The 72 Hour Sign of Jonah

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

If you happened to read or listen to my last post, you may remember that I promised to write a post about “the duration of internalization.” In case you do not recall what I meant by that very catchy, rhyming phrase — “the duration of internalization” — please let me recap and explain. Jesus once said that he would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights, just as Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a humongous fish (think whale). By the way, the passage I am referencing here is Matthew 12:38-42. Go check it out, if you’re so inclined. In saying what he said about the three days and three nights, Jesus was prophesying that though he would indeed die, he would not be dead and buried for long — not long at all. Jesus referred to this “duration of internalization” as the Sign of the Prophet Jonah. And Jesus made a big deal about this promised sign. It was to be the one and only validating sign for that “evil and adulterous generation.” His foretold death, his brief burial, and his resurrection would be the sign or validation that Jesus was whom he claimed to be.

Alright, and if you’re familiar with the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, you know that after Jesus was crucified, his corpse was interred in a donated grave for about two days. But on the morning of the third day, Jesus rose again bodily from the dead. Therefore, the promised Sign of the Prophet Jonah came to pass, just as Jesus foretold.

But hang on. More detail-oriented people might notice a discrepancy. They might notice that Jesus was technically not in the grave for a total of three days and three nights. He was only in the grave for two nights (which we would refer to as Friday night and Saturday night) and just one complete day (Saturday), plus the latter portion of Friday and a few early hours on Sunday. So, what are we to make of the discrepancy? A stickler might insist that for the prophecy and the sign to be true, Jesus must have been interred for around 72 hours, not roughly 36 hours. 

A lot of people will just shrug and say, “Whatever, close enough.” But Jesus did say three days and three nights. Mathematically, that is 24+24+24 hours, which equals 72 hours. And 72 is definitely not equal to 36. So, again, what are we to make of the glaring discrepancy?

An Idiom? A Synecdoche? Or Literal?

What does it matter? Well, it does not matter to a lot of people. The non-sticklers don’t really worry about it, since they can easily point to a Friday, a Saturday, and a Sunday, so close enough. But the sticklers and literalists do worry about it. They want accuracy, especially since Jesus seemed to be so exact and specific.

It is on basis of this 72 hour Sign of Jonah in Matthew 12:40 that some Bible scholars have suggested that maybe, just maybe Jesus was not crucified on a Friday after all, but on a Wednesday or a Thursday. However, they are demonstrably wrong about that. Still, you can understand why they suggest what they suggest. They want the 72 hours to be accurate. Understandably, they want Jesus’ duration-of-internalization prophecy to be precise. And it bothers them that the traditional timeline just does not fit. 

Why, then, do I insist that the traditional timeline is correct? Well, because 1) Friday is Friday (the day of preparation before the Sabbath) and Sunday is Sunday (the first day of the week) — and in saying that I am quite serious and not sarcastic; and because 2) biblical and extra-biblical historical details about the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate help nail down a narrow time frame and only a handful of possible dates for the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ; and 3) astronomy in rewind shows that there was a lunar eclipse (that is, a blood moon) over the City of Jerusalem on the evening of Friday, April 3rd 33AD/CE.       

In elaboration on my first point, that Friday is Friday and Sunday is Sunday, the real issue is whether a close study of the four Gospel accounts yields a coherent and convincing timeline of Jesus’ final week, and especially of the pivotal events of the Passover celebrated that Thursday and Friday. The short answer is, upon close examination, yes. Here are two excellent and exhaustive studies: Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ by Harold W. Hoehner (first published in 1973), and Jesus and the Last Supper by Brant Pitre (published in 2015).

Harold W. Hoehner’s book also explains my second point about Pontius Pilate. Said succinctly, due a massive shift in the Roman political scene, in 33 AD/CE Pontius Pilate was much, much more inclined to appease the insistent, bellicose Jewish religious leaders than he had been previously. A friend of his named Sejanus had fallen out of favor with Caesar and had been executed, so Pilate was very afraid of being deemed disloyal to Caesar. Therefore, when the Jewish religious leaders insinuated that Pilate would not be Caesar’s friend if he acquitted Jesus (see John 18:12), he gave into their demands and had Jesus crucified. It was politically expedient to sacrifice Jesus, and thus avoid any accusations of disloyalty to Tiberius Caesar.

