The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. Matthew 12:41 The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. Luke 11:32
It is impossible to tell the story of Jonah without taking account of Jesus’ words concerning Himself in Matthew 12:41 where He calls Himself “a greater than Jonah.” Greater indeed than Jonah, Christ is a greater sign as well as a greater person, a greater prophet and a greater Savior, and His work in saving the cruel and wicked citizens of present-day Nineveh is ever so much greater than Jonah’s work in ancient Nineveh.
We have already seen that the comparison Jesus makes between Himself and Jonah does not make Jonah a type of Christ. It was Jonah’s disobedience that brought him low, but Christ’s three days in the belly of the earth were part of His perfect obedience by which He made atonement for sin. Rather, Jonah’s three days and his deliverance thereafter are a sign, a miracle of grace, that speaks of God’s gracious and sovereign salvation. Jesus, calling Himself a greater than Jonah, is not identifying Himself as the fulfillment of a type, therefore, but emphasizing the truth that He and His deliverance are a greater miracle or sign than the miracle of the deliverance Jonah brought to Nineveh: they were both signs, the one greater than the other.
Jesus is greater because He is the sign or miracle of salvation, a miracle that was only dimly foreshadowed in Jonah. Jesus is greater than the mere fallible man whose story is recorded in the Word of God. Jesus is the Son of God, the One come in our flesh, who does by His finished work what Jonah himself needed. Jesus makes atonement for sin and is a substitute for all our disobedience, Jonah’s too. Jesus is greater as the One who not only preached through Jonah to the Ninevites but as the One who gave them faith and repentance unto life. I Peter 1:10, 11 show that it was the Spirit of Christ who spoke through Jonah, as through all the prophets, and in that way, especially, Christ is greater than Jonah.
Jonah, though reluctantly, was a living sermon to the Ninevites, a sermon that spoke of God’s salvation and that effectively called the people of Nineveh to repentance. Jesus, in His person and work, is a similar gospel sermon to all who hear, but greater. He and His work are the heart of the gospel message. That is the comparison Christ is making in Matthew 12:41. Jonah preached in word and in his person the gospel of grace. Christ is the gospel of God’s grace, as Paul says in I Corinthians 2:2, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
Whether the people of Nineveh understood the promises of Christ as well as the Jews did in the Old Testament is uncertain, but they certainly saw the miracle of God’s grace in Christ foreshadowed in Jonah and that was to them the gospel, the power of God unto salvation. What a remarkable testimony to the gospel their salvation is! Hearing it preached once and by the sign of the prophet Jonah it was nevertheless the means of their salvation, as it is always.
That power of the gospel is really the power of God in Christ who speaks through the gospel and who has chosen in His good pleasure to use it for salvation. What a shame, then, when all sorts of other nonsense is substituted for gospel preaching and the gospel itself set aside. What a shame when preachers think that their eloquence and pleading are the power of salvation. What a shame when those who hear the gospel demand smooth things instead of “yet forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” or “repent and believe in Jesus Christ” for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
There is more, though, to what Jesus says. When He calls Himself a greater than Jonah, speaking to the hard-hearted Jews of His day, He refers especially to the time He was on earth, when by His words and miracles He proved Himself to be the Son of God, the promised Messiah and the only Savior. In all that He was a sign to the Jews of His day who questioned His authority, rejected His preaching and miracles, called Him an ally of Beelzebub, and finally murdered Him.
He was a sign to His own generation as one greater than Jonah and He is that still today in the preaching of the gospel. Woe to those who see that sign and do not repent when the story of God’s miracle in Christ is told today. Surely the men of Nineveh will stand in judgment. They repented at the sign of the prophet Jonah, seeing only dimly the greater sign. Now that greater sign is blazed forth in all the world and men still do not believe. Woe to them, indeed! And woe to us when we do not humble ourselves before that sign and cover ourselves in the sackcloth and ashes of sincere repentance, for that sign says still today, whether we see it in Jonah or in Christ Himself, that God is a just judge, but also merciful and gracious.
