Matthew 12:38 – Then some of the Scribes and Pharisees answered him saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”
In this verse, the Scribes and Pharisees call Jesus ‘master’ (your translation may say ‘teacher’). This is a title of respect that implies submission.
However, if they truly considered Jesus as their master, they would have believed his words and been obedient to his commands. Instead, we find them in rebellion. Clearly, their words were empty phrases. What about us? Do we claim Jesus as Lord? If so, our actions should testify to this fact.
The insolence of these religious leaders is astonishing! How dare they ask Jesus for yet another sign? Jesus had already performed a large number of signs and wonders which proved he was the Messiah. Indeed, the religious leaders had just witnessed Jesus healing the demon possessed man. What further proof was needed to establish that Jesus was the Son of God?
Jesus is going to deny their request for an on-demand sign/miracle. Why do you suppose he does this? After all, the bible is full of instances where people asked God for a sign, and He willingly and lovingly gave them one (example: Gideon and his fleece).
Well in this case, it seems as though their request was not for the purpose of actually discerning the truth, but more for the sake of contention. My guess is that one more miracle would still not have been enough. Because their hearts had already rejected Jesus, they were looking for a reason NOT to believe, as opposed to looking for a reason TO believe. They weren’t really searching for the truth.
Matthew 12:39 – 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.”
What does Jesus mean when he says the Jews are evil and adulterous?
The relationship of the Old Testament Jews to God was often represented as a marriage contract – God being the husband and the Jewish nation being his wife. All unfaithfulness and disobedience were considered a breach of the marriage contract (adultery).
Jeremiah 3:20 – Surely, as a treacherous wife leaves her husband so have you been treacherous to me, O house of Israel.
We know the religious leaders had ample signs confirming Jesus as the Messiah. These included the witness of John the Baptist, the voice from heaven when Jesus was baptized, numerous physical healings/miracles and evidence of authority over demon spirits. To ask for an additional sign at this point was nothing more than an indicator of rebellion. Clearly, they didn’t want to believe!
So, in light of the fact that none of his former miracles would convince the religious leaders, one final sign – different from all the rest – would be given to these obstinate, ‘adulterous’ people: the sign of Jonah.
Matthew 12:40 – For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
In case you are unfamiliar with the story of Jonah, let me give you a brief synopsis. Jonah was a prophet in Israel. He was commissioned by God to go and preach repentance to the wicked city of Nineveh, a sworn enemy of Israel. Jonah did not want this assignment. In fact, he ran the opposite direction by entering a boat bound for Tarshish.
While on the ship, God stirred up an immensely powerful storm and eventually, the sailors tossed Jonah overboard where a big fish swallowed him. He was inside the belly of this fish for three days and three nights. Afterwards, the fish vomited him up on land. He then went and shared the message of God with the people of Nineveh and they subsequently repented of their sin and avoided destruction.
How was this Old Testament story a sign for the Jews?
Jonah being swallowed by the fish was a picture of death. Death was also going to “swallow” Jesus when he died on the cross.
Entering into the fish’s belly was a picture of being under the earth, or beneath the land of the living or in a grave. After his death, Jesus was buried in a cave/tomb.
Jonah was in the fish’s belly three days and three nights, then he was vomited back onto dry land or the land of the living. Jesus was in the grave three days and three nights, then he rose from the dead and returned to the land of the living.
After his release from the fish (death), Jonah went and proclaimed repentance to the sinful nation of Nineveh. After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples and commissioned them to preach the gospel to the whole world, including Gentiles.
Thus, Jesus points the Scribes and Pharisees to the ultimate proof that he is the Messiah – he will die and be raised to life again by his own power. This would be conclusive evidence that he was the Son of God. If they would not believe this sign, then nothing could convince them!
This is the second time that Jesus has publicly announced his death and resurrection. The first was during the Passover, after he cleansed the temple:
John 2:18-19 – So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Side Note: The term ‘three days and three nights’ doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to us as it did to the Jews. The Jews counted any part of a day as a whole entire day if it occurred at the beginning or end of a specified time period.
For example, Jesus was in the grave part of a day on the day he was crucified, then that night, then the whole next day followed by a second night. He rose the next day, which means that he was only in the grave for part of that third day. That is a total of one full day and two partial days. However, by the Jewish method of counting, this means Jesus was in the grave 3 days.
The phrases ‘on the third day’, ‘after three days’ and ‘three days and three nights’ all refer to the same thing – a three day period where two of the days may be fractional days.
Matthew 12:41 – The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
The Ninevites were wicked people who knew nothing of the true God. They heard a message of repentance from a single prophet, a foreigner, who delivered his message for a 40 day period without the benefit of any miraculous signs. Yet, this message brought them to repentance and their repentance saved them from destruction.
The Jews, on the other hand, know all about God. They were in covenant with him. They had a long, long history with him. They heard Jesus preach for three years and saw his message confirmed with countless miracles. Yet, his message caused them to harden their hearts, and the rejection of Jesus will result in their eternal destruction!
In the general resurrection, the men of Nineveh will stand up in the judgment as witnesses against these Jews because Jesus was superior to Jonah in every way, yet the Jews did not believe in him.
Matthew 12:42 – The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
The queen of the South, or the queen of Sheba ruled in Arabia or possibly Ethiopia. She came to visit King Solomon because she heard rumors about his great wisdom. She traveled over 1000 miles to meet with Solomon, hear his wisdom and discuss what was on her mind. He answered all her questions; the bible says there was nothing Solomon could not explain to her.
After meeting with King Solomon, she declares:
I Kings 10:6-7, 9 – …”The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. Your wisdom…surpasses the report I heard…because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king that you may execute justice and righteousness.”
She made a long, arduous journey in order to get wisdom. She was astounded at what she heard and she treasured the wisdom Solomon shared with her. She had great respect and reverence for Solomon, declaring that God has made him king in order to bring about justice and righteousness.
Let’s contrast that with the actions of the Jews. One infinitely wiser than Solomon, the Son of God himself, was in their midst. He was not wise like Solomon; He was wisdom incarnate, but rather than revering and respecting him, they slandered and despised him.
Solomon was a fallen man, like all of us. He could only bring about imperfect justice and righteousness. However, Jesus is a perfect King who will rule with absolutely perfect justice and righteousness. The Scribes and Pharisees despised Jesus because he failed to raise and army and defeat the Romans, but had they listened to him, they would have discovered that his kingdom was first going to manifest as a spiritual one, and later a physical one.
By rejecting Jesus, the Jews also rejected all opportunities to hear the wisdom Jesus could have given them. For this reason, the queen of Sheba will testify against those Jews at the judgment.
Matthew 12:43-45 – When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.
The parable found in verses 43-45 is a continuation of the warnings that Jesus is giving to the Jews. First, we will take a look at how the parable applies to them. Then, we will also see how it might apply to us as well.
The parable concerns the spiritual life of the Jewish nation. It implies that there was a man who had an unclean spirit at one point. The man represents the Jewish nation and the unclean spirit is the spirit of idolatry that plagued the Jewish nation from the time they entered the Promised Land until their exile. During this time, they consistently rejected Jehovah as their God and chose to serve Satan in the form of false idols. Their idolatry is well documented in the Old Testament.
Because of this besetting sin, God sent them into exile. Once the Jews returned to their land, they never had a problem with idolatry again (notice its absence in the New Testament). So, the exile set them free from the sin of idolatry. This corresponds to the part in the parable where the unclean spirit has departed out of the person.
Spiritually speaking, the heart of the nation is ‘empty, swept and put in order’. They are rid of the unclean spirit of idolatry and ready for Jehovah to ‘move in’.
Unfortunately, when the Messiah comes, they reject him, or at this point they are on the verge of rejecting him. This leaves their heart/house empty; but spiritual hearts cannot stay empty. They must be filled. Seeing an opening, Satan gathers his forces and makes a move to re-enter.
The ‘seven other evil spirits’ which entered the spiritual hearts of the Jewish nation and replaced Jehovah as Lord were things like ceremonial religious acts, outward shows of piety, worship of money, bitterness, pride, divorce, self righteousness, etc.
