Friday, March 29, 2013

The Sign of Jonah

Today is Good Friday - and the final day of week twelve, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are Deuteronomy 23-26 and Luke 11.

Luke tells us:

29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

Matthew gives us a parallel story in chapter 13.  In verse 40, Jesus explains what He means by "the sign of 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.

Some Bible scholars will argue for a Thursday crucifixion, rather than the traditional Good Friday crucifixion, based on this passage, where Jesus says that as Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, so He would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.  Personally, I don't even want to get into that debate--and i'm not sure that it would be productive, anyway.  I do, however, want to suggest a creative reading of Jonah that includes that prophet's prefiguring of Jesus' death and resurrection.

Many people ask me, "Do you believe that Jonah was really swallowed by a big fish, and that he survived it, to preach another day?"  When they ask me this, they usually mean, "Do you believe that the miracles in the Bible really happened, or were they allegories?"

For the record--I believe all the miracles in the Bible.

But I'm not 100% sure that the miracle that took place in the book of Jonah was a miracle of survival.  It may have been a greater miracle--with Jonah not surviving the fish's jaws, but with Jonah getting a second chance by being returned to life.

Jonah and the Great Fish
Take a look at chapter two of the book of Jonah:

 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
    I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!”

10 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

Verse 2 says that Jonah cried to God out of the belly of Sheol--which was the Hebrew name for the place of the dead.  Verse 6 says that God brought Jonah's life up from the pit.  To me, this points not to Jonah surviving his trip to the bottom of the earth, but to Jonah's resuscitation and return to the land of the living.  

If this is true, then when Jesus says that the people will see the sign of Jonah, He was being more truthful than anyone realized.  Not only did Jonah remain in the belly of the fish for three days and nights, but (according to this interpretation) he was dead, and returned to life.  Jesus said that He would show them the same thing that Jonah showed the Ninevites.  

Please note:  Jonah only prefigured the miracle that Jesus would ultimately show us.  According to this interpretation, Jonah was only resuscitated (meaning that one day he would die again, for good).  Jesus was resurrected, having ultimately defeated death once and for all!  Whereas some who died in the Bible were brought back to life (add to the list the a widow's son, Lazarus, and Jairus' daughter), Jesus is the firstborn of the resurrection.  He is the down-payment of God's promise that all who believe in Him will also be resurrected to eternal life.  

Jesus said that the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah.  (You'd repent, too...if someone returned from the dead and told you all about it, insisting that if you didn't repent, you'd be destroyed.)  But Jesus also said that something greater than Jonah is here.  The question is--will those who hear His word repent and receive the salvation He offers?  Will you?

Today is Good Friday.  We call it "good," not because it was pleasant for Jesus.  We call it "good" because of His good gift of salvation.  I pray that you will know Jesus' salvation--and that today will be a good day for you!

No comments: