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