As for the final point about the lunar eclipse, Colin J. Humphreys and W.G. Waddington argue in an article from 1992 entitled The Jewish Calendar, A Lunar Eclipse, and the Date of Christ’s Crucifixion that a lunar eclipse over Jerusalem on the evening of Friday, April 3rd 33AD/CE,  was seen and thereafter interpreted as a fulfillment of a prophecy in Joel 2:31. 

Lunar Eclipse

So if Jesus was indeed crucified on Friday, April 3rd 33AD/CE and resurrected on Sunday, April 5th, what about the duration-of-internalization, the Sign of Jonah, the 72 hours?

Some scholars have suggested that the phrase “three days and three nights” was a merely an idiomatic expression. As an idiom, it was not meant to be understood precisely and literally. That may be so. But Jesus could have just said “three days” if he wanted to be a bit vague.  

An explanation I personally find more convincing is that the 72 hours may be precise, but the location of Christ’s confinement be spiritual. The designated location for the duration-of-internalization is the “heart of the earth.” Most interpreters presume that “the heart of the earth” must mean the burial of his crucified corpse in the grave. But what if Jesus’ spiritual experience of hell is actually what is meant instead? What if “the heart of the earth” is a spiritual location instead of a spatial location? Could it be that Jesus meant that he would descend to hell spiritually while he was yet alive on earth physically? After all, Jesus did endure the agonies of hell while on the cross. He may have even begun to experience the agonies of hell while he prayed for a way to escape the cross in the Garden of Gethsemane. Significantly, that would put his experience of the netherworld much, much closer to three days and three nights: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in hell, 72 hours total.

Descensus ad Inferos

Interestingly, the New Testament, the early Church Fathers, and the Apostles’ Creed all give a measure of assent to this particular interpretation. Jesus Christ was not just buried in a tomb. “He descended into hell.”

But what does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth?

Ephesians 4:9

If this is correct, it is interesting that Jesus’ time in hell was not completely a time of anguished suffering. Upon his physical death, Jesus had triumphed over the powers of darkness. When he declared from the cross, “It is finished,” Christ Jesus had completed his mission. He had triumphed. Thereafter, his time in hell was not a time of more agony and suffering, but a time of conquest. It was his triumphal procession, his occasion to proclaim hell’s defeat and his victory.

Glory. 

Sacrificial Love

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The true measure of how much someone loves us is the extent to which they will embrace genuine sacrifice for us. We know that intuitively. We know that someone loves us if and when that person will sacrifice of their time, their resources, their attention, and their agenda for us. But us is the wrong pronoun here. We want that personally. You want that personally. I want that personally. You want someone who will voluntarily embrace sacrifice for just you, yourself. At a deep, deep level that is precisely what each one of us wants. We each want to be loved individually by someone who considers just me and me alone worthy of sacrifice. 

At the same time, many of us doubt our worth, because we know too much about ourselves. I know myself. I know my faults and my failures, my tendencies and my desires. I also have an idea of how I am regarded by others. And you know yourself. You know your faults and failures, your tendencies and your desires. You also have an idea of how you are regarded by others. Since we know what we know about ourselves, we sometimes doubt whether we actually are worthy of sacrificial love. We hope we are. We would like to think that we might be, maybe. But we doubt it, at times.

At the heart of the Christian message is the Cross of Christ. The message is that Jesus Christ was willing to sacrifice himself because he considered us worthy of the cost. He was willing to endure the extreme agony of the brutal, awful cross because he wanted to make reconciliation possible. He loved us. He considered us worth it.

But this only makes sense if Jesus Christ was more than a mere human being. If Jesus was just a historical figure who was executed by the Romans years ago, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that he did what he did because he loves us. It only makes sense if Jesus was somehow more than a mere human. It only makes sense if he was divine, the Son of God. Jesus died for us because he knows us, and knows us in some capacity as God. As part of the eternal Godhead, Jesus loved us and loves us still. And as part of the eternal Godhead, he was was willing to embrace unimaginable sacrifice for us.

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Jesus, speaking of himself in Mark 10:45

Are you worthy of that kind of love? Well, yes and no. Or more accurately, no and yes.

