I cannot remember a time when I have relied as exclusively on a single commentary for a sermon I prepared as I did this week with Phillip Cary’s masterful work Jonah in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008). In page after page of this book, Cary illuminated a thousand connections, echoes, allusions, and foreshadows to other parts of the story of Israel, and ultimately in Christ and his church.
This is a model of what Christian exegesis of the Old Testament should be, in my mind. Nothing feels forced, as though he can’t think of something to say, and so he begins talking about something tangentially related in the life of Jesus. On the contrary, everything he writes stems from deep appreciation both of the text of Jonah and the overarching story of God’s mission in the world, as recorded in all the Scriptures.
Cary’s exegesis arises from a theological conviction as to how Christians should be reading the books of the Old Testament:
What’s more, you need to be able to laugh when you enter into situations of unbearable tension, which tend to arise when Gentiles talk about Jews. There is no getting around such talk when Christians read the Bible, especially when the Christians are Gentiles convinced, as I am, that an essential step to finding Christ in the Old Testament is what can be called an “Israelogical” reading of the text, one that sees figures like Jonah representing not only Christ, the church, and Christians, but also Israel and Judah. Indeed, I think we cannot see how Jonah represents Christ, the church, and Christians without seeing how he represents Israel and Judah. If I am right about this, then a good Christian reading of Jonah will necessarily have a great deal to say about the Jews.
The tension that it would help to be able to laugh about stems from the inescapable need of Gentile Christians to read the Scriptures of Israel as if they were our Scriptures too, as if all the good and bad things they had to say about God’s chosen people were also about us. This is rather tactless of us, and if it weren’t for the resurrection of the Messiah of Israel, in whom Gentiles too are justified by believing, we would have no right to read Israel’s story this way. The authorization of such a reading can only be a gift, an utterly gratuitous blessing bestowed on Gentiles by the King of the Jews, in whom we believe. Yet now, because of what he has done, it does belong to our obedience to this good and gracious King that we read Jewish stories as being about us, too. (p. 19)
This conviction about how we should see Christ in the text of Jonah has led Cary to produce a commentary that made the other commentaries I consulted dry and anemic in comparison. Although I would not agree with everything Cary writes (as for example, his belief that this book is not historical, but merely a story), the overall product is marvelously helpful in connecting such a strange story to the good news of Jesus Christ.
I leave you with this meditation from the commentary as I commend you to buy, read, and delight in Christ through the book of Jonah:
Jesus is the sign of Jonah because he is a sign the same way Jonah is a sign. Jonah offered Nineveh no sign but himself. He did no miracles and had little to say, and that little was ironic and enigmatic, like a parable about not knowing what time it is. The mystery, the hidden meaning, is right there on the surface, as if to say: Don’t you know whose word you’re hearing? That’s what time it is, the time when your LORD visits you and speaks to you. And now you want a sign? The Ninevites knew better, and when Jonah came as a sign among them they believed his word and repented.
The sign of Jonah is good news, for the Ninevites did believe, and therefore it must be that we can too. Of course this also leaves us with no excuse for our unbelief. Indeed the great, evil city Nineveh has every right to rise up at the last day and condemn all of us who follow in Peter’s footsteps, but that is only because (and here again is good news, the gospel) a greater than Jonah is indeed among us, and he is stubbornly persistent in being nothing less than the sign of Jonah, given to an unbelieving generation so that we may believe.
Need it be said that we should not be so foolish as to think ourselves worse off than those who first heard Jesus preach? If we are paying attention at all, we will realize it is not easier to believe him just because he is visibly present. We have indeed not been put to the test like that earlier generation, who took his visibly present flesh, hung it on a cross, and then buried it in the heart of the earth. Yet we, more than they, are that evil and adulterous generation of whom Jesus speaks, for like the Ninevites we are those to whom came one who had already been buried three days. Those who first heard Jesus preach did not have that advantage, because he had not yet died.
Jonah is a sign in his own person because he had been as if three days dead, and yet there he is in the heart of Nineveh proclaiming the word of the LORD. So Jesus is to us the sign of Jonah, three days dead yet there he is in the heart of us, present among us in word and sacrament, preaching and mystery, as enigmatic as a parable whose meaning is hidden right on the surface and therefore impossible for an evil and adulterous generation to understand—unless like the Ninevites we believe in him. (p. 80-81)
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).