How is the ancient story of Jonah the prophet a microcosm of the human story in the 21st century? How does the prophet’s rebellious spirit and his resulting circumstances demonstrate the surprising and unstoppable grace of God?
Bible Gateway interviewed Anthony Carter (@eastpc) about his book, Running from Mercy: Jonah and the Surprising Story of God’s Unstoppable Grace (B&H Books, 2018).
Briefly describe the story found in the book of Jonah.
Anthony Carter: The story of Jonah is the story of God. It’s the story of God’s desire to use sinners in sharing the message that God saves sinners.
Jonah was a prophet called upon by God to go preach the message of salvation to those whom Jonah had determined did not deserve the mercy of God. Jonah refuses to go but soon discovers that God’s will does not get compromised by the will of men. Jonah suddenly finds himself in the middle of a storm—both naturally and spiritually. From the depths of the storm, he’s thrown into the depths of the sea; Jonah finds himself running from God, but he can’t outrun God. God finally gets Jonah’s attention, and Jonah repents of his sin while in the belly of a fish. The greatness of God’s mercy is seen in that God commissions Jonah a second time. And this time, Jonah preaches to the people of Nineveh. They repent and are the recipients of the mercy and grace of God as well. Jonah is frustrated at their repentance because he believes God’s mercy is too wide. Yet, God reminds Jonah that the mercy that was wide enough for him is also wide for all who call upon his name.
Why should the book be taken as fact and not merely a parable on the order of the prodigal son?
Anthony Carter: The prophecy of Jonah has long been regarded as a literal account by the church. In recent times, some critical scholars have questioned the reality of the story and have offered understanding Jonah more as a parable. While a parabolic understanding of Jonah does not change the essential message of the prophecy, there’s yet enough biblical evidence to make us accept Jonah as factual.
For one, Jonah was a real person. Most parables don’t have specific names, but Jonah was a known prophet of God. His father’s name was Amittai. He also prophesied on other occasions (2 Kings 14). Secondly, Ninevah was a real city. It was the known capital of Assyria, and the book of Jonah gives an accurate description of the city at the time. Thirdly, the New Testament mentions Jonah with familiarity and assumes people’s acceptance of the account. Even Jesus makes reference to Jonah in reference to his own death, burial, and resurrection (Mark 12:40).
What’s the overarching story of the Bible and why do you say it’s encapsulated in the four chapters of Jonah?
Anthony Carter: The overarching story of the Bible is about a great God who saves great sinners, through great grace found in a great Savior. All that the Scriptures communicate in precept and principle is an outworking of this storyline. Thus, every account in the Bible fits within God’s design to reveal his grand redemptive purpose.
Jonah, therefore, is no different. Jonah is not just a story about a great fish, a great wind, or a great city. But Jonah is essentially about the great grace and mercy of God to great sinners. It’s about sinners repenting at the knowledge of God’s mercy. It’s about God’s goodness toward unworthy sinners and God’s willingness to reconcile sinners to himself. In four short chapters, Jonah reveals the sin of rebellion, the grace of repentance, and the mercy of God in restoration.
Describe the city of Nineveh and explain why Jonah didn’t want to obey God to go there.
Anthony Carter: Nineveh is described as a great city. It was great in size, people, advancements, and sin. The Assyrians were known for their treachery toward their enemies. Jonah, and most in Israel, maintained no love for their treacherous neighbors. Rather than saving them, Jonah desired God to destroy them. Humanly speaking, Jonah could be justified. But with God, mercy is not just extended to our friends; more importantly, it’s offered to our enemies. Jonah thought himself and Israel better than the Ninevites. In God’s eyes, our sin is not more acceptable than our enemy’s transgressions. Jonah had to learn all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is none righteous and deserving of his grace, not even in Israel.
What do you mean, “you can’t outrun the providence of God”?
Anthony Carter: Providence is ordaining, governing, and working all things out for his glory and the praise of his name: God’s providing, caring, orchestrating, and guiding the cares, events, and people of his creation. Consequently, whether it’s the elements we encounter, the events of history, or even the sin in our lives, nothing is beyond his sovereign hand. Jonah discovered that he couldn’t outrun the storm. He couldn’t outrun the fish. He couldn’t outrun his sin because he couldn’t outrun the providential hand of God. And neither can we. As the song says, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
How does the story of Jonah point to the gospel of Jesus?
Anthony Carter: The book of Jonah paints for us a picture of what God is willing to do to forgive sinners, even those who rebel against him. He’s relentless in his pursuit of those who’ve sinned against him. The coming of Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of God’s relentless mercy toward sinners. The gospel is the message of God saving sinners. The book of Jonah is the message of God saving sinners. Whether it was Jonah, the people of Ninevah, or you and I today, God’s gospel message has always been the same: There’s mercy and grace for sinners through the coming of Jesus Christ.
What is the lesson God was teaching Jonah at the end of the book with the plant and the worm?
Anthony Carter: Jonah learned perhaps the greatest lesson of all. God is big! God is bigger than our circumstances. God is bigger than our attitudes. God is bigger than our concerns. We serve a big and gracious God, who, despite our unfaithfulness, remains faithful. In spite of our running, his grace and mercy run faster. God cared for Jonah, even when Jonah didn’t care for him. When we see God as he’s revealed in Scripture and in our lives, we learn he cares for us; not because of us, but in spite of us. Praise God!
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
Anthony Carter: I pray the book is used as a tool for furthering the reader’s understanding and hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I pray people use it for personal enrichment and encouragement. Also, I pray it would be a tool for discipleship, whether in a group setting or one-on-one study.
Jonah is a relatable prophet. Most of us have been there in one way or another. Yet, as with Jonah, God never gave up on us. He doesn’t give up on his will for sinners to be saved and rebels to come home. I hope the readers are encouraged in knowing that God loves them and hasn’t given up on them. He pursues them for good. I hope they learn they can trust God. I hope the readers are reminded of what Jonah always reminds me: God is great and greatly to be praised.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Anthony Carter: Selecting one favorite passage is difficult. I usually discover one in the particular portion of Scripture I’m currently studying. So, more than a favorite passage from the whole Bible, I like to speak of my favorite passage in each book. For example, in Jonah, my favorite verse is Jonah 2:9 where Jonah proclaims: “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” These are the words that not only sum up the prophecy of Jonah, but sum up the message of the entire Bible. From start to finish, God saves and thus, salvation belongs to him. It’s from him, through him, and to him (which by the way is the another favorite passage, only this time in Romans 11:36).
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Anthony Carter: I enjoy the resource of Bible Gateway. It’s nice to have such an exhaustive study so readily available. There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t find myself using the website in Bible study and/or sermon preparation. I commend the website to all seeking to study and understand the Bible better.
Bio: Anthony J. Carter is the lead pastor of East Point Church in East Point, Georgia. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando, he is the author of several books, including Blood Work: How the Blood of Christ Accomplishes Our Salvation; On Being Black and Reformed: A New Perspective on the African-American Christian Experience; and Glory Road: The Journey of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity. Tony and his wife Adriane live in East Point, Georgia.
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