A few weeks back, a question was raised to me regarding trying to better understand the sign of Jonah that Christ speaks of in Matthew and Luke. In thinking about it, I don't guess I have ever really stopped to give it much thought. As I am sure most people have done, I'd read it, and in Matthew at least, it seems pretty clear what the connection is. But I decided to see if there was more to it.
In perusing through my various reference works, it became clear that it was not a cut and dry case among commentators, though my assumption on the topic did seem to be the majority view. I decided to go a little further and dig a little deeper, and started jotting down some notes along the way, and ultimately decided to share some of that with you this morning.
The sections in Matthew 12 was already read at the start, but let's return there briefly to see the focus of the study this morning. Matthew's account tells us:
But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. (Mat 12:39 ESV)
A similar encounter occurs later in chapter 16, with a similar response, where we are told:
An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. (Mat 16:1-4 ESV)
Now, the first thing I would like to briefly look at is how this verse appears in the other synoptic gospels. When it comes to the book of Mark, the verse is truncated to say no sign will be given.
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” (Mar 8:11-12 ESV)
So is Mark and Matthew at odd, or contradicting each other? One says no sign, the other says a sign will be given, so which is it? Well, let's briefly start by discussing some reasoning behind why some textual scholars believe the synoptic gospels differ slightly in wording from time to time.
Based on some of the more up-to-date material I have recently read, discussing the thoughts of those scholars and specialist whose life and work has been centered on manuscripts, textual criticism, and things related to this type of topic, in a nutshell, it goes like this.
The first gospel to have been written was most likely Mark. In centuries past, thoughts were that Matthew was written first, but since at least the early decades of the 1800's, the thought has turned to Mark being first. And then after that, Luke and Matthew were written.
And decisions on which first are split, but the thought process is that Mark offers more of a bare-bones outline format of things that happened. His writing is more concise. And then along comes Matthew and Luke to write their account, and they did so with a copy of Mark in front of them, and then added additional material to that basic foundation.
Now a wide range of these scholars also believe in a two-source theory. They think that aside from using Mark as their outline, they also used a copy of the document known as the Q document. The Q document is described as a sort of master book of sayings of Christ, compiled from oral tradition over the years. Or as Wikipedia puts it:
The Q source (also Q document, Q Gospel, Q Sayings Gospel, or Q from German: Quelle, meaning "source") is a hypothetical written collection of Jesus' sayings. Q is (part of) the common material found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but not in the Gospel of Mark. According to this hypothesis, this material was drawn from the early Church's Oral Tradition.
So the theory is, Matthew or Luke, took Mark's short gospel, and pulled in more fuller quotes and additional details about what Christ did and said, from this Q source, which explains why so much of Luke and Matthew agree where they may differ with Mark. While this theory of a Q source has been around since at least 1900, no official copy of such a Q source has been discovered yet.
It gets deeper than that even, because some scholars hypothesize a four-source theory, saying the content in Luke that is not in Matthew or Mark, comes from an L source — L for Luke; and the content in Matthew not found in Luke or Mark has come from an M source — M of course for Matthew.
These types of theories are just that, theories, with no hard, concrete proof; but are just come from scholars making logical conclusions based on the manuscript evidence, often without any consideration for a supernatural involvement.
As to why Mark simply says no sign will be given at all, it is generally considered that Mark stated it that way because those asking would indeed not be given a sign as they asked. Again, they were asking for a sign from heaven, something more than a typical miracle. It is that kind of sign that they would indeed not receive — not now, not ever, and Mark leaves it at that — no sign for you.
Now, in Matthew, the context of this sign continues by stating:
For just 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 at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Mat 12:40-42 ESV)
A good amount of people, when asked what the sign of Jonah is that Christ is speaking of, will say it is obviously the resurrection, because that is immediately what he is referring to in verse 40 with the “three days and three nights” reference. His forthcoming resurrection is therefore the sign to the unbelieving people that Jesus is the Christ.
While there is a connection, and while the resurrection was a possible component, I now question if that is what he means by the “sign of Jonah.” There are a couple reasons why I lean a different way, and the first one I wish to examine is related to the difference in the gospel texts.
If we examine the parallel passage in the Gospel of Luke, we find it worded this narrative worded way:
When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Luk 11:29-32 ESV)
So in Luke, we see there is no mention made of the “three days and three nights” clause, so the direct reference to the resurrection is missing, and simply saying Jonah became a sign to the people. This time statement itself, missing in both Mark and Luke actually, is found only in our text in Matthew. That is the first point that makes me think the emphasis on the resurrection is probably not tied to the sign in question.
