Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


Holy Week Part IX: Sign of Jonah Fulfilled?

April 2nd, 2018, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Christ is Risen!  He is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!

There were many prophecies in the Bible, over thousands of years, about the Messiah — all fulfilled by Christ! We say in each Nicene Creed at Mass: “He rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures.” Those Scriptures include not only the Old Testament, but also Christ’s own words in the New Testament. Today, we look at just one of those New Testament prophecies, one which binds itself to the Old Testament, and in which it is easy to miss much of interest, promise and fulfillment.

In Matthew, Chapter 12, Christ answers the Scribes and Pharisees who want to see more evidence. The Lord has just performed a series of healings and the people (not the ‘authorities’) rightly ask in verse 23: “Can this be the son of David?” (i.e. the Messiah?) The Pharisees, however, respond to the people with the accusation that Christ’s works are done through evil powers, leading to Christ’s ominous statement in verse 32 that “…whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven….”

Then, the Scribes and Pharisees take a different tack; in verse 38 they want the Lord to “perform” for them: “… Teacher, we wish to see a sign from You.” He answered them, “… an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

We can almost miss that the amazing story of Jonah is being validated by Christ’s speaking of it, and NOT as a myth or ancient legend.  He does not stop with the analogy. Rather, He goes on in verse 41 to assert: “The men of Nineveh will arise 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.” These words alone are outstanding prophecy, and outstanding confirmation regarding which the “smart” people of future generations would try to disclaim as myth, because they are just “too smart” to take Christ at His Word.

Detail of Face of Jonah on the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michaelangelo

Detail of Face of Jonah on
the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
by Michelangelo

Jonah lived, he was swallowed by a whale, and vomited out on a seashore, to do great work for the salvation of souls in the land of his people’s enemy: Assyria! The Scribes and Pharisees asked for a sign and the Lord has thrown in their faces a great sign God already gave, and which one suspects the Scribes and Pharisees themselves do not believe!  (As an aside for the moment, when we begin to hear preachers deny the story of Jonah, because with all their seminary training they are just too smart to believe a “whale of a story,” remember Chapter 12 of Matthew, and Christ’s own testimony to the truth … a sign given and disbelieved. But it is a sign too for us in the pews… time to walk out the door when any preacher demonstrates his lack of belief.)

Fulfilling the Sign of Jonah

So Christ prophesies that the Son of man (He, Himself) will fulfill the sign of Jonah. We look at the detail of how He did so, with amazement and worship. We don’t even have to guess or interpret in order to read the sign. It is the sign of Resurrection. A final piece of the puzzle was put into place for me this past year when I heard a gifted preacher say that Jonah was dead on the seashore, and ‘resurrected.’ Resurrection is the “Sign,” not just being some place unsavory for three days and three nights (more on that below!) My first response to hearing that preaching was “No, Jonah wasn’t dead; maybe just unconscious?”

But then the preacher started assembling the clues and, as I researched later, more came to light. If one reads Chapter 2 of Jonah , we see very similar words of death which are echoed later in the writings of Hezekiah, the King of Judah, recounted in Isaiah the Prophet, Chapter 38, a reading often repeated in the Liturgy of the Hours:

Jonah, Prophet; 800-753 BC): “… out of the belly of Sheol I cried …. Then I said: ‘I am cast out from Thy Presence;  how shall I again look upon Thy Holy Temple’? …I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet Thou didst bring up my life from the pit.”

Hezekia, King of Judah; 715-686BC): “I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years…. I said I shall not see the Lord in the land of the living; … but thou hast held back my life  from the pit of destruction, … For Sheol cannot thank thee, death cannot praise thee,  those who go down to the pit cannot hope for thy faithfulness.” 

At the end of Jonah, Chapter 2, the Lord speaks to the ‘fish’ and Jonah is vomited out upon the dry land. At the beginning of Chapter 3, we have further evidence that Jonah’s is a “Resurrection” experience, we have the words which most translations (including the Hebrew interlinear) support: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying “Arise, go to Niveveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went ….” The words “Arise” and that Jonah “arose” are consistent with the idea of being dead and coming back to life, paralleling in the English translation at least, Christ’s bringing the little girl back to life in Mark 5:41 “Little girl, I say to thee, arise.” What is bothersome to me is that the NAB (New American Bible used in the lectionary for Mass in the U.S.) drops both words in the opening two verses of Jonah, Chapter 3. I have no idea why the NAB, carried on the USCCB site, deletes both those words: The NAB states: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time:  ‘Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you.’  So Jonah set out for  Nineveh, in accord with the word of the Lord ….”  ‘Arise’ and ‘arose’ are both missing in the NAB translation.

Two other abuses of Christ’s Actual Words?

The reason for clarifying this matter is to illustrate that the “Sign of Jonah” is a Resurrection experience. If one doesn’t believe the story of Jonah, that person then misses the “Sign” and the fullest understanding of Christ’s own prophecy. Now there are two other issues (or even, one might say, abuses) of Christ’s prophetic words that casually change His Prophecy. We note first that Christ did not say that the sign would be that the Son of man would be “three days in a tomb.” No, the Greek clearly states “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”   I have frankly heard preaching and teaching which abuse both these points.

