A Typological Reading of Jonah in the Gospel of Matthew

Brian Davidson has written three different reflections on Jonah. He hopes to inspire some “horizontal blogging” in responses to other readings on Jonah. For my response I thought I would write a brief post summarizing an earlier paper I wrote at SBTS on a typological interpretaiton of Jonah in Matthew.

The story of Jonah was one of earliest artistic expressions of early Christianity. Jesus telling the Pharisees that something greater than Jonah is here no doubt sparked the minds of early Christian artists and theologians.

These Jonah sculptures (minus the one in the front right) were found carved in the 3rd century AD depicting the story of Jonah

These Jonah sculptures (minus the one in the front right) were found carved in the 3rd century AD depicting the story of Jonah

But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, 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. 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. - Matthew 12:39–41

The Calming of the Storms

In Matthew’s Gospel he presents a typological interpretation of Jonah. He first hints at a Jesus is greater than Jonah interpretation in the pericope of Jesus calming the stormy seas. There are many similarities in the events of the stories. The stories begin by Jesus and Jonah getting into a boat (Jonah 1:3 “καὶ ἐνέβη εἰς αὐτὸ τοῦ πλεῦσαι”; Matt 8:23 “ἐμβάντι αὐτῷ εἰς τὸ πλοῖον”). Immediately the story says that a great storm was upon them (Jonah 1:4 “καὶ ἐγένετο κλύδων μέγας ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ”; Matt 8:24 “σεισμὸς μέγας ἐγένετο ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ”). This is no ordinary storm but one that is great and mighty. Just as in Jonah, these career seafarers were greatly afraid of this storm due to their fears of it overtaking their ship. Both storms are fierce enough that the thought of death is on each of the crew members’ minds (Jonah 1:5; Matt 8:25 ). Both Jesus and Jonah are fast asleep (Jonah 1:5–6 “καὶ ἐκάθευδεν”; Matt 8:24 “δὲ ἐκάθευδεν”)[1]. The boats are crashing up and down but they are oblivious to the dire situation. The disciples run to Jesus and say, “Lord, save us” (Matt 8:25 “κύριε, σῶσον, ἀπολλύμεθα”). Just as the crewmen run to Jonah and cry, “call out to your god that he may save us and we not perish” (Jonah 1:6 “καὶ μὴ ἀπολώμεθα”). In both instances, the people on the ship wake up the person who in their own unique way can calm the storm. Jesus wakes up with confidence because he knows he is in complete control of this storm. Just as when Jonah is woken up and confronted he knows that he (in a completely different way) is in control of the storm (Jonah 1:12). Jesus, being greater than Jonah, has the power to calm the storm instantly with his voice (Matt 8:26). Jesus speaks and the storm immediately calms and the waters become peaceful once again (Matt 8:26). Jonah knows that the reason the storm is crashing on them is because he is fleeing from Yahweh’s commands. Jonah tells the crew members if they throw him overboard, then the storm will become calm. After throwing Jonah in the sea, the storm ceased immediately and there was complete peace. The response of both the crewmen and the disciples is utter amazement. The disciples are amazed because the wind and the waves obeyed the voice of their Lord (Matt 8:27 “οἱ δὲ ἄνθρωποι ἐθαύμασαν”). The crewmen are amazed and compelled to worship Yahweh, who is not just Jonah’s god any more (Jonah 1:16 “καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν οἱ ἄνδρες φόβῳ μεγάλῳ τὸν κύριον”).

The Judgement of Jonah and Jesus

Another way that Jesus is greater than Jonah is the divine judgement brought on both Jesus and Jonah. The judgement brought on Jonah was because of his disobedience to the commands of God. Jonah is “swallowed up” and compares his situation to Sheol. There are other places throughout the Old Testament that combine these terms to denote judgement on the person. In Number 16:30 it says, “But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you should know that these men have despised the Lord.” The context is when Korah and his family rebel against Moses and Aaron and since they are representatives for Yahweh the punishment is the same as if they are rebelling against Yahweh. In judgment Yahweh opens up the earth and swallows them. In Proverbs 1:12 the combination of judgment, swallow, and Sheol appear again. Solomon is teaching his son not to associate with people who have rejected Yahweh’s commands. These wicked people compare the killing of innocent people with Sheol swallowing people alive. Finally, Psalm 21:9 is another verse where the term “swallow” is associated with judgment. David has written a psalm where he writes the judgment of Yahweh will “swallow them (the wicked who have turned against Yahweh) up in his wrath, and fire will consume them.”

