Despite the many miracles performed by Jesus he was approached by the Scribes and Pharisees and asked for a sign so he could prove who He was. “He [Jesus] replied: “only a wicked and adulterous generation would ask for a miraculous sign. No sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. He was in the belly of a large fish for three days and nights. In the same way, the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights. At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will stand in judgment on this generation and will condemn it, for they repented when Jonah preached to them. Now one who is greater than Jonah is here among you.” He added: “The Queen of Sheba will speak in judgment on this and condemn it. She came from far away to hear Solomon’s wisdom , and now one far greater than Solomon is here among you.” In part Jesus was predicting His death and resurrection but there is more to it than that. When Jewish rabbis quoted from the Scriptures they did not just refer to the quote itself, but the context of the quote. So let us remind ourselves of the story of Jonah. Jonah was called upon by the Lord to preach a message of repentance to the people of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, who were the enemies of the Jewish people. He refused and fled to ‘Tarshish’, believed to be modern Spain. Apparently he thought that the authority of the God of Israel was limited to near the borders of the Promised Land. So God disabused him of that error and Jonah found himself in the middle of a storm at sea that threatened to sink the ship he was in. He admitted to the crew of the ship that he was responsible for the storm and that they should throw him overboard. They were reluctant to do so and tried to row to land but were unable to make headway. So they threw Jonah overboard and he was swallowed up by ‘a great fish,’ traditionally a whale, it would seem that he died but the fish vomited his body up on the shore and he came back to life. A second time God called Jonah to preach to the Ninevites and this time he went. He preached that unless they repented the city would be overthrown. The people from the King down repented in sackcloth and ashes, so the Lord relented. This upset Jonah who started to sulk. The book of Jonah ends with the Lord rebuking Jonah for not having compassion for the souls of the Ninevites. Therefore part of the sign of Jonah must refer to the attitude of the Jews to the Gentiles, and Jesus’ further mention of the Queen of Sheba supports this as she too was a Gentile. The question then arises as to whether he was referring to the attitude of the Jewish people, the Jewish religion or the Jewish church? The answer is all three to some extent or other. The Jews’ attitude to Gentiles did not change when they believed in Jesus as their Messiah. Jesus is predicting that the Church would expand to the Gentiles and that the Jewish response would be less than enthusiastic to say the least. This negative attitude to the Gentile believers in the nascent church is no reason for anti-Semitism both in the past or even today. Despite the Great Commission to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth the early church was slow to put that into practice. It was only after persecution broke out after the death of Stephen did the church start preaching to the Samaritans. Equally, despite the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house Peter had to justify his actions to the rest of the Church back in Jerusalem.
One cannot help wondering whether one of the Pharisees who questioned Jesus included Saul of Tarsus. This would have been ironic, but God does have a sense of humour, that His chosen instrument for bring the Good News to the Gentiles was present. His attitude before his conversion would have been similar to Jonah’s, but the years he spent in obscurity seems to have brought about a change. Even though Ananias had prophesied that he would be sent as a missionary to the Gentiles, Saul initially would have shared views similar to the Judaisers that he would later oppose.
Yet we criticise the Jewish attitude to the Gentiles at our own peril, because how often we as Christians are reluctant to share the Gospel with unbelievers, especially those believers who are beyond the social pale, so to speak. Like Jonah we are afraid that God will be merciful to them. We would rather poach some believer from another denomination than go to those who are in danger of throwing their lives away by their poor lifestyle choices. The sad thing is that ‘decent’ folk see no need for a Saviour, it is those who are about to step over the edge that see the necessity of repentance (See post – Repentance= About Turn.) Those sheep that graze within sight of the fold think there are fine even if they ignore the call of the Shepherd to return before nightfall. The sheep that have strayed far away and are totally lost welcome the efforts of the Shepherd to find them more readily.
To return to the sign of Jonah, any time Jesus mentioned or even inferred that his mission was not just to the Jews but the Gentiles he received a negative reaction. Paul whom God sent as an apostle to the Gentiles received more than his fair share of opposition. Even when he was arrested in Jerusalem there seemed to be little effort made on his behalf by James and the Jerusalem church to get him released. Those parts of the Church that take the Great Commission seriously have often been looked at with suspicion by, if not outright opposition from, more respectable parts of the Church. We have to remember that have only been grafted into the vine and not natural branches lest we be guilty or the sign of Jonah will be applicable to us too.
The book of Jonah ends with God telling Jonah of His compassion for the young innocents of Nineveh, those who cannot tell their right hands from their left, Jonah said nothing. Sometimes it is better to let God have the last word.
David Rose. 2013.