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The Sign Of Jonah (Matthew 12:38-45)

In Matthew 12 the confrontation between the Jewish leaders and Jesus has come to a head with their accusing Jesus of doing His works by Satan’s power, and His warning them of the unpardonable sin. The point that Jesus was making was that the Kingdom of Heaven had come and that they were going to be excluded if they persisted in their rejection of Him. This warning troubled them, but they were still not convinced that He was the Messiah--far from it. So they demanded a sign from Him. And that is the occasion of this short section in which Jesus rebukes them for asking for a sign instead of believing, assesses their spiritual condition, and pronounces sentence on them.

After our passage ends there is a very brief incident in which Jesus’ mother and brothers were outside wanting to speak to Him. Jesus used their visit to make a point about the change in the direction of His ministry. He said that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” He was not being cruel to His family--no doubt He then went out to see them. What He was saying was that since the nation was now rejecting Him, since His own people were rejecting Him, He was turning to those who would believe. The true “family” of Christ was not unbelieving Israel, but believers of all races. If the “physical seed of Israel” rejected Him, He would build a “spiritual seed of Israel.” And this is true of the kingdom of God in general: people who are our relatives here may not be in the kingdom and so not our true and eternal brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus simply used the incident of the visit of His family to make this point.

Then, beginning with Matthew 13, Jesus began to teach with parables, which are designed to hide things about the Kingdom from the ones who rejected and opposed Him, but to reveal things about the Kingdom to His disciples. So Matthew 12 marks a real turning point in the life of Christ, and therefore also in the message of the book: He came to His own, but His own received Him not; and so to as many as received Him He gave the authority to become the children of God. The family of God is made up of true believers, and not natural blood ties.

Reading the Text

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.”

39 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. 40 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. 41 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. 42 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.

43 “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house empty, swept clean and put in order. 45 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.”

The Structure of the Text

Once again the teaching of Jesus in the passage begins with an incident, here a demand from the Pharisees and teachers of the Law for a miraculous sign (v. 38).

The immediate answer of Jesus was that there would be no sign as they wished, because the request came from unbelieving hearts (v. 39). There would be a sign, though, the sign of Jonah, which would confirm that Christ was who He said He was. But that sign would only be recognized after they crucified the Christ (as we shall see below). Nevertheless, it would give them one last opportunity to believe.

Then Jesus provides two warnings of unbelief based on history: the belief of the people of Nineveh and the belief of the Queen of Sheba. Here were Gentiles, not Jews, who believed the revelation from God, and therefore who would condemn these unbelievers. This means that their believing would show that unbelieving Israel should have believed, and could have believed, and so have no excuse. They had believed the word of Jonah, or the wisdom of Solomon; but now the Messiah was present and they should have believed.

Then is added a rather mystical teaching of Jesus about the future hardening in unbelief of this wicked generation. To realize the power of Christ to cleanse the heart but still refuse to receive Him will lead to a much worse condition.

So we have:

    The Request for the Sign (38)

      The Refusal of a Sign (39) with

        An Evaluation of the People (39)

          A Warning of Judgment for Unbelief 40-42)

            A Sentence of Greater Hardening

              if unbelief is persisted in (43-45).

The passage then follows a chain reaction from the request for a sign; and even that request flows from the accusations made against Jesus in the preceding passages.

This study will then focus on the nature of their request first, and then the rest of the study will be a study of the teaching of Jesus based on that issue. The study of the teaching by Jesus will require an understanding of why He called them an adulterous generation, then the two historical incidents to which He was referring and the spiritual lesson He was drawing from them, and finally the mystical illustration of the evil spirit that leaves a man and returns.

Once again the context of the teachings will be a great help in understanding these things. This material must be related to what has happened earlier in the chapter.

Observations on the Text

There are several words and figurative expressions in the passage that require clarification: “sign,” “wicked and adulterous generation,” “three days and three nights” and the “evil spirits” and the “swept house.” These will be classified and explained as we study the text.

There are two historical stories that have to be re-thought: Jonah and Sheba. People are familiar with those stories, but here we have to see exactly how Jesus was using them to make His point.

