epilogue: JONAH & JESUS

MATTHEW 12.38-41

Jason Procopio

We’ve just spent four weeks in the book of Jonah—it’s a peculiar story. We saw in chapter one that God calls the prophet Jonah, an Israelite prophet, to go to Nineveh, a foreign and wicked city. He tells Jonah in 1.2: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah doesn’t want to go—he doesn’t want to preach God’s grace to an enemy city—so he flees in the other direction: he gets on a boat and makes sail for the city of Tarshish. So God sends a storm to batter the boat to pieces, until it’s actually revealed that Jonah is the reason this storm is happening. Jonah is thrown into the sea (thinking, It’s all over for me now!), and gets swallowed by a huge fish. He stays in that fish’s belly for three days and three nights, after which the fish vomits him back up on to dry land. God calls him again to go to Nineveh, so this time he goes. He proclaims God’s message to the Ninevites, and—wonder of wonders!—the Ninevites actually believe him. They repent of their sins and decide to obey the God whose message they have received. 

And when Jonah sees this has happened, he is furious. He leaves the city and sits down to watch, hoping that God might change his mind. He’s hot, so God causes a plant to come up quickly and give him shade; and Jonah’s happy. But the next morning God sends a worm to eat up the plant; it dries up, and Jonah’s hot again, so he’s angry again. And in response to Jonah’s ridiculous anger, God says to him (4.10-11): “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” 

This is a strange story. It’s so strange in fact that we have a hard time accepting it as anything other than fiction. And if we take it as an individual story, all on its own, it may be possible to read it as fiction and forget about it. But the book we have in our hands does not allow us to do this.

The Bible is composed of what we call the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament tells the story of the people of Israel; the New Testament tells the story of Jesus and of his church. We like the New Testament, because even if the texts are complicated, most of the time it’s clear why those texts are in the Bible. We understand the point of the gospels; we understand the point of the letters. But we don’t always understand the point of the Old Testament. It can seem like a hodgepodge of disjointed stories about the people of Israel that have little or nothing to do with what we see in the New Testament.

But the fundamental rule for interpreting the Old Testament is this: just as the New Testament is about Jesus, from beginning to end, the Old Testament is also about Jesus, from beginning to end. In other words, every word written in this Bible—from the creation narrative to the story of Israel to the Psalms to the Proverbs to the Prophets—are all meant to direct our attention toward Jesus.

And we know this because Jesus himself said it was so. After his resurrection, Jesus is walking along with a couple of disciples who don’t yet recognize him (they think he’s dead, and they’re still grieving). And as he walks with them, he explains to them why it had to be this way, why God’s plan had to be fulfilled like this. We read in Luke 24.27, And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himselfIn other words, Jesus talked to them about the Old Testament, and showed them that the Old Testament Scriptures were actually speaking about him, in surprising and fascinating ways. Different texts will do it in different ways: they may directly predict Jesus’s coming; they may give promises that Jesus would one day fulfill; they may tell stories that serve as necessary background to understand why Jesus did what he did; or they may tell stories that foreshadow what Jesus himself would do and be.

The biblical scholar Richard Hays writes, “But in light of the unfolding story of Jesus, it is both right and illuminating to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story… The Evangelists received Scripture as a complex body of texts given to the community by God, who had scripted the whole biblical drama in such a way that it had multiple senses. Some of these senses are hidden, so that they come into focus only retrospectively.” [1] In other words, God is not just the divine author of the Bible, but is also the sovereign author of the history of his people; God sovereignly directed the course of human history so that these stories, when written down, would foreshadow Jesus Christ. This is what is happening in the book of Jonah—but the images given here aren’t necessarily what we’d expect. Jonah is not a simple picture of Jesus.

Netflix released a great series last year called Stranger Things; it’s a sci-fi series, in which a door is opened to a parallel dimension in a small town called Hawkins, Indiana. The kids call this parallel dimension “the Upside-Down”—it’s a darker, reversed mirror-image of Hawkins, in which many of the same elements exist, but they are all corrupted versions of themselves, and don’t behave as they should. The book of Jonah is a bit like this—that is, it tells the story of a prophet who is a kind of upside-down version of Jesus Christ himself. 

