The Baptism of Jonah (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

2 Kings 14:23-25
Matthew 12:38-40
Jonah 2:1-9

Last week we looked at Jonah 2 and we examined the psalm Jonah composed in the guts of the fish.  The sermon made the point that though Jonah realized the seriousness of his situation and called to the Lord for help, Jonah still refused to admit guilt and showed himself to be self righteous.  However, Jonah got one thing right - perhaps the only thing he gets right.  Jonah was confident he belonged to the Lord and this was the basis of Jonah’s hope.  We then looked at how the entire story of the Bible depends on idea that God wants to be our God and to have us as his people.  This relationship between God and humanity is ultimately fulfilled and realized through Jesus Christ.  

The Southern military general Stonewall Jackson was known as a tactical genius.  However, before he became a general in the army of Northern Virginia, he was a teacher at the Virginia Military Institute.   Apparently, though a great general, Jackson was a terrible teacher. He would memorize his lectures and deliver them in straight monotone.  Worse, if it seemed as though his students had not grasped the lecture he would deliver the exact same lecture word for word again.  

So since our sermon text from last week covered the same verses as this week, you may be forgiven for wondering if I am going to deliver the exact same sermon because I have decided that like Stonewall Jackson’s students you have failed to learn last weeks lesson.  Well I assure you that is not the case.  We are simply going to look at this chapter from a different perspective.  Last week our focus was on the poem, but today we are going to zoom out and look at the events that actually happened to Jonah in chapter 2.  The big point I want to make today is that what Jonah experienced was a picture of baptism and by making that point I want to help us understand baptism better.

As we saw last week, Jonah will compare his experience inside the guts of the fish to death.  In verse 2, Jonah cries from Sheol which was the Hebrew term for the place people went after they died.  In verse 6, Jonah states that his life was brought up from the pit.  The pit was another common term used to describe the realm people passed to after death.  Last week we saw that the line, “you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.” was the central message of Jonah’s song.  So to Jonah what has transpired in chapter 2 was not simply that he had been swallowed and then vomited on shore by a fish, but rather he had passed from to death into life.  Jonah has in a way experienced resurrection.  

We are told that Jonah spends three days and three nights in the great fish.  The phrase “three days and three nights” is a common expression.  It does not mean an exact time period the way we might think of it but an indefinitely long period.  However, we do find examples in ancient near eastern literature where “three days and three nights” is related to the time it takes to journey from the realm of life to death or from death to life.  This was likely because of the widespread belief in the ancient world that death was not permanent until a body showed no sign of life for three days.  

There is a Sumerian myth called “The Descent of Inanna” in which the goddess Inanna journeys to the underworld to retrieve her husband Damuzi.  The myth specifically notes the journey to the underworld took Inanna three days and three nights.  We even find one example in the Old Testament where the phrase “three days and three nights” is used to describe a journey from death to life.    In Hosea 6, there is series of verses describing the future restoration of Israel.  “Come let us return to the Lord, for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down and he will bind us up.  After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up that we may live before him.”  Notice here that it takes three days to bring Israel from death to life.  

So if we apply this knowledge to Jonah chapter 2, we begin by finding him dead, in the underworld of Sheol and after three days and three nights Jonah finds himself alive again on dry land. Having said this, I do not think Jonah literally died and rose again.  He is using poetry - it is exaggerated language.  We find David using similar terminology in the Psalms as he describes his pursuit by King Saul.  What Jonah experienced was to him like being dead and becoming alive again and so Jonah describes his time in the guts of the fish as if that was what happened.

I do think this helps us make sense of one of the most enigmatic passages in the Gospels.  Jesus is confronted by the pharisees who demand a great sign to prove that He is the messiah.  This must have been quite exasperating to Jesus since he has been healing people, casting out demons, calming storms, and teaching with authority.  Of course Jesus will not play the Pharisee’s game because He knows if they have been skeptical up to this point one more sign will not make a difference.  So in typical Jesus style, Jesus decides to blow their minds.  Jesus tells them you are going to get one ultimate sign - the sign of the prophet Jonah.  It is kind of strange because it seems odd that Jesus would pick an example from Jonah of all people.  After all Jonah seems mostly a loathsome person and he is end the fish because he disobeyed God.  Last week we looked at how even though this poem in chapter 2 is on the surface pious, Jonah still does not admit any guilt and is even weirdly self-righteous.  

