Jesus and the Sign of Jonah: The Only Sign We’ll Ever Need

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s proclamation; and look—something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the south will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and look—something greater than Solomon is here! (Matthew 12:38–42)

The Pharisees’ request for a sign from Jesus came after they accused him of being demon-possessed and working for the devil. Earlier in Matthew 12, we’ve seen that, as a group, they were already “plotting to destroy him” (verse 13). And Jesus had already warned them that they were on the wrong side of judgment.

Before we understand Jesus’s answer, we need to see all that — it’s the context for how he responds.

There’s more context for this response too: most of the Pharisees’ accusations against Jesus arose after he did a miracle in front of them, usually a healing.

They had already seen signs, in other words. God had been generously pouring out signs and wonders, and he had been doing it on behalf of ordinary people — the poor, the broken, the disenfranchised.

But the Pharisees, who were the self-appointed guardians of the law and arbiters of what constituted faithfulness, wanted him to do show them something bigger and better. Most of all, they wanted Jesus to jump to please them.

Rather than recognize his God-given authority in the world, evident in his ability to heal and forgive and deliver people from spiritual oppression, they wanted him to recognize their authority to judge others by giving them a sign at their request.

When people approached Jesus in genuine need and asked him for things, it was rare in the extreme for him to turn them down. But that wasn’t at all what this was. This was more insincerity; it was another trap.

Which explains Jesus’s strange, harsh, and beautiful answer.

He would not give them a sign.

Not quite yet.

But he did something else — something he had not ever done before in the entirety of his ministry as Matthew describes it.

He declared his intention to die.

The Sign of the Prophet Jonah

The Old Testament story of Jonah is one of judgment, rebellion, and sheer hopelessness and grief, ending in death itself. You probably know it, so I won’t retell it in detail — but recall that Jonah was supposed to preach repentance to his enemies, to give them a chance to turn around.

Jonah’s death (for that is what it is to be cast overboard in a storm and swallowed by a great fish — it is death, if not in final fact, then in all its ramifications) ended both his life and the opportunity for Nineveh to be saved.

The prayer of Jonah, a cry of agonizing regret and startling hope, is one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible.

Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from inside the fish:

I called to the LORD in my distress,
and He answered me.
I cried out for help in the belly of Sheol;
You heard my voice.

You threw me into the depths,
into the heart of the seas,
and the current overcame me.
All Your breakers and Your billows swept over me.

But I said: I have been banished
from Your sight,
yet I will look once more
toward Your holy temple.
The waters engulfed me up to the neck;
the watery depths overcame me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
I sank to the foundations of the mountains;
the earth with its prison bars closed behind me forever!

But You raised my life from the Pit, Lord my God!
As my life was fading away,
I remembered Yahweh.
My prayer came to You,
to Your holy temple.

Those who cling to worthless idols
forsake faithful love,
but as for me, I will sacrifice to You
with a voice of thanksgiving.
I will fulfill what I have vowed.
Salvation is from the LORD! (Jonah 2:1-9)

When Jonah essentially came back from the dead after three days lost in the depths of the sea, his preaching had power because he himself had become a sign. He was a sign not only of Yahweh’s power, but also of his willingness to forgive and restore. The prophet who ran away and was sent to face divine justice repented and came back.

Jonah didn’t work a miracle. He was a miracle.

If such a thing could happen, then Nineveh, too, could repent and believe that God could have mercy on them.

If one who had been banished from the holy temple of his God could be welcomed home again like a prodigal son — if one who had in fact forsaken faithful love could return to the sacrifices of God with a voice of thanksgiving — then Yahweh’s mercies were great indeed.

Something Greater than Jonah

In this passage, Jesus declared to the Pharisees that he would eventually give them the sign they asked for: he would give them the sign of the prophet Jonah. But he also intimated that they would likely refuse to heed it when it came.

Though God’s mercy would be there for them, they would not, as a group, repent and take hold of it like the Ninevites did.

Jesus also spoke boldly of his own role in history. When we read his words now, thousands of years later, Jesus is notable for the humility, the gentle winsomeness in how he speaks. Yet he didn’t shy away from declaring the fact of himself to those who needed so desperately to know him: he was greater than Jonah, greater than Solomon. Ancient Gentile oppressors had repented when Jonah came to them, dripping wet and bleached with stomach acid; an ancient Gentile queen had traveled the traveled the world just to hear Solomon speak. One day, one day soon, the sign of Jonah would cause oppressors and rulers, Gentiles and Jews, peasants and slaves alike to bow the knee.

But this group of religious watchmen, secure in their own self-perceived faithfulness to God and superiority over others, refused to do so.

An Evil and Adulterous Generation

Jesus called the Pharisees and those they represented an “evil and adulterous generation.” By now, our ears should be well enough attuned to hear the Old Testament echoes.

“Evil” — fruitless, withered and corrupt, dead when it should be alive, bringing death when it should be giving life.

“Adulterous” is the cry of Hosea’s God, the God who calls his people a bride and yearns for them to be faithful. Both are deeply rooted Old Testament pictures. Jesus didn’t apply these terms to the Pharisees because he liked name-calling. He did it because he was a prophet: one who was responsible to call God’s people to recognize where they had gone astray and correct their ways.

He did it to jar them into seeing the truth.

So they could come home.

The Urgency of Recognizing God

In the particulars of his story, Jonah is an odd type of Christ. He didn’t actually want to go to Nineveh: he ran away specifically because he did not want them to repent. He wanted them to suffer for what they had done, to feel the fires of wrath unleashed against them.

By contrast, for Jesus, the repentance and homecoming of his people was the “joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2, NKJV).

Jesus never ran away from his mission to preach repentance and return, deliverance and welcome. He ran toward it. His entire ministry on earth was a running toward it.

And like Jonah, he would soon become a sign — the great sign, the only sign we will ever need.

The sign that God is alive and all-powerful.

The sign that God is loving and all-merciful.

The sign that the kingdom has come, and we can come home.

All we need to do is recognize him and respond, as the Pharisees did not.

In the NKJV, Jonah 2:8-9 is rendered, “Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own Mercy. But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.”

Because the sign of Jonah has been given to us, we need not forsake our own Mercy. We too can recognize, with the ancients, with millions in our own day: salvation is of the Lord.

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This is Part 218 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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One response to “Jesus and the Sign of Jonah: The Only Sign We’ll Ever Need”

  1. Joanne L. Larson Avatar
    Joanne L. Larson

    One of the best explanations I ever heard!

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