Last weekend InsanityBytes published this post about Jonah the prophet. Predictably, her post triggered an intense conversation within the comments. The book of Jonah is a lightning rod for debates about how to interpret the Bible. Even some conservative Christians view Jonah as an allegory rather than a history.

The most memorable event in the book of Jonah occurs when the prophet is swallowed by a large fish. The Bible is not specific about what sort of fish swallowed Jonah, and many have pictured him in the stomach of a whale. This is, of course, unlikely, since whales have sponge-like filters in their throats and eat vast amounts of tiny aquatic creatures. After doing some research about marine life, I have concluded that Jonah was most likely swallowed whole by a large shark. A great white shark can be more than twenty feet long, and many large items have been found in the stomachs of captured great white sharks. Recently a shark was found with an intact skeleton of a seven-foot porpoise. Reliable records from the 1600s report that a shark was found with the carcass of a fully armored knight in its stomach. Imagine Jonah captured in a shark’s stomach that was just a tiny bit larger than he was. At first he expects to die, but without air to breathe or any room to move around, he does not die or even become unconscious. After a few long, dark hours of this, the prophet began to pray fervently. A summary of his prayer is contained in the second chapter of the book of Jonah.

For many readers of the Bible, the account of Jonah is an object lesson about disobedience and compassion. God told Jonah to preach in Nineveh, but Jonah got on a boat that was going the opposite direction. God sent a storm to stop Jonah. When Jonah refused to reverse direction but instead sought death at sea, God sent a fish to contain Jonah. When Jonah came to his senses, the fish vomited Jonah onto the beach. From there, Jonah traveled to Nineveh and preached a call for repentance. The people of Nineveh repented. Jonah was furious. He had taken a good seat to watch fire fall from heaven to destroy the city, and God did not send the fire. God reminded Jonah how much God cared about the city and its inhabitants, even the livestock.

Jesus compared the time Jonah spent inside the fish to the time Jesus would spend in the grave. Jesus died on a Friday and was buried before sunset; he rose to life on Sunday morning around sunrise. The “three days and three nights” Jonah spent in the fish might also have been closer to forty hours than to seventy-two hours. (The Bible’s description of time in this case resembles that of a vacation resort that promises accommodation for “three days and two nights” but is only available toward the end of the first day and must be left before noon on the third day.) The miracle of a prophet surviving inside a fish and returning alive to the land pictured the death and resurrection of Jesus, the world’s Savior. Jonah’s ordeal and Christ’s resurrection are miracles, beyond the ability of science to predict or explain. Those who first wrote about these events were aware that they were miracles that went against the laws of nature; otherwise, they would not have bothered to describe them.

Aside from the fish stomach/tomb comparison, several other similarities identify Jonah with Jesus. Both men slept in a boat during a storm until their fellow travelers woke them in panic. This detail may seem trivial, but not many people are capable of sleeping in a boat during a storm. Both men had the wrath of God directed at them: God sent a storm because Jonah was disobeying God, and Jesus went to the cross to bear the wrath of his Father over all the sins of the world. Both men offered to sacrifice their lives to save other lives—Jonah told the sailors to throw him off the boat so the holy storm would cease, and Jesus died on the cross to pay in full for the sins of the world. Both preached messages of repentance that became vehicles for God’s forgiveness—the crew of Jonah’s boat became believers in the Lord because of Jonah, and the citizens of Nineveh repented of their sins and were forgiven by God instead of being punished by God. Likewise, the forgiveness of God is available to everyone in the world because of the sacrifice of Jesus, and his victory over evil is demonstrated by his own resurrection.

Jonah did not want to obey God; he had to be forced to obey. Jesus volunteered to do what his Father desired, even when his Father’s will included the cross. Jonah’s work rescued some lives, but the work of Jesus suffices to save the world. Jonah is remembered for spending time inside a fish, but Jesus is remembered for blazing a trail across the valley of the shadow of death, guaranteeing that his people will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.



Second Sunday of Easter

Many Tuesdays I stop at the bank, which means that I have a different route coming home from work. Since late February, one of the houses I pass on that route had decorated a tree by the road—it was filled with plastic Easter eggs. All through March, every time I drove past that house I wondered how long into the Easter season that tree would remain decorated. As I suspected, when I drove past that house on Easter Tuesday, the tree was already bare of Easter decorations.

What is it with our culture? Why do we celebrate major holidays before they arrive, only to pack up our celebration before they have ended? Christmas decorations appear in November, even in October, but they are packed and put into storage before half of the twelve days of Christmas are ended. With Easter also, the anticipation of the holiday is filled with bright colors and springtime decorations, but once the last egg is found some time Sunday afternoon and the last Easter candy is eaten sometime Easter Monday, the holiday is over for another year.

