“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead’ ” (Luke 24:45–46).

Nowhere in the Old Testament is it “written” that the Christ should suffer death only to rise again on the third day—at least nowhere is it written explicitly. It is only by following Jesus’s own hermeneutics that we can find this idea in the OT.[2] Since Christ is the new and true, that is, the antitypical, Israel, his death and resurrection are foreshadowed in Hosea 6:2; thus, vindicating, humanly speaking, this use of the OT by Jesus. However, for all the merits this text from Hosea has as being the OT “writing” to which our Lord here refers, he was at least additionally referring to the second chapter of the book of the prophet Jonah. After all, it was the clear intention of Christ that we find a direct (“as … so”) correlation between his death, burial, and resurrection and the experiences of Jonah poetically related in that chapter. “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” (Matt. 12:40). But before we can explore those correspondences in any depth, it must be shown that there is a thematic connection, namely, the theme of baptism, that connects the experiences of the prophet Jonah and those of the Christ. In what way can it be said that both Jonah’s and Jesus’s experiences can be understood in terms of baptism?

In brief, Jesus directs us to think of his death and burial in terms of a baptism in Luke 12:50. His passing under the judgment of Calvary and the trial of the tomb is revealed in that verse to be akin in his mind to a water ordeal calculated to establish juridically his guilt or his righteousness.[3] To be baptized then is to pass under the judgment of God (cf. the Red Sea crossing[4] and the Flood, in which the wicked are destroyed and the righteous are saved/justified[5]). Likewise, it was God’s judgment upon Jonah’s disobedience that brought the calamitous storm and resulted in Jonah’s being cast down into the water to undergo his ordeal. These associations being sufficient to find a baptismal theme in the ordeals of both Jesus and Jonah, and also appreciating the explicit direction from our Lord to see in Jonah’s water experience a correspondence to his own judgment ordeal, let us now explore what may be found by way of material connections between Jonah 2 and the suffering, entombment, and resurrection of our Lord.

The Book of Jonah is a work of prose that narrates the experiences of a rather colicky Hebrew prophet who prophesied in the eighth century BC. But in chapter 2 of this four-chapter narrative, one is suddenly confronted with several lines of poetry. The sudden appearance of poetry is so jarring that it has caused some critics to suggest that this chapter belongs to a later hand.[6] Could it be that this abrupt shift from prose to poetry, from history to verse, from chronicle to song, serves as a formal signal to the reader that the tale is departing from the relation of facts about the protagonist’s experiences and is shifting to portraying the experiences of the coming Messiah? This chapter in Jonah is in fact a blend of quotations from and allusions to the Psalter,[7] which according to Edmund P. Clowney should be seen as the personal songbook of our singing Savior.[8] Such a sudden formal diversion in chapter 2 from simple narrative to the songbook of the Christ is accompanied by a change in the substance of what the book communicates about its subject. These together serve to alert the reader that the book is no longer discussing Jonah’s experiences but has paused to relate the descent of the Righteous One into the underworld and his ultimate deliverance.

After Jonah has been cast into the sea, the attentive reader will see that the imagery is ill-suited to depict a man who has been placed in the belly of a great fish. Indeed, once the lines switch from prose to poetry in verse 2, the speaker is seen to be no longer speaking “from the belly of the fish” as in verse 1, but “from the belly of Sheol.” Verse 2 is in fact a summary of the entire experience of the singing subject, while verse 3 begins the relation of the entire experience in full. The subject is first cast into the deep—he is far from dry land, the abode of men. In verse 4, the subject relates his feelings in these terms: he is driven away from God’s sight. With this he is saying that he is forsaken of God. Then he reveals in verse 4 a note of confidence that he shall come out of his predicament, he will yet again look on God’s temple. In verse 5 he has gone under the surface. The waves and billows that had battered him in verse three are now above him. He’s gone under, and the waters have closed up over him and are drowning him. He begins a free fall. The dark and the deep are all about him. This is how “Jonah’s” experience is cast—in terms of first being thrown into the sea by God, the waves and billows beating him, his dropping below the surface of the waters, and then his falling—down, down, down, into the black abyss. These descriptions are not consistent with being inside the belly of a fish.

