What is the Sign of Jonah? – Matthew 12:39-45

Rather than give the Pharisees a sign, Jesus says he will give them only the sign of Jonah. Jesus understands the Pharisees have evil intentions with this request. It is not just this small group of teachers who are “evil and adulterous,” but all of the Jews who question the source of Jesus’s power.

Sign of Jonah

An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign (Matthew 12:39). An “adulterous generation” may allude to Hosea and other prophets who describe Israel’s idolatry as an unfaithful spouse. Rather than coming to Jesus the bridegroom’s wedding banquet and celebrating with him (Matt 8:15), they are complaining about his dinner companions, his practice of the Sabbath and (non) practice of hand washing.

The only sign Jesus will give (now) is the “sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12:40-41)

What is the sign from the book of Jonah Jesus has in mind? The story of Jonah is well-known and does not need to be rehearsed here. Jesus states that just as Jonah was three days Jonah the great fish, Jesus will be in the “heart of the earth.” Jonah is a model for Jesus’s own death and resurrection.

Was Jonah dead? According to Josephus, Jonah was cast up on the shore, “still living and unharmed in the body” (Ant. 9.213). The Lives of the Prophets 10:6, Jonah is the son of the Widow of Elijah raised from the dead, associating his experience with the great fish with resurrection. In Lives of the Prophets 10:10, Jonah gives a sign (teras) of the fall of Jerusalem.

For some Jewish writers, Jonah was a righteous prophet who willingly offered his life for the sake of Israel. If Jonah died, then Nineveh would not be warned, and Israel would be saved from the Assyrians (Mek. Pisha 1.80-82, 84-86; cf. p. Sanh. 30b. 56-63; Pirqe R. El. 10. Chow, The Sign of Jonah Reconsidered, 25).

Jonah’s three days in the fish confirmed he was indeed God’s prophet when he announced the judgement on Nineveh (Nolland, Matthew, 511). Jesus will spend a similar three days in the heart of the earth, anticipating the resurrection.

Jesus says he will only give them sign of Jonah, if this sign is rejected, no further signs should be expected. If they reject Jesus after the resurrection, they will face judgment in the last days.

Both Nineveh and the Queen of the South will judge this generation (Matthew 12:41-42)

The people of Nineveh saw a great sign (the resurrection of Jonah), and responded in repentance. Even though these gentiles did not really understand Jonah’s God or know what he required, they repented with fasting and sackcloth in hopes they might receive mercy.

The Queen of the South refers to the Queen of Sheba and her visit to King Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-29). She traveled to Jerusalem and heard the wisdom of Solomon and witnessed the grandeur of his kingdom, and (it appears) she responded properly to the son of David. The Queen of Sheba traveled to test (πειράζω) the son of David “with hard questions” (1 Kings 10:1). Traditionally these hard questions are riddles (αἴνιγμα or “puzzling reflections,” BDAG). It is not clear in 1 Kings if her goal was to trap Solomon, the word does not usually have negative connotations.

Both will rise in judgment over the present generation because the present generation have witnessed someone even greater than Jonah or Solomon, yet they did not respond with belief.

How is Jesus “greater than Solomon”? Based on the use of Solomon in exorcism texts in the Second Temple period, Larry Perkins suggested this refers to Solomon’s power over demons (Perkins, “‘Greater Than Solomon,’” 208). He cites Wisdom of Solomon 7:17-20, wisdom tempers “the violent force of evil spirits.” Since the immediate context is the source of Jesus’s power of demons, this is an intriguing possibility. Perkins cites a passage in Josephus in which exorcist named Eleazar used Solomon’s name to cast out demons in from of Vespasian (Ant. 8.46-48)

This generation will be worse than at first (Matthew 12:43-45)

This is an analogy based on the presumed behavior of an unclean spirit (12:43-45a). Is this the way demons work? Nolland suggests this is a parable and not a comment on evil spirits or exorcisms in general (Matthew, 514).  But parable like sayings tend to have some basis in reality so the audience can understand the point. It may be Jesus is reflecting the way people thought demons operated, they might return after they are cast out unless the person makes use of some form of protection, changes how they live, etc.

Jesus’s point is to warn the Pharisees and others that his healing and exorcism ministry should draw people to follow him as the messiah, they ought to commit themselves to the coming/arriving kingdom of God. Otherwise, the effect is temporary, they may be free from spiritual danger now, but in the coming judgment they will be far worse off than before!

So it will be with this generation (Matthew 12:45b)

By analogy, if Israel rejects the messiah now, then their situation will be worse in the future. The fate of “this generation” is the subject of Matthew 24-25, the Olivet Discourse. In Matthew 24:36-41 the coming days will be like the time of Noah, people will live their lives unaware the great judgment is coming; it will be like a “thief in the night” (24:42-44) or a servant who is caught by his master not obeying orders (24:45-51). The fate of the one judged in the parables in Matthew 24-25 is severe, they are cast outside in the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

From Matthew’s perspective as the author of the gospel, this generation is already in a state of rejection. God has sent the Gospel to the Gentiles and they are responding. (Perhaps) Jerusalem has been destroyed and the Temple has been burned.

However, this judgment should not be understood as anti-Semitic. Just as the Jewish prophets always recognized a righteous remnant and always looked forward to the renewal of Israel in the future, so too Jesus has gathered a righteous remnant, the little ones who will endure to the end.

5 thoughts on “What is the Sign of Jonah? – Matthew 12:39-45

  1. This account has become important to me as an example of the task of biblical interpretation, because it contains an exception clause, and because the parallel account in Mark does not. This “contradiction” parallels how Jesus’ more famous exception clause (regarding divorce) is not recorded in all Gospels. How we interpret the contrasting witnesses to Jesus’ sign exception is a model for how we should interpret his divorce exception, rather than claiming that the accounts that lack exception clauses are “clearer” and should control our interpretation. The latter is often claimed in my church background.

  2. It is not possible for a man to survive three days in the belly of a whale — unless the “whale” was an alien craft.

    “Imagine a technology that can do 6-to-700 g-forces, that can fly at 13,000 miles an hour, that can evade radar and that can fly through air and water and possibly space. And oh, by the way, has no obvious signs of propulsion, no wings, no control surfaces and yet still can defy the natural effects of Earth’s gravity. That’s precisely what we’re seeing.”


    The ‘Sign of Jonah’ represents alien abduction, followed by judgement. This is all Christians will get, who look for signs that Christ’s return is near only because they expect to “reign and rule” over their neighbors. The master’s orders were: “Treat others as you wish to be treated… Do not punish people for their personal lifestyle choices… Let him without sin cast the first stone.” But most Christians “cast the first stone” every time they cast their ballot for warmongering, prohibitionist politicians. Then they claim they are not responsible for all of the damage which their policies cause. But if you are not fooling your neighbors, you cannot be fooling Jesus!


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