We certainly do not deserve that kind of love. We really are flawed. We really are tainted. We really are guilty. God knows us better than we know ourselves. And that should not necessarily encourage us. God actually knows how vile we can be. God actually knows how crumby our thoughts and intentions are. God knows our worst faults and failures, our ugliest tendencies and our basest desires. He does not sugarcoat or excuse the wrong we have done. He recognizes that we deserve judgment and punishment. God is offended at our failures, even highly offended. Our sin defiles us before God.

But nonetheless, God does not want to punish us. He would rather withhold punishment. Our failures and wrongs put God in a bind. On one hand, we ought to be judged. On the other hand, He wants to show mercy. He wants to show you mercy because He considers you worth the sacrifice. Otherwise, He would not have bothered stooping so low.

Since God loves us, and since His mercy triumphs over judgment, God made a way for us out of our predicament. He shared in our humanity so as to take our punishment. He became a man for our sake. He became mortal and sacrificed himself. God the Father and God the Son agreed to the horror and agony of the Cross. Jesus Christ would sacrifice himself on our behalf, because the justice of God required it, and because God loves us that much.

He gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people for his own possession, eager to do good works.

The Apostle Paul, regarding Jesus, in Titus 2:14.

But there is a catch, a requirement. The catch is that you have to accept Christ’s self-sacrifice as a gift, and give your allegiance to him. He did not die simply because he wants to show you how nice he is. He wants you in return. He wants your love and allegiance in return for the love He showed you. And that is an entirely reasonable expectation and offer. Indeed, that is the best offer you will ever get, bar none.

… and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has set us free from our sins by his blood … to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

From the introductory benediction in the Book of Revelation 1:5-6

If We Disown Him

Thursday, February 25, 2021

If We Disown Him – Audio Version

Can someone cease to be a Christian? 

“Obviously yes. Next question.”

But wait a second: The answer is not an easy and obvious “yes” for someone who takes the Bible seriously. 

Recently, I spoke with a friend of mine about this question, which has ceased to be merely hypothetical and become more immediate. Someone near and dear to him publicly claims to be a believing Christian, but privately fails to behave like one. In essence my friend asked, “Does hypocrisy and moral inconsistency ever disqualify someone from the Christian faith?”

The question of potential disqualification vexes Christians like my friend (and, to a degree, me). If moral inconsistency and blatant hypocrisy do disqualify someone from the Christian Faith, can anyone ever actually remain qualified? Most Christians will readily admit to a degree of inconsistency, and will acknowledge moments of shameful hypocrisy. We call it sin (or, if not, know that we should). And we are supposed to confess sin as such whenever we know we have committed it. 

But can someone simply go too far? Is there a time (or are there times) when someone is no longer a genuine Christian because he or she has sinned too egregiously, or has been too inconsistent for too long? These are important issues, and can be urgent existential questions for those who take their Christian faith seriously. For now, I will restrain myself from launching into ready examples and real-life case studies. Instead, I just want to push the disqualification question to the forefront. It is a question that worries a lot of people, so it requires a good, thoughtful, biblical answer.   

A closely related question is whether a genuine Christian can ever actually abandon the Faith. Can someone become an actual apostate, an ex-Christian? Sadly, on occasion, this is not hypothetical. Sometimes individuals will openly renounce once-held faith in Christ. Sometimes ex-Christians become vocal opponents of Christianity. I once met a woman who was matter-of-fact and outspoken about her status as a former Christian. She did not seem to care that her Christian relatives and friends found her claim extremely worrisome. She had been persuaded to be contrary to Christianity. She was no longer a Believer. To use once-common Christian vernacular, she has lapsed. Yet she was certain that her lapse was more than just a temporary lapse: Hers was a permanent determination and identification. She has voluntarily denied Christ. She is an apostate.

But wait a second, because as a Bible-believing Christian this is disturbing and disorienting: Even a potential lapse from sincere Christian faith seems to contradict some scriptural assurances and promises regarding the unlikelihood thereof or even its impossibility. At the very least, such a scenario does not easily square with statements that Jesus once made about his metaphorical sheep being entirely un-snatch-able (see John 10:28).     

