Jesus—His Life and Message: Jonah and the Queen

September 18, 2018

by Peter Amsterdam

Throughout the Gospels, the scribes and Pharisees are portrayed as being in conflict with Jesus—questioning, criticizing, accusing, and eventually causing His execution. In Matthew chapter 12 we read of the Pharisees accusing Jesus’ disciples of breaking the Mosaic law (verses 1–8), of their conspiring together to destroy Him (verse 14), and accusing Him of casting out demons by the power of the Devil (verse 24). Even though they had seen Jesus heal the sick, give sight to the blind, raise the dead, and feed the multitudes, many still did not believe in Him. No matter what He did, they were determined to stand against Him.

Toward the end of chapter 12, we read how the scribes and Pharisees once again manifested their opposition to Jesus by asking for proof that He was who He claimed to be.

Some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”

Later in this Gospel, they once again asked Him for the same:

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven.1

The act of requesting an authenticating sign is described several times in the Old Testament. When Moses told the Lord that the Egyptians wouldn’t listen to him when he asked them to let God’s people go, God told him to throw his staff on the ground. When Moses did so, the staff became a snake, and when he took the snake in his hand, it became a staff once again.2 Moses also put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, it was leprous, and when he repeated the action, his hand was clean.3 He also commanded plagues to come upon Egypt to authenticate that his words were from God.4 We also read that Gideon asked for and received a sign from God,5 as did Elijah when he called down fire from heaven.6

Jesus also drew attention to His miracles as evidence of His authority and power.

“That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home.7

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”8 

The scribes and Pharisees were aware of and had likely been witnesses to some of Jesus’ miracles. So it’s hard to imagine what other signs they would need to see.

He answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign.”9

Jesus strongly reacted to their request for another sign, which He also did when the devil asked for the same:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”10 

In calling them an evil and adulterous generation, Jesus echoed the words of a song Moses wrote about the Hebrew people shortly before his death:

They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation.11

Jesus called them evil and adulterous because of their unbelief in spite of His having manifested God’s power through miracles, healings, and deliverances.

He then continued:

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.12

Jesus had already given signs through His miracles, and in this chapter of Matthew alone, He had healed a man with a withered hand13 and a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute.14 These scribes and Pharisees didn’t need any more signs. The “sign of Jonah” was sufficient.

So what was the sign of Jonah? Jesus alluded to the three days and three nights during which Jonah was in the belly of a huge fish or sea monster.15 The word used to describe the fish is only found in this verse of the Bible, and it means “any sea monster or huge fish.” Jonah remained in the fish’s belly for three full days and nights. In making this reference to Jonah’s sojourn in the fish’s belly, Jesus was foretelling His death and the three days He would lie in the grave. Today we understand three days to be three 24-hour periods, or 72 hours, and by that count, Jesus wasn’t in the grave that long. As one author explains:

The period from toward the middle of the day on Friday (when he was crucified) to early on Sunday morning (when he was seen alive) comes short of what we understand as three days and three nights. But the Jews did not reckon as we do: they counted the day on which any period began as one day, and they did the same with the day on which the period ended. Thus we have Friday, Saturday, Sunday, three days; it doesn’t matter that neither the Friday nor the Sunday was complete.16

The story of Jonah is found in the Old Testament book named after him. In brief, God instructed Jonah to go to Nineveh to “call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”17 Rather than following God’s instructions, Jonah caught a ship which went in the opposite direction. God sent a great storm, and the ship was close to breaking up. The sailors cast lots to see who was to blame for the storm, and everything pointed to Jonah. They asked him how to make the sea calm down, and Jonah told them to throw him overboard, which they did. We’re then told: The LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.18 Jonah eventually repented and prayed, ending his prayer with: “I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.19 Jonah then went to Nineveh to preach, saying, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”20 The people and the king of Nineveh believed the message. The king issued a proclamation: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.”21 God saw that they turned from their evil and relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.22

Jesus continued:

The men of Nineveh will rise up 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.23 

Jesus speaks of “the judgment,” referring to the final judgment at the end of the world. At that time, the people of Nineveh, along with those of the generation of His day who were rejecting Jesus, will rise to face the final judgment. The testimony of the repentance of the gentile Ninevites who heard and obeyed God’s message will stand in stark contrast to the unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day, who were face to face with God’s Son and hearing the message of something greater than Jonah.

Jesus then made reference to another Old Testament event:

The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.24

In the Old Testament book of 1 Kings, chapter 10, we read that when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions.25 And Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her.26 A gentile queen from southern Arabia made the arduous journey to verify Solomon’s reputation for wisdom, and found that what she had heard about him was abundantly true. She concluded by saying, “The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard.”27

The ancient Ninevites and the Queen of the South, all gentiles, listened and responded to God’s message. At the time of final judgment, the faith and obedience of Jonah and those who believed him, as well as the Queen of the South, will condemn the generation of Jesus’ day who spurned, despised, and crucified Him. The Ninevites received God’s message when Jonah delivered it; they took it to heart, and acted on it by repenting of their sins. Solomon was the bearer of God’s wisdom, and the Queen of the South valued that wisdom to the extent that she traveled a great distance to hear it. Yet the “adulterous generation” of the unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day scorned God’s messenger and the wisdom of His message. One that was greater than the prophet Jonah and greater than the richest, wisest, and most powerful of Israel’s kings—King Solomon—was in their presence, yet they refused to believe in Him.

Jonah and Solomon symbolize two of the main authorities through whom God’s message was communicated to His people in the Old Testament—the prophet and the king/wise man. The third authority was the temple (which included the priesthood).28 Earlier in this chapter, Jesus said, I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.29 In responding to the unbelieving scribes and Pharisees as He did, Jesus made the point that something greater than the foundational aspects of Judaism—the temple, priesthood, prophet, king, and wise man—was present in Him.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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1 Matthew 16:1.

2 Exodus 4:1–5.

3 Exodus 4:6–7.

4 Exodus 7:14–12:32.

5 Judges 6:36–40.

6 1 Kings 18:36–39.

7 Matthew 9:6–7.

8 Matthew 11:4–6.

9 Matthew 12:39.

10 Matthew 4:5–7.

11 Deuteronomy 32:5.

12 Matthew 12:39–40.

13 Matthew 12:10–13.

14 Matthew 12:22.

15 Jonah 1:17.

16 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 325–26.

17 Jonah 1:2.

18 Jonah 1:17.

19 Jonah 2:9–10.

20 Jonah 3:4.

21 Jonah 3:7–8.

22 Jonah 3:10.

23 Matthew 12:41.

24 Matthew 12:42.

25 1 Kings 10:1.

26 1 Kings 10:3.

27 1 Kings 10:6–7.

28 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 493.

29 Matthew 12:6.