What Sign Are You Looking For? Matthew 12:38-45

Pastor Scott L. Harris
September 19, 1993

What Sign Are You Looking For?
Matthew 12:38-45


How much needs to be given to bring satisfaction? How much does it take to prove a point? How much does Jesus have to do to satisfy His critics and prove He is who He claims – the long awaited Messiah?

This morning we are going to see that the Scribes and Pharisees were continuing to want more before they could be satisfied, or so that is what they said, but in Jesus’ answer to them in Matthew 12:38-45 we will see that the truth is that they would not be satisfied by anything that Jesus did. Nothing could be done that would bring them to believe in Him.

This morning’s passage brings to a conclusion the disputation Jesus was having with the Scribes and Pharisees on this particular day. There had been tension rising between Jesus and these false Jewish religious leaders for some time, but it has now come to a climax. Recall from our study as we began Matthew 12, that the Pharisees were incensed that Jesus would not follow their traditions. When Jesus broke their man-made commandment not to heal on the Sabbath by restoring the withered hand of the man who had come into the Synagogue, the Pharisees were so enraged that they began to plot with their rivals, the Herodians, to murder Jesus (Matthew 12:14).  (See: The Lord of the Sabbath). You might think that would be as far down as they could go – plotting the murder of Jesus. But only a short time later they plunged to a depth of sin from which there could be no recovery.

Our study today occurs upon the occasion in which these self-righteous men committed the one sin that could not be forgiven – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The situation began in Matthew 12:22 when a man who was blind and dumb due to a demon was brought to Jesus. Jesus cast out the demon and thus healed the man. The people began to openly wonder if Jesus was the Son of David – the promised Messiah. The Scribes and Pharisees started to speak against Jesus telling the people that Jesus “cast out demons by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:24). Jesus, knowing their thoughts and comments, called them into account and showed that their accusation was illogical, inconsistent with their own practice, insurrectionary against God, and inane. It was a stupid thing to say. In addition, Jesus bluntly told them that though every other sin could be forgiven them regardless of how vile and the length of time in debauchery, that this sin which they had just committed could not be forgiven. They had sealed their own doom.  (See: The Unforgivable Sin)

The Holy Spirit is sent to work on the hearts of people, but there comes a time when He will cease that work, and without Him there is no hope for redemption. A person who continues to grieve the Spirit will resist the Spirit, and as that continues he will quench the Spirit and develop a seared conscience. It is at that point the person is in danger of being left alone by God – confirmed in their hardness of heart. These particular Scribes and Pharisees had reached that point.

They claimed that Jesus was evil – from Satan, yet the fruit of Jesus’ life only demonstrated that He was indeed from God just as He said. They claimed for themselves that they were good, but the fruit of their lives proved just the opposite. In verses 36 and 37 Jesus warned them sternly that they would give an account to God for everything they did and their own words would testify against them that their hearts were evil.  (See: Exposing The Heart)

As we begin this morning’s passage, we see these men who have just been so sternly rebuked by Jesus trying to save face in front of the people.

The Demand

Look at verse 38, “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.”

Have you ever seen a debate in which the person whose arguments have just been thoroughly demolished tries to rescue himself by taking on an air of superiority, ignores what has just been said, and requests more proof of what has just been proven? That is what happens here. The scribes and Pharisees held the position in that society that they were the experts in the Mosaic Law. They use that position to regain a sense of superiority and put themselves in a position in which they try to judge Jesus.

By their position they could insinuate that the Law taught something just by what they said and did – regardless of whether it was actually in the Scriptures or not. Their request to Jesus to show them some sort of sign suggested to the crowd that 1) The Messiah would provide such a sign, and 2) The Scribes and Pharisees were to be the ones that would declare that sign to be valid or invalid.

It is all a bluff in trying to regain the respect of the crowds. They did come to Jesus with politeness, even calling Him “Teacher,” and asking Him to provide some sort of sign. The request may have been made politely, but it was in effect a demand. In most situations you would commend someone for remaining calm in a debate, but in this case their calmness only shows the strength of their pride, not the strength of their position. When you are rebuked by God you should be emotionally and mentally devastated and seek His mercy – not demand more from Him.

