A pattern notable in the Old Testament is the distress/deliverance motif, sometimes depicted directionally with descent/ascent language. The story of Jonah features such a motif, and it even includes a three-day reference for the prophet’s deliverance. Just as Jonah was in the fish for a period of days associated with the number three, so too was Jesus in the grave until the third day.
Matthew 12 is packed with powerful claims. In Matthew 12:6, Jesus said, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” And he was referring to himself. In 12:8, “For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Again, he was referring to himself. In 12:29, “Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?” Yes, Jesus is the stronger man plundering the evil one’s domain. In 12:42, “Behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” Who is greater than Solomon? You only need one guess.
Among the incredible statements from Jesus in Matthew 12, we read of the prophet Jonah in Matthew 12:38–41. The reason Jesus brings up Jonah is because God literally brought up Jonah from the belly of a fish in Jonah 2:10. Soon Jesus would descend into death and then ascend through a victorious resurrection, and the story of Jonah provided the descent/ascent pattern that foreshadowed the Messiah’s work.
The story of Jonah had a typological function. In other words, Jonah’s experience was a type (or prophetic pattern) of Christ. I’ve written about typology on this site before (see here and here and here), and I’ve written about Jonah as well (see here and here). For a book-length treatment of typology, check out 40 Questions About Typology and Allegory.
My claim about Matthew 12:38-41 is that Jesus is reading the story of Jonah typologically. Some scribes and Pharisees wanted a sign (12:38), Jesus responded by calling them an evil and adulterous generation, and he told them that no sign would be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah (12:39).
What about Jonah’s life did Jesus have in mind? “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” (Matt. 12:40).
The correspondence between Jonah and Jesus involves the descent-and-ascent pattern. Differences in the stories are obvious.