Request for a Sign

38Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you."

39He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. 42The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.

43"When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation."

46While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, His mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to Him. 47Someone told Him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you."

48He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" 49Pointing to His disciples, He said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."

Matthew has just related how, after Jesus amazed the crowds by miraculously healing a blind and mute man, the Pharisees attributed the miracle to the power of the devil. Now, the Pharisees request a miraculous sign: "Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you’" (vs. 38). The Pharisees show amazing arrogance here. The wondrous and beautiful miracles that Jesus had performed were not good enough for them. They want to dictate to Him when and where to do a miracle, in order that they might (possibly) believe He is sent from God. They are like many today, who "flatter themselves that they only require a little more proof to become decided Christians; they fancy that if their reason and intellect could only be met with some additional arguments, they would at once give up all for Christ’s sake, take up the cross and follow Him" [Ryle, 135]. Many today say, "Oh, if God would just come down and reveal Himself directly to me, in a miraculous way, then I would believe." Such arrogance! In saying this, they make themselves a ruler over God, dictating to Him how to reveal Himself. They ignore all the revelations of God that can be found in His creation, and through the work of His people. More importantly, they ignore the time when He did come down and show Himself to the world, through Jesus Christ.

Jesus denied their request to perform a sign at their bidding: "He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here’" (vss. 40-42). Though Jesus denied their request for a sign at their bidding, He did offer to give them a sign in His time, the sign of Jonah: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (vs. 40). Jesus, of course, was speaking of His death and resurrection. This sign should have turned out to be sufficient for the skeptical Pharisees, and indeed, should have been sufficient for skeptics throughout the ages. No other sign is needed. If the power of Christ’s resurrection is not sufficient to believe, then nothing is.

By citing the history of Jonah here, Jesus teaches us a couple of things. First, Jesus affirms that the story of Jonah was true—as true as the death and resurrection of the Lord Himself. Jesus states: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (vs. 40). "Jesus refers to the story of Jonah, and his miraculous preservation in the whale’s belly, as undeniable matters of fact. Let us remember this if we hear men professing to believe the writers of the New Testament, and yet sneering at the things recorded in the Old Testament, as if they were fables: such men forget that in so doing they pour contempt upon Christ Himself. The authority of the Old Testament and the authority of the New stand or fall together; the same Spirit inspired men to write of Solomon and Jonah, who inspired the Evangelists to write of Christ" [Ryle, 135].

Second, Jesus teaches us that Jonah’s history foreshadowed Jesus’ life, as so much of the Old Testament does. "Jonah’s case was analogous to this, as being a signal judgment of God, reversed in three days, and followed by a glorious mission to the Gentiles" [JFB, 75]. "Jesus’ life story is well symbolized by that of Jonah. They cast our Lord overboard, even as the sailors did the man of God. The sacrifice of Jonah calmed the sea for the mariners; our Lord’s death made peace for us. Our Lord was a while in the heart of the earth as Jonah in the depth of the sea; but He rose again, and His ministry was full of the power of His resurrection. As Jonah’s ministry was certified by His restoration from the sea, so is our Lord’s ministry attested by His rising from the dead. The man who had come back from death and burial in the sea commanded the attention of all Ninevah, and so does the risen Saviour demand and deserve the obedient faith of all to whom His message comes" [Spurgeon, 158]. This is just one example of many, many typological passages in the Old Testament that prefigure Jesus and His ministry. The whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, speak of Jesus. We can find Him on every page.

Jesus compares the Ninevites’ response after hearing the preaching of Jonah, to the Pharisees’ (and, in general, the children of Israel’s) response to Jesus’ ministry: "The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here" (vs. 41). The Pharisees had a much greater advantage than the Ninevites to believe the words of the man of God that came to them. The Ninevites were heathens, while the Pharisees already professed a belief in the True and Living God. Jonah the prophet, though he preached to them, had no desire that the Ninevites be saved, while Jesus tirelessly carried out His ministry, and went to great lengths (even dying for them) to save the children of Israel. Jonah’s preaching was accompanied by one miracle, and that a rather odd one, in that he was spit up onto the beach by a large fish; Jesus performed all sorts of signs and miracles, culminating in His resurrection from the dead. Surely, in every way imaginable, the Pharisees had the advantage of having "one greater than Jonah." Indeed, the Ninevites, in addition to standing in judgment and condemning "that generation", could stand in judgment and condemn many generations since then, including our own. We, who have the revelation of Jesus Christ, and the great news of the Gospel, have much more evidence to repent and turn to God than the Ninevites did. "It was a sublime spectacle when the whole population of that vast heathen city, the proud king, the nobles and all, down to the very humblest, repented at the preaching of Jonah" [Broadus, 277].