The traditional Christian Church does not treat Easter that way. For forty days (plus six Sundays) the Church observes the solemn season of Lent—a time to repent of our sins and meditate on the price the Lord paid to redeem us from those sins. The songs in church are somber; the decorations are minimal. Then, Easter morning, sometimes before sunrise (in the earliest traditions, at midnight), the Good News is announced. “The Lord is risen.” “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Flowers fill the church with color, hymns of joy and praise are sung with enthusiasm, and Christians rejoice in the news of Christ’s resurrection, a guarantee of our own resurrection.

Christmas lasts twelve days. Easter lasts seven weeks. Why seven? Seven is a number of completeness; as God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (according to the book of Genesis), and as the Church on earth is represented by seven lampstands and seven congregations (in the book of Revelation), so seven weeks of Easter marks the completeness of joy Christians receive from the Good News of the Lord’s resurrection.

Christ was crucified and returned to life during the festival of Passover. For forty days he appeared to his disciples, strengthening them, preparing them to do the work of the Church. After he ascended into heaven, another ten days passed. Then, in Luke’s quotation of Jesus, the disciples were “clothed in glory from on high.” The Holy Spirit was poured out on them during the festival of Pentecost, a festival commanded by God through Moses along with the Passover festival and the autumn observances.

Easter is seven weeks long—forty-nine days—so it can be longer than the season of Lent. Christians repent of our sins, but our joy exceeds even our repentance. Darkness lasts a nighttime, but light prevails in the morning. On the second Sunday of Easter, Christians still rejoice that “Christ is risen.” “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

I hope and pray that your Easter joy has not fizzled and been forgotten. In a sense, every Sunday is a miniature Easter, a weekly reminder of Christ’s resurrection. As the resurrection of the Lord happened on the eighth day of Holy Week, beginning something new, so the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples of Jesus on the eighth Sunday of Easter, beginning something new. In the Lord, we are new always. J.


Easter Tuesday

Yesterday I began publishing a harmony of the four Gospels regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This continues the harmony, picking up in the afternoon of Easter Sunday.

That afternoon two disciples of Jesus were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. One of them was named Cleopas; the name of the other is unknown. (It might have been the wife of Cleopas; we don’t know.) Jesus joined them on their journey, but they didn’t recognize him. At his urging, they reported to him what had happened in Jerusalem. Jesus took the opportunity to give them a thorough Bible lesson, showing how Moses and the prophets had described all the events of the weekend. Jesus explained how he accomplished the plan and the promises of God. Cleopas and the other disciple invited Jesus to stay the night at their place. When they sat down to supper Jesus took the bread and broke it, and they recognized him. Then he disappeared from their sight. In excitement, the two disciples ran back to Jerusalem to describe their conversation with Jesus (Luke 24:13-35).

It probably took them two hours or more to run the distance they had just walked. Meanwhile, Peter had a private meeting with Jesus (Luke 24:34, I Corinthians 15:5). We know nothing about what was said in that conversation. When Cleopas and the other disciple joined ten of the twelve apostles, they were hiding in a locked room (John 20:19). Some believed the accounts of the resurrection, but others doubted (Mark 16:13). As they were sharing their various accounts of the resurrection, Jesus joined them (Mark 16:14, Luke 24:36, John 20:19). He used the usual Hebrew greeting of “Shalom,” meaning, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36, John 20:19). At first they were frightened, even after hearing from Peter and Cleopas that Jesus was alive. They thought they were seeing a ghost, and Jesus had to eat some fish to prove that he was physically alive (Luke 24:37-43). Then they worshiped him. Jesus again reminded them that Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms (the entire Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament) described his mission, now accomplished (Luke 24:44-47). He also breathed on them to grant his Holy Spirit. “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven,” he said (John 20:21-23). Then he told them to rest in the city until they were clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49). This instruction seems to contradict the earlier message to meet him in Galilee. Jesus was not forbidding them to set foot outside of the city; he was giving them a general instruction to rest until the next stage of their preparation was complete. (It is also possible that Luke combines all the meetings of Jesus with his apostles into one conversation, starting with Easter night and ending shortly before the Ascension. If that is the case, then the instruction to rest in Jerusalem was spoken only a few days before Pentecost and after the events in Galilee.)