So which is it? Can someone cease to be a Christian or not? Is apostasy a real possibility? 

To make things quicker and easier for my listeners, I am going to fast-forward and skip directly to my theological conclusion here in this paragraph. In classic term-paper style, I am going to state my thesis first, and then give my supporting evidence. But I hesitate. I wonder if I would actually do better to lay out the Scriptural evidence and only thereafter state my conclusion. Hesitation aside, I will argue that the preponderance of relevant Scriptural passages — including some very clear and sharp commands — insist on the continued need for diligent, vigilant, faithful perseverance. That one observation pushes me to the conclusion that it must be possible for some individuals to disobey (through unbelief and persistent sin) to the point of their own damnation. The command to persevere negatively implies that someone might actively choose not to persevere. Although I believe it is quite rare, a person can indeed lapse completely from the Christian Faith, particularly if and when that someone is wholly determined to reject Christ and walk away. Should such a determined lapse occur, it is more than a mere temporary lapse; it is a final, irreversible defection. It is apostasy. According to one especially relevant passage (Hebrews 6:4-8), the apostate defector is thereafter beyond any hope of spiritual recovery. In such a case, the breach cannot and must not be attributed to God. God was faithful to both the defector and to His promises until the final terrible breach of faith occurred. But this is an absolute worst-case scenario. I suspect that God is much more likely to bring someone to an untimely, premature death than to allow such an utterly horrifying occurrence (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-31, which speaks of Christians getting sick and dying because they do not judge themselves properly). Yet we must not claim that no one ever truly goes apostate, because Scripture does allow for it as an open possibility. Again, see Hebrews 6:4-8, in particular.  

However, I need to stress that in most cases of sinful self-justification and moral inconsistency, God patiently works to bring the carnal, back-slidden Christian back to Himself. The inward-dwelling Holy Spirit, although grieved and stifled, persistently calls that person to repentance, again and again, with appeals to his or her memory and conscience. This is by far the most frequent state of spiritual affairs for those who have turned away from obedience to God. Although such a person is estranged from God by rebellion, he or she has not yet completely rejected Christ, and, given the faithful persistence of God, probably never will.  

Bear in mind that God is likened to a parent throughout Scripture — especially to a loving Father. One reason why that is so is because parents have a unique bond with their children, and are especially unlikely to give up on their children, even in the worst situations. A good and loving parent will only sever the relationship with his or her rebellious child if that child is bound and determined to reject the parent, or if the rebellious child endangers the family. God is like any good and loving parent, only more so.    

Now I ought to list and comment on some of the most relevant passages. I have already mentioned Hebrews 6:4-8. Anyone wishing to deny the possibility of outright spiritual defection and bona-fide apostasy needs to adequately grapple with and explain this sobering, scary passage. Most of the time, when it is explained away, it is said to be simply subjunctive, merely hypothetical — an as-if-but-not-actual thought exercise. I wonder why the Holy Spirit would see fit to include a stern Scriptural warning about something that is not really a possibility. On Jesus’ own authority, we take it as a general given that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (see John 16:13), and thus will never warn us against disingenuous scenarios that can never actually occur. The passage is there, and is there for a reason. It is a stern warning against forsaking our faith to the point of apostasy. We should not explain it away.

Hebrews 3:12-13 comes as an earlier warning in the same book. In tone, it anticipates the extreme seriousness and severity of Hebrews 6:4-6. Indeed, it is accurate to say that the entire Book of Hebrews was written to encourage Christians to keep the Faith and not quit. I will return to Hebrews 3:12-13 at the end of this post.  

According to 1 Timothy 4:1 “the Spirit explicitly states that in latter times some will depart from the Faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” Again, Jesus elsewhere identifies the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth. The Spirit (of Truth) clearly states that in latter times some will depart (transliterated: apostatize) from the Faith. How does anyone argue with what the Spirit of Truth clearly states? (Yet some do, and doggedly so.) 

This is how we know what the Original Greek says.

