“sign of Jonah”
was used by Jesus as a
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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,"
It was never about a length of time (72 hours) in the tomb.