Jesus reportedly thought of himself as a Jonah, a man people had listened to after he came back the dead.
You will recall the story of Jonah; he went overboard into the Mediterranean during a terrible storm. Saved from drowning by a fish that swallowed him alive and then spit him out on dry land, Jonah next showed up 600 miles to the east, in Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, preaching a message of YHWH’s judgment and the possibility of change.
The story tells us the people of Nineveh listened to Jonah.
After Jesus cured a man of deafness and blindness, the religious bystanders said Jesus was a sorcerer, empowered by the devil. In response, Jesus said this: “Just as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).
In the initial telling of the Jonah-story, Jonah personified the Judeans, people conquered by the Babylonian Empire, then enslaved and exiled 600 miles to the east along the Euphrates River. They were done for, finished as a culture and religion. But miraculously they survived and prospered, spreading into Persia and even returning to Jerusalem where they rebuilt a temple to YHWH. Their continued existence as a people was a sign of YHWH’s grace and good purposes for humanity.
The spirit of Second Temple Judaism celebrated this miracle of Jewish survival as a sign of YHWH’s eternal election. It exhorted Jews to respond in gratitude through demanding religious rituals and impossibly pure living.
Jesus understood the miracle of Jewish deliverance differently; he knew Jonah had been brought back from the dead in order to move Israel’s enemies to repentance. Thus, he regarded the miraculous survival of Judaism not as a possession to be hoarded, but as a calling and mission. YHWH’s intention was that the whole world should be saved (John 3:17).
Much of contemporary Christianity has the spirit of Second Temple Judaism. It celebrates YHWH’s salvation as a possession for the piously pure. The calling and mission that Jesus died for—to save Earth and its peoples—has been twisted into an act of metaphysical magic that appeased an angry god and provided the elect with an egotistical immortality.
One wonders, what would Christianity look like if it moved the metaphysics and the immortality to the back burner and simply followed Jesus and continued his mission?