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Contending for the Faith
What is the Sign of Jonah?
Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 9:00am


The phrase “sign of Jonah” was used by Jesus as a typological metaphor for His future crucifixion and resurrection.

Jesus answered with this expression when asked by the Pharisees for miraculous proof the He was indeed the Messiah. The Pharisees remained unconvinced of Jesus' claims about Himself, despite His having just cured a demon-possessed man who was both blind and mute.

Shortly after the Pharisees accused Jesus of driving out demons by the power of Satan, they asked Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” But He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign and yet no sign will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah; for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:38-41).

To fully appreciate the answer the Jesus gave, we must go to the Old Testament book of Jonah. In its first chapter, we read that God commanded the prophet Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and warn its people that He was going to destroy it for its wickedness. Jonah disobediently ran from the Lord and headed for the city of Tarshish by boat. The Lord then sent a severe storm that caused the crew of the ship to fear for their lives. Jonah was soon thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish where he remained for “three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:15-17). After the three-day period, the Lord caused the great fish to vomit Jonah out onto dry land (Jonah 2:10).

It is this three-day motif that Jesus was referring back to when He spoke of the sign of Jonah. Jesus had already been producing miracles that were witnessed by many. Jesus had just performed a great sign in the Pharisees’ presence by healing a deaf man who was possessed of a demon. Rather than believe, they accused Jesus of doing this by the power of Satan. Jesus recognized their hardness of heart and refused to give them further proof of His identity. However, He did say that there would be one further sign forthcoming, His resurrection from the dead. This would be their final opportunity to be convinced.

Jesus’ paralleling of the Pharisees with the people of Nineveh is telling. The people of Nineveh repented of their evil ways (Jonah 3:4-10) after hearing Jonah’s call for repentance, while the Pharisees continued in their unbelief despite being eyewitnesses to the miracles of Jesus. Jesus was telling the Pharisees that their unbelief was culpable given the conversion of the people of Nineveh, sinners who had received far less evidence than the Pharisees themselves had witnessed.

But what are we to make of the phrase “three days and three nights”? Was Jesus saying that he would be dead for three full 24-hour periods before he would rise from the dead? NO!

The phrase “three days and three nights” need not refer to a literal 72-hour period. Let me illustrate.

Jesus was crucified on a Friday. "When evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, (Mark 15:42). According to the standard reckoning, Jesus died at about 3 p.m. "About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” that is, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?” (Matthew 27:46) on Friday (day 1). He remained dead for all of Saturday (day 2) and rose from the dead early on Sunday morning (day 3).

Attempts to place Jesus’ death on Wednesday to accommodate a literal 72-hour period are unnecessary once we take into account the Hebrew method of reckoning of each day as beginning at sundown. So the expression “three days and three nights” was used as a figure of speech meant to signify any part of three days.

God would often use signs (or miracles) in the Bible to authenticate His chosen messenger. The Lord provided Moses with several miraculous signs in order to prove to others that he was appointed by God (Exodus 4:5-9; Exodus 7:8-10, Exodus 7:19-20). God sent down fire on Elijah’s alter during Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:36-39). He performed this miracle to prove that the God of Israel was the one true God. Jesus himself would perform many miracles (or “signs”) to demonstrate His power over nature (Matthew 4:23; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 8:22-24; John 6:16-24).

The “sign of Jonah” would turn out to be Jesus’ greatest miracle of all. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead would be God’s chief sign that Jesus was Israel’s long awaited Messiah (Acts 2:23-32) and establish Christ’s claims to deity. "concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord,"  (Romans 1:3-4).

It was never about a length of time (72 hours) in the tomb.


  Belief beyond proof is faith. Belief in spite of proof is folly.  

Call or email me if you have questions.

"Saint Pete", Sr.


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