Wherever Jesus traveled, the critics traveled with him. Their hearts were calloused and by this time talk was already beginning about ways to kill Him. Don’t miss the disconnect here: the religious leaders were trying to kill Jesus!
For the person with the hard heart, no amount of evidence is going to convince them of what they are determined not to believe. The world will continue to ridicule Christianity and the notion that there is a God who created everything while at the same time missing the ridiculous notion of their own belief that this world “just happened”. They dismiss Christian belief because that say it is scientifically and practically untenable.
There are people in our own day who refuse to believe men actually walked on the moon. Others believe the horrors of the Holocaust were fabricated. It is no surprise that some people will not believe that God became man and lived among us. Some people simply will not believe no matter what the evidence might say.
In our text this morning the teachers and Pharisee ask Jesus for a sign to prove His authority. These same men had seen miraculous healings, they had seen Jesus cast out demons, they may have witnessed the miraculous catch of fish with Peter. They may have seen Him feed the multitudes with just a few loaves and fish. There was no sign that was going to convince these guys that Jesus really was God in human form.
No matter what Jesus would have done, they would have found an alternative explanation or accused Him of working by the power of the Devil (as we saw last week). These men show us the danger of a closed heart. If you are unwilling to follow the evidence, there is no sign that will convince you. Jesus responded accordingly.
Greater Than Jonah
38 One day some teachers of religious law and Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority.”
39 But Jesus replied, “Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.
41 “The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent.
Jesus knew these men were not interested in evidence of His authority. He also knew that they used the title “Teacher” antagonistically. After all they have already seen, Jesus said this request revealed that they are an evil and adulterous generation.
He said the only sign He would give them is the sign of Jonah. You remember the story. Jonah was a prophet of God. God told him to go to the city of Nineveh and tell them to repent or God would destroy them. Jonah didn’t want to go because Nineveh was the wickedest city of the day and Jonah did not want them to have even a chance of receiving God’s mercy. So, Jonah boarded a ship headed in the opposite direction. God sent a huge storm that threatened to sink the ship. Jonah decided he would rather be dead than go to Nineveh and had the sailors throw him overboard to save their ship. Jonah got tossed in the water, the storm ceased, and Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish” where for three days he has the chance to reconsider his response to God’s command and then he was belched up onto the shore and Jonah took off for Nineveh. He preached the message, the people responded with repentance, and Jonah pouted.
Jesus said Jonah’s experience with the big fish would parallel His experience with death. He would be in the grave three days and three nights. This would be His sign to them that He was the Son of God. (Of course, when that happened they said the disciples stole the body).
There are two side issues here. First, Jesus referred to Jonah as a real person in history. Whenever someone asks me if I believe the story of Jonah actually happened I always say the same thing: Jesus did, so I do too.
Second, this passage is the center of an extensive debate. Critics are quick to point out that according to Christian teaching Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon and rose early Sunday morning. That would mean Jesus wasn’t even in the tomb for 48 hours, much less three days and three nights.
There are two answers to this charge,
- The traditional (and widely accepted answer) is that in Jewish understanding, any part of a day constituted one day. So, Jesus was in the tomb, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. In the Jewish mind this constituted three days. If you know the story you that when Jesus did rise the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law did not respond by pointing out that Jesus was NOT in the tomb for three days and three nights! They would have charged Him with being a false prophet. They knew He had fulfilled exactly what He said He would do. Jesus did not misspeak.
- A second (and minority) opinion articulated in the commentary of James Montgomery Boice and several others, is that the crucifixion actually took place on Thursday, rather than Friday. At Passover time there was always a Sabbath that preceded the Passover. It was always on the same date (the 15th of Nisan) so it fell on different days (like our Christmas). We know Jesus was crucified at the time of Passover. If the 15th of Nisan fell on a Friday, then there would be two Sabbath days in a row! One of the times this happened was in the year AD 30 which is the most probable date for the crucifixion of Jesus. Those who believe Jesus was crucified on Thursday followed by two Sabbaths point to the Greek of Matthew 28:1 which says . . . “At the end of the Sabbaths (plural).” It is an interesting insight but it is not the majority opinion.
