The Sign of the Prophet, Jonah

In One Part

The Prophecy Jesus gave the scribes and Pharisees in response to their demand for a sign, centered upon the prophet Jonah. Jesus stated “Just as Jonah was, . . . so shall the Son of man be.” The prophecy is based upon the truth and fact of Jonah’s experience.

What are the comparisons or similarities of Jonah’s experience with that of Jesus? The three we will focus on are as follows.

  • Three days and three nights
  • Dead and buried, but came out alive
  • Salvation brought to the non-Israelites

Three Days and Three Nights

There are many different sayings of Jesus with regard to His three days in the grave. However, detailed attention must be given to the time-frame found in Matthew 12:40. Why? Because this saying of Jesus is of greater importance considering the circumstances under which He gave it.

The scribes and pharisees demanded a sign, validating His Messiahship. He said no sign would be given, except the Sign of the Prophet, 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.

The time element is one of the most significant factors of the prophecy comparison. This is not an insignificant point. This statement of Jesus is a Prophecy. Any attempt to water it down, or explain it away so that it fits our own musings, is handling the Word of God deceitfully.

It first should be noticed, how Jesus framed this statement. He said, “Three Days and Three Nights.” In this way, He is pointing to both the daylight and night time portion of a day. He is speaking of three full 24 hour periods. This is the time-frame of the prophecy. Jesus does not waste words, nor craft what He says according to the traditions of men. He did not frame this according to the partial counting of the Pharisaical rabbis.

In John 11, Jesus defines how He understands a day and a night.

9 Jesus answered, Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world.
10 But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.

A day contains 12 hours. He defines day as the time a man walks when there is light. He then defines night as the time when there is no light.

The following is the reckoning of day time hours and night time hours, used in First Century Judean community life.

12 hours of day
  • 1st Hour — Sunrise to approx. 9am
  • 3rd Hour — 9am to Noon
  • 6th Hour — Noon to approx. 3pm
  • 9th Hour — 3pm to Sunset(or the Twelfth Hour)

This is the Jewish reckoning of the hours of the day. Each Jewish hour contains approximately three of our 60 minute hours.

12 hours of night

The hours of the night are reckoned by watches. These night watches were adopted from the beginning of the Roman occupation, in 63 BC. We can see these watches referred to by Jesus in Mark 13:35.

  • First Watch — Sunset to approx. 9pm
  • Second Watch — 9pm to Midnight
  • Third Watch — Midnight to 3am(or the cockcrowing)
  • Four Watch — 3am(cockcrowing) to Sunrise

These are the 12 hours of day and the 12 hours of night, together making a full 24 hour day. The Prophecy of Jesus entails three of these days occurring in succession.

This is the exact time-frame spoken of in Jonah.

1:17 Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

However, you will be hard pressed to find a commentator who will go out on a limb, and state that Jonah’s time was a full three days. Because if they did that, then they would have to admit that so was Jesus’ time in the “heart of the earth.” However, it is fortunate that we are not dependent upon commentators for the truth of God’s Word. We have a more sure word, that of the Word of God Himself. Jesus made it clear He is not framing His prophecy according to the tradition of the elders, and their magical mathematics. He is taking the days and nights as they were created by Him. He is not perverting time, but stating it as it was created. He created the system of keeping time.

16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.

He made the sun to rule the day and the moon to rule the night. He set these lights in the heaven to rule over the day and over the night: day and night. Having created this system of keeping time divided between day and night, light and dark, God saw that it was good. Why would He all of a sudden decide to frame His words by the tradition of those who hated Him?

Three days can only refer to three 12 hour periods of daylight. Three nights can only refer to three 12 hour periods of darkness. Hence, Three Days and Three Nights can only refer to three 24 hour periods.

When we let the time speak for itself, we will be able to avoid so much confusion.

Dead and Buried, but will come out alive.

After His disciples confessed that He was the Messiah/Christ,

And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.[Mark 8:31]

The jury is still out on whether Jonah actually died while he was inside the great fish. The wording of his prayer in chapter 2, could be read either way. I am of the personal opinion that he did indeed drown, and was delivered up from death. But this is not a point to split a church over. Whether he did die or not, is not the point of his prayer. He prayed as those he was as good as dead, and yet when he cried out to the Lord, his prayer was answered and he was “brought up from corruption.”

