Jesus was inundated with demands by carping critics to “prove” himself or to perform miracles on request, much as the media today would gather round a “Miracle Crusade” today, notebooks in hand, scepticism and prurience at the ready.
The “Sign of Jonah” was -paradoxically- Jesus’s refusal to give any sign at all. Here’s the context in Luke 11:
“As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. 32 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 now something greater than Jonah is here.”
So Jesus condemns the desire for a”sign” as an indicator of wickedness. Matthew’s parallel account of this passage is a little different. He adds the explanation that “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40) By contrast, Luke says simply, “For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.”
That is to say, Jonah himself is the sign. Jonah, bleached bone-white by the acids in the fish’s stomach, a dead-man walking, speaking the word of God and calling a whole generation to repentance -that’s the only sign you’ll get.
And then Luke adds v31: that the “Queen of the South” (the Queen of Sheba) will be a witness for the prosecution when this generation is put on trial, “for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here.”
Do you see the connection? Jonah went to the ends of the earth -the pagan city of Nineveh, no less!- and they repented and turned to God. The Queen travelled from the farthest imaginable south because she desired wisdom from the king of Israel. And so both Nineveh and Sheba sought God but Israel itself has missed it.
John Gill put it like this: “This Heathen queen shall rise together with the men of the present generation among the Jews, stand in judgment with them, and against them; and that her conduct would be brought as an evidence against them, and be improved as an aggravation of their condemnation:”for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold a greater than Solomon is here:” The difference between them, and what aggravates the case is, that she was a Gentile that knew not God, they were Jews, his professing people; she came from afar, they were near, upon the spot, where Christ was, he was preaching in their streets, temple, and synagogues; she came to hear only natural or moral wisdom, but they might have heard spiritual and heavenly wisdom, with which eternal happiness is connected; she came to hear only a mere man, but they might have heard him who is the wisdom of God, and the only wise God, and our Saviour.”
Even their so-called “seeking for a sign” is a hypocrisy. The signs are plain to see, but they refuse to acknowledge them. Jesus sent a message to John the Baptist, languishing in prison, ““Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Luke 7:22) The signs are all there, if you choose to see them.
And don’t miss that word “pagan” that I slipped in a minute ago – Nineveh and Sheba are pagan outsiders who found God. Those sneering at Jesus for a sign are Jewish insiders. As John put it,”He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:11-12)
And somehow, in this passage, Jesus does it again. He takes what is meant as an attack on his integrity and the purpose of his mission, and flips it around so that it becomes a challenge to his questioners to examine themselves.
Ultimately miracles are not enough. Don’t get me wrong – I love to see God moving in power, healing, delivering and tranforming lives.
But it’s so easy to become focused upon the miracles that you miss the God of the miracles.
These events, said Jesus are “signs” which point beyond themselves, just as a signpost does not constitute a journey but only helps you along it!
And so Jesus gave “the sign of Jonah.” At first, it seemed like a non-sign, a symbol of someone bringing a message from afar off, strangely cloaked in authority and calling for repentance. And Jesus challenges -rebukes- the demand for a “sign.” It’s a criticism, a judgement. But your very criticism of him becomes a criticism, a judgement, upon yourself. And the more you attack and snipe, the more you paint yourselves into a corner and inhibit your own moral movement.
You are burning the bridge over which you must pass.
And the sign gathers momentum. For one day soon Jesus’s preaching will be done and the day of opportunity for response over, and just as the fish swallowed Jonah in the ancient tale, so death will swallow Jesus.
And even that will not be the end, but only a new sort of beginning. But if you would reach that destination, you need to follow the sign carefully.