Thomas was not with the other apostles that night (John 20:24). (Luke says that Jesus appeared that night “to the eleven.” Paul even refers to them as “the twelve” in I Corinthians 15:5. Both writers are using the numbers as titles for the group of apostles chosen by Jesus, not requiring their readers to believe that eleven or twelve of the apostles met Jesus Easter night.) A week later, the apostles were in the same locked room, still hiding out of fear, but Thomas was with them. Jesus returned and invited Thomas to inspect the wounds of his crucifixion to verify his resurrection. Thomas confessed his faith, saying “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), and Jesus gently scolded him and the others for their lack of faith (Mark 16:14, John 20:29). Perhaps at this time he reminded them of his desire to meet with them in Galilee and explained that his instruction to rest in the city was not to be taken literally.

The third time Jesus met with his apostles was in Galilee. Some of them went fishing but caught nothing. Jesus met them on a beach in the morning and reenacted a miracle that he had first worked when he called them to follow him. Over breakfast they had a conversation in which Jesus gave Peter three chances to reverse his three denials (John 21:1-24).

Probably also in Galilee, Jesus met with five hundred disciples (I Corinthians 15:6). Quite likely, many of them had not been in Jerusalem for the Passover, but Jesus wanted to affirm their faith as well. Perhaps on this occasion, or perhaps in a fifth appearance, Jesus told his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them….” (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus was with the apostles and other disciples a number of times during the forty days after his resurrection, strengthening their faith and preparing them to make disciples as he had instructed them (Acts 1:3). He also had a private meeting with his brother, James (I Corinthians 15:7), who would become the head pastor in Jerusalem.

By the fortieth day from the resurrection, the apostles had returned to Jerusalem. Jesus met with them one more time (I Corinthians 15:7) on a hillside not far from Jerusalem. From there he ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:6-11). After his ascension, Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to empower the leaders of his Church (Acts2:1-13); yet the ascended Jesus also had the power to be with his disciples always, even to the end of the earth (Matthew 28:20). J.

Easter Monday

Opponents of Christianity sometimes claim that accounts of the resurrection of Jesus cannot be believed, not only because the thought of a dead man returning to life seems preposterous, but also because the Bible’s accounts do not agree with one another. As for the resurrection being preposterous, that is the entire point of the event: Jesus did something amazing and incredible to call attention to his victory. Evil and death have been defeated and Jesus won the victory. Doubt the resurrection and Christianity disappears; trust the news of the resurrection, and the rest of Christianity follows.

Are the accounts of the resurrection in the Bible different? Do they contradict one another? Naturally, if they all said the same things in the same way, opponents would use that conformity as a reason to doubt the truth of the message. Different writers focus on different events and omit different details. Some atheists have offered financial rewards for any writer who can knit a consistent narrative out of the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Without any hope of winning a reward—for surely the atheists would find some part of my explanation far-fetched just to keep their money—here is my narrative of the events of Easter, using the books of the New Testament as my sources.

Jesus died about three o’clock in the afternoon (Matthew 27:46, et al.). Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin (the seventy men who ruled Israel regarding religious matters), sought permission from Governor Pontius Pilate to bury Jesus (Matthew 27:57-58, et al.). This was unusual—crucified criminals usually were thrown into a common grave. After Pilate had confirmed that Jesus truly was dead (Mark 15:45), he gave permission for the burial. Joseph had recently acquired a vault in a garden near Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified. This was to be a tomb for Joseph and the members of his family when they died (Matthew 27:60). No one yet had been buried there (John 19:41). Joseph bought a shroud of linen (Matthew 27:59, et al.) and, according to Jewish burial practices of the time (John 19:40), tore it into long strips to mummify Jesus. Assisted by Nicodemus, he cleaned the body of Jesus and wrapped the linen around his body, along with seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe (John 19:38-42). They placed the body of Jesus in the vault and rolled a large stone in front of the entrance to complete the burial (Matthew 27:60 et al.).

Several women had come from Galilee with Jesus and his disciples for the Passover holiday. They included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, Johanna, and others (Matthew 27:61, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10). At least some of these women watched as the two men buried Jesus. Feeling that the rushed burial (completed before the sun set and the Sabbath began) was incomplete, the women provided themselves with spices and ointments. After the Sabbath, they planned to complete what they men felt they had finished.

Meanwhile, the authorities in Jerusalem remembered the prophecy of Jesus—that he would be crucified and would rise three days later. Saying that they feared that his disciples would steal his body to fake a resurrection, they warned the governor of this possibility. “You have a guard,” he reminded them, speaking of the Temple soldiers. He gave them permission to guard the tomb, and also to place a seal on the stone, making it a crime for anyone to move the stone (Matthew 27:62-66).

