Fulfilled Prophecy or Fish Story? What did Jesus mean when he said the resurrection was the “sign of Jonah”?

One of the greatest pieces of evidence we have for the resurrection of Jesus is the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. Virtually all scholars agree that Paul is quoting oral tradition that predates his conversion. Normally we tend to focus on the appearances as proof of the very early belief of the bodily resurrection of Christ and that’s definitely a good thing. That’s kind of what this site is all about. But notice that this creed provides a two-fold proof. It lays out eyewitness testimony, but it goes a step beyond that. It makes the bold claim Jesus death and resurrection fulfills prophecy. Let’s read it:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…”

OK, the substitutionary death of Jesus is an easy one. If you’ve been a Christian very long, your mind immediately goes to the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah 53. (Here I wrote on why only Jesus could be the Suffering Servant) But let’s keep going:

” that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures “

Raised on the third day according to what Scriptures exactly?

OK stop. Wait a second. We know that Isaiah says that the Suffering Servant will “see the light of life and be satisfied.” And we read in Acts that the apostles referred to Psalm 16 as a proof text for the resurrection. (Read the sermons in Acts 2, 13) But what’s this third-day stuff? That’s rather specific, isn’t it? I can’t think of a passage in the Bible that predicts three days. There’s some vague mention of it in Hosea 6:2, but that seems to refer more to Israel. If we know our New Testament, we know that Jesus himself provides the answer in Matthew 12:38-41:

“Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah. And now something greater than Jonah is here.”

This prophecy seems a bit … fishy

I’m gonna be honest here. I’ve always thought from reading this that Jesus was stretching things a little bit here. In fact, I recently wrote about Jesus predicting his resurrection in a previous post and I didn’t even mention it. The resurrection is like the Jonah story? Three days, three nights. Sure. But this is kind of weird parallel, isn’t it Jesus? Well, then I read Dr. Brant Pitre’s excellent book The Case for Jesus. He devotes several pages on Jesus and the Sign of Jonah and I was like “Woah”. I’ll do my best to give you a synopsis.

Let’s set aside our flannel-graph and Veggie Tales ideas about the Jonah story for a moment. What happened to Jonah in the belly of that great fish? Here are some snippets from his prayer found in Jonah 2:

“out of the belly of Sheol, I cried …”
“I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.”
“..my life was fainting away”

We know from other OT scriptures that Sheol is the realm of the dead in Hebrew thought. And the idea of a pit whose bars close forever and that his life was fainting away. That sounds an awful lot Jonah dying. Yet we know he still lived and went on to preach to Ninevah.  Flip to the first verse of the next chapter:

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh..” (Jonah 3:1)

The word here for arise is the same word that Jesus said when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead. He said “Talitha koum.” (Mark 5:41) So looking at the text we have confronted some astonishing thoughts here. Jonah didn’t only get swallowed up by a great fish, we can make a case from the text that he died and God raised him as Jesus did with Lazarus. Ah, now the parallel makes a little more sense!

The Sign of Jonah is more than the resurrection. It’s also the repentance of the nations.

But that’s not all — to the Hebrew mind, there’s an even bigger miracle than someone coming back from death here — Nineveh actually repented! Some of the fiercest of Israel’s enemies humbled themselves, forgot their idols and made things right with the God of Israel.

So we see that the sign of Jonah isn’t limited to the resurrection but also repentance to the Gentiles. Jesus was saying his resurrection and the repentance of the Gentiles would be a sign to the Jews. Paul talks about this in Romans 11:

“…salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!” (Romans 11:11)

He talks about how this is a fulfillment of Scripture later on in the same letter (Romans 15:9-12), quoting the prophets:

“…that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,
and sing to your name.”

And again it is said,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
And again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples extol him.”

And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
even he who arises to rule the Gentiles;
in him will the Gentiles hope.”

Think about it for a minute: Over the last 2,000 years, billions of Gentiles have repented and worshipped the God of Israel. This was a fulfillment of many passages of Scripture foretold centuries before. Just check out Genesis 12:3, Isaiah 2:1-3, Isaiah 25:6-8, Isaiah 66:18-21, Jeremiah 3:15-18, Micah 4:1-2, Zechariah 8:20-23 and Amos 9:11-12.

To our modern minds, this might not seem like a big deal. But Peter initially preaching the gospel to the Gentiles created a huge controversy. The Gentiles were seen as strangers to the covenant and outsiders, but in a vision, Peter understood that “what God cleansed should not be common.”. It was a process for the early Jewish church to wrap their heads around it at the time. In Acts 15 that we see the aforementioned Amos 9:11-12 quoted by Peter at the Jerusalem council.  That seemed to finally get everyone on the same page on the Gentiles being a part of the church, and whether or not they needed to follow the law of Moses.

Some early church fathers later saw this as proof of prophecy fulfilled.

This tiny little movement of seemingly insignificant men growing and changing the world was seen as evidence to the early fathers. For example, here’s Eusebius in his work The Proof of the Gospel. It’s a bit of a longer quote, but it’s worth your time:

Behold how to day, yes in our own times, our eyes see not only Egyptians, but every race of men who used to be idolaters, whom the prophet meant when he said “Egyptians,” released from the errors of polytheism and the daemons, and calling on the God of the prophets! They pray no longer to lords many, but to one Lord according to the sacred oracle; they have raised to Him an altar of unbloody and reasonable sacrifices according to the new mysteries of the fresh and new covenant throughout the whole of the inhabited world, and in Egypt itself and among the other nations, Egyptian in their superstitious errors. Yes, in our own time the knowledge of the Omnipotent God shines forth, and sets a seal of certainty on the forecasts of the prophets. You see this actually going on, you no longer only expect to hear of it, and if you ask the moment when the change began, for all your inquiry you will receive no other answer but the moment of the appearance of the Saviour.

For He it was, of Whom the prophet spoke, when he said that the Supreme God and Lord would send a man to the Egyptians, to save them, as also the Mosaic oracles taught in these words: “A man shall come forth from his seed, and shall rule over many nations”; among which nations the Egyptians would certainly be numbered. But a great deal could be said on these points, and with sufficient leisure one could deal with them more exhaustively. Suffice it to say now, that we must hold to the truth, that the prophecies have only been fulfilled after the coming of Jesus our Saviour.

For it is through Him that in our day that old system of Abraham, the most ancient and venerable form of religion, is followed by the Egyptians, the Persians, the Syrians and the Armenians. The Barbarians from the end of the earth, those of them who were of old the most uncivilized and wild, yea, they that inhabit the isles, for prophecy thought well even to mention them, follow it as well. And who would not be struck by the extraordinary change—that men who for ages have paid divine honour to wood and stone and daemons, wild beasts that feed on human flesh, poisonous reptiles, animals of every kind, repulsive monsters, fire and earth, and the lifeless elements of the universe should after our Saviour’s coming pray to the Most High God, Creator of Heaven and earth, the actual Lord of the prophets, and the God of Abraham and his forefathers?

Jesus resurrection on the third day fulfills prophecy

It’s astonishing that all of this repentance from idols coincides with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So it turns out 3rd day fulfillment doesn’t sound so much like a fish-story after all. Just as the death of Jesus was more obviously seen in Isaiah 53 in retrospect, so the resurrection and repentance of the Gentiles serve as an obvious sign. That Jesus rose on the 3rd day according to the scriptures has a firm foundation, but just not quite like we expected.

For more, Here’s Dr. Pitre himself on the Sign of Jonah: