Sign of Jonah

by Doug Batchelor


"Then some of the Scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, 'Teacher, we want to see a sign from You. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For 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." Matthew 12:38-40.

What exactly is the "sign of Jonah"? That is the big question in connection with this familiar text. Unfortunately, most of the attention is usually diverted to the lesser issue of the "three days and three nights." As a result, this particular passage in Matthew has managed to cause intense confusion, frustration, and even division among laymen and scholars alike.

Three Days and Three Nights
Jesus said that the Son of Man will "be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." Assuming that "in the heart of the earth" means in the tomb, if Jesus died Friday and rose Sunday, then we note that Jesus was not in the tomb three nights even though the Scripture distinctly states "three nights."

I have encountered people who, because of this apparent discrepancy, felt that the Bible just could not be trusted. I have known others who, in order to accommodate the three nights mentioned in this verse, adopted the theory that Jesus died on Wednesday or Thursday. Others reason that Jesus did not really mean three literal nights.

Frankly, it makes me sad to see Christians expend so much energy struggling to explain something that the Bible clearly explains itself! The problem is not in "the three days and three nights" at all. The problem springs from our misunderstanding of the phrase "in the heart of the earth."

Right Time, Wrong Place
This reminds me of a similar experience the Millerite Christians went through over 150 years ago when they anticipated the coming of Christ in 1844. Their belief was based upon the Scripture in Daniel 8:14 that states: "Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed." The Millerites located the starting point of this prophecy (which was 457 B.C.) in Daniel 9:25: "From the going forth of the command to restore and to build Jerusalem ... ." By adding 2,300 prophetic days (a day in prophecy equals a year according to Ezekiel 4:6), they calculated that Jesus would come in 1844 because "obviously" the earth must be the sanctuary that was to be cleansed by fire.

When Jesus did not come, the Millerites tried to find the error in their time reckoning. Many continued refiguring the dates, when in reality the problem was not with the time but with the place. Nowhere in the Bible is the earth called the sanctuary. It did not mean the earth. The problem was not in their calculation of time; it was in the meaning of the word "sanctuary." Jesus was not coming to cleanse the earth with fire in 1844. He did, however, begin a special work as our High Priest to cleanse the sanctuary in heaven from the sins of His people (Daniel 8:12-14, Hebrews 8:1-6, Leviticus 16:1-17). It was also at this time that Christ began to cleanse His sanctuary, or church, on earth of the false doctrines that had taken hold during the Dark Ages.

The Heart of the Earth
Whenever we question the meaning of a passage of Scripture, we must compare it with other related passages and allow the Bible to interpret itself. Since the term "heart of the earth" is found only in Matthew chapter 12 and nowhere else in Scripture, we will need to look at similar or related verses.

The phrase "in the earth" appears 66 times in the King James Version. Not one of those references refers to the grave.

In the Lord's Prayer when we pray, "Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven," does that mean we're praying for God's will to be done in the tomb, or the grave, as it is in heaven? No, of course not! It means among the people of earth---the nations of the earth---as it is done among the angels in heaven.

In the second commandment we read, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Exodus 20:4. We can easily recognize that "in the earth beneath" does not mean in the grave, or tomb, but rather in the world.

Again Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." Matthew 5:5. Does that mean they will inherit the tomb or the grave? I think you get my point.

In Matthew 12:40, the word "heart" comes from the Greek word "kardia," which is how we get the word "cardiac."

According to Strong's concordance, the word "kardia" means: the heart, i.e., the thoughts or feelings [mind]; also the middle.

The Greek word for earth is "ge" [pronounced ghay]. It means: soil; a region, or the solid part or the whole of the terrene globe (including the occupants in each application)-country, ground, land, world.

So the phrase "in the heart of the earth" can easily be translated "in the midst of the world," or in the grip of this lost planet Jesus came to save.

