Luke 11: The Sign of Jonah

When Mike sent out the list of topics for preaching, I was a bit slow to reply.
I looked at the options.
Jesus feeding 5000 men?  Taken!
The Good Samaritan.  A lovely story – already gone!
The Lord’s Prayer?  Oh no – Andrew stole it last week!
So what was I left with?  The passage no one wanted.
The Sign of Jonah.

But never mind, I forgive you guys who took the easy topics.
As I studied, I got excited.
I found a big picture of God’s vision and Jesus’ mission.

Last week we saw Jesus teach his followers about prayer.
Then he meets a man who cannot talk.
Jesus heals the man and he starts to speak.
The crowds are amazed,
Some of them want to see another miracle. [1]
That was fun.  Do another trick Jesus!

Others, trying to test Jesus, demanded that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven. (11:16)

Did Jesus give them what they asked?
Let’s see in Luke 11:29-32    page 793

29 As the crowd pressed in on Jesus, he said, “This evil generation keeps asking me to show them a miraculous sign. But the only sign I will give them is the sign of Jonah.30 What happened to him was a sign to the people of Nineveh that God had sent him. What happens to the Son of Man [=Jesus] will be a sign to these people that he was sent by God.

31 “The queen of Sheba will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for she came from a distant land to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Now someone greater than Solomon is here—but you refuse to listen. 32 The people of Nineveh will also stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent.

A short passage with some big ideas.

First, Judgement Day.
The Bible often talks about a day when God will come like a judge in court.
He will lift up and reward what is beautiful and good and true.
But what is ugly and bad and wrong, he will condemn.
Like when a judge says,
“This man is guilty.  Take him away.”
The day of judgement.

Then the Queen of Sheba, Solomon, Nineveh, Jonah.
Who are these people?
They come from the Old Testament.
To set the scene, first we will meet Abraham.

Around 2000 years before Jesus,
God made him a wonderful promise:

“I will make you into a great nation.  I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others… All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2)

Abraham was the father of Israel, so God’s saying,
I will bless the people of Israel, and I will bless all nations through them.
The rest of the Bible is the story of how God works this out.

Solomon and the Queen

Around 1000 years after Abraham, we meet the first person from our passage.
A king of Israel called Solomon.
God gave him great wisdom to rule the people well (1 Kings 3:9-28).
A deep understanding of life.
An ability to tell right from wrong.
Solomon was famous.
People came from all over the world to hear his wisdom.   (1 Kings 10:24)
He wrote a book of wise sayings called Proverbs in the Bible.
King Solomon was the Confucius of Israel.

There was a country called Sheba far to the south.
They had a rich queen.
She had many questions about life.
She heard about Solomon’s wisdom – maybe he could help. (1 Kings 10:1-13) [2]

She got her camels ready.
She loaded them up with spices and gold and jewels to take as gifts.
And she started to ride through the desert.
Something like 2000 km.
I read camels can only walk around 30-50 km per day.
So it probably took her one or two months.
Imagine that.
Every day riding across the desert in the sun.
So hot and dry.
The wind blew sand into her face.
She must have really wanted answers.
When she arrived in Jerusalem, she wasn’t disappointed.
Solomon explained everything she asked.

And now Jesus says to the crowds,
Who just want magic tricks:

On the day of judgement, the Queen of Sheba will stand up.
She will say,
I was so hungry for God’s wisdom I travelled months through the desert.
Every day there was sand in my food.
Someone greater than Solomon came to you, with deeper wisdom: Jesus.
So why didn’t you listen to him?

What about you and me today?
Do we hunger and thirst for wisdom?
We don’t have to travel months across the desert.
We have Jesus’ teaching here in the Bible – do we read it?
Or would the Queen of Sheba condemn us too?

When the Queen visited Solomon from so far away,
We see God’s promise to Abraham in action.
Through Israel, God’s wisdom is blessing the nations.

It was good, but it didn’t last.
The people of Israel turned away from God.
The world went more and more wrong.

Jonah and Nineveh

A few hundred years after Solomon,
Far to the north-east lived the Assyrians.

They had a strong army and attacked all the countries around.
When they captured a city do you know what they did?
They cut off people’s heads and piled them up.
Everyone was afraid.
Would you like those guys to be your neighbours?

The capital city of Assyria was Nineveh.
Here’s what God says about it in the Bible:

What sorrow awaits Nineveh,
the city of murder and lies!
She is crammed with wealth
and is never without victims…
Where can anyone be found
who has not suffered from your continual cruelty?  (Nahum 3:1, 19)

One day God told a Jewish man called Jonah to go to Nineveh
To tell them God was angry with their violence.
God condemned their cruelty.
God’s judgement on them was coming.

Jonah had some trouble with his GPS – his God positioning system.
He took a wrong turn at first.
But at last he reached Nineveh.
A huge city.  High strong walls.

On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!”  (Jonah 3:4)

What happened?
Did the people laugh at Jonah, or chase him away, or kill him?
That’s mostly what happens to prophets, God’s messengers, in the Bible.