During the Sabbath, Jesus rested, his body dead and buried, and his soul in the hands of his Father in Paradise (Luke 23:43 and 46). Sunday morning he rose to life again, soul and body recombined. He did not need the stone removed for him to leave the tomb, but the stone had to be removed for others to see that he had risen. Meanwhile, the risen Jesus proclaimed his victory over the spirits of those who had died resisting his commands (I Peter 3:19-20).

The women from Galilee got up before sunrise to take their spices to the tomb (Matthew 28:1, John 20:1). They were probably staying in the suburbs, so their journey took a while. As they traveled the sun rose (Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1). There was an earthquake (Matthew 28:2), perhaps an aftershock from Friday’s quake. As the earth shook, an angel descended from heaven, threw the stone out of place, and sat upon it (Matthew 28:2-3). Instead of arresting the angel for moving the sealed stone, the guards fainted (Matthew 28:4). (There were probably only two or three of them; how many guards are needed to guard a tomb?) They must have revived quickly and slunk away; no mention is made of their presence when the women arrived at the tomb.

When she saw that the stone had been removed (Mark 16:4, John 20:1-2), Mary Magdalene immediately left the other women and ran to where Peter and John were staying. “They have taken the Lord’s body,” she told them, “and we don’t know where they have laid him” (John 20:2). While this was happening, the other women entered the tomb. They saw the linen in which Jesus had been wrapped, now clearly not containing a body (Luke 24:3). They also saw two angels. (Matthew and Mark mention only one angel; Luke mentions two. Since Matthew and Mark do not say “only one angel,” they are not contradicting Luke’s report of two angels. In the same way, Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention Joseph burying Jesus without mentioning Nicodemus. Only John mentions the help of Nicodemus. But the first three writers do not say that he acted alone, so there is no contradiction. It would be difficult for one man to mummify the corpse of another.) The first angel said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) The second angel said, “Do not be afraid; I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen. See the place where they laid him?” pointing to the empty pile of linen (Matthew 28:5-6, Mark 16:6 ). The first angel added, “Remember how he told you in Galilee that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and rise again on the third day?” (Luke 24:6-7) The women remembered his words and started to understand what had happened (Luke 24:8). The second angel said, “Go tell the disciples, and Peter” (Mark 16:7—Peter had recently denied being a disciple of Jesus), “that he is risen and will meet them in Galilee” (Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:7). The women left with mixed feelings, a combination of fear and joy, as they were starting to understand and believe in the news of the resurrection, but they still were frightened. At first they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:8).

Their outlook changed on the way into Jerusalem when they met Jesus. They worshiped him, and he reaffirmed the angel’s message to tell the disciples that he would meet them in Galilee (Matthew 28:9-10). Meanwhile, Peter and John—having been told part of what was happening—raced to the tomb. John, being younger, arrived first, but lingered outside the tomb. Peter barreled past him and entered the tomb, seeing the empty pile of linen but not seeing or hearing any angels. John also entered the tomb and started to understand what had happened, but Peter remained befuddled (John 20:3-10 ; Luke 24:12 mentions Peter’s visit).

Peter and John returned to the city. Mary Magdalene must have followed them back to the tomb, because when they left she was alone in the garden (John 20:11). First she saw two angels in the tomb and spoke with them (John 20:12-13), then she turned and saw Jesus. Thinking he was the gardener, she asked him what he had done with the body of Jesus. When Jesus spoke her name, she recognized him and grabbed his feet, worshiping him (John 20:14-16). “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said (not “Don’t touch me,” as some translations say), and he sent her to the disciples with a message like that he had sent through the other women (John 20:17). (Mark 16:9 says Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. This does not mean his first appearance of the day, but the first appearance in Mark’s list.)

Meanwhile, the guards who had fainted at the sight of an angel reported to the chief priests what had happened. (This shows that they were Temple guards, not Roman soldiers.) They were paid money to spread the story that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus from under their noses (Matthew 28:11-15).

To be continued tomorrow… J.


Christ is risen!

The moon, two days past full, was hanging in the western sky as the women from Galilee left the place where they were staying. They had come to Jerusalem with Jesus, but on Friday he had been crucified. Joseph and Nicodemus claimed his body, burying it in a family tomb recently acquired by Joseph. They wrapped the body of Jesus with strips of linen, along with seventy-five pounds of myrrh mixed with aloe. The women watched the burial from a distance. They were not satisfied; they knew they could do a better job.

