What is the sign of Jonah that Jesus is speaking about?
When reading the Gospels, we see that on more than one occasion Jesus was challenged to make a sign, perform a miracle. Now such a sign or miracle was to be the proof of his identity, of his call and mission. However Jesus knew that such a sign would not trigger faith.
Let’s read then the event regarding Jonah, where it first comes to our attention in the Gospels, Matthew 12:38-40.
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.
Here we have the first clues for the context – story of Jonah, three days and nights… Immediately we see a parallel with Jesus’ experience of death and resurrection. For this to be a sign, it should happen first, so Jesus foresees His suffering, and talks about a time when people will reflect on His suffering and resurrection. The calming of the storm came only when Jonah was thrown in the water to die, as outcast, as guilty, even as cursed.
Jonah is not the perfect model for Jesus. Accordingly, some things might be parralel, while other will not be. We can expect even a huge difference between the two. However, Jesus choses this unlikely propeht as an object lesson for a strange generation pretending to be the people of God.
If we read the same dialogue of Jesus, as presented in Luke, things get perfectly clear.
When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” (Luke 11:29-30)
What is the sign? Or the better question is who is the sign? Jonah himself was (“became”) a sign for the people of Nineveh.
He did not do any miracle, he was only subject to miracles: calming of the storm, staying alive in the fish’s belly, seeing the plant growing overnight. Probably the greatest miracle was witnessing how the people of Nineveh converted to his message, how the king himself and the nobles came down from their positions of power to listen to God’s message sent via a humble “ressurected” messenger. In other words, there was no miracle performed by Jonah (like healing the sick, for example, or raising the dead), it was only preaching the word, God’s word. And preaching it from his own experience.
Jonah was a strange man for the people of Nineveh, coming with a radical message from God. He got this courage and determination after being rescued himself from a three days and three nights imprisonment in the belly of the fish. And later delivered a message of 40 days of grace until a potential destruction would come over Nineveh. His personal story of repentance and coming from the dead was to be the object lesson for the people of Nineveh to return from their rebellion and come to a better life.
Probably we can draw now some parallels. The axis is clear: Jesus says “so will the Son of Man be to this generation”. The sign itself is Himself. Nothing more, nothing less. His presence in their midst was a sign in itself.
Jonah did no miracle except probably telling them his own miraculous story. Jesus did all the miracles, and yet they did not believe him. No wonder (if you read on) Jesus continues saying that at the judgment day, people of Nineveh will condemn people of Jerusalem…
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. (Matthew 12:41)
Jonah preached to the Gentiles and they listened, Jesus preached to His own and they did not. Nineveh was a great city, a three days journey was needed to cover it all (all the streets) – Jesus’ Mission was also for three years, going all places from Judeea to Galilee and Samaria. Jonah preached a message of warning, a destruction coming in 40 days. Jesus warned the same and the destruction of Jerusalem came exactly after 40 years. It was indeed “this generation”.
People of Nineveh repented. People of Israel were still on probation time. We are also.
Can we imagine the Gospel writers, inking these words… seeing the actual fulfilment in their own personal story, in the story of the city and nation they loved, in the story of their resurrected Lord? Preaching the same message while time lasts. We need no signs, nor a greater sign, we need no more prophets or miracles. The more we get these, the more we are condemned by our own rebellion.
Just believe Him and His word. He is greater than Jonah.