Matthew tells us about a time in which the religious leaders came before Jesus and said, “What we want from you Jesus is a sign, give us a sign.” They’re using the same kind of language that they have used all along. Jesus after all has stood before them casting out demons and they turn to one another and say, “this is Satan, this is Beelzubel.” And Jesus says, “If I cast out demons, it is because the Spirit of God is upon me. If the Spirit of God is upon me, it means the Kingdom of God is in your midst.” And they come to Him and say, “We want you to show us a sign.”

What they’re asking is, “We want to know that God is with you, that God is for you. We want you to come and be the Power Team, to demonstrate that you have all of this power and all of this might, that the Spirit is upon you.” And yet Jesus turns around and says, “I will give you a sign, but it’s not the sign you want. The only sign I will give you is the sign of Jonah.” And then Jesus turns and explains to them what the sign of Jonah is. If you’ll notice in Jonah 1:11-3:5, we see both aspects of this sign that Jesus mentions.  The first aspect is that Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish and Jesus turns and says, “I will be three days and three nights in the very heart of the earth.” What we are seeing here is the judgment of Christ.

What you see here in the text of Jonah is God showing to His people His justice, His judgment, a coming atonement. Jonah after all is a prophet of God, someone who is to go to Ninevah and to carry out what Israel is called to be, a light to the nations, someone who is coming so that all of the nations will say, “Teach us to walk in the ways of your God.”

Jonah is called to do this and yet Jonah refuses. He bucks against this. He seeks to flee to Tarshish, seeking to flee from the presence of God. And in his flight, along with a bunch of pagan seafarers, the sea begins to heave, the waters begin to wreck up against the ship, the winds begin to pick up. And notice here the way in which the Bible speaks of the sea, speaks of the water as an aspect of the judgment of God. This is something we have seen repeatedly in the Bible  —  from the flood that comes upon the entire world, washing it, destroying it; from the waters that come down on Pharoah’s army, destroying them, wiping them out  —  and yet in all of this, God is bringing His people safely through the waters, like when the Israelites stand on Jordan’s stormy banks and they are carried through the waters into the Promised Land.

The water here is beginning to churn, the waves are getting heavy, the creation itself is rebelling against this man of God, against the prophet of God, this one, this human being of whom it was originally said, “All things are put under his feet” yet all things are not under his feet. There is death on the horizon and the pagans gather around and say, “What shall we do with this man? This man seems to be under a curse. He’s under the curse of God. God is against him.” And they decide to throw him into the water. Even as they plead, “Don’t let his blood be upon us,” they throw him into the waters, into the very manifestation of the judgment and the wrath of God.

Related: Top 20 Christ-centered expository preaching checklist

And notice what the text tells us, that God gives a fish, a great fish to consume him. This man of whom it was originally said, “You will have dominion over all the creatures of the world, the things that swarm in the sea.” Now he is the object of a predatory fish, of a fish that consumes him, a fish that swallows him. What this is, is judgment.

And yet so often when we look at the text of Jonah, we see it through the grid of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. We think that you have Jonah swimming around on a plank of wood with a kerosene lamp reading a magazine and waiting until something happens, but that is not the image that you have here.

Jonah is experiencing a type of death. Jonah is enclosed in the digestive system of this sea monster. He is crying out, “I am in the very belly of Sheol, of the grave, of death. Bars of death are all around me. There is no hope for me except for God, except for Yahweh, the one who created the seas who created the sea monsters.

He is crying out from the very pit of the grave, “Lord rescue me.” And he does so by saying, “Lord, remember your faithfulness, remember your steadfast love, remember me.” And you’ll notice what he says in verse 4 of chapter 2:  “I am driven away from your sight.” This aspect of the judgment of God has to do with the fact not only that Jonah is experiencing a kind of death, but that he is driven away from the sight of His God. He is away from the temple, away from the presence of God and he’s crying out in a sense, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why am I away from your presence? Lord, hear me. Lord, rescue me.” He recognizes the judgment of God.

Jonah is confessing, “I am rightly under your wrath. I am rightly in the place of death.” And as he is crying out, you notice God’s gracious rescue. The fish regurgitates him out onto the dry land. And this one who is dead is now reborn. The prophet of God now walks away from death to carry out his mission. Jesus says, “You want to see a sign  —  that’s the sign.” The one that was three days in the belly of the fish, this one will be three days in the belly of the earth. Except this one is not a rebel. This one is not fleeing from the presence of God. This one perfectly obeys the will of His father, of His covenant God and yet He stands in the place of the world. He stands in the place of humanity. He comes under this death sentence as He is also handed over to the pagans. As He is standing there with them saying to Him, “Let your blood be on our hands,” He is driven from the presence of God. He is crying out, “My God, will you hear me?” He goes into the place of Sheol. He goes into the belly of the beast.  He goes into this final frontier of death and yet all the while He cries, “God keep your promises. God remember your steadfast love.” And when that eye opens in the grave three days later, He was heard.

