The Sign of Jonah

Who is the most important person you have met? With whom would you like to take a selfie? The people to whom Jesus was speaking in Matthew 12:38–42 had no idea how important he was!

Repent! You have the sign of Jonah. Unbelief demands a sign. Given the Pharisees plotting to kill Jesus, the sincerity of the request is in doubt. They had just witnessed a number of miracles, but wanted something bigger, more spectacular. The prophet Jonah had been a sign. Instead of producing an additional sign upon their demand, Jesus points them back to the history of Jonah, and the remarkable sign in the early part of his prophetic visit to Nineveh. God’s revelation has already been given, and if it is rejected, no spectacular sign is going to make a difference. The Son of Man would spend three days in the heart of the earth. His situation would parallel that of Jonah, closely enough that his burial could be called the sign of Jonah, the prophet. The sign is cryptic enough that many would not understand, and likely even the disciples didn’t appreciate its meaning until they looked at it from a post-resurrection perspective. Jesus, however, would descend, not into a watery grave from which he would be rescued by a fish, but into death itself and burial. The power that raised him up after three days would be more powerful than that which moved the huge fish to spew up the undigested Jonah.

One greater than Jonah is here. Contrast Jesus’ willing service with Jonah’s reluctant preaching. Jonah, given the command to preach to his nation’s arch-enemy, Nineveh, heads the other direction. Christ willingly entered this world to save his rebellious people. Even when Jonah finally did preach to Nineveh, he did so with an eager expectation of judgment. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. Jesus comes with God’s grace. In the preceding context he is identified as:

Lord of the Sabbath, Matthew 12:1–12. The healer of the sick (the one on whom the Spirit has been put), verses 15–21. The one who casts out demons, indicating that the Spirit is at work in bringing in the kingdom of God, verses 22–28. All this shows that one far greater than Jonah stood unrecognized by the leaders of Israel. Their refusal to believe marks them as a wicked and adulterous generation. “[T]here are indeed signs indicating that the time in which they live is a special, qualified time, a turning-point in the course of history. But—as a wicked and adulterous generation—they are unable to discern the decisive significance of the signs. For faith is needed to understand them. This is why Jesus will not give them any other sign than that of the prophet Jonah.” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p. 119)

Turn to the Savior. Nineveh repented. Its inhabitants will stand in the judgment and will condemn this generation. Note that unbelief, rejection of Christ, exposes you to great danger, verses 43–45. The Messiah has introduced the kingdom. He has bound the strong man. But, this side of his return, the conflict goes on. Jesus, though warning of coming judgment, is still speaking rather than wreaking judgment. He still gives you time.

Believe in one greater than Solomon. The Queen of the South will judge this generation. The Queen had been attracted by Solomon’s wealth and wisdom. The account of her visit is recorded in 1 Kings 10. She came from the ends of the earth. Jesus is hinting at the extent of his kingdom. Even though unbelieving Israel fails to recognize his greatness, there will be a coming to him, of which the visit of the Queen of Sheba is merely a minor anticipation. Calvin: “A woman who had not been at all educated in the school of God, was induced, by the desire of instruction, to come from a distant region to Solomon, an earthly king; while the Jews, who had been instructed in the divine law, reject their highest and only teacher, the Prince of all the prophets. ”

Trust Jesus, who is greater than Solomon. It was under Solomon that the earthly Old Testament kingdom reached its peak. Through the victories God gave David, the warrior king, the bounds of Israel had reached the extent originally promised Abraham. Under Solomon the kingdom was a player in world affairs, enjoying unequaled peace and prosperity. Solomon’s glorious rule was diminished by his compromise with idolatry later in his life. Christ is greater, not only because he never sinned, but also because in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, Colossians 2:3. He meets all your need for wisdom. “This lack of consummation with Solomon means that he becomes a prototype of the true eschatalogical king who would come, who would achieve the greater escalated and consummated blessings of which Solomon fell short (cf. Matt. 12:42).” (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 73)

Come to the Messiah. The Queen of Sheba will rise and speak in the judgment day, for one is here who is greater than the Solomon she traveled to see. You cannot take a caravan trek across the Arabian Desert to see the Son of Man. Instead he comes to you in the gospel. He calls you, not only to admire his wisdom, but to trust him as your Savior.

It doesn’t really matter how many really important people you know. What is crucial is that you recognize that Jesus is greater than Jonah, greater than Solomon. Recognize him as the unique Savior—and come to him, trusting in his work in your place.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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