No scripture can be completely understood until we’ve learned how it points us to Jesus. In the case of Jonah, Jesus makes it easy for us, because he actually describes himself in light of the “sign of Jonah.” It seems that in Jesus’ day, many people were looking for a “sign,” something that would give his message credibility and authority. Jesus will have none of it:
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered them,[a] “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 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. 4 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. (Matthew 16:1-4)
In Luke, we read a similar account—if not the same account but a different perspective:
29 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. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 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. 32 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. (Luke 11:29-32)
Notice that Luke offers more detail about what is meant by the “sign of Jonah.” In looking at these passages, how might we see Jesus as the true and better Jonah?
- Jonah fled the Father’s will and in so doing became a man with neither mission nor purpose. Jesus obeyed the Father’s will—even to the point of death—and his righteous obedience is credited to our account.
- Both men experienced the wrath of God. Jonah experienced the wrath of God in the storm; Jesus satisfied God’s fierce anger when he ascended the hill of Calvary—and it’s not for nothing that on that day we’re also told of darkness at noon.
- Jonah spent three days inside a whale; Jesus spent three days inside the grave. Both Jonah and Jesus emerged because of the miraculous power of God.
- Both men preached a message of repentance—Jonah to the city of Nineveh, Jesus to the entire city of man.
Matthew’s focus seems to be on the similarity between Jonah and the resurrection. Luke seems to focus on the call to repentance and the coming judgment.
What application might we draw? A simple, though powerful one. Without Christ, we are all Jonah. We are all rebellious, self-righteous, xenophobic cowards with neither purpose nor mission. We are “out to sea,” if you’ll pardon the pun. Jesus came to save men like Jonah, he came to save you and me, and he came to save the whole world.
I don’t know about you, but I find this reassuring—that in the midst of our storms and confusion we find a renewed sense of purpose and in the midst of our disobedience we have Christ’s righteousness credited to our account. And most importantly, we can look to the fact that this “sign of Jonah,” this great promise of resurrection, teaches us that no one is ever beyond hope.
So no; Jonah is not merely a story we tell our kids. It’s a story for all of us. It’s a story of hope, a story of redemption. And most of all it’s a story of a God who so graciously and so regularly makes all things new.