The Sign of Jonah

Jonah is perhaps one of the least admirable of the Old Testament prophets yet, in spite of his flaws, Jesus used Jonah as a type of himself and proof of His divine mission. As with many divine paradoxes, God uses the almost despicable weakness of Jonah to illustrate the most sublime and essential truths. Jesus elevated the prophetic significance of Jonah forever when He declared:

“An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: 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.” (Mat 12:39 –40)

Christ’s words completely baffled the listening Jews. Only after His resurrection did they begin to understand a little of what He had meant. The sign of Jonah was much more than just an oblique reference to His death but few have realised its full meaning. We know that Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale were prophetic of Christ’s three days in the tomb, but what of the rest of the story? Is it only a tale suitable for children or is there a more profound significance that we, in our short-sightedness, have overlooked? Let’s consider the story.

The prophet Jonah was called of God to give the final message of warning to Nineveh that its wickedness had passed the boundary of His mercy and would be destroyed within forty days. Instead Jonah fled, resulting in him being swallowed by a whale and thereby effectively disappearing from the face of the earth. Three days later, having repented from his folly, he was spewed out. Then after making his way to Nineveh, he prophesied for three days and nights that in forty days that great city would be destroyed.

Why did God single out Nineveh by warning it in this manner while leaving other wicked cities unwarned? Nineveh had been founded by a son of the righteous patriarch Shem. Thus Nineveh represents those that once served God but have departed from Him. In the Bible only a handful of places are referred to as “that great city”. Apart from Nineveh it is used once in the case of Jerusalem (Jer 22:8), once to describe the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:2) but mostly in reference to Mystery Babylon (Rev 18:21). While the New Jerusalem is the true bride of the Lamb all the others started out as pure women but, having fornicated and corrupted themselves, they became the enemies of God.

This is exactly the position that the Jews found themselves in: while claiming to serve Him they had become the enemies of God. Jesus was sent to testify against Jerusalem, a great city whose wickedness had come up before God, and call it to repentance. Like Jonah, Christ disappeared from the face of the earth for three days. Yet the tomb could not contain Him and, like the whale in Jonah’s case, spewed Him out. During this time, the disciples also were in fear for their lives and in anguish of soul hidden away behind locked doors in the upper room. Then followed three years during which Christ’s disciples declared the great wickedness of Jerusalem in slaying Christ and the coming destruction of the city and the temple.

“For we have heard him [Stephen] say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place… And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.” (Act 6:14 – 15)

It is no coincidence that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman armies forty years after Christ’s death. So we see that the story of Jonah and Nineveh was more than just a reference to Christ’s death and resurrection; it was the prophetic history of Jerusalem. In both cases God’s messengers were afflicted and hidden from view for a period of three days after which they gave the warning for a period of three days (or years) that the city would be destroyed within forty days (or years). We note with interest that in the Jewish calendar there is a forty-day period immediately preceding the Day of Atonement called the Teshuvah, which means return or repentance and those who did not repent and return were to be cut-off.

Yet there are some discrepancies in the two stories. The destruction of Nineveh was deferred for a time whereas that of Jerusalem was not. The reason for this is that Jonah’s story is not only a prophecy regarding Jerusalem but it also applies to the end of the world, which Jerusalem’s destruction prefigured. So we begin to see that the sign of Jonah was not just for the Jews but also for the “evil and adulterous generation” that lives in the last days. In this regard, the prophet Jonah is an object lesson for the Remnant Church.

Like Jonah, God raised up a prophetic people to give the last message of warning to “Babylon that great city.” Like Jonah, who fled from his duty and fell asleep feeling secure in the company of idolaters on a ship to Tarshish, God’s last day people have done the same. Their “ship” has set its course firmly towards spiritual Egypt and away from its duty of proclaiming the unpopular message to Babylon the great that the “hour of His judgement is come” and “Babylon is fallen is fallen.”


As Jonah was sound asleep, and the disciples had fallen asleep at Gethsemane, likewise both the wise and foolish virgins in the church are fast asleep, believing that their “ship will go through” to safety. Yet as Jonah was sleeping, a violent storm arose and, fearing for their safety, the idolaters in the ship cast him out into the sea where he was swallowed up and lost sight of. We remember that to save the nation Christ was cast out “from the land of the living” (Isa 53:8; John 11:48) and His disciples were also cast out of the synagogues (John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2). Similarly when God releases the winds of strife, storm and tempest will lash the sea of the masses into a rage that will threaten the prosperity of the ship and, to secure their own safety, its idolatrous crew will cast God’s servants out of the ship where they will be lost sight of to the world.


Jonah’s experience in the belly of the whale brought him more than just a change of attitude. More recent eyewitness reports of sailors that have been swallowed by whales teach us that these do not come out as they went in; the whale’s stomach acids bleach the skin of the unhappy sailors and they come out looking unnaturally white and bloodless. Jonah’s experience in the whale’s belly therefore not only taught him a lesson of obedience but also left upon him the mark of God’s hand which made him a singular spectacle as he made his way to Nineveh. It was no doubt this visible mark of God that contributed largely to the success of his mission by drawing the attention of the people.

Like Jonah, after their three days of anguish and concealment, the disciples were sealed with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Eph 1:13; 4:30; 2 Cor 1:22). This also made them a singular spectacle to the people. It was this seal of the Spirit that contributed largely to the success of their labours. The same experience awaits the saints of God; when they have learnt their lesson of obedience “through terrible things in righteousness” (Ps 65:5), they will come forth sealed with the Father’s name in their foreheads with their faces lighted up as  Stephen’s was (Acts 6:15) and in the power of the loud cry of the mighty angel of Revelation 18 declare the whole counsel of God and the final warning to a fallen world to come out of Babylon that Great City.

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6 responses

19 08 2012


You wrote “Nineveh had been founded by a son of the righteous patriarch Shem.” but according to the Scripture it was Nimrod who had built Nineveh.

Gen 10:8-11 KJV And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. (9) He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD. (10) And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. (11) Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah,

Could you please, explain hwo you derived Shem?

Thank you in advance,

6 10 2012

It comes down to your interpretation of the text.
“Out of that land [Shinar] went forth Asshur (the son of Shem Gen 10:22) and built Nineveh”
or is it
“Out of that land [Nimrod] went forth [into] Asshur [Assyria], and built Nineveh”
I guess you could argue it both ways.

6 10 2012

Yes, you are right. This text is ambiguous.

14 08 2014

Some great food for thought; thanks for sharing these insights.

2 02 2015
Mike Azer

Very interesting article. The part I like the most is that acid from the whale’s belly left visible marks on his skin which helped in his ministry.
I also wrote a book about Jonah, you can find it here
Perhaps I will add the “marks” part a newer edition. Thanks 🙂

17 04 2015

I’m glad you enjoyed it

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