It is also unclear how Jonah knew the amount of time he was inside the belly of the great fish. Perhaps he figured it out through natural means, by using a calendar, or God revealed it to him. Either way, it is clear he knew it was “three days and three nights,” i.e., a full three days, a 72 hour period. There is no other reason for Jonah to record his time in this manner. If he was in the fish for a general period of about three days, then he would have recorded,

1:17 Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish about three days. (Imaginary Bible Version)

However, this is not what he recorded under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. By the Spirit’s inspiration, he recorded,

1:17 Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (KJV)

There is a very good reason the Spirt prompted Jonah to write this exact time, for it was to serve as a shadow of Christ’s stay in the heart of the earth.

This phrase, “heart of the earth,” is also foreshadowed by Jonah. For in Jonah’s prayer, he writes that he was in the “heart of the seas.” In the KJV, it is recorded,

2:3 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.

However, the ESV translates this verse,

2:3 For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.

The other translations that also translate the phrase as, “heart of the seas,” is the NIV, LSV, HCSB, and the NASB, to name just a few. The word here, rendered midst and heart, is the Hebrew word, לֵבָב lêḇâḇ, which oddly enough means, heart. However, it can also mean the inner part, or midst of a thing.

When Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees that He would be in the “heart of the earth,” for the stated time of three days and three nights, it would be most likely He would use the Hebraic word for heart, which is lêḇ or lêv. This appears to be a figurative phrase on both counts. For Jonah, the phrase, in the heart of the seas, would mean he was underwater. For Jesus, the phrase, in the heart of the earth, would mean being in the ground, or under the earth. The difference here is Jonah may be speaking of his physical being, while Jesus was referring to His Spirit. The apostle Paul refers to this in this manner.

Eph. 4:9 (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?

Here, he refers to Jesus descending into the lower parts of the earth. This is the reference to Jesus’ Spirit descending into the lower parts of the earth, i.e., Hades or She’ol, before He ascended back into heaven. It should be clear to the attentive Bible student, that the phrase, “heart of the earth,” is a Hebraic metaphor for being in the grave(She’ol), or the lower parts of the earth.

Paul continues to argue for this truth in the very next verse, in which he says,

4:10 He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Paul teaches us that when Christ Jesus descended into the lower parts of the earth, then ascended up far above all heavens, this is done so that He might possess by experience all creation as the Glorified God-Man. It is in this way, Christ fills all things.

If the phrase, “heart of the earth,” does not signify the grave or She’ol, then what can it mean? Some have done some fancy hermeneutical footwork and sleight of hand based upon Ezekiel 5:5, trying to make it apply to Jerusalem itself. That is, they want it to mean that Jesus was prophesying He would be three days and three nights in the Jerusalem area. Wow, that explains absolutely nothing. How does that compare with Jonah? It doesn’t.

The best explanation is the simplest one.
"heart of the sea" parallels "into the deep," which Jonah in the previous verse calls "the belly of Sheol," which is the pit where the dead are laid or the grave. So, heart of the earth means "underground," just as heart of the seas means "underwater." "In the heart of the earth," then, was a Hebrew metaphor signifying being dead and buried.

Hence, the Sign of the Prophet, Jonah, means, in the same way that Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, and then came out alive, so also shall Jesus, the Son of man, be in the grave for three days and three nights, and then come out alive.

One of the similitudes we have yet to touch upon, was when Jonah came out alive, he went and preached to the city of Nineveh. After his preaching, Nineveh repented and was saved from destruction. So also, after the resurrection of Christ, and through the preaching of His disciples, the nations were granted an entrance into the kingdom of God and many were grafted into the Israel of God.

This is the simplest and clearest explanation of the Sign of the Prophet, Jonah, that you will find. Why did we have to go through such gyrations to come to such a simple conclusion? Because men will always try to explain away things that do not fit their doctrinal schemes.

Do not underestimate the power of tradition, for it helped to crucify the LORD’S Christ. Especially do no take for granted the tradition of a Sunday morning resurrection. No truth or Scripture is too holy or out of bounds, so to change it up or pervert it so that it fits that scheme.

Remember, you can fit a square peg in a round hole, if you destroy enough of the peg so that it is no longer square.

Image of The Only Sign Given by Larry M WishonThe above is a sample chapter from my book,The Only Sign Given, wherein I demonstrate beyond doubt from Biblical, Historical, and Grammatical evidences, that Jesus was raised from the dead after a full three days and three nights. No magic counting or cheating required.