Video Uploaded: .
The Life of Jesus - Series 5: Episode 7

The sign of Jonah

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 12:38-45

Jesus continues to warn the nation of Israel and particularly the leaders that to ignore the signs of the presence of the Messiah is dangerous. Old Testament examples are used to reinforce the message.

Jesus continues to warn the nation of Israel and particularly the leaders that to ignore the signs of the presence of the Messiah is dangerous. Old Testament examples are used to reinforce the message.


Hello and welcome to Series 5 and Episode 7, entitled ‘The Sign of Jonah.’ We're continuing from the story we were telling in the last episode. We're in Matthew 12: 38 - 45.

Introduction and Recap

This is a very tense time in the life of Jesus and the previous episode set the scene very dramatically. But, before we get to that, we'll remind ourselves of the wider context. Series 3 described Jesus' first Galilean tour of ministry travelling around healing, teaching, preaching, becoming very well-known, performing many miracles and making a really big impact. Then in Series 4, we looked at the Sermon on the Mount and the ethical teaching that formed the discipleship community. Now, in Series 5, we're on the second tour of Galilee. We've seen a variety of different incidents, miracles, conversations, social events and discussions already, but none more significant than the one that we looked at in the last episode when we were in Matthew 12: 22 - 37. I'm going to quickly remind us of what happened then - the key event, not all the teaching that followed - but the key event because that is required to explain the passage that we're going to look at now.

As mentioned in the last episode, one of the big themes of the Gospels is the emerging conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment as represented by, first of all, the ruling council - the religious council in Jerusalem, known as the Sanhedrin - which comes more into focus and into the story later on in the life of Jesus but is always there in the background, and particularly a group called the Pharisees, who are closely linked with them and have developed a real opposition to Jesus in the opening months of his ministry. They've been watching what he's been doing; they've been listening to what he's been saying; they've been questioning him, challenging him and accusing him of not obeying the Jewish Law of Moses and also not obeying all their own traditional laws that they'd developed over a number of years and which were now recommended for all Jews to follow. This conflict has been gradually increasing and, in the last episode, I sketched out that story more fully. It reached a climax in the incident that triggers all the teaching of the last episode and the teaching of this episode.

This incident was a particular miracle that took place that led to a very powerful response from the crowd and then a very strong counter response from the Pharisees who were present. The miracle was that a man, who was both blind and mute and also suffering the oppression of evil spirits that were causing his illnesses, was healed by Jesus. He cast out the spirit and the man could immediately see; he could immediately speak and he then had normal physical health from that time onwards. The response, as we discussed in the last episode, from the crowd was a kind of spontaneous aspiration and question: “Could this be the Son of David?” they said. This is going back to Matthew 12: 23 ‘All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”’ As I explained last time, this is basically a way of saying, “Could this be the Messiah?” because they believe that the Messiah would be a biological descendant of King David and would in some way take up the monarchy, or the throne, or the rulership of Israel, in the same way that David and his descendants did for a period of time before they were removed. In fact, the country was divided up into different spheres of authority but, ultimately, the Romans were in control using some puppet kings in different areas (like Herod Antipas who ruled in Galilee where they were at the time). The monarchy of David wasn't functioning at all - hadn't been for hundreds of years - “Could this be the son of David?” is basically affirming the uniqueness of Jesus and the crowd is beginning to think, “Maybe he is our Messiah.” One of the things that triggered them to think that, was the remarkable nature of this miracle - healing the blind and mute - which was often considered to be a miracle that only the Messiah could perform. This was based on such verses in the Old Testament as Isaiah 35: 5. We looked at that in some detail in the last episode. If you haven't read the last episode, it's well worth going back and reading because it connects very precisely with what we're talking about today.

