The Sign of Jonah

The “sign of the prophet Jonah” encompasses far more than most people have realized. A careful study of Scripture reveals that the “three days and three nights” the Saviour spent in the “heart of the earth” began in Gethsemane, the night He was betrayed.

kids drawingThe children had been studying the story of Jonah for Bible Class. Mrs. Fredericks asked her second grade class to draw a picture about Jonah. Most of the children drew pictures of Jonah in the water with the fish or being swallowed. A few did a side angle showing Jonah praying inside the fish. When Mrs. Fredericks looked at Jennifer’s picture, though, she had no idea what it was supposed to be. Inside a large rectangle were three beds and three smiling suns above stick figures of a father and little boy holding hands. Most of the rectangle had been filled in with brown crayon. Across the top, was a fringe of green grass. Little roots below the grass had been meticulously drawn in. “Jennifer, you were supposed to draw a picture about Jonah but I don’t see him anywhere in your picture. Did you not understand the assignment?” “No, I did, Mrs. Fredericks! See? This is the sign of Jonah: the son of man is in the ground for three days and three nights. See the little boy? He’s the son. The beds are the three nights. The suns are the days and it’s all in the ground.” While the picture brought a chuckle to her teacher, most Christians aren’t any closer to understanding the “sign of Jonah” than little Jennifer. Different churches teach different interpretations of what the Saviour meant when He prophesied of His death, saying: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will 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 great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:39-40, NKJV) 
Various Theories Abound - Different denominations have come up with different interpretations of the “sign of Jonah.” It is suggested the time period is one of the following:
  1. From the crucifixion Friday morning to the resurrection on Sunday morning.
  2. Wednesday night to Saturday night.
  3. Burial time in the grave only, i.e., Friday night to Sunday morning.
The first problem with every single one of these interpretations is that they are based on a faulty premise: Israelite use of the pagan Julian calendar. The Israelites in the time of Yahushua used the luni-solar calendar of Moses. The Biblical calendar does not align with either the planetary days of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, or the earlier eight-day week of the original Julian calendar. But there are other problems that reveal the incorrectness of these theories.
Crucifixion to resurrection: Many assume the sign of Jonah refers to the time period from the crucifixion until the resurrection. This is incorrect for the Saviour was crucified midmorning, at the time of the morning sacrifice on Abib 14. So while parts of three days are spanned, it accounts for only two nights.
Wednesday night to Saturday night: Other Christians believe that the sign of Jonah required Yahushua to spend a total of 72 hours in the sepulcher. Under this scenario, they teach the crucifixion occurred on Wednesday of the Julian calendar. This belief is also incorrect for it places the resurrection on Saturday night. This is incorrect for two reasons. First, as previously stated, the Julian calendar was not used by the Jews at the time of Yahushua. Secondly, Scripture is clear that the resurrection did not occur the night of Abib 15. Rather, it occurred at dawn on the morning of Abib 16: “In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher.” (Matthew 28:1)The crucifixion occurred in keeping with the great system of types and anti-types established by Yahuwah at the time of the Exodus. Therefore, it could not have occurred any time prior to Abib 14.
Friday night to Saturday night: Others have erred by assuming that only the hours Yahushua spent in the grave qualify as being “in the heart of the earth.”

Lazarus had just risen from death in a tomb after four days and the Pharisees who wanted a sign were very aware of it. Did [Yahushua] mean to repeat this miracle, for fewer days, and offer it as a sign? No, the sign was much more than rising from the dead after three days and nights in a tomb.  The sign was to immerse Himself in our sins, separated from [Yahuwah] as Jonah prophesied, where [Yahuwah] would not hear, pay for our sins with suffering, death and on the third day rise again.1

