Do you remember the miracle Jesus performed when his friend Lazarus passed away? Jesus had arrived on the scene, several days after the burial, to find Lazarus’ sisters weeping in despair while many others attempted to offer comfort and consolation. The scene was so dismal and sad that Jesus groaned in His spirit and wept, too. He asked those standing by to remove the boulder at the mouth of Lazarus’ rocky grave, then cried, “Lazarus, come forth!” Expressions of shock and sheer astonishment must have etched the faces of mourners as from deep within the grave, a shuffling like dried leaves sounded, and a figure cocooned in white grave-clothes emerged. Jesus asked the gaping bystanders to unwrap him, and they did. How could it be possible? Lazarus was standing before them in a body of vibrant health! Hadn’t they buried his wretched old body, shrouded in the blanket of death, four days ago? But here he was, pulsing with life! (You can read the story for yourself in John 11.)
It was a miracle. Living in 2020, several thousand years after this incident, it’s tempting to think miracles are elusive or even archaic. We form these conclusions in part because we are too busy to notice the wonders that frequently occur before our very eyes. Did you know that the miracle of new life from an old creature is something you can see with your natural eyes as well as experience in your own life? One you can watch in a jar on your kitchen counter, and one that you can anticipate in the future for yourself?
Were we to witness Lazarus’ resurrection today, we would struggle to understand, just as the mourners did. Because we wrestle to comprehend the supernatural, God has provided smaller three-dimensional object lessons in nature to help us understand. One of these lessons is found in the larvae of the Monarch butterfly. Now, you may have an aversion to worms, but before you dismiss the idea, look beyond its worm characteristics and study the complexities and miracles happening to the little creatures. Prepare to be amazed, then let the lesson speak to your heart as it was meant to. Here are some Monarch facts to get you started:
The lesson begins in a mountainous region, far off in central Mexico. There, in a few select locales, oyamel fir trees are swathed in orange layers of Monarch butterflies. The butterflies are hibernating and hardly move as they cling to the twigs and needles of the fir trees. This high-altitude region provides the perfect temperatures needed for hibernation—adequately cool, but never freezing.
After hibernating for three months, when temperatures begin to warm in March, the butterflies bestir themselves and begin what is their sole objective; reproducing the next generation of Monarchs. After mating, they begin to look for the perfect spot to lay their eggs; the milkweed plant. Monarch females know that milkweed alone offers the nutrients their offspring will need. No other plant will do. The butterflies migrate toward Texas, laying their eggs as they discover patches of milkweed. Each female butterfly will lay approximately 200 eggs. Once they have laid their eggs, cunningly placed on the underside of a milkweed leaf, the adult butterflies die. Under the leaf, the eggs lay hidden from predators, bearing the life of the next generation.
The tiny eggs are the size of the tip of a ball-point pen and will hatch in four or five days. Each day, the egg changes slightly in color, indicating that changes are happening inside its shell. First, it is a buttery yellow, then white, then grey. On the fourth day, it develops a black spot, which is the head of the larva inside, working its way out of the shell. When it has hatched, the larva commences doing what it does best—eat! It will first consume its own egg shell, which provides an excellent boost of protein, and then it turns to its favorite food, which happens to be beneath its very feet. Milkweed!
When the larvae first hatch, they are the size of a human eyelash, making them very difficult to see. However, the larvae do not remain in this minuscule stage for long. In fact, by the end of the ten to twelve-day larval stage, a caterpillar will have grown 3,000 percent! If you want to do some interesting math, take your own birth-weight and length and figure out how large you would have grown at this incredible rate in twelve days. Imagine the amount of food you would have consumed! To accommodate this rapid rate of growth, the larvae shed their skin, called molting, four times. During molts, the caterpillar stops eating and concentrates on shedding its skin. It hangs head-down from the underside of a leaf by its back five pairs of legs and remains motionless except for occasional writhing and the strenuous convulsions which course through its body. Its brightly striped skin darkens, then completely fades and appears loose and wrinkled. Finally, it weaves a silky mat to which it attaches itself with a pair of special hooks and, with forceful jerking motions, wiggles from the old skin, revealing a baggy, loose-fitting skin underneath. The caterpillar stretches happily in its expanded exoskeleton and, after resting for a bit from its exertion, resumes its voracious diet, stuffing its skin once more. This action is repeated two more times during the larval stage.
