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In this post we are continuing our series, Fix Our Eyes. We’ve been talking about putting down our sword during these challenging times and allowing God to fight our battle for us. Over the past two weeks we’ve been looking at the life of Jonah, and last week we ended with Jonah’s experiences foreshadowing events in the life of Jesus. With everything we’ve learned about Jonah so far, that would seem unlikely, but in Matthew 12:38-42 it says:
“Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.’ He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.’”
In other versions of the Bible it says, “One greater than Jonah.” So, let’s use the phrase, “Something or someone greater than Jonah.” What’s Jesus talking about? Jesus takes us back to Jonah 1:17, “Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” In Matthew 12 Jesus is more concerned about the “sign of Jonah” than the greatness or lack of greatness in Jonah. Just as Jonah emerging from the belly of the giant sea creature in three days was a sign to his generation, so Jesus’ resurrection from the dead would be an even greater sign to all generations.
So, what’s the sign? Jesus openly told His disciples the meaning of the sign after Peter’s confession that “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). After instructing His disciples to tell no one that He was the Messiah, Jesus opened His heart to them: “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Matthew 16:21).
This “sign” is the foundation of Jesus’ message in Matthew 12, but there are other similarities in the stories of Jonah and Jesus. Let me share a few:
- Each of them came from and began his ministry in Lower Galilee; Jonah from Gath-Hepher, and Jesus from Nazareth (2 Kings 14:25; Matt. 2:23).
2. In Jonah 1:3 Jonah took a ship which was traveling to Tarshish. At some point in the voyage, God sent a powerful storm with winds so fierce that the terrified sailors thought they were going to die. While the crew was in a panic, Jonah was peacefully sleeping below deck. Jonah 1:4-5 says, “Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.”
This parallels the life of Christ, who also slept through a fierce storm that his disciples thought would sink their boat. Luke 8:22-25 says, “One day Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side of the lake.’ So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger. The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Master, Master, we’re going to drown!’ He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. ‘Where is your faith?’ he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, ‘Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.’”
We see the similarity, but there is also a contrast. Jonah caused a storm; Jesus calmed a storm. He had authority over it.
- In a way that reflected Jesus’ future sacrifice, Jonah was willing to sacrifice his life for the lives of his people, the Israelites. Jonah was also willing to sacrifice his life to save his Gentile shipmates. In Jonah 1:12 he says, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea . . . and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” While Jonah was willing to sacrifice his life for the lives of his people and his Gentile shipmates, Jesus was willing to sacrifice His life for the salvation of the world.
4. Jonah spent three days inside the belly of a great fish because of his own sinfulness and rebellion. Jesus spent three days inside the belly of the earth because of our sin and rebellion.
Now, I don’t want you to miss this! Somehow the citizens of Nineveh had learned of Jonah’s “resurrection” from the belly of the fish, because Jesus tells us in Matthew 12:39 that Jonah was a “sign” to that generation even as the risen Lord would be a sign to his: “He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’” And in Luke 11:30 He says, “For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.”
Remember what we said last week about why the people of Nineveh repented so quickly? Let me give you a quick recap of my argument. Remember I said there were terrible plagues in 765 and 759 BC in Assyria. This would have caused the people to wonder why the gods were angry. Then I said the Assyrians had a god named Dagon. He was the fish god. So, if the people were all worked up over why they were suffering from plagues, and all of the sudden a man is thrown up by a giant sea creature on their shores…they might be open to listening to this “messenger of the gods.”
We talked about how Jonah most likely found himself on the seacoast of Mesopotamia because he was in Nineveh soon after he got back on dry land. And if Jonah was vomited out on the Mesopotamian coast of the Assyrian Empire, there would likely have been witnesses to this event. In fact, God would have made sure that there were plenty of credible witnesses to his arrival. After three days in the belly of a sea-creature’s stomach, the stomach acids likely bleached Jonah’s skin white, and digested off all his body hair. Those who saw the event must have followed him wherever he went. They could have followed him as he walked to Nineveh. The crowd would have been waiting with bated breath to hear what this “messenger of the gods” had to say. The extremely dramatic reaction of repentance to Jonah’s weak message to the Ninevites strengthens my position. So, Jesus saying that Jonah was a “sign” lends even greater credence to my argument. I believe Jonah was a sign to the people of Assyria because they saw the event.
- While in the giant sea creature, Jonah knew that “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). Jesus’ name means “Yahweh saves.” The Lord Jesus is the way of salvation. Hebrews 5:9 says, “and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
- Both preached to the Gentiles. Most of the prophets we encounter in the Old Testament are sent to call Israel back to God. Jonah is one of the few sent to the Gentiles (the people of Nineveh). He foreshadows Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles. Also, as with Christ, the emphasis of preaching to the Gentiles happened after Jonah’s own “resurrection” from the fish.
The story of Jonah foreshadows the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. His mission was to call everyone, including the Gentile nations, to repentance and into a covenant relationship with God the Father. Matthew 28:18-19 says, “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…’” In Acts 1:8 we read, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (ESV)
It’s beautiful how the Old and New Testament flow seamlessly together pointing us to the greatest event in human history, the resurrection and redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
I’m going to end it there and next week we will be moving on to our new series, Back to the Basics.