The Second Sign of Jonah: A Study on Jesus’ use of the Prophet Jonah
Matthew 12:39-41; Matthew 16:1-4; Matthew 16:17: Luke 11:29-32; John 1:42; John 21:15
Jonah was an Old Testament prophet who lived nearly 800 years before Christ, which makes him the earliest of the Minor prophets. The story of Jonah and the whale (great fish) is the subject of many a Vacation Bible Study and children’s Sunday school lessons. It has caused its share of controversy among scholars. Did Jonah actually get swallowed by a whale or great fish. We must of course remember that God is God. He prepared the fish. He would have made it possible for Jonah to have survived whether it was a whale, great fish, or a submarine for that matter. All of these red herrings have led eyes away from the true significance of Jonah which Jesus brings out in several places in the New Testament.
Jesus repeatedly upheld the authority of the Scripture, which to us today is the Old Testament. It was a witness to Him. Jesus tells the Pharisees to search the Scripture, it testified of Jesus and eternal life. The Scripture testified of His birth, sacrificial death and resurrection of the dead. He taught His disiples to read the Scripture in this way. He used Scripture to enlighten the Emmaus disciples. He later opened the eyes of the disciples so that they might understand that the Law, Prophets and the writings, the three divisions of the Israelite canon, that they testified about Him.
Jesus in His ministry referred directly or indirectly to Jonah on several occasions. Jonah appears in Matthew 12:39-41. A similar reference occurs in Luke 11:29-32 with less detail such as the tree days and three nights that Jonah spent in the belly of the fish. Also missing is the reference to the resurrection of Jesus. What is common to them is that the pharisees demanded a sign from Jesus to prove that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus responded with indignation that this was a request from an evil and adulterous generation. No sign would be given but that of the Prophet Jonah. He also added that he gentile Ninevites would rise up in judgment against them because they had repented at the preaching of the lesser Jonah, whereas they had not repented at the preaching of the greater Jesus.
Matthew’s mention of the three days and three nights in the belly of the fish is compared to Jesus spending three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. This has caused some issues with those who read that Jesus rose on the third day in all other places. If Jesus died on Friday and rose on Sunday, that would not be three days and three nights. There are many who have tried to harmonize this. for example, some postulate that Jesus died on Thursday. There may have been two Sabbaths, one the regular weekly Sabbath, and the other the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. As it was impossible to synchronize the 7th day of the week with the phases of the lunar month which is 28 ¼ days, these two Sabbaths could occur in different days of the week. But this is again another red herring. What we need to concentrate on is that the first sign of Jonah points to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This would prove to the Jews and the world that Jesus is the Christ. The Resurrection is controversial enough, but the same God who can prepare a great fish to swallow Jonah is able to raise Jesus from the dead. We don’t prove the Resurrection by proving that the miracles of the Old Testament happened or could happen. The Resurrection proves instead that all of the miracles of the Old Testament are true. If God can raise the dead, then a fish can swallow Jonah and iron can swim.
Another, shorter reference to Jonah occurs in Matthew 16:4 when both the Pharisees and Sadducees sought a sign from heaven. He calls them a wicked and adulterous generation who was able to predict the weather by looking at the sky but were blind to spiritual things. He repeated without elaboration that the only sign would be the sign of Jonah.
The next time the name Jonah appears is in Matthew 16:17 where Jesus calls Simon by his full name “Simon Bar-Jonah.” Why would Jesus emphasize that Simon was the son of Jonah who would not be named “Peter?” Understanding the connection leads us to the second sign of Jonah.
In John 1:42 and in John 21:15, Simon is called the “Son of John.” Although John and Jonah sound alike in both Hebrew and English, they are not the same name. Jonah means either “dove” or perhaps “disobedient” whereas John means “God is Gracious.” So was Peter’s father’s name Jonah or John? Does Jesus deliberately play on the similar sounding names to bring out a point? Jesus was about to rename Simon in Matthew, so using Jonah here indicate the mission which Peter was about to undertake, to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles.