They wanted a sign, an “attesting miracle,” from Jesus. Immediately you think – what other miracle could they possibly want? Jesus has healed every manner of disease and sickness – sometimes with only a word and not even seeing the person. Jesus has demonstrated power over nature – stilling the wind and waves with a simple command. Jesus has shown His authority over the supernatural by casting out demons – which is what He did that started this current debate. And Jesus has even raised the dead. What more could they possibly want?

We get an idea of that in Matthew 16:1 where a group of Pharisees and Sadducees come and try to make the same demand on Jesus – although they are not as polite in that passage. The text there is more detailed and reveals that they wanted “Him to show them a sign from heaven.” We are not told exactly what they wanted in this current passage, but it was to be something big and spectacular, something on a cosmic level scale, and something without precedent.

In verse 39 we get Jesus’ answer to their request. “But He, answering, said to them, A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it save the sign of Jonah the prophet.”

The Sign of Jonah

Again Jesus rebukes them. They were a wicked and adulterous people for seeking such a sign and they would not get the sign they were seeking. God does not perform miracles for the pleasure of those who are wicked of heart. These men had already demonstrated by their blindness to what Jesus had already done that regardless of what He would do, it would not satisfy them. What could Jesus do – write His name across the sky in gold letters? Move the constellations around? Have the angels descend in visible array declaring His holy name? Even if Jesus would have done those things, they would soon be asking for more – just as the crowds did after He fed them miraculously and just as they were doing then after already seeing Jesus do so many different miracles.

Jesus has expanded His condemnation from just the Scribes and Pharisees to the whole generation of Jewish people that were following them in their wickedness. Their evil nature was seen in what they did and said which was more reflective of Satan than of God. They were considered adulterous because they were supposed to be in a covenant relationship with God and they had turned their back on Him to pursue their own system of religion. Earlier generations of the children of Israel had been declared adulterous because of their worship of the false gods of Baal, Molech, and Asherah. This generation had abandoned the Canaanite gods but instead of following God, they placed their hope and trust in the idol of man-made religious tradition.

They would not get the sign they were seeking, but they would get a sign they were not seeking. The sign of Jonah the prophet.

If you remember, Jonah was a prophet of Israel who was appointed by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians, and warn them of God’s coming judgment if they did not repent. Jonah did not want to go. The Assyrians were a wicked and violent nation and nothing would have pleased Jonah more than to have God destroy them. So, Jonah, instead of going to Nineveh, goes the opposite direction and gets on a ship heading for Tarshish (Spain). God causes a severe storm to arise, eventually Jonah is tossed overboard, and he is swallowed by great fish prepared by God for the occasion. After three days and nights in the belly of this sea monster it spits him out on land. Jonah then goes to Nineveh and completes what God told him to do in the first place.

The sign of Jonah is what is called a “typical” prophecy. The experience that Jonah went through is a “type” of what Jesus would go through. As Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights and then was spit out, so the Son of Man – Jesus the Messiah – would be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights and then rise again. This was a prediction of Jesus’ coming death, burial, and resurrection. That would be the sign Jesus would give. Would they look for it and heed it? No. Jesus said in His story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:31 that if they would not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they would not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.

Let me quickly point out two other things about what Jesus says here about the sign of Jonah. First, Jesus affirms the veracity of the story of Jonah being swallowed by a big fish (neither the Hebrew or Greek words indicate whale, but some sort of “great fish” or “sea monster” prepared by God for the occasion – Jonah 1:17). If you have a problem believing the story of Jonah is true, then you also have a problem with Jesus because He attested that it is true.

Second, some people use this passage to claim that Jesus could not have been crucified on Friday afternoon and raised on Sunday morning. That would not be 72 hours, but only two nights, one day and parts of two other days. How is this conflict worked out? Some say by moving Jesus’ death back to Thursday, however, all the texts point out that His death occurred on Friday and the resurrection took place on Sunday.

The answer comes in understanding the Jewish idiom of day and night. First, in the same manner in which they would use “heaven and earth” to mean the same as we mean by “universe,” they would use “day and night” in the same manner as we use “day” to speak of one diurnal time unit. The nights would always be numbered with the days. Second, any part of a day would be considered as the whole. So any part of the day would be counted as a whole day. Third, the Jewish day began with nightfall. Thus, the three days and nights are: Crucified on Friday – part of the day counted as a whole beginning at previous nightfall (our Thursday night is counted) = day 1 and night 1. Saturday in the grave – day 2 and night 2. Sunday morning rise from dead = day 3 and night 3.

Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead would be the sign given to them – but they would reject that too and it would be part of the judgment against them. Jesus now explains how certain their judgment would be because of their hardness of heart to see and respond to what has already been given to them.

The Judgment from Nineveh

Verse 41, “The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”

The nation of Nineveh will judge that generation of Jews because they repented at what little God gave them in comparison to the great amount God gave them – and they remained hardened toward God. Consider the differences.

Nineveh received its message from God from Jonah – a minor prophet who was a sinful, rebellious, and foolish person. That generation received its message from God from Jesus Christ who is God in Human flesh and without sin. The message to Nineveh was one of doom. All Jonah said to them was, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). Jesus presented a message of grace, mercy, and full salvation. Jonah did no miracles or other authenticating signs. Jesus came doing many miracles and authenticating signs. Jonah was speaking to a people completely unfamiliar with the Scriptures already provided by God for mankind. Jesus was speaking to a people well versed in the Scriptures and having a godly heritage. Yet Nineveh repented and turned to God seeking His mercy. That generation rejected God, His message, and His son. Hendriksen put it this way, “Less enlightened people obeyed less enlightened preaching, but more enlightened people refuse[d] to obey the Light of the world.”

But the Ninevites would not be the only ones that would condemn that generation of Jews. The Queen of the South would too.

The Judgment from the Queen of the South

Verse 42, “The Queen of the South shall rise up with this generation at the judgment and shall condemn it, because 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 is the Queen of Sheba mentioned in 1 Kings 10:1-13 and 2 Chronicles 9:1-9. She was from the country of the Sabeans located in lower Arabia some 1,200 miles southeast of Israel. At that time considered the “ends of the earth.” She, like the Ninevites, responded to what little she heard.

She was very wealthy because her country was on the Mediterranean to India trade route. And because she was on that trade route, she had heard reports of the fame of King Solomon concerning the name of the LORD (1 Kings 10:1). She had no invitation, but she wanted to hear His wisdom so she made a long journey carrying gold, jewels, and spices as gifts for Solomon.

What a contrast she is to the Israelites of that generation who did not have to make a long and difficult travel to hear the wisdom of God for Jesus, the very wisdom of God, was in their midst. She had only heard reports about Solomon, while they had seen and heard Jesus themselves. She came bearing gifts for Solomon, but they gave nothing to Jesus and plotted to take away His life. There is no report that she had an invitation to come, but she came and rejoiced in Solomon’s wisdom and praised the Lord on his behalf. They had been invited and urged to come to Jesus and follow His wisdom, but they refused and blasphemed the Holy Spirit. The Queen of the South will stand in judgment upon them because she did all that to hear Solomon while they refused Jesus who was greater in every respect.

What a tragedy they were. Verses 43-45 describe the judgment that would come upon them because of their neglect to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Judgment from Neglect

“Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes, and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.”

Now people often get lost in the passage because they try to develop their doctrine of demonology from it and neglect the passage’s purpose. Jesus is not giving any teaching about demons here other than that they can inhabit a man, go out of the man, and then return later with more demons. There is nothing in the text that says why the demon left; nothing explains what the “waterless places” are or why the demon is wandering around in them. We can discern that it is not the kind of place the demon wants to be – which is why the demon wants to go back to the man he had inhabited before. Don’t get lost in trying to figure out the demon, keep to the context, and determine why Jesus told this story. Notice again that last sentence, “That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.” That points us back to verse 39. Jesus’ purpose in telling this illustration is to point out the judgment that would come upon that generation. They would end up in a worse condition than what they had started out in.

Jesus compares that generation with a demonized man who had been freed from the demon. While the demon was gone the man got his life into order – “swept, and put in order”. There had been outward reformation, some bad habits put aside, and some good ones started. But the reformation was only outward because as the text says, when the demon returns the man was still “unoccupied.” The Holy Spirit was not there so the demon was free to occupy the man again – and the demon does so, only the condition is worse this time because that demon goes and gets seven more demons more wickedly than itself with the result that the man is now inhabited by eight demons. His last condition is worse than when he started.

Israel as a nation had gone into the worship of the Canaanite idols resulting eventually in the captivity – Israel taken away by Assyria and Judah taken away by Babylon. While in captivity they get their lives back in order. The demon of idol worship is taken away, but over time, since the nation as a whole did not turn wholeheartedly to the true worship of the LORD God, a religious system was developed that proved worse than the pagan worship. It was that religious system, as most clearly seen in the Scribes and Pharisees, that crucified the Lord Jesus Christ.