The prayer then asserts in verse 6 that his descent did not halt until he had reached the very bottom of the sea, where, as it says in the last half of verse 5, weeds wrapped around his head, holding him fast. And, he adds in verse 6, this took place at the root of the mountains. Then he even declares that he went down to the land whose bars closed upon him forever. How could the man in these verses hit the bottom of the sea where he touched the roots of the mountains, where he was even ensnared in the weeds growing there, if he was in the belly of the great fish? Does this suggest that the fish was a literary device, a personification of the sea, perhaps; that Jonah was never actually swallowed by a great fish?

The answer to that question is that although Jonah was swallowed by a giant fish especially appointed for this task by God—for Jesus says in Matthew 12 that Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days—the record of experiences we see in this chapter are actually meant to relate not Jonah’s experiences poetically but Jesus’s. Jonah did say these words—the text says he prayed these words—but as with other prophets, what he spoke had reference more to Christ than to himself.[9] Note how the singer says that the bars of the deepest point of the underworld were closed upon him … forever. Then in the very next line he says: “yet you brought up my life from the pit.” No ordinary man’s experience could make this apparent contradiction work: “bars closed upon me in the prison of Sheol forever, yet you brought me up from the pit.” This combination of ideas shows that this is a portrayal of the person and work of the Christ, who alone as the God-man could bear the eternal consequence and the infinite weight of sin down into Sheol and still rise up after the fact. As the sin bearer, the Messiah’s descent to the deepest pit of the underworld was final. The sin he bore there remains there, in the depths of the sea of divine judicial forgetfulness. That weight of sin would have held him fast there forever, too, but the Messiah was not in fact guilty. He had kept his hands clean, so the Father had to deal with him according to his righteousness, as we find in Psalm 18:4–24; Romans 1:3–4; and 1 Timothy 3:16. The Father had to bring him up again, for he was personally just, but the sins he had borne there for his people he left down there, never to be remembered again. Note also that there is no hint of repentance in Jonah 2. This chapter of Jonah is instead a prayer of thanksgiving to God, a prayer of deliverance from God’s abandonment. It is ultimately a poem about Christ’s fall into Sheol, his descent into the underworld, the realm of the dead. But on the third day the singing Savior is brought up again with a psalm of thanksgiving on his lips—that salvation is of the Lord!

The second chapter of Jonah can be seen as Jonah’s baptism because of the typical relationship asserted by Christ to exist between the prophet and himself and between their respective experiences, in addition to the clear associations in that chapter to “Jonah’s” passing under God’s judgment by means of a water ordeal. In Romans 6:4–5 we read:

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

By faith in the person and work of the Lord’s Anointed, both we and the prophet Jonah have survived that antitypical judgment ordeal at Calvary’s cross “in him,” and so have come out the other side, up from the waters of the divine wrath for sin, reckoned with him as having clean hands, blameless before God. The songbook of the singing Savior, as Jonah’s prayer anticipates, has become the songbook of his people.


[1] This article was adapted from a sermon preached by him at Mid Cities Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Bedford, Tex. during the summer of 2014.

[2] See passim, R. T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament (Vancouver: Regent, 1998).

[3] See passim, Meredith G. Kline, By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968).

[4] 1 Cor. 10:2.

[5] 1 Pet. 3:20–21.

[6] Richard D. Phillips, Jonah and Micah, Reformed Expository Commentary, ed. Richard D. Phillips and Philip Ryken (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 72.

[7] Psalms 3, 5, 16, 18, 31, 42, 50, 65, 69, 88, 118, 120, 142.

[8] Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 144–50.

[9] Cf. Psalm 22, in which the psalmist relates that his enemies have pierced his hands and feet, which has less to do with the literal experiences of David than it has to do with the experiences of Christ.

Robert Mossotti, a licentiate of the Presbytery of the Southwest, is a member of Mid Cities Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Bedford, Texas, and a graduate from Redeemer Seminary (Dallas). Ordained Servant Online, November 2015.

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Ordained Servant: November 2015

Jonah's Baptism

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