It is interesting in the Gospel of John has a Jonah motif attached to Simon Peter as well, even though he is referred to as “Son of John.” In the first chapter, Jesus renames Simon by the Aramaic “Cephas” (pebble) which is the translational equivalent of the Greek “Petros.” In John 21, we have the account of several disciples fishing and catching nothing. Then Jesus tells them where to throw the net elsewhere and they catch so many that the nets and the ship could not contain them. When John recognizes Jesus, Peter puts his cloak on and jumps into the sea. We think of Jonah being thrown overboard and coming up on the shore. Jesus then asks whether Simon the son of John loved Him more than his autonomy to run his own life and follow Jesus, even to death on the cross. He had been disobedient as was Jonah. Jonah obeyed to go to Nineveh to preach and warn the Gentiles, even though he was reluctant. He hated the Ninevites as oppressors. They were the worse of the sea of humanity. We will see a similar reluctance of Peter to preach to the Gentiles. Three times God came to Peter in a vision in order to convince Peter to go to Cornelius’s house. (For more on this passage look at “The Fishing Trip” in this sermon archive.)
There is a second sign of Jonah. Not only does the death, burial and resurrection serve as a sign to Israel, so does the ministry of the church to the Gentiles. Paul refers to this in Romans where he equates the preaching to the Gentiles as a provocation to the Jews to repent. (Romans 11:11-12). There is more to the preaching to the Gentiles, of course, than to provoke the Jews to jealously. The Old Testament, especially in the Book of Isaiah, prophesies that Gentiles would come and be included in the people of God. The purpose of Israel being Yahweh’s light to the nations was to draw the Heathen in. Jesus becomes the means of drawing these Gentiles into participation of the people of God. Jesus is the promised seed of Abraham who will be the blessing to all nations of the earth.
The Gospel of Matthew has often been referred to as being written to Jewish-Christians in contradistinction to Gentile-Christians as though God had two separate groups of people. Scholars will permit that Matthew’s gospel allows for some Gentile participation in this, but this is a secondary theme. I think this treatment is unfortunate. It tried to create a wedge between Jews and Gentiles. It tries to pit Matthew against Paul. But what if Matthew and Paul are exactly on the same page? What if Matthew was not written to the Jews but to the church which are the people of God. The very anti-Pharisee cast of Matthew seems to me to indicate that there was a sharp division between the followers of the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus in the church. Who is the true Israel. After the fall of the Temple, the Pharisees survived and were a main component of what is called Judaism today. The Pharisees were racial purists. They separated themselves from the rest of the world. They had the attitude of Jonah. It is true, that they did make proselytes of the Gentiles and made a long and laborious path to eventually include them. But they were never fully included. The church presented an Israel in which Jews and Gentiles equally participated. This would cause us to reread Matthew as the representation of the true Israel.
There is a mass of evidence to demonstrate this in the Gospel of Matthew. The genealogy of Jesus emphasizes four women. Three of them were Gentile women. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanite prostitutes who graciously were included into Israel and who were also ancestors of King David. Ruth was a Moabitess and great-grandmother of David. The children of Moabitess’s were to be permanently excluded from the congregation of Israel. This would create a great difficulty for the Pharisees who were racial purists. This would disqualify David, their hero, from having been King over Israel. Then he married Bathsheba, a woman who had been first married to Uriah the Hittite. She has a Hebrew name. But was she a Gentile?
We then have no mention of Jesus being circumcised, which of course He was. Luke records that. Matthew only mentions baptism in his Gospel which is the Christian replacement of circumcision. There is no presentation in the Temple either. Instead there is the account of the Gentile Magi coming to see Jesus. Isaiah 9:1 is quoted to show that the Gentiles would come to the light. It is said in Matthew 4 that Jesus’ fame went through the entire area of Syria, a Gentile province, not just the land of Israel. One can read at the end of chapter 4 that Gentiles were enumerated among the followers of Jesus (Decapolis). If the context holds, they also came to hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. There is the faith of the Centurion, a Gentile. There is mention of Gentiles being included in the great banquet whereas some of those who thought they had a right to it as Jews were excluded. There is the account of the Gadaren demoniac and his proclaiming Jesus in a Gentile area after having the demons cast out. There is the feeding of the 4000 in a Gentile area. There is the faith of the Canaanite woman from Syro-Phoenicia . There is the Great Commission which calls the disciples to make disciples of all the nations (Gentiles.)