Each of these views tries to understand what Scripture was actually teaching. Either way, Jesus accurately predicted what would take place.
The point Jesus makes is this: Jonah preached and these people repented! They mourned and cried out to God. They were more responsive than the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.
As Jesus said earlier, Tyre, Sidon and Sodom (former wicked towns) would stand and condemn Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum (present towns where Jesus preached) because they were more open to the truth that the later cities. Now He says the people of Nineveh would stand in condemnation of the Jewish leaders because they heard the word of God and repented. . . unlike these teachers! Jesus said if they had seen the evidence and the signs that these men had already seen, they would have repented long ago. Jesus said one “greater than Jonah” was here, and they were not listening.
This is a warning to us. We must keep our hearts soft and teachable. We have the record of Jesus in our Bibles and sources outside the Bible. We can examine the evidence for the Resurrection. We have heard the stories of lives that have been greatly changed. We have even more reason to believe than these teachers of the law. We have no excuse for rejecting Christ. Eer must guard against hard hearts. We must let our minds and hearts follow the evidence rather than coming in with a pre-determined mindset.
Greater than Solomon
Jesus gave a second illustration or indictment.
42 The queen of Sheba will also stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for she came from a distant land to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Now someone greater than Solomon is here—but you refuse to listen.
The Queen of Sheba (which is Ethiopia and Yemen today) came to visit Solomon. You can read the story in 1 Kings 10. Solomon, David’s son, became King and asked God for wisdom. He quickly gained a reputation as the wisest man in the world. The Queen decided to come see for herself just how wise Solomon really was. She asked him every difficult question she could think of and Solomon had good answers for all of them. She was suitably impressed and praised Solomon. She gave him gifts to honor his wisdom.
Jesus said the actions of the Queen will be used as evidence against the teachers of the law. The Queen had the good sense to travel from a faraway land to sit before the wisdom of Solomon. And now, one “greater than Solomon” was sitting right before them, and they would not listen!
This happens sometimes doesn’t it? You take for granted what is right before you. I spent close to the first 25 years of my life in Chicago but there were many benefits of which I never took advantage.
People will travel across the country to attend a Christian conference but they can’t make it to church or the time of Sunday School that is available to them every week. We have seen that people will travel hours to attend a Christian concert but won’t attend the concerts we bring into our own community! There are people in the world who only have a few pages of the Bible and they memorize them and thank God for these pages. We have Bibles on our shelves that are never opened! Those who cherish the truth will stand in condemnation over those who treat it as nothing. The question needs to be raised: Are we taking our privilege for granted?
A Warning – Rejecting Christ is Dangerous
The next part of the text is one of the more difficult passages of the Bible to understand.
43 “When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, seeking rest but finding none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So it returns and finds its former home empty, swept, and in order. 45 Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before. That will be the experience of this evil generation.”
This is an obscure teaching. The idea of the demon leaving and then returning causes us to ponder (mostly in vain) its meaning. People much smarter than I am are hesitant to state the meaning too strongly.
But here is what I think Jesus is saying to us. You can work hard to be religious and reform your life. You can eliminate all your vices and “clean your house” (effectively causing the demon to leave). But, if you do not replace the old with something new, the old will come back with a vengeance.
Have you ever been addicted to something? Perhaps you used to smoke cigarettes, or maybe you are a chocaholic, or are given to gluttony. Maybe you are trying to reign in your spending or give up texting or gaming. If you do not replace the vice with something positive you will either fall prey to a greater vice or you will return to what you were trying to overcome with a vengeance. For example, I know that simply skipping a meal is not going to help me because I will eat 2 or 3 times as much at the next meal!