Let's stop for a moment to examine this clause that only Matthew includes, as it tends to cause confusion in the minds of many readers. First, let's look at why, most likely, this “three days and three nights” phrase appears in the Matthew 12 verses, but not in Luke.
Who was the main audience focus for Matthew's gospel? Christians of Jewish descendence.
Who was the main audience for Luke's gospel? Non-Jewish hearers.
So is there something about this time phrase that would be significant enough for only Matthew to include it in his book to Jews, but not for a book like Luke which was written to mainly non-Jews? Yes, it appears there is.
When we modern readers read that something will happen in “three days and three night's” time, we immediately think of this as referring to literal 72 hours period. But as usual, we must be careful not to put our modern understandings upon an ancient text like that, for that may not have been how the Hebrews of the time would have understood this phrasing.
Many scholars state that the term “three days and three nights” is in fact a Hebrew idiom — a figure of speech of sorts. So if this phrase is indeed a Hebrew idiom, it is entirely possibly and likely that Luke skips placing it within his story line, because his Gentile readership may not fully grasp the Hebrew significance of its use.
The topics of idioms and similar ideas have been covered from this pulpit in the past, but just as a refresher, let us go down a quick rabbit trail to look at this topic of idioms a little further.
An idiom is basically a figure of speech that says one thing but does not literally mean what it says. We use these in our speaking all of the time without thinking about it. We might say something like:
It is raining cats and dogs — yet we know this doesn't mean animals fall from the sky, but simply is understood as a very heavy rain.
I am climbing the walls in here — no, no one is scaling up a wall, it simply means we are very restless or nervous.
Putting the cart before the horse — this means things are in the wrong order.
Bun in the oven/the rabbit died — both examples of terms used for saying someone is now pregnant.
We could go on, as I am sure if you stop and think about it, there are tons of sayings that we employ on a daily basis that would fall into this type of category.
And when it comes to biblical writings, we likewise find the use of similar cultural idioms, metaphors and symbolic terminology, and these are quite often missed and confused too.
We have covered extensive looks into a lot of these over the years from this pulpit, but for the sake of new listeners, I will briefly touch on them now. One of the biggest topics of confusion today that stems from missing the cultural use of terminology, tends to be in the realm of eschatology.
Things like stars falling from the sky, or the sun and moon not giving light, and other similar cosmological statement have nothing to say about cosmological events, but in fact are terms relating to national judgment and destruction, and not knowing their historic and cultural usage has led to many a modern day misinterpretation.
So with this key understanding being missed by many modern readers, when they read a verse like Matt. 24:29, they think it to be speaking of world ending cataclysmic events. It says:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matthew 24:29 ESV)
This is no more a reference to cosmological events, than when these same terms were used in the story of Joseph in Genesis 37, where we are told:
Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, "Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me." (Genesis 37:9 ESV)
Of course we know there was no confusion about the meaning of Joseph's dream by his family, for his father immediately exclaimed:
But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, "What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?" (Genesis 3:10 ESV)
This type of symbolic language is used as a reference to leaders or powers falling from authority. In this case, the eleven brothers are representative leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel, but they would one day come to bow low before Joseph. Even our own American flag uses similar this symbolism by having a star representing each individual state political power.
We find this type of symbolism time and time again through the Hebrew Scriptures, but I will mention just one for us this morning. Recall the verse in Matthew we just read a moment ago:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matthew 24:29 ESV)
To the first century Hebrews hearing this, they would immediately recall such similar language used to describe the fall of Babylon to Cyrian the Persian in 539 BC, which described that political downfall in this way:
Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come! Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt. They will be dismayed: pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame. Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. I will make people more rare than fine gold, and mankind than the gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger. (Isaiah 13:6-13 ESV)
Hopefully you picked up on the same language and terms that appears in the New Testament, things like the birth pangs, shaking of heaven, stars darkened, etc. People read these in the New Testament and jump to the assumption that it is speaking of literal, cosmological ending, world destructive language. The problem is, it never did, and so it never does, it is the language of national judgment.
Like I said, additional examples could be given, but hopefully that is enough to make the point today. These are the types of symbolic uses common in the Hebrew Scriptures, which would have been fully understood by the Hebrew audience in the days of Jesus. The same can be said of the various idioms in use at that time.
But while these types of things were common knowledge back in the eras when Scripture was written and given, they often escape the knowledge of modern readers who have not studied to know the culture or the language and idioms of that culture that produced these writings. Well, our time phrase in Matthew here, may actually be yet another one that falls into that category and gets missed.
