The Sign of Jonah

By Robin Schumacher

In my last blog post, I talked about the fact that no faith is needed to believe the core facts surrounding the life of Jesus of Nazareth. At the end, I asked the question of if there was a way to bridge the gap that exists between the Jesus of history and the Jesus worshipped by Christians today.

To be honest, some say this can't be done. For example, Immanuel Kant, the philosopher that fused together the rational and empirical schools of philosophy split knowledge up into two realms: the phenomenal and noumenal. According to Kant, the phenomenal realm is what we know via science and our senses, while the noumenal contained information we couldn't really know for sure and therefore it required faith to believe. Kant is famous for saying, "Facts have nothing to do with religion" and "I have found in necessary to deny knowledge in order to have faith."

Others have held similar beliefs. For instance, Soren Kierkegaard, an existentialist philosopher, pioneered the concept of the "leap of faith," which he said was necessary to believe the things stated in Scripture.

However, I believe that rather being forced to make a leap of faith in the dark, God requires we only take a step of faith in the light. And I believe He's shown us in His Word how He gives that needed light.

For example, take a look at the opening story in Mark 2, which is a very familiar one. Some good friends of a paralyzed man go the distance to get him in front of Jesus by lowering him through the roof down to where Christ was. Jesus commends their faith and then says something that causes the religious leaders' noses to get out of joint: "Son, your sins are forgiven." Irked, the scribes think to themselves, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

But Jesus, being God, knows what they're thinking and says, "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk'?" It's obviously much easier to say "Your sins are forgiven" because there's no way to verify or falsify the claim. But to make a paralytic walk? Now, that's something you can substantiate immediately, so that's a much tougher assertion to make.

But Jesus is up to the challenge and says, "But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home" (Mark 2:11). And the man does!

So what's the lesson for us? It's this: God has used empirically verifiable miracles we can see and/or validate in this life to point to important truths we can't see about the next life.

This pattern can be seen time and again throughout Scripture. Another example is seen with John the Baptist. John's imprisoned for getting into trouble with Herod, and while in prison, he evidently starts to wonder if Jesus of Nazareth is really the Messiah. So John sends some of his disciples to Jesus and asks, "Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?" (Matthew 11:3). How does Jesus respond? "Just believe, John..."? No, instead he tells John's disciples: "Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them" (Matthew 11:4-5). In effect, Jesus says that His miracles testify to the fact that He is indeed the Messiah.

The question for us now becomes: has God given us a sign that authoritatively bridges the gap between history and faith where Jesus is concerned? Something that moves us from the Jesus of Nazareth to Jesus the Messiah? The answer is yes, and Jesus Himself tells us what it is.

In Matthew 12, the Pharisees and scribes come to Jesus and ask Him to put on a show for them by doing a miracle. Jesus declines their request and then says, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matthew 12:39, my emphasis).

So what was the sign of Jonah that was Jesus referring to? Actually, you might be surprised to know how many parallels there are between Jonah and Jesus:

• After Jonah fled from God and refused to go to Nineveh, God caused a great storm to occur, and the only thing to satisfy God's wrath was the sacrifice of God's servant Jonah who the sailors threw overboard; after humanity fled from God in Garden of Eden, the only thing that can satisfy God's wrath against sinners is the sacrifice of God's perfect servant, Jesus.

• Jonah went down into the depths of the sea; Jesus went down into the depths of the earth.

• Jonah was swallowed up into what should have been certain death; Jesus was swallowed up into what should have been a final death on the cross.

• Jonah was miraculously preserved in the great fish; Jesus was miraculously preserved in His tomb.

• Jonah emerged from his death sentence alive after three days; Jesus came out of His tomb alive after three days.

• Jonah went on to preach repentance to a Gentile city; Jesus gave authority to Peter and the disciples to preach repentance to the Gentiles and bring them into His Church.

However, Jesus tells us what the sign is (His resurrection) in the very next sentence: "for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40).

The resurrection stands as the supreme sign in all of history that speaks to the truthfulness of Christ's preaching. And it is the resurrection that connects Kant's phenomenal and noumenal realms; the supernatural event that links Christian history together with faith.

Although skeptics have tried to deny it or explain the resurrection away, the most plausible explanation for the events after Jesus' death is that God raised Him from the dead. The historically verifiable resurrection is what takes the world from Jesus the Carpenter to Jesus the Christ, which is why Paul says that Jesus was "declared to be the Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:3, my emphasis).

For a superb treatment of the historicity of Jesus' resurrection, see Dr. Michael Licona's new work The Resurrection of Jesus: A Historiographical Approach.

Image Credit: Michelangelo; "Prophet Jonah; detail of The Sistine Chapel"; Public Domain

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Published 4-26-11; Revised 8-15-16