Simply “trying to be a better person” will not last for long. If you do not replace the influence of the Devil with the influence of the Holy Spirit, the Devil will take control of even more of you. This is what happens with people who believe they can be “good enough to be saved”. They may go to church every week (because that is what good people do) but they leave church (if it is a Bible preaching church) feeling there is more that they must do. The more the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law resisted the message of Christ, the greater vacuum they created in their soul. The devil works best in these situations. These men, who were known as religious leaders eventually became so evil that they conspired to kill the Creator of the Universe and thought they were doing something good.
There is no such thing as neutrality toward Christ. You either submit to Him or you serve the Devil.
Greater Than Earthly Family
The final account (in this section of Matthew) relates to the family of Jesus.
46 As Jesus was speaking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 47 Someone told Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, and they want to speak to you.”
48 Jesus asked, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 49 Then he pointed to his disciples and said, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. 50 Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!”
It sounds, on the surface, like Jesus is being pretty disrespectful to his family. But when we compare the gospels we learn a little more from Mark,
20 One time Jesus entered a house, and the crowds began to gather again. Soon he and his disciples couldn’t even find time to eat. 21 When his family heard what was happening, they tried to take him away. “He’s out of his mind,” they said.
22 But the teachers of religious law who had arrived from Jerusalem said, “He’s possessed by Satan, the prince of demons. That’s where he gets the power to cast out demons.” (Mark 3:20-22)
This is around the same time as the Matthew account. Notice that his family thought Jesus was crazy. They wanted to take him home. If they could have done so, they would have signed Him up for counseling and loaded him up with drugs. They were not there for a nice visit, they were trying to stop Jesus from teaching!
Let me give you one more aside. Our text says the mother and brothers of Jesus were outside. In Mark 6 we are given their names,
3 Then they scoffed, “He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.” They were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. (Mark 6:3)
Some teach what is called the perpetual virginity of Mary. In other words, after giving birth to Jesus, she remained a virgin. Those who believe this say that these were perhaps brothers who belonged to Joseph from a previous marriage. But there is no evidence whatsoever that Joseph had other children. We read nothing about children in the journey to Bethlehem. The most credible interpretation is to understand this in the simple sense: after Jesus was born miraculously, Mary and Joseph had a normal married life and had other children.
The point Jesus was making was this: though we do have an earthly family, we also have a spiritual family. Our true brothers and sisters (the relationships that will endure through all eternity) are those who have embraced Christ as Savior and Lord. They are the ones who follow His directions.
Drawing it All Together
Once again Jesus draws a contrast between the attitude of the skeptic and the attitude of the believer; between the religious person and the Christian person.
What does it mean to be part of God’s family? What does it mean to be a true believer? Here is what I hope we learned today. A true believer accepts the evidence that Jesus is who He said He is. The true believer is the One who believes the testimony of the eyewitnesses. Jesus was born of a supernatural birth, taught with authority, performed miracles that were supernatural in nature, died willingly in our place, and rose victoriously conquering death once and for all.
Are you waiting for God to do more than He has already done? God does sometimes does give additional proofs to a person (if they are open and looking) but no further proof is needed. The resurrection is the most powerful sign. The Bible records the work of Jesus. People who do not believe do not resist because of a lack of evidence but because of an unwillingness to believe.
Second, the child of God is a ready student before the Lord. The true believer listens, absorbs, and applies the truth of Scripture. They do not stand in judgment over the teaching of Jesus . . . they submit to it.
Third, the child of God is filled with the Holy Spirit. The change that comes about in a believer’s life is not due to great resolve, it is due to the work of God’s Spirit within those who believe. The person who “believed at one time but does not believe now” is likely a person who was religious and tried to become a better person. They were not trusting Christ — they were trusting their own willpower.
The people who Jesus addressed were the leaders of the Jewish faith. It reminds us that you can be a leader in the church and still not be a child of God. You can have a reputation as a good person and not be forgiven and made new. So, examine your life. Make sure your confidence is in Him, and not ultimately in you.
One greater than Jonah, Solomon, David, Moses and all the others has come. The wise person will listen to Him and follow Him for the rest of their days.