When I saw the Gospel reading for today, I was immediately reminded of scripture scholar Dr. Brant Pitre’s analysis of this passage, and I thought I would share it with you all today. He digs deep into the text and gives a beautiful reflection on how the universality of the Church is itself a sign of Christ’s divinity and resurrection. The Gospel today is meant to make us think about whether we are placing our trust in God, and whether we know where to seek the true signs of God’s presence in our lives instead of being distracted by the misleading “signs” in the world around us. If we look with clear vision, we will see that we have in fact been given the most incredible signs of God’s love and divinity that we can imagine, but they are not the type of signs we thought we might find—not simple directives from God, but something much deeper and more meaningful, something that places us in active relationship with Him.
The following is taken from Pitre’s recent book The Case for Jesus:
What is the meaning of this mysterious “sign of Jonah”? And what does it have to do with the resurrection of the Son of Man after three days in the “heart of the earth”?
True confession: for years, when I read this passage, I went away somewhat underwhelmed. With all due respect to Jesus, I always felt like the comparison between Jonah being in the belly of the whale for three days and the Son of Man being in the “heart of the earth” for three days was, well, somewhat forced. Don’t get me wrong—I got the parallel: three days and three nights. But this didn’t seem to me to be the most impressive prophecy of the resurrection you could come up with. Moreover, lots of readers find the story in the book of Jonah to be so unbelievable. How could anyone actually stay alive for “three days and three nights” in the belly of a whale, or a fish, or whatever it was?
And then one day I went back and actually read the book of Jonah, carefully, and in its original Hebrew. And do you know what I found? I found that the problem wasn’t with Jesus; it was with me. (I’m learning that this is usually the case.) For if you read the book of Jonah carefully, you will discover something interesting: the author of the book never claims that Jonah remained alive for three days and three nights in the fish. Sure, that’s what all the children’s Bibles and movies and sermons say, but not the text itself. In fact, it pretty explicitly says that Jonah died and went to the realm of the dead. Don’t take my word for it; go back and look for yourself, without skipping Jonah’s prayer (like I used to do):
Notice three key points here. First, when Jonah says that he cried out to God from “the belly of Sheol” and “the Pit,” these are standard Old Testament terms for the realm of the dead (Psalm 139:7–8; Job 17:13–16; 33:22–30). Second, when Jonah says that his “soul” (Hebrew nephesh) fainted within him, this is another way of saying that he died. In other words, Jonah’s prayer is the last gasp of a dying man. Thus, when the fish vomits Jonah out onto the land, it is vomiting up his corpse. Finally, with all this in mind, notice what God’s first word to Jonah is: “Arise” (Hebrew qûm). This is the same Semitic word that Jesus uses when he raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead and says to her: “Talitha cumi,” meaning “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mark 5:41). In other words, the story of Jonah is the story of his death and resurrection.
But that’s not all. For as any first-century Jew would have known, the climax of the book of Jonah is not his miraculous “arising” after being vomited out by the fish; it is the even more miraculous repentance of the Gentile city of Nineveh…. It is hard to overstate how staggering this would be to a first-century Jewish reader, who would have known that Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, one of Israel’s fiercest pagan enemies (see 2 Kings 15–18; Tobit 13). Once the identity of the Ninevites is clear, it becomes apparent that the real miracle in the book of Jonah is the repentance—one might even say the “conversion”—of the Gentiles.
What does all this mean for how Jesus understands his own death and resurrection? Once the biblical background of his proclamation about Jonah is clear, everything he says makes perfect sense. To begin with, the scribes and Pharisees demand a “sign” from Jesus—that is, a miracle of some sort meant to prove who he really is (Matthew 12:38). In response, Jesus declares that the only “sign” that will be given to his generation is the sign of the prophet Jonah. What is this miraculous sign? Scholars debate whether it refers to the miraculous rescue of Jonah or the miraculous repentance of the Gentiles. The answer is both. And the same thing is true of the sign of the Son of Man. The “sign of Jonah” is both the resurrection of the Son of Man on the third day and the repentance of the Gentiles that will follow his resurrection….
Indeed, how does one explain the universality of the Church? I guess you could argue that it was a coincidence. I guess you could claim that the many passages in the Old Testament prophesying that one day the pagan nations of the world would turn and worship the God of Abraham just happened to take place after the death and resurrection of Jesus (see Isaiah 2:1–3; 25:6–8; 66:18–21; Jeremiah 3:15–18; Micah 4:1–2; Zechariah 8:20–23). I guess you could also claim that these mass conversions among the pagans just happened to coincide with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who just happened to live and die at the very time that the book of Daniel said the Messiah would come. And I guess you could believe that after Jesus was crucified, the tomb just happened to be inexplicably empty and hundreds of disciples of Jesus began claiming to have seen him alive again in his body. I guess you could claim all this. I, for one, prefer the simpler explanation. Jesus of Nazareth was right. The Son of Man was crucified. The Son of Man was buried. The Son of Man was raised on the third day. The tomb was empty. It still is. And the Gentiles turn to the God of Israel in droves. Because something greater than Jonah is here.
Image: Gustave Doré / PD-US