So how does the book of Jonah tell us about Jesus? How does the events of the book of Jonah point to Jesus? Thankfully, Jesus himself answered this question. Turn with me to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 12. We’ll begin reading at v. 38:

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” So just for a bit of context, the scribes and the Pharisees were Jews who categorically rejected Jesus’s teaching about who he was and what he had come to do. They weren’t legitimately hoping Jesus would do anything to prove he was from God; in fact, they wanted the opposite—they were always hoping to trick Jesus into doing or saying something that would expose him as a fraud. 

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.” 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. 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.

Keep your eyes on this text—we’re going to think again about the book of Jonah through the lens of this text (which interprets the book of Jonah for us), and we’ll see three things: that Jesus is a better prophet than Jonah; that Jesus calls people to a better repentance than Jonah; and that Jesus gives us a better sign of God’s authority than Jonah.


The rebel Jonah doesn’t submit to God easily. God calls him to go to a foreign, enemy city to preach to them, and he doesn’t want to, because he knows they will repent and God will forgive them. He doesn’t want this to happen, because he is a die-hard nationalist: the Ninevites are the enemies of the people Jonah loves. So he runs in the other direction, as if God would just let him go. In the end Jonah ends up going where he needs to go and doing what he needs to do, but he goes kicking and screaming. God does use Jonah—he still blesses the Ninevites through Jonah’s obedience—but Jonah’s own motivations are self-centered and twisted, and we’re left never knowing if he was ever actually changed.

We may not understand his nationalistic hatred toward outsiders, but we at least understand doing right things for the wrong reasons. Any husbands in the room will get this—you do something that gets under your wife’s skin, makes her angry. You’re convinced that she’s overreacting, that you didn’t do anything wrong. But you apologize anyway—even if you’re not sure what you did. Clearly, you’re not doing this out of any kind of true repentance, you just know your life will be much easier for you if you give her the apology she wants. The thing is, this rarely works: wives can smell insincerity on their husbands from a mile away. Usually, doing the right thing for the wrong reason ends up as bad for us as just doing the wrong thing.

The big contrast between Jonah and Jesus here is not what they do, but how they do itJonah obeys God, but he does so unwillingly, out of obligation; when Jesus obeys, he does so in humble submission to his Father. Look at how he speaks about his imminent death to the scribes and Pharisees (v. 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. Every time Jesus talks about his imminent death in the gospels, he does so very matter-of-factly: there is no complaining, no resistance. The only times he voices any concern about what’s coming, he also expresses a complete willingness to do what God has called him to do. Remember in the garden? He prays to God, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…” But he immediately follows this prayer by saying, “…nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26.39). 

The contrast between Jesus and Jonah is even more glaring when we look at the reaction Jonah has to God’s plan.When God gives grace to Jonah and saves him from drowning by sending the fish, Jonah is grateful and praises God for protecting him. But when he sees that God has granted repentance to the Ninevites, he is infuriated. Jonah 4.1-3: But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

I was talking to Josh Apieczonek about last week’s sermon, and he shared a perfect image of the difference between Jonah and Christ, an image that hadn’t occurred to me until that conversation. In Jonah 4.5, we see what Jonah does after he talks to God: Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. In other words, Jonah sits down and contemplates the city, hoping that God will change his mind and bring on Nineveh the destruction he had threatened.

There is a moment in the gospels when Jesus contemplates a city in a similar way. He looks at the people of Jerusalem and says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23.37). That is, Jonah feels anger that a sinful people is saved, whereas Jesus feels an intense desire to save sinful people. And the result it ironic: Jonah is sent to a foreign people, who were enemies of Israel…and they respond with humility and confession and repentance when Jonah tells them of their sin. Jesus goes to his own people, the people of Israel…and they have him crucified. And yet, he proves his boundless compassion to them. How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

So Jonah serves as a darker, upside-down picture of Jesus: although he obeys, he does so out of obligation and with anger, but when Jesus obeys, he does so willingly, in submission to his Father and out of love for his people.