No, they believed his message.
The king ordered,

“People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence.”  (Jonah 3:8)

From the king on his throne to a poor man on the street,
even the cows and sheep,
the people of Nineveh repented.

That means they were sorry and they stopped doing wrong.
They turned their lives around.
They cried out to God,
Please have mercy, forgive us, don’t punish us.

God is a God of goodness and grace.
He loves to show mercy and forgive.
So the city was saved. [3]

Once again, God’s promise to Abraham,
blessing a nation outside Israel.

And Jesus says to the crowd,
You have harder hearts than the Assyrians.

On the day of judgement, the people of Nineveh will stand up.
They will say,
We repented of our violence when Jonah brought God’s warning.
Someone much greater than Jonah came to you.
Jesus called you to repent.  Why did you refuse?

What about you and me?
If we are open to God, there will be times when we hear him saying,
This part of your life needs to change.
Or what you did there was not good.

How will we respond?
Like Nineveh or the crowd in Luke?
Will we pray, “Lord, I’m sorry.  Forgive me.  Help me to change.”
Or will we harden our hearts, block our ears, and say to God, “Go away!”

The queen of Sheba, the people of Nineveh.
Two examples of God’s promise to Abraham.
God’s wisdom and God’s word going beyond the borders of Israel.

Jesus and the Gentiles

When we comes the New Testament.
When we meet Jesus, we find the same theme.
Look at his first sermon in Luke. [4]
Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see (Luke 4:18)

The people are very happy – that sounds good.
Freedom and healing and blessing for them.[5]
Then Jesus continues,

There were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time…  Yet Elijah was sent instead to a foreigner—a widow in the land of Sidon. And many in Israel had leprosy in the time of the prophet Elisha, but the only one healed was Naaman, a Syrian.  (4:25-27).

Elijah and Elisha were Jewish prophets.
God used them to work miracles for people outside Israel: from Sidon and Syria.
It’s God’s promise to Abraham again.
Were Jesus’ listeners happy now?

They were mad.
They dragged Jesus to the top of a cliff and tried to push him off. (4:28-29)
They wanted to kill him.

Bless us God, yes!
Bless others, outsiders, even more?  No way!
They were like spoiled children who don’t want to share their toys.

As I read through Luke, I realised how much Jesus talks like this.
How often he praises foreigners or outsiders. [6]

Jesus says about a Roman soldier:

“I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”  (7:9)

Jesus tells a story where Jewish leaders look bad.
The hero is a man of mixed race and religion: The Good Samaritan. (10:30-37) [7]

And here he praises the foreign Queen of Sheba and Nineveh.
Jesus spends so much time with foreigners and “sinners” and social outsiders
That his enemies ask,

“Why do you eat and drink with such scum?”  (5:30)

Because Jesus was committed to God’s promise to Abraham.
God’s blessing for every person, everywhere.
We come from China and Japan, Brazil and New Zealand.
That is very good news for us.

It’s also a warning and a challenge.
God doesn’t bless us just to have a happy time in church.
He wants us to pass that blessing on.

The people in Jesus’ day had a lot of knowledge about God.
They had a lot of blessing from God.
But, said Jesus, they were less open to God than violent Nineveh or the foreign queen.
I bet they were shocked.

It makes me wonder, do we ever behave like that crowd?
What would Jesus say to Christians today?
Will Mahatma Gandhi condemn us because he followed Jesus’ teaching more than we do?
Will Muslims condemn us because they are more faithful in prayer?

The Sign of Jonah

And so we come to the big question:
What is the Sign of Jonah?
What does it mean?
Don’t you think it sounds mysterious?
Even the experts disagree!

First, it’s the message Jonah brought to Nineveh.
God hates what is wrong.
He will judge and condemn and destroy it.

Some of us might think we’re pretty good.
We don’t kill our neighbours and cut off their heads.

The crowd in Luke were good people too.
They kept God’s law more than most of us do.

But you know what Jesus said?
Assyrians or Israelites, Kiwis or Koreans,
In big ways or little ways
All of us at times have chosen to be selfish.
We have not loved God and each other as much as we could.
We all need to say sorry.
We all need to repent. (13:1-5)

The Sign of Jonah is a sign of God’s judgement on what is wrong in our lives.
Secondly, it’s a sign of hope.
It’s God’s mercy when he forgives Nineveh.
It’s God blessing for anyone who turns to him.

Some people think they’re not good enough to follow Jesus.
Maybe they have done bad things and are full of shame.
If that’s you, may I ask you a difficult personal question:
Have you chopped off anyone’s head today?
If God can forgive the Assyrians who did things like that,
He can certainly forgive you too!

The sign of Jonah is a sign of God’s mercy and love, no matter who we are or what we have done.
Look at what Jonah said about God and be encouraged:

“You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.”  (Jonah 4:2)

What is the Sign of Jonah?
A sign of God’s judgement, a sign of God’s mercy,
and there’s something else.

