As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. 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. – Luke 11:29-32
The sign of Jonah refers to the connection between the three days Jonah was was in the belly of the great fish and the three days Jesus would be in the tomb before He rose from the dead.
“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.” – Matthew 12:40
In the story of Jonah, the Lord commands Jonah to go the Nineveh and preach repentance to the people there. Nineveh was a great city in Assyria, a wicked country and a bitter enemy of the Israelite people. Jonah had no wish to travel to Nineveh or to preach repentance unto the Lord to the people of Nineveh. So instead of doing as the Lord commands he flees in the opposite direction to Tarshish by boat. While on the way, the Lord sends a storm that threatens to sink the boat. Jonah knows that his disobedience against the Lord is the reason for the storm, so he instructs the sailors to throw him overboard to save them. At first they try to make it to shore, but eventually they throw Jonah overboard and the sea becomes calm. These people on the boat then acknowledge the Lord as the true God and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish.
He spends three days in the fish and while there repents of his own sin and then is vomited onto shore. The Word of the Lord comes to him again to go to Nineveh and preach repentance and this time he obeys. The people of Nineveh have their hearts opened to the Word of the Lord and repent of their wickedness and God spares the city from His judgement.
Jonah was fleeing from God, but the Lord in His sovereign plan of mercy and grace caused Jonah to be thrown overboard and swallowed by the fish. The Lord used even Jonah’s disobedience to proclaim Himself to the sailors on the boat.
“Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, ‘Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.’ Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.” – Jonah 1:13-16
The Lord was going to use Jonah to lead the people of Nineveh to the Lord, so He spared Jonah’s life miraculously through the fish and gave Jonah a chance to repent in the same way He was going to give Nineveh a chance to repent. Jonah being in the fish three days was an act of grace and mercy.
While Jesus mirrors Jonah in some ways, He is far “greater than Jonah”.
Jonah went unwillingly to Nineveh. Jesus was sent willingly to the world. His obedience was perfect (Hebrews 5:8-9). He did not try to avoid His mission. In the garden of Gethsemane we see His total surrender portrayed in His prayer “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42).
When Jonah sacrificed himself to be thrown overboard, he was sacrificing himself to save the people in the boat who he had endangered by his own sin.
When Jesus sacrificed Himself, He was atoning for our sins that we have brought on ourselves. He took on sin that He did not deserve to bestow grace that was undeserved on us.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:21
Through the grace of God Jonah’s sacrifice and obedience saved a boat and one large city. Jesus’s sacrifice saved “a great multitude from every tribe and nation” (Revelation 7:9).
In the same way that Jonah went to a people who hated him and were his enemies, so too Jesus came to lead His enemies to repentance (Romans 5:10).
However, Jonah never loved the people of Nineveh. After they repented and the Lord spared them, Jonah responded in anger.
“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” – Jonah 4:1-3
Jesus loved us before we ever repented.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15:13
When Jonah ended up in the belly of the whale, he was running from God. When Jesus was placed in the belly of the earth, He was bringing people to God.
We see foreshadows of the work of Christ in the story of Jonah, but Jesus and His work is far greater in every way.