Jonah and Jesus (Matthew 12:39-42)

Here is my sermon from this past Sunday, April 23rd. I wrapped up our series through Jonah. You can listen to the audio here

My wife Amy is notorious for misnaming and misusing tools. In her defense, she’s had to teach herself how to do quite a few household tasks over the years when I’ve been out planting a church. But she’d still make Bob Vila or Joanna Gaines shake their heads. It’s not uncommon for her to ask me where the pinchies or the twisties are. She only knows of two types of screwdrivers - two-prong and four-prong.  

Sometimes - because she again put the screwdriver in a place she wouldn’t forget - I’ll catch her using a table knife to tighten a screw. I might drive up to the house and see her cutting wood with a hack saw. It’s a miracle she hasn’t gotten hurt - that is, more than she has. Use the right tool in the wrong way, and it can be dangerous.

It’s easy for us to misunderstand and misapply the Bible, as well. We think of it as a book filled with examples - characters who show us how to live. We treat it like it’s a list of commands - things we’re to do and not do. And it’s not like there’s not some truth to both. But that’s not the whole picture. Not at all. And when we think it is and act like that’s the point, bad things happen. We’re Amy cutting a steel pipe with a radial saw. It’s not going to be pretty. You’re going to hurt yourself and others. 

This would be so easy to do with Jonah. But this book doesn’t just give us an example to look to. It doesn’t just give us directions for us to follow. It points beyond him and all of that to a greater hero, to a better way of life. That’s what the whole Old Testament does. That’s what Jesus himself teaches us. If we really want to understand the Bible, it makes sense to have him teach us how to read it, right? So let’s start out that way this morning. Look with me at Luke 24

We go to this chapter often in Karis Church, as it’s truly one of the most important in the Bible. This is after our Lord’s resurrection. Two men are walking along a road to a town near Jerusalem named Emmaus. They’re talking about everything that’s taken place. They’re down in the dumps because the one who they had hoped was their Redeemer has died. 

That’s when Jesus walks up beside them. But they don’t recognize Him. He asks them what they’re all upset about. They break it down for him. Their hopes had died with this man Jesus. But some women are saying that Jesus is alive. That’s when Jesus begins to teach them. And he kicks his lesson off with a kick in their pants. Begin reading with me in verse 25 of chapter 24. 

Luke 24:25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!

Luke 24:26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

Luke 24:27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Jesus says, “Aren’t you getting it? Have you not read your Bibles?” And the Lord shows them in their Bibles how every page points ahead to His death and resurrection. Soon after, their eyes are opened, they see who they’re talking to, and he disappears. That’s when those men run and tell the disciples.

As they’re doing that, Jesus shows up. He gives them some words of encouragement. He shoes them His pierced hands and feet. He eats a meal with them - this is no phantom but a resurrected man. And he tells them this:

Luke 24:44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

Luke 24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,

Luke 24:46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,

Luke 24:47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Luke 24:48 You are witnesses of these things.

Luke 24:49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

You catch that? All of the Bible - “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” - that’s a Jewish way of talking about our entire Old Testament - all of it is all about Him. It all points ahead to His person, to His work. So we ought to learn from Jesus about how to understand our Bibles. And Jesus teaches that our Bibles are all about Him. And yes, that includes Jonah.

So let’s go back there now as we wrap up this series today. There are a couple of things I want to show you today. First, let’s look at Jonah and see our sin. Second, let’s look at Jonah and see our Savior.

Jonah and Our Sin

Jonah is a story. It’s a story with a point. It’s historical, but it’s a parable of sorts. And it’s satire. We read it. We chuckle at this poor fellow. But suddenly, the book slaps us in the face. The joke’s on us. We realize we look a lot like this prophet. You remember those seven episodes I began with in our first week together? Let’s run through those again.

In episode one, verses 1-3 of chapter 1, the Lord tells the prophet to go preach to Nineveh. But Jonah disobeys. He doesn’t want to go preach to those wicked people. He gets on a boat going in the exact opposite direction.

In episode two, in verses 4 through 16 of chapter 1, Jonah sleeps on that boat, and the Lord wakes him up with a storm. God disciplines His son. The sailors end up throwing him overboard into the sea.

In episode three, in verses 17 of chapter one through 10 of chapter two, the prophet ends up inside the belly of a fish. Then and only then does He start talking to God. But is he sincere? We’re not sure. 

In verses 1 through 3 of chapter 3, episode 4, the Lord gives Jonah the exact same directions again. This time he gets up and goes. Maybe it’s reluctantly that he goes. We’re not sure. But he at least does what God says.