The expression “three days and three nights” is an idiom which covers any part of three days and three nights (E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible)
If that is indeed true, does that mean then, that Christ did not have to stay in the realm of the dead for three full 24-hour days in order for this statement to be understood as true? Yes! That is what they say it means. When a Hebrew heard this, they would not have thought it meant a literal, full 72-hour period was being spoken of.
In the Jewish culture of the time, it simply meant any part of a three-day period was touched upon. Commentator John Gill quotes from various Jewish sources to state it this way:
To solve this difficulty, and set the matter in a clear light, let it be observed, that the three days and three nights, mean three natural days, consisting of day and night, or twenty four hours, and are what the Greeks call, "night days"; but the Jews have no other way of expressing them, but as here; and with them it is a well-known rule, and used on all occasions, as in the computation of their feasts and times of mourning, in the observance of the passover, circumcision, and divers purifications, that, "a part of a day is as the whole" (T. Hieros. Pesach. fol. 31. 2. T. Bab. Moed. Katon, fol. 16. 2. 17. 2. 19. 2. & 20. 2. Bechorot, fol. 20. 2. & 21. 1, Nidda, fol. 33. 1. Maimon. Hilch. Ebel, c. 7. sect. 1, 2, 3. Aben Ezra in Lev. xii. 3.)
Gill then continues on with the thought, adding:
and so, whatever was done before sun setting, or after, if but an hour, or ever so small a time, before or after it, it was reckoned as the whole preceding, or following day; and whether this was in the night part, or day part of the night day, or natural day, it mattered not, it was accounted as the whole night day: by this rule, the case here is easily adjusted; Christ was laid in the grave towards the close of the sixth day, a little before sun setting, and this being a part of the night day preceding, is reckoned as the whole; he continued there the whole night day following, being the seventh day; and rose again early on the first day, which being after sun setting, though it might be even before sun rising, yet being a part of the night day following, is to be esteemed as the whole; and thus the son of man was to be, and was three days and three nights in the grave; and which was very easy to be understood by the Jews;
Commentators Jamieson-Fausset-Brown likewise agree:
The period during which He was to lie in the grave is here expressed in round numbers, according to the Jewish way of speaking, which was to regard any part of a day, however small, included within a period of days, as a full day. (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown on Matthew 12:40)
Many other commentators could be quoted that likewise spell it out in similar language, showing that the common Jewish computation of days makes this phrase more clearly to be understood as not literally a 72 hours period. Yes, it feels weird to us, but I am sure many of our idioms and symbolic terminology would sound weird to other cultures too.
Honestly, the amount of time itself does not matter to my study of the sign of Jonah, since it would have been the same amount of time in both cases, Jesus and Jonah, but I wanted to present this idiom angle since I know people have struggled with the timing of this event, and this seems to be a historic view with Scriptural backing as we shall see.
Before leaving this subject, let's look briefly at a couple other uses of this idiom in Scripture that Bullinger and other commentators have provided to back up the view. First, we turn to 1 Samuel 30 where we are told of David finding a certain Egyptian:
They found an Egyptian in the open country and brought him to David. And they gave him bread and he ate. They gave him water to drink, and they gave him a piece of a cake of figs and two clusters of raisins. And when he had eaten, his spirit revived, for he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights. (1Sa 30:11-12 ESV)
So if he had not eaten for three full days and three full nights, then the day they found him had to have been at least the beginning of the fourth day since 72 hours had to have passed. But we are in fact told in the next verse that it actually been less than three days, and not four, as we are told:
And David said to him, “To whom do you belong? And where are you from?” He said, “I am a young man of Egypt, servant to an Amalekite, and my master left me behind because I fell sick three days ago. (1Sa 30:13 ESV)
So he fell sick and was left just three days ago, and not four, as the rationale is, the day of speaking is counted as one of those days. Another example used is found in Esther 4 where Esther tells her maidens that they are to fast for three days and three nights:
Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish. (Est 4:16 ESV)
So, it we are to understand it literally, then the fast would be for a full 72 hours at least, meaning then after that time period she would go to the king, which would be on the fourth day, the day after the full three days fast. But in fact, the next verse tells us:
On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king's palace… (Est 5:1 ESV)
So again, three days and three nights equated to simply a three day period, or any part of those three days, since the fasting would have been over before a literal, full 72 hours period, as we may like to enforce upon the text.
Okay, for a very brief rabbit trail, yes, another within our already current rabbit trail, but related still - what Bullinger states after this idiom example in Matthew is revealing. While it is nothing new from what has been spoken from this pulpit many times, it is none the less something most people seem to be totally oblivious of when it comes to the New Testament text.
