“No sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Matthew 12:39
Jesus often endured the Pharisees’ skepticism and ridicule. Even though they witnessed many signs and miracles, they outright refused to believe Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Now, the Pharisees wanted a special sign. They dared to ask Jesus for a signal that would convince them He was the Son of God. Naturally, Jesus flatly refused to indulge these unbelievers instead telling them they would only receive the sign of the prophet Jonah.
What exactly was the sign of Jonah? What was Jesus talking about, and what did it have to do with Him being the Son of God? In this hard-hitting passage of Scripture, Jesus plainly explains Himself. And after He passes judgment on the Pharisees, He gives the rest of us an important warning.
Asking for a Sign
In Matthew 12 (also Mark 8 and Luke 11), Jesus and the Pharisees are repeatedly going head-to-head. The Pharisees constantly followed Jesus, questioning His every word and action. Their continued lack of belief that Jesus was the true Messiah finally culminated in their plan to kill Him (v14).
Jesus was completely aware of their scheming, of course. Yet, He continued healing the multitudes and preaching until someone brought to Him a man (presumably) who was blind, mute, and demon-possessed. Jesus healed this man, and when the Pharisees heard about it, they declared the only way Jesus was casting out demons was by the power of Satan. Jesus quickly sets them straight and condemns them for blaspheming the Holy Spirit, the only unpardonable sin.
“Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come (v32).”
Jesus goes on to admonish the Pharisees to mind their words.
“But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words, you will be justified, and by your words, you will be condemned (v36-37).”
After this beratement, the Pharisees audaciously demanded a sign from Jesus, but He curtly says no.
“But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and 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 (v39-40).’”
An Evil and Adulterous Generation
Jesus was quite clear. They are an “evil and adulterous generation.” Their rebellion against God and their excessive pride made them wicked in Jesus’ sight. And so, the only sign they would get is the sign of Jonah.
It’s important to note the Pharisees didn’t want a sign confirming who Jesus is. They were looking purely for a sign that would convince them Jesus is who He says He is
This sign is different from those others have asked God to reveal. The story of Gideon in Judges 6:36-40 is a great example. When Gideon asked God for a sign by putting fleece on the ground, he wasn’t asking God to prove He is God, the Creator of the world. Gideon already knew who God was, and he already trusted God. So, when Gideon asked God for a sign, it was a sign of confirmation that he should indeed go into battle. He didn’t need convincing, only confirmation.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, still needed convincing. But Jesus told them they would only receive the sign of Jonah, a famous prophet they knew everything about.
A Quick Review of Jonah
If you have never read the story of Jonah, now is a good time. It is only four chapters long, a very short read. But it is packed with lessons to learn plus the prophecy of a coming Messiah.
Approximately 750-790 years before Jesus’ birth, Jonah was ministering to the ten tribes of Israel. He was a reasonably well-known prophet, yet the Bible only records his encounter with a giant sea animal and the town of Ninevah. So, it is important to have some context about Jonah’s time.
The Middle East was at peace. The kings of both Assyrian and Syria were weak, which allowed the king of Israel, Jeroboam, to expand Israel’s borders to reclaim the territory once occupied under King David and King Solomon. But while the country prospered, the spiritual health of the people was in great poverty.
Serving God under Moses’ Law had become purely ritualistic, and idol worship was on the rise. Justice under the Law had become skewed and corrupted, and the people increasingly ignored God. Eventually, God sought to punish Israel for its disobedience, which He did when He allowed it to be taken captive by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.
But first, the Israelites needed to learn a valuable lesson, so God sent Jonah to deliver a message to the people of Ninevah, a huge Assyrian city (now Mosul, Iraq).
Jonah’s Stubborn Attitude
It’s important to note God had already laid the foundation for the Ninevites to hear Jonah’s message. They had already endured two plagues (765 and 759 B.C.), and they had recently witnessed a solar eclipse (763 B.C.). As a result, by the time Jonah arrived in Ninevah, the people were more than ready to hear what Jonah had to say. Many people repented…much to Jonah’s disdain.
Jonah did not want to go to Ninevah. His stubborn attitude toward the Ninevites was deeply based in a personal sense of spiritual superiority because Israel was the recipient of God’s covenant. He likely was also a bit afraid. The Ninevites were widely known for their tortuous, bloodthirsty, and inhumane treatment of unwelcome visitors, including skinning them alive and hanging their skins on the city walls. Not surprisingly, Jonah rebelled against God. He hopped on a boat to Tarshish, going in the opposite direction of Ninevah.
During the trip to Tarshish, a massive storm came upon Jonah and his shipmates. The sailors tossed Jonah overboard at Jonah’s command to appease God and hopefully stop the storm, which it did. Poor Jonah was then swallowed by a “great fish,” where he stayed for three days and nights before being vomited out onto dry land.
Jonah finally obeyed God and traveled approximately 500 miles to deliver the Lord’s message, but in his heart, he secretly expected God to bring judgment on the Ninevites and destroy them. God did not do that (not yet, anyway), and instead dealt directly with Jonah’s heart.
In this Biblical account, Jonah is symbolic of the Pharisees, those chosen by God to be witnesses to the world but who repeatedly disobey God’s commands. Jonah also represents Israel’s rebellion against God, who, nevertheless, continues to show His mercy and preservation, which is represented by the shade plant in Jonah 4:6. We also learn about God’s sovereignty and power over every living creature.
