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108 The Sign of Jonah

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

Of the many options Jesus had he chooses the sign of Jonah to illustrate what he was about to experience in his death and resurrection. Come on this journey with us as we uncover what is behind this story that sheds light on Jesus and his experience. You will be fascinated as the takes on so much more meaning that it ever has before.

108 The Sign of Jonah
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Jesus and the Sign of Jonah

Jesus’ contemporaries expected Messiah to live forever.

Every time Jesus told them he would suffer and die, their hearing failed. This might be one reason Jesus chose to use the sign of Jonah. It is the least confrontational of the signs in the Old Testament since Jonah survived drowning and sacrifices ended up annihilated.

John 12:31-34 NLT “The time for judging this world has come, when Satan, the ruler of this world, will be cast out. 32 And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate how he was going to die. 34 The crowd responded, “We understood from Scripture that the Messiah would live forever. How can you say the Son of Man will die? Just who is this Son of Man, anyway?” Matthew 16:1-4 NLT One day the Pharisees and Sadducees came to test Jesus, demanding that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority. 2 He replied, “You know the saying, ‘Red sky at night means fair weather tomorrow; 3 red sky in the morning means foul weather all day.’ You know how to interpret the weather signs in the sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times![a] 4 Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign, but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Then Jesus left them and went away. Here is the story of Jonah.

Jonah 1:1-17 NLT The LORD gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked itspeople are.” 3 But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the LORD. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the LORD by sailing to Tarshish. 4 But the LORD hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart. 5 Fearing for their lives, the desperate sailors shouted to their gods for help and threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship. But all this time Jonah was sound asleep down in the hold. 6 So the captain went down after him. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” he shouted. “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.” 7 Then the crew cast lots to see which of them had offended the gods and caused the terrible storm. When they did this, the lots identified Jonah as the culprit. 8 “Why has this awful storm come down on us?” they demanded. “Who are you? What is your line of work? What countryare you from? What is your nationality?” 9 Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”

10 The sailors were terrified when they heard this, for he had already told them he was running away from the LORD. “Oh, why did you do it?” they groaned. 11 And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, “What should we do to you to stop this storm?” 12 “Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.” 13 Instead, the sailors rowed even harder to get the ship to the land. But the stormy sea was too violent for them, and they couldn’t make it. 14 Then they cried out to the LORD, Jonah’s God. “O LORD,” they pleaded, “don’t make us die for this man’s sin. And don’t hold us responsible forhis death. O LORD, you have sent this storm upon him for your own good reasons.” 15 Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once! 16 The sailors were awestruck by the LORD’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him. 17 Now the LORD had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights.

Chapter 2 Jonah prays from the belly of the fish and makes many promises to worship God.

Chapter 3 Jonah preaches in Nineveh, the citizens repent and are saved from destruction.

Chapter 4 Jonah is angry. The gourd that sheltered him from the sun had died. He is angry with God for killing the gourd and having mercy on the Ninevites. Jonah wanted them destroyed.

The irony of prophet Jonah

  1. Jonah flees from an omniscient God (1:3).

  2. Jonah offers himself as a human sacrifice in place of bringing salvation to Nineveh (1:12).

  3. Sailors pray to Yahweh for deliverance. Jonah does not pray (1:14).

  4. Jonah takes three days in the stomach of a fish to repent (2:7). Ninevites take one day (3:5).

  5. Ninevites are saved and Jonah is angry for his success (4:1).

  6. Jonah is more concerned over the gourd which died than the people of Nineveh (4:9).

  7. Jonah wants a punitive God who demands human sacrifice but God is merciful and gracious (4:11).

Why did Jesus choose the Sign of Jonah?

Jesus could have used the sign of Abraham and Isaac. They walked for three days to get to Moriah.

Genesis 22 NLT Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith. “Abraham!” God called. “Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.”2 “Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.”

3 The next morning Abraham got up early. He saddled his donkey and took two of his servants him, along with his son, Isaac. Then he chopped wood for a fire for a burnt offering and set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day of their journey, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 “Stay here with the donkey,” Abraham told the servants. “The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will worship there, and then we will come right back.”

Jesus died during Passover and instituted communion but he did not give Passover as the sign. The veil in the temple was supernaturally divided but Jesus did not give this sign. No leper had every been healed in Israel but he did not give this miracle as a sign. No man blind-from-birth had ever been healedin Israel but it was not given. Jesus could have used Passover or the Day of Atonement or the Red Heifer or the morning and evening sacrifices. He did not. He seems to avoid any connection with the sacrificial system. Does this give pause for thought?

Jesus never identified himself as a sacrifice. He did identify himself as a ransom.

Matthew 20:28 NLT For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

After all the thousands, perhaps millions, of animals sacrificed Israel made no connection between them and the Messiah. The worshippers missed the meaning of the ritual. This is astonishing. Apparently, they understood that the rituals were necessary to gain the favour of God. Their religion had become pagan and they were unaware of what had happened.