In the belly of the great fish Jonah is under divine judgement and feels that Yahweh has turned his back on him (Jonah 2:4) but at the same time he has hope and realizes that Yahweh also saved him by allowing the waves pass over him. Jonah is feeling both anxiety and despair along with a sense of gratitude to Yahweh for sparing his life.

Just as God judged Jonah, God also judged Jesus as he took on our sins on the cross. Jonah disobeyed Yahweh in his command to go preach the message of repentance to the Gentiles but Jesus obeyed his Father. Jesus was judged and experienced the wrath of God but not for his disobedience but for our disobedience. Just as Jonah “went to Sheol” and experienced God turning his back on him; Jesus went to the cross and experienced an intense separation from God (Matt 27:46).[2]

Typological Significance of Three Days and Deliverance

There is a typological significance of the theme of three days and deliverance throughout the Old Testament.[3] The following is a brief overview of theme of three days in the Old Testament with the ultimate fulfillment being in Jesus.

In Genesis, Abraham goes up the mountain to sacrifice Isaac on the third day (Gen 22:4). Yahweh graciously provides a ram in the place of Isaac and delivers Isaac to safety. After three days the Israelites arrived at Matt Sinai after Yahweh had delivered them from the Egyptians (Exod 19:16). In 1 Samuel, on the third day David delivers his wives after engaging in battle. The King of Israel who was spurning Yahweh’s commands while pursuing to kill David dies in battle. In this way, David is delivered from the threat of death and rightfully takes his place as King of Israel. During all this the new King of Israel is giving gifts to his men (1 Sam 30:1ff). In Hosea, the prophet prophesies that Yahweh has judged Israel but Yahweh will also deliver them. “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up that we may live before him” (Hos 6:2). Finally, in the story of Jonah, Yahweh delivered him after three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. So Jesus is comparing his death and resurrection to that of Jonah. Just as Jonah was delivered from the belly of the fish Jesus will be delivered from the heart of the earth. Jesus being the typological fulfillment of Jonah is greater because he suffered a real physical death and after three days experienced a real physical resurrection.

Jesus is greater than Jonah; Jonah was three days in the belly of a fish for punishment for his rejection of Yahweh but Jesus was three days in the heart of the earth because of our rejection of God. Jonah was released after three days to preach to the Gentiles but Jesus was resurrected and given authority and power to send out his people to preach and disciple the nations (Matt 28:18).

Conclusion

Matthew guides his readers to see that Jesus is greater than the prophet Jonah. He first hints at this in the similarities of the calming of the storms. Then Jonah is swallowed by the great fish and in his prayer he hints that he both being judged by Yahweh yet also delivered by him while experiencing “death”. In the same way Jesus feels the judgement and separation from God and dies a real physical death and then was resurrected.

Do you see any other typological connections to Jonah and Jesus in Matthew? In the other Gospels?


  1. Jonah 1:5 - καὶ ἐκάθευδεν. Matthew 8:24 - αὐτὸς δὲ ἐκάθευδεν. The third singular imperfect active indicative, καθευδω, is only used in the New Testament once, in Matthew 8:24, and in the LXX in a very concentrated use in 2 Kings and once in Jonah 1:5  ↩

  2. In the high priestly prayer, Jesus cries out to his Father “to let this cup pass” (Matt 26:39). The cup metaphor is used in the Old Testament as a picture for suffering and judgment. Previously in Matthew 20:23 the cup Jesus is referring to is his suffering. R.T. France in his commentary on Matthew explains, “Here the context demands that it be understood of suffering rather than of punishment. It is reading too much into it to find in this context (Matt 20:23) the theme of vicarious punishment…when the same metaphor is taken up again in (Matt 26:27–28, 39), that aspect (judgment) will be added.”  ↩

  3. See Harney McArthur, “On The Third Day,” New Testament Studies 18 (1971): 84 for the theme of the third day and deliverance in rabbinic interpretation of the Old Testament  ↩