The Sign of the Prophet Jonah

The Sign of the Prophet Jonah

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

(Olivet Church, Toronto – April 29, 2007)

revcooper.ca

A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. (MAT 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.

Perhaps 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 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 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 any one’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’d 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 both MAT 12 and MAT 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 said, and what He actually did. 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 show 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 we should remember Jonah’s prayer: 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. (JON 2:5,6) AMEN.

Hear now the Word of the Lord as it is written in …

First Lesson: JON 2:1-10

(Jonah 2) Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the fish’s belly. {2} And he said: “I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, And He answered me. “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice. {3} For You cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the floods surrounded me; All Your billows and Your waves passed over me. {4} Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight; Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’ {5} The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; The deep closed around me; Weeds were wrapped around my head. {6} 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. {7} “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; And my prayer went up to You, Into Your holy temple. {8} “Those who regard worthless idols Forsake their own Mercy. {9} But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.” {10} So the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. Amen.

Second Lesson: MAT 12:38-42, 16:1-4

(Mat 12:38-42) Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” {39} But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. {40} “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. {41} “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. {42} “The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here.

(Mat 16:1-4) Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven. {2} He answered and said to them, “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; {3} “and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times. {4} “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” And He left them and departed. Amen

Third Lesson: AE 706:6

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 belly1 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. Amen.

Here end the lessons. Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it. Amen.


1 The Greek has “heart,” as also found in AC 2798.

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Feeding the 5,000

Sermon: Feeding the 5,000

This is the audio from the sermon I gave yesterday, Sunday, January 30, 2011, at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.  The lessons are Exodus 16:1-5,13-15, 31; Mark 6:31-44; and Arcana Coelestia 5405.  Although if I had to do it again, I think I’d change the Heavenly Doctrine lesson to Divine Providence 133:

The effect, however, of miracles on the good and on the wicked is different. The good do not desire miracles, but they believe those recorded in the Word; and if they hear anything concerning a miracle they give it their attention only as an argument of no great weight that confirms their faith; for their thoughts are derived from the Word, consequently from the Lord, and not from the miracle. It is otherwise with the wicked. They may indeed he driven and compelled to a faith by miracle’, and even to worship and to piety, but only for a short time. For their evils are shut in, and the lusts of their evils and the delights springing from these lusts continually act upon their external of worship and piety; and in order that their evils may emerge from their confinement and break forth, they reflect upon the miracle and at length call it an amusing artifice or a natural phenomenon, and so return to their evils. Now he who after worship returns to his evils profanes the truth and good of worship; and the lot after death of those who commit profanation is the worst of all. These are they who are meant by the Lord’s words in Matt. xii. 43, 44, 45, whose last state is worse than their first. Moreover, if miracles were to be wrought with those who do not believe from the miracles in the Word, they would be performed continually, and in view of all such persons. From these considerations it may be evident why miracles are not wrought at this day.

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Introductory Remarks on Miracles.

Introductory Remarks on Miracles.

Q. What do you mean by a Miracle?

A. A Miracle is the manifestation of a supernatural Power controlling, in some degree, the Common or established laws of nature.

Q. How many kinds of Miracles are there?

A. Miracles in general may be referred to two classes, Divine Miracles, and what may be called magical or infernal Miracles.

Q. What do you mean by a Divine Miracle?

A. A Divine Miracle is the exertion and effect of a supernatural agency, exercised by the almighty himself for the benefit of Mankind.

Q. And what do you mean by a magical or infernal Miracle?

A. A magical or infernal Miracle is the exercise and effect of magical and infernal agency, separated from Divine Agency, and in opposition to it.

Q. Can you tell me any instances of this latter agency, as recorded in the word of god?

A. It is written in the book of Exodus, that when Moses lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants, all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood; and the fish that were in the river died, and the river stunk, etc. And it is then added, that the Magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments, (Exod. 7:20, 21, 22). Again, it is declared by Jesus Christ, that in the latter days there shall arise false Christs and false Prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that) if it were possible, they shall deceive even the very elect, (Matt. 24:24). The beast also in the Revelation is described as doing great wonders, so as to make fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men, and deceives them that dwell on the earth by those Miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the Beast, (Matt. 13:13, 14)

Q. Can you see any reason why the almighty should permit his enemies to exercise a miraculous power in opposition to himself and to his kingdom?

A. Yes: there is every good reason to suppose that the almighty grants this permission for the sake of His own children, or with a view to the trial of their faith, and to its further confirmation in consequence of such trial. For the necessary effect of an infernal or magical Miracle on the mind of a well-disposed person must be to induce doubt respecting the truth of a Divine Miracle, and the result of that doubt would be a clearer discrimination between the two classes of Miracles, and thus finally a rejection of the infernal or magical Miracle, and an establishment of the power and validity of the Divine Miracle.

