Bible Question:

Did Jesus fulfill the sign of Jonah? In Matthew 12:40 Jesus said that He would be in the grave three days and three nights. Did Jonah die in the fish or did he stay alive? That would mean that Jesus died or stayed alive.

Bible Answer:

In Matthew 12:38-40 some scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign. Jesus responded with,

An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (NASB) Matthew 12:39-40

Historical Event

Jonah was an Old Testament prophet who attempted to disobey God. He may have “successfully” disobeyed God before, but he was not going to this time. God caused a fierce storm that terrified the sailors of Jonah’s ship. The sailors wanted to understand the reason for the storm and eventually discovered that Jonah was the cause of the storm. What a reminder to us that God may use the forces of nature or people to discipline us. So they threw Jonah overboard and he was swallowed by a large fish. Jonah was in the fish for three days and three nights. So Jesus gave the scribes and Pharisees a sign. He would be in the earth three days and three nights too! It was the sign of Jonah.

But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights. (NIV) Jonah 1:17

In The Stomach

Jonah’s suffering had just started. The second chapter of Jonah covers the entire time he was in the fish’s stomach. We do not know all that Jonah suffered but the passage is clear that.

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. He said: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again towards your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in for ever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD.” And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. (NIV) Jonah 2:1-10

The literal Hebrew of verse 6 is wonderful for it says, ” . . . my head to the bases of the mountains I went down, the earth with her bars was about me forever. But you brought up from the pit my life . . .” The term “pit” is a place in Sheol. Jonah says he died and God brought him back to life – “brought my life from the pit.” J. Vernon McGee says,

What we have here . . . is a definite statement by Jonah that he died. The miracle here is resurrection . . .[1]

Three days & Three Nights – Jewish Custom

How long was Jonah inside the fish? Was he there three days and three nights? We cannot assume he was there for a literal three days and three nights because the passage does not say that he was there for seventy-two hours. The phrase must be understood as referring to parts of the first and third days since the Jews counted parts of a day as a full day.

In the Jewish tract Schabbath, we find a discussion about the length of three days. “But how much is the space of an Onah? Rabbi Jochanan says either a day or a night.” In the Jerusalem Talmud we read, “Rabbi Akiba fixed a day for an Onah, and a night for an Onah: but the tradition is, that Rabbi Eliezar Ben Azariah said, ‘A day and a night make an Onah, and a part of an Onah is as the whole.’ And Rabbi Ismael computeth a part of the Onah for the whole.”

The Onah was a measure of time. The point is clear that the ancient Jewish custom counted any part of a day as the whole day. So Jonah could have been tossed overboard in the late afternoon (first Onah or first day) and been spit out not the next morning (second Onah or second day), but the following morning (third Onah or third day). The expression “three days and three nights” referred to three Onahs since an Onah referred to a part of a day or the full day. That adds up to three days according to ancient culture. Jesus was in the grave late in the first day and returned to life the second morning. That adds up to three days according to Jewish custom. Both Jonah and Jesus died, were buried (Jesus in a tomb, Jonah in a fish), and came back to life after three days and three nights. Jesus fulfilled the sign of Jonah.

Three days & Three Nights – Old Testament Examples

Another reason for understanding the phrase “three days and three nights” as referring to parts of three days not a literal seventy-two hour period is that there are examples in the Old Testament where the phrase did not mean seventy-two hours. The first example is found in Esther 4:16. Esther commands that the Jews fast for three days and three nights.

Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me;  do not eat or drink for three days, night or day . . . Esther 4:16 (NASB)

That is sometime during the first day she gave this command. Then in Esther 5:1 we discover that on the third day she visits the king.

Now it came about on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace in front of the king’s rooms, and the king was sitting on his royal throne in the  throne room, opposite the entrance to the palace. Esther 5:1 (NASB)

In this verse we discover that Esther visited the king on the third day, but she did not wait until the end of the night. That is, she gave the command sometime during the first day and visited the king sometime during the third day.

Another example is found in 1 Samuel 30:12-13.

They gave him a piece of fig cake and two clusters of raisins, and he ate; then his spirit  revived. For he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights. 1 Samuel 30:12 (NASB)

Here we are told that an Egyptian slave had not eaten or drank water for three days and three nights. Then we are told in the next verse that the slave had left three days ago. That is, the slave had left the day before yesterday. A full three days and three nights had not elapsed.

David said to him, “To whom do you belong? And where are you from?” And he said, “I am a young man of Egypt, a servant of an Amalekite; and my master left me behind when I fell sick three days ago.”  1 Samuel 30:13 (NASB)

Conclusion:

The phrase “three days and three nights” does not necessarily refer to three full twenty-four hour days or seventy-two hours. The phrase simply referred to any part of three days, just as is the custom in most cultures today.

Therefore, Jesus fulfilled the sign of Jonah. Many have tripped over this passage because they have not known the ancient Jewish customs of Jesus’ time. Jewish literature, after Jesus’ death and return to life, tried to explain away Jesus’ miracles by claiming He was demon possessed and that He practiced Egyptian magic. Why try to explain it away? What they have in fact admitted is that Jesus did do miracles! Why try to explain away Jesus’ return to life? They have in fact admitted that Jesus did miracles and returned to life. He fulfilled the sign of Jonah.

 

References:

1. J. Vernon McGee. Jonah. Thru The Bible. Nelson Publishing, 1982.