Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!”
Matthew 12:38-42 (NRSV)
This story comes next in a series of clashes Jesus has with the Pharisees. The Pharisees are trying to publicly trap Jesus into saying something that will substantiate a charge of blasphemy or sedition, starting with Jesus’ “lawbreaking” of gathering grain to eat on the Sabbath. Jesus has turned every situation back on them. They are coming off looking like the people who don’t care about God or Israel.
By the time we get to this passage, Jesus has had at least three such clashes involving gathering grain on the Sabbath, healing a man on the Sabbath, and casting out an evil spirit. We need to keep this in mind when the Pharisees and scribes ask him for a “sign.”
The Pharisees are not actually interested in seeing a sign from Jesus. They have seen the healing and the casting out of evil spirits. They have heard his message and heard the stories. They already have plenty of justification for believing Jesus’ message, believing that he is their Messiah, believing his warning of a coming judgement, and responding appropriately by bearing the fruit of repentance and coming to the aid of persecuted Israel.
This is a trap, and Jesus isn’t going to have it. Maybe the Pharisees believe Jesus won’t produce a sign, or maybe they think they’ll be able to spin the sign in some way that works against Jesus, or maybe they’ll be hoping the sign involves breaking a law or saying something blasphemous. Whatever the case, Jesus identifies them as evil and adulterous in their request and tells them that the sign he will give them will be that the Son of Man will be buried for three days and nights as Jonah was in the belly of the big sea animal for three days and nights.
Sounds straightforward enough. Jesus will be in the ground for three days, and this will be the sign that validates his message, but there’s more going on here than just a rote prophecy that Jesus will be dead for three days.
The reason Jonah gets used isn’t simply because Jesus is trying to think of what else happened for three days and nights; he gets used because he carries a message of imminent judgement to the city of Nineveh – a Gentile city that was historically an enemy of Israel – and tells them they will only escape judgement if they repent, and they do. Thus, Nineveh escapes judgement.
Jesus is importing that situation to explain himself. He, too, is a prophet sent by God to announce a coming judgement and urge repentance. He has come, not to wicked Gentiles, but to Israel – people who have even more reason to believe and repent. And what happens? Most do not believe; they do not repent.
In this way, the story of Jonah and Nineveh becomes a condemnation to those who hear Jesus and will not believe. Even wicked Gentiles repented when Jonah brought the word of God to them, but much of Judea will not repent.
This is why Jesus can summon the powerful image of Jonah condemning the Pharisees, or the Queen of Sheba – another pagan who recognized that the King of Israel had true wisdom, and she crossed many miles to hear him. This in contrast to Israel’s leaders who have a greater King among them and just want him to shut up.
The message is clear, and Matthew has alluded to it in other places – the Gentiles have demonstrated more faith than that portion of Israel that scoffs and persecutes. Once again, the very people who should have been first to welcome Jesus and obey his instructions are the people who seek to kill him. We cannot help but think of Jesus’ warnings a chapter ago, where he reflects on the pagan Gentile nations who would have repented at Jesus’ message, but his own people will not. And like the cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, destruction hangs over the cities of Judea like a sword. And when that terrible day comes, their own history will condemn them.
- Jesus preached a message of imminent judgement and the need for repentance and the spiritual reformation of Israel in his day. Do current generations face an impending judgement? What would that look like?
- Like the Israel of Jesus’ day, has the Church been complicit in making the current generation what it is? What might repentance and reformation look like for us?