In other words, the Lord was telling His disciples in Matthew 12:40 that as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish, so the Son of Man would be in the heart of the earth. Notice that Jonah was not stationary in the great fish, as with a dead person in a tomb. Rather, he was a mobile, living captive to go wherever the fish took him. When the fish went up, he went up; and when the fish went down, he went down. In like manner, Jesus was a captive of the devil. He was completely in the control of a demon-inspired mob that took Him from place to place, heaping abuse, insult, and physical punishment upon our Redeemer. When He suffered the punishment and penalty for our sins, He was "in the heart," or in the midst, of this lost world.

The Hour of Truth
The life of Jesus was marked by several pivotal moments. When He turned 12 in Jerusalem, He became aware of His life calling and special relationship with the Father. At His baptism, Jesus began His life of public ministry and preaching.

But when exactly were the sins of the world placed upon the Lamb of God? Was it when He died upon the cross, or when they laid His body in the grave? No. That was part of paying the penalty for sin, but by that time His suffering had ended. Was it perhaps when they drove the nails into His hands? That was certainly part of it, but the starting point was before the crucifixion.

Jesus began bearing our guilt, our shame, and our penalty after He prayed that prayer of surrender for the third time in the garden of Gethsemane. On that Thursday evening, Jesus prayed in agony, sweating great drops of blood. He said, "Not my will, but thine, be done." Luke 22:42-44. From that moment on, Christ was fulfilling His destiny as the guilt bearer for the fallen race. The mob came and carried Him away. Jesus was a captive of the devil. His communion with heaven was severed. The cord that had always linked Him to His Father was cut by the scissors of one sin. He was "in the depths of the world."

There are five Bible verses in which Jesus refers to Thursday evening as "the hour."

"Then cometh he to his disciples, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners." Matthew 26:45.

"Then He came the third time and said to them, 'Are you still sleeping and resting? It is enough! The hour has come; behold, the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners.' " Mark 14:41, NKJV.

"And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him." Luke 22:14.

"Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone." John 16:32.

"Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee." John 17:1.

According to Hebrew law, the sins of the people were to be placed upon the Passover lamb before it was slain. During the Last Supper, with the bread and grape juice, Jesus sealed His new covenant to be the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world.

A marked change took place the hour Christ was betrayed into the "hands of sinners"-or we might better say into the hands of the devil. Something different began to happen. You see, before this point in Jesus' ministry, every time a mob tried to capture or stone Him or cast Him off a cliff, He passed unharmed right through their fingers. This was because He was innocent before the Father and under the divine angelic protection. His hour had not yet come. It was not yet His time to suffer for the sins of the world. But after that hour-Thursday evening-when the past, present, and future sins of the world were placed upon the Lamb of God, it was then time.

From the moment He began bearing the penalty for our sins, Jesus was in the heart of the earth. The crowd beat Him. They spat upon Him. He was dragged from one trial to another. From the high priest to Pilot, then to Herod and back to Pilot. He was in the clutches of this evil world, the clutches of the devil who is the prince of this world.

Imagine how Jonah must have suffered during his ordeal as a captive in the midst of the great fish. Three days in that slimy, stench-filled darkness must have seemed like an eternity. (Have you considered that if Jonah could survive alive in that fish's digestive abyss, he may not have been the only creature still alive and squirming around in there?) Yet the suffering of our Lord was infinitely greater than that of the wayward prophet. How much Jesus must love us to willingly endure all that in order to spare us the miserable fate of the lost!

So as we look again at our Bible text, we understand that Jesus was "in the heart of the earth," the grip of the enemy, over a period of three days and three nights---Thursday night, Friday night, and Saturday night. Jesus never said that it would be three 24-hour segments, but rather over a period of three days and three nights.

