The Sign of Jonah

Matthew 12:38-42


When I was working at Cracker Barrel, there was a man working there who liked to talk about philosophy. He had a belief that is very common to today’s culture. He said that he would only believe what his eyes and ears told him. He would never believe anything by faith. This philosophy is not new. Even in ancient Greece, the Epicureans believed the same thing. Of course, if all you could believe was what your eyes and ears told you, then God was automatically left out of the picture, since no one can see God. These are the same kind of people who will try to say to God on the Day of Judgment, “You didn’t give me enough evidence to believe in you.” Of course, they think that they will be the ones sitting in judgment on God, rather than God being the one to judge them. They are a lot like the Pharisees that come to Jesus to ask Him for a sign.

There is a rather intense irony here, since Jesus had just performed a sign before their very eyes. He had expelled a demon from a man. The arguments of Jesus to the effect that it had to be the power of God, because Satan was not stupid and would not be fighting against himself carried no weight with the Pharisees. So the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign. They see Jesus do a miraculous sign, then walk up to Jesus and ask Him for a sign. Ironic indeed.

Jesus’ response is rather remarkable. Of course, Jesus had just finished calling them a brood of vipers. So calling them another name was not so difficult for Jesus to do. He calls the Pharisees a wicked and adulterous generation. Now, by the term “adulterous,” Jesus means unfaithful to the revealed faith of the Old Testament. You might remember that one of the main metaphors for idolatry in the Old Testament was the idea of spiritual adultery, committed by the wife of God, the people of Israel. The entire book of Hosea expounds this idea in great depth. Israel was like Gomer, Hosea’s wife. So Jesus is simply continuing the tradition of the OT prophets in calling the people adulterous, which is of course a call to repentance.

Now, what Jesus is saying is that there is sufficient evidence already. If people are then saying that there is not enough evidence, then that is proof that no amount of evidence would convince them of the truth. Jesus’ miracles were not for hire. They were not for impressing people just for the sake of impressing them. The miracles all had a specific purpose in bringing glory to God and for healing people who were sick. They were never simply for display.

The sign that Jesus says will be given them is the sign of Jonah. Now, this is a miraculous sign. Jonah being in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, and Jesus being in the belly of the earth for three days and three nights, and both of them coming out of that situation, that is miraculous. As we have been seeing in our morning sermons on Daniel, there is a relationship between the type and the antitype. The type is a pattern that happens earlier in history that looks like something that happens later in history. This only happens in biblical revelation. Jonah was a prophet who went to preach to Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, and was a wicked city. Jonah went there only under duress, since he did not want the citizens of Nineveh to repent and be saved. After God sent a whale to swallow him up for three days to knock some sense into him, he finally went to Nineveh to preach his message of judgment. Jonah has the prize for the shortest sermon in existence: “40 more days, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s all he said in the entire city. He was never a willing prophet. And yet look what happened to Nineveh. The whole city repented in sackcloth and ashes, and so God did not destroy them. The point, then, is that a one sentence sermon was sufficient for the people of Nineveh. They did not need a miraculous sign. They only needed the Word of God, because it was God’s plan to save them by that means. Notice how much God can do with so little. And yet the Pharisees had much more information. They could hear Jesus whenever they wanted. They could see Him healing people right and left. They could see demons being driven out of people. And yet, they would not repent. Therefore, the people of Nineveh would rise up (the word here is the word for resurrection) on the Day of Judgment and condemn them. One would expect people with so much evidence to believe their eyes and ears. But if the Holy Spirit does not change a person, then that person will not be able to believe. Belief, then, is not a matter of seeing and hearing. It is a matter of the Holy Spirit changing a person from the inside out. We saw last week how the tree needs to be good if the fruit is to be good. So here also, outward evidence will not convince anyone whose heart is hard.

Now, there is a difficulty in understanding the sign of Jonah, since Jesus was not in the grave for 72 hours. Jesus went into the grave on Friday afternoon, spent all day Saturday in the grave, and then came out of the grave on Sunday morning. Why then does Jesus say that He would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights? There is more than one answer to this question. James Montgomery Boice believes that Jesus was actually crucified on Thursday, so that Thursday afternoon, Friday, and Saturday were the days and those three nights that corresponded were the three nights. However, I think there is a simpler explanation. Jews counted part of a day as a whole day. And oftentimes they would even say “day and night” when what they really meant was a calendar day. So Friday, Saturday and Sunday counts as three calendar days, even though it wasn’t a complete 72 hours. There is another example of this kind of reckoning of days in the book of Esther. Right before Esther goes before the king to request the salvation of her people, she tells the people to fast and pray for three days and three nights, the exact same expression that Jesus uses here. Then the text says “on the third day” Esther went to the king. So that was not a full 72 hours either, and yet it is called three days and three nights. So the sign of Jonah is the resurrection. Jonah had a metaphorical resurrection. Jesus had an actual resurrection. The ironic thing is that after Jesus was resurrected from the dead, the Pharisees still did not believe in Him! They clamored for a sign. Jesus gave them a sign. Ultimately it is the best, most convincing sign of all, and yet the Pharisees still tried to say that the disciples stole away the body, despite the fact that over 500 people had seen Jesus alive before Jesus went into heaven! So the Pharisees are asking God for a sign out of unbelief.

Jesus tells us that there are two examples of people believing God on far less evidence than the Pharisees had available. The first example is the Ninevites, which we have already explored. They went from complete rebellion against God to repentance on the evidence of one single sentence uttered by an unwilling prophet. Obviously, Jesus is greater both in His person, being God and man in one person, and also being greater in His message, which proclaimed the coming of the kingdom. And yet the Pharisees would not believe.

The other example is that of the queen of Sheba. All she heard was a rumor that Solomon had great wisdom. That is all she had to go on. Yet, she went to go hear Solomon on that slim evidence. Jesus has much greater wisdom than Solomon, since Jesus is Wisdom incarnate in the flesh. And yet th Pharisees would not believe in Him.

There are many lessons for us in this part of Scripture. The first lesson is that we must believe in Jesus. We must tremble if we think we do not have enough evidence. We are deluged with evidence of Jesus Christ. We have the whole Bible to show us Jesus! No, we cannot see Jesus right now. But seeing Jesus does not guarantee that we would believe in Him. The Pharisees saw Him, heard Him, saw many miracles, and they hated Jesus. Do not think for one moment that seeing Jesus is necessary for believing in Him. Jesus told Thomas that people are blessed when they believe in Jesus without seeing Him. Faith, after all, is not sight. We will one day see Jesus, for we shall be like Him in the resurrection. But we are not like Him now, and so we must believe in Him without seeing Him. It is the only way to believe in Him.

Secondly, we must not worry about trying to overwhelm people with evidence so that they will believe. Just present the simple Gospel. Don’t make it complicated. Oftentimes just showing people what God has done in your life is evidence enough. God can use the most imperfect performance to accomplish His goal. He used Jonah’s preaching to rescue an entire city.

Thirdly, the resurrection is a tremendous sign. That is the one sign that Jesus gives people as evidence. The resurrection is of tremendous power in showing people what Christ has done and how necessary it is to believe in Jesus, and what evidence there is for the truth of Christianity. There are so many witnesses to the resurrection of Christ. And those witnesses were willing to die to be able to say that Christ was risen from the dead. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then why would the disciples be willing to die for what they knew was a lie? But, as Paul says, if Christ is not risen from the dead then we are still in our sins, and there is no salvation at all. The Christian faith is utterly dependent on the resurrection being true. Every creed says that Christ was resurrected from the grave. One cannot be a Christian and deny that Christ has risen from the dead.

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