On the Sabbath the women rested. They arose before dawn, though, gathered their spices for burial, and began walking to the tomb. The sun rose while they traveled, and as it rose the earth shook, perhaps an aftershock from Friday’s earthquake. The women did not worry about the earthquake; their only concern was who would help them move the heavy stone away from the entrance to the tomb.

When they came close to the tomb, they saw that the stone had been moved—not merely rolled to one side, but thrown out of its place. One of the women abandoned the others and rushed into Jerusalem to tell Jesus’ disciples that something had happened. The other women went into the tomb. The strips of linen were there, but the body of Jesus was missing. The women saw a mystery. Tomb robbers would not have stripped the corpse bare in the tomb. Yet the evidence of a miracle did not, at first, convince them of anything.

Two angels appeared in the tomb and spoke to the women. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” one asked them. “He is not here; he has risen.” The other angel added, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that he Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” The women then remembered his words. They believed, not because of what their eyes saw or because of what their brains perceived, but because of the power of the words of Jesus as they were spoken to them.

Miracles do not create faith. They strengthen the faith of believers, but nonbelievers can always find another explanation for a miracle. Jesus said in one of his parables, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Paul wrote to the Romans, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Thomas did not believe the news that Jesus was risen; he demanded physical evidence. When Jesus provided that evidence, Jesus added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Faith is a blessing, a gift from God, which is granted to his people by the power of his Word.

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). We cannot travel back to Jerusalem this Easter Day to visit the empty tomb, to see the strips of linen, or to talk with angels. We do not need to make that trip. By his Word Jesus grants faith and strengthens faith. We celebrate his resurrection today, joyful and confident that all his promises are true. Our sins are forgiven. Our enemies are defeated. Eternal life is guaranteed. Jesus lives, and because he lives we will live also. J.

Easter and Opening Day

Two special days happen every spring. Sometimes they are a couple of weeks apart, sometimes they happen the same week, but only rarely do they fall on the same day. This year, 2015, they fell on the same day.
One of those special days is Easter. Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. His resurrection provides hope of our resurrection. His resurrection provides hope that our sins are forgiven and that we will live forever in God’s new creation. His resurrection provides hope that all God’s enemies (who also are our enemies) have been defeated.
The other special day is called Opening Day. Specifically, Chicago Cubs Opening Day. After weeks of practice games that don’t count, on Opening Day the games begin to matter. In my lifetime, the Cubs have not played many post-season games. Every spring, though, has had an Opening Day to celebrate. On that day, it is possible to hope that the Cubs will have a good season, one good enough to bring them to the postseason. At the start of Opening Day, all the teams are equal. Every fan of every team can approach Opening Day with hope.
Both these special days in early spring deal with hope, but the hopes are not the same. If I say, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,” I might get my wish, or I might not. If I say, “I hope the Cubs win the game today,” I might get my wish, or I might not. When I say, “Heaven is my hope,” I am talking about a guarantee. Jesus has lived a sinless life. He has suffered and died on a cross to pay for the world’s sins. He has risen from the dead. Our Easter hope does not disappoint us, because Christ has triumphed. Our Easter hope does not disappoint us, because God always keeps his promises.
Baseball is only a game. What Jesus did in Holy Week was no game. That week he fought and won the ultimate battle in the war between God and evil. Jesus took all the sins of history on himself and made them go away. Jesus faced the devil and crushed the devil’s head. Jesus died so he could remove the power of death and provide a resurrection for all his people, for everyone who trusts and believes his promises.
I truly hope that some year soon, some year in my lifetime, the Cubs win it all. I would like to see them celebrate a World Series victory. When the Cubs are champions, their fans all over the world will celebrate. Thousands of fans in the stands will cheer, and millions watching the game on television will cheer. All of us will shout, “We won! We won!” That shout is rather strange, actually, because the fans don’t win anything. Only the players on the team really contribute to the victory. The players who throw the ball, hit the ball, and catch the ball are the ones who won. Yet they don’t mind sharing their victory. They don’t mind that the fans say “we won” instead of “they won.”
Easter is much the same. All over the world Christians gather in churches and celebrate Christ’s victory. Essentially, we say, “We won! We won!” Yet only Jesus lived a sinless life. Only Jesus died on the cross to defeat evil in the world. Only Jesus rose from the dead on Easter to proclaim his victory. Yet Jesus does not mind that his people celebrate Easter and say, “We won.” Jesus wants to share his victory. He wants to make us more than conquerors—winners who did not have to fight to gain a victory. Jesus does not call us fans. He makes us members of his team. Then Jesus goes out and wins. And the win was provided, not by a home run, but by a sacrifice.