The Sign of Jonah

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just 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.” Mt 12:39–40.

Jesus’s interaction with the Jews in Matthew 12 doesn’t quite go like they had hoped. Jesus’s profound prophetic statement doesn’t garner much more attention in Scripture, but that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked.

The connection between Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish and Jesus’s death and resurrection is clear enough. Jesus helpfully connects the two for us. That alone says there is some to what happened to Jonah that is worth our attention. Jonah, the wayward prophet, figuratively dies and rises again, all by the grace of God.

That Jonah’s “death” and “resurrection” prefigure Christ’s own is already valuable information and tells us these events in Christ’s life were not accidental. What also isn’t accidental is the form of Jonah’s death and resurrection. When St. Paul tells us in Romans 6 that we are buried with Christ by baptism in death that we might walk in newness of life, he is telling us that death, resurrection, and baptism are part of one cohesive whole.

This is why the form of Jonah’s death and resurrection are not accidental. When Luther talks about, “daily drowning the old Adam,” we see in Jonah a physical demonstration of what this looks like. This also allows us to explore a bit more what the spiritual ramifications are of baptism.

The grace involved in Jonah’s aquatic salvation is very evident. Jonah’s rescue comes after he finally acknowledges his sin and that he is at fault. His time in the fish gives him a much needed period of reflection and repentance.

Jonah’s arrival on land equates to resurrection. He was figuratively dead, lost in the dark depths, and now he sees the sun again. Normally that’s where the comparison to baptism ends, but to stop here is to miss the entire point of what God did for Jonah. This is more than just about God providing grace to a sinner.

The whole story of Jonah revolves around his prophetic calling. He had been given a job, which he steadfastly refused to do. This is his sin at work, for his prophetic office was a good and righteous vocation. This makes the fish, and thus baptism, not simply a matter of new life, but of vocational reorientation. God took a man who was, quite literally, running directly away from Him as fast as he possibly could and makes it possible for him to do his job once more.

The story of Jonah and the fish becomes the story of a man being restored to the image of God, a feat made possible through its connection to baptism. As evidenced by what happens when Jonah does his job, the sacraments do much more than just “fix” our relationship to God. The whole world starts to realign as mankind is restored to the image of God. Creation starts to work the way it’s intended and everything falls into place.

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