THE SIGN OF THE PROPHET JONAH A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
Preached in Westville, South Africa April 1990
“A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt. 16:4).
The scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees were often found nearby when the Lord was preaching to the crowds that followed Him everywhere He went during the last stages of His ministry. Each of these three groups of Jewish leaders had something to fear from the Lord, because His teaching threatened the established order, the order from which they themselves benefited and derived their power. Skeptics and scoffers, they tried to discredit Jesus, to turn the crowd’s adoration and attention into laughter and scorn; and so, as the Lord taught, they would call out to Him, asking for a sign, a testimony, some miracle that would prove that the things He taught about would actually come to pass. They were demanding proof of Him, and as they were sensual, natural men, they would not believe unless there was some sign that they could hold onto with their own hands, see with their own eyes. If they could not feel it with their own senses, as far as they were concerned it did not exist. They demanded a miracle because they believed He could not give them one. In their hearts, they wanted Him to fail.
The Lord performed many miracles while He was in the world, as we all well know. He performed miracles of feeding by changing the water into wine, and feeding the 4,000 and 5,000 from a few loaves and fishes. He performed miracles of healing natural illnesses and of spiritual illnesses. He even raised the dead. Ultimately, His greatest miracle was the redemption of mankind by raising Himself from the dead, but we shall speak more of this later.
The Lord used miracles throughout His ministry, and yet we are taught in the Heavenly Doctrines that miracles compel belief, and as compelled belief is not free, so miracles are no longer permitted. We wonder, therefore, why the Lord used miracles at that time but not now, and what special conditions existed that permitted Him to perform miracles and yet allow all men spiritual freedom.
I think the answer lies in mankind’s incredible ability to ignore anything they see that does not agree with what they already believe, or even what they would like to believe. Remember the story of the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt. Here was a group of slaves who witnessed one of the most incredible series of events that has ever taken place in the natural world: the ten plagues upon Egypt. They saw rivers turn to blood, darkness descend upon the land for days on end, and pestilence descend only on the Egyptian lands and flocks but not on their own. They witnessed the passover, where every Egyptian first-born died in one night, and finally they saw Pharaoh’s army drowned as the Red Sea closed over them.
When we read these passages and try to imagine what these things must have been like, we think that surely if we had seen those things, there would be no question that we would believe in the power of God with all our heart! From that moment on, we would obey His every word! And then we read that within a few days of this experience, the Children of Israel were complaining that Jehovah had brought them into the wilderness to kill them, and were dancing around the golden calf.
We have an incredible ability to ignore the obvious. It comes with the gift of freedom of thought in spiritual things. If a person is to be truly free to think about and believe in things from the Word, he must also be free to think about and believe in all manner of absurd and false ideas.
The Lord performed miracles in the world knowing this, and the miracles He performed did not in any way remove anyone’s freedom, but instead served several important uses. First, they served as a confirmation to those who already believed. A married couple knows rationally that they are in love, but they also enjoy confirming their love with kisses and embraces. Kisses and embraces in themselves cannot cause love to occur where it does not already exist, but if love is there, the outward signs and gestures confirm it with them. This in itself is a miracle! But no one has ever been forced to love someone against his will through a simple kiss. A kiss does not cause, or force, love, but confirms and enhances the love that is already there.
In the same way, there was no danger of anyone’s freedom being taken away by the Lord’s miracles. We can imagine a skeptic who had been to see the Lord reporting to his friends that, “Yes, I saw Jesus heal a blind man, but it must have been a trick. I didn’t know the man. He was probably just pretending to be blind.” On the other hand, we can imagine one who was hungry for the Lord’s teachings saying to his friends that he had heard the Master preach words of the hope of spiritual life, “and when He gave sight to that blind man it was as if He opened my own eyes, for then for the first time I truly saw the truth in what He had been teaching.”
We can imagine that many people in those days maintained a tough, skeptical outer shell, for they were hard times, both naturally and spiritually. Many people longed for the Messiah to come, but there had been other claims that had proved false. Many claimed to be prophets in those troubled times, and few of them gave any satisfaction. The Lord performed the miracles to move these skeptics, to make sure that they heard of His deeds, to make sure that they would be curious enough to come and see just once; for once they heard Him speak, they would be moved by His words and be converted. We can see that the Lord used miracles to gather crowds to Himself, and also to help them to confirm their belief in Him.
But the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees were a different matter. There was no question that these groups did not have any desire to listen to the Lord. They sought only to discredit Him in any way they could. When they asked Him for a sign, as recorded in Matthew chapters 12 and 16, He responded to them in apparent anger, calling them “adulterers” and a “wicked generation” (text). He told them that the only sign they would accept would be the sign of the prophet Jonah, and this would be the sign that He would give them.