Before reading his quote, just let me say, as one who monitors the church's social media platforms, and most specifically YouTube where our sermon videos are, but also Facebook from time to time in discussions, I hear the same thing echoed times and time again.
Things like - the New Testament was written only in Greek - everyone in that time period spoke Greek (or Aramaic) — Hebrew as a language was dead, etc. etc. Most of this gets railed against us because of Dave's use of the Hebrew terms Yeshua and Yahweh, making people think we are part of some cultic Hebrew roots movement.
I had a conversation with a guy a couple months back on Facebook actually, where I mentioned the Hebrew cultural understanding of the manger and the whole nativity scene. He went off, saying people like me try to convert everything to Hebrew, when it is obvious — he says - that God had by that time, purposely converted everything - from the people, to the Scriptures - into Greek, and that the Hebrew culture was dead and of no effect or influence on things by the time of Christ.
So yes, when Dave consistently used Hebrew names like he does, or when he states he feels at least part of the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek, it comes against a wall of opposition because people have heard for so long that everything was Greek only.
Well, Bullinger, in the late 19th century knew differently even, when he said, in speaking on this verse in Matthew:
Now the New Testament is for the most part Hebrew in idioms, but Greek in language. This is the simple explanation of the difference between it and classical Greek. Moreover, there is reason to believe that the First Gospel, as we have it, is a translation from a Hebrew original. (E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible)
He is not alone in this assumption, and I have read from other, more modern New Testament and Hebrew scholars, that the New Testament is full of Hebrew idioms, that when translated into Greek make little sense. Yet when you translate them back in Hebrew their meaning is clear.
This gives them evidence of a possible Hebrew source that was later translated into Greek by a non-Hebrew who did not know quite how to handle translating the idiom. Okay, that is the end of our rabbit trail within the rabbit trail, which we now return.
All of this to say, this verse is Matthew is using one such Hebrew idiom when it states Christ will rise after three days and three nights. Again, if understood literally, he would not rise until after three full days and nights, meaning he would actually rise no earlier than the start of the fourth day. Yet Scripture time and time again tells us he would rise on the third day:
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Mat 16:21 ESV)
You can't be raised on the third day if you have to be dead for a full three days and three nights, right? Yet it is worded differently in different places, and all can be understood as covering the same time period.
In Matthew 27:63 it is said He will rise “after three days,” in John 2:19 it says “in three days,” yet the most common expression, used at least ten times, is that it would take place “on the third day” — which again is impossible if we understand three days and three nights literally as 72 hours.
So, when understanding this phrase as the Hebrew idiom it is, it does not require exegetical gymnastic to reconcile the three days with the rest of what Scripture tells us about his death being before Sabbath — Friday — and resurrection on the first day of the week — Sunday.
Even his followers knew this when they ran into Jesus on the road on the day of his resurrection, and speaking of his crucifixion they said:
But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. (Luk 24:21 ESV)
So according to them, the resurrection was on the third day after the death, and not the fourth, of course of course. And we know that pretty much everywhere else in the gospels, it is simply referred to as being on the third day, but the phrase itself that Christ uses here is what was used in the original story of Jonah, which tells us:
And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jon 1:17 ESV)
One other side note of interest, is that in Jonah 2, immediately following that verse, we have Jonah referring to his dilemma as:
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, "I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. (Jon 2:1-2 ESV)
So Jonah referred to his position during those three days and three nights, as being in Sheol, which we know in Hebrew culture was understood as the final resting place of the dead, that realm of the dead that had power over mankind's soul.
We also know they understood it to be located within the space under the earth, which coincides with what Christ said when he spoke of his three-day journey, stating:
For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish (Sheol), so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Sheol).
To go a little further on this, some scholars actually state that Jonah words it this way, because the people at that time believed that the entrance to the underworld, the realm of Sheol, lay deep within the waters — you may remember Dave spoke on this not too long ago. We see a hint of this understand revealed in Job 26:
The spirits of the dead tremble below the waters and their inhabitants. Sheol is naked before him, and there is no covering for Abaddon. (Job 26:5-6 LEB)
There was even an ancient teaching that held that it was a three-day journey to get to and return from the underworld of Sheol.
Since Jonah was taken down into the water's depths, he possibly supposed he was being taken into Sheol itself, and may have actually been, since he does state in verse “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever,” though he may have been speaking metaphorically at this point.