“That’s the sign,” Jesus says.

Jonah comes to the Ninevites, not as some prophet with an entourage. He comes to the Ninevites as fish vomit. He comes as one who has passed through judgment and he stands before them saying, “Repent, because the righteous standards of God will be met.”

There’s a reason why the Lord Jesus says to us that when we baptize believers, we put them under the water. They are completely cut off from air. They are completely dependent upon someone else pulling them out of the water. Jonah cries out, “Lord rescue me,” but he says, “Rescue me according to your faithfulness, rescue me according to your steadfast love,” and he says, “Rescue me according to your righteousness.”

You’ll notice here also this second aspect of the sign. Jesus says not only will the Son of Man be in the earth for three days and three nights, but He also says that there is a preaching to the Ninevites. He says that the Ninevites repented at this preaching. They will stand in judgment of you and that is exactly the remarkable thing that happens. Jonah walks through the city of Ninevah crying out “repent” and “they believed God,” the text says. These uncircumcised pagans, the enemies of God, they believed.

Related: Christ in the Old Testament

And Jesus, when He is raised from the dead, having fulfilled the sign of Jonah, says to His disciples, “Wait in Jerusalem, the Spirit will come upon you. You will go in my authority. You will teach all of the nations whatsoever I have commanded you and you will baptize them.” They will believe. This message of repentance that is able to turn a hardened group of Ninevites around will, through the power of the Holy Spirit, be able to turn an entire world of pagans around. The sign will march forward and Jesus says that as you are going all over the world, as you are baptizing, you are completing a victory march. You are saying to the principalities and the powers, “This is the judgment of God, this is the resurrection of God.”

Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: An Interview with Russell D. Moore


In the sermon above you make the connection between Jonah and Jesus, the former a type of the latter. How did you make that connection?

Jesus Himself makes that connection, in Matthew chapter 12. Jesus identifies Jonah’s life as a picture beforehand of His own life, Jonah’s preaching of repentance as a picture beforehand of His own preaching, and Jonah’s judgment for his disobedience as a picture beforehand of His own judgment in place of a disobedient world. “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish,” Jesus says, “so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40).

Beyond that, there are literary themes in the Jonah account and other areas of Scripture that show up with clarity in the life of Jesus: Jonah’s sleeping on a boat being tossed by the winds and the waves, for instance. But while Jonah is a sinner, and his being thrown into the water silences the judgment against the boat, Jesus is no sinner. He is no rebel. He’s not running away from God’s direction, like Jonah; instead, He is going toward God’s direction, toward the cross.

After three days Jonah cries out to God and is delivered from the depths of the sea. After three days Jesus, having undergone the judgment of God at the cross and in His burial, is delivered from the depths of the earth. He is vindicated. And because He has undergone that judgment in our place, by believing in Him we are vindicated, as well. Our baptism in the water signifies that judgment has already taken place for us, in Christ.

In what ways might people think they’re preaching Christ from the Old Testament? What do you mean when you’re talking about preaching Christ from the Old Testament?

Preaching Christ from the whole of the Scriptures doesn’t simply mean giving a Gospel invitation at the end of a sermon  —  although it certainly does entail that. It means seeing all of reality as being summed up in Christ, and showing believers how to find themselves in the story of Jesus, a story that is Alpha and Omega, from the spoken Word that calls the universe together to the Last Man who governs the universe as its heir and king.

The people in our pews can go to hell clinging to Bible verses abstracted from Jesus. One can read the message of Psalm 24: “Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully” (Ps 24:3-4). Perhaps the Pharisee that Jesus mentions had this verse in mind when he stood in the Temple, next to the repentant publican. Perhaps the Pharisee, and his successor on the altar at First Baptist Church, can say, “Thank you God that I can approach you with clean hands and a pure heart.” That attitude is damning. It is damning not because it is not true — it is. It is damning because there is only one man who can stand before the holiness of God, only one Man with a pure heart and clean hands, only one who is the righteousness of God. If I pretend to come before God apart from Him, as though this text and a thousand more like it applies to me outside of Jesus Christ, I will only find condemnation. But, hidden in Christ, this promise is my promise. When I cry out with the publican, “Have mercy!” and find myself in Christ, then everything that God has promised to Jesus now belongs to me.

