The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. (John 20:1)
The unbelieving Pharisees sought a sign from Jesus proving His credentials. “But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas [Jonah]: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-40).
Most of us know the historical account of Jonah the rebellious prophet of God who ran in the opposite direction of where God had sent him. God has a heart for the lost. The Bible tells us that “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9, emphasis mine). So, God commanded Jonah to go preach to the wicked Assyrians, the mortal enemies of Israel, in Nineveh. These were mean people that tortured and abused their victims harshly. All the neighboring nations feared and hated them, and Israel was next on their menu. Jonah wanted nothing to do with them, and he especially did not want God to bless them in any way. So, rather than obey God’s command, Jonah boarded a ship bound for Spain (Tarshish).
You know the story. God sent a storm that put the ship in danger. Jonah confessed of his rebellion to the crew and they tossed him overboard to appease the Lord, quiet the storm, and calm the sea. The second chapter of Jonah describes the “sign” to which Jesus referred.
God prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. Much ink has been spilt in attempt to identify the creature that swallowed Jonah. Some think it could have been something like a whale shark; they certainly are large enough to swallow a man whole. Others propose it was a whale, but a whale is not a “fish” and the Hebrew uses another word for whale, tannı̂yn, which means “sea monster,” or any large sea animal like a dragon or sea serpent. But the Hebrew word used, dâg, means “fish.” If the scholars would just listen to me I can easily resolve the question. The “fish” resembled nothing that we might recognize because the Bible says that God “prepared” this fish specifically for this occasion. The Hebrew word “prepared” is mânâh and it also means “to weigh out; to allot; to appoint.” God designed this fish for an appointment with Jonah.
It is difficult to imagine any man surviving the ordeal of being in the belly of a fish for three days. It seems from Jonah’s prayer that perhaps he actually died. He says, “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice” (Jonah 2:2). The Hebrew word translated “hell” here is she’ôl, the “abode of the dead.” It was understood to be the place where the spirits of the dead resided. The Greek word for the same place is hadēs. Jesus referred to this place when He spoke of the rich man who died and went to “hell” (hadēs). Jesus said that when the rich man arrived in this place, “…he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame” (Luke 16:23-24). Obviously, the man, though he was physically dead, retained all of his senses.
Likewise, Jonah describes his experience in Sheol. He says, “For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple” (Jonah 2:3-4, emphasis mine). Jonah sensed the separation, yet he maintained the hope that one day he would see the “holy temple.”
Jonah prophesied in Israel, the Northern Kingdom, which had no temple. The only Temple resided in Jerusalem, so it seems that Jonah referred to the Holy Temple in heaven of which the earthly Temple was modeled.
Jonah also hints of his death when he says, “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God” (Jonah 2:6, emphasis mine). The word “corruption” (Hebrew: shachath) can also be translated “destruction.” Jonah continues, “When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple” (Jonah 2:7). Again, Jonah’s prayer ascended to God’s Holy Temple in heaven.
Jonah died in the belly of the fish, and God revived him after three days and three nights. In like manner, Jesus said He would be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights and rise again.
Jesus died on the cross on Passover. He was our Passover Sacrifice. His death paid the debt of our sins. They buried Him before sundown on Passover and rolled a heavy stone over His tomb. Pilate sealed the tomb with his official seal and posted a Roman guard to watch and ensure that no one tampered with the sepulcher. Then, after three days and three nights in the grave, like Jonah, God raised Jesus from the grave on the first day of the week. Jonah died again eventually, but Jesus lives on. Forty days following His resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven where He awaits His return to this earth.
The “sign of Jonah” was for the unbelieving Pharisees, who, after His resurrection, continued in their unbelief. The validity of the sign continues even unto our generation. Christ has risen. The tomb is empty. Doubters continue in their rejection hoping that one day someone will find His bones and say, “Here He lies!” But they fail. One day, maybe soon, they will gaze into the sky and behold Him in all His glory “this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).