This particular generation also had such a reformation in part. At the preaching of John the Baptist and the early ministry of Jesus many of the nations – even some of the religious leaders – turned from some of their sinful ways and cleaned up their act. However, there was no change of heart, and because of that they were going to end up in a worse state than when they started. Why? Because they were so embedded in their self-righteous religious traditions that they were calling the work of the Holy Spirit being done in and through Jesus Christ the work of Satan. Their earlier moral reformation was nice, but because there was a neglect of a spiritual reformation there was not a lasting transformation – the result being a severe judgment upon them. This same generation eventually saw the destruction of the nation and of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and what remnant was left was scattered throughout the world.

The Warning to Us

Now you say, “So what does that have to do with me? That was that generation. This is a different generation.” That is true, but there is still a very strong warning to us in the text because of the two principles it presents to us. First, God gives revelation of Himself to man – to some much, to others little, but we had better not neglect to make the most of whatever He gives us – and whatever He gives us is adequate for us.

Some of you not yet confessed your sin before God asking Him to extend His mercy and grace to you in forgiving you for those sins based on life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are still trying to live by your own power, using your own means and methods, and have yet to yield your life to the Holy Spirit’s control. You refuse to obey the commands of the Scriptures. I want you to seriously consider why you have not done so. What is blocking you from putting your faith and trust in Jesus and giving your life to Him?

Is it confusion, something you do not understand? If so, then talk with me, let’s set up an appointment and clear up the confusion. You’re risking your eternal destiny in putting it off.

Is it pride – a refusal to see your sinfulness and need for Christ? A belief that you can be good enough on your own, you can make it through life on your own? Then you had better get some humility fast because Scripture tells us that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5). You are destined for eternal hell if you remain proud.

Or are you stumbling over the point of today’s sermon? Are you still looking for Jesus to do some sign before you will believe? What does He have to do? Write His name in the sky? Have an angel visit you? Maybe you have some personal thing you want Him to fix so that you will know He is real? I am here to tell you this morning based on this text that Jesus does not have to do anything else to prove Himself to you or anyone else. Nineveh repented at the hopeless preaching of Jonah. The Queen of the South sought out Solomon based on second-hand stories. You have been given the Bible, God’s written word, to read for yourself. Creation itself declares His existence and power, you have access to solid Bible teaching both here and other places, and you are surrounded by people that can personally testify to what He had done in their lives. If you continue to neglect what has been given to you, then you will be just like the Scribes and Pharisees. You will stand condemned.

And those of you who are Christians, how many of you are still seeking some sort of sign from Christ before you will obey Him the way you know you should? What sort of thing are you demanding He do in your life before you will quit playing games and get down to the business of being conformed into His image and live a holy life? Does He have to heal you physically or emotionally? Does He have to fix the mess you have made for yourself – or that someone else has made for you? Does He have to make you wealthy and remove all the struggles of life you are in? Jesus does not have to do anything else to prove Himself or His love to you – He has done all that He needs to do – He died in your place. In His wonderful grace He continues to do things for us beyond all measure, but when you demand something from Him before you will obey Him, you are in the same boat as the Scribes and Pharisees. We were saved to serve God. Let’s get past this foolish mindset that always wants something from God before we will believe Him and then act like we are doing God a favor when we obey Him.

The first principle is that God has already given each of us all the revelation of Himself that He needs to for us to seek Him out and serve Him. He will give us more understanding of Himself as we do seek Him.

The second principle is that outward reformation is not enough. Cleaning up the outside accomplishes nothing if the inside is also not cleaned up. You cannot reform yourself in any manner that will make you acceptable to God. Change must come through the regeneration that comes through the Holy Spirit who changes your heart to desire holiness for God’s glory, not your own. If you are trying to change your own life in order to please other people or under the mistaken notion that it will make you acceptable to God, then understand that you are wasting your time. True change only comes by the prompting of the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin and sets our hearts toward pleasing God for His sake, not our own.

Again this week we have examined a passage which has strong words – but necessary words – necessary for those who heard it then and for us that we might be careful of how we are living our lives. Are you seeking signs from Christ? Or are you seeking Jesus Himself? Don’t leave today, whether believer or non-believer, until you can leave knowing that your life is right with God.

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