Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” — Matthew 12:38-39
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” — Matthew 17:24-27
A mystery is not a secret. It’s not an unknowable concept. A mystery is something presently covered from sight or full knowledge, but in the process of being revealed. It’s something we will know. Like a gift that’s being unwrapped before your eyes.
There’s likely nothing that gets me quite as invigorated as a good mystery being revealed. Today, a bit of mystery was revealed, and I do love it when connections click and puzzle pieces come together and there’s a bigger, fuller understanding of my God in the results.
I have to give credit where credit is due for those who’ve had a role, whether they knew it or not, in today’s Contents of My Head explosion. I would say that my Facebook friend Father John Cox, an Eastern Orthodox priest who posts intriguing statements, examples, sermon snippets, and thoughts on social media, planted a fisherman’s hook in my brain earlier this week. He made a simple statement with no explanation beyond this regarding the components used by Jesus to feed a multitude in Matthew 14:18 — “We have only five loaves here and two fish.”
Father John says the five loaves represent the Torah, and the two fish represent the dual but equal union in Christ of God and man. He says, “The bread of the law kept the people of Israel alive for a long time. Now they need the fish of the God-Man - the Gospel of participation in His death and resurrection - in order to grow strong and thrive. Christ makes the meal complete.”
The passage says that, at this feeding of Jewish listeners, Jesus broke the bread and gave it to them. They ate, and took up 12 baskets full of broken pieces. The fish are not mentioned as being distributed yet. Interesting. The Jewish community is seeing a miracle before their eyes. They are being nourished by it. By him. They see the excess that he who came first to the Jew and then to the Gentile—together the entire world—produces, not accidentally, but abundantly for each of the 12 tribes.
But it’s not yet complete. First to the Jew. And then to the Gentile.
In Matthew 15, he again gathers a multitude around him. Mark’s parallel retelling specifies in chapter 7, verse, 31, that this gathering was in the Decapolis—an area of 10 Gentile cities.
Then to the Gentile.
This time, the God-Man takes “seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples (Do we hear the Spirit say, "Go therefore…"?), and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” (Matthew 15:32-39)
It would be the Jews who would hand him over to be crucified. It would be the Gentiles who would act out the laying on of hands, the whip, the nails. In the Jewish mind, there were only Jews and then everyone else. It was the whole world who turned against him, first the Jew and then the Gentile. It was the whole world he came to save. Only when both are nourished by the God-Man would the plan be perfected, complete—like the number seven represents in biblical literature.
“And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces” of bread and fish, 15:37 says. After the whole world had received him, first broken him and then received him, perfection in excess is displayed for all.
Much of this I had seen before and knew. But the fish representing Christ himself was a symbol I had not grasped. Even when Father John pointed it out, I wrestled. How? How does the fish represent Jesus? Where’s the evidence of that?
Today, it came together.
We had a guest speaker at worship this morning. Martin Ban, president of Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas, filled our “pulpit,” — or would have, if we were that formal. Martin spoke on Matthew 17:22-27. He showed us how this fractured alignment of Jesus’s announcement of his impending death was connected to the discussion about paying the temple tax which immediately followed it. In summary: Jesus tells his disciples that he will die for them and rise again. The disciples don’t hear this as good news. They are distressed. Martin qualifies their distress under a broad umbrella of “disappointment” we all feel when our plans don’t pan out like we’d hoped. Immediately, the passage takes us to a discussion about taxes and then there’s a fishing trip involved. At first, it makes no logical sense, why this happens here, but he ties it together: The temple tax, Martin says, was the same tax paid in the book of Exodus, which was called a “ransom tax.” Jesus has just revealed that he will be dying, and even his closest followers don’t understand why this has to be—yet. The religious leaders completely reject that there’s anything special about Jesus, so they send out their collectors to demand that he—he who is the Temple embodied; he who IS the ransom tax—chip in his fair share. And he does, so as “not to give offense to them.” But how?
This is where the bells started to ring for me—at first, far away, as if muffled within the belly of a fish under the sea, but then clearer and clearer: “No sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”
Where does the ransom tax come from in this scene? From inside a fish.