After his resurrection Jesus has to explain to the two disheartened disciples on the road to Emmaus how the scriptures predicted a suffering, Messiah (Luke 24:25-26). Jesus had to later explain these predictions again to the eleven disciples (Luke 24:45-46). It was really a difficult concept for them.

No sign is going to be predictive in all aspects of Jesus’ death.

Isaac was not sacrificed. Jesus was executed. Jonah did not want the Ninevites saved but destroyed. Jesus wanted all people to repent and be saved. Jonah avoided his mission while Jesus embraced his mission. Why then did Jesus pick the sign of the reluctant prophet Jonah?

Jonah’s experience, in a few aspects, parallels and predicts Jesus’ experience.

1. Jonah voluntarily gave himself to death.

He suggested to the sailors that he be thrown overboard. He did not object when they carried out his suggestion (1:12, 15). Jesus voluntarily gave himself to death (No animal sacrifice did so.)

John 10:18 NASB No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it back. This commandment I received from My Father.”

The New Living Translation uses the word “sacrifice” in this verse but it is only translation out of 63 English translations that does so. All the rest resonate with the New American Standard Bible as quoted above. From the context in the NLT is clear that the word is not associated with animal sacrifices.

NLT No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.”

2. Jonah did not imagine he would survive drowning.

He was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. With each passing moment, if he was conscious, he would have had less hope of life.

On the cross Jesus felt he would not survive death.

Matthew 27:46 NLT At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

This means Jesus had given up hope of resurrection. He was dying an UNBELIEVER’S DEATH.

3. Jonah goes down into the belly of the fish.

Jesus goes down into the heart of the earth.

Matthew 12:40 ESV 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 only other indication that Jesus would be dead for 3 days is the time it took for Abraham to journey to Moriah.)

4. Jonah escaped death

Jonah 2:1-2 NLT Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from inside the fish. 2 He said, “I cried out to the LORD in my great trouble, and he answered me. I called to you from the land of the DEAD (sheol), and LORD, you heard me!

Jesus defeated death unlike the animal sacrifices.

Acts 2:24 NLT But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip.

5. Jonah was spit (vomited) out of the fish.

Jesus was vomited out of death by the resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15:3-4 NLT I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. 4 He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said.

6. Center of Jonah’s story is, “My salvation comes from the LORD alone (2:9).”

Luke 23:46 NLT Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” And with those words he breathed his last.

7. Jonah was under the sentence of death for three days. Jesus was dead for three days.

Matthew 12:40 ESV 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.

Mark 8:31 ESV And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.

8. When Jonah emerged from the fish his attitude was changed.

When Jesus emerged from the tomb his body was changed into a spiritual body. (Jesus attitude did not need changing.)

1 Corinthians 15:45-49 NIV 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

9. Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh.

Jesus did not want to go to Jerusalem.

Matthew 16:21-23 NLT From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead. 22 But Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. “Heaven forbid, Lord,” he said. “This will never happen to you!” (Because of Messianic expectation, Jesus’ Miracles, History of Jesus escaping mobs.) 23 Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.”

This is the same response Jesus gave to the devil in wilderness after the third temptation. Peter is unwittingly echoed the devil’s temptation.

Matthew 4:10 NLT “Get out of here, Satan,” Jesus told him. “For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the LORD your God and serve only him.’”

10. Jonah had a verbal message to deliver, unlike dead sacrifices

Luke 9:22 ESV Saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Jesus had a verbal message to deliver other than his life . He is the WORD of God.

John 1:1 NLT . In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John 1:17 NLT . For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ.

11. The Miracle of Jonah surviving drowning was evidence that his message was from God.

Jonah must have told the Ninevites of his fish story, his divine deliverance from death, this authenticated his message. He was probably bleached having spent three days in swimming is the gastric juices of the fish.

The resurrection of Jesus, his divine deliverance from death, authenticated his divine credentials and message.

Acts 2:24 NLT But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip.

This is a big story. A big story consists of at least a hero who achieved significant good for the community through suffering and persistence. Big stories create a culture with their retelling. The retelling of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the big story for Believers.

1 Corinthians 15:3-4 NLT

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. 4 He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said.

Luke 11:29-30 NLT As the crowd pressed in on Jesus, he said, “This evil generation keeps asking me to show them a miraculous sign. But the only sign I will give them is the sign of Jonah. 30 What happened to him was a sign to the people of Nineveh that God had sent him. What happens to the Son of Man[a] will be a sign to these people that he was sent by God.” Conclusion

The rock on which Israel stumbled was the cross of Christ, i.e. his suffering. The Jews of his day had no idea of a suffering Messiah. Jonah suffering in the fish was a great way of introducing the concept without the baggage that sacrificed animals carried.

Jesus was not buying the favour of God or satisfying God’s justice by his death. His death was the ransom paid to us by his love to win our allegiance back to our Creator.

In retrospect we understand the suffering Saviour. Can we embrace that we need to suffer to communicate the love of God to those around us? This includes suffering false accusations and notretaliating. It is in absorbing evil that we diminish suffering in the world. Taking up our cross means just this attitude towards those who hurt us emotionally and spiritually.