Preaching passages like Psalm 24, then, means the preacher will be showing his people not how the Scripture is fulfilled first in his hearers, but in Christ Jesus.

How did you learn to preach that way?

Well, I would love to give a theologically sophisticated answer, but I kind of backed into preaching Christ.

First of all, my early life was shaped by the music of Michael Card. I would listen to Card singing as a high school kid while I grappled with the call to ministry, and I continued to listen to his songs all through college and seminary right down to this day. And I think Card’s biblical interpretation in his lyrics about Genesis and Proverbs and the prophets were instructive for me in learning how to interpret the Bible as a young man.

The reason I resonated with Card’s music is because this was exactly what the Bible itself does with the text. Jesus and the apostles see the Old Testament — all of it — as pointing to Jesus and His Gospel. I once heard an Old Testament professor say that he would give the writer of Hebrews an “A” in homiletics and a “D minus” in hermeneutics. I find that to be not only tragic, but blasphemous. The Holy Spirit knows how to interpret the Bible.

What is at stake in thinking about how we should be preaching from the Old Testament?

What’s at stake is the Gospel, whether we will bypass Jesus.

For instance, the prosperity gospel teacher on the airwaves attempts to bypass Jesus, pointing to promises of length of days and wealth beyond measure for those who are blessed of God. The grinning televangelist tells the cancer-stricken mother that if she is blessed by God, she’ll be healed. He tells the laid-off factory worker that if he is blessed by God, he will prosper. He cites verses from Deuteronomy, verses that are the inerrant Word of God, but verses that point to an inheritance that belong to the Blessed One, to Jesus of Nazareth, the one who receives the inheritance.

If I am in Christ, then a health and wealth prosperity gospel is indeed what I receive, but more health and more prosperity than Joyce Meyer or Kenneth Copeland can ever conjure up. In Christ, I am raised from the dead — and will one day be resurrected in fact with Him. In Christ, I have the ends of the earth as my inheritance, with Him at the right hand of the Father. At His coming, those promises will be received by sight as well as by faith. How we preach from the Old Testament, then, can be the difference between life and death for those who hear us.

How might a preacher think about applying the Old Testament text to his listeners, both to believers and to unbelievers?

A preacher has to constantly be asking, “How might I, and my hearers, seek to evade this text?” He has to ask, “What is it about my flesh that wants to resist this message? What is it about me that wants to not be found in Christ, that wants to stand on my own?” And then the preacher has to allow that text to indict that aspect of himself and of his hearers, and then allow it to drive us all in repentance and faith to Jesus.

As we teach and preach and disciple and evangelize, we need to preach the whole Bible — every verse. And in every verse, we need to show how God keeps His promises in Christ. Let’s not simply teach our people how to be moral or how to be well tempered or how to be authentic or how to put the erotic energy back into their marriages. Let’s teach them how to find themselves in Christ, to conform to His life and to follow His steps through His Spirit, looking always to His cross, His resurrection and His glory.

How ought a preacher prepare to preach from the Old Testament?

There is no secret Christocentric rubric to use. One simply needs to be familiar with the Bible — and by that I don’t necessarily mean extensive knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. One can understand and interpret the English Bible by being thoroughly familiar with the Bible itself. If one is reading the book Moby Dick, for example, he is going to see certain themes that hold the whole thing together. The same thing is true when you come to the Bible. The more familiar he is with the text, the more familiar he’ll be with the themes that are present there.

Also, a preacher needs to learn to have a mind that can understand story. That’s essential in interpreting biblical material. So I recommend that people who have not come from story-telling and story-hearing backgrounds (backgrounds which were very common in the ancient Jewish world) should familiarize themselves with being a storying people. A preacher can read, for example, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor or any other works of short fiction in order to familiarize himself with how to read a story.

What books might you recommend to someone who desires to preach Christ from the Old Testament? Whose sermons might he listen to?

I’d recommend Edmund Clowney’s Preaching and Biblical Theology and Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching as two books that will be helpful in thinking through how to preach Jesus from the whole of Scripture. Two contemporary preachers whose sermons, I think, demonstrate this kind of Christocentric model are Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and David Prince of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.


Russell D. Moore serves as President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. This article was originally excerpted from a Feb. 2, 2006 seminary chapel sermon on Jonah 1:11-3:50.