A third meaning that connects the first two meanings.
How do we get from judgement to mercy?
From condemnation to compassion?
From our failure to God’s forgiveness?

Luke doesn’t tell us, but Matthew adds an extra verse:

For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.  (Matthew 12:40)

Who was waiting for the whale?

If you don’t know the story,
Here’s what happened:
God told Jonah: “Go to Nineveh!”
Jonah got out his GPS: Nineveh – where’s that?  To the east.
He got on a ship going west.
There was a big storm, the ship was going to sink.
The sailors realised God was angry at Jonah for running away.
So they threw him overboard and the sea became still.
Did Jonah sink and die?
Glub glub glub glub glub.
God sent a big fish to swallow him.
For three days Jonah was in its stomach, and then the fish spat him out on the beach.[8]

This was a sign of what happened to Jesus:
In the grave for three days then brought back to life.

How do we get from judgement to mercy?
From a life destroyed by disobedience to a bright new creation?
Through the Sign of Jonah:
Jesus’ death and resurrection. [9]

Conclusion: Blessing out of the Box

There are people who want to keep God’s blessing in a box that belongs to them,
And keep “bad” people out.
Sadly, some Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day were like that.
Sadly, some Christians are too.

Jesus kept on saying that boxes are bad and God’s blessing is for everyone.
He praised people who were not Jews.
He ate with people who were not respectable.
He told religious leaders to repent.

They couldn’t stand his words, and nailed him to a cross.

And there came a miraculous sign. [10]
In the centre of the temple was a room like a box.
They believed it held the presence of God.
What was the sign when Jesus died?

The curtain in that temple room was torn from top to bottom.  (23:45)

The box was broken open and God’s blessing poured out.

The crowd asked for a sign.
They got the Sign of Jonah.
Three days later, God raised Jesus back to life.

The Queen of Sheba travelled months through the desert to hear King Solomon’s wisdom.
Are we that hungry to hear God’s Word?

Nineveh repented quickly, completely,
When Jonah brought God’s warning.
Are we that ready to obey?

There is someone greater than Solomon, greater than Jonah.
How will you respond to him?

The Queen of the South, Nineveh in the East.
In the future, Jesus said,

People will come from all over the world—from east and west, north and south—to take their places in the Kingdom of God.  (Luke 13:29)

That’s the promise to Abraham and it’s starting to happen: look around you here in Global!

We saw Jesus’ first sermon.
Let’s end with his last teaching in Luke.
It’s the same promise again.

Jesus told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.”  (24:46-47) [11]

Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Our repentance and God’s forgiveness.
Blessing to all the world.
That’s God’s vision.
That’s our mission.
That’s the Sign of Jonah!

Now we have some hard questions, so I hope you’re as wise as Solomon!


How can we find wisdom? (the Queen of Sheba)
What does it mean to repent? (the people of Nineveh)
Can you see a connection between wisdom and repentance?

What does the “Sign of Jonah” mean?

What have you learnt about Jesus today,
and how could you respond?

[1] The word for “test” is the same as in Luke 4 when Jesus is tempted/tested by the devil.
[2] There are many myths and legends about the Queen’s visit to Solomon.  For example, see Wikipedia, bbc history, a freemason’s blog.
[3] In a way, Jonah is the most disobedient prophet in the Bible.  Then he is the most successful: complete response to his message!  Then he’s the most grumpy, when God forgives Nineveh.
[4] When Jesus was a baby, an old man Simeon prayed when he saw Jesus: “I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people.  He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!” (Luke 2:30-32)
[5] Everyone spoke well of him and was amazed by the gracious words that came from his lips. (4:22)
[6] Two of the most sinful pagan cities in the Old Testament were Tyre and Sidon. Two of the towns were Jesus preached were Korazin and Bethsaida.  And what did he say:  “What sorrow awaits you, Korazin and Bethsaida! For if the miracles I did in you had been done in wicked Tyre and Sidon, their people would have repented of their sins long ago, clothing themselves in sackcloth and throwing ashes on their heads to show their remorse. Yes, Tyre and Sidon will be better off on judgment day than you.”  (Luke 10:13-14)
[7] Later Jesus heals 10 lepers and only one returned to thank him: a Samaritan. (Luke 17:11-19)
[8] Matthew’s word for “belly” can also mean womb, suggesting the idea of rebirth.
[9] In John 2:18-19 we read: The Jewish leaders demanded, “What are you doing? If God gave you authority to do this, show us a miraculous sign to prove it.”  “All right,” Jesus replied. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
[10] And there was a sign in heaven: the sun grew dark as the son died.  “Darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock.  The light from the sun was gone. (23:44-45).
[11] If you want to know more about God’s blessing going out to the ends of the earth, read Luke’s sequel: the book of Acts.  In the last book of the Bible there is a vast crowd from every tribe and language and people and nation worshipping God together (Revelation 5:9, 7:9).