In talking about Himself, Jesus used the story of Jonah to illustrate His place in this world. He told those seeking a sign from Him that the only sign they would get would be the sign of the prophet Jonah:
“…An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonah: For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-40).
The words of Jesus here, in one sense, point to His days in the tomb after the Cross and to the triumph of His resurrection. But there is something more to the answer that He gave to the scribes and Pharisees who questioned His identity, His authority, and His mission.
In mentioning Jonah, Jesus seems to be making a rather strange comparison. Jonah was a prophet of God who wound up in the belly of a great fish. This prophet was a disobedient man who ran, hid, slept, and sulked in fulfilling the mission God called him to execute. Jesus, in contrast, fulfilled all the Law. He was obedient to every detail of God’s plan regarding the life He lived and offered to secure our redemption.
The sea creature was sent by God to swallow Jonah and get him back to the purpose at hand, which was preaching to the city of Nineveh. The fish, however, could not digest Jonah and, eventually, the prophet was vomited out onto a shore, one of the more inglorious exits ever described. This emergence is quite unlike the descriptions in the gospels that relate to Jesus and the tomb. At the resurrection of our Lord, the earth shook, the stone was rolled away, the Roman guards were stunned, and angels made proclamations.From the beginning, the world had no room for Jesus. Click To Tweet
What was Jesus really trying to tell His questioners?
I think the point He was making was this one: As Jonah was out of place inside the fish, so Jesus was out of place in this world’s system. Christ stood apart — and has always stood apart — from the religious, political, and social boxes constructed by men.
The life of Christ spoke and shook people to the core. His presence was rarely comfortable, especially for those unwilling to embrace His message, a call to come unto Him, leave burdens behind, and take up His easy yoke (see Matthew 11:28-30).
From the beginning, the world had no room for Jesus. So crowded was Bethlehem in the days of His birth that Mary delivered the Son of God in a manger, a cave-like place where animals gathered to feed. Later, Jesus would say of Himself that “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20; Luke 9:58).
Challenges to Jesus
Think of the big fish that tried to swallow Jesus. There was the Roman Empire, embodied in the Herods and Pontius Pilate. These men did what they could to devour the King of kings and quash His movement. Babies were slaughtered. John the Baptist was beheaded. Christ was battered and crucified in violation of statute and decency.
Did any of these things frustrate the purpose of God? They did not.
The Temple and the Sanhedrin Council formed a big religious fish in Jerusalem. These men and their carnal merchandising operation turned the way of Moses into a stream of profits built on traditions and the fears of the people. Aaron had fashioned a golden calf in the wilderness, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes cobbled together a cash cow — a system of money-changing and sacrifice that turned God’s house of prayer into a den of thieves.
Jesus strode through the Temple with zeal and a whip of small cords. This system, He could not tolerate. His actions sparked a conspiracy against Him, a confederation that would combine religion and government to put Him away. This “fish” could not digest the Truth incarnated in the Person of Jesus.
Socially, a big fish opened its mouth in John 6. Jesus fed five thousand and there was a buzz among the people. Poverty was prevalent in Judea and here was Someone with power to feed. They would force the issue upon Jesus and champion Him as King.
Imagine the platform: Bread! More than enough for all! Jesus for Emperor! It would have been a powerful populist movement for sure.
How did Jesus respond? He sensed it, heard the buzz, and retreated to a mountain alone to pray.
The Challenges Today
Big fish come and go. They are there for us to read about in the pages of history. They attempted to swallow Jesus, His message, and His church. There are active fish today. We see and feel them as believers. Secular thinking and carnal religious systems seek to bite and devour Christ and the Christian message.
How should we respond? As Jonah did in the belly of the fish. Let us give thanks to God and proclaim that salvation is of the Lord (see Jonah 2:8-10).
Jesus does have His place on earth, in the midst of this world system. His place is in us. Proverbs 8:31 tells us that God rejoices in the habitable part of “His earth” and that His delights are with the sons of men.
God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that with new hearts and new capacities we can be filled with the Spirit. He lives in us, His people, the ones who have cast themselves upon Him and His salvation.
That’s the message. That’s the answer for the great fish seeking to swallow us. Our Light shall shine in the darkness and reveal Him.
Want to hear more about Jesus in us? Listen to “Christmas Presence — Room for the Light in Us” preached by Thomas Schaller at Greater Grace Church in Baltimore.