So why does Jesus use this story of all stories to illustrate the one and ultimate sign He will give the Pharisees?  It turns out that the Jews of Jesus days already associated Jonah’s experience in the great fish with death and resurrection.  In fact there is a collection of Jewish tradition called “The Lives of the Prophets” that holds that Jonah was the widow’s son that Elijah raised from the dead.  Matthew tells us that when Jesus says that He will give the Pharisees the sign of Jonah he is referring to His death and resurrection.  

Jesus also calls his death and resurrection a baptism.  For example, in both Mark and Luke Jesus talks about the cross as a baptism.  So the sign of Jonah helps us to understand why Jesus’ death and resurrection is called a baptism.  Jonah passed through the the dangerous waters, but was saved by a fish provided by the Lord.  The passage we read earlier calls the flood of Noah a baptism. Here again a group of people  passed through dangerous waters, but were saved by an ark provided by the Lord.  1 Corinthians 10 calls the Israelite passage through the Red Sea a baptism.  Another group of people pass through dangerous waters, but were saved by a passage provided by the Lord.  

It is a bit perplexing that these three incidents are compared to baptism because we typically think that baptism represents a cleansing.  Water is used to wash off dirt and so baptism represents the removal of sin represented by the dirt.  I do not think this interpretation is incorrect.  However, I want to suggest that the symbolism of baptism is more varied and rich than simply removal of sin. 

For example listen to how John the Baptist, who we might expect would know a thing or two about baptism, describes baptism.  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear the threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”    

Of course here you need to know something about ancient near easter agricultural practices. When wheat was harvested, it was necessary for the grain to be separated from the indigestible outer coat called the chaff.  Typically the stalk would have been beaten on a rocky surface called a threshing floor which would break the chaff open leaving the grain.  However, the grain and chaff would be all mixed together.  To separate the two a winnowing fork would throw both up in the air.  The heavier grain would fall while the chaff would be blown to the side by the wind.  

So the imagery that John uses here for baptism is very similar to Noah’s flood or the parting of the Red Sea, or Jonah.  In all of these examples a potentially destructive process saves people deemed worthy.

In the ancient world when a case came to trial for judgment it could be difficult to determine guilt or innocence because they could not collect forensic evidence like we might today.   So if you are in charge of administering justice in the ancient world quite often you would have to resort to very different techniques than we would use today.  Think of the case before Solomon where two women who each have a baby but one women loses her baby and claims the other baby is her own.  Solomon’s decision is to cut the baby in half, but before doing so one of the mothers offers to give the baby to the other rather than see the baby split in two.  Solomon of course never intended to carry out the threat, he simply used it as a mean to discover the true mother.  

So one method that would be used in the ancient world to determine guilt or innocence when evidence was lacking was something called the judicial ordeal.  Here is how it worked.  The alleged criminal would be thrown into a raging river and could prove his or her innocence by surviving.  It seems like a bad idea, but the rationale was that the god or gods would prevent the condemnation of an innocent person.  In effect the alleged was placing their fate in the hands of God.  Survival would mean vindication.  

This is exactly what happened during the flood of Noah, the passing of the Red Sea, and in our story of Jonah.  In each case they were subjected to some sort of watery terror that would have resulted in their drowning except for the intervention of the Lord.  At each point God provides a means to survive - in the case of Noah, the Lord provides the ark, in the case of Moses God parts the Red Sea, and with Jonah, God sends a fish.  This is very similar to John’s description of Baptism as a winnowing fork that separates the wheat from the chaff.  

What that means is the when we are baptized, what we are doing is subjecting ourselves to judicial ordeal appealing to God for a verdict.  Baptism then is a statement that we have put our faith and trust entirely in the Lord to save us.  Like Noah, the Israelites fleeing from Pharaoh’s army, and Jonah we depend on God to provide us a way to survive the ordeal.  

