In the Bible, we learn of a prophet named Jonah that was commanded by God to preach to the people of Nineveh so that they would repent from their evil ways and turn to the Lord (Jon. 1:2). The prophet did not want to obey this command; he knew that God would be gracious and merciful towards Nineveh if they repented (Jon. 4:2). Therefore, he decided to escape to Tarshish in an attempt to run from the presence of God (Jon. 1:3). His efforts, however, were in vain because God sent a violent storm while he was on a ship, and the only way to calm it was by throwing Jonah overboard into the sea (Jon. 1:4-15). God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah up, and he remained in its belly for three days and three nights (Jon. 1:17). During that time, Jonah prayed to the Lord for deliverance. The Lord heard his prayer and spoke to the fish, which then vomited Jonah out on to dry land (Jon 2). He then commanded him a second time to go preach to the people of Nineveh. This time Jonah obeyed and went into the city proclaiming the word of God (Jon 3:1-4). The people believed and repented of their wickedness. When God saw this, he had mercy on them and withheld his punishment (Jon 3:5-10). This account presents various themes, such as repentance, obedience, and the grace and mercy of God. But also noteworthy is how this story points to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the establishment of his church.
There are at least two passages in the Scriptures that show how this story served for Jews as a foretelling of the coming Messiah. In Matthew 12:38-41, Jesus spoke of the account of Jonah as being prophecy. The Pharisees and Scribes at this time were asking for a sign from Jesus as proof that he was truly the Messiah. Even though they had just seen him heal a man and cast out a demon, they demanded more evidence. Jesus called them out on their hypocrisy. They were able to look into the sky and predict the weather, but yet they closed their eyes to the evidence that Jesus was the Christ (Matt. 16:3). He told them that the only sign they would be given is that of the prophet Jonah. (Matt. 12:39-40, 16:4 English Standard Version): “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. Jesus was referring to his death, burial, and resurrection.
We learn that the account of Jonah served as a prophecy also from Psalm 16:10-11. When Jonah was in the belly of the fish, he cried out to the Lord with a prayer that was very similar to the prophetic psalm of David:
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jon. 2:2).
“I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God” (Jon. 2:6).
“For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” (Ps. 16:10).
Both Jonah and David spoke of being cast into Sheol, which according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, refers to Hades – the grave or the abode of the dead. However, God would deliver them from that pit. Jonah was indeed delivered when the Lord made the fish vomit him out onto dry land. Note also that Christ spoke of overcoming death, or Sheol/Hades, when he proclaimed that he would establish his church upon Peter’s confession that he was the Son of God (Matt. 16:16-18):
16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell (NKJV: Hades) shall not prevail against it.
The book of Jonah, the sixteenth psalm of David, and the proclamation made by Jesus in Matthew 16 show that Jesus would die, be buried, and be raised after three days. His resurrection would prove that he was the Messiah and would establish his church. The fulfillment of this prophecy is seen in Matthew 27:57-28:15. Jesus was buried in a tomb, and after three days, God raised him from the dead:
59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away (Matt. 27:59).
1Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said (Matt. 28:1-6).
Peter himself knew that the prophecy had been fulfilled, and thus preached it on the day of Pentecost in the first gospel sermon in which he cited the words of David from Psalm 16:10-11:
25 For David says concerning him, “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. 28 You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence’ (Acts 2:25-28).
David foresaw and spoke forth the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Messiah was not abandoned in Hades, and his soul did not see corruption. He is now sitting at the right hand of God, and his church has been established (Acts. 2:31-33, 47).
As Christians, we must believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and not be like the Sadducees, who denied that there was such thing as a resurrection (Matt. 22:23). If there is no resurrection, then our preaching and faith are in vain, and we are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:12-19). For the alien sinner there is no hope of salvation without the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:11-13). The people of Nineveh were saved from condemnation because they believed the preaching of Jonah and repented. At the judgment, their repentance will condemn the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time because he was much greater than Jonah, but yet they did not believe his preaching (Matt. 12:41). The same will happen to those who do not believe the preaching of the gospel today.
Simply believing, however, will not save you. It is true that the preaching of the gospel produces faith (Rom. 10:17), but it also brings about obedience (Rom. 16:26). Notice in Acts 2:37, after the people heard that they had crucified the Messiah, they were pricked to their hearts. They asked Peter and the other apostles, “What shall we do?” Peter responded, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” What we see here is that you have to be baptized in order for your sins to be forgiven. A type of baptism is observed in Jonah being plunged into the sea: “the waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head” (Jon. 2:5). He was completely submerged in the water and was later pulled out by God. Paul spoke of baptism as a figure of Christ’s burial and resurrection in his letter to the Romans. According to chapter 6, verses 1-11, we emulate in baptism the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The submersion in water marks our death to sin (vv. 6-7), and when we are pulled out, it is our resurrection to newness of life (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 4:23-24; Col. 3:10) by the powerful working of God (2 Cor. 13:4; Col. 2:12; Tit. 3:5). We escape spiritual death; that is, death no longer has dominion over us. And as the church, the gates of Hades cannot prevail against us!