Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just 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
A cursory glance at the commentaries of the day or a quick Google search will reveal what I believe to be a great misunderstanding of this text. The common (modern) notion is that the “Sign of Jonah” points us toward the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. Besides the obvious problem of the math not working I hope to give other (biblical) reasons why I think the modern interpretation is incorrect, but let’s go back to the math for a moment. The biblical record shows that during the run-up to the Crucifixion Jesus would come into the city of Jerusalem to be about His “temple business,” but then he would retreat to Bethany for the night. When Jesus is arrested and taken before the kangaroo court of the Sanhedrin, this is the first night spent in Jerusalem. I’m going to lay a table out below to help us visualize things;
Thursday night – the Betrayal – N
D – Good Friday – the Crucifixion – N
D – Holy Saturday – N
D – Easter Sunday – the Resurrection
Do as much theological twister and cultural time-keeping reckoning as you would like, but I get at best two nights in the tomb.
Remembering that there were no chapter breaks in the original text we see that what follows right on the heels of our subject passages are the parables. While I firmly believe in God’s ability to perform miracles such as keeping Jonah alive in the belly of a fish for three days and nights, might we consider that Jesus was already speaking in a parable with regards to the sign of Jonah?
I submit to you that the “heart of the earth” Jesus is speaking about is the city of Jerusalem itself. Do a Google image search of “heart of the earth” and add the word Jerusalem to it. The first hits will be antiquated maps of Jerusalem as the crossroad of Europe, Asia, and Africa – the Heart of the Earth. Since we know that everything on the internet is true let’s now look at an excerpt from Wikipedia’s entry on Nineveh;
…The original meaning of the name is unclear but may have referred to a patron goddess. The cuneiform for Ninâ is a fish within a house (cf. Aramaic nuna, “fish”). This may have simply intended “Place of Fish” or may have indicated a goddess associated with fish or the Tigris…
Jonah chapter three repeatedly calls Nineveh a “great” city. It also tells us that Nineveh was “a three-day journey in extent.” Might Jesus have been telling us a parable about Jonah – a prophet, aka a covenant lawyer – being in the belly of “that great fish” Nineveh for three days (and nights) bringing a covenant lawsuit against a godless people?
The timeline of Jonah sets him in Nineveh at 760 BC preaching repentance to its (Gentile) people – which they do and God relents – and then what happens forty years later? The Assyrians take Israel captive but the Temple is not yet destroyed. Fast forward to Jesus’ ministry and we see Him – once again a prophet, a covenant lawyer – bringing a covenant lawsuit against the nation of Israel. Not only are they unrepentant, they crucify the Lord of Glory. What happens forty years later? God does not relent and Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed by the Romans. If we let Scripture interpret Scripture and add Matthew 12:41,42 as well as the Lucan synoptic to the equation…
“For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation.” – Luke 11:30
…credence is given to the notion that the sign is judgment since Scripture gives no indication that the Ninevites were aware of Jonah’s recent whaling excursion. Also, if we continue on in Matthew 12 we run into “the unclean spirit returns” parable and seen in the light of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple it becomes clearer what’s in store for Israel.
Let’s return to my timeline table from above; If “the heart of the earth” is Jerusalem we see that Jesus was, indeed, there for three days and three nights. He dipped out of Jerusalem sometime Sunday afternoon because the “Road to Emmaus” story in Luke 24 tells us it was just “toward evening” when they drew near to the village (of Emmaus). Continuing in our parabolic frame of mind – “for just as” the “heart of the earth” (or actually “heart of the land”) is not apprehended by modern readers as the geographic location that ancient readers (and commentaries) recognize it to be “so will” the belly of the great fish not be recognized likewise, if you will.
To summarize, we see God sending a prophet to warn the nation of Israel of impending judgment – previously Amos to warn Israel only to be rebuffed and then Jonah to prophesy to the Assyrian gentiles – followed by judgment on Israel. We see the same pattern when God establishes the New Covenant. God’s prophet – in this case Jesus (as well as John in the Book of Revelation with its Egyptianesque plagues) warning Israel, Israel ignoring the warnings (actually a hardening of Israel’s Pharoahesque heart), the Apostles and the disciples of Christ taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, and the destruction of the Temple (and the Old Covenant system of animal sacrifice) in AD 70. The Sign of Jonah.
He (Abraham) said to him (the rich man), ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ – Luke 16:31
Ken is a trophy of God’s grace, as well as a husband, a bicycle mechanic, and a drummer that attends Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church in Lexington, KY.
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