The sticky part comes because the truth is we are not innocent no more than Noah, or the Israelites, or Jonah.  A provision must be made and that is where the gospel comes into play.  You see because Jesus was able to face the ultimate ordeal of death and was able to be vindicated in His resurrection.  Colossians says we have been buried with Christ in Baptism.  Christ’s resurrection then proves that He can survive the ordeal, that He has been rendered innocent and the He has been vindicated.  So what Baptism represents in not only an appeal to God for judgment but also an identification with Christ as the One who will bring us through the ordeal as a person declared innocent.   

However, I do not want to stop there because as great as salvation is, the story of Jonah does not stop there.  There is one more point I want to make and I think it is crucial but often neglected one.  Jonah was called to perform a specific task. Jonah had a vocation.  Jonah was commanded to call out against the city of Nineveh and after Jonah is vomited onto dry land we find him journeying to Nineveh to do his job.

Until now I have left out a very important detail about Jonah.  Jonah is actually mentioned one place outside of the book of Jonah.  It was in the passage we read earlier in 2 Kings.  According to this passage, Jonah in his capacity as a prophet spoke the word of the Lord to King Jeroboam II.  We are told the Jeroboam II was a wicked king but in this case at least he listened to what the Lord told Jonah.  The message Jonah had for the king was to restore the borders of Israel from Lebo-Hamath to the Sea of Arabah.  This area is significant because it would be the border between the Kingdom of Israel and the Assyrian Empire.  In fact in Amos 6, we find Amos warning that God would send the Assyrians to oppress Israel from Lebo-Hamath to the Sea of Arabah.  In other words until now Jonah’s call was to be a prophet who was responsible for preparing Israel’s defense against the Assyrians.  Now Jonah’s mission is to go to Assyria and to extend to them a chance to change.  Jonah has gone from building a wall to keep the Assyrians out to crossing the wall and inviting the Assyrians in.  The safety and security Jonah had known had been removed and now rather than establishing a boundary, Jonah was building a bridge.  How does this happen?

There is an important clue in the story.  Like many languages, Hebrew words have gender.  In our story the Hebrew word for fish is dag, which is a masculine.  Something curious happens in chapter 2:2.  The fish is called a daga, which is a female ending.  Interestingly Jewish rabbis explained the gender change by supposing that originally the fish was male but was so roomy that Jonah did not pray so God transferred Jonah to a small female fish provoking his prayer.  

There is another explanation though - remember Jonah is in the belly of the fish which is a general term for the internal organs, not necessarily the stomach. This is why I have been translating it guts.  By tellings us that Jonah was in the belly of a specifically female fish, the text wants us to understand that Jonah is in the womb of the fish.  That means that not only has Jonah passed from death to life, but Jonah has been reborn.  “Truly, truly I say unto you unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Jonah’s experience is not just a judicial ordeal where he is vindicated.  Jonah’s experience is not just about salvation.  Jonah’s experience is a new birth giving him a new purpose and mission.   

We often think about salvation as an end to itself.  What the book of Jonah wants us to see is the transforming power of salvation that changes and reorients our life.  Salvation takes us from a person who builds wall to a person who crosses them.  Who goes to the enemy he once feared and instead offers his enemy hope. Who moves from an “eye for an eye” to “turn the other cheek.”   Salvation is not an end, salvation is a new beginning, and a new mission.  

Jesus rose on a Sunday the first day of the week because what Christ does is usher in a new creation, a new world, and a new mission.  The Church is the instrument Christ has chosen to begin this work.   So for us at Resurrection Church salvation cannot simply be an end but a new beginning that reorients and realigns our priorities that moves from fear and concern for safety and security to vulnerability and sacrifice just as we see in the story of Jonah.  It is what repentance means - a turning. 

Our new obligation is to the kingdom and what Christ tells us is that our allegiance to the old way of doing things is over because it is dying.  The world where power and wealth dominate is over.  The world where exploitation, oppression, and violence is the rule is over. 

 There is a new world being born and Christ’s kingdom is coming to heal, to feed, to serve, to comfort, to bring peace, to welcome, and to include.  Blessed are we if we join in this work because it is the future and Christ’s survival of the ordeal of death and His vindication at the resurrection show us that future is beautiful and that future is certain and it is not only worth changing our lives for but it overwhelms us compelling us to change because once we experience it the old world no longer makes sense.  May we all be transformed and conformed to the image of Christ.