When Jesus Used Jonah As a Sign

“Jonah” series: (post #6)

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” 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. The men of Nineveh 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. (Matthew 12:38-41, N.K.J.V.)

Is the story of Jonah true? Jesus certainly believed it was. Even more than just believe it, He boldly referenced it when the scribes and Pharisees asked Him to give them a sign that He truly was the long awaited Jewish Messiah. That fact alone should tell us all we need to know about the veracity of the story.

By comparing His own death, burial, and resurrection to Jonah’s experience with the great fish, Jesus was saying to those scribes and Pharisees, “One day I’ll be buried and you’ll think you’ve heard the last of Me, but like Jonah I’ll emerge again.” Obviously, Jesus was talking about His resurrection, but the precise wording of His quote has left the door open for an interesting question to be asked. That question is: Did Jonah literally die and be brought back to life by God?

Jesus didn’t just faint, swoon, or pass out on that cross, did He? HE LITERALLY DIED! Therefore, if Jonah’s experience was intended to be a foreshadowing of Christ’s experience, doesn’t that mean that Jonah literally died and was brought back to life? Well, I can tell you that a handful of Bible teachers have interpreted Jonah’s experience just that way.

Probably the most well known example of this minority was J. Vernon McGee. As evidence for his interpretation, McGee ran with the idea that Jonah said, “…out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice” (Jonah 2:2, K.J.V.). The Hebrew word translated there as “hell” is the Hebrew word Sheol, which in the Old Testament refers to the general realm of the dead. When we understand what Sheol was then we can understand that the only way for anyone to cry out from there (at least literally) was to die and have his or her soul go there. According to McGee, this must mean that Jonah literally died.

By reading Jonah’s own account of his experience, we find even more possible evidence that he actually died. To be specific, that account (if read in a straightforward, literal manner) describes a death by way of drowning. Consider the following words from Jonah:

  • He says that he went into the heart of the seas, and the floods surrounded him. (2:3)
  • He says the billows and the waves passed over him. (2:3)
  • He says the waters surrounded him. (2:5)
  • He says the deep closed around him. (2:5)
  • He says weeds were wrapped around his head. (2:5)
  • He says he went down to the moorings (foundations, bases) of the mountains. (2:5)
  • He says the earth’s bars closed behind him forever. (2:6)

If we take Jonah’s words at face value, his story becomes easy to reconstruct. First, those sailors threw him overboard to calm the storm. Second, he either didn’t know how to swim or refused to swim and consequently drifted down to the bottom of the sea. Third, somewhere along the way — either in making his way toward the bottom or in reaching it and remaining there — he died by way of drowning. Fourth, as his corpse was resting at the bottom of the sea, the great fish came along and swallowed him whole. Fifth, after Jonah had spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish (1:17), the fish vomited him onto dry land, with his resurrection taking place either just before or just after the fish did the vomiting.

Okay, so is this what actually happened? Did Jonah literally die? The vast majority of Bible scholars, commentators, preachers, and Bible teachers would answer, “No” to both questions. Rather than take Jonah’s description ultra literally, they take it poetically. If this interpretation is correct, it makes the description similar to some of David’s writings. Here are some examples of David using such poetic language (all from the N.K.J.V.):

  • In Psalm 18:4-5, David says of a time when his life was in great danger: “The pangs of death surrounded me, And the floods of ungodliness made me afraid. The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me; The snares of death confronted me.”
  • In Psalm 42:7, he says to God: “Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; All your waves and billows have gone over me.”
  • In Psalm 31:22, he says to God: “…I am cut off from before Your eyes…”
  • In Psalm 69:1-3, he says: “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, Where there is no standing; I have come into deep waters, Where the floods overflow me. I am weary with my crying! My throat is dry; My eyes fail while I wait for my God.”
  • In Psalm 16:10, he says to God: “For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.”

It is important to note that Jonah, as a Jewish prophet, would have known all about these poetic descriptions whereby David described his near-death experiences. It makes sense, then, that Jonah would have used similar language in his description of his own near-death experience, especially considering that his experience involved waters far more literal than David’s experiences had. For that matter, when Jonah said things like, “the floods surrounded me,” “billows and waves passed over me,” “the deep closed around me,” and “I went down to the moorings of the mountains” he could easily have been talking about all of that happening to him via him being inside that fish. Similarly, when he said, “weeds were wrapped around my head” he could have been referring to that happening while he was in the fish’s belly.

Other factors point us to the conclusion that Jonah didn’t have to literally die in order for his experience to foreshadow Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. These factors do this by evidencing why we shouldn’t try to make Jonah’s experience too closely resemble Christ’s experience. These factors are:

  • It was the sin of others that brought Jesus to His situation, but it was Jonah’s own sin that brought him to his.
  • If Jonah was attempting to give us a literal, play-by-play account of his experience, it seems strange that his prayer is so short (only eight verses long). If he really was in the belly of that fish for three days and three nights, surely he prayed more than that.
  • Jesus never died again once He was resurrected, but even if we accept the idea that Jonah died and was resurrected, Jonah died again one day.
  • Jesus Himself dismissed complete literalness regarding the link between the two stories when He said that He would be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. Assuming that He died on Friday afternoon and was resurrected on Sunday morning — an assumption that is based upon the scriptural account found in the gospels — He didn’t spend three literal days and three literal nights in the heart of the earth. (If you are interested in devoting further study to this topic, please read my two posts:  “Was Jesus Crucified on Wednesday?” and “Was Jesus Crucified on Thursday?”

In closing, let me encourage you not to get so bogged down trying to figure out every last detail of what happened to both Jonah and Jesus that you miss the main point Jesus is making in Matthew 12:38-41. What is that point? It’s that Jesus arose from the dead! That means that we Christians serve a living Savior, not a dead one. It means that we serve a Savior who has conquered death. And it means that we serve a Savior who legitimately can return to this earth one day to rule and reign over it. All of that is awesome news, Christian, and it’s news that should cause us all to draw great hope from it as we walk in the light of it each day.

This entry was posted in Christ's Death, Christ's Resurrection, Christ's Return, Easter, Resurrection, Series: "Jonah" and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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