The point of the passage focuses on unbelief and belief, unbelief by these Jews, and belief by those Gentiles. Jesus’ teaching then first declares that they are wicked, then announces condemnation in the judgment in contrast to those who believe, and finally announces that they will be hardened in unbelief if they do not receive Him.

The final illustration using one evil spirit and then seven evil spirits probably was intended to pick up the earlier motif of casting out demons. They had accused Him of doing it by the power of Satan. Jesus is saying that if He defeats Satan and they do not accept Him, then Satan’s power will have a greater hold on them in the future.

The theology of the passage is the clear announcement of judgment on those who do not believe the word of the Lord and receive Jesus as their King. If we turn this around to state it positively, we would say that the passage is teaching the necessity of belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Those who do not believe will have no excuse, for people with far less information than they believed--and now a greater than Israel’s prophets and kings was present. The idea is not that one needs a lot of information in order to believe; rather, the response of faith to the amount of revelation given will determine acceptance with God. Without faith it is impossible to please God; and so when He sends His word, He expects people to trust Him.

Analysis of the Text

Now, if we work through the passage with this theology in mind we will see how the argument unfolds. One of our tasks in Bible Study is to uncover the unity in the passage, even if there are seemingly diverse sections. The parts all fit together in some way. Some passages are obvious units--no difficulty in seeing it; but some, like this one, have several different sections that do not at first glance seem to work together. That is why “context” is so important in Bible studies like this. With the basic theme in the chapter in mind (which we might re-state somewhat after working through the passage and seeing what exact emphases are present in the section) we can study section by section and see how the interpretation works out. There is a delicate balance in this--we work with an estimated idea of the overview (sometimes with the help of people who have studied it much) and this guides us, but we never let a pre-conceived idea force the interpretation where the words and text won’t go. But for the most part, in passages like this where we have a strange and mysterious story at the end, the flow of the passage will be most helpful. If someone studied only the last story illustration without fitting it into the context, there is no telling what interpretation might be given to it.

I. Those who do not believe in Jesus call for a miraculous sign (38). The Pharisees and teachers basically demanded a sign from Jesus. What were they looking for in a sign, and why would Jesus not give them one?

Well, this calls for a word study on signs. A good word study book or full commentary on the text will help you to understand that they were looking for some amazing event or miracle that would convince them that He was Messiah. Of course, He had been doing miracles right and left--but they seemed to want some other big thing that would be irrefutable. But Jesus would not give one to them because they had already rejected Him out of unbelief.

A sign in the Bible is some event or activity, supernatural or not, that would authenticate the person and claims of Jesus. A sign was usually a miracle with a clear meaning; it was a miracle designed to reveal something specific. However, in the Bible there are two ways that signs are used, to convince and to confirm. For example, when Moses was sent back to the Israelites to lead them out of bondage, he was given some signs to do--his staff turning to a snake, his hand turning leprous, and the water turning to blood. These were done in order to convince the people that they should believe Moses and follow him. But Moses was given another sign--when he and the people returned to Mount Sinai after the exodus they would worship at the mountain. That was a sign that would confirm that God had done it, but it was not a sign to convince them to go to the mountain to worship. Once they got there they would be assured that God had done just as He had promised.

These Pharisees and teachers clearly wanted the former type, a sign to convince them to believe. But they were dishonest and Jesus saw right through them. They had just seen a spectacular sign, the casting out of the demon so that the man regained his abilities, and instead of believing they accused Him of doing it by Beelzebub. They were not interested in a sign, only in trying to discredit Jesus. If He could not do a sign for them, they could expose Him; if He did one, they could discredit Him. They were an evil lot. And to call Him “Teacher”! They despised Him and were determined not to listen to His teachings.

Moreover, wanting a sign runs contrary to the nature of faith, which does not rely on a sign to convince people to believe. And if Jesus did a sign like that, it is unlikely that these people would have believed. They were merely challenging Jesus, and if He did a sign they would likely have rejected it. After all, they had frequently explained away some of the great miracles He had been performing.

We should digress for a moment because there are places in the Bible where it seems appropriate to seek a sign from God. We have already seen how God gave Moses signs to do to authenticate His plan. The people needed to be sure that this man off the desert was truly sent by God. When they saw the signs, that was enough--they accepted him as their leader. It was not a question of coming to faith in God, but rather of testing the authenticity of a man who wanted to lead them out of bondage.

