“How does Jonah preach about grace when he was under the law being pre-Jesus?”

On Sunday we heard Christ preached from Jonah 1, and a great question was asked on a Communication Card:

“How does Jonah preach about grace when he was under the law being pre-Jesus?”

The answer comes from the Scriptures and the wonderful way Reformed Theology highlights just how great and gracious God is.

Firstly, as we heard in the sermon the context of Jonah’s ministry has been one of being a prophet in Israel, the northern kingdom where Jeroboam II is king. They are evil days in which Jonah lives, where the kings of Israel are all evil with Jeroboam II being no exception. In 2 Kings 14:23-29 we see a scene where the people of Israel were afflicted, and although they didn’t deserve it – ‘God saved them by the hand of Jeroboam’ (2 Kings 14:27). God’s grace in delivering people who do not deserve deliverance has been on show for Jonah in his ministry, in evil days where people deserve punishment – God gives grace. This context for Jonah sees him react to God’s next mission for him, that of preaching to Nineveh. In Jonah’s eyes, if Israel and Jeroboam didn’t deserve grace and got it, how much more Nineveh doesn’t deserve to hear about the great God of grace.

Secondly, Jonah suspects that God sending him to Nineveh is not a mission of terminal judgement upon an evil city – but of grace. I’ll leave it for the sermon on chapter 3 to highlight how much Jonah seems to avoids preaching a message of God and His grace to Nineveh, but we see clearly in chapter 4 just how much Jonah’s suspicions are true. For in Jonah 4:2 we hear his anger in a prayer to God,

“O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster…”

Jonah knows God is gracious, and he’s quoting what God has already said of Himself in Exodus 34:6-7. These words of God are the most quoted passage in the Bible, and they are a stunning description of the great God of grace. It’s also why Jonah all along, as this prophet and preacher of the great God of grace, didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place.

So then, if Jonah was preaching grace in Israel, and didn’t want to do that again in Nineveh, how can he preach grace when he is “under the law being pre-Jesus?”

The third part of our answer comes from the wonderful way Reformed Theology highlights just how great and gracious God is (the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 7 is really helpful here). It’s easy to think that the Old Testament is about Law, and the New Testament is about grace, we all at one time have perhaps thought that. It’s actually better than that. For when we read about those being ‘under the law’ from New Testament books such as Romans, Galatians and Philippians, we are hearing what we already know from the Old Testament – that the Law shows us our sin and we cannot rely upon it, we cannot live ‘under it’ to save us. In those letters the Apostle Paul is writing to churches and urging people not to rely on the law to save and reshape us, Paul is urging people not to be legalists.

For as we read the Scriptures we see (along with the Reformers) that ever since Genesis 3 (and after the covenant of works is broken in Genesis 1-2) there now is one unifying covenant we know as the ‘covenant of grace’. For sin came into the world through human hearts, and no amount of human works nor law-keeping could see people justified in God’s sight as the Law shows us that sin deserves judgment. Yet the Law also shows us our need for God to deal with sin and save us. In the Old Testament this happened through the sacrificial system of animals taking the punishment of sin (Hebrews 9:11-14), as those who relied on God’s way of atonement He provided received his mercy and grace this way (Hebrews 9:22). But of course the blood of bulls and goats was never the full and final sacrifice (Hebrews 10:3-4), and those Old Testament saints looked through and forward from those sacrifices to one day final fulfillment in Jesus  – where God himself on that cross would declare, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).

So what we actually see is not only Jonah’s mission being to preach the great God of grace (even as he doesn’t want to), but that God has always saved people by grace.

Thanks for the question, and praise God for his saving grace!