Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." 39 But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Mt 12:38-41)
Read the Book of Jonah. Its short, four chapters long, so it will take about 3 minutes to read. As background, let's consider Jonah and his times. He lived sometime around 750 BC. We must remember the kingdom of Israel suffered a civil war almost 200 years earlier; the kingdom spilt into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel continued as a sovereign nation until about 725 BC, when it was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian method of imperial domination included eliminating nationalist feelings of the conquered peoples by forcing inter-marriages through assimilation. Some Israelites were exiled to other nations, while peoples of other nations were sent to live in Israel. In a few generations, Israel as an ethic people ceased to exist. Only the people of Judah remained, unconquered by the Assyrians.
God sent His prophet Jonah shortly before Assyria conquered Israel. In a strange twist, God sent Jonah to the Assyrians, not to the Israelites. It seems God wanted Assyria to repent and be saved. For Jonah, a devout Israelite, this was terrible; he did not want Assyria to repent and turn to the Lord. He wanted Assyria to fail and for God to destroy them, because Jonah knew Israel would soon become another victim of Assyria. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, and preach repentance to them; Jonah assumed that if he did not go, Assyria would not repent and God would destroy them. So he got in a ship and headed in the opposite direction, towards Tarshis (Spain). It was a foolish idea, trying to run away from God. So God sent the whale to swallow Jonah and spit him up back on the shores of Israel. Then Jonah did as he was told. He preached to Assyria and they repented and were saved. And Jonah was sad.
How does this story align with Jesus' work of redemption? Is it just the three day event that each went through? No, there’s much more. On a high level, consider that Jesus was sent by the Father to expand the covenant to the Gentiles, to ask all people everywhere to repent and be saved. This is similar to God sending Jonah to the Gentiles of Assyria to do the same. Then, Jonah’s message to Assyria ended with the extinction of the kingdom of Israel. Likewise, Jesus’ message ended with the extinction of Judah –although Judah was a vassal state in the Roman Empire, it was still a kingdom with a king. But around 70 AD, Rome gave up on Judah’s autonomy, due to so many insurrections, and attacked the capital city of Jerusalem, leveling the city and destroying the Temple. Judah was no more and the daily sacrifices were no more. If we consider that Jesus died around 30 AD, Jerusalem was destroyed 40 years later, a unit of time the Jews of His time recognized as a generation. Note Jesus’ use of generation in his discourse above; He is prophesying that destruction is coming within the generation.
We think of Jonah being swallowed by a whale for 3 days, then spit up on the shore. How is this related to Jesus’ death and resurrection? We need to know a little ancient Jewish cosmology. At that time, the sea had very significant meaning to the Israelites: it was the primordial chaos and the place of the dead. Recall that in the beginning, God created the world and it was only water, the deep. Uncontained water was a perfect image of chaos. God then created order in the world. But the deep remained here and there as great bodies of water, the greatest being the Mediterranean Sea. This is the land of Sheol, the place of the dead and the place where demons live. This is where Jonah went; it is evident from Jonah’s prayer inside the belly of the fish (Jon 2). In Jon 2:2, he states that he is in the belly of Sheol. So, Jonah lived in the land of death for 3 days and nights – very much a prophecy of Jesus.
In fact, the story of Jonah is very much a prophecy of Jesus; Jonah is an excellent OT type of Jesus. The difference, of course, being that Jonah carried out his mission begrudgingly, while Jesus did so willingly, even with desire. Jesus’s “sign of Jonah” served as a warning to His generation that destruction was immanent, as it was to Israel in 750 BC. When Jesus enters into the land of Sheol, as Jonah did, and returned to the land of the living 3 days later, as Jonah did, it will be their sign. If they paid attention, they would see the sign as fulfillment of the prophet Jonah, which means the kingdom is about to be destroyed. (Jesus explained the coming destruction of Jerusalem in greater detail in Mat 24; especially note v 34.)
This Scriptural text is from Mat 12, but it’s repeated again in Mat 16, where Jesus established the Petrine office through Simon-Peter. At the beginning of the dialogue, in Mat 16;16, Simon says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Note the structure: You are A, son of B. Jesus replies with the same structure: “Blessed are you Simon, Son of Jonah.” As Jesus is the Son of God, so Simon is the son of Jonah. But Simon’s father was not Jonah; in a parallel passage, Simon was the son of John (Jn 1:42). Why would Jesus call him a son of Jonah? Because Jonah was a type of Jesus and Peter is a “son” of Jesus. Jesus is using a word-play based on similarities between Jonah and John; this is why Matthew revives the meaning of this Jesus/Jonah type just a few verses earlier.
How is Peter a son of Jesus? Read Mt 16:19, then read Is 22:22; in giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, Jesus was quoting from Is 22:22, wherein a wicked chief steward of the royal household was replaced by another, and to his descendants. Even as the throne was a dynastic succession, so was that of the chief steward. A chief steward of the royal household was head of the household, tasked with providing for the king’s family and servants from the riches of the king. In the same way, God’s chief steward (i.e., the pope) provides for God’s spiritual household with the spiritual riches of our King. Before Jesus, the succession of Temple high priests held this position. But, they failed under the Pharisee sect and Jesus transferred this position of authority to the chief Apostle and his spiritual descendants. This dynastic succession originates with Jesus, therefore all successors to the Petrine office are like sons of Jesus, beginning with Jesus, who was Himself a Son of David. The image of a kingdom is helpful to understand the nature of the Church; the image of a continuous dynasty is helpful to understand the permanent nature of the Church.