Significantly, the example of the repentance of the Ninevites is an example of Gentiles turning to God. Jesus gives one more example of a Gentile turning to God: "The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here" (vs. 42). "As the fame of Solomon brought the queen of the south from the uttermost parts of the earth, so does the doctrine of our Lord command attention from the utmost isles of the sea" [Spurgeon, 159]. The example of the Queen of Sheba, the "Queen of the South", is also notable here because she turned to God through the preaching of the wisdom of God, without the benefit of signs and miracles. Jesus, of course, spoke many words of wisdom, in addition to performing signs and wonders. The Queen of the South will surely "rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it."

One of the points that Jesus was making with these examples was that the children of Israel at the time Jesus walked the earth had a great advantage over those of any generation that preceded them, for the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy was occurring before their eyes. The Messiah Himself walked with them, talked with them, taught them, and even served them. Such first-hand knowledge of the Messiah brought with it a great amount of responsibility for them to respond to it, repent and totally turn their lives over to their Lord.

Does this sound radical? To totally turn your life over to the Lord. To do any less is actually dangerous. Jesus speaks next of the dangers of partial religious conversion: "‘When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, "I will return to the house I left." When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation’" (vss. 43-45). Jesus here teaches us a bit about the spiritual world and the dynamics of an aspect of the spiritual war. He speaks here of a man who experienced a partial religious conversion. We are not told the details of the conversion experience, but we are told that "an evil spirit came out of the man." Perhaps he was a drunkard who overcame his addiction; or a violent man who became a man of peace; or a profligate who put behind his evil ways. However, he did not follow up on his conversion and turn his entire life over to God. His conversion was incomplete. The "evil spirit" left, but nothing came to replace it. The man did not replace the power of the evil spirit with the power of God. A void was left. And so, the evil spirit returned and found "the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order." Note the wording here. The man’s life was not messed up, but "put in order." From all external appearances, the man had it altogether. No doubt he was often congratulated on his transformation, on his renewed spiritual state. And yet, there was spiritual emptiness inside—a vacancy left to be filled. The evil spirit took advantage of this spiritual emptiness, and took with it "seven other spirits more wicked itself", to go back and live in the man. "And the final condition of that man is worse than the first." The partial conversion was actually detrimental to him. He chose to only partially turn his life over to God, and the result was that his entire soul was lost. "There is a terrible persistence in wickedness: it returns, and the soul not indwelt by the rightful Tenant is always beleaguered. Mere reformation is never enough…" [Buttrick, in Morris, 329].

In context, Jesus, with His story about the partially converted man, may have been specifically referring to the children of Israel, their initial partial response to the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus Himself, and then their subsequent rejection of Jesus. "The dispossession may refer to the great impression made by John and Jesus, which in most of the people was proving temporary, so that in finally rejecting the Messianic reign they would become more completely than ever the subjects of Satan, and in forty years more would plunge into sore calamity and ruin" [Broadus, 279].

At this point in His teachings, Jesus is interrupted: "While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, His mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to Him. Someone told Him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’" (vs. 46-47). We learn from Mark, a little more background to this episode. Before Jesus started teaching, He entered a house, "and again a crowd gathered, so that He and His disciples were not even able to eat. When His family heard about this, they went to take charge of Him, for they said, ‘He is out of His mind’" (Mark. 3:20-21). So, Jesus’ family had good intentions. They were concerned that, in Jesus’ zeal for service, He was harming Himself by neglecting to eat and rest. However, they misinterpreted His zeal for service as insanity. How familiar does this sound? This scene has been played out countless times throughout the history of Christianity: family members and friends of Christians who think that the zealous, spirit-filled, untiring servants of God are crazy. What Jesus’ family members didn’t realize at the time was that Jesus received His power, zeal, sustenance and guidance from God, and that the Spirit of God would dictate when Jesus would rest.

Jesus pointed out to His earthly family that there is a new sort of kinship: "He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to 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’" (vs. 48-50). Jesus took this opportunity to "teach there is higher kinship, supreme over even the closest earthly one; it is based on union of life with God and expressed in deeds of righteousness… It is striking that He uses these words in detail, clearly originating new and holy humanity, to be known by one great characteristic, its devotion to the will of God" [Thomas, 182]. For the believer, the spiritual bond to Jesus is much greater than any earthly relationship. What a privilege that we are blessed with a personal relationship with the Lord of the Universe. "All believers in Jesus are of the royal family, princes of the blood, brothers of the Christ" [Spurgeon, 162].

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