Q. And what do you conceive to be the discrimination between these two kinds of Miracles?

A. The discrimination is grounded, not so much in the external aspect or form of the two kinds of Miracles, as in their internal characters and qualities. For the internal quality and character, which distinguishes the Divine Miracle is, that it is representative and expressive of the Divine and Spiritual Principles which give it birth. Thus, when Jesus Christ raised the dead to life, this Miracle contained in its inward bosom a Divine and living Principle, and was thus expressive of the operation of that Principle, not only in imparting new life to a dead body, but also in imparting new and spiritual life to a dead soul, by raising it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. This was the case too with all the other Miracles worked by that incarnate god, every one of which was thus figurative of a divine operation exercised, not on matter only, but on spirit also, producing in the latter an effect corresponding to that which was produced in the former. But in the case of magical or infernal Miracles, no such internal principle was operative, and of course no such principle could be expressed, and therefore the Miracle was a mere outward and dead form, without animation from any spiritual principle of life whatever.

Q. What then would  you suppose was the immediate design of the lord’s Miracles?

A. In the first place, his Miracles were incontestable proofs to all his followers of a divine supernatural agency, and not only so, but of a divine mercy and loving-kindness. Thus they produced a double effect on all his penitent disciples, convincing their understandings, in the first place, of the divinity of their lord and master; and, in the next place, operating on their wills, by making them sensible of His divine tenderness and compassion towards the children of men. It is therefore well to be understood, that it was not the intention of His Miracles, to make converts to his doctrine, since there is every reason to believe that no one cart be converted to the Truth by any miraculous testimony whatsoever, agreeable to what is intimated in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, where it is written, If they hear not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead. Accordingly Jesus Christ testifies in another place, If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of god ; instructing us by these words, that the qualification to admit the evidence of divine doctrine does not arise so much from miraculous testimony, as from a sincere desire to do the will of god, thus from a well-disposed heart and life. Accordingly the unbelieving Jews were not convinced by our lord’s Miracles, nor does it appear to have been his intention to promote their conviction in that way, and therefore he says in another place, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh for a sign, but there shall no sign be given. The conclusion therefore is, that the lord’s Miracles were intended for the confirmation of the faith of his pious followers; but not for the conviction and conversion of those who had no previous disposition or inclination to become his followers.

Q. But in the Scriptures of the New Testament, mention is made of Signs as well as of Miracles,—how do you distinguish between a Sign and a Miracle?

A. By a Sign is to be understood a divine supernatural agency operative on the understandings of men, and thereby producing conviction respecting religious Truth, which conviction, so far as it relates to the understanding, may at any time be worked by the almighty, and would at all times be wrought, if it was agreeable to the order of his providence, and conducive to the regeneration and consequent salvation of mankind. But inasmuch as such conviction of the understanding, separate from the conversion of the will, would be of no avail, or rather would be injurious to man, by rendering him the subject of a more severe condemnation, supposing him to be unfaithful to it, therefore such signs are not given, and to seek them is declared by Jesus Christ to be the proper mark and character of an evil and adulterous generation. Miracles, on the other hand, do not produce conviction of the understanding only, but are intended to affect the will, as was above observed, and therefore Miracles are vouchsafed of the divine mercy for the reasons above mentioned, because Divine Miracles have a representative signification, by virtue of which they become instructive and edifying to all those who are in a state of mind capable of being benefited by them, in other words, who are in a state of mind sincerely desirous both to know and to do the whole will of their heavenly father.

Q. How ought you then to be affected by a sense of the lord’s Miracles?

A. With unfeigned adoration both of His divine power and divine goodness, manifested in every Miracle which He performed. I ought also to be rightly affected with the significative sense of every Miracle, and with this view to explore attentively what their distinct signification is, that so I may gain a clearer insight into the nature of the divine operation. Lastly, I ought to consider, and to consider seriously, that Jesus Christ, in his adorable mercy, is ever disposed to work all his Miracles in my own mind and life, and since this cannot be done, only so far as I co-operate freely with him in the working of such Miracles, therefore I ought to consider further, that I am appointed, under him, to perform the same Miracles, agreeable to His own declaration, where He says concerning every one of His true followers, The works that I do shall he do also, and greater works than these shall he do, because I go to the Father, (John 14:12), I am resolved therefore now on to pay due attention to the meaning and import of every Divine Miracle, and to take heed to my own conduct and conversation, that I may always be in a fit state to be a subject of the Miraculous Operation of my god and saviour, and may thus co-operate with Him in the removal of all my natural infirmities, ignorances and disorders, until I be finally restored, through his Divine Agency, to the full and complete order of that heavenly life, which He is ever willing to re-establish in every principle and degree both of my soul and body. amen.