The counter response from the Pharisees was to completely refute and disagree with the suggestion that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of David. They said, “Quite the contrary! It is only by Beelzebul, the Prince of demons that this fellow drives out demons.” They ascribed to Jesus the status of a false messiah, operating under the power of evil spirits. That was an incredibly dramatic thing to do - incredibly confrontational, incredibly specific and incredibly problematical for the crowd because they were wondering and thinking one thing, and their religious leaders were telling them another. That was the trigger for a series of very tough sayings that Jesus carried on to teach in the passage that we studied last time. He contradicted the Pharisees saying, “Why would Satan want to destroy his own kingdom by allowing one demonic power to drive out another? It's absurd!” and he, by contrast, said that he was operating by the Spirit of God and that meant that the Kingdom of God was coming. The Kingdom of God meant that there would be a king and that king would be a descendant of David and so the expression of the crowd, “Can this be the son of David?” is very appropriate to the context.

A Tricky Question

All those teachings took place immediately after that moment of confrontation and, as we continue the story now, we see that the Pharisees are not willing to back off quickly from their accusation and they ask him a question. Questions can often be trick questions, can't they? Have you ever had that experience, people questioning you in order to trip you up? This was very common practice in ancient Israel in discussions and debate about what was right and wrong and what particular laws might actually mean. They ask him a question and we're going to pick up the story with the question. Verse 38 to start with:

‘Then some of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”’

Matthew 12:38, NIV

This really is an extraordinary question! A sign means simply a miracle that demonstrates Jesus' authority. This seems such an odd question given that Jesus has just performed a miracle which acts as a sign because the healing of the blind and the mute was understood, commonly, to be a sign of the Messiah. Only the Messiah could fulfil these types of miracles. This is based on a verse in Isaiah 35 and other texts. He's just performed a sign that indicates his identity and, not only that, he's performed hundreds of miracles! I mean literally hundreds or shall we say, more accurately, thousands of miracles? We know that the Pharisees have observed many of them - we actually have a record of them being in the crowds on a number of occasions when miracles have been performed. What are they talking about? We get a little clue as to what they might be talking about here when we see a similar question asked later on, also recorded in Matthew 16: 1,

‘The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.’

Matthew 16:1, NIV

It may be that this first question has a similar intention to that subsequent question. A sign from heaven means, probably, something operating in the natural world - rather than a healing - more like a cosmic sign (an earthquake, lightning, some miracle that happens in the sky, so to speak) because the Jews did have expectations that God would shake the cosmos when the Messiah came: there would be judgement and there would be remarkable events in the cosmos, in the planets, in the stars and so forth. There is that trend of expectation in some of the Old Testament prophets and it might be that the Pharisees had this idea in mind.

The Sign of Jonah

On the face of it, it seems absurd to ask for a sign when Jesus has been performing hundreds and thousands of miracles that act as a sign. Jesus goes on to say what sort of sign they're going to experience. We'll read from 39 to 42:

39He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.”’

Matthew 12:39-42, NIV

Jesus says that something is going to happen which will recapitulate, or reproduce, an aspect of the story of the Old Testament prophet of Jonah. That's the aspect that he has in mind, which he states here - the fact that Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish. Let's think about this. The prophet Jonah is well-known in the Old Testament. There's a book named after him - a very short book which is in what we call the minor prophets, or the Book of the Twelve - which tells the story of this man. It's a fairly well-known story if you move in Christian circles. It's well-known to people brought up in Christian families who have experienced Sunday School teaching because it's a very dramatic and extraordinary story. Jonah was a prophet of Israel who was called by God to go and preach to the Assyrian people in their capital city, Nineveh. The Assyrians, at the time, were the arch enemies of Israel. They were the regional superpower who were actually threatening to invade and capture the whole country (and they did occasionally incur into Israelite territory at the time). They were hostile to the Israelites and there was no love between Israel and the Assyrians. Jonah was called to go to their capital city and to preach about the Jewish God, Yahweh, and to invite them into a relationship with him. It was really an extraordinary thing he was asked to do, and would have required incredible bravery. He didn't have that bravery. In fact, he ran away! He left the country of Israel but rather than heading to Assyria, to the east, he went due west. He got down to the sea, took a boat and headed off for the western Mediterranean. This is the context of the story of the great fish (we don't exactly know what fish it was). In the story of the storm on board the ship Jonah was considered to be a troublemaker by the ship's crew, who may have caused the storm. They throw him overboard and he ends up in the belly of a huge fish for three days and three nights before it spews him up onto the land. He continues on to Nineveh and successfully carries out his mission - having had a bit of a rethink, changed his mind and repented of his unbelief. That's essentially the story and the Ninevites respond very favourably to the message of Yahweh.

