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What is the Sign of Jonah and Why Was it Important to Jesus?

What is the Sign of Jonah and Why Was it Important to Jesus?

The narrative of the Old Testament points forward to Jesus’s fulfillment of those prophecies. The book of Jonah is no exception. Jesus uses the message of the sign of Jonah to teach of something even greater. 

In the Gospels, particularly in Matthew 12:38-45, Jesus explicitly references the sign of Jonah as a metaphor for His impending crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. This comparison not only highlights the importance of the Jonah narrative within the broader context of biblical prophecy but also emphasizes Jesus's role as the Messiah, who would bring about a greater act of salvation than Jonah's message to Nineveh. As Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, so too would the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth, pointing to the profound mystery of Jesus's death and resurrection. Let's take a deeper look at this Bible passage and what it teaches us as believers.

The Sign of Jonah in the Bible

The passage Matthew 12:38-45 has the title "The Sign of Jonah" Here is a retelling of it:

Some teachers of the religious law and some Pharisees came to Jesus and asked for a miraculous sign to prove his authority. Jesus, knowing their hearts and motives, told them that only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign. He went on to say that the only sign he would give them was the sign of the prophet Jonah. As Jonah was in the belly of the great fish 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. Jesus also added that the people of Nineveh would stand up against these Pharisees on judgment day and condemn them. The people of Nineveh, evil as they were, ended up repenting of their sins when Jonah preached. He probably looked at the Pharisees in the eyes then and told them that someone greater than Jonah is right here with them, and they refuse to repent.

Then Jesus spoke again. “When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert seeking rest but finds none. Then it says I will return to the person I came from, so it returns and finds its former home empty, swept, and in order. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself and they all enter the person and live there. And that person is worse off than before. That will be the experience of this evil generation.”

What is the Sign of Jonah and How is it Compared Jesus' Resurrection?

The sign of Jonah is both a metaphor and a prophecy of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The Pharisees kept asking for a sign and proof that Jesus was the Messiah. Always asking for signs can be a symptom of a lack of faith. In the book of Judges, Gideon asked for signs, but his motive was to quench his doubts and lack of confidence. In the Pharisee's case, their asking was more about trying to trap Jesus into saying something that they could say goes against their version of the law. Their motives were not simply to ease their doubts. So, Jesus told them that there would be no sign except for the sign of the prophet Jonah. He simply pointed forward toward the biggest sign of all—His resurrection.

Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights. And the Son of Man would be buried in a tomb for three days and three nights. Just as Jonah was freed from that great fish, Jesus would rise from death and live forevermore.

Both Jonah and Jesus were trapped for three days, and both were released from their entrapment. But there was also a difference between the two. Jonah ended up in the belly of the great fish for three days because of his own disobedience to God. Whereas, Jesus was in the tomb for three days because of His great obedience to God the Father.

There is also a parallel between the people of Nineveh of Jonah’s time and the Pharisees of Jesus’s time. Both were rebellious and stubborn. When Jonah finally called the Nineveh people to repentance they repented. Jesus was warning the Pharisees to do the same.

"Three Days and Three Nights" Comparison

The comparison between the "three days and three nights" in the belly of the fish for Jonah and the "three days and three nights" Jesus spent in the tomb before His resurrection is a compelling aspect of biblical typology. This comparison not only connects two significant events in the Bible but also illustrates the depth of God's redemptive plan through the lens of prophecy and fulfillment. Let's delve into the specifics of this comparison:

1. Jonah's Three Days and Three Nights

  • ContextJonah's three days and three nights inside the great fish (often referred to as a "whale") come as a result of his initial disobedience to God's command to go to Nineveh and call the city to repentance. Instead, Jonah flees in the opposite direction, leading to his being thrown overboard during a storm and swallowed by the fish.
  • Symbolism: This period represents a time of reflection, repentance, and transformation for Jonah. It's a literal descent into the depths, both physically and spiritually, from which he is miraculously delivered after he prays to God and commits to obeying His command.
  • Prophecy: While not initially presented as a prophetic sign for future events, Jesus later uses Jonah's experience as a prophetic symbol of His own death and resurrection.