Once the worm has reached its mature size, it will seek a sheltered spot high on a twig or leaf and prepare to enter the pupal stage. Here, its tiny jaws work back and forth, releasing a sticky, silky substance from its spinneret. This substance receives its sticky texture from the milkweed sap, which provides the perfect adhesive compound needed to secure the larvae to the twig for this third stage. The exoskeleton, or skin, of the caterpillar splits open at the head and, for the last time, is shed to the ground. After the skin has dropped away, the caterpillar thrusts its cremaster into the sticky gauze it deposited on the twig and securely fastens itself. The cremaster is a tiny, many-clawed structure at the very end of its abdomen and adheres to the sticky gauze much like Velcro. In fact, it adheres so well that when severe weather elements such as wind or rain assail the pupa, it will hold fast. Now the worm hangs upside down, and immediately, a hard shell called a chrysalis forms over its soft body. Emerald green in color, the chrysalis will hang there for ten to twelve days.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what’s happening inside? Scientists have discovered a way to peek inside the chrysalis with an MRI, but since most of us won’t ever get to sneak-peek, we will have to be content with imagining what’s happening inside. We do know that if you would poke a hole in the chrysalis (which I don’t recommend), only liquid would flow out. The larva literally liquifies inside the shell. While the worm’s body dissolves and its worm characteristics die, the butterfly cells, which have been within its body all along, begin to grow. The larva’s stubby suction-cup feet will now be six slender and graceful legs. Simple eyes, which saw only lights and shadows, are changed to complex eyes, which now can see all around it. Amazingly, the ever-munching jaws are transformed into a long, double straw called a proboscis, and even the internal organs are completely revised because the food for this new creature will also be changed. Yes, the butterfly hatching from this shell will still have an appetite, but it will no longer feast on bitter milkweed; instead, it will sip sweet nectar from flowers.
After ten to twelve days, the transformation inside the chrysalis is complete. The chrysalis changes in color from bright green to black to transparent, exposing the colors of the butterfly through its shell. The perfectly formed body gives off a fluid that separates it from the shell, then the butterfly will push through the wall of the chrysalis and emerge head-first. Once its head and thorax have emerged, it will pull the rest of its body free from the shell and turn itself about, hanging its hook-like front feet onto the ridges of the chrysalis. At this stage, it is similar in size to a bumblebee. Its body is chubby, and the wings, though vibrantly colored, hang like wet and shriveled rags. Slowly, softly, it begins to flap its wings. The black veins branching out through the wings serve as straws to draw air and blood from the body. The wings enlarge and flatten as the body grows slender and aerodynamic. After several minutes, its antennae move forward, and it is ready for flight.
As the butterfly lifts off for the first time, it’s fun to imagine how it must feel. We wonder if it looks down upon its host plant and marvels at how light and free it feels without stubby legs and an overstuffed skin. We wonder if it remembers the yellow and green stripes of its humble body as the scales on its gossamer wings bend to catch the light, giving it a shimmering, iridescent glow. And the feeling of gliding and soaring on the breeze—it must be exhilarating!
This butterfly is one of the first-generation offspring of butterflies from Mexico. It will live for two weeks, dining on the nectar of flowers and drifting toward Ohio, laying the eggs for the second generation of Monarchs. These eggs, too, will repeat the thirty-day metamorphoses and drift still further north. A third generation will reach the northern states and the lower portions of Canada, where the fourth generation, also called the super generation, will hatch.
The super generation is distinctly different from the previous generations in that it will not immediately mate and die. This generation will now live for eight months and fly the nearly 2,000 miles back to Mexico. What’s even more amazing, these butterflies will fly back to the same forests in which their great-great-grandparents had hibernated! How do the butterflies know? Secular scientists are still unable to explain these details, but it isn’t difficult to see the hand of our creator God. He directs and cares for each of his tiny creatures, and the Monarchs are no exception.
As the fall temperatures begin to lower, the metabolism of the super generation changes, and they know it is now time to migrate south. Drifting along like a leaf on the wind, these tiny but mighty insects touch down for nectar but otherwise keep pushing toward Mexico. This journey takes three months, and once more, the Monarch butterflies have come full circle.
So, what do you think we can learn from the Monarch? Don’t you think God is demonstrating what He desires to do in each of our lives? If we give up our worm-like nature, this is what He promises: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26 KJV). That sounds like a great exchange; brand-new, pliable hearts for old, stiff, and hardened ones. It also sounds like transformation! Maybe our lives share greater similarities with Monarchs than we thought.
At our conception, we are created in the image of God. We are given the ability to think and reason, love and hate, and be sorrowful or joyful. But because we are born into a fallen world and with a fallen nature, we immediately seek to use our God-given characteristics to please ourselves. Our self-seeking actions swiftly progress into a voracious, self-destructive appetite. We indulge until we feel sickened with the futility of it all. We long to be who we were created to be; a man or woman of purpose. We yearn for freedom from sin and self, but to gain freedom, we must give up our diet—our thought patterns, our habits. We may try to break these vices on our own, but much like the caterpillar’s shedding of skin, we expend large amounts of energy yet remain the same, like larvae feasting on bitterness. Finally, at the beckoning of God’s Spirit, we realize that our lives hold nothing good of themselves. We need a complete transformation.
