Jonah 1:17

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The Sign of Jonah
Jonah 1:17; Matthew 12:38-42; 16:1-4


As our story resumes, Jonah has been unfaithful to God and to his mission. God, in His faithfulness, has caused a storm to halt Jonah’s progress as he sails away in the opposite direction from Nineveh. The sailors have thrown him overboard. The story could end here and just provide a cautionary word to the people of God: “Don’t be like Jonah!” God has other plans for His wayward servant.


Out of the Storm and Into the Fish (Jonah 1:17)

“And the Lord appointed…”

The fish is prepared for Jonah for that moment in time, as a way for Jonah to escape death, and to escape the shameful legacy of an incomplete mission.

He is not done with Jonah! If you are still drawing breath, He is not done with you. There are times we feel that surely God must want to wash His hands of us, or has been waiting to zap us. The truth is that he is looking for opportunities to work His grace and mercy into our lives. If you are being disciplined like Jonah, it is because the Lord has appointed that for your good. He disciplines those He loves! (Prov 3:11-12; Heb 12:5-11)


“…a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights”

We are not sure what exactly swallowed Jonah. The text offers the simple description “great fish” (dag gadol). There is no specific word for whale in the Old Testament, so we are left with several different options, although a whale is the only large sea creature whose esophagus would accommodate something the size of a human.  Perhaps more curious a question is how Jonah survived.

Jonah’s survival was a miracle in many ways. Consider the timing of the fish. It arrived before Jonah drowned. Then there’s the sticky question of how Jonah survived inside the fish. Between a lack of air and the fish’s digestive processes, Jonah’s odds were next to nothing. Scripture offers us very little in the way of an explanation of how Jonah survived. Some scholars have even surmised that perhaps Jonah died and was resurrected by God later in the journey.

The nature of the miracle may not bother some, given God’s track record for the miraculous, but it causes some people to wrestle with the text, particularly because of the time and place in which we find ourselves.


An Excursus: Naturalism vs. Christian Theism

Because of our upbringing as Americans, we approach the story of Jonah and the fish through a post-Enlightenment lens, thoroughly entrenched in the Scientific Method. As a result, when  we look at something that we do not understand, we focus on how it came to be.

Our curiosity is a gift, and as we discover things about God’s design in nature, it is supposed to fuel our wonder about God, the designer (Ps 19:1-4). Scientific understanding comes through repeated observation of natural events. We use our understanding of clouds and their formation to guess where tornados will appear. Science assumes a natural cause for a natural event because it is only geared to measure natural causes, not to help us figure out why something miraculous occurred. Miracles have supernatural causes, so using science to learn about them is simply using the wrong tool for the job.

The idea that miracles cannot exist because we cannot observe them is actually a part of a worldview called naturalism, best expressed by astrophysicist Carl Sagan, “The cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Naturalism sees the world as a closed system, all natural causes and naturally observable phenomena. Naturalism wrongly assumes that if science cannot be used to figure out how and why something happened, it either

a)     didn’t happen or

b)   has a natural cause

Naturalism discards a miracle like Jonah’s survival in the whale because it only uses science as a way of understanding what happened. The problem is that naturalism itself is not science! It is a philosophical position, arrived at by using tools that are outside of the scientist’s toolkit. The problem comes in when naturalism bills itself as a “scientific” way of looking at the world, when the position it takes are not arrived in by scientific means. It is a worldview that wrongly advertises itself as science!

Christianity holds a supernatural worldview, as clearly stated by Paul in Colossians:

“For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16–17 ESV)

We hold that all creation began with God and functions because of Him. Miracles are an expression of his personhood. God makes our world work in a regular way, but because He is a person He is free to act according to His nature instead of being governed by the “laws” he sets up for His creation.

If I am the author of a story, I have the capacity to write events the way I choose, not according to the context of a story. If I am writing about Medieval times, I can use a computer. I don’t have to use vellum and a stylus. The rules don’t apply to me.

We don’t need to find stories of modern-day people who survived in the belly of sea creatures in order to validate the story of Scripture. The author treats it as a miracle and we can accept it at face value. How Jonah survives inside the fish is not the point of the story. Why he does is what our author is considering.


The Pharisees Challenge Jesus (Mt 12:38-42; parallel in Lk 11:29-32)

Seeking a sign (v. 38)

This passage is not about Jesus facing off with the Pharisees over the issue of seeking a sign from God. In the larger context of chapter 12, Jesus has demonstrated several miracles (12:9-14), including casting out a demon (12:22-29). The Pharisees attributed the source of His power to Satan (Beelzebub)!

Scripture does not discourage us from seeking healing, relief from evil spirits, or other miracles from God. Signs point to something or someone, and should always point us the the person of Jesus. In and of themselves, signs without an encounter with the living God, will produce no change in your life. Wayne Grudem states that signs can be used to confirm the truthfulness of the message (Heb 2:3-4), demonstrate God’s care for those in need (Mt 14:14), remove roadblocks to fruitful Gospel ministry (Ac 16:16-18) and glorify God (Mt 9:6-8; 15:30-31; Lk 7:14-16) (Systematic Theology, pp. 369-371).

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were asking for a sign in order to invalidate Jesus’ ministry. They wanted control over when and where signs happened, putting them in a position over God.

An example of this was a man named Charles Bradlaugh an avowedly atheist member of British Parliament in the 1880’s, who would walk into public meeting, take out his pocket watch, and challenge God to strike him dead in 60 seconds’ time. The fact that he did not drop dead can be attributed to God’s being “slow to anger” (Ex 34:6), rather than to His nonexistence.