To understand the sign Yahushua gave, it is necessary to understand the symbolic language He used. As always, Scripture provides the clues to explain its own mysteries. There are three points which, when understood, clearly reveal the meaning of Yahushua’s reference to the “sign of the prophet Jonah”:
  1. Inclusive versus exclusive counting
  2. The meaning of the phrase, “heart of the earth”
  3. When the “three days and three nights” began
Inclusive Counting: Both the Romans and the Israelites of Bible times counted differently than most people today have been taught. For the most part, people today count exclusively. For example, suppose your child comes to you on April 20, after Spring Break. She asks how long it will be until summer vacation. You know that her school lets out for the summer holidays on June 15. Therefore, you tell her that summer vacation starts in two months. You have counted exclusively, counting only the months of May and June. You would not have counted the month of April because that is the month you are in. An Israelite or Roman, on the other hand, always counted inclusively. Had they been asked when summer vacation would occur, their answer would have been three months because they always counted the month in which the count began. Thus, it is unnecessary for the sign of Jonah to encompass a full 72 hours. Furthermore, counting a day as one 24-hour period was a method of counting that did not exist among the Israelites. Nights were divided into watches and the days were divided equally into 12 hours on the sundial. Yahushua Himself asked, “Are there not 12 hours in a day?” (See John 11:9.) Hours in the summer were consequently longer than hours in the winter. With inclusive counting, any portion of a day was counted as one day. Therefore, Abib 16, the day of the Saviour’s resurrection, was the third day in the count even though He was resurrected at the beginning of that day.
Heart of the Earth: Believers have long assumed that the “heart of the earth” refers to being buried. However, this is too limited an explanation. The true “heart of the earth” has a much broader application. Scripture refers to “earth” as the human race or, more specifically the human heart. In Yahushua’s parable of the sower, He explicitly stated that what was sown in the ground was “the word in their hearts.” (See Mark 4:3-20.) Scripture is also clear that the heart of man is wicked and sinful:

“The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

“Then Yahuwah saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)

heart of the earth
The original Greek for heart provides additional confirmation: “kardia…the heart, i.e. (fig.) the thoughts or feelings (mind)….”2 Thus, the heart of the earth refers to far more than a simple physical burial in the earth. It refers to being under the condemnation of sin. Yahushua was sinless. He had to be, or He could not have been our Redeemer. That said, He voluntarily assumed responsibility for our sins. This was the mystery of grace that allowed a just Creator to offer justification and redemption to the repentant sinner. By Yahushua accepting our sins, in which He had no part, He could offer us His righteousness, in which we had no part.

Now all things are of Yahuwah, who has reconciled us to Himself through Yahushua the anointed, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that Yahuwah was in Yahushua reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation…For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of Yah in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19, 21)

The entire fifty-third chapter of Isaiah explains this divine exchange:

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed…
Yahuwah has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

And He was numbered with the transgressors,
And He bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors.
(Isaiah 53:5-6, 12)

When Yahushua became sin for us, He accepted the punishment all who continue to rebel against Heaven must face. That punishment is separation from Yahuwah Himself:

“But your iniquities have separated you from your Elohim;
And your sins have hidden His face from you,
So that He will not hear.”
(Isaiah 59:2)

“If I regard iniquity in my heart,
The Master will not hear.”
(Psalm 66:18)

When did the count begin? The punishment endured by Yahushua was suffering eternal separation from the Creator of All. This suffering culminated in His death when He died of a cardiac rupture, resulting in twin streams of blood and “water.” However, the Redeemer’s suffering did not begin with the first nail to puncture the skin, or the first stripe from a Roman scourge. This is key to understanding the sign of the prophet Jonah. Yahushua’s suffering began when He fell under the divine condemnation for sin in the Garden of Gethsamane.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Christ suffered in man’s stead, and the human nature of the Son of [Yahuwah] staggered under the terrible horror of the guilt of sin, until from His pale and quivering lips was forced the agonizing cry, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me:” but if there is no other way by which the salvation of fallen man may be accomplished, then “not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Human nature would then and there have died under the horror of the sense of sin, had not an angel from heaven strengthened Him to bear the agony.3

Yahushua was the Lamb of Yah that takes away the sins of the world. He was crucified on the Passover (Abib 14) so that the justice of Yahuwah would pass over repentant sinners, just as the Angel of Death passed over the Israelites in Egypt. However, His suffering began in the Garden of Gethsemane, after the Last Supper, on the evening of Abib 13.

