In Matthew 12:38, the Pharisees demanded a sign from Jesus, but he refused.
They’d seen and been aware of his previous miracles, so their demand wasn’t from a lack of supply. Their demand stemmed from their opposition against him.
Jesus put the right label on what he was dealing with: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign,” he said (Matt 12:39a). Their particular seeking was wrong because they were evil. They were adulterous because when they opposed Jesus, they opposed the One who sent him, the Father they claimed to worship and honor.
But Jesus gave them a sign anyway–or at least he announced one ahead of time. “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt 12:39).
The Pharisees knew the story of the disobedient prophet who would rather die in the crushing waves of the sea than preach to the Ninevites and risk their repentance. The part of the story in Jesus’ mind was Jonah’s temporary residence in the fish: “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” (Matt 12:40).
Then comes the rebuke: “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” (Matt 12:41).
The shorthand: if the Ninevites repented, then you have no excuse, for the Son of Man who is preaching to you is greater than Jonah who preached to them.
This little passage from Matthew (12:38-41) reminds us of several truths about typology:
- Historical correspondences are present. Jesus refers to Jonah and his preservation inside a huge fish as historical events. Jonah descended, and Jesus will descend as well. The number “three” is common in Jonah’s experience and Jesus’ upcoming resurrection. Jonah preached to people heading for judgment, and so did Jesus.
- Not every detail must match. Jonah didn’t die, though Jesus would. Jonah descended into a fish, Jesus into the grave. Jesus wasn’t dead for the same length of time Jonah was in the fish. The men of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s message, but the Pharisees continue rejecting Jesus.
- Escalation is evident. Comparing himself to the 8th century prophet, Jesus said, “behold, something greater than Jonah is here,” and clearly he meant himself. Interestingly some of the differences in the story highlight the escalation. Jonah went into a fish, Jesus went into a tomb. Jonah was spat out, Jesus was raised up. Jesus was greater.
In Matthew 12:39-41, Jesus himself helps us understand typology by showing us historical correspondences, relieving us of the need to match every detail, and highlighting escalation between type and antitype.