In episode five, Jonah preaches and people respond. That’s verses 4 through 10 of chapter 3. There is this massive revival that affects everyone - from the royalty down to the peasants. Jonah, though is more than likely grumbling all the way.

In episode six, in verses 1-4 of chapter four, we see that come out in Jonah. He’s royally hacked. He basically says, “I knew you were like that. I knew you’d forgive those creeps.” You see his heart clearly here.

In episode seven, in verses 5-11 of chapter four, we see him at his worst. He pulls up a lawn chair and waits for God to take out the city. He throws this massive fit when a shade tree dies. And God rebukes him: “You really care more about plants than people? Shouldn’t I take pity on that city in front of you?”

And that’s how it ends. Jonah likely wrote the book. It likely means he eventually answered the question in the affirmative. But it leaves the question hanging there for us, as well. How will we answer it? And it invites us to see ourselves here in this story of Jonah. And it reminds us that really we’re not much different from him at all.

You heard about the week United Airlines had a few weeks back - when security in Chicago dragged the man out of his seat and left him hospitalized. A few days later something happened not many people heard about. A man was eating his lunch on a flight from Houston to Calgary when a scorpion fell out of the overhead bin and landed on his head. As he grabbed it and flung it from his hair, it stung him on the hand. Pretty messed up. A really bad week. Sometimes that’s how my life feels. Does yours? Not too different from United or Jonah, right?.   

We, too, are disobedient and stubborn. We’re lazy and apathetic. We run from God’s calling on our lives. The Lord too often has to wake us up. We grumble and complain. We look down on those around us. We aren’t too concerned about those different from us. We care far more about ourselves than we do the nations. This is all the while we forget that we’re objects of grace. Doesn’t this look quite a bit like us? We are Jonah. Look at Jonah and see your sin.

Jesus and His Righteousness

But think about Jesus for a moment. Here’s the first way this book of Jonah points to our Lord. It reaches ahead to a greater prophet and missionary. Jesus is the true and better Jonah. He always obeys His Father. In fact, He left the glories of heaven on mission for Him. He gave up His comfort. He laid down His privileges. The sinless, infinite One came to earth to reach sinful, finite folks like us. He did it not just to reach one group of people but the nations of the world. He came full of compassion and kindness. He gave everything up - including His life - that we might be won. 

We see a picture of our sin here in Jonah. But again, the book is all about Jesus. It points also to Jesus and His righteousness. Christ, who hails from Galilee just like that old prophet, hears God’s call and does it all right. 

Take heart in this good news: Jesus obeyed in every way, and He did it for us. The gospel is that if we believe, all of Christ’s good works are deposited in our account. It’s like we walk into the bank to check our balance and there is an unexpected million in there. God the Father looks at us and sees all of Christ’s righteousness applied to us. We see Jonah and our sin here. But we also see Jesus and His righteousness. 

Jonah and Our Savior

Now we’ve said throughout that Jonah’s not the main character in the story. God is. The book highlights God’s amazing grace toward the prophet.  

God includes Jonah in this Ninevite mission. That’s episode one.

He pursues His running prophet in the sea. That’s episode two.

God rescues Jonah with that big fish in episode three.

He puts the prophet back on land and calls him again. Episode four.

The Lord uses him as an instrument of this massive revival in episode five.

He patiently reasons with his angry, delusional son in episode six.

God doesn’t abandon Jonah. He continues to give him relief and offer him guidance. That’s episode seven. 

Chapter two, verse 9 says, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” And we see that very clearly here in these pages. God is gracious to the prophet. He pursues Jonah by His grace. And He also pursues us. 

You see, we are like Jonah - full of sin. But we’re also like Him in that we need a Savior. We don’t just need Christ’s goodness given to us. We desperately need our sins forgiven. Now there’s a tension there that most of us won’t feel - that is, if we don’t think too deeply about it all. Forgiveness is just something we assume. We think, “That’s just God’s job. It’s what He does.” But grace isn’t cheap. In a sense, it’s not free at all. It’s costly. 

Think about it. If someone close to you betrays you, it’s not easy to forgive, right? It costs so much. Say your spouse cheats on you. You really just have two choices. You can make him or her suffer for what she’s done. You make that person pay. Through the consequences. Through your wrath. Or, you take it upon yourself. You absorb it. You forgive. And that’s so, so hard. You see the cost must be borne by someone. Forgiveness is costly.

It’s the same way with the Lord. He is holy and perfect. We are sinners by nature and by choice. We’re just like Jonah. Either we pay for our sin - here and now, an eternity in hell - or He pays for it. We may not have to pay for it, but it’s certainly not free. It’s costly. It’s not cheap. We need forgiveness. We need a Savior. 

