“Indeed a greater than Jonah is here” Matt 12:41

by Steven Chan

In Matt 12:38-39, “some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” 39 But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”

Prior to the above encounter, Jesus had taught the multitude the blessed way of life as guided by the outstanding principles of the Beatitudes (Matt 5-7); He had also performed many miracles such as healing the leper (Matt 8:1-4), healing the sick servant of the centurion (Matt 8:5-13); healed the mother in law of Peter (Matt 8:14-15); healed the demon-possessed and those who were sick (Matt 8:16); calmed the sea (Matt 8:24-27); healed two demon-possessed men at Gadarenes; healed the paralytic (Matt 9:1-8); healed the women who had been suffering for 12 years (Matt 9:20-22); brought back to life the daughter of the ruler (Matt 9:18-26); healed two blind men (Matt 9:27-31); cast out a demon-possessed man and enabled him who was mute to speak (Matt 9:32-34); “healed every sickness and every disease among the people”(Matt 9:35); gave “power to His 12 disciples over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease”(Matt 10:1); healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath (Matt 12:10-13) and healed a “blind and mute man” (Matt 12:22-23) – and “all the multitudes were amazed and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”(the Matt 12:23). But when “the Pharisees heard it they said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.” (Matt 12:24)

In spite of the great many miracles performed by Jesus (including raising the dead), in Matt 12:38, the scribes and Pharisees still asked Jesus for a sign!! In John 20:30-31, the Bible records the purpose of the miracles:

“And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”

And yet, they asked for a sign!

Jesus replied thus to them in Matt 12:39: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”

In spite of all the incredible display of the power demonstrated by Jesus, the “evil and adulterous” generation still demanded for a sign! What “sign” were they seeking that will cause them to repent?

Oftentimes, even in our present generation, those who have “pleasures in unrighteousness” and commit adultery (both spiritual adultery and marital adultery) refuse to acknowledge God (Rom 1:18ff) in spite of the clear and convincing evidence available  to them, still demand for a “sign” before they will repent of their adulterous relationships and evil practices/lifestyle.

In the long-suffering love of God, Jesus said that He will give the sign of the prophet Jonah to them. And what is that sign?

Jesus explained in Matt 12:40-41:

“For 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. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.”

Note the following important points of the statements of Jesus:-

1. Jesus affirmed the truth of the Old Testament Scriptures when He quoted from them as was His usual practice as also during the time when He was tempted in Matt 4; we should rely on the guidance of the Scriptures when we face trials and temptations;

2. Jesus affirmed the truth concerning the account of Jonah spending three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish – it was no fishy story! It is not a fable. It is sad and tragic that some believers have found the account of Jonah in the big fish as a far-fetched story and would prefer not to refer to it as a true incident –  in spite of Jesus vouching for its authenticity and even making it as comparable to “the sign” that He would give to His generation of unrepentant unbelievers;

3. The sign was that as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so Jesus Himself would also be buried for three days and three nights – and then He will rise again – just as Jonah was vomited out by the great fish.

4. The resurrection of Jesus would be the ultimate sign for the unbelieving people. As we read in Acts 2, many believed in Jesus after the apostle Peter preached and declared that Jesus had been raised from the dead (Acts 3:36-42)

5. After being vomited out by the great fish, Jonah preached in the city of Nineveh and the people repented as a result of his preaching.

6. Jesus declares that a “greater than Jonah is here” and yet the people refused to repent at His preaching.

7. Jesus said that “the men of Nineveh would rise up in the judgement with this generation and condemn it” because they (i.e. the Ninevites) repented at Jonah’s preaching whereas a “greater than Jonah” (i.e. the Son of God Himself) is here and yet the people refused to repent!

It is important to note that Jesus also declared the following truths:-

a. The men of Nineveh would rise up – they would be raised – this is consistent with the teaching of Jesus as recorded in John 5:28-29: “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice 29 and come forth–those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” Both the good and those who have done evil will be raised up on “the last day” (John 11:24)

b. The “men of Nineveh” will rise up together with “this generation” – Jesus declared that both groups of people would be raised together – not just the righteous but also those who refused to repent;

c. They would “rise up” – when? “In the judgement”. This is what Jesus had also said in John 12:48: “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him–the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day.” All will rise in the last day for judgement: Rev 20:11-15.

The sign of the resurrection of Jesus must not be ignored. It is no fable that Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day as prophesied by Him and also by the Scripture as testified by the apostle Paul in 1 Cor 15:1-8:

“Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.”

Let us not confuse the significance and truth about the resurrection of Jesus by the “bunnies and bunny eggs” that are often associated by the people of this world with the resurrection of Jesus. Our living hope is based on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Praise God for that sign of the prophet Jonah – and indeed a one greater than Jonah is here! Will we repent at His preaching?