In the middle of that is this key dramatic moment when Jonah is, literally, in the belly of the fish and only miraculously survives. Jesus says that something will happen to him that's similar to what happens to Jonah. Just as Jonah is hidden away, invisibly, for three days and three nights and then re-emerges, so Jesus is going to be hidden away for three days and three nights and then he's going to re-emerge. This expression - three days and three nights - is an expression used by the Jews in their culture to describe either the full, or the part, of three days and in Jesus' case it was the part of three days; it's a reference to his death and his resurrection. If we take his death to take place on what we would call a Friday, then he was buried in the tomb on Friday evening and he lay in the tomb all the way through Saturday and then, at the beginning of Sunday, he rose again from the dead. We have parts of three days and three nights. The Jews would have understood this use of language. Jesus is pointing out that the sign for the Pharisees of his identity, the greatest sign, is yet to come and is a sign that is quite different from individual healings or miracles. It's a sign which will divide them because either they will believe, or they will not believe, when Jesus emerges from the hiddenness of being in the tomb. Just as Jonah emerged, so Jesus will emerge and the question for them will be: what will you do at that point? This, of course, is a reference to his resurrection which is described very fully later on in the Gospels and we'll come to that as we get to the very end of the story. We all know where the story leads; it leads to Jesus' death and his miraculous physical resurrection on the third day, the Sunday, after the Friday. Jesus is saying that's the sign that they're going to be given but he's questioning, even if they get that sign, they're not going to believe because they've already got this hostile, negative attitude that has been exemplified by the events that happened in the previous episode. They've set their face against Jesus and even this one great sign is not going to make any difference to them - that's the implication of the way that Jesus is talking. He goes on to say that sometimes Gentiles (people who don't have the revelation of the Jewish people) respond more quickly and more effectively to God's revelation than the Jewish people do, even though they've got much less revelation than the Jewish people have. So, for example, in verse 41:

‘“The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah.”’

Matthew 12:41, NIV

Let's go back to the Jonah story again. The Jonah story is not just about Jonah's exploits and his attempt to run away, come back and follow through on God's will. No, the point of the story is far beyond the person of Jonah; the point of the story is that he goes to Nineveh and according to Jonah 3 and 4, what we find is that, as he proclaims that Yahweh is the true God of the universe and that people should believe in him. As he proclaims that in Jonah 3, there's a tremendous response. It says he warns them, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown by judgement.” But it says in Jonah 3: 5,

‘The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.’

Jonah 3:5, NIV

They responded in faith to a very limited revelation - they just had Jonah come and speak to them, totally out of the blue - no context and no known connection with the Jewish religion. They were hostile to the nation of Israel and suddenly they responded in large numbers, including their rulers, to the message that Jonah brought. Jesus is saying, if you keep that in mind, sometimes Gentiles, like the men of Nineveh, respond to less revelation than the Pharisees are given, far more positively and so, on the day of judgement, they will be seen to be vindicated. They will have had faith in the God of Israel on the basis of Jonah's preaching and the Pharisees - who personally knew Jesus, saw him, travelled around with him, saw his miracles, could interact with him and talk to him - rejected him. They had much more revelation than the Ninevites had had.

Visit of the Queen of Sheba

Jesus goes on and uses another interesting example. He describes a lady called the Queen of the South. This is a reference to 1 Kings 10 and to a monarch called the Queen of Sheba, who comes from an African or an Arabian kingdom to the south of Israel. We don't exactly know where she comes from. She comes to the throne of the great King Solomon at the time of the height of his powers with enormous material splendour - a beautiful palace, a beautiful temple - an amazingly wonderful place to come to - and she visits Jerusalem. She's interested in who he is and who his god is and, having spoken to Solomon, having looked at everything that he's got in his kingdom, having seen his faith, having seen his religion, she declares in 1 Kings 10: 9,

‘“Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord's eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.”’