To this day, when we speak of the prophet Jonah, the first thing that springs to mind is the memory of the story of Jonah and the whale, for this is one of the most memorable stories in all of Scripture. It has all the elements of a great story: it begins with a call to a Divine mission; then there is Jonah’s attempt to flee from the Lord; the drama of the storm which would sink the innocent ship unless Jonah confesses his crime and is punished by being thrown overboard; and the great fish which swallows him whole. It is all fantastic and hard to believe, but possible enough that we want to believe it.
Most of us forget the rest of the things that Jonah did after he escaped from the fish because the story is much less interesting by way of comparison. No doubt, when the Lord told His critics that He would give them the sign of the prophet Jonah, they, being students of Scripture, immediately thought of Jonah in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights before being spewed up on dry land, and wondered what this had to do with proof of the Lord’s claim to be the Messiah.
When we study this story from our own perspective, knowing that the Lord was crucified, was in the grave, and rose on the third day, we can see the connection immediately. We see that the three days in the great fish is a symbol for the three days in the grave, and that being spewed out safe on dry land to go on to preach and to save Nineveh represents that the Lord’s work of redemption was now begun in earnest.
But the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees did not know what was going to happen. They could only guess at what the Lord meant by this, until such time as all the events had actually unfolded. Once the Lord had in fact risen from the grave, then the disciples, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and everyone else who was interested in the Lord’s teachings for whatever reason, finally began to understand what it was all about as they remembered what He had said, and what He actually had done. The message was not only for them, but for the spiritual scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees the skeptics who would read the New Testament in generations to come.
Another important difference between the way we see things today and the way they were viewed at the time of the Lord pertains to the great fish or whales. Today many people see the whale as a gentle and intelligent creature, deserving our protection and care. In ancient times, however, perhaps because boats were smaller and sea travel dangerous, the whale was seen as a dangerous monster. In some passages in the Word “leviathan,” “crooked serpent,” “dragon,” “serpent,” and “whale” are all possible translations of the same word (see AE 714:30). To a certain extent, the way things are perceived by men, and therefore are used in their language, has an effect on the things animals represent. Since both whales and dragons are large and fearsome, their names are linked linguistically, and so the gentle whale comes to have the same representation as the dragon. The whale (and the Heavenly Doctrines are quite specific that it was a whale) represents “scientifics which pervert the truths of faith” (AC 7923:2), and the belly of the whale represents the things which are lowest, or “nearest to the earth” (AC 247).
These representations tell us something about this state of temptation. Do we ourselves not feel that we are “swallowed up” by our own problems? Haven’t we all said about something that frustrates us that it just “kills” us? Do we not sometimes get so wrapped up in “facts” that we miss the truth of the matter?
This is the sign of the prophet Jonah that the Lord gave to all “wicked and adulterous generations.” When we are in temptation and feel spiritually dead, we can know that the Lord has the power to save us, to lift us up out of our states, because He has gone before He has given us the hope of salvation by doing it for Himself first! He has shown us this most important fact about Himself. He has given us the sign that no other prophet could have given the sign of the prophet Jonah.
There have been other prophets who could perform miracles. There have been others who could heal the sick, and even some who have raised the dead. But there is only one who has been dead and then raised Himself from the grave. He did this to show us the way, to show us that death can lead to eternal life, to show us that we have nothing to fear, to help us believe with our hearts what we hold in our thoughts, to lead us up out of the depths of the various hells that we create for ourselves into the heavenly kingdom that has been prepared for us.
When we are in temptation, and when we examine ourselves in preparation for the Holy Supper, we should pray to Him, as Jonah did in the belly of the whale: “The waters encompassed me, even to my soul; the deep closed around me; weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever; yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God” (John 2:5,6). Amen.
Lessons: John 2:1-10; Matt. 12:38-42, 16:1-4; AE 706:6
Apocalypse Explained 706:6
In the Gospels: “The scribes and Pharisees said, Master, we would see a sign from Thee. But He answering, said, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, but no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth” (Matt. 12:38-40; Luke 11:16, 29, 30).
A “sign” plainly means attestation that they may be persuaded and believe that the Lord was the Messiah and the Son of God who was to come, for the miracles that the Lord wrought in abundance, and that they saw, were no signs to them, because miracles, as has been said above, are signs only with the good. “Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale,” and this was taken for a “sign” because it signified the burial and resurrection of the Lord, thus the complete glorification of His Human, “three days and three nights” also signifying completeness.