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Greater than the prophet Jonah

Both the Bible and the Qur’an testify that Isa bin-Maryam performed many miracles. Though there were many who believed in Him, the majority of Jewish leaders refused to believe. They still demanded more signs and wonders. As usual, one day they asked Him again to perform a miracle for them. Instead, He responded, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12: 40).

Islamic Interpretation

Many Muslims in their discussions with Christians claim that Jonah entered the belly of the whale alive, and came out alive. Similarly, Jesus was to enter the tomb alive, remain there alive and was to come out still alive. Though the majority of Muslims do not have faith in this theory, a minority sect, the Ahmadiyya (declared non-Muslims by Muslims) believe it wholeheartedly. Other Muslims use the theory just to discredit the death and resurrection of Christ.

A Contextual Answer

Most Muslim friends pick one aspect of the story of Jonah, namely, that as He was alive in the stomach of the fish, so Jesus would be alive in the tomb. However, we cannot ignore several other statements made by Jesus in the light of which we come to the conclusion that the similarity Jesus pointed out was that as Jonah was swallowed by the fish, he would be swallowed by the tomb. The comparison cannot be pursued in every detail.

As Hazrat Musa lifted up the Serpent

On another occasion, Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3: 14). We can see that Jesus is drawing an analogy. We have a pattern: “As Jonah was, so shall the Son of Man be”, and, “as the serpent was, so must the Son of Man be”. By this comparison we can see that when Jesus gave Jonah’s example, He meant that He would be swallowed by the earth. When He gave the example of Hazrat Musa lifting up a brass serpent on a pole, Hazoor was referring to His crucifixion.

If the main point of the first comparison was the state of Jonah being alive, then in this case the comparison would be with the brass serpent, a lifeless object. If one were to follow the Ahmadiyya or Muslims method of argument, then one would be forced to conclude that Jesus was dead, even before He was crucified.

Greater than Jonah!

We learn from the Gospel that not only did Jesus tell the Jews about the sign of Jonah but also that He was greater than Jonah: “Behold, one greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:32). Now, if Jesus had come down alive from the cross, having been in a swoon, from which He recovered, this would not be a sign of anything greater. It would not be obvious that Jesus was the Messiah, greater than Jonah, and even greater than Solomon (Luke 11:31). Jesus’ outstanding sign was to overcome death after dying on the cross. If this had not been the case, the sign of Jonah and claiming that He was greater than Jonah would have meant nothing.

Although Jesus did not explicitly predict on this occasion that He would be put to death, He did so on many other occasions. For example, He said to His disciples, “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 17: 22-23; cf. Matthew 16:21 and Mark 10: 33-34).

The Jews knew what Jesus meant

The Jews remembered those predictions about His death and resurrection and therefore, on the day after His death, they went to Pilate and said: “Sir, we remember that, while he was alive, that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, His disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that He has been raised from the dead” (Matthew 27:62-64).

It is obvious that the Jews did not doubt that Jesus had died. There was no reason for them to believe that He had escaped death. Their words, “while he was still alive” could only mean that Jesus was no longer living. They wanted to seal His tomb, not because Jesus might recover from His wounds, but because they feared that His disciples might steal His body and spread the rumour that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Reminder from Jesus

Not only before, but also after His resurrection, Jesus reminded His disciples, “This is what I told you while I was still with you; everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. This is what is written: ‘The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,’ and repentance and forgiveness of sons will be preached in His name to all nations beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24: 44-47).

In conclusion, there is a wealth of evidence in the Injil to support the argument that Jesus knew that He was going to die on the cross, be buried and rise again. To argue and draw some other conclusion from His words is therefore a serious misrepresentation of the Scriptures.

Steven Masood

All Biblical quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society. Published in Great Britain by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

Qur’anic reference is taken from The Holy Qur’an, English translation of the meanings and Commentary. Revised & edited by the Presidency of Islamic Researches, IFTA. King Fahad Holy Qur’an Printing Complex, Al-Madinah, Saudi Arabia, ed. 1990.

So also was Jonah
Among those sent (by Us).
When he ran away
(Like a slave from captivity)
To the ship (fully) laden,
He (agreed to) cast lots,
And he was of the rebutted:
Then the big Fish
Did swallow him,
And he had done
Acts worthy of blame.

Surah (As-Saffat) 37:137-142

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