Now that ends the rabbit trail we have been on in examining idioms, we now return to our text directly. Let's return to why Mark said no sign would be given, without any further qualifiers. There are many differing opinions amongst the scholars, but one I feel is a suitable answer.
First, many people when they cross this verse wonder, how could those people be so stupid as to ask for a sign, considering Jesus has been doing public miracles all over. While they may have heard news of much of this, they themselves wanted to see an indisputable sign as proof, but they wanted one from heaven, not just a miracle from earth.
Some scholars point out that in the gospels, the term used here for “sign” is not the same they tend to use for “miracle.” Meaning what they wanted was not an everyday miracle, not something that might just be some slight-of-hand or trick; they wanted something big, from heaven, to satisfy them.
It is that sort of immediate sign that they would not receive, as Mark says, and so he leaves it at that. He says “no, you will not receive what you have requested, period.” The sign they would receive would not be what they wanted either, but it would be all that they were to get.
As mentioned, we may be quick to jump in and say the sign was the resurrection, as that is what it feels as though Matthew tends to be leaning towards in chapter 12. However, neither Luke nor the Matthew 16 sign of Jonah references have any such accompanying keys words that make that necessarily the case.
Luke simple says Christ will, like Jonah, become a sign to the people. Did Jonah's sign relate to his being in the fish three days and nights? I do not think it was, becomes we are given no evidence that the people of Nineveh would have even been aware of what Jonah went through.
You see, we are told Jonah went through his ordeal, then after he was spit out on the beach, then he rose up and began his travel towards Nineveh. Once he reached the city, which was a large city, he traveled a whole day's journey into the midst of the city.
From what we can tell, no one would have been privy to his whole three days in the fish ordeal that took place more than a day before Jonah started preaching, so how significant would that part have been as a sign to the people? It was a sign to him for sure, but not necessarily to anyone around him to know he was a prophet of God.
So, another option some consider as being the sign, is that it is related to his preaching repentance? But an objection to that being the sign, is that Christ has been preaching repentance the whole time. That is true, but I think there may be more to it that this, considering where the text continues from there.
The one part that both Matthew and Luke are in agreement on in their texts, is the repentance of the people, as we read in Matthew:
The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Mat 12:40-42 ESV)
Both texts include these comments about speaking of the repentance of a people and the acknowledgment of the wisdom of Solomon. Jesus states that both of these traits would condemn his generation. Let's look briefly at the story of Jonah.
Jonah was told to go speak to Nineveh, but he did not want to. Nineveh was the one responsible for the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, so obviously not a favorite people of the Hebrews, so Jonah did not want to preach repentance to them.
Yet ultimately, we know he did do so, and we know that Nineveh did repent and God did not destroy them, which did not make Jonah happy either. So the bottom line here is that Yahweh provided forgiveness for the pagan nation that destroyed his people, something the Jews thought unfathomable.
Interestingly, some sources note that rabbis and Jewish teachers tended to disliked Jonah for his disobedience “on behalf of Israel” and that he resented the offer of Gentile repentance because if successful, it would leave unrepentant Israel condemned. And that seems to be the thrust of the point being made by Jesus here.
Just like Jonah's days, the preaching of Christ's message would end up going out to the non-Israelites and offering them forgiveness just like Nineveh, while leaving the Israelites themselves condemned. Christ was preaching repentance to them, but many were not having it. After his resurrection, just like Jonah, the preaching would turn to the pagan nations with the offer.
This line of thought is continued by Paul in Romans, when he speaks of Israel and the message to the pagan nations, stating:
But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, "I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry." Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me." But of Israel he says, "All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people." (Rom 10:19-21 ESV)
He points out that the message was there all along for Israel to see, yet they did not understand. Paul's first appeal then is to Moses in Deuteronomy 32. For those not already aware, Deut. 32 is the key text where Yahweh first speaks of the ultimate end of his people Israel. This is the first place in Scripture where a discussion about the last days is mentioned, it says:
And he said, 'I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness. They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. (Deu 32:20-21 ESV)
Of course we know time and time again that Jesus calls his generation a perverse generation, echoing them back to what Moses said would come in their last days. Then Paul goes right into a quote from Isaiah 65, which is likewise a condemning verse again His people Israel, stating:
I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, "Here I am, here I am," to a nation that was not called by my name. I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people (Israel), who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually… (Isa 65:1-3 ESV)
Again, if you go back and read Isaiah 64 through 66, these are the key chapters referring to the end of the national people of Yahweh, the judgment and rejection of Israel who will be replaced by a new people, called out and chosen from amongst the Israelites, and adding to them the Gentiles to create a people of a new name.