1 Kings 10:9, NIV

Through these words, and no doubt many others, the New Testament interprets them as indicating that she had genuine faith, that she became a believer in the God of Israel at that time. So,

‘“she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.”’

Matthew 12:42, NIV

Jesus is saying the Pharisees are in a very dangerous position. They've got far more revelation than the Queen of Sheba had (the Queen of the South), far more revelation than the Ninevites had when Jonah preached, and many other Gentiles who would come into the Kingdom of God but they're rejecting the obvious evidence that Jesus is the Messiah. There will be a great risk to them if they do that.

Let's return to the text now and look at the last section, verses 43 to 45:

43“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. (This) is how it will be with this wicked generation.”’

Matthew 12:43-45, NIV

Jesus uses the metaphor of a house to describe a person and in a sense, the whole nation of Israel. A house that is cleaned is like a person who has evil spirits driven out of him and that clean house needs to be maintained but, if it's not filled with anything else, then the evil spirits can return and they can even multiply - bring others with them. It's a very vivid metaphorical image of an individual person, but also an image of the nation of Israel, because the message of Jesus, is that, if the nation of Israel does not fill itself with faith in the Messiah after he has evicted demonic forces from people and from the land, then those demonic forces will return in greater strength in times to come and deceive and destroy the nation, leading to its judgement. The good works that Jesus has done won't have any lasting impact on the nation unless faith follows. We've heard this message before - Jesus has given this message in a number of different contexts - but here he is talking about the nation as a whole and he's talking to the spiritual leaders of the nation (the Pharisees, the Teachers of the Law, who represent the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious Council in Jerusalem) and he warns that this generation - that's the Jewish people living at the time, particularly the authorities - will experience the fact that the good things he's done in the land won't have any lasting impact unless they have faith and, if they don't have faith, their nation will be in an even worse position than it was before Jesus came - and that's his prediction.

This prediction comes up in several different contexts in Jesus' teaching and in later contexts we get more detail on this, so we'll come back to this theme. It's worth saying now, that within a few decades of Jesus dying, Israel experienced a terrible trauma and what appears to be a judgement of God. They started a rebellion against the Romans in 66 A.D. (that's 30 to 35 years after Jesus died) and that rebellion was defeated four years later in 70 A.D. by the Romans who brought in very large numbers of military reinforcements from round the empire and they crushed the rebellion brutally. They destroyed the city of Jerusalem; they destroyed the Temple; and they sent huge numbers of Jews into exile. They destroyed, or sought to destroy, the national identity of the whole nation. The reality of the threat of a future judgement is implied in this statement. This is developed in other parts of Jesus' teaching more fully but the key point is this: there is a great risk turning down an invitation to believe and to follow Jesus and to turn against him as forcibly as the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law were doing at that time.


My concluding reflections are that it's always dangerous to ignore the evidence for Jesus as the Messiah, the evidence which we have available to us. It's dangerous for you and for me as well. We need to face up to the evidence and, in particular, we need to face up to the key evidence which is the so-called ‘sign of Jonah’ - the death and resurrection of Jesus. Why did he die? What happened on the cross? How did he come to life again? Did he come to a resurrection life? What does it mean that Jesus has risen physically from the dead? These questions have to be answered. We don't have to wait for another sign to believe in God; we've got plenty of signs there in the Gospels. What we need to do is to study those signs and to follow where they lead. Thank you for studying this episode, I look forward to sharing another one with you soon.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. The episode ends with several questions about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Read through them in the transcript and think about your answers.
  • Discipleship
    1. Do you still seek signs even though there are so many examples of how God has worked in the past?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What sign would have convinced the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law?
    2. What signs do people look for today, to be convinced of Jesus?
Created by Word Online