The power that inflicted retributive justice upon man’s substitute and surety, was the power that sustained and upheld the suffering One under the tremendous weight of wrath that would have fallen upon a sinful world. Christ was suffering the death that was pronounced upon the transgressors of [Yahuwah’s] law.


It is a fearful thing for the unrepenting sinner to fall into the hands of the living [Eloah]. … But never was this proved to so great an extent as in the agony of Christ, the Son of the infinite [Eloah], when He bore the wrath of [Yahuwah] for a sinful world. It was in consequence of sin, the transgression of [Yahuwah’s] law, that the Garden of Gethsemane has become pre-eminently the place of suffering to a sinful world. No sorrow, no agony, can measure with that which was endured by the Son of [Yahuwah].4

Lamb of Yahuwah
The sheer mental and emotional agony endured by the Saviour as “He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12) was begun in Gethsemane. Scripture records the horrifying result: “Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) This was before His arrest. Already bearing the divine wrath for sinners, the punishment began the night before the actual crucifixion. Scripture bears out that the punishment for sinners encompassed far more than the roughly six hours the Saviour spent on the cross. There are twelve passages in Scripture that refer to a three-day time period surrounding Yahushua’s death and every single one of them specifically refers in some way to the mental suffering begun in Gethsemane preceding His death.

“Man has not been made a sin-bearer, and he will never know the horror of the curse of sin which the Saviour bore. No sorrow can bear any comparison with the sorrow of Him upon whom the wrath of [Yahuwah] fell with overwhelming force. Human nature can endure but a limited amount of test and trial. The finite can only endure the finite measure, and human nature succumbs; but the nature of [Yahushua] had a greater capacity for suffering; for the human existed in the divine nature, and created a capacity for suffering to endure that which resulted from the sins of a lost world. …The wages of sin is death, but the gift of [Yah] is eternal life through [Yahushua] to the repenting, believing sinner.”

Ellen G. White, Manuscript 35, 1895

“From that time Yahushua began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.” (Matthew 16:21)

The third day from when? From when the suffering began. Read on:

“And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day.’ ” (Luke 24:45-46)

“And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31)

This text is of particular note because it is very clear that the rising again comes after a three-day process that began with His suffering. Luke 24 records the story of two men walking from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus on Abib 16, the day of the resurrection. As they walked, they discussed “all these things which had happened.” (Luke 24:14)

So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Yahushua Himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him.


And He said to them, “What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?”


So they said to Him, “The things concerning Yahushua of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before Eloah and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened. (Luke 24:15-17, 19-21)

This gave the Saviour the opening He wanted to teach them and inspire their faith:

Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.  (Luke 24:25-27)

(To read the other Scripture passages showing this same process of events, click here and scroll down.5) It is not necessary to ignore this wonderful prophecy of the Saviour’s sufferings and death, nor is it necessary to impose a full 72 hours on the time period. The time period from the evening of Abib 13 until dawn6 on Abib 16 meets the parameters of this prophecy.  The “sign of the prophet Jonah” was perfectly fulfilled in the Saviour’s sufferings and death when He voluntarily accepted the condemnation of the law against sinners and submitted to being separated from Yahuwah for the sake of redeeming mankind.

1 Jen Shroder, Three Days & Three Nights: The Sign of Jonah.
2 Kardia, #2588, The New Strong’s Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words.
3 SDA Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, p. 1103.
4 Ibid.
5 In Acts 10:39 the original Greek word translated “slew” implies a violent death. This was not a merciful, quick death. Rather a violent one full of suffering.
6 The fact that the resurrection occurred at dawn on Abib 16, the third day of the prophecy, indirectly supports Biblical evidence revealing the day begins at dawn.