What is the Sign of Jonah?

In the Gospel for Wednesday (Wednesday of the First Week of Lent) the Lord says, This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah (Lk 11:30). What is the sign of Jonah? Does it apply today?

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke present two signs of Jonah, one of which particularly concerns us here.

  • First Sign: In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus invokes Jonah in a twofold way: For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matt 12:40). In this image, Jonah’s descent into the belly of the whale is a sign of the Lord’s descent to Sheol. For the sake of brevity, I would like to set aside this first sign and go on to discuss the second sign of Jonah. (Matthew’s Gospel sets this second sign forth in essentially the same way as does the Lucan version.)
  • Second Sign: In the Lucan version, read at today’s Mass, the mention of the whale is omitted and only this second sign is declared: This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. At the judgment the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation and she will condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here. At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here (Luke 11:29-32).

But what exactly is this (second) sign of Jonah? On one level, the text seems to spell it out rather clearly. Jonah had gone to the Ninevites with this message: Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed (Jonah 3:3). In response, the Ninevites (led by their King) repented, fasted, and prayed. Seeing their actions, God relented and did not destroy them. So on one level the sign of Jonah is the message “Repent or die.” Just as the Ninevites heard Jonah’s warning, put faith in it, and were spared, so the people of Jesus’ time should put faith in His warning to repent and believe the Good News. If they do not, they will meet with great disaster.

What would cause this disaster? The description of the sign of Jonah taps into the historical context of Jonah’s ministry, but applied to the people of Jesus’ time it has a polemical tone. Let’s consider why.

  1. When Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, he resisted. He must have thought that it was a no-win situation for him: either they would rebuff his prophecy (and likely kill him) or they would heed his message and grow stronger. (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the mortal enemy of Israel, and Jonah had no interest in seeing them strengthened.)
  2. When Jonah made his announcement of imminent destruction, Assyria did repent, and in their strength they would become a rod in God’s hand to punish Israel. Isaiah the Prophet had well described Israel’s crimes and said that punishment would surely come upon her from Assyria. God would use Assyria to humble and punish His people, Israel. Here is a key passage in which Assyria is described in this way: … Assyria, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath! I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me, to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets (Isaiah 10:5-6).

Here, then, is a deeper meaning of the sign of Jonah: if Israel will not repent, then God will take their power and strength and give it to a foreign land that knows Him not. These foreigners will shame and humiliate Israel, inflicting God’s punishment on them.

This is humiliating to Israel on two levels. First, a pagan country would repent while God’s own people would not. Second, they are conquered by a foreign and unbelieving people. The destruction by Assyria was a devastating blow to the Northern Kingdom of Israel and resulted in the loss of the ten tribes living there. They became the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.” Only Judah and the Levites were left in the South as a remnant.

Let’s apply this understanding of the sign of Jonah, first to Jesus’ time and then to our own.

  1. In Jesus’ time the sign of Jonah meant that if Israel would not repent and accept the Gospel, God would take it from them and give it to the Gentiles. Jesus says elsewhere to his fellow Jews, Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit (Matt 21:43). Just as ancient Israel’s refusal to repent led to its destruction by the Assyrians, so Israel’s refusal to repent in Jesus’ time would mean destruction by the Romans (in 70 A.D.). This was prophesied by Jesus in the Mount Olivet discourse (Matthew 24:1-25:46, Mark 13:1-37, and Luke 21:5-36). According to Josephus, more than a million Jews were lost in this horrible war.
  2. In our time, I suggest that the sign of Jonah may be active. I know that this may be controversial, but it seems to me that many Christians and Catholics in the decadent West have stopped loving life. Birth rates have dropped dramatically and are well below replacement level. We are on our way to aborting and contracepting ourselves right out of existence. God has loosed judgment on us in the form of the sign of Jonah. He seems to be saying this to us: “Fine, if you do not love life and are not zealous for the faith I have given you, then disaster is upon you. Others still do appreciate larger families and are zealous for their faith. And even if they (like the Assyrians of old) are not my people as you are, I will use them to humble and punish you. They will grow and increase while you decrease. Perhaps when you are punished by a people who do not respect your religious liberty, you who remain will repent and begin to love life.”

In the European Union today, the birth rate is about 1.6 children per woman. Globally, Muslim women average 3.1 children. Do the math and realize that Europe as we have known it is coming to an end. In the United States the birth rate is higher, but still only about 1.9 children per woman. In general, the Catholic world in the West is in decline, both in terms of our birth rates and our zeal for the faith. We are surely being diminished by our culture of death and decadent sloth. Is it the sign of Jonah? You decide.

