of how He will work His will out in our lives. This was true of Jonah.

The same is the case for your life and mine. When God knows that we have been disobedient, then He also knows that He has to teach us what we need to learn. According to His great love and mercy, He appoints and He prepares all things great and small for us in our lives. 

Sometimes we struggle to believe in God’s sovereignty. Sometimes it is even because we do not want God to be that sovereign. We only want Him to be a little sovereign; at those points in which we especially need help.

But those who think this way misunderstand God’s sovereignty, that He is LORD of all things. We see this in Jonah’s life. This book tells us that Jonah was swallowed alive, and he stayed down there three days alive; preserved by God, miraculously kept alive by God. 

And yet we find some commentators saying that he actually died down there, and that he was resurrected down there in that fish’s belly later, because he was a type of Christ in His death and resurrection. 

I don’t believe that at all. He did not die. Now, I do not deny that Jonah was a type of Christ, but I believe that he is a type of Christ in that what he experienced was a “living death” there in the fish’s belly. He went into the fish a rebel, and as we will see next week, he died to his rebel self, and after three days he was raised up from that living death to a different kind of a resurrection. It was a resurrection to his being a better servant; a resurrection to a better ministry, and a resurrection to learning more particularly to do God’s will in God’s way.

Beloved, we are being evaluated, too. Did you know, dear Christian, that you are being evaluated by God in terms of the kind of obedience that you are giving to God? He sees your heart and your life perfectly. Because you are a believer in Christ, He will patiently and lovingly, but most firmly, over time, deal with your disobedience. This is why Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. It was to show forth the fact that he was prefiguring Christ’s death and resurrection for him, and for all of God’s elect people. Christ would really and actually die for Jonah’s sins of disobedience, even though he was unworthy of it. Christ would really and actually die so that Jonah could die to sin and live to righteousness. Christ would die so that Jonah could learn the lessons of a better obedience.

I truly believe that God is well able to preserve the strongest man, or the weakest man, alive in the most precarious circumstances, like those of Jonah were, just to accomplish His purpose with them.


We should consider the relationship between Jonah’s descent into the deep and the atoning death of Jesus Christ. Indeed, our interpretation of Jonah’s descent into the great fish must be shaped by the teaching of the Lord Jesus. Some Pharisees had demanded that Jesus prove himself by performing miracles, to which Jesus replied: 

“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” (Matt. 12:39–40). 

This indicates that Jonah’s “death” in the belly of the fish prefigured the days of death that Jesus Christ would experience in the grave, after his crucifixion for our sins.

Now, Jonah’s experience in the watery grave teaches us at least three things about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

The first is that the end of God’s judgment is death. When Jonah was swallowed by the great fish, this was the climax of his judgment from God. So far as he was concerned, his entombment was a final judgment beyond remedy. It is damnation. The fish is in fact a kind of hell. Jonah was looking for a place where he could escape the presence of the Lord, and what did God give him? He gave him what he wanted in a way! And the belly of the great fish in the deep was the achievement of his rebellious desire. This reminds us that hell is the end of every desire to flee from God.

And yet, even while we were still sinners, and wanted to rebel and flee from the presence of God, Christ died for sinners! Christ took hell for us! All this and more is what Jesus endured in our place through his death on the cross. The Lord of glory suffered damnation in that final judgment of death. 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried (Matt. 27:46). His experience on the cross was no less dreadful than its corollary of Jonah in the belly of the fish; if anything, it was more dreadful. Jesus voluntarily took to himself the death that we deserved by our sins and endured the wrath of God upon sin. 

Like Jonah, every sinner has embraced a path of sin that can only lead to the damnation of death; but in his grace, Jesus has endured this death in our place on the cross. Just as Jonah’s death in the deep removed the storm from the sailors above, so Jesus’ cross removes the wrath of God from our sins. 

Secondly, to all appearances, the descent into the deep seemed to be the end of Jonah, just as Jesus’ death on the cross seemed to be his end. When Jonah went beneath the waves, the mariners may have stood reverently for some time, but then they would have moved on, never to see the prophet again. 

So also, it must have seemed to the Jews and the Roman soldiers when Jesus breathed his last on the cross. Yet it was not the end, because through the death of his servant, God intended to bring life not just to him but to the world. Just as Jonah was delivered from his watery grave to continue the work of preaching repentance and salvation to the Ninevites, so Christ through his resurrection continued—through the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church—to preach the gospel of salvation to the whole world.