Since they have rejected Jesus and opened themselves up to Satan once again, they are worse off than they were before. This makes sense, because they have heard and rejected the only thing that will set them free – the grace of God! Subsequently, we see the downward progression of this particular generation: They despised God’s messengers, scorned the miracles of Christ and eventually crucified him on the cross.
After this the temple, the capital and the people were given over to the Romans who virtually destroyed them.
What can we learn from this example? I believe it is a warning to all nations, not just the Jews. If God begins a work of reformation in the midst of nation, those people needs to see it through. They need to cast out evil and fully open themselves to righteousness. If they do not, their end state will be worse than the first, because they too, like the Jews, will have rejected the one thing which can set them free.
Do you think America fell into this trap following the 9/11 disaster? Why or why not?
Do you think that Americans will turn to God during the current Covid 19 crisis? If so, do you think these changes will be permanent or will people return to their old habits once the crisis is over?
If nothing else, this parable should call us into prayer for our nation. We need God to send a spirit of revival into our midst that will free us from the bondage of Satan.
This parable might be applied to the church as well. Look what Jesus says to the church at Ephesus:
Revelation 2:2, 4 – I know your works, and your labor, and your patience… Nevertheless I have somewhat against you, because you have left your first love.
In our individual churches as well as our individual lives, we need to renew and focus on our relationship with Christ. The closer we stay to him, the more righteous we will become. We will welcome ever deeper levels of intimacy with him. However, when we lose our ardent love for God, we fall into the same trap as the Pharisees, substituting pious acts for true relationship. Take a minute and re-evaluate yourself. Return to your first love, if you need to!
Matthew 12:46-47 –While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside asking to speak to you.”
There is some discussion about whether these are the natural brothers of Jesus or some of his close male relatives (cousins). There is also much discussion about the motives of his relatives. It has been speculated that they feared Jesus was offending the religious leaders which could lead to his arrest and death, or that they feared for his physical health, because the crowds were so great that he couldn’t even stop to eat (Mark 3). However, to dwell on either one of these points is to miss the main lesson of this passage.
The fact is his relatives were actually a hindrance or an obstruction to his teaching! Notice that they were ‘standing without’ as opposed to being inside listening to his preaching. While Jesus is busy with his heavenly Father’s business, his earthly relatives disrupt him! It is likely that this disruption was both unnecessary and unwelcome. Had this happened to any of us, we might have reacted in anger or frustration. However, Jesus, full of wisdom and love, respectfully turns the disruption into a teaching moment for the kingdom of Heaven.
Matthew 12:48-50 – But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.
Those who accept Jesus and obey the Father are grafted into the family of God. As a disciple of Jesus we wear his name (Christian), bear his image, reflect his love, and display his nature. We are children of God. We are joint heirs with Christ. Jesus has promised that there are many ‘rooms’ in his Father’s house; he will prepare a place there for us. He is our kinsman redeemer. Clearly, we are one of the family!
Let me give you a little encouragement and strength: If you are a Christian, you are a member of the family of God! Your Heavenly Father loves and cares for you! You don’t need to fear when events around you seem to spiral out of control, for he holds your future in his hands. The psalmist tells us this:
Psalm 84:11 – For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.
When you are a child of God, the Lord is your sun – he provides light, beauty, direction and fruitfulness. He is also your shield – protecting you throughout all your earthly life and working things out for your eternal good. He will give you grace and glory – unmerited favor, mercy and kindness which are yours forever. God, in his eternal wisdom, knows what is best for you; he will never fail to bestow instruction, correction, strength, support, guidance, wisdom or any other thing that we need to be victorious in Christ!
Let me give you a little relief: Do you ever lay awake at night wondering what the future holds? Does the current world situation make you uneasy? Do you worry because you don’t have any answers? As we learned from our lesson today, Jesus is not wise, He is wisdom incarnate! If you are uncertain as to what you should do, where you should go or what decisions you need to make, ask him.
James 1:5 – If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men liberally, and reproaches not; and it shall be given him.
Notice that James does not say that God MIGHT give us wisdom, but that he WILL give us wisdom. You don’t have to go through life wondering if you are on the right path – just ask your heavenly Father, and he will tell you!