Jesus is greater than Jonah in His perfect obedience. Jonah’s disobedience and conversion became part of the sign that God used to save the people of Nineveh, but Christ’s perfect obedience was the substitute for all the former wickedness and violence of those people and His obedience unto death the atonement that paid for their wickedness. In that too Jesus is the greater sign.
Jesus is also a greater prophet than Jonah. He is the Prophet of whom Moses spoke: “For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people” (Acts 3:22, 23). He is the Prophet whose word is effectual and powerful. He is the One whose Spirit spoke through Jonah and made his preaching powerful and saving. He is the One who still speaks today through the preaching of the Word and who must be heard!
He is greater than Jonah also in His response to those who do believe and repent. Jonah went outside the city and sulked. Christ says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). He receives all repentant Ninevites however violent and evil they may have been before He changed their hearts and humbled them.
Christ is greater than Jonah, too, in that after dying for our sins and rising again from the dead, He gave the blessings of the Jews to the Gentiles, especially the bless- ing of the covenant and the promise of the covenant that God would continue to be their God and the God of their children. Jonah enjoyed those covenant blessings, but God did not give them to Nineveh through Jonah’s work. And not long after Jonah’s preaching there, perhaps in the next generation, Nineveh had returned to violence and idolatry and was not long after destroyed. Yet, through Christ God gave these blessings to the Gentiles in the New Testament.
Nineveh was not even incorporated into God’s covenant people like the Gibeonites and other individuals who were saved out of the nations—Asenath, Zipporah, Ruth, Rahab, Uriah and many others. Yet that is part of the importance of Nineveh’s salvation, for that too shows the greatness of Christ who breaks down the middle wall of partition: “Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; that at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us” (Eph. 2:11-14).
When Jesus, speaking to His own generation, said, “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here,” He meant that the unbelief of the Jews was all the more wicked in light of Nineveh’s repentance, for they had the witness of the Son of God, not that of a reluctant and sulking prophet. For their unbelief the gospel would be taken from them and given to the Gentiles, those Gentiles of whom the Ninevites were part, and in the judgment day Nineveh’s repentance will be their well deserved condemnation.
Those words of Jesus continue to be fulfilled. Those Gentiles who have rejected Christ in the gospel, who have broken and despised God’s covenant, who have had the testimony of the law and the prophets and through them have heard the preaching of Jonah, not humbling themselves before God in repentance, will also be condemned in the judgment day by the Ninevites.
And most surely, then, the men of Nineveh will rise in the judgment against us if we have neglected God’s covenant, been apathetic under the preaching of the gospel, have gone on in our sins instead of repenting and have not believed the testimony, now completed and given us in Holy Scripture, of Him who is greater than Jonah. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:48).
All this adds up to what the Word says in Hebrews 1:1-4, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” And, its application in 2:1-4, “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?”
Hugh Martin says: “Had Nineveh rejected Jonah, they might still have said, It is merely a crier of danger that we put away from us. But he that rejecteth Jesus, rejecteth One that can give repentance and forgiveness of sins.” Truly the men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment against this generation that has put the word of gospel so far away that it is scarcely remembered, and who, when they do hear it, meet it with indifference and apathy.
There are those who name the gospel call for repentance and faith, “duty faith” and “duty repentance,” who think that the demand for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ somehow compromises the sovereign grace of God in salvation, but it is not so. The One who is greater than Jonah calls through the gospel and calls His own to Himself. So it was in Nineveh and so it is today. The gospel as the word through which Christ speaks and calls is its own power, the power of God unto salvation.
Jonah preached in Nineveh the necessity of repentance and faith. The gospel of Christ’s coming requires that of us, even more so than Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh. May we, no less guilty before God than the Ninevites, and remembering that we must stand with them in the judgment, hear not their testimony against us, but the testimony of Christ Himself that we are His and He ours. And under the gospel considering our sins, may we humble ourselves before the great Judge and say as the king of Nineveh did, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” May we find the assurance that He will repent and turn away His anger in Christ who spent three days in the belly of the earth and then came forth from a grave that could not hold Him (Acts 2:24). And let us, forgiven and redeemed, “cry mightily unto God…[and] turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.”