Bible Odyssey of the Society of Biblical Literature also notes:
“Jonah’s Nineveh is thematically connected to Sodom, another biblical city of evil (Gen 18-19). God tells Abraham that the outcry against Sodom is such that he “must go down” to investigate (Gen 18:21). Similarly, God sends Jonah to Nineveh, “the great city,” telling him that its evil “has come up” before him (Jonah 1:2). Gen 19:25 describes God’s destruction of Sodom using a term usually translated as “overthrow,” the same term Jonah uses in his prophetic preaching to Nineveh (Jonah 3:4).”
Still, the question remains why God would offer Assyrians repentance and not the Israelites. Why would God choose one of Israel’s greatest enemies (both historically and currently), a people widely known at the time for their cruelty and harshness, who had a lengthy history of thinking they were better than God?
The answer is God needed to prove a point to the Israelites. He intended to righteously shame Israel, to point out that a pagan city could repent after a stranger’s preaching. But Israel, who had been preached to by countless prophets for hundreds of years, would not.
Queen Sheba’s Visit
We see a similar story in 1 Kings 10 when Queen Sheba pays a visit on King Solomon and peppers him with a long list of questions meant to challenge him. Solomon’s wisdom greatly impressed her, and because of it, she repented.
Like the Ninevites, Queen Sheba (from modern Yemen) did not know God. All she knew was that Solomon possessed the wisdom of God. She had nothing else to go on. Yet, Solomon convinced her that God is real. Again, the point is if someone with little information about God could accept Him and repent, why wouldn’t Israel?
Jesus uses these historical references of Jonah, the Ninevites, and Queen Sheba to illustrate to the Pharisees the hardness of their hearts and their blindness to the truth. Entire cities and heads of state found salvation without knowing anything about God, yet the Pharisees turned away.
“The men of Ninevah will rise up in judgment with this generation and condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed, a greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up in judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed, a greater than Solomon is here (Matthew 12:41-42).”
The Pharisees Try Again
The Pharisees continued to harass Jesus. Their blindness and refusal to even allow for the possibility that Jesus just might be the Son of God made them incredibly obstinate. Everything Jesus had said to them was quickly dismissed.
Soon after their first request, the Pharisees again asked Jesus for a sign. This time, Jesus responds a bit more directly and sternly.
“He answered and said to them, ‘When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’” Matthew 16:1-4
The Pharisees could make some elementary observations about the weather and detect the signs of change, yet they refused to acknowledge the long-awaited Messiah had finally come. Again, Jesus refers them back to the sign of Jonah and calls them wicked and adulterous.
What is the Sign of Jonah?
So, what is the sign of Jonah? What is Jesus talking about?
We’ve established the Pharisees’ refusal to accept that Jesus is the Son of God. Only the miracle Jonah experienced would point to the truth that Jesus is indeed God.
Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights, and He was given life again. Hundreds of years later, Jesus would be crucified and resurrected three days later. He would die, but He too would be restored to life again.
The timeline of three days and nights is not a literal 72 hours. In Jewish tradition, it can be any portion of a day or night. In Jesus’ case, He was declared dead at approximately 3:00 p.m. on a Friday (day one), silent on Saturday (day two), and found risen from the grave by Sunday morning shortly after sunrise (day three). And so it was with Jonah. It is likely he was not inside the whale for a full 72 hours, but only for a portion of time spanning three days.
This three-day period is the only sign the Pharisees would receive. Despite many miracles witnessed by thousands of people, Jesus’ death and resurrection would be the only proof that He is the Son of God, the promised Messiah.
It was not until after Jesus’ tomb was found empty on the third day that the Pharisees finally gave in to the slightest possibility that Jesus was telling the truth about Himself. They heard the news first from the guards sent to stand watch over Jesus’ tomb.
The guards had fallen faint during the night, and when they awoke, the stone covering Jesus’ tomb had been mysteriously rolled away. They reported back to the Pharisees what happened, and the Pharisees did the only thing they could do: They secretly bribed the guards to stay silent about everything they had seen.
“When [the guards] assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, ‘Tell them, ‘His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.” Matthew 28:12-14
Immediately after Jesus admonished the Pharisees in Matthew 16, Jesus’ disciples show up saying they forgot to bring any bread. Jesus, in obvious frustration, answers them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:6).”
Though said with sarcasm, Jesus’ words here are a warning for us all.
For the disciples, Jesus was telling them to stay away from the Pharisees’ doctrines, their “leaven.” Stay away from those who teach that rituals and law-keeping are most important in serving God.
For us today, the same lesson applies. We too ought be careful not to fall into the trap of doubt and disbelief when God’s truth is looking at us right in the face. The Bible calls this being “stiff-necked” and “hard-hearted.” Instead, let us be wise or at least open to possibility, especially when God is presenting us with overwhelming evidence of His love and grace.
Jesus fulfilled every Biblical prophecy ever written about Him, including His own—the sign of Jonah. Hundreds of people witnessed His death as well as His resurrection three days later. Many more would see Him in the days to come, and their first-hand accounts of Him resolutely conquering death and sin has endured for centuries.
No doubt should remain that Jesus is truly the Son of the Living God, the Messiah, our Savior.