This new people is significant because it is then, in 66, referred to as God creating a new heaven and a new earth. Most think when we get to the New Testament and find discussions of the new heavens and earth, that it is some new thing being brought up, when in fact it is speaking of what was promised in Isaiah.
It was almost ten years ago now, that I was moderating an online radio debate on eschatology, and I asked the one speaker a question on what he felt the relationship was between Isaiah's new heaven and new earth, and the one mentioned in the New Testament. He truly shocked me when he said he felt they had no connection, that they were not related at all.
As I said, ignorance of the Old Testament use of terms is a main cause of much folly in modern day interpreters of all things, but when it comes to the topic of eschatology, it causes some really fantastical results, sadly.
Isaiah 65 and 66 are the promise of a “new heavens and new earth,” the very promise being looked forward to in New Testament time. Sadly, ignorance of Isaiah's usage of this term has caused most people to assume the phrase in the New testament is referring to a global restructuring of planet earth, when in the context of its Isaiah prophecy, it is simply the changing and bringing in to God a people known by a new name.
This of course lines up perfectly with the soon expected new heavens and earth that Peter was looking forward to in his generation, for he speaks of the people change too, and knows it is not some new prophecy, but is in fact:
according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2Pe 3:13 ESV)
Peter says it is a promise he is waiting for — but where was it promised? It seems modern day interpreters like the debate opponent have no promise to connect to. And then going back to the opening of Peter's second letter, who is he address in this? A new people, for he says:
Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ: (2Pe 1:1 ESV)
He is speaking to people who are unlike himself. He was a Jew with all of the special benefits with God that it held historically. He is addressing those unlike him, who did not have that special place with God, but now they have entered into a faith of equal standing to what he and the Jews have.
He is addressing a group most likely full of Gentiles. He mentions in book two that this is the second letter he is writing them, and so this is the same people who he refers to in letter one as:
To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia… (1Pe 1:1 ESV)
Here he is calling them as exiles, scattered in the nations, mingled and now considered by the Jews to be just pagan nations — in their minds, these people were hopeless and outside of the promises of God and the same as any other pagan nation.
While they were indeed outside of the benefits and people of God, in actuality, some of them were indeed inside the promises of God laid out in places like Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and elsewhere.
Those promises of God foretold by the prophets of old, were beginning to take place at that time, and a new people was being called, and a new heaven and earth was being designed, and the new temple being built of people, brick by brick upon the cornerstone of Christ as Peter says in chapter 2 of his first letter.
Hosea 2:23 spoke of the future day when the once rejected people would be remarried to God and return to Him, and Peter quotes this directly, stating it was occurring to those people he was addressing in his letters, telling them:
Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1Pe 2:10 ESV)
Paul makes this same type of people distinction when addressing the Ephesians, as he lays out the blessings afforded to he and his fellow Jews in verses one through eleven of chapter one, and then turns to sing the praises of those who were not Jews who had come to the same faith as promised. He states it as:
In him we (Jews) have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we (Jews) who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you (Gentiles) also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Eph 1:11-14 ESV)
And like Paul mentioned in our earlier Romans 10 passage, the Jews knew this grace to the Gentiles was coming, and so they have no real excuse. Even Peter states that in the past they looked deeply to try to determine when these events were to happen:
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. (1Pe 1:10-11 ESV)
They knew it was coming, they just didn't know when, or at least they were looking for it generations before. And now that it was here, the majority of the Jewish leaders seemed oblivious to it all as it unfolded in front of them. Even looking back at our sign of Jonah text from Matthew 16, he condemns them for not knowing that the time was upon them. He states:
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.' And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. (Mat 16:1-4 ESV)
And again, note that in this section of Matthew, no reference is made of the three days and three nights, he simply refers to the sign of Jonah to that audience. In doing so, at least for that audience who heard it, there was not a clear reference made that may be emphasizing His coming resurrection.
So while the resurrection of Jesus is a close parallel to the symbolic death and rising of Jonah, it seems clear that the actual sign of Jonah spoken of, goes beyond that event. The resurrection came and went, and yet we have a large number of Jews who still were either oblivious to it or simply ignored it.
They wanted a sign from God, something big from heaven, and while the resurrection was big to his followers, it's influenced still seemed limited in scope to the average person in the world at the time. Likewise, as mentioned earlier, we have no clear evidence from Scripture that the people within Nineveh were even aware of Jonah's three days in the fish.