There’s a second way Jonah here points ahead to Jesus. He points to the means of our forgiveness. To the great cost of our salvation. To get there, look with me at the passage we read at the beginning, Matthew 12:38-42. You see, Jesus doesn’t just teach that the whole Old Testament is about Him. He specifically mentions the book of Jonah. That book points ahead to Him, as well.  

Matt. 12:38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”

Matt. 12:39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

Matt. 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.

Matt. 12:41 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.

Matt. 12:42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

Now this is obviously a passage that would have fit quite well last week! Jonah the prophet and his ordeal here point ahead to something much, much greater. What’s going on here in this story in Matthew? The religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, are trying to get Jesus to prove He’s who He says He is. He’s been doing signs left and right, but they show their true colors, as they ask for just one more. Their hearts are closed off, and they’re just messing with Jesus. Nothing He could possibly do or say was going to change their mind. They’re stubborn and wicked. But first, we see here, they ask for a sign. They say, in verse 38, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 

Second, Jesus says only one sign will be given. Again, He’s shown them plenty, but He says, in verse 39, that they’ll just get one, the “sign of the prophet Jonah.” Of course, the religious leaders know that story well. They have taught all about Jonah’s disobedience and discipline. They’re familiar with his time in the fish and second chance on the shore. But as it turns out, they’ve completely missed the story’s point.  

Jesus says in verse 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.” What’s He saying? Jonah’s time in that fish points to Christ’s time in the grave. Jonah’s new life on that shore reaches ahead to Christ’s resurrection. That sign, Jesus says, is all you’ll get. 

Now it may show my redneck, small-town side a bit, but I know some of you have heard of Bill Engvall, right? You know his famous routine? It’s, “Here’s your sign.” You know what I mean? 

He talks about how convenient it would be if stupid people wore signs that said as such. He talks in his acts about walking around handing people stupid signs with the punchline, “Here’s your sign.”

A neighbor sees him packing up boxes and comes asking him if he’s moving. He responds, “Nope. We just pack our stuff up once or twice a week to see how many boxes it takes. Here’s your sign.”

A guy drives up to him on the side of the road, looks at his deflated tire, and asks, “Did your tire go flat?” He responds, “Nope. I was driving around and those other three just swelled right up on me. Here’s your sign.”

A co-worker walks by his office late at night and asks him, “Are you still here?” He responds, “No. I left about 10 minutes ago. Here’s your sign.”

A man comes over to look at a car he’s trying to sell. He returns from a test-drive, gets out of the car and strangely grabs the exhaust pipe. “Darn, that’s hot,” he exclaims. Engvall says, “If he’d been wearing his sign I could have stopped him!”

The stubborn, sinful Jews ask for a sign. The only sign they’ll receive is this sign of Jonah. So, third, one day, they’ll be wearing a sign that says “stupid.” They think they’re wise, but the pagan Ninevites are going to make them look foolish. One day, they’ll say, “What were you thinking? We responded to Jonah’s message - and He was a jerk and a doofus, and you had God in the flesh right in front of you! But you blew Him off! Here’s your sign.”

Bobby became a Christian in college, and he immediately started working on his stoner roommate. That guy told him, “If God right now appeared to me in this chair and told me He exists, then I’d maybe believe in Him.” 

Friend, don’t try to play games with God like that. Don’t try to put him to the test. Don’t try to distract from the fact that you just want to live your own life. You don’t want God trying to tell you what to do. Just own that.

Look at the sign that God has provided, the only one He’ll give. The cross and the empty tomb. That displays Jesus is from God - He is a true prophet. It shows that He is God. He conquered the grave. Don’t regret spurning that sign. On that day, when Jesus returns, every knee will bow, and that includes yours. And you’ll be surrounded by people who willingly bow theirs, people you thought were disgusting and foolish. And do you know what? You - not them - will be the one holding the sign. You will be judged. That’s the fourth thing Jesus says here in verses 41 and 42. Judgment will come. What was coming at Nineveh - that they avoided - will come to you. That is, if you don’t repent and believe in Him. 

You will have missed the means of our forgiveness. That’s the meaning of the cross. The gospel isn’t just that, if we believe, we’re given Christ’s righteousness. It’s also that we can be forgiven our unrighteousness. How does that happen? Through Christ’s death. That’s how the tension between His holiness and our sin is dealt with. He takes our sin upon His shoulders, and He’s punished in our place. God remains just. We get mercy. Those three days Jonah is in the fish, calling out to God - they aren’t just about Jonah. They’re about Jesus.

