We have seen how the Injil records the teachings, healings and miracles of the Prophet Isa al Masih (PBUH). He often gave invitations to his listeners (and to us) to receive what he offered. He offered ‘living water’, mercy to sinners, finding the ‘lost’, and invited all who were willing to enter the ‘Kingdom of God’.
These teachings perplexed the religious leaders of his day. In particular they wondered what authority he had to speak. For example, did he really have the authority to offer God’s mercy to guilty people, and the authority to pay for entry into the Kingdom of God for all? So the religious leaders (who are like imams today) asked him for a sign to prove his authority. The Injil records their conversation:
Isa refers to the Sign of Jonah (Yunus)
38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For 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. 41 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. (Matthew 12:38-41)
Prophet Yunus in History
Isa al Masih (PBUH) answered by pointing to the prophet Jonah (also called Yunus or Yunis). You can see in the timeline below that the prophet Yunus lived about 800 years before the Prophet Isa al Masih.
Prophet Yunus in Quran
Yunus PBUH wrote a book that is in the Prophetic writings. The Quran summarizes his book like this:
And indeed, Jonah was among the messengers.
when he ran away to the laden ship.
And he drew lots and was among the losers.
Then the fish swallowed him, while he was blameworthy.
And had he not been of those who exalt Allah ,
He would have remained inside its belly until the Day they are resurrected.
But We threw him onto the open shore while he was ill.
And We caused to grow over him a gourd vine.
And We sent him to [his people of] a hundred thousand or more.
And they believed, so We gave them enjoyment [of life] for a time.
(As-Saffat 37: 139-148)
Prophet Yunus was swallowed by a huge fish because he ran away from the mission that Allah had given him – to preach repentance to the city of Ninevah (close to modern-day Mosul in Iraq). Islamic scholar Yusuf Ali says about ayah 144 (‘He would have remained inside its belly until the Day they are resurrected’)
This is just the idiom. This was to be the burial and grave of Jonah. If he had not repented he could not have got out of the body of the creature that had swallowed him, until the Day or Resurrection, when all dead would be raised up. (Footnote 4125 of Yusuf Ali translation of Quran)
In other words, being inside the fish was a death sentence that would normally only be released on the Day of Resurrection.
The Prophet Yunus from his own Book
Jonah’s book in the Old Testament gives greater details about his time in the great fish. He tells us:
17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2 He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.
3 You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers swept over me.
4 I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight;
yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’
5 The engulfing waters threatened me
the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.
6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.
7 “When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.
8 “Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land (Jonah 1:17 – 2:10)
What is the ‘Sign of Jonah’?
Normally we expect that when someone’s authority is challenged, as in the authority of the Prophet Isa al Masih (PBUH), he would respond by showing power, victory or success. But Isa al Masih defends his authority by referring to when the Prophet Jonah had been 3 days ‘in the realm of the dead’ – the ‘pit’ or grave. During this time, since Jonah had disobeyed the command of Allah, he had ‘been banished from your sight’ i.e., from the sight of Allah. The episode of Jonah in the grip of death for 3 days in the black depths, banished from Allah, is a surprising credential of authority from God. Why would Isa al Masih choose a sign that appears to remove authority?
But this is not the first time we come across weakness and death as a Sign of Allah. We saw that the prophet Isaiah had prophesied the Coming Servant. Isaiah prophesied that this Servant would be ‘despised’ and ‘rejected by men’ and would be ‘considered punished by God’ and would be ‘cut off from the land of the living’ and be ‘assigned a grave with the wicked’. That sounds a lot like what Jonah went through. Stranger still, it was ‘the Lord’s will to crush him (the servant)”. Though we may not understand why Isa al Masih (PBUH) chose this Sign of Jonah (Yunus) to defend his authority, this is not an isolated occurence.
The clue that brings understanding is how Jonah ended his prayer in the belly of the fish. The last phrase of his prayer was “Salvation comes from the LORD”. We saw how the name ‘Jesus’ is the same as ‘Joshua’ and that this was the prophecy of the coming Branch. But what does ‘Joshua’ mean? In Hebrew it means ‘The LORD saves’. In his prayer the prophet Jonah acknowledged that he (and we) need to be ‘saved’ and that it is the LORD who does the saving. His double-sided truth declared both our need (to be saved) and God as the one who does the saving. The name of Isa al Masih (Yhowshuwa in Hebrew) literally has this same truth that Jonah in the fish finally acknowledged since the name Jesus/Joshua means ‘The LORD saves’.
The Prophet Isa al Masih concluded his conversation with the religious leaders by reminding them that the people of Ninevah (the city where Yunus had been sent to preach) had believed and repented at Jonah’s message – but the leaders who listened to Isa al Masih were not willing to repent. These leaders were unwilling to acknowledge that they needed saving. We should examine our own hearts to see if we are like the men of Ninevah (who repented) or the leaders (who did not). Which of the two are you?
We continue to follow Isa al Masih to see more completely what this Sign of Jonah means and how ‘The LORD saves’ as Isa al Masih’s mission moves to its end.