Well, a bigger sign was indeed coming, one from God, and Christ promised it numerous times, and it indeed was almost an identical promise that was heralded by Jonah against Nineveh. When Jonah snapped out of his rebellion and went to the city, we are told:
So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" (Jon 3:3-4 ESV)
Nineveh was threatened with destruction, and that destruction was not accomplished because the people repented. Well, to those people, that message of impending destruction was a sign of Jonah the prophet, and just like Jonah, Christ came preaching the same message to his generation — Jerusalem shall be overthrown.
The Israelites believed Yahweh was on their side, and they felt he would never allow bad to fall on them. We see it in places like Micah 3 where it says:
But they lean on Yahweh, saying, "Is not the LORD in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us." (Micah 3:11 ESV)
They believed it in the past, and yet he destroyed their city and put them in slavery to Babylon. How soon they forget the results of their evil ways, for a greater prophet was now speaking the same message to them — their city will be destroyed, and as before, they were ignoring it.
Yet, again, they were deceived in thinking that while in their wickedness, Yahweh was still in their midst. And it was told way back then in Micah, that even though they thought this, verse 12 tells us:
Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height. (Mic 3:12 ESV)
They wanted a big sign — well, here comes Christ telling them this promise was coming upon their generation, and it was the same message of Jonah — one of destruction.
Sadly, this message was foretold of their end, as we saw, as far back as Deuteronomy, and hints of it throughout the other prophets, yet still, they missed it, and now it was upon them.
Daniel foretold of the end, setting the date at 70 weeks of years, and here comes Jesus, appearing smack dab in the middle of the seventieth and final week, declaring the end, or as Daniel stated it, all of the events that he had prophesied, including the time of the end, would be completed when:
…when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end all these things would be finished. (Dan 12:7 ESV)
The Jews thought all was fine, just like Nineveh did before Jonah appeared, and here comes one greater than Jonah, giving them the same sign — the message of destruction — and they weren't listening. Because of that, Nineveh would rise up against them.
Jesus told them time and time again that their end was coming within a generation of his message, stating their disobedience would cause the kingdom to be taken from them and given to a new people.
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. (Mat 21:43 ESV)
Parable after parable was spoken by Jesus, and the majority of the messages were regarding the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the people of Israel. The parables in the Gospel of Luke from chapters 9 through 20 were referred to “Jesus' lawsuit against Israel” by Joel McDurmon in his recent book “Jesus vs. Jerusalem.”
This sign of Jonah verse we have been looking at, the Luke version, falls right into this series of parables given during Jesus' trip to Jerusalem. And while at times, the leaders seemed to understand he was addressing his message against them, they still did not repent.
Right after telling them of the sign of Jonah, he speaks of the light under a basket, which is what Israel was supposed to have been to the world around them, but they failed to be, and now Christ was the true light, come to the world for all to see, and not just the Jews as they thought.
He then condemns them for their building of monuments to the prophets, and claiming they would not have taken part in the shedding of the blood of the prophets had they been around back in the day. Jesus told them not only would they have played a part back then, but they were about to do the same to his people:
Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,' so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. (Luk 11:49-51 ESV)
Not only would they be held accountable for their own sins, but he was declaring that all of the blood of his people shed upon the earth from times of old would likewise fall upon their heads. This was the final generation, these were the last days of Israel as foretold by the prophets, and they were going down soon.
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. (Mat 23:37-38 ESV)
I believe the sign of Jonah is in fact related more to the message Jonah proclaimed, which is pretty much equivalent to the message Jesus gave. As Jonah's message was that Nineveh would be overthrown, Jesus' message was:
Your house is left to you desolate — Jerusalem shall be overthrown!
Jesus continued throughout Luke with parables and teachings pointing to the sinfulness the people had continue in, and as you get further into the gospel, the destruction to soon come becomes more clearly evident.
By chapter 20, Jesus speaks of the wicked tenants, who were supposed to handle the vineyard, but instead kills the servant and the heir, and when the master comes, he will destroy the wicked tenants and give the vineyard to another people. This is a clear reference to the imminent destruction of the Jews for their unfaithfulness, and the bringing in of a new people.
In Luke 21 he directly speaks of the destruction of the temple itself, their holy city. But let us join that story where it appears in Matthew, starting at the end of chapter 23. After Matthew 23, Jesus left the temple area and his discussions with those leaders, and his disciples pulled him aside after his declaring of Jerusalem to be left desolate, and asked him what would be the sign of this coming desolation, and the end of the age of the old covenant?
The Jewish leaders at that time wanted a sign that he was the Christ, well, he declared their utter demise and the destruction of their temple and covenant, and for that to come true in their lifetime would indeed be the fulfillment of such a desired sign from heaven.