But I should not be rash or dismissive. Why do some people say that Christians cannot actually depart from the faith? To be fair, the real reason is because they correctly say that God loves us, remains ever faithful, and is wholly determined to never let us go. They especially lean upon passages in the Gospel of John, such as John 6:37-40 and John 10:27-30. In those passages, Jesus says that he will “lose nothing” of what God gives to him, and that “no one will snatch” his sheep out of his hand. These are immensely important passages that are especially comforting to anyone prone to worry. I once heard a preacher say that if anyone does harbor the worry that “all is lost and my salvation is now void,” that same worry is a sure and certain sign that their salvation is neither lost nor void. That preacher was very likely right, because such worry probably demonstrates a righteous, God-ward desire. And God will certainly not disown any of the redeemed who do not disown Him (see Psalm 51:17).  

But I need to say more about the twin “eternal security” passages in the Gospel of John. To start, there is another passage in John that points the other direction. In John 15:2, Jesus uses a gardening analogy to assert that bad, unfruitful branches get cut off, but good branches are pruned so as to produce even more fruit. It is interesting to note that Hebrews 6:7-8 uses a nearly identical analogy to warn against the real possibility of apostasy. So there’s that. 

As for the fact that Jesus will “lose nothing” of what God gives him, and that “no one will snatch” his sheep out of his hand, I do admit and think it is fair to say that we might-could conclude that Jesus’ reassuring statements here teach eternal security, except for everything else against eternal security in rest of the Bible. Simply said, there are just too many New Testament passages that point the other direction. Thus we seem to have signposts pointing different directions. Sometimes we do encounter tension and paradox in Scripture. These passages are admittedly paradoxical (but not contradictory). We need to wrestle through the paradox — or just accept the tension — lest we quickly lose our balance.

And how might we lose our balance? We might lose our balance by presuming that someone’s salvation is secure no matter what they say or do, on one hand, or by fearing that some sin means that we are no longer acceptable to God, on the other hand. Salvation is not a ticket that someone can pocket, neglect, and forget. Alternatively, salvation is not a fragile snowflake that evaporates away because of a stubborn, sticky sin. Salvation is instead a security deposit that is guaranteed to be valid, if only it is valued for its worth.

In 2 Timothy 2:11 we find this “trustworthy saying,” which (according to a scholar named Ralph P. Martin) might have been an early Christian baptismal creed or hymn:

If it was an early Christian baptismal creed, this “trustworthy saying” both warns new, initiate Christians against intentional apostasy and reassures them of Christ’s continual faithfulness. They were warned never to disown Christ, with the threat that if they did, Christ would likewise disown them. But they were reassured that Christ would remain absolutely faithful to them, even if and when they slipped into faithlessness. 

My friend comes immediately to mind here. This particular passage ought to reassure him. Most of the time, faithlessness is our problem, not outright, intentional apostasy. We slip into sin because of our faithlessness. But that is not the same as deliberate “I once believed but now actively oppose Christianity” apostasy.

Finally, I want to return to Hebrews 3:12-13, which reads: 

12 See to it, brothers [and sisters], that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart

that turns away from the living God. 

13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called today, 

lest you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 

Whomever Wrote Hebrews (Scholars Still Debate This)

The danger with sin is not that it immediately ends our salvation. It does not. We know from Hebrews 6 that if salvation is actually lost, it can never, ever be regained. And we know from the Gospel of John that Jesus himself is absolutely committed to keeping us from falling away. So we need not worry that sin will somehow easily strip us of salvation. God is not fickle, nor weak. And God will fight us tenaciously to keep us saved.  

Instead, what we actually need to worry about is that sin will seduce us and deceive us. When we sin, we give ourselves over little-by-little to deception. And the deeper we sink into deception, the more likely we are to be hardened by sin. Someone who does apostatize has gone down exactly that path, and has gone down it a very, very long way. An apostate has first embraced sin, then fallen deeply into deception, and finally has lost all connection with the living God. Terrifying to even consider.   

All that said, we cannot be completely certain that someone we meet or know is an actual apostate, even if that person claims to be an ex-Christian. God is ultimately the one who judges people; and God knows our hearts even better than we do (see 1 John 3:20). Like any good parent, God is exceedingly patient with us because He loves us deeply. If we believe someone we know may be an apostate or may be in danger of becoming an apostate, we ought to pray earnestly for that person’s return. There might still be hope for him or her, because God always desires everyone to be saved (see 1 Timothy 2:4).