About a month ago I was meditating on a passage of Scripture that God brought me to a couple nights in a row. It is from the Book of Acts, and in chapter 2 the apostle Peter quotes from the Old Testament prophet Joel: “I will display wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below: blood and fire and a cloud of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood” (Acts 2: 19-20). That was an interesting passage for me to simply open Scripture to given that we had recently had a solar eclipse (“the sun will be turned to darkness”) and that the fires out west were creating on those nights a red moon (“the moon to blood”). It seemed rather providential. Not only could I see a blood-red moon, but as I had my window cracked open I could hear the cries of an owl once again.
As I noted in a previous post, owls were harbingers in many ancient societies of death and destruction, but today in our modern Western society owls are synonymous with wisdom. Although the two concepts seem far apart, I find that in Scripture the two come together in the person of Jesus Christ. Paul draws directly from the prophet Isaiah in his letter to the Corinthian church when he writes, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts” (1 Cor. 1:19). Paul goes on to explain that
For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:21-25).
Jesus, as the embodiment of God in human flesh, is the fullness of God’s wisdom. The Greeks and Romans, or the Gentiles as all non-Jews were called, sought to find God through the use of reason. And to be sure, certain Greek philosophers had vague notions of an “unmoved Mover”. Their understanding of God as Logos, as Word and Wisdom, was a concept that the writer of the Gospel of John borrows in his bold proclamation, when referring to Jesus Christ, that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). And in an encounter with Jews who demanded of Jesus that he show them a sign so that they might know He is the Messiah, he responds with “This generation is an evil generation. It demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Ninevah, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation” (Luke 11:29). This explains the Jews’ request for signs and the Greeks seeking after wisdom, but what is the sign of Jonah, and what about the “foolishness of the message preached”, that which reveals “God’s foolishness” to be “wiser than human wisdom”?
The sign of Jonah no doubt refers to the fact that the reluctant Old Testament prophet spent three days in the belly of a whale before preaching the message of God to the Ninevite people, who subsequently repented. Jonah foreshadows what Christ would do as the “Son of Man”. Specifically, Christ would die on a cross and “descend into hell” as the Creeds state. But, like Jonah who was brought out of the primordial deep of the waters, on the third day, he, Jesus, rose again from the dead. But I don’t get this just from the Creeds of the Church. Rather, in Scripture we return to the book of Acts where King David, author of many of the Psalms, wrote “concerning the resurrection of the Messiah: He was not left in Hades, and His flesh did not experience decay” (Acts 2:31).
This, then, is the foolishness of God: that God would take on and assume His very own creation, be born, live a human life, die on a cross, and rise again. If it’s difficult to understand how foolish this sounded back then, keep in mind that it wasn’t just the Jews who had purity rituals. Their ancient Near Eastern neighbors similarly believed in rituals before approaching their gods. Both Jews and Gentiles couldn’t fathom a God who associated with the impure, who took on flesh. This wasn’t wisdom for those who believe in an “unmoved Mover”, whose eternal immutability caused Him to sit apart from creation in His eternal perfection. Further, who would have thought that God would willingly take on flesh in order to die and pay the ultimate Sacrifice? Surely, the Jews would not as they were expecting a Messiah to come and overthrow Roman rule. That’s why they wanted a sign. They wanted assurance of Jesus’s earthly rule, his right to kingship.
I’ve also mentioned in my last post that there were ancient cultures that believed in gods that would become incarnated and die sacrificial deaths. And I believe that Christ is the fulfillment of those myths. Those myths were ones that took place far in some mythological past. But most historians acknowledge the person of Jesus Christ and his uniqueness, even if some doubt His death and resurrection. And rise he must, for why, in the events of the Book of Acts, would the church be growing, why would the apostles be prophesying and speaking in tongues if they knew Christ hadn’t risen? The apostle Luke, writer of Acts, captures Peter’s words: “God has resurrected this Jesus. We are all witnesses of this. Therefore, since He has been exalted to the right hand of God and has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, He has poured out what you both see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).
This takes us full circle. For the passage about sun and moon, fires, blood, and cloud of smoke is really about what is taking place that day: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days. Far from being a gloomy text about the apocalypse, Peter interprets Joel in light of Christ and what was happening in the early Christian community. “And it will be in the last days, says God, that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity…before the great and remarkable day of the Lord comes; then whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:17, 20-21).
Aside from a solar eclipse and blood-red moons caused by fires, we live in some rather uncertain times. North Korea is causing tensions in the Pacific. The Middle East and Southwest Asia is still engulfed in conflict. Mexico has suffered from earthquakes. Venezuela is in shambles. The Gulf Coast and the Caribbean have had the worst hurricane season in years, with Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico being slammed. Las Vegas is still reeling from a mass shooting. Sometimes the world situation can feel apocalyptic, with the freedom of democratic and capitalist societies, and the fruits of all our cultural labors, being threatened by despots and anarchists.
But according to the Book of Acts, God is at work in the world and continuing to pour out His Spirit. Just as Jesus is the fulfillment of the sign of Jonah, so also Jesus is the fulfillment of all those societies that looked to owls as symbols of death and wisdom. The One who bore the death of all those who call on his name is also a harbor of wisdom, the wisdom and blessing and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. So, as those who receive wisdom from above, let us call on the name of our true Lord and strive to boldly engage this lost and uncertain world for Jesus Christ.