Lastly, in Matthew 4:1-11, the devil attempts to get Jesus to do miracles to prove Himself. He does not need to prove Himself because He knows exactly who He is! The question to you, rather, is “do you know who He is?”


An Evil and Adulterous Generation (v. 39)

Jesus’ reply is characteristically and unflinchingly direct— with all the “sweetness” of a shovel to the face! This is the way we should expect God to look, not pandering to us, but showing us clearly where our ways diverge from His. Jesus cared about His challengers enough to give them a hearing and a graciously truthful response. After all, where would their skepticism and unbelief lead them? They were baiting a lion, tempting the wrath of God, which remained on them unless they turned from their sin (Lk 13:5; Jn 3:36). Jesus’ death and burial was an offer of payment for such sins, if they would turn to Him in repentance and faith.

In His response, Jesus calls out an “evil and adulterous” generation (Dt. 32:5; Hos 1-3). “Adulterous” is appropriate because they are being spiritually unfaithful to the Lord. In this context “adultery” is another word for idolatry, forbidden by the first of the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

So what idol did the Pharisees serve? The idol of Power and Position among men.

“So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs.If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”” (John 11:47–48 ESV)

They had exalted their role of leadership and the importance of the Jewish nation into an idol, which they would kill Jesus in order to serve.


Excursus: Idolatry

One way to spot idols is looking at what brings meaning and and worth to your life.


Fill in this blank for yourself:

“Life only has meaning/I only have worth if…”


Here are some common idols in our nation and local community:

1. Comfort Idolatry:

Life only has meaning/I only have worth if… I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life


2. Approval Idolatry:

Life only has meaning/I only have worth if… I am loved/respected by ____________


3. Control Idolatry:

Life only has meaning/I only have worth if… I am able to get mastery in my life in the area of ___________


These things are generally good things that have been elevated to the level of idols. They are needs that we seek to fill in another way, apart from the Lord! Lastly, they are desires that terminate on us, our security, validation or enjoyment instead of God’s glory.

We must humble ourselves before God and ask Him to deliver us from our idols, putting them away in faith and repentance.


Three days in the heart of the earth (v. 40-42)

Jesus makes an important comparison between Jonah and his time inside the fish to His being “in the heart of the earth” for three days and nights. This is a startling prediction of His death, and the fact that there would be a well-defined time limit to how long His body would remain in the tomb. Jonah would have been lost to death without God’s preservation, and Jesus would have remained dead had He not conquered Death itself.

Jesus then shifts to speaking of the eventual judgment of this generation, and some surprising witnesses before God as Judge. First to make an appearance are the Ninevites who repented at the preaching of Jonah, though they were

1)    wicked idolaters,

2)    Assyrians who had viciously sacked Israel, and

3)   Gentiles

Yet in contrast to the generation in which Jesus ministered (specifically the Pharisees in this case), they repented when Jonah preached! The Jews would have been shocked to be unfavorably compared to the Ninevites.

Secondly, Jesus references 1 Kings 10:1-10, in which the Queen of the South (Sheba) came from a great distance to hear the wisdom of Solomon and test him with questions. In contrast to the Pharisees, she was an honest inquirer, and believed the answers she received, and appreciated Solomon’s wisdom. This is also interesting because women would not have been allowed to admit testimony in a court of law during Jesus’ time.

In Matthew 12,  Jesus claimed that He was greater than David (vv. 3-4), the Temple (v. 6), the Sabbath (v. 8), Jonah (v. 41), and Solomon (v. 42). These are stout and truthful claims that He aggressively presents to the Pharisees, in an attempt to shake them from their self-righteous moorings.


The Pharisees Challenge Jesus a Second Time (Mt. 16:1-3)

Later in His ministry the Pharisees attempt the same attack, seeking a “sign from heaven.” The language “from heaven” is even more direct, asking if He is sent from God. Jesus again confronts them, saying they are able to interpret the weather, but unable to interpret the “signs of the times.” They are unable to see that Jesus is the Messiah promised to them from the beginning (Gn 3:15).


The Sign of Jonah (12: 38-39; 16:4)

When Jesus discusses the Sign of Jonah, it would be the perfect opportunity to demythologize the story of Jonah and the fish, but instead Jesus validates the miracle by using it as factually as the story from 1 Kings 10, even making a smaller-to-greater comparison!

The meaning of the Sign of Jonah is simple: Jesus spoke of Him taking on the death they deserved to die. He became obedient to death (Phil 2:8). They put Him in a borrowed tomb and sealed it up, but that Sunday morning, he got up, shook the grave clothes off and walked out!

Jesus was saying to the adulterous generation: “Though you were unfaithful, I will be your perfect sacrifice. I will satisfy the righteous wrath of God for your idolatry.”

The sign of Jonah is for you as well: You were on death row and Jesus came knocking on your door, offering to take your place.

Jonah was taken beneath the waves in order to save him, but Jesus was taken under the earth to save us!


What the Sign Accomplishes For Us

1. We are given a new hope!

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” (1 Peter 1:3 ESV)

2. We are justified before God

“who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Romans 4:25 ESV)

3. We will receive glorified bodies in heaven

“And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.” (1 Corinthians 6:14 ESV)

4. We live with a new focus, redirecting our lives towards Him!

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1–4 ESV)


Discussion Questions

1.     Do you see God as looking for opportunities to demonstrate grace and mercy in your life, or do you see Him as looking for opportunities to punish you?

2.     Do you have faith that God can work miraculously in you life, for His glory? Do you want Him to? Why or why not?

3.    Do a heart check for idols by completing this statement:

“Life only has meaning/I only have worth if…”

4. What benefits of the resurrection stir your heart most, and why?