Matthew 12:38-41 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
Most know the story of Jonah. In short, God tells the prophet to go to Nineveh to prophesy of its destruction. Instead, Jonah flees in the opposite direction and boards a ship to Tarshish in an effort to get as far away from God and Israel’s enemy as possible. A huge storm rages and the sailors of the ship become concerned. Jonah explains that God is bringing judgement upon him, so they throw him into the sea and God appoints a great fish to swallow Jonah. After three days and three nights, the fish vomits him back onto land. Jonah then travels to Nineveh to finally proclaim God’s message and to his surprise, the people repent and God promises not to destroy the great city. But instead of rejoicing, Jonah’s response is to throw a fit in anger. So, God deals with him and teaches him a valuable lesson about compassion and mercy.
Knowing this, we must ask, what is this sign of Jonah that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel of Matthew? What does the story of the prodigal prophet and a great fish have to do with Jesus’ ministry? What application does this have for the modern Christian? Well, I set out to do some further study on this very topic. This is what I have learned so far on the matter:
Scripture tells us the scribes and Pharisees had many signs. They were by no means strangers to Jesus’ miracles. And yet, they demanded another. In fact, they had just witnessed Jesus heal a blind and mute demon-possessed man earlier in this very same chapter, but claimed that He must have used satanic power.
I find Jesus’ response to their request for a sign very interesting. In verse 39 He says, “An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign.” It is important to note that I do not think Jesus is saying that desiring a sign from God is sinful in itself. God provides His people with signs elsewhere throughout the Bible. For example, the New Testament records many accounts of Christians faithfully praying for signs in the name of Jesus. Therefore, signs and wonders must be significant and valuable in bringing people to Christ.
The difference here is this request for a sign comes from resistant hearts and an unwillingness to believe. Jesus perceives His opponents are only seeking to maliciously conspire against Him. These skeptics had been given all the reason in the world to believe Jesus is who He says He is. Jesus even states they had been given more signs than previous generations. They had heard His authoritative teaching with their own ears and witnessed His compassionate healing with their own eyes, yet they could not be convinced that Jesus is the Christ. As C.S. Lewis said,
You can’t know, you can only believe—or not.
So, because of their hardness of heart, the only sign left is the sign of Jonah. The parallels between the story of Jonah and Jesus’ redeeming work are undeniable. Here are seven ways Jonah prefigures the Messiah according to Agape Bible Study:
|Jonah’s mission was to call the gentiles of Nineveh to repentance and acknowledgement of God as the source of their salvation (Jonah 1:1; 3:1-2).||Jesus’ mission was to call all of mankind, including the gentiles, to repentance and into a covenant relationship the Father through Himself (Matthew 28:18-20).|
|Jonah was willing to sacrifice his life for the salvation of his shipmates (Jonah 1:12).||Jesus was willing to sacrifice His life for the salvation of the world (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; John 1:29; 1 Timothy 2:6).|
|Jonah was entombed in the belly of a great fish (Jonah 2:1).||After Jesus’ death He was placed in a tomb (Matthew 27:60; Mark 6:29; Luke 23:53).|
|On the third day Jonah was “resurrected” from the belly of the fish (Jonah 2:11).||On the third day Jesus was resurrected from the tomb (Matthew 17:23, 20:19, 28:1-10; Mark 9:31, 10:34, 16:1-7; Luke 9:22, 18:33, 24:7, 24:46).|
|After his “resurrection” from the belly of the fish, Jonah continued his mission to call the gentile Assyrians to repentance and salvation (Jonah 3:1-3).||After His resurrection from the grave, Jesus continued His mission to found the universal Church and to commission the Apostles to spread the gospel to all nations (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:12-20; Luke 24:13-53; Acts 1).|
|Jonah preached that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days if the people did not repent (Jonah 3:4).||After His resurrection, Jesus taught the Church for 40 days before His Ascension (Acts 1:3).|
|Jonah taught that sin brings judgment but salvation is a gift of God (Jonah 1:1, 3:4-5, 9-10).||Jesus taught that sin brings judgment but salvation is a gift of God (Matthew 5:21-22; John 5:22-29, 8:34-36; Luke 24:47; John 3:17, 5:34, 10:19; Acts 2:21).|
The sign of Jonah points us to the bold truth that Jesus laid aside his divine glory and humbled himself even to the point of ultimate weakness – death on a cross. Jonah was cast into the deep and consumed by the large fish before being coughed up three days later. But, Jesus was crucified and put to death to bear all the punishment our sins deserve and on the third day was resurrected for our justification. That’s the sign of Jonah.
Even amidst our questions, uncertainties, and doubts about the faith, this message serves as a reminder that our Pharisaical tendencies can lead us to be cynical skeptics in the face of convicting truth. Cynicism leads to a bitterness and contempt that works to contaminate every good and perfect thing. As Christians, we ought to continuously examine our hearts and earnestly repent like Ninevites. The sign of Jonah is simply the gospel of grace. It foreshadows the One who willingly laid down His life for us. He was rejected by many of His own generation, but will be forever exalted and glorified. Lord, help our unbelief. Surely something greater than Jonah is here!
John 20:29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The Prodigal Prophet – Tim Keller
Signs and Wonders: Then and Now – desiringGod
The Gospel According to Jonah – The Gospel Coalition