Or, for another example, God through Isaiah told the king to ask a sign from the LORD, anything whatsoever (Isa. 7). The king refused, being a wicked unbeliever. So God gave a sign anyway: a virgin would conceive and give birth to a son known as Immanuel. The supernatural birth of Jesus would be a sign that the Davidic Covenant would still be fulfilled. The point in Isaiah 7:9 is that if Ahaz had believed, he would have been confirmed. So asking a sign in faith is different than challenging God to convince us to believe.

Or, Gideon put out the fleece for a sign that God would go with him to battle. The text never condemns Gideon for this, because he was a devout believer, but more importantly, he had already decided to go, and what he wanted was a sign that God would be with him. So again faith was already operative.

II. Jesus refuses to give His opponents a sign and instead warns them of judgment to come (39-45). The rest of the passage is Jesus’ response to the “request,” and so it naturally forms the second main outline point, the second half of the material. But the response can be subdivided into several points: a rejection of a sign now but a future sign to give them another opportunity to believe; a verdict on their wickedness and a warning of judgment, and a sentence on them for their unbelief.

A. He rebukes the people for their unbelief (39, 40). In His response Jesus simply identified these folks as a wicked and adulterous generation. No sign would be given to them--not the kind they wanted anyway.

So the next thing you will have to sort out why their request for a sign made them a wicked and adulterous generation. The word “generation” is often used in the Bible for any group of people who share beliefs and traits. So this group of opponents was “wicked” and “adulterous”; “wicked” speaks of their nature and dealings with other people, and “adulterous” speaks of their relationship with God. In looking into the biblical usage of this language you will eventually connect with the Book of Hosea. That book was written to a generation of Israelites in the 8th century B.C. who were unfaithful to God. That does not mean that they simply did not measure up to His standards; rather, it means that they deliberately chose to reject the LORD and go after other religious forms, usually false gods. Hosea described the covenant of the LORD in terms of a marriage; to break the covenant with God was to be unfaithful to the covenant, especially if they followed other gods instead of God. And so they were fornicators and adulterers according to Hosea (spiritually--although in Hosea’s day false worship did involve temple prostitution). The principle is that people who should be believers (they had the Scriptures, the temple, the priests, the prophets) and who rejected the prophets and the Messiah were unfaithful to God, as one would be unfaithful to a marriage. Jesus describes these people in the same terms that Hosea used because they refused to believe in Him and chose rather to follow their own religious ideas. By doing so they were proving to be unfaithful to God and His covenant program. They were spiritual adulterers.

So His point is that a wilful and rebellious people do not really believe, but they do demand a spectacular sign. They have made up their minds about Jesus, and it would take something really big to change their minds. In another place Jesus made it clear that such people who do not believe in God’s revelation would not believe even if one came back from the dead (Luke 16:31). Their refusal to believe made them an adulterous generation, like their ancestors who killed the prophets.

But a sign would be given to them later, albeit a confirming sign. Jesus was telling them that they would have one more opportunity to be convinced--the sign of His resurrection would prove who He is and what His death was all about. They had rejected every other sign that Jesus had given them, so there was one more, but they would have to wait for it.

This was the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, so the Messiah would be in the grave three days and three nights before rising from the dead (Jonah was not dead, but was as good as dead if God had not intervened). This sign--the death and resurrection--would confirm that Jesus indeed is the Messiah, the Son of God. That is truly a miraculous sign. However, it would come later for these opponents of Jesus, for they were the ones who were plotting to kill Him. And they would succeed (they would think) in their opposition to Jesus by seeing Him crucified. Thus, the “sign” that they wanted would come from their own crime against Him. They would be guilty of His death. But it was an opportunity that would come later; they might then believe.

Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 develops this dilemma they would face He declared that the evidence (tongues) was that God was at work in their midst in Christ and then in the Holy Spirit, just as the prophecy of Joel said. If that was the case, then they needed to turn to the LORD for salvation, as Joel said. However, Peter points out that they are in a dilemma because they just killed the Lord who could save them. That is why they all shouted, “What shall we do.” Of course the answer was repent.

So the sign, the evidence, that these people wanted concerning Jesus would come with His resurrection, giving them far more to be guilty of than they now had.

