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The sign of Jonah

Jun 17, 2014

In Luke 11:15, 16 there were two reactions when Jesus cast out the dumb demon. The first came from the Pharisees, who claimed He had done this by the power of Beelzebul. The second came from some unknown people who “were demanding of Him a sign from heaven.”

Jesus answered the first objection by telling them that it was absurd to believe that Satan would cast out Satan, because a kingdom that is divided cannot stand. His explanation is seen in Luke 11:17-26.

In the next section Jesus answers those who had demanded a sign. This begins with an introduction in Luke 11:27,

27 And it came about while He said these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which You nursed.” 28 But He said, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”

The woman in question was not trying to bless Jesus’ mother, but was recognizing a state of blessedness that already existed in her eyes. The Greek word for “blessed” is makarios, which is the same word used in the beatitudes in Luke 6:20-22. As we have already shown, the blessing in those beatitudes was a recognition of an already-existing blessed state.

In those days it was the dream of every woman to have the honor of giving birth to the Messiah. Nonetheless, Jesus did not agree that His mother was more blessed than others for having nursed Him as a baby. Rather, “blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”

In this context, Jesus says in Luke 11:29,

29 And as the crowds were increasing, He began to say, “This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah.”

Most teaching on this verse focuses upon the question of timing, whether Jesus was in the tomb until the third day (Matthew 16:21) or a full three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40). But Luke’s account ignores the issue of timing and focuses directly on hearing the word of God and observing it.

Jonah himself, of course, refused to hear the word of the Lord the first time, and so he took a ship in the opposite direction of Nineveh. Nonetheless, the reluctant prophet obeyed the word in his second call to Nineveh. So he receives commendation from Jesus as an example of hearing and observing the word. By implication, he also identified many in His audience as reluctant to hear the word that He spoke.

Certainly, those who had asked for a sign were reluctant, and to them the only sign given was to be the only sign that Jonah had been given—His death, burial, and resurrection. Hence, even as the sign of Jonah was the only sign that brought the reluctant prophet to the place of obedience, so also would the sign of Jesus be the only sign that would bring the reluctant (or “wicked generation”) of His day to believe and obey the word of God.

The people as a whole did not have ears to hear or eyes to see, because God had blinded their eyes as early as the time of Moses (Deuteronomy 29:4). Isaiah too confirmed this in Isaiah 6:9, 10; 29:10; 44:18. Jesus recognized this condition and thus spoke in parables, for He said in Matthew 13:13,

13 Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

Jesus then supported His view of their blind and deaf condition by quoting the prophecies of Isaiah. Yet He reassured His disciples in Matthew 13:16,

16 But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.

Even though they had difficulty in seeing and hearing the words of Jesus, their eyes and ears had been “blessed” (makarios), because God had seen fit to set them free from this national condition. Their calling was to bring light to the darkness, whereas Judah and the world in general was their dark mission field. Their main opposition blasphemed by trying to hide their light, but in the end, the Kingdom of Light would prevail.

In another context, we read in John 2:48,

48 Jesus therefore said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.”

Paul, too, commented on this in 1 Corinthians 1:22, 23, saying,

22 For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles [ethnos, “the nations”] foolishness.

The word of God is the gospel of a crucified Messiah. This was a stumbling block, from the Greek word skandalizo. (Our English word scandal is derived from this.) The inability to hear the word about a crucified Messiah is the main evidence of blindness, for that word is a stumbling block, or skandalizo. Conversely, Jesus says that the blessed ones are evidenced by hearing ears and seeing eyes. Luke 7:23 says,

23 And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling [from skandalizo] over Me.

And so Jesus tells Thomas in John 20:29,

29 Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

Those who have the ability to discern and to believe intuitively, without requiring signs, are blessed. God certainly does give signs, not only throughout Scripture but also in our daily lives. These are given because His word tells us that two or three witnesses establish all truth. This law is a divinely-mandated safeguard to guide us while we are yet learning to hear clearly. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:1,

1 This is the third time I am coming to you. Every fact is to be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

Signs are a way of providing people with a double witness. Even so, those whose eyes are blessed will believe the single witness as God speaks to their hearts, for they know His voice.

Ideally, the sign that follows the word is not for belief, but for timing. The appearance of the second witness usually tells us when to act upon the word that we have already believed. And so, when Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, he said in Genesis 41:32,

32 Now as for the repeating of the dream to Pharaoh twice, it means that the matter is determined [kuwn, “established”] by God, and God will quickly bring it about.

Pharoah’s double witness meant that the seven good years followed by the seven years of famine which he saw in his dreams was not something that would come in the far future. The double witness established timing, and so they immediately began to prepare by storing food.