Jonah the Sacrifice
There are many other ways in which Jonah was a type of Christ. You remember, of course, that just like Jesus, Jonah was asleep in a boat in the midst of a storm. Jonah instructed the sailors to throw him overboard if they would survive and have peace. I often wondered why Jonah didn't just jump overboard. If he had, the sailors would not have had to personally take responsibility and offer him. Like Jesus, Jonah too was a willing sacrifice. The wrath of God was upon all those doomed sailors, and Jonah took the wrath by offering himself. In the same way, we must personally take Jesus and offer His blood as our sacrifice in order to pass from death to life and have that peace that passes understanding.

Isaiah 53:10 says: "When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand."

Now notice the similarities between Jonah's prayer from the fish and the prophetic prayer of the Messiah from the cross.

Jonah 2:3-"For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me."

Psalm 69:2-"I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me."

Jonah prayed by faith from the bowels of that sea monster and believed that the Lord could hear him in spite of the evidence of his senses-that he was hopelessly separated from God. "Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple." Jonah 2:4.

In like manner, when Jesus sensed the awful separation from His Father during His ordeal on the cross, He cried out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Mark 15:34. Then by faith He reached up into the heavenly temple and prayed, "Father, into thy hands I commend [commit] my spirit." Luke 23:46. This was a tremendous act of faith, as Christ was bearing the incomprehensible guilt and sins of a lost world and felt the eternal separation from His Father.

The Sign of Jonah Today
Many think that the "sign of Jonah" was the three days and three nights, but notice in the gospel of Luke that when referring to the sign of Jonah, Jesus never mentions the time period at all. The emphasis of Christ is, rather, on the way His people rejected His ministry, preaching, and prophecy in comparison with the Ninevites, who received and repented at the preaching of Jonah.

Luke 11:29-32 records: "And when the people were gathered thick together, he [Jesus] began to say, This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation. ... The men of Nineve shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here."

After Jonah came out of the water, it took him three days to reach the city of Nineveh. He then entered the city one day's journey, or 12 hours, and preached that after 40 days the city would be destroyed (Jonah 3:3, 4).

This same time sequence of three and one-half followed by 40 is also found elsewhere in Scripture. For example, Elijah ministered for three and one-half years during the famine and then fled for 40 days from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:1-8).

In like manner, Jesus came up from the waters of baptism and preached to the Jews for three and one-half years, warning that in one generation (or 40 years), the city and temple would be destroyed (Matthew 12:41). Because the nation of Israel did not listen and repent, it was destroyed. Only a small percentage of the Jewish people accepted Him and were ready. Could this happen again to the church at the time of His second coming?

Many are the ways in which Jonah was a sign, or type, of Christ. The principle sign of Jesus to His people was His resurrection. "Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. ... But he spake of the temple of his body." John 2:18-21.

In the same way, the "sign of Jonah" to the Ninevites was that God had, in figure, raised him from certain death. No doubt Jonah, like Jesus, bore scars from his ordeal. As Jonah went down the streets of Nineveh preaching, his skin could very well have been bleached and raw-covered with bits of dried seaweed. There have been at least three examples in modern times where people were swallowed by some type of large fish and were later rescued alive. The reports were that their skin was "burnt and pale." I am sure Jonah shared with his audience the highlights of his adventure and his virtual resurrection from certain death.

Today every real Christian has, like Jonah, experienced a type of resurrection and new life (Romans 6:4). We are each are called to go where God sends us-without consulting our fears-and to preach a message of mercy and warning. Yet much of the Christian church is turning away from modern Jonahs. Still today, there are those who will not believe unless they see signs and wonders, healings and miracles.

The sign Jesus gave to His generation is still valid today. For three days and nights He took the punishment through suffering and the penalty through death. Then He rose again from the jaws of the grave. And most important of all, Jesus gave us His eternal Word to guide us to the kingdom. Christ said, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." Luke 16:31.

There may be some Jonahs reading this article now. God has called you to do evangelism, but you are fleeing to Tarshish on a stormy sea. Write Amazing Facts now and inquire about our lay evangelism training program.

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