“But he answered and said unto them, 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.” Matt. 12:39-40
Related: The Grave of Christ
The Sign of the Prophet Jonah. When the apostate Jewish leaders asked Jesus for a sign (after rejecting many others), Jesus replied:
The story of Jonah was not one that the Jews enjoyed. It was all about a Jewish prophet who was commanded to preach to the Gentile Ninevites. Jonah, a representative of the Jews, was so stubborn and stuck up in his pride, that he would rather sail to the edge of the known world than obey God. He did not believe Israel needed the grace of God, nor that the Gentiles should have it. In a ship with Gentile mariners, God saw fit to send a great storm which put the ship into a state of terror. Finally, God had Jonah cast into the sea, where he sank beneath the waves; dead, for all intents and purposes. Meanwhile, the Gentiles on the ship had observed God’s government over Jonah, and were brought into a blessed calm after the storm.
In his proud state, Jonah could not be useful to God. He had to figuratively die and be raised again before he was ready to be useful. The same is true of Israel. They were so rebellious that rather than be a light to the Gentiles, they were a curse to them. Due to Israel’s obstinance, God has put them in the place of death, and meanwhile turned toward the Gentiles.
God wasn’t done with Jonah, and He prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah up and preserve him for three days and three nights. Likewise, God has blessing in store for Israel, and a remnant has been preserved down through the centuries. They will be preserved even through the Great Tribulation, pictured by three days in the belly of a fish. Once repentance is worked, they will be restored to their place and fulfill their mission as “a light to the Gentiles”. At that time, the Gentiles will believe in great numbers (pictured by Nineveh’s repentance), and many nations will join themselves to the Lord in the Millennium (Isa. 56:6).
All this would be represented to Israel in the greatest miracle of all, Christ’s own death and burial for three days. Notice that the three days is in view here, not the resurrection. Jonah was brought out of the sea, and Christ rose from the grave; so Israel will have a national resurrection, but notice that resurrection is left out. That is because the sign of the prophet Jonah is distinctly judgment. In the death of Christ we see the end of all that man is in Adam, and in the resurrection of Christ we see the glorified Second Man as the Accomplisher of God’s purpose. An important difference is that Jonah suffered for his own sins, but Christ died for the sins of others. This was a sign, not only of the sureness of Christ’s claims, but of judgment on Israel. When the Son of man was laid in the grave, it was proof that Israel’s judgment was pending, and that God would take up with the Gentiles.