E.J. Young once put it this way: 

“The fundamental purpose of the book of Jonah is not found in its missionary or universalistic teaching. It is rather to show that Jonah being cast into the depths of Sheol and yet brought up alive is an illustration of the death of the Messiah for sins not His own and of the Messiah’s resurrection.” (E.J. Young) 

We are like Jonah. We need grace. And we need the cross. And that’s what Jonah’s little ride in the whale pointed ahead to. 

Our forgiveness through His death. Salvation is of the Lord. And it’s through Jesus. We see Jonah, and we see our Savior here. We see Christ’s death and resurrection for our sins.

Thrown Into the Sea   

As we close, I want to take you to one more passage in the gospels. Turn to Mark 4 with me, beginning in verse 35. 

Mark 4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

Mark 4:36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.

Mark 4:37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.

Mark 4:38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Mark 4:39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

Mark 4:40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Mark 4:41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Does any of this sound familiar? A storm threatens the lives of a boat full of men. One man lies there sound asleep. He’s awakened by men who think they’ll die. Only divine intervention calms the storm. That comes about due to the action of a man on board. And that really freaks out the people on deck. The story is the same, right? Yet there are two important distinctions. 

First, the man in the boat is also the Lord of the sea. He’s God in the flesh. The wind and the sea obey Him. 

Second, the man in this boat doesn’t have to throw himself in. He remains on deck. He takes care of the problem right there. Right? He just rebukes the waves. After all, again, He’s God.

But, on second thought, maybe something bigger is going on. Listen to Tim Keller on Jonah and this passage:

“In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “One greater than Jonah is here,” and he’s referring to himself: I’m the true Jonah. He meant this:

Someday I’m going to calm all storms, still all waves. I’m going to destroy destruction, break brokenness, kill death. How can he do that?

He can only do it because when he was on the cross he was thrown—willingly, like Jonah—into the ultimate storm, under the ultimate waves, the waves of sin and death. Jesus was thrown into the only storm that can actually sink us—the storm of eternal justice, of what we owe for our wrongdoing. That storm wasn’t calmed—not until it swept him away. If the sight of Jesus bowing his head into that ultimate storm is burned into the core of your being, you will never say, “God, don’t you care?” 

And if you know that he did not abandon you in that ultimate storm, what make you think he would abandon you in much smaller storms you’re experiencing right now? And, someday, of course, he will return and still all storms for eternity. If you let that penetrate to the very center of your being, you will know he loves you. You will know he cares. And then you will have the power to handle anything in life with poise.” (Tim Keller)         

Jesus throws Himself in. He substitutes Himself for us. That’s the hope of the gospel. That’s ultimately how Jonah points to Jesus. Jesus goes far lower than Jonah - He goes to His death. But He goes much higher than Jonah - He’s raised. He ascends to heaven and reigns. How will we respond? Dever says this:

“God delivered Jonah from the sea through the fish after three days. God delivered the city of Nineveh from destruction after Jonah’s visit of three days. And God will deliver all those who repent of their sins and believe in Christ’s death and resurrection, which also occurred after three days.” (Mark Dever)   

There’s our sign, Karis. So to return to where we started, we have to be careful with how we read our Bibles. We have to learn how to read it from Jesus. And we have to see that it all finds its fulfillment in Him. 

If we focus on following the examples of people like Jonah, we’ll quickly realize that they’re pretty messed up, and we could never really measure up anyhow. 

If we focus on following all the rules, we’ll either get proud of what we’ve done and not done, or we’ll fall down, crushed by the weight of our sin. We’ll drown in despair. 

Brother, sister, turn from this kind of legalism, for thinking you’re right by your works. Don’t believe the lie you don’t need forgiveness. This kind of pride, this self-righteousness, this legalistic life robs you of the joy you could have in Christ. And you end up applying that to those around you and hurting them.

Others of you will ignore the examples, the commands, entirely. You’ve given up trying. Or you’ve never even tried. You do your own thing. You resist God’s word. But you’re missing the point of His word. There is a great hero. Someone who has done it all. So you can be free.

We look at Jonah and we see our sin. But we also see Jesus and His righteousness.

We also look at Jonah and see our Savior. He died and rose again to take away our sin. 

We’re meant to look to Him, to trust in Him, to give our lives to Him. If that’s how we use our Bibles - to see who Jesus is, to see what He has done - it will lead to purpose, it will lead to peace, it will result in joy. 

And deep gratitude will move us out to reach those around us. We’ll realize we’ve been pursued by grace - just like Jonah and we’ll run after those far from God, as well. We’ll pursue them with God’s grace. We’ll tell them about Christ’s death and resurrection. The sign of Jonah. Let’s pray.