In many ways, to properly understand the Old Testament narrative of Jonah, one has to examine the words of Jesus in the New Testament. Only then will the story of God’s runaway turned reluctant prophet make sense. “The history of Jonah,” writes Patrick Fairbairn, “could not be discerned, nor the entire mystery solved, till the whole was seen in the light of Christ’s finished undertaking” (94). Indeed, to answer the question of why we have the Book of Jonah in the first place, we are obliged to look nowhere else than to the one who makes the Father known to us (John 1:18). Biblical commentators and scholars alike have all hypothesized why the story of “Jonah and the whale” was preserved so that you and I could read and study it thousands of years after the fact. Allegorical, analogical, and social-political reasons abound as possible explanations for its preservation. One can make Jonah’s story mean a myriad of things, but leave it to the Lord himself to give us the best way to look at it.
This is what brings us to Matthew 12, where Jesus is approached by a group of “scribes and Pharisees” who demand that he give them “a sign” (Matt. 12:38). A similar encounter appears in every Gospel, with these smug scribes and sanctimonious Pharisees insisting that the Lord “do something miraculous.” That’s what they’re after. Their request for “a sign” demands that the Galilean Teacher give them some unmistakable token that he is, in fact, “sent from heaven.” The irony of it all, however, is that Jesus has been in the business of offering his contemporaries signs since he first entered the public sphere. And, more to the point, in every scene prior to the interaction in verse 38, he’s given more than enough affirmation that he is who he says he is.
In verses 1 through 8, Jesus dismantles the Pharisees’ view on the Sabbath by declaring that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” In the next scene, he ups the ante by healing a man “with a withered hand,” on the Sabbath, no less (Matt. 12:9–14). Then, he proceeds to help a man who was blind, mute, and demon-oppressed (Matt. 12:22). All of which to say, Jesus was giving plain indications everywhere he went that he was the one for whom Israel had waited for all those long years. He himself was Israel’s consolation and salvation. He was the servant through whom the Spirit of God would heal and deliver the weak and the needy (Isa. 61:1–3). The Pharisees just couldn’t see it or, perhaps, they didn’t want to.
Matthew, however, makes this clear when he refers to Jesus’s words and deeds as a direct fulfillment of Holy Scripture. Citing the prophet Isaiah, the former tax collector connects the dots for his readers, ensuring that Jesus’s identity as the Messiah is readily apparent (Matt. 12:15–21; cf. Isa. 42:1–3). In fact, this is something he does all throughout his Gospel. The Pharisees, though, should’ve been able to make the same connection on their own, seeing as they were some of the most learned men of their day. Despite having put much of what we would call the Old Testament to memory, their smug self-righteousness had blinded them from seeing what was plain as day — namely, that Jesus is the Christ.
Their blindness and unbelief were so thick that even when they were presented with supernatural wonders performed at Jesus’s hand, they assumed Jesus was in league with Satan (Matt. 12:22–24). Accordingly, the healing of the blind, mute, and demon-oppressed man is attributed to Jesus being possessed by Beelzebul. This doesn’t make a lick of sense for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that demons wouldn’t expel other demons. “Is that what you really think?” Jesus probes. “Because that’s a bunch of hogwash.” “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself,” he interrogates. “How then will his kingdom stand?” (Matt. 12:26).
In so doing, Jesus was attempting to get the attention of the Pharisees, along with anyone else who’d listen, so that they might see that he was already doing all that was prophesied he would do. There was more than enough evidence already that the carpenter’s son from Nazareth was the Christ of God, meaning that what the “scribes and Pharisees” ask for in verse 38 was not only incredibly ironic but also incredibly insulting. “Give us something more,” they groan. But even in that they weren’t genuine (Matt. 16:1; Mark 8:11–13), which makes it all the more understandable when Jesus snippily replies, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt. 12:39).
“You can’t have it both ways,” the Lord seems to say. “You can’t witness signs only to say they’re demonic, only to then pine for more signs.” While the Pharisees might have carried themselves as the foremost Scriptural and spiritual authorities of their day, in reality, they were a bunch of infidels who had missed the point entirely. In order to illustrate this fiasco of unbelief, Jesus alludes to the life and ministry of the prophet Jonah (Matt. 12:39–41). As self-proclaimed biblical professionals, they would’ve been well-versed in Jonah’s story. What they weren’t ready for, however, was Jesus’s assertion that his ministry would be in some way analogous to Jonah’s. Indeed, as the Lord attests, “Something greater than Jonah” was in their midst.