An interesting footnote: Isis Destroyed the Tomb of Jonah in 2014

9 Replies to “What is the Sign of Jonah?”

  1. So now we know what it’s like to have “A Day Without Women”.

  2. The Sign of Jonah goes deeper than a warning about the temporal punishments of sin (lower birth rates in the West, Assyria conquering Israel, etc.).

    Temporal punishment and indulgences are both graces of Mercy. How indulgences remit punishment – for example, helping a smoker end his addiction to smoking – I don’t know as well as indulgence remitting one’s stay in Purgatory, but I do know the Lord Who purifies us of our sin on Earth permits a final purification in Purgatory after death.

    I also know that graces are for our salvation, and that one of the best graces is the Paschal Mystery. That’s what the Sign of Jonah is ultimately about.

    The Sign of Jonah was that Saint Jonah was eaten, died, left three days and nights in the belly of a fish, then was spat back out and resurrected. Whether or not he was digested in the belly is up to speculation.

    Jesus is calling Himself the Sign of Jonah, the New Jonah whom Jonah typified, for the same reason why He calls His Body the New Temple, which the Temple typified: He will die, be dead for three days and nights, then resurrect (“destroy this Temple, and in three days, rebuild it”).

    The Word Incarnate Who worked many signs or miracles is not telling His fellow Jews that they are evil for believing in Him because of the miracles He works; rather, He’s telling them not to rely on miracles out of curiosity or vainglory, nor to live by sin, but to rely on and live by the Word.

    The Selfsame New Jonah and Temple, said Word Incarnate, is reminding His People of what He said in His Word and is interpreting, fulfilling, and illuminating said Word: the Messiah will universalize Israel by bringing in the righteous people of every nation, purify the Priesthood of sin and evil gentile practices, dethrone the proud by giving the Kingdom to the poor in spirit, and rid Israel of sin by redeeming her and the whole world – even ordaining some gentiles.

    He reminds, interprets, fulfills and illuminates further: Jews must live by the Word and rely on it, for Christ’s bread is God’s Word and Will, since Jews must imitate the Messiah, who will be a perfect Jew, the messiah par excellence, and the greatest prophet and high priest. (Although I doubt anyone would have expected God to be the Messiah)

    In short, the Sign of Jonah is about Jesus’ Paschal Mystery and our share in it via Baptism and baptismal innocence. It is not just about temporal punishment of sin, but also a warning against sin, since the state of Original Sin and the act of mortal sin make us not share in Christ’s Life.

    Lastly, Christ warns against elitism: the belief that non-Catholics are damned and the belief that Catholics are superior to non-Catholics. This the Lord condemned when He told the Jews – who believed gentiles are damned and Jews are superior to gentiles – that the Kingdom was going to be given to the gentiles. Indeed, He preached the Gospel to the righteous dead of every nation, and He ordained Saint Paul – who once persecuted Him – as Apostle to the Gentiles, and He baptized us gentiles.

    1. “Christ warns against elitism: the belief that non-Catholics are damned and the belief that Catholics are superior to non-Catholics.”

      Sorry, for your misunderstand of the Catholic Faith. We believe that we have to do what Christ commanded while non-Catholics do not believe this:

      “Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. [55] He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day.” – John 6:54-55


        1. Our Lord’s mission to us: “Go therefore, to all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” —-even though Pope Francis says we mustn’t proselytise. You can only receive the Eucharist after Baptism.

  3. I have been trying to tell many people that we are being handed over to our enemies for turning our back on God the same way the ancient Israelis have done.People do not realize the growth and spread of Islam is happening for a reason.We have turned away from our Christian roots and faith with abortion,same sex marriage,contraception,pornography,alcohol and drug abuse,disgusting entertainment..we work on Sundays and worship celebrities and athletes..adults don’t want to grow up..they don’t want children or families..careers have become more important as has money..and so you see the Muslims filling the void..they have large families and a deep faith in their religion..

  4. Matthew 16
    15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
    16 Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
    17 Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood* has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
    18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,* and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
    19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.* Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

    Other translations Bar Jonah

    I think Peter as Head of Christs Church is the Sign Jesus Left us.

    1. I have come to view this as also being proof of the special grace of infallibility in matters of faith and morals that is given to the Pope. Our Lord makes Peter the first Pope and shows him the gift that will help him fulfill that duty.

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