The Mind-Blowing Meaning Behind the Sign of Jonah

Recently I stumbled across what I thought was a rather silly meme:

Oof. Here’s the thing: No matter if you believe Jonah is historical or ahistorical (and some Christians, like C.S. Lewis, believed it was the latter), this meme misses the point. Science tells us what nature does when left to itself; miracles happen because nature is not left to itself. Whoever wrote the book of Jonah probably understood that human beings don’t normally get swallowed by whales, let alone survive if they did.

But did Jonah survive? No, and yes.  Let’s read Jonah’s parts of the prayer from the whale’s belly:

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the stomach of the fish, and he said, “I called out of my distress to the Lord, and he answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; you heard my voice…

…“Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, weeds were wrapped around my head. “I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever, but you have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. “While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord…“Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land. Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh…”

Jonah 2:3-1

Did Jonah Survive?

Let’s consider these three key points from this text:  

  • First, the phrases belly of Sheol and the Pit are Old Testament terms that refer to the realm of the dead. (See Job 7:9, 33:18, Psalm 40:2, 49:14-15, 89:48)
  • Secondly, the Hebrew says that his soul or nephesh fainted, meaning he took his last breath like a dying man.
  • Lastly, when God says to Jonah “arise” this is the Hebrew word קוּם. This is the same word Jesus used when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead. Mark 5:41 reads: “Taking the child by the hand, He said to her, “Talitha Kum!” (which translated means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!“)

So actually, the atheist has a good point; Jonah probably did die in the belly of a great fish, or whale. God had mercy on him and raised him from the dead, and he was able to carry out his mission.

The Sign of Jonah

OK, so where am I going with this? Remember when Jesus refused to give the Pharisees a sign? What was his reply? He said: 

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 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.”

(Matthew 12:38-41)

To be honest, I’ve thought before that this was a pretty weak parallel, no offense to Jesus. But this story makes much more sense if Jonah really did give up the ghost only to be miraculously revived to preach to the Ninevites. And there is even more. Like, why are the Ninevites so significant? 

Throughout Old Testament history, Nineveh was not a friend of Israel. In the late seventh century BC, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire. The city’s king, Sennacherib, laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 BC (2 Kings 18:13-19:37) and I’m sure the Jews never forgot.  When the Babylonians destroyed Nineveh in 612, Nahum the prophet practically rejoiced. He calls Nineveh the “city of bloodshed”. (Nah 3:1) Jonah probably fled because of these reasons. Like many Jews of his time, Jonah hated Nineveh.

The Sign of Jonah: More than the Resurrection

By mentioning Jonah, Jesus was being purposely provocative. His death would lead not only to his resurrection but the repentance of the pagan nations that his audience would’ve despised. The sign of Jonah wasn’t just his resurrection but would lead to the repentance of those hated Gentiles. 

Now think about this for a second: From Augustine to Aquinas, Christian apologists would point to the success of the church as evidence of the truth of the Gospel. When they argued for the messiahship, divinity, and resurrection of Jesus, they (generally) failed to mention the evidence for an empty tomb or the reliability of the eyewitnesses. They didn’t argue about historical probability and evidence, as important as I think that is.

Rather, they simply pointed out the crumbling pagan world around them; Gentile nations that had worshipped idols for millennia miraculously repented, turned, and began to worship the God of the Jews. Isaiah the Prophet also saw this when he said that the servant of the Lord will be “a light for the nations” (Isaiah 42:6-7) Many of the other Psalmists and Old Testament prophets predicted the same thing; that one day Israel would lead to the conversion of the nations. 

The Sign of Jonah has been fulfilled

Now look around: Since Jesus’ death and resurrection, a tiny band of Jewish vagabond fishermen turned the world upside down, and their effect has been felt for generations until now. In the first century, Christianity spread throughout Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, and more recently has spread throughout Africa, South America, and even in communist China. Christianity still has a stronghold in North America as well as parts of Europe. Over the past two millennia, billions and billions of non-Jews have repented and worshiped the God of Israel.

So this atheist meme makes a good point. Of course, Jonah wouldn’t have survived. Jonah died, rose again 3 days later and his preaching converted the Ninevites. Jesus died, rose again 3 days later and his message through his apostles converted billions of Gentiles over the past 2000 years. The sign of Jonah has been fulfilled. We don’t believe that simply because a book says it’s true, we can just open our eyes and see the world around us. 

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