Easter April 20, 2003


The Sign of Jonah and the Risen Christ

Jonah 1:10-17; Matthew 12:40

Scripture Readings

1 Corinthians 15:12-28
Mark 16:1-8


202, 199, 198, 200

Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “Why have you done this?” For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us?”—for the sea was growing more tempestuous. And he said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you. For I know that this great tempest is because of me.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to return to land, but they could not, for the sea continued to grow more tempestuous against them. Therefore they cried out to the Lord and said, “We pray, O Lord, please do not let us perish for this man’s life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O Lord, have done as it pleased You.” So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord and took vows. Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

For 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.

Dear friends in Christ Jesus, who has triumphed over death:

All the earth with joy is sounding:
“Christ has risen from the dead!”
He, the greater Jonah, bounding
from the grave, His three-day bed,
wins the prize: Death’s demise.
Songs of triumph fill the skies.

This stanza from a joyous Easter hymn proclaims that Christ has risen from the dead. But it also calls Him “the greater Jonah.” Why? What does Jonah have to do with Jesus?

Jonah’s stay in the belly of a fish is a “type” of Christ. A “type” is an event or practice that foreshadows the person and work of Christ in some way. The story of Jonah is a most unusual, and certainly the most triumphant, type of Christ we have to see.

Not that Jonah was a very triumphant sort of person. There isn’t really much about him that you would call “Christlike.” He was a prophet of the true God, but when the Lord called on him to go and preach to the Assyrians in Nineveh—one of the most brutal enemies the Israelites faced—Jonah refused. He, didn’t tell God “No” in so many words, but his actions spoke volumes. Instead of traveling east by land to the Tigris river valley, Jonah bought passage on a ship sailing west in the Mediterranean and bound for what is now Spain. He was not about to be God’s messenger to those bloodthirsty heathens.

Soon Jonah and his shipmates found themselves swept up in a terrifying storm. With the sea battering the ship like these sailors had never before experienced, they concluded that this was not a natural event at all and there was some divine reason for their predicament. Some god must be angry with them. So they cast lots, seeking a clue as to the cause of this supernatural fury. The lot singled out Jonah. Now, with all eyes upon this stranger, Jonah explained who he was, from where he came, and what he had done to draw this divine fury upon himself and all those with him.

When Jonah explained that he worshiped the Lord, the God of Israel, we are told that the others on the ship “were exceedingly afraid.[v.10] Even in the polytheistic paganism of the ancient world, the name of the Lord was widely known and feared because of the many accounts of His power and awesome deeds for His people, Israel.

Now they asked Jonah, “What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us?” Jonah knew what would be required, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea.[vv.11-12] The sailors didn’t want to do this. They even prayed that God would not hold this against them. But then they took Jonah up in their arms and threw him into the raging sea. Then, to their amazement, the wind stopped, and the sea laid down flat and calm.

Next, Jonah was swallowed by a fish, and remained in the fish for three days and three nights. During that time the prophet in misery prayed to God with repentance. Then God caused the fish to spit Jonah out on the beach. The prophet was saved, and was again sent to Nineveh where he began to preach God’s message of repentance.

Many centuries later, Jesus saw Jonah’s experience as a mighty sermon concerning His own work. The topic arose when Jesus was approached by some Jewish leaders claiming they needed to see a sign from Him before they would accept Him as a genuine messenger of God. Somehow they had overlooked the daily miracles of healing, the casting out of demons, the divine grace of His words, and His personal sinlessness. No, they needed to see something else from Jesus.

