The Sign of Jonah (Matthew 16:1-4 study part 1)

Matthew 16: 1-4
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. (ESV)

Method of Study
When studying scripture it is super important to not just pull something inspirational from the text using our own hearts and understanding. Even our own hearts are deceitful as Jeremiah 17:9 shows us! Rather we should observe the text first, interpret it by exploring it in comparison to other Biblical scripture. Let’s gather some context and cross reference for the purpose of study. It is so worth it in the end, every scripture is God breathed and useful for learning, and the meal is so satisfying and life transforming!

The first step is to observe the text and ask questions as well as gather some scripture reference to further understand the passage. I’m going to use some of the inductive Bible study questions I recently learned in Lord, Teach me to Study the Bible in 28 Days by Kay Arthur to unlock the text.


  • The Pharisees and Sadducees are looking for Jesus to perform a sign from heaven at their request.
  • Jesus points out that they can predict weather but they can’t interpret the signs of the times
  • Jesus does not give them a sign and says a wicked generation seeks a sign but only the sign of Jonah will be given to them.

What is the sign of Jonah?
Jonah, is one of the Old Testament prophets and there is a book of the Bible relating an account from His earthly ministry. Many of us are pretty familiar with Jonah and the whale. If we were just to reason through this we might be able to see a parallel between Jonah being in the belly of the whale for 3 days before being vomited onto the beach and Jesus being dead it the tomb for 3 days before rising from the dead. But we shouldn’t hastily stop here and “check the box” saying that we found out what Jesus meant when He was addressing the Pharisees. To make sure we understand what He is saying we have to seek out the context of God’s Word. If you look up “Jonah” in a concordance you will notice that “the sign of Jonah” is mentioned more than once in the New Testament. Good thing I looked it up! There is some more revealed in these other verses as to what the “sign of Jonah” encompasses! (:

Matthew 12:38-41 confirms our hunch that part of the sign is Christ being in the earth 3 days before rising from the dead but it doesn’t stop there! “But He replied to them, an evil and adulterous generation seeks and demands a sign; but no sign shall be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For even as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, Someone more and greater than Jonah is here!”

Luke 11:29-32 is even more explicit referring to the word “sign” “For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will also the Son of Man be a sign to this age and generation.”

We learn from these verses that the 3 days and nights in the belly of the whale is only part of the sign, the repentance of Nineveh is also part of it! This has big implication. To fully understand its weight let’s go check out the book of Jonah found in the Old Testament.

No matter how seasoned we are with Bible knowledge it is always best to humbly read through God’s Word, looking up text and reading it to thoroughly seek out God’s truth and to never assume based on a familiarity with a certain text. Christ is God’s Word incarnate, the Word is living and sharper than a two edged sword. Get this, Luke 16:17 says it is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. The LEAST stroke…pause and chew on that. We should handle God’s word as such, the gist just won’t do.

So to the Old Testament we go! (: I highly recommend spending time to study the book of Jonah in depth, just like with any other book of the Bible it is so awesome to learn and be transformed by the cleansing power of His Word! I just happened to get done studying it with group of women so I’m extra jazzed up about it! (:

We find the first part of the sign in Jonah 1:17 “Now the Lord had prepared and appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. then Jonah prayed to the Lord, and He heard…” (after being in that pitch black, smelly wet environment for 3 days and 3 nights, you should study His prayer! (: )  and when Jonah was done praying Jonah 2:10 “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”

To find the second part of the sign we need to check out what happened with Nineveh which is found in Jonah chapter 3. Jonah cried out the preaching God told Him to deliver “Yet forty day’s journey and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He literally only went a third of the way through the city and the people of Nineveh believed in God, proclaimed a fast and repented in sack cloth crying out mightily to God and they turned away from their wicked ways. Oh and by the way we know from Jonah 1:2 that Nineveh’s wickedness was so great that it had come up before God. So even a very wicked city confessed their sins, repented with fasting and mourning, turned away from their wicked ways and cried out to God to have mercy on them (which He did). Even the King and animals fasted! (a cross reference: Joel 2:12-14-one of my favorite verses!) Isn’t this an awesome illustration of salvation? Hear, believe, confess, repent (turn away from) and seek.

Now we can get a better picture of the “Sign of Jonah”. Someone greater than Jonah was staring the Pharisees in the face. He was going to die, be buried in the heart of the earth for 3 days and nights and then rise from the dead, conquering death once and for all and He warns us, calling us all to repent. (I John 1:9, John 3:16.) Yet since the time of Christ’s ministry on earth to today there are those who choose to be stiff necked scoffers, refusing to believe and repent just like the Pharisees and Sadducees. Acts 7:51 speaks to this: “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!”

The sign of Jonah is huge, there could be no “bigger”, more wondrous sign…no physical healing or miraculous sign can compare to God taking on flesh bearing/suffering the punishment for every human in death and rise from the dead for good, opening the veil, making a way for salvation to all who confess with their mouth and believe in the heart that Jesus is Lord.

Someone greater than the prophet Jonah has come, calling us to repent, will you answer the call?

Next time: Why & Who