Day and Night definitions

Without knowing more about the division of day and night in the historic context of the time in which Christ spoke, we might add up His time in the tomb and say: “That’s only three days and two nights.” (Note: even a part of a day or night counts; He need not have been in the tomb ALL day or ALL night to qualify as a day or night.) But, still, where is the third night?  First, we need to understand how day and night are reckoned, based not only on the time in which Christ spoke, but also today, and it is not the “midnight to midnight” to which we are accustomed.

It is very important in Jewish tradition to know when it is “day” and when it is “night.” There are things which should only be done in the day, and things which should only  be done in the night. For example, remember the words in the Gospel of John when the Jews asked Pilate to accelerate the deaths of those crucified “… in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath….” (John 19:31)Thus, the two thieves’ legs were broken, but Christ was already dead, as proved by the spear opening His Heart. His bones were unbroken also in fulfillment of a prophecy, and in His being the Passover Lamb whose bones were not allowed to be broken. His Body had to be buried before the Sabbath started; thus, one needed to know when the Sabbath started.

Another example of the importance of knowing day from night is knowing when night ends, as morning prayer should be said in the “day;” so, it is essential to know when “day” begins. There seems to be rabbinical agreement that “day” is clearly “day” when one can recognize a person or particular colors at a certain distance away. There also seems to be some agreement that the transition from night to the first stages of day begins about 72 minutes before sunrise, a very biblical number, and lasts about the same amount of time after sunset, although one doesn’t “push” the deadlines too much, especially involving acts of a religious nature.

We do not know at what time Christ rose from the dead but we have some clues. We know from Mark 16:2 that when the women began walking toward the tomb it was “very early.”  In John’s Gospel, the words are: “… while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb….” (John 20:1).  There is a period before sunrise, and after sunset (which are precise times) when it is still considered “day” because of the light in the sky, i.e. the dawn and the twilight.  Here is a fascinating interactive chart on what comprises the stages of “day” for recent times:


One can hover with the cursor for more information on the blue shades on the website.

What does seem clear from the biblical text is that Christ must have risen in the “dawn,” between night and sunrise, when it is considered “day.”  (The distance from the upper room to the tomb would not have taken 72 minutes to walk!) Mary Magdalene likely began to walk as close to “night” as she could, to get to the tomb as early as possible! Christ was already risen. Studying this chart of day and night helps us to recognize that “three days” in the heart of the earth would include the late hours of Friday afternoon when burying the Lord before dark, all day Saturday, and the very early hours of Sunday, even before sunrise but still defined as ‘day.’

The “three nights” is trickier, and I’ve heard some preachers and teachers try to explain it away as a generalization to just “Friday, Saturday and Sunday.” But that is the name of the 24 hour period, which period includes night as well as day. Christ was more specific and accurate than He is acknowledged to be. He said three days AND three nights. Yes, two of the “nights” are clear: from shortly after His burial, beginning when twilight gave way to Friday night, and on Saturday from just after twilight until dawn on Sunday morning. But, some ask, where is the third night in the tomb? I believe the answer is that there isn’t any “third night in the tomb” and Christ did not say “in the tomb.” He had said “in the heart of the earth.” (This illustrates why it is so wrong to make up new translations for the sake of a copyright!) Christ said “heart of the earth.” It keeps us from understanding the true accuracy of His Holy Words.

I am told by friends who have visited the area of the High Priest’s house in Jerusalem that there were underground prisons into which prisoners were dropped or lowered, used as jail holding cells. The third “night” mentioned by Christ is fulfilled by imprisonment in the “heart of the earth” being in the first night after His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. If we look closely at how prisoners were held, those ‘hell-holes’ of imprisonment were so awful, that just putting someone into such a place was greatly intimidating. And that imprisonment occurred in the night, until His trial began, which we know began before dawn as the cock had not yet crowed. There must have been fear that the miracle worker would escape, so He was held with the greatest rigor His accusers could muster!

The Importance of Respecting Scriptural Quotes
Although some might interpret “in the heart of the earth” to mean the tomb, and even misquote the passage that way, changing biblical language is an offense, because it leads to just such errors and misunderstandings. It is like changing the “I AM” in John’s Gospel regarding the arrest in Gethsemane (from the Good Friday reading) to “I am he” for the sake of English form. The soldiers didn’t drop to the ground over good grammar, but rather over the NAME of God.  The NAB stands out as being faithful to those words, while many other translations don’t. Regarding the Jonah Prophecy:
 Christ said it,
He did it, and
He doesn’t need to be explained away.
This is the end of the Holy Week 9 day reflection.

3 Responses to “Holy Week Part IX: Sign of Jonah Fulfilled?”

  1. avatar Mary-Kathleen says:

    Thank you, Diane, for all of this information and reflection. Much appreciated!

  2. avatar JLo says:

    Yes, thank you…. but me thinks Ms. Harris needs her own blog.

  3. avatar Diane Harris says:

    Thank you both for your thank you’s. I would be pleased to cede cyberspace here to others’ posts, provided they are consistent with Catholic Teaching and not violating copyrights. Just email to me through the staff contact button. Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to encourage those who are already CF “authors” to post. A number of priests have told me, for example, how they read and revisit Bernie’s posts on Church Architecture, as a resource. They say: “Bring Back Bernie!” I concur! BTW– his personal artwork is on display at the Starry Nites Cafe in downtown Rochester during April.

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