One additional explanation is important here. The expression “three days and three nights” is an idiom. Any part of a day and of a night was considered a day and a night. The same is true for reckoning years. For example, if a king came to the throne in the tenth month of the year and died in the sixth month of the next year, He would have reigned for two years. So with Jesus’ chronology, if He died on Friday and was laid in the tomb, that would be the first “day and a night”; His being in the tomb Saturday would count the second day and a night, and rising on Sunday would cover the third “day and a night.” It is idiomatic, and not intended to be calculated to the precision of 72 hours.

B. Jesus announces the certainty of judgment on His opponents (41, 42). The mention of Jonah brings the story of Jonah to mind, and so Jesus makes a point of the heart of that account. If you are not familiar with the story of Jonah, you need to read it through--it is only 44 verses long. The people of Israel were both affluent and indifferent to the call of God on their lives to be a light to the nation. So God called the reluctant prophet to go and preach to the hated enemies of Israel, the Assyrians who lived in Nineveh (modern Iraq--so you can see the kind of tension Jonah had about this). But the point of the story is that those people repented at the preaching of Jonah, and God spared that generation the judgment.

Jesus says that those people of Nineveh will “stand up” at the judgment and “condemn” these unbelievers. Well, it will be God who condemns unbelieving sinners — so what does this line mean? I think the point that Jesus was making was that here were people from other nations who had far less revelation than Jesus’ opponents, but they believed the word of the LORD. The fact that they will “rise up” (meaning stand, i.e., not fall, not be condemned) in the judgment will be evidence that people of Jesus’ day could have believed without all this convincing. In other words, their conversion will be a condemnation for unbelieving Israel. If they could believe, why could not the Jews?

The second story is the visit of the Queen of the South (Sheba) who came to challenge Solomon’s wisdom. Of course, he made a believer out of her by answering all her questions. Here was a queen from another land, not an Israelite, who had very little information other than that the wisdom of God was in this king, and she came, she heard, and she was convinced. Her presence in the kingdom will also condemn Israel, for if she could believe what she heard about God’s wisdom in Solomon after a brief visit, if she could believe with what she had, they should have believed with all that they had. For Christ is far greater than Solomon.

So Jesus made this striking point that the stakes are now much higher. Pagans believed in the Lord at the preaching of Jonah--but Jesus is much greater than Jonah. He preached far more profound things, and did amazing miracles to authenticate His words. They should have believed. And a pagan queen believed because she heard wise sayings from the king of Israel--but Jesus is far greater than Solomon. His wisdom and His knowledge surpasses them all. They should have believed.

And so in the judgment they will be condemned for their unbelief very convincingly because people like this with little or no information believed, whereas they with the presence of the Lord in their very midst refused to believe.

C. The Lord pronounces a sentence on those who refuse to accept Him (43-45). The last point of Jesus’ reply is an illustration taken from an individual experience in the matter of demon possession. The point of the story cannot be missed: “even so shall it be to this evil generation.”

The illustration begins at the point of dispossession. The unclean spirit was cast out, but that spirit needed some place through which it can act, and so it was restless until it could find some place it sought. That in itself is a remarkable revelation, showing us that these spirits must have some material body as a medium. But in Jesus’ story the spirit returns to the man and finds the place “empty, swept, and put in order.” The key word is “empty” or “unoccupied.” The man was improved in some ways, swept and put in order. But he was not possessed--he was empty. So the result was that the improvement was of no avail. Seeing that there was no in-dweller possessing and holding the man in the right way, the unclean spirit re-entered and took other spirits in with him. So all the improvement was lost, and the man was far worse in the end than he had been in the beginning. The point of the story is this: to cast out the unclean spirit is of no lasting value unless there follows a new possession by the clean Spirit.