There are more examples, I could cite, but these are proof that Matthew was not written to Jewish-Christians as a distinct group of people but to a church made up of people who were previously Jewish or Gentile. What they were was not as important as who they became. The church is the true Israel. So Matthew is on the same page as Paul. And Paul was on the same page as Jesus as well. Herman Ridderbos demonstrates that Paul adapted Jesus to a Hellenistic world, but he did so faithfully. The Jesus of Paul is the same Jesus who addressed villagers in Palestine.
So when we look at the 16th chapter of Matthew we can now clearly see the second sign of Matthew. The mention of Jonah in verse 4 sets up the mention of Simon Bar-Jonah in verse 17. Jesus took the disciples to Caesarea Philippi which was not in Israel. They left Israel and went to Gentile territory. It is here where Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ (not Messiah, the Hebrew word). Peter who had previously been named by the Aramaic “Cephas” is not called by the Greek “Petros.” At Caesarea was a large rock formation which in Greek is called “Petra” as compared to “Petros” which is a stone. Under this rockface was a Pagan temple which was carved into the rockface to the Greek god “Pan” which means “everything.” Previously, there was a temple to the Phoenician god, Baal. Underneath the temple was a cave where one of the sources of the Jordan River once flowed until recently. The name of the cave was “Palai Hadou” in Greek which is “Gates of Hades” (Hell) in English. It is not upon Peter but Petra where the church was to be built. The church was to be erected in Pagan territory. The second sign of Jonah is that of the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God. (For more information on this passage in Matthew, see “Upon this Rock” in this sermon archive).
The sign that Jesus gave to the Pharisees and Sadducees is a sign to us as well. For those who believe, this becomes the bedrock of our faith and confession. We can with full confidence be assures that we are included in the Israel of God. It does not matter where we came from. What matters is whose we are and where we are going.
But to the skeptics, it serves as a sign also. To those who reject the Resurrection as well as miracles, it is a sign that they are blind to ultimate reality. They see things totally in a scientific matter, as far as human “science” is concerned. But the presupposition of modern science is that God is totally unnecessary to describe reality. They can predict the weather, at least some of the time. But they cannot interpret the signs of the times. Their philosophy is in the process of bringing ruin upon the world which serves as a precursor of the final judgment. There is global decay everywhere. They can see things going wrong, but they are blind to both its cause or its cure. They think they can solve these problems through scientific research. Perhaps we can fix humanity through gene therapy or education; so they think. By now, everyone should see that it is not working. Technology is not leading us to a better world, but because God is forgotten, it is leading to our utter destruction.
Jonah serves as much as a warning to us today as it did to the people in Jesus’ day. Neglect this truth at your own peril. The Ninevites repented at Jonah. But now we have Jesus’ warning to us, a far greater witness than Jonah. There are many who call themselves “Christians” who deny the fundamentals of our faith and try to create a different Jesus, a teacher rather than Christ, a Jesus who was a victim or religious intolerance rather than the victor over death and hell. They see Jesus as an idea and not a person. This is not the Jesus proclaimed in the Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. I don’t know it will be forty days or not. But the judgment of Nineveh proclaimed by Jonah is a portent of even a greater judgment.
The proper response to this is to do as the Ninevites did, to repent. They were spared from judgment for a season. God was gracious to them. But their repentance did not hold and the Ninevites went back on their repentance. The prophet Nahum tells of Nineveh’s destruction.
Jesus also tells us to go beyond our prejudices, to not shelter ourselves from the world in the church. This is to seek security in the belly of the fish, so to speak. The gates of hell cannot withstand the church. Gates are exclusionary and defensive. The church has no gates. It is hell that does. This is a picture for us that the church needs to be on the offense. We need to boldly proclaim Jesus in a sea of confusion and false gods. These people are often hateful to us. They could be seen as enemies. But we remember that we once considered Jesus as the enemy. God could rightly have counted us as enemies. But what does Scripture say? Romans 5 tells us that when we were enemies, Christ died for us. If we are to be Christ’s disciples, we must arm ourselves with he attitude that we will be persecuted and suffer for the faith, even perhaps unto death. There is risk in preaching the Gospel, but we must not water down the proclamation. There is judgment as well as grace. Let us proclaim both.