The history of God’s people has shown this pattern at work time and again. Witness what happened in the old Soviet Union under communism when the church was persecuted, believers imprisoned, and the Bible outlawed. God’s power was at work and it came to life again. The same happened in China when Christian missionaries were expelled and the church closed down. Many then thought that that was the end of the great vision of missionary Hudson Taylor, but God was at work, and today there are more believers in China than ever before. 

The last word is never with men, but with God’s power.


The third point made by Jonah’s descent into the great fish deserves its own treatment. For the sea creature was not only a sign of God’s judgment, but a sign of God’s sovereign grace through that judgment. We can consider this by asking: “Where did the great fish come from?” Well, the answer is obvious: it was God who arranged for the sea creature to be at just the right spot at just the right time, with just the right amount of hunger so as to want to swallow a foolish prophet who had just been cast overboard.

The key word here is “appointed”: “The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17). Some versions translate this as saying God “prepared” the great fish that would swallow Jonah. Together the two words render the idea perfectly. 

God had long since been preparing his plans for the appointed fulfillment of his saving will for and through the prophet. This is a theme that recurs throughout this book, with its strong emphasis on the sovereign grace of God. 

Later God appoints and prepares a plant to shade Jonah, then he appoints a worm to destroy the plant, and finally God prepares an east wind to blow on the prophet in order to achieve his will. Each of these instances was a deliberate act by God to provide for the outworking of his purpose. As the omnipotent God he not only ordains the end, but also provides the means to that end.”

This theme of God’s sovereignty in salvation is not new to the Bible with Jonah. All through God’s Word we read of God providing and preparing that which would advance his redemptive plan. God had Noah prepare the ark for saving him and his family through the great flood (Gen. 6:14). When Abraham obeyed God by taking his son Isaac up Mount Moriah as an offering, God provided him with a ram appointed to be sacrificed in Isaac’s place (Gen. 22:13–14). Likewise, when Elijah was hiding at the brook, God appointed ravens to bring him his daily bread (1 Kings 17:5–6). When the Ethiopian eunuch was reading the prophet Isaiah, God prepared and appointed that Philip the deacon be on hand to explain the meaning of the gospel (Acts 8:26–40). 

In all these instances we are meant to see how God prepares the way, and provides the means for the outworking of his eternal purposes.

When we turn back to the cross of Christ, we see that the same is true. God prepared for the Messiah to come through the prophecies of the Old Testament and the ministry of John the Baptist. God appointed that his Son would be betrayed by Judas and delivered by the Jews into the hands of the Gentiles, and that together representatives of the whole world would nail Jesus Christ to the cross. The sham trial and murder of Jesus took place, Peter said, “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). 

And God appointed that Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day, arriving back in the world in resurrection power, just as Jonah would in time come to Nineveh as proof of God’s sovereign, forgiving, and life-giving grace for all who will repent and believe.

From this perspective, we can see that all along God’s purpose had been working even in Jonah’s flight of rebellion. God purposed to bring wicked Nineveh to repentance. He did this out of mercy for them and also for the display of his own glory. However, it was not God’s plan for Jonah simply to embark from Israel to arrive in the enemy capital with a message from Israel’s God. Instead, God appointed and prepared that Jonah would first join them in rebellion, that Jonah would experience the kind of death about which he would warn them, and Jonah would serve as an emblem of the resurrection life that comes as the gift of a gracious God. In this way, the Jonah that God intended to use for the salvation of Nineveh was himself a trophy of saving grace. It was a bedraggled, humbled, and God-reliant prophet who emerged onto the shore from the belly of the fish, ready and now equipped to serve God’s purpose in the world.


And what of your salvation, dear friend? Are you living in disobedience to the living God? Are you a child of God and follower of Christ? You see, I ask this now because Jonah’s experience speaks to those who have yet to believe. Jonah typifies the inevitable end of your own rebellion against God if you are not a follower of Christ. “The wages of sin is death,” says the Bible (Rom. 6:23). But through faith in Jesus Christ, who died to conquer sin and death, the sea monster of judgment is tamed so as to deliver us onto the shores of a new life. 

My friends, can you see your need of such a deliverance? Will you look to the God of sovereign grace for your own redemption and deliverance into resurrection life?

If you will not, then Jesus will not be the only one to condemn you for unbelief. Having spoken of his own death as the sign of Jonah for his generation, Jesus added that the Ninevites would also have a testimony to give: 

“The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:41). 

If wicked Nineveh repented at the sight of a resurrected Jonah, how much more ought we to repent of unbelief and sin, having witnessed the risen Christ in the Word of God. And seeing such grace for sinners, how eagerly we ought to embrace the gospel offer of the Son of God, who died for our sins and rose to give us eternal life.