I understood the “sign of Jonah” up to this point to be the time Jesus would spend in the tomb. Jonah was three days in the belly of a fish and Jesus was three days in the dark tomb. But now I think it is so much more than that! Jesus wasn’t being dismissive of the Pharisees who demanded a sign, because the sign of Jonah is the full gospel being revealed. The sign of Jonah is a huge revelation of what it is the God-Man does for the world!
Jonah was in rebellion against God. Rebellion against God is the best summary there is for our universal human condition. God wanted Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn them that the residents there were in sin and would face judgment unless they repented. God had called Jonah to a mission of mercy in order to bring salvation to the people in that city. And Jonah didn’t want to go. As he rebelled, refusing to go with the message, he was allowing those who were perishing to continue to perish. And he was OK with that. He himself wasn’t participating in or encouraging their sin, but he wasn’t willing to help them to life-saving repentance. In this case, his rebellion was somewhat passive. He would just let them die. How many of us know our own sin to be just like that? I’m “pretty good most of the time, but I am quietly, passively keeping my knowledge and joy to myself, letting the others find their own way to death or life.” (Do we hear the Spirit say, “Go therefore and make disciples… I am with you always…” — the very closing words of this gospel, so rich with the sign of Jonah?)
But Jonah didn’t stop there. He didn’t just sit at home saying, “Nope. I’m good. They’ll figure it out, God.” No, he ran away from God. He brought others into his disobedience, and brought chaos on them in the form of a storm that threatened their lives. While Nineveh was passively perishing because Jonah wouldn’t go talk to them, the crew of the boat he used to try to run away were actively perishing—until they threw him overboard.
As Jonah sank into the depths that should have meant death to him, a giant fish swallowed him up. Today, I saw this fish as God himself, thanks in large part to Father John’s Facebook post. But I saw more than that: God himself swallows up our rebellion. That’s what Jesus took, what Jesus became in Gethsemane right before he went to the Cross. He became our sin. He became our rebellion. They say you are what you eat. The idea carries over to Jonah and to Christ and to communion. The fish is now united with Jonah. The fish that is showing us what God will do in Christ.
As a little girl, I wondered why the fish’s stomach acid didn’t dissolve old Jonah in there. We’d heard stories of how potent that stuff is, eating flesh right off of bone. But remember this is a mystery of God we’re talking about—like the burning bush. God is a consuming fire, and the bush burned, but was not consumed by him at the very same time. God can purify without destroying. In his mercy, this is what he did for Jonah. After three days, he delivered him safely, mercifully, to the shore, where the overwhelmed prophet finally chose to obey and lived to see the repentance of a people who were on their way to destruction.
After swallowing up our rebellion in union with himself, Jesus took it first to the Cross, and then to the grave—for the same time that the man Jonah was in the fish, the God-Man is in the tomb. And like the fish spit out Jonah, the grave too will give up Jesus, our ransom.
“Take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel,” the ransom tax. Peter, the fisherman, who will be sent out by Jesus like Jonah was, will see the sign of the prophet Jonah when he obeys this bizarre instruction. He will see his own ransom spit out of the fish, and later, out of the tomb. Jonah’s fish (God) and our ransom (Christ) on display for him, a mystery still being revealed to Peter and to us.
As all this was spinning in my mind, I was also prompted to the memory of John’s description of the fishermen disciples meeting with Jesus after the resurrection (chapter 21). On the third time he appeared to them after rising, he told them where to fish, and when they pulled in a successful catch, they found he had prepared already a fire with which to cook the fish. They ate together of it. Is this, perhaps, their first communion? Immediately after this, he takes Peter aside—Peter, who looked into the mouth of the fish and found his ransom there, Peter the fisherman—and three times emphasized, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”
“If you love me, do as I first asked of Jonah.”
No sign will be given you except the rich and wonderful and complete and perfect sign of the prophet Jonah.
It is no wonder that angels long to look into these things! (1 Peter 1:12) Nor is it a wonder that we will be given an eternity to continue opening these mysteries about the person, character, and work of God. Nothing less than eternity would be sufficient to fully know and enjoy all that he has to show us of himself.