Now how does this story fit the passage? Recall that the chapter had earlier focused on a case of casting out an unclean spirit and the wicked accusation that Jesus was doing this by the power of Satan. But in that section Jesus made it clear that He was casting out Satan. The point Jesus was making here and elsewhere is that His presence and mission had broken the power of evil, and His casting out demons was evidence that He was sweeping the house and putting it in order so Satan could not break in (the house is the implied metaphor for the soul). While Jesus was present, the whole underworld of evil spirits was under His power and He was able to drive it out and control it so that He could offer to people much better things. But once Jesus had driven the evil powers away, it was up to the people to respond to Him and His power. He had cast out the evil spirits, swept the house and put it in order--meaning, their lives and their world. Now the King, Jesus the Messiah, was able to possess the swept and ordered houses so that they should no longer be empty, but possessed by goodness and purity. If they received Christ into their lives, they would be protected from evil by one who was far greater than Satan or his forces. But since they had refused to believe in Jesus and did not receive Him or allow Him to control their lives, they would soon see that the house that was swept clean would be inhabited again by more evil forces, and they would sink to a far lower level of life. They would be hardened in unbelief, comfortable with corruption and vice, and living in a world controlled by wickedness and violence.

This is a solemn sentence, but it is true nonetheless. People may try to clean up their lives or reform in some way. But unless they are possessed and controlled by the Holy Spirit as they turn their lives over to the Lord Jesus Christ, they will be worse off than before because they will only be available for greater attacks from Satan’s devices. The Bible warns people to seek the Lord while He may be found, and not to refuse the convicting work of the Spirit. Resisting brings a hardening, thanks to the strengthening of the influence that evil spiritual forces have on people without Christ.

The Gospel message is not simply that Jesus Christ has the power to defeat Satan and cast out unclean spirits, but that He does this in order that He might take possession of peoples’ lives and defeat opposing forces through them. But without Christ within, there can be no victory. This is why it is dangerous for people to be nominal but unbelieving “Christians,” present in Christian events but not in Christ by faith. Christ’s presence always loosens the bonds of evil, whether people confess it or not, or whether they are even conscious of it. People will “feel better” for being in church, and may even clean up some things in their lives. But we must be aware that “swept and orderly ‘houses’” are attractive to unclean spirits, who are ready to take possession if the Holy Spirit has not. Unless people are possessed and controlled by Christ, the last state of such church-goers (or “moral” non church-goers) may be worse than before, as they find themselves hardened in self-righteousness and unbelief. It happened with those in Jesus’ day who liked to hear Jesus talk, but rejected Him as Savior and Lord.

Conclusions and Applications

I think enough has been said about the thrust of the passage and its theological ideas, so that does not have to be gone over again here. And the theme of judgment is so common in the Bible that it is not necessary at this point to list dozens of passages. It will be helpful to reiterate at this point something that the Bible teaches, namely, that judgment will be according to opportunity. People who have received a good amount of light, or knowledge, about Christ Jesus will be held more accountable than those who had little to go on. Jesus has already said this in Matthew 11. Here He praises those non-Israelites who believed with so little information. Genuine faith will believe the word of God, no matter how much or how little of it is given to them.

The primary application would be to unbelievers who know a good deal about Christianity, perhaps even tithing members of a church. They should be warned that morality and goodness without a commitment to Christ in regeneration will leave an emptiness in the soul for evil spiritual forces to occupy. And evil spirits do not always cause people to do evil things; they often get people to “have the form of godliness without the power.” Being good, cleaning up the act, making new resolutions--all of it is dangerous unless Christ is dwelling enthroned within.

There is perhaps a secondary application to be made, a warning here for Christians as well--not a warning that they might be condemned in the judgment, for if they have received Christ they will not be so judged. But it is a warning not to act like unbelievers, refusing to follow Christ faithfully unless He shows a sign. There is a growing desire in Christianity today for miraculous signs, which if kept in the proper place in the faith can be useful to be sure. But if people have a hard time believing (that is, following ad serving Christ wholeheartedly) without them, then something is wrong in their spiritual growth. God may do miraculous signs, and when He does it should fill us with praise and thanksgiving. But our faith, saving faith, is based in the Word of God--that is what the apostles say redeems us. And that Word reveals to us the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. People who have come to faith in Christ through the Scriptures should set about to grow spiritually and to serve faithfully. The miraculous “signs” they should see would be answers to prayer and people coming to faith or lives being changed through their witness. These will be confirming signs, authenticating signs, but not signs to compel them to believe in Christ. It is a fine distinction, I know; but God expects us to walk by faith whether the signs are present or not. This topic should lead any study group into a healthy and useful discussion, and so I can leave it here for them to pursue.