When Jonah goes into the city of Nineveh, he preaches a very simple and clear message to the Ninevites: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3.4). The sin of this city was apparently serious enough to merit total destruction from God’s hand. So God calls them to repent—to recognize him as God, to renounce their sin and practice righteousness—and in return, he renounces the destruction he had threatened.

But while the repentance of the Ninevites is sufficient for God to forgive them, it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of God’s justice. For that matter, the same goes for any time God forgives someone in the Old Testament, before the coming of Christ. The people deserve one thing; in his justice God should punish them, because they deserve it. Their repentance shouldn’t change anything; it shouldn’t make God relent. But it did—in his grace, he waited patiently to exercise justice, because he knew he would do it another way. Those who repented before Jesus came repented in a context in which justice hadn’t yet been served; the fundamental problem of God’s justice had not yet been dealt with. So you can see the problem in that: anyone who thinks hard about this situation will immediately feel a tension there: How can God be just and still forgive?

This is why the repentance Jesus calls his people to is a better repentance. The repentance to which Jesus calls his people is a repentance in which justice has already been perfectly served. Jesus could call them to repent in a context of justice fulfilled, for God’s justice was fulfilled when Jesus died on the cross. V. 40: The Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Rather than saying, “Repent of your sins, or die” (as Jonah did), Jesus says, “I will die…so repent of your sins!” God does punish the sin of his people—he punishes their sin with all the brutality and violence they deserve. But he does it by punishing Jesus in their place. He does it by punishing Jesus unto death—Jesus is nailed to a cross with all the sins of all his people on him; he is killed for their sins; and he is buried.

So the repentance to which he calls us occurs in a context in which justice has been served. And just to clarify: when I say the repentance Jesus calls us to is "better," I don't mean there's one repentance in the Old Testament, then when Jesus came God changed his plan and gave us a new repentance. Repentance is admitting your sin, turning from that sin, and trusting in God alone to make us righteous. That's what Abraham did; that's what all the Old Testament believers did. So I don't mean our repentance is of a better kind or a better quality, but rather that we who repent today are blessed in a particular way, because we have the whole picture of how it works.

And that knowledge radically changes how we see the effects of our repentance. Many people want to serve God, want to renounce their sin and live for him…but they live in constant fear that God is looking over the shoulder, just waiting for them to fail again, so he can pounce and punish. Or that God is merely overlooking their sins for now, but that one day he will come back to them and finally give them the punishment they deserve. This is why when Christians get sick, or lose their job, or run out of money, the first question they ask is, What did I do? Why is God punishing me?

But Jesus’s death does not allow us to do this.. We now know that God will not punish us, because he has already punished Christ in our place, and will not punish our sins a second time. So when he calls us to repent, he calls us to a repentance which is sufficient and effective—not merely to let us escape punishment, but to be adopted by God and reconciled to him. 

And this is a very serious matter, as we see in v. 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. In other words, because the repentance he offers comes in the context of justice fulfilled, and because the One offering this repentance is so much greater than Jonah, this repentance must be taken very seriously. If the Ninevites repented at the preaching of such a bad prophet as Jonah, then how much more guilty are we, if we refuse to repent in the presence of the One who will die to make that repentance possible? We have far more reason to accept the good news today than the Ninevites did, because the good news was proclaimed to us by Jesus Christ himself.


Let’s consider Jesus’s words one more time. V. 39: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 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.” 

We’ve all seen movies where some main character is thought to have died, only to show up later on in the movie, miraculously unharmed. All too often such a scene is followed by one of the other characters shaking his head and exclaiming, “Look at you! Back from the dead!” If one of the mariners who had been in the boat with Jonah happened to be on the beach where the fish vomited him up, he probably would have said something like that. Jonah is thrown in the sea as a result of his sin, but in order to send grace to the Ninevites, God saves him from death, via three days in the belly of a fish. He is “resurrected”—miraculously rescued from certain death. So Jonah serves as a sign to the people of Nineveh: God says through him, “I have rescued this man for you.