The young man stopped at the edge of the frozen lake. His footprints led back through the snow for several miles to the prison from which he had just escaped. An Anabaptist in sixteenth-century Holland, Dirk Willem had been sentenced to burn at the stake. Now he ran for his life, with one guard in pursuit. The ice at the shoreline was thick and white, but near the centre it shaded down to a thinner sheet. A slight man, like Dirk, would have a good chance of reaching the other side safely, but his heavier pursuer would need to go around or take a terrible risk. Carefully, gingerly, Dirk made his way to the opposite bank. Just as he arrived, the guard burst out of the woods and began lumbering across the ice as the fugitive sprinted away. But then—a crack, a shriek. Dirk whirled to see a jagged black hole with his pursuer's head and flailing arms at its centre Dirk was safe. FREE. But he also faced a question. Was it Christlike to leave a man to die? How could a Christian live with that cry ringing in his ears? On the other hand, how many people could he reach with his ministry after he'd been burned at the stake? Didn't he have an obligation to stay alive for the sake of their future? ... And what of Dirk? He went back onto the ice and rescued the guard—who promptly arrested him. Instead of being miraculously delivered, Dirk returned to jail and not long afterward was burned at the stake, as any cynic might have predicted. It did not end there, though. The story swept through Holland, and in shame for the killing of that righteous man, the Dutch passed a law that no person should ever again be put to death for his or her religious beliefs. It was the first such law in Europe. Holland became a haven for all kinds of Christian fugitives, including the Puritans, who fled there before taking ship for the New World. - Jan Charles Haluska

Ian Hartley, June 2022

AdditionalMaterial Not used in podcast.

1. Jonah was a bigot. He never understood God’s mercy. Jesus was talking to bigots who believed Jews were superior in every way to non-Jews. Most of them would never understand God’s mercy. As a consequence, Jerusalem would be destroyed and they would be dispersed as a nation. It was the consummate failure by the people God as his witness to the world. No wonder Jesus responded as follows. Luke 13:34-35 NLT “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. 35 And now, look, your house is abandoned. And you will never see me again until you say, ‘Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the LORD!’[a]”

Significance of three in the Bible.

In the Old Testament:

  1. It is the first of the four so called perfect numbers: 3 (divine perfection), 7 (spiritual perfection), 10 (ordinal perfection), and 12 (governmental perfection).

  2. The earth was separated from the waters on the 3rd day.

  3. There are 3 Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel.

  4. The 3 verses of the Priestly Blessing in which the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, God's holy covenant name, appears 3 times (Numbers 6:24-26).

  5. 3 times the Seraphim cry "Holy, Holy, Holy" (Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8).

  6. After the Great Flood mankind descended from the 3 sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

  7. 3 "men" announced to Abraham that his barren wife would bear a son (Genesis 18:14).

  8. Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son after a 3-day journey to Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22:1-4).

  9. Baby Moses was hidden by his mother for 3 months (Exodus 2:1), and the adult Moses requests of Pharaoh that he let Moses take his people on a 3 day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifice to their God (Exodus 3:18).

  10. There were 3 divisions of the desert Tabernacle and later the Temple in Jerusalem: the Outer Court, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies (Exodus 27:9; 26:1-30, 35-37; 31-34; 38:9-20; 21-31; 40:1-33; 1 Kings 6:1-37).

  11. The Theophany at Sinai was on the 3rd day after the people arrived.

  12. God is mentioned 3 times in the Shema (the first profession of faith in Deuteronomy 6:4) and 3 times in the blessing in Numbers 23:24.

  13. There are 3 attributes of God mentioned in Exodus 33:18-19: hen, rachum, and hesed (gracious, compassionate /merciful, and loving kindness)

14. Of the 7 Holy Feasts of the Sinai Covenant, 3 are pilgrim feasts in which every man 13 years or older must present himself before God at the Temple in Jerusalem (Exodus 23:14-17; 34:18-23; Deuteronomy 16:5-17; 2 Chronicles 8:13).

15. Jonah spent 3 days in the belly of the great fish (Jonah 1:17); Jonah took a 3 day journey across the city of Nineveh (Jonah 3:3)

In the New Testament:

  1. Jesus' ministry covered 3 Passovers (John 2:14, 6:4; 12:1).

  2. Mary stayed with Elizabeth about 3 months (Luke 1:56).

  3. Jesus was missing for 3 days when He was twelve years old (Luke 2:46).

  4. Jesus took 3 men, Peter, James and John, up on the Mt. of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1; Mark 2; Luke 9:28). Jesus took the same 3 men to pray in the garden.

  5. Jesus prophesized that He would arise from the dead on the 3rd day (Matthew 16:21: 17:23; 20:19; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; Luke 9:22; 18:33).

  6. Saul was blinded for 3 days (Acts 9:9).

  7. There are 3 theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (1 Corinthians 13:13).

  8. The heavenly Jerusalem has 3 gates on each of its four sides (Revelation 21:13)

  9. Christians saw 3 as symbolic of the Trinity, the triune nature of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20).

  10. 3 is also recognized as the number of the Holy Spirit.

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