This was, of course, not a plea of humble faith toward God. It was arrogance, pure and simple. So Jesus gave them an answer that would be of no use to them in their unbelief, but one that has great meaning for us: “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.[Matthew 12:40]

The main point of comparison between Jesus and Jonah was their three day disappearance from the land of the living—Jonah in the fish and Jesus in the earth. As astounding as it was that Jonah could be swallowed by a fish and that he could live for a period of time coming out alive in the end, we must remember that when Jesus went into the grave He was very much dead having been executed and declared dead by the soldiers. Jonah felt that he was dead, in a sense, when he was swallowed because he cried out in prayer: “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard me(Jonah 2:2). Sheol is the Hebrew word that refers to the state of death. He might have been rational and alive physically, but he felt he was as good as dead. And yet, with his heart humbled and repentant, he still hoped in God’s grace. He said “I have been cast out of Your sight; Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple(Jonah 2:2:4).

Remember also that when Jesus died He did not die in defeat. He had finished His work on the cross and when death came it was because He gave up His soul and committed it to His Father. Psalm 16 says of Jesus: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; My flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption(Psalm 16:9-10). Jesus knew before He went into the grave that He would come out again under His own power.

But there are more aspects to Jonah’s experience that foreshadow Jesus’ work. They are things we want to consider today. They tell so much more about the meaning of our celebration.

Remember that our story started with the whole ship in danger—men crying out for their lives and terrified in their awareness of God’s wrath. So also, the world is under God’s terrible displeasure. We all must face death and after death the judgement of God. We may not be physically tossed around and battered back and forth, but there is plenty that goes on in our lives to remind us that we are but poor wretched sinners who are powerless to deliver ourselves from the real issues of life.

Next, let’s consider the solution to this problem. For the sailors, it was made clear that one man must be cast overboard. If he would die, they would live. It was a terrible thing even to consider—offering another man’s life for theirs. It wasn’t their idea.

Nor was it our idea for God’s own dear Son to come into this world, to offer His life as a ransom for our sins, and to suffer and die to atone for the sins we have committed. Who of us could have imagined such a scene. And what mortal man would have dared to ask it of God? But God sent His Son to do just that, and the Son went willingly just as Jonah let the men throw him overboard.

But when that terrible deed was done, and the men had cast Jonah to the angry sea, there was an immediate calm. They were safe. They were saved. God’s wrath had been turned aside from them, for the sake of the perishing prophet. And isn’t that exactly the message of the Gospel? Jesus, having suffered under the angry judgement of God, bore upon Himself all of our sins so that God’s wrath against us is diverted. Our sins have been taken away and God is fully at peace with us.

There is no greater or more certain assurance of this than the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. The sailors, having seen the last of Jonah, enjoyed a physical peace, but may never have heard of the further fate of the prophet. In our case, the peace comes by faith, not by sight. Things don’t always look as rosy for us as they really are if we are in Christ. But the fact that Christ rose from the dead is our guarantee that God is truly, perfectly, everlastingly at peace with us. It is the sort of soul-felt peace that comes with faith in the Gospel, as we hear it in Isaiah: “O Lord, I will praise You; Though You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me(Isaiah 12:1). That is what a living Christ, a Christ victorious from the grave, means to us.

It’s worth a look, also, at the results of Jonah’s experience. The boatmen, having escaped death through the death of Jonah, were deeply moved. They became believers in the Lord God, offered up sacrifices, and made solemn vows to honor Him. What effect does the resurrected Christ have on us? This is a fair question, especially when we come back to the reason Jesus used Jonah as a picture of Himself. Jesus said that Jonah was a sign to the Jews, but one they wouldn’t accept. They wouldn’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was sacrificed for their sins, nor that He had risen from the dead. In fact, Jesus went on to say that the men of Nineveh would rise up in judgement against the Jews because when Jonah did preach against the sins of Nineveh they repented in sackcloth and ashes. But when Jesus came to His own people to be their Lord and Savior they refused to believe.

So now, Jesus lives. Every time we hear that we are confronted with a powerful, comforting, life-changing truth. Where are our vows and sacrifices? What will we keep at the center of our heart, now? The God of life, or the way of death? Jesus Christ has conquered death! He has burst that three-day prison! What can hold us down? Jesus lives! He died for us and rose again. We who live in Him will live forever. May that always be the great joy of our lives! Amen.

—Pastor Peter E. Reim

Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.