That’s when we enter the pupal stage, and as we surrender our heart and will to Him, God refashions our lives. Inside our heart, the old nature dies and the new nature of Christ begins to grow. Just as the caterpillar has in it the building blocks of the butterfly but can never become one without first dying, so every person is created in the image of God but can never experience the life of Christ without dying to self. When we emerge from the chrysalis, everything has changed! The Bible states it this way, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17 KJV).
Now, like the butterfly, we are light and free, and our appetites have changed completely. We rise above our bitter host plant and see it for what it was—self. God has now given us the power to overcome our old lusts, and gone are the feastings on carnality. Instead, we desire for nectar, the Word of God. Our lives now have purpose; instead of living for ourselves, we strive to bring others to the kingdom of God. We go forth with a burning desire to bring the next generation to the threshold of this transformation.
Unfortunately, after our new birth, we continue to live on an imperfect and fallen earth, and hardship and opposition surround us. At times it may seem that all the forces of evil have united to bring us to extinction.
Butterflies don’t have an easy life after their transformation, either. While the previous narrative of the Monarch metamorphosis may have sounded carefree and simple, their populations have been dangerously close to extinction. In 2012, it was calculated that Monarchs were 90 percent extinct. Why? Well, several reasons play into the decline of this favored butterfly species. For one, they have natural predators such as birds and other insects, which eat both the eggs and the larvae and, sometimes, the adult butterfly. Looking at the big picture of our ecosystem, predators play a significant role in keeping the Monarch population under control, ensuring that the food supply and butterfly ratio are balanced.
Another reason for the monarch’s decline in recent years is the agricultural practices of mankind, which have swung the pendulum from a natural balance to the endangered species list. It’s easy to blame deforestation in Mexico’s Monarch wintering grounds and several untimely weather events as the culprits of the decline, all of which are true. Still, other reasons may lie closer to home. Many farmers in the United States use highly concentrated chemical sprays to keep both invasive insects and weeds under control. While these sprays have strict guidelines for application, overspray onto the milkweed and larvae growing along fencerows and borders has had dire consequences. And coming even closer to home, our endeavors to keep our properties immaculate have been detrimental as well. If we wield weed trimmers in every corner of our properties and along creek banks, we may have unwittingly destroyed the milkweed and other wildflowers essential to butterfly reproduction. With such a combined force of opposition, it’s no wonder the Monarchs were disappearing!
By 2013, people began to notice the decline of Monarchs with alarm. They began research of their own, and then joined the efforts of scientists and conservationists to help the butterfly population make a comeback. Schools began to educate children on the importance of helping the butterflies in our ecosystem by planting butterfly gardens and raising the larvae. Children took the ideas home to parents who also joined in the battle against extinction. While most individuals are only able to help several caterpillars to maturity, every one of them counts! By 2017, in five short years, the Monarch population in Mexico went from two acres to ten acres, and in 2018, they found a brand-new colony of Monarchs!
And now comes the best part of our transformation. A Monarch will undergo metamorphoses only once. When they die, they will cease to exist. We, whose hearts and lives have been changed, are transformed twice!
On earth, we live in failing and limited human bodies. We are subject to time and weakness, ill health and old age. We cringe from dying because the grave holds no beauty or attraction. We weep as the mourners did for Lazarus because we know that our body decays and turns back to dust. But the grave is the chrysalis our body must enter before the eternal soul within us can be transformed into a new and vibrant being.
John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, said this:
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when He appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2 NIV)
We shall be like Him! Our bodies will never again know death or pain, abuse or persecution, shame or reproach. We will have new bodies that will live forever. We no longer need to fear that day, but anticipate it with joy!
Paul wrote of that day to his fellow believers in Thessalonica:
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 KJV, emphasis mine)
We will be with Him! Can you imagine how a place must look and feel where the Lord lives and reigns? If a Monarch on planet earth can dazzle our eyes with its colors and beauty, we would be speechless with amazement if we could see what the Lord has in store for those who love Him! We get a glimpse of this place when we read Revelation 21 and 22, but we struggle to comprehend even that. We can only imagine because “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for those that love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9 KJV). It is indeed a mystery, but that should only heighten our thankfulness, love, and zeal for Him. And until that day, let us seek out the object lessons—miracles—He hides for us in nature, like the Monarch!
Resources and information for this article have been provided by butterfly enthusiast Mary Ellen Thornburg, as well as The World Book encyclopedia and literature from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Wildlife division.