So his disciples asked how would they know when these events were upon them. And while he did not clearly tell the leaders what these signs would be, he did reveal them to his followers. Telling them throughout Matthew 24 the things that were not signs, and the things that were.
They — his listeners — would see wars, and rumors of wars. They would be persecuted and put to death for his name's sake. Yet when they saw the city of Jerusalem surrounded by the armies, they were to flee the city and head to the mountains. As Luke puts it for his Gentile audience:
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. (Luk 21:20-22 ESV)
Those promises of destruction from the prophets of old, were all coming true and falling upon the generation of people hearing Jesus' words. He states that these events would include the tribulations and death of some listening to him, as well as the sun and moon darkened, the falling of stars, the shaking of heavenly powers, the sign of the Son of Man appearing in heaven and more. All of these would be seen by some of those listening to him.
And again, remember these cosmological sounding signs of destruction are not literal cosmological happenings; they are like the idioms and metaphors we discussed earlier. They are terms used when speaking of national destruction. And at the end of all of these signs, he says:
when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Mat 24:33-34 ESV)
The disciples asked for the signs of the end, and he said here are some signs, and as for the timing of them, know that they shall all occur within the time frame of the generation of his hearers, for the time was at hand.
While it is true that He couldn't tell them an exact day or hour of these events, that is not to be misunderstood as meaning he did not know the general time frame when they would happen. He couldn't give them the exact day and hour from a calendar, but he could tell them a distinct time period — sometime within that current generation of those living and listening to him.
Plus, it is interesting to note that Jonah gave Nineveh 40 days notice, and in hindsight, we see Jesus gave Israel roughly 40 years notice — a generation - before their destruction.
So it is my opinion, at this present time that the sign of Jonah is to be understood as relating to the similar message of destruction that Jonah and Jesus gave, more than it is to the resurrection symbolism between the two that most people seem to focus on most often.
While the resurrection was a key event to the followers, and indeed a mighty sign itself, the impact and understanding of it to the rest of the world seemed less influential at the time. The destruction of Jerusalem on the other hand would have been a significant event to a good amount of the world at large, as they were a large, well known entity just as Nineveh was in the day.
For the people within the Temple area — the Jews — the battle against the city would be quickly seen as a sign of Yahweh's protection being lifted and of His wrath against them. To those who knew the promises of the Scriptures knew such an event would be a signal of the end of the old covenant, and the establishing of the new as promised also by the prophets.
While I touched on it briefly early, I think the audiences in the stories are also a bit significant, though not necessarily as part of the sign being spoken of specifically. Jonah preached repentance to a foreign people — a hated pagan nation; an enemy people hated by the actual people of God at the time.
The repentance of Nineveh would have struck at the heart of the people of Israel, to think that God would show mercy and acceptance of that pagan nation. It is as if they kept forgetting that they, Israel as a nation and people, were supposed to be a light on the hill; they were supposed to be a light of truth to the pagan nations, to bring them back into God's people.
They seem to fail to remember that when God first called Abram to be his chosen people, that he promised Abram that:
in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen 12:3 ESV)
The people were to be a light unto the world, a blessing to every nation, and as Isaiah records it:
I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isa 42:6-7 ESV)
I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Isa 49:6 ESV)
Historically, the Jews had kept their light under a basket, kept it to themselves rather than being a light to the world as they were called to do. The Jews of Jesus' day were no different. They were an elite club, ignoring the pagan nations, despising them, abusing them in many ways. They claimed to be wise, having the oracles of Gods, a favored people by God, they took pride in their position.
But their wisdom was ignorance when it came to the plans of God foretold by the fathers before them. Then Jesus came onto the scene as promised, and he was the true light to the pagan nations that Israel was supposed to have been.
He came to be the true Israel, fulfilling the tasks they were supposed to but hadn't, and accomplishing the things they couldn't in the flesh, and He became that light to the world that salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. He, the seed of Abram would be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
And when the message of Christ went out to the pagan nations, it had a similar response to the people of Israel — it made them jealous. As Paul states in Romans 11:
So I ask, did they (Israel) stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. (Rom 11:11 ESV)
While we do not know any details on how Jonah and his people responded to seeing God's mercy to Nineveh, we do see a glimpse of how it went after Jesus' days.
From the days of Jesus and following, many people from both sides of the line, Jew and pagan, repented and returned to follow the true Israel, the Christ, the risen savior. And from their day through unto ours, those people seek to continue to be the light unto the world, to be a blessing to all of the families of the earth as Yahweh intended.