In Jesus, he gives a similar sign, but Jesus doesn’t get off easy like Jonah did. He is not saved from death. When he spends three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, it is because he is dead. So his resurrection is not a figurative one; it’s not a rescue from near-death, or an exaggeration for dramatic flair. God pours all his wrath on Jesus, until he is dead for our trespasses; he leaves him dead for three days, and then he brings him back from the dead, thus proving that his sacrifice was sufficient and acceptable to pay for our sins. And when he brings him back from the dead, he’s not just alive again; he is glorified. His body is made perfect, and his body remains exactly the same to this day.

When God resurrects Christ, he gives a similar sign to us: “Look at him—behold the man. I sent him to live the life you should have lived. I sent him to suffer the death you deserve. And I have raised him to show you that what he did has perfectly satisfied my justice. Look at him. I have sent this man, I have raised this man, for you. 

Jesus is a far better sign than Jonah, because he's not just saved from death—he goes through death to come out the other side, living and glorified. And his death and resurrection are also far better than Jonah’s rescue because of their reach: they do not merely secure the repentance of a city full of people from a foreign nation, but a world full of people from foreign nations. God’s desire was to make his glory known not only to the people of Israel, but to people of all nations, all tribes, all tongues. Jesus affirms this with shocking authority when he says that 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.

The idea of foreigners (the Ninevites) coming to judge an Israelite was profoundly offensive. But that is exactly his point: there is no preferential treatment here. If I die, I die for all my children, whether they are Israelites or not. If I am raised, I am raised for all my children, no matter which country they come from or language they speak. The nationalistic pride that Jonah displays is altogether absent in Jesus. As a teacher, he proclaimed for us a perfect message. By his life, he obtained for us perfect righteousness. By his death, he accomplished for us perfect justice. By his resurrection, he grants us eternal life.


Let’s take a step back and think about this. God is sovereign over all of creation and all of human history, so in everything we saw in the book of Jonah—as wild and surprising as those events were—God was there, working to make it happen in just that way. And he did so in order that when we read the book of Jonah, we don’t merely see a story of a wayward prophet and a big fish and a repentant city, but rather a foreshadowing of the Christ who would come. 

So in the story of Jonah, God is painting a picture of what is to come. Jonah was a prophet and a messenger who obeyed under compulsion, but Jesus was a perfect ambassador for God, obeying willingly and gladly. Are you GRATEFUL that God provided a better Jonah? Are you grateful that he was true to the compassion he showed at the end of the chapter? that he sent a better messenger and prophet, who not only did the right thing, but also did them for the right reasons, in complete acceptance and submission to the will of his Father?

Jonah’s survival in the belly of the fish was a sign of God’s compassion on the people of Nineveh ; Jesus’s resurrection is a sign of God’s compassion for his children scattered throughout the entire world. Do you BELIEVE that Christ really did die, that he really has been raised, and that his sacrifice was sufficient? Do you believe that God requires no more of you than faith in the perfect sacrifice of his Son?

Jonah called the people to repentance, in order to not be destroyed ; Jesus calls us to repentance as well; he calls us to turn from our sins and follow God with everything we are. But Christ was already obtained that perfect obedience for us. So have you ANSWERED his call to repent of your sins, knowing full well that justice has been done? Have you turned from your sins? Do you follow Jesus in faith, knowing that he has given you all you need for life and godliness?

If not, 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. 

SOMETHING GREATER THAN JONAH IS HERE. So repent. Jesus invites you to repent. He looks on you with compassion that Jonah did not have—a compassion that none of us have had, that none of us could even understand. So come to him. Believe in the Christ this story points you toward. Accept his sacrifice and his life for you, in gratitude and faith that he is all you need.


[1]  Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016), p. 348, 358.