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05. The Sign of Jonah

Luke 11:29  When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 
Luk 11:30  For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 
Luk 11:31  The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 
Luk 11:32  The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

Also found in Matthew 12: 38-42

Luke 11:29 When the crowds were increasing: the literal translation “were gathered thick together”.

It seems, on this occasion, that the people gathered around Jesus in a great crowd, in expectation that he was going to show them signs from heaven. Matthew 12:38 tells us that “some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”  Jesus then responds to the demand to “prove” himself or to perform miracles on request. The “Sign  of Jonah” was Jesus’s refusal to give any sign at all.

Jesus condemns the desire for ‘a sign’ as an indicator of wickedness. Matthew’s parallel account of this passage is a little different. He adds the explanation that “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) By contrast, Luke says simply, “For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.”

That is to say, Jonah himself is the sign. Jesus is saying that Jonah, speaking the word of God and calling a whole generation to repentance is the only sign his critics will get.

And then Luke adds v31: that the “Queen of the South” (the Queen of Sheba) will be a witness for the prosecution when this generation is put on trial, “for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” 

Ken Baker puts it like this: “Do you see the connection? Jonah went to the ends of the earth -the pagan city of Nineveh, no less!- and they repented and turned to God. The Queen travelled from the farthest imaginable south because she desired wisdom from the king of Israel. And so both Nineveh and Sheba sought God but Israel itself has missed it.” (Dr Ken Baker[1])

Even their so-called “seeking for a sign” is a hypocrisy. The signs are plain to see, but they refuse to acknowledge them. Nineveh and Sheba are pagan outsiders who found God. Those sneering at Jesus for a sign are Jewish insiders. Jesus challenges their request for a sign, and asks them to examine themselves. He asks them if they were ready for their encounter with God, or if they only wanted the kind of religious entertainment that they could criticise or praise but which would not change their hearts.

It’s so easy to become focused upon the miracles that you miss the God of the miracles. These events, said Jesus are “signs” which point beyond themselves, just as a signpost does not constitute a journey but only helps you along it!

An afterthought: drawn from the Gospel of Matthew

Mat 12:40  For just 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. 

For those who follow Jesus, if we look carefully we can see that the sign of Jonah is played out in the life of Jesus. Just as the fish swallowed Jonah in the ancient tale, so death would swallow Jesus. That was not the end, but only a new beginning. Three days after waiting in the darkness, Jesus would be restored to life again.

The Challenge:

  • Are we something like the crowds that pressed in on Jesus?
  • We too can be tempted to look for miracles and wondrous signs in order to believe: we find ourselves attracted to miracle crusades and we follow signs and wonders at various churches. Jesus warns against seeking the sign rather than seeking the saviour. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus challenging the crowd about their insatiable demand for signs:

Luke 7:24  When John's messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 25  What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings' courts. 26  What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 

Jesus says that the message is more important than the man – look to the message and change your lives.

[1] https://tithebarn.wordpress.com/2017/02/16/what-is-the-sign-of-jonah-luke-11/

“To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936)