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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: February 2013

During an Ash Wednesday service last week, the pastor brought up the notion of signs in the Old Testament and spoke of Jonah. This got me thinking about Christ’s discussion of Jonah’s fish challenges as “the only sign given to this evil generation.” Matthew saw this as important enough to mention two separate times. (Matthew 12:59, Matthew 16:4, and Luke provides it in Luke 11:29-30.) The relevance of Jonah may also be linked to Jesus’ stress on Peter’s lineage, which the gospel writers pass along “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.” (Matthew 16:17, John 1:42, John 21:15-17.) Note how in Matthew’s gospel this note on Peter follows nearly immediately the proclamation to the crowds about Jonah and Nineveh. For decades I had assumed that the only relevance of this passage is that Jesus was in the ground and rose on the 3rd day as Jonah was in the “great fish” for the same length of time. It just seemed like Jesus was predicting His own resurrection and the gospel writers were providing evidence that this resurrection was a sign from God. However, that seems now like a rather naive view. Jesus’ resurrection would be recognized as a sign of God regardless of whether it was predicted to the masses, and there are plenty of other instances where the gospel writers indicate to their audiences that Jesus’ resurrection was foretold. Also, the version given in Luke 11:30 suggests a closer connection between the sign of Jonah and the sign of Jesus. As I thought about this, two separate points came to mind. If Jesus’ resurrection is a sign like Jonah’s, what would that mean, especially to a Jewish audience who fully understood Jonah’s whole story?

The first connection is clear (though it was actually the second one I thought of). Jonah was sent to call Nineveh to repentance [c.f. Luke 11:32]. The story of Jonah is interesting because it shows that simple repentance has authentic value even when done by a people who have no notion of Christ whatsoever. Nineveh was not in Judah. They were neither cognizant of nor had any portion of the promised salvation for the Jews. The repentance they showed was based only on a belief that the God who sent Jonah was real and a hope that if they showed humility toward God and changed their ways to do works pleasing to God, then maybe God would relent.

This is important because most evangelists today suggest that repentance has no effectual value in itself. (Repentance is portrayed as a by-product and not directly dispositive toward how we are judged by God.) Similarly, it is highly suggested that it is impossible to do works pleasing to God without faith in Christ. The story of Jonah in Nineveh disproves both assertions.

The second way in which Jesus’ resurrection is linked to Jonah is subtler. It is the first one that came to me, partially because of something the pastor had mentioned. The story of Jonah shows the value of repentance in two ways. One is the effect that Nineveh’s repentance had on God. The second is the effect of Jonah’s own repentance inside the fish, which led to his own deliverance. What struck me about this aspect of the story is the possibility (perhaps tenuous) that one can draw a connection between resurrection and repentance. When the evangelists of the New Testament speak of the value of being in Christ, they speak of three things:

  1. Being delivered from the physical wrath that will come against the world when Christ returns. (C.f. Matthew 24:22, which makes no sense at all if the Final Judgment were in view rather than deliverance from the physical destruction of the last days.)
  2. The “baptism of repentance” (the holy spirit). (c.f. Acts 5:31, Acts 11:18, Acts 13:24, Acts 26:20 and many other places)
  3. The resurrection of the body, which is their full inheritance when their “adoption is complete.” (c.f. Romans 8:23)

Paul’s letters show that these last two items are really just stages of a two-part glorification. We are given the spirit today that strengthens our will to do God’s works, though our flesh still fights against this. Then, in the next age, we will receive a renewed body that no longer pushes us against God.

The specific repentance that we receive from Christ is a renewal of the spirit (c.f Hebrews 6:6) that Paul links to both Christ’s own resurrection and our future one in Romans 6-8. That particular discussion is worthy of its own blog post.