The prophet Jonah was a prodigal. He ran far away from God’s message and mission. Along his journey he experienced the hardship of life’s storms and struggles. He lived in the belly of a fish, which turned out to be not such a happy place to live but a helpful place to learn. It was in darkness and distress that Jonah became desperate for God (Jonah 2:1). He prayed to the Lord and described his circumstances as quite hopeless. Being separated from God is the bleakest outlook any person can face.
Jonah felt abandoned by God because of his disobedience, and believed he deserved separation from God’s heaven. Experiencing the grossness of gastric fluid and being wrapped in seaweed left him believing death was near (Jonah 2:3, 5). He states he has gone down to the land whose bars were closed forever (Jonah 2:6).
The underworld, Sheol, was conceived as a city fortified with walls (Psalm 9:13; Isaiah 38:10) and with bars/gates that closed, remaining fully shut. An interesting contrast are the walls and gates of God’s heaven. The book of Revelation provides a brief description of the walls and gates surrounding the city of God – the new Jerusalem, not necessarily heaven. The walls were personalized with names inscribed on them (Revelation 21:12). They were colorful being made from every kind of jewel: jasper, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, carnelian, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, jacinth, amethyst, pearls, gold and transparent glass (Revelation 21:18-21). It would appear these walls were made to attract people, because later the Bible says the gates will never be shut but always open, bringing into it the glory and honor of the nations (Revelation 21:25-26).
Yet, not to be missed are those who will not enter the city of God or kingdom of heaven. Revelation tells us “nothing unclean will never enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27). In this case, no one deserves to be a citizen of God’s kingdom. All of us are outsiders, belonging to be exiled as far away from the holiness of God as depraved sinners.
But God has opened a door. Jesus Christ is the way to enter God’s kingdom. While earthly citizens are condemned to hell, Jesus offers a rescue to heaven. The door key is faith in Christ, with faith unlocking freedom. And “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). The gates of hell will not prevail against those who turn from sin and trust in the substitutionary life and death of Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:18). Jesus lived the perfect life required for entrance into heaven. And Jesus took the punishment of death for all those who are disqualified because of their selfish and sinful hearts. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
The Christian church has the keys to the kingdom’s gates. Its emphasis is to invest words and deeds in building the kingdom not walls of division. Today, there is much discussion about building national borders. It needs to be said that protecting a nation and securing its borders is not just political theory but a prudent act for a government overseeing its people. Simultaneously, the way a nation cares for the vulnerable and weak of world says something about its integrity (Psalm 82:3; Proverbs 14:31; 31:8-9; Isaiah 58).
The church is commanded not to construct temporary homes but build an eternal kingdom. Its mission is to welcome the hungry and hurting (Matthew 25:31-40) and invite all neighbors and nations into its doors (Matthew 28:19-20). The invitation to enter the gates of God’s kingdom is extensive and embracing to all who will receive the grace of king Jesus, whose grace no one deserves, with the citizens’ only boast being far removed from self but solely belonging to God. The citizens hosted inside the city of God will be the poor, the crippled, the blind and lame (Luke 14:21-23), and people from every tribe and nation, giving glory to Jesus and singing His praise alone (Revelation 5:9-14). In short, Christians are to be more like Jesus and less like Jonah.