2.Jesus's Three Days and Three Nights

  • Context: Jesus's reference to His death and resurrection as being like Jonah's experience comes in response to demands for a sign from the religious leaders. Jesus says that no sign will be given to them except the sign of the prophet Jonah, indicating that just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, He would be in the heart of the earth for a similar period.
  • Symbolism: This timeframe signifies Jesus's conquest over death and the grave, serving as a pivotal moment for the Christian faith. It represents the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah's suffering, death, and victorious resurrection, highlighting God's power to bring life from death and light from darkness.
  • Fulfillment: Jesus's resurrection after three days and three nights in the tomb is seen as the ultimate act of obedience to the Father's will and the definitive sign of His messiahship and divine authority. It's a victory over sin and death, offering salvation and the hope of eternal life to all who believe.

Comparison and Significance

  • Typological Fulfillment: Jonah's ordeal serves as a type (a foreshadowing or prefiguration) that finds its fulfillment in Jesus's death and resurrection. This typology illustrates how Old Testament narratives and figures point forward to New Testament fulfillments, enriching the continuity and unity of the biblical message.
  • Themes of Repentance and Resurrection: Both Jonah's deliverance and Jesus's resurrection embody themes of repentance, renewal, and the triumph of life over death. Jonah's preaching leads to Nineveh's repentance, while Jesus's resurrection paves the way for the redemption of humanity.
  • Divine Mercy and Salvation: Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, calling them to repentance and salvation, Jesus's resurrection is the sign to all humanity of God's offer of salvation through faith.

The "three days and three nights" statement, links Jonah's story and Jesus's resurrection in a profound way, demonstrating God's consistent message of redemption, the importance of obedience and repentance, and the hope of new life through divine intervention.

3 Short Lessons to Learn from the Sign of Jonah

1. Repent quickly so you don’t get stuck in your own way of thinking. The Pharisees refused to budge from their own version of what they thought was right. Humble yourself to remember that God’s ways are much higher than your ways.

2. Be open to God’s plans for your life. When you feel Him leading you, pray to make sure that He actually is leading you. Then make sure that what you think He is saying doesn’t contradict the bible. If something you feel He wants you to do does contradict the bible, the feeling was in your head, and it didn’t come from God. But if the prompting passes this test, obey as quickly as possible.

3. Always remember and be grateful that it was Jesus’s great obedience to the Father that has saved your soul. He was crucified, buried, and rose again to give you the opportunity to repent and be saved.

What Else Should We Remember about the Sign of Jonah?

By comparing Jonah’s story with Jesus’s own crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus was prophesying a sign that the Pharisees were so desperately wanting. But they didn’t see it because of their stubborn, fixated thoughts. Jesus was also emphasizing the crucial step of repentance to attain salvation. The Pharisees thought that they were doing everything right and therefore didn’t need to repent. Don’t fall into that trap.

The end of the sign of Jonah passage, Matthew 12:43-45, emphasizes the need for repentance and a renewed heart. A person can recognize that something in their life needs to change. This is good but it’s not repentance. We can make efforts to clean up our lives and habits. We can clean, organize, and tidy. But this too is not necessarily a sign of repentance. If we don’t repent of our bad behavior, more evil will come in to fill that cleaned-up space. Our good intentions will amount to nothing. But if we repent wholeheartedly to a holy and perfect God, then He will come into our lives and help us to change for the better. Without a humble heart of repentance and the help of God’s Spirit, any efforts we take to change won’t be long-lasting.

God tells us to come just as we are, admitting the guilt and stain of our sins. We don’t have to clean ourselves up and get in line before we come to Him. His loving arms are open and waiting for us to humbly repent of our selfish ways. Then He will slowly teach us how to do better.

Pray with me.

Lord, help me to not be stuck in my own ways of thinking like the Pharisees. Help me to see what You want to teach me and not only what I think I already know. Let me go in the opposite direction of the Pharisees and repent like the people of Nineveh. And help to have more obedience to you than Jonah did. Jonah’s obedience was reluctant and delayed, even though he eventually did obey. But Jesus’s obedience was full and complete—even to the point of death on a cross. Full obedience is scary for me, Lord, but I do want to learn to do better because I know that You always know best. Thank You for living out the sign of Jonah so that I could have the ability to repent and come to You. You are indeed the way, the truth, and the life. Amen.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/kevron2001 


headshot of author Jenni HeerenJennifer Heeren loves to write and wants to live in such a way that people are encouraged by her writing and her attitude. She loves to write devotional articles and stories that bring people hope and encouragement. Her cup is always at least half-full, even when circumstances aren’t ideal. She regularly contributes to Crosswalk. Her debut novel is available on Amazon. She lives near Atlanta, Georgia with her husband. Visit her at her website and/or on Facebook.


This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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