Why did Jesus compare himself to Jonah? How could Jonah’s story have inspired Jesus and helped him understand his mission?
Jonah was the oddest of prophets. While many prophets denounced other nations, they all delivered their messages to Israel and Judah. Telling God’s people that their enemies were going to fall was not a difficult ask.
Jonah was different. He was sent to the capital of Assyria, their most fearful enemy. Walking into Nineveh to announce its downfall was suicide. The Empire would swat him like a fly to demonstrate its capacity to protect itself. And if, by some miracle, Nineveh listened to Jonah and was spared, just imagine what the Israelites would do to Jonah — the traitor who saved their enemy!
No wonder Jonah baulked. He fled to the seaport of Joppa (Tel Aviv/Yafo today), to escape the land where YHWH lived (Jonah 1:3, 10). But even at sea, God pursued him. And the pagan sailors seem more spiritually aware than the sleepy prophet. Foreigners praying and sacrificing to YHWH was truly remarkable (Jonah 1:14-16).
Even sea creatures are servants of YHWH. A fish performs its divinely appointed rescue for God’s messenger. One moment Jonah is sinking to certain death, and the next he’s inside a cavern in the depths of the sea. It’s as if he was already in the realm of the dead (sheol) when God rescued him:
Jonah 1:17b – 2:6 (NIV)
1 17 Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
2 1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2 He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. …
6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.”
It’s easy to see the parallel with Jesus with the benefit of hindsight. Jesus went down into the realm of the dead, and on the third day God raised him up. But think from Jesus’ point of view. Unless you believe the church fabricated the story later, why would Jesus think this applied to him before the event?
I suggest that Jesus used a pesher style of interpretation. A pesher interpreter took a text that had a meaning in the past, and reapplied it to their present situation. It was popular in the first century. The oldest known commentaries on Scripture were written like this, preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Most of them were on Psalms and the Prophets.
So how would Jesus have related Jonah’s story to himself? Jesus was focused on restoring the kingdom of God in a world that resisted God’s reign. But Jesus certainly did not understand his calling as going to Rome to announce the fall of the Empire the way Jonah did to Nineveh. Jesus spent no effort delivering his message to Rome’s local representatives (Herod and Pilate). Rome is not his Nineveh.
Most of Jesus’ ministry was in Galilee, his home region. There the crowds loved watching Satan losing his power (exorcisms) and God setting right what’s wrong (healings). But even here in Galilee, the influential leaders viewed him as a threat and wanted to destroy him (12:14).
And Jesus does have a sense of call beyond his home country. He knows he must go up to Jerusalem and confront its rulers. Jerusalem was meant to be the seat of the heavenly sovereign’s rule on earth, what Jesus called “the city of the great king” (5:35). Instead, Jesus views it as the seat of rebellion against the heavenly sovereign, the place that murders God’s messengers (23:37; Luke 13:33-34). Jerusalem is his “Nineveh,” the terrifying city he is called to confront.
There was a time after the exile when Jewish people hoped their gentile rulers would submit to God as the king of Assyria did in Jonah 3:6. The stories of Daniel 1–6 expressed this hope, and those who translated the Torah into Greek imagined the Greek rulers awed by God’s wisdom (Letter of Aristeas). Ultimately they realized this would never happen. The later chapters of Daniel acknowledge the apocalyptic reality that only direct intervention by God will set right what’s wrong, and that could only happen if those killed unjustly were raised from the dead (Daniel 12:2).
Jesus has no illusions about what will happen when he enters Jerusalem. What should be the capital of his kingdom is a “Nineveh,” the seat of God’s enemies. He will announce its destruction and overturn its temple. Its leaders will not accept him as the divinely appointed messenger. They will kill him to keep their power. He will sink down to the realm of the dead.
His only hope is for God to raise him up out of death. Resurrection is the only way God’s appointed ruler can be given authority. Only through resurrection can the son of man receive the kingdom.
Unlike Jonah, he will not flee from the presence of the Lord: he will go up to the Jerusalem where the presence of the Lord ought to be. He will trust the heavenly sovereign to raise him from the depths, out of sheol, and his rising will proclaim Jonah’s message, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9).
His resurrection is the one unmistakable sign to Israel’s rulers that Jesus was indeed the Christ, the son of David anointed by heaven to rule over the earth.
See if that makes sense of what Jesus said:
Matthew 12:38-41 (my translation)
38 Some of the Torah scholars and Pharisees replied, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 Jesus replied, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet.”
40 “Just as Jonah was in the gut of the sea creature for three days and three nights, so will the son of man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up to judge this generation and condemn it, because they repented in response to Jonah’s message. And look: there’s something more than Jonah here.
What others are saying
W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 355:
The sign of Jonah is now explained: just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster three days and three nights, so shall the Son of man be in the belly of the earth three days and three nights. Matthew’s text seems to make explicit what is implicit in the speeches in Acts, namely, that the resurrection is God’s one great sign to Israel (cf. Acts 2:24, 32, 36; 3:15; etc.).
Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), Volume 2, 217, 218:
The psalm in Jonah 2 already interpreted the belly of the fish with the aid of mythical images of death. Jonah’s rescue from the fish is a rescue from death. …
Jonah, “the prophet,” typologically prefigures in his fate the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thus they are the “sign” that God will give this generation. However, they will be signs for Israel in a paradoxical sense. Israel will be guilty of the death of Jesus and thus bring about the promised sign. In Jesus’ resurrection God will then reverse the evil that Israel has done. And just this becomes the “sign,” but not the sign for Israel; it is rather a sign that Israel rejects and that thus becomes a sign against Israel.
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