When asked which verse best summarizes the whole of Scripture, Edmund Clowney famously pointed to Jonah 2:9, “Salvation belongs to the LORD.” I’ve heard Bryan Chapell answer a similar question with the same verse. In terms of one verse standing on its own, I doubt a better answer could be given.
If context is considered, though, I’d argue a better summation of Scripture comes two verses later: “Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time” (Jonah 3:1).
Down, Down, Down
The word initially came to Jonah while he was in the promised land. While enjoying the peace and security of Yahweh’s presence, he was told to prophesy to the Assyrians. In a sense, Jonah was called to extend the boundaries of Yahweh’s rule from the little territory of Israel to the “exceedingly great city” of Nineveh.
From here, we know the story. Jonah rebels against the initial word. He goes down toward Tarshish, he goes down in the ship, he goes down in the fish, and is finally “driven from the sight of the LORD.” While in the belly of the fish Jonah laments the fact that he’s far from the temple, far from the presence of God. Rebellion against the first word brought exile from the temple; it brought spiritual death.
We can say Jonah 3:1 sums up Scripture since the Jonah story mirrors the biblical story in significant ways. In the beginning, God created the world through his word. Adam and Eve received the good creation brought about through this “first word.” Like Jonah, they lived in the peace and security of Yahweh’s presence. The land in which they lived functioned as a little “temple-garden.”
Their mission: extend the boundaries of the garden over the face of the earth. They were called to bring the order of the inner garden to the entire world, just as Jonah was called to bring the message of God’s order and justice to this foreign nation. Though Adam and Eve didn’t experience immediate physical death when they rebelled against the first word, they were driven from the Lord’s presence. No, they weren’t in the belly of a fish. But they were banished from the garden-temple. This was their “going down,” this was their death, just as it was Jonah’s.
God would’ve been perfectly just to end the story there. He was under no obligation to speak his creative word the first time, let alone a second. God could have destroyed his creation. Yet, in his grace and providence, he established a plan to inaugurate a “new creation.” How was this new creation to come about? The same way in which the old creation came into existence: through the word. Inexplicably, the word came to mankind a second time.
No, a second spoken word didn’t come. Rather, the same word—the word by which God had crafted the world—came again, this time in flesh and blood. Jesus Christ had a clear mission: extend the temple presence of Yahweh over the face of the whole earth. God sent his incarnate Word into the world so that all things might be new, that salvation might explode over the face of the earth.
This expansive mission is what the returned word to Jonah was all about. The rest of Jonah 3 tells the story of a foreign people, including their king, repenting and “believing God” (Jonah 3:5). To Jonah’s surprise (and dismay), God had plans for the world that didn’t end with Israel.
This “returned word” had a much bigger scope than Jonah had anticipated. It accounted for the far-off city of Nineveh. Indeed, it even accounted for Nineveh’s cattle (Jonah 4:11). This was an expansive, inclusive, all-encompassing word.
Sign of Jonah
Of course, the story of a first and second word can’t sum up the Bible’s story any more than it can sum up Jonah’s story. To know Jonah, you must know the story of his going down and coming up from the fish.
And to know the story of Scripture, you must understand Jesus’s decent and ascent from the grave. In between the rebellion of the world and the radical salvation offered to the ends of the earth, there stands a chosen Israelite (Jonah 1:1–2; Matt. 1:23).
While it seems he’s delivered to death solely by the hands of men (Jonah 1:15; John 19:17–37), God is actually the primary agent of this Israelite’s death, according to his definite plan and foreknowledge (Jonah 2:3; Acts 2:23). Death could not contain this man, however, and after three days he was resurrected from the deep (Jonah 2:10; Luke 24:1–12).
This resurrected Israelite stood in the city of evildoers, announcing the way of reconciliation (Jonah 3:4; Luke 24:27). “God’s wrath may be spared,” he announced. “Repent and believe, for God’s word has come again!”
The story of Jonah—the story of Scripture—is the story of:
- The Word given.
- Rebellion against the Word.
- Death and resurrection.
- The Word returning to extend the rule of God wider, longer, and deeper than anyone could have imagined.
If we look closely, Jonah 3:1 not only summarizes Scripture, it summarizes our experience as believers. By nature we were each rebels against the Word—Assyrians by birth. Like the sailors, and like the Roman soldiers, we’re implicated in the death of the chosen Israelite.
Yet each of us heard the good news—that Christ was thrown overboard so the storm of God’s judgment might pass over our boat. Because Christ went down into the belly of death—cut off from the presence of the Lord—we can have eternal temple access. Along with Jonah, we can gladly announce the good news, “The word of the LORD came a second time!”