Hence, signs are not an evil thing, nor should we despise signs. Jesus was telling us that blessed eyes do not need signs to believe. Faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17), not by signs. Signs are given to establish the word for those who are yet hard of hearing, and also to provide timing clues for the fulfillment of prophetic words.

Matthew 12:40 adds further details that Luke omits, saying,

40 for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

This is the only place, other than in Jonah 1:17, where Jonah was said to be “three days and three nights” buried, as it were, in the grave. This is often taken literally as 72 hours, rather than seeing it as a Hebrew idiom for continuous time. All other passages (20 in the New Testament alone *) speak of Christ being raised “on the third day,” which, in the common vernacular of that time, would have included Jesus’ burial day as the first day.

“In rabbinical thought,” says The Expositor’s Commentary, “a day and a night make an onah, and a part of an onah is as the whole.” A source for this statement is Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah who lived around 100 A.D. (Ralph Woodrow, Three Days and Three Nights, p. 44)

The normal rule for interpreting apparent contradictions is to reinterpret the exceptional statement to fit the more numerous ones. Likewise, interpreters should not force the clear statements into submission to the idiom. Perhaps the clearest statement is found in Luke 13:32, 33,

32 And He said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal.’ 33 Nevertheless I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.”

By this definition of “the third day,” one cannot keep Jesus in the tomb 72 hours. In fact, as we will see later, the two men traveling to Emmaus told Jesus the sad story of the crucifixion, not knowing that they were talking to the newly-risen Christ. Then they stated in Luke 24:21, “it is the third day since these things happened.”

In Esther 4:16 we read that the queen told the people to “fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day.” Long fasts were often done only during the day, and the people ate after sundown. Even today, during the month of Ramadan, devout Muslims fast for thirty days, but not thirty nights. So Esther asked the people to fast continually for three days, according to Hebrew idiom.

Then “on the third day” (Esther 5:1) the queen approached the king. There is no reason to think that the people had to fast 72 hours, nor did Esther have to wait 72 hours to approach the king.

As for being “in the belly of the whale,” this too was an Eastern idiom, as George Lamsa points out, for those who are “in difficulties and a dilemma” (Idioms in the Bible Explained, p. 46). The English equivalent would be to say that he is “in a pickle” or “in a jam.”

The phrase, “heart of the earth,” was understood to be Jerusalem itself. Moslems believe Mecca to be the earth’s center. The Greeks believed this about Delphi on account of its oracle there. Jerusalem, however, has greater claim to being the “heart of the earth,” because it is situated at the midpoint of the land mass of Europe, Africa, and Asia.

When Matthew 12:40 speaks of the sign of Jonah, Jesus was still speaking in parables, for He had not yet revealed His death on the cross, not even to His disciples. Certainly, they did not realize that “the heart of the earth” was a tomb, or else Peter might have rebuked Jesus as he did later. No doubt they thought that He spoke of having difficulty in Jerusalem while confronting the religious leaders for a few days.

In the end, however, Luke’s narrative shows that Jesus was referring to the people’s inability to hear the word and obey it. The sign of Jonah in Luke’s account was primarily Jonah’s example of refusing to obey. Matthew focuses upon the result of that refusal, which brought Jonah to the belly of the whale for “three days and three nights.” It is not that Jesus followed Jonah’s example of refusal, but rather that the people’s refusal to hear the word is what brought Jesus to the cross. Hence, it is a Passover sign.

Yet Jonah also depicts a sign of Pentecost and Tabernacles. His name means “dove,” and as such he is a sign of the Holy Spirit indwelling the “whale” of human flesh. When the whale swallowed Jonah, it depicted the Holy Spirit as a dove indwelling flesh. This sign provided a double witness that refuted the Greek dualistic view that spirit was good and that matter was evil.

Further, Jonah is a prophetic witness of the law of the two birds (or doves) that were needed to cleanse lepers in Leviticus 14:4. The first was killed, and the second was released into the open field. Jonah’s first call to Nineveh resulted in his “death” in the belly of the whale. After his second call, he preached in Nineveh and converted the entire city. The “open field” in Leviticus 14:7 is the world, Jesus said in Matthew 13:38. Nineveh, the “Fish Town,” was a prophetic type of the whale as well as a type of the world, the flesh, and the enemies of God.

Jonah is a story of the ultimate triumph of Christ over the world, not prophesying its destruction, but its conversion. This conversion comes by the indwelling Holy Spirit, first by Pentecost and finally by the fulfillment of Tabernacles.

In the end, all will be blessed, for all will “hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:28).

*New Testament Scriptures speaking of “the third day” are: Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:61; 27:40; 27:64; Mark 9:31; 10:34; 14:58; 15:29; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:33; 27:7; 24:21; 24:46; John 2:19, 20; Acts 10:40; 1 Corinthians 15:4.


This is part 59 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Luke


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Category: Teachings

Dr. Stephen Jones


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