No doubt, this raises a number of other questions we should pause to consider, not the least of which is why Jesus would want to compare himself to Jonah in the first place. Out of all the prophets he could have chosen to say, “My ministry is going to look like this,” he selected Jonah, the one with the worst street cred. The legacy of Jonah is troubled with most remembering him not for what he said but for what he did: run away. Why, then, would Jesus want to make this connection? Why would Jesus want to appear in the same breath as the most reluctant, obstinate prophet Israel has ever seen? Why would he want to associate himself with a preacher who fled as far as he could from the presence of the Lord? Because out of all the other prophets, it was Jonah who unknowingly demonstrated what Jesus became incarnate to accomplish.
Jesus makes a striking link between what Jonah experienced in the fish’s stomach and what “the Son of Man” would soon endure “in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). “The belly of the great fish” was Jonah’s grave. “His bodily stay in the fish,” notes R. C. H. Lenski, “typifies the stay of Jesus’ body in the tomb” (494). Although he did not literally die when he was swallowed by his appointed fish, you might say that he got a taste of death before he preached to those who were doomed to die. Therefore, in a figurative way, Jonah is representative of a prophet who rises from the grave in order to preach a message of deliverance to those who are facing certain disaster. And it just so happens that that exactly encapsulates the mission of the Christ of God.
The late Tim Keller put it like this: “Jonah went into the depths of the sea in order to save the sailors, but Jesus went into the depths of death and separation from God — hell itself — in order to save Jonah. Jonah is crushed under the weight of the ‘waves and breakers’ (Jonah 2:3) of God’s ‘waters’ (Jonah 2:5), but Jesus was buried under the waves and billows of God’s wrath” (210).
Jesus tells those stubborn, unbelieving Pharisees that he is about to give them a sign that rehearses “the sign of Jonah” that precipitated the revival of the people of Nineveh, only his sign would be truer and greater since “something greater than Jonah” was present among them. The “sign of Jonah,” you see, is the miracle of a prophet returning from the dead in order to preach to those who are dying. This is Jesus. He is the true and better Jonah since he is the prophet who goes outside of the city not to sit in self-concerned disgust but to die a self-sacrificial death in order to bring about deliverance for the whole world. “What is foreshadowed and illustrated in Jonah,” Bryan Estelle comments, “becomes reality in Christ” (3). The Son of Man would taste death not figuratively but literally for everyone in order to free everyone from death’s sting. “Here’s your sign,” Jesus seems to say, “and that’s the only sign you’re going to get.”
Every time we cross the threshold of the church and sit under the preaching of the gospel, “the sign of Jonah” is given to us all over again.
Regrettably, it still wasn’t enough. The Pharisees’ unbelief was so blinding that even after the greatest sign of all, they still wanted more. This is why Jesus uses the repentance of Nineveh to indict them for their blatant rejection of his messianic testimony (Matt. 12:41). I often imagine this encounter with the demanding “scribes and Pharisees” almost unfolding like that scene from The Incredibles, where, after another long day at a joy-sucking job, the stifled ex-superhero Mr. Incredible asks gawking kid on a tricycle what he’s waiting for. “I don’t know, something amazing, I guess,” the kid replies.
In some ways, that’s indicative of many within the church today. We’re still “wishing to see a sign,” hoping to witness something miraculous as if that’s what will finally cause us to believe and convince us that God’s Word is true. But we need not wait around for “something amazing to happen” before we believe because you and I were already given the greatest sign of all in Jesus’s death and resurrection. That’s the only sign that’s co-signed by the Trinity; that’s the only sign upon which the church is founded (Acts 2:22–24, 32; 3:13–15; 4:33).
Even though “signs and wonders” appear all over the Book of Acts, those are never the pillars upon which the church is buttressed. The stanchion and strength of the church are and always will be rooted in the death and resurrection of God’s only Son. This is “the key” to our entire faith, to imbibe the words of Robert Capon: “Death and resurrection are the key to the whole mystery of our redemption. We pray in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are forgiven in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we forgive others in Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we attempt any of those things while still trying to preserve our life, we will never manage them. They are possible only because we are dead and our life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). And they can be celebrated by us only if we accept death as the vehicle of our life in him” (71).
Indeed, the Body of Christ is founded on “the sign of Jonah.” Every time we cross the threshold of the church and sit under the preaching of the gospel, “the sign of Jonah” is given to us all over again. Indeed, every Sunday is a day in which “the sign of Jonah” is repeated and rehearsed for you because the gospel’s prevailing sign that invites sinners to believe is nothing more or less than the death and resurrection of Christ alone. True faith needs no other miracle, nor any other sign.