If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 12. Matthew chapter 11 in each of the events that it records gives us a picture of the majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew chapter 12 gives us a contrast between the character of Christ and His opponents. And each of the passages that are recorded in that great chapter, we see a juxtaposition, a contrast, a differentiation between Jesus and those who were the accepted respected spiritual and moral leaders of the day, the Pharisees. For instance in Matthew chapter 1, verses 1-15, the Pharisees and Jesus engage in a controversy over the Lord's day. The Pharisees set themselves up as the great lovers of God and the great lovers of His law, but in that passage it's very clear that the one who has true compassion, the one who loves God, the one who is most concerned about God's law is the Lord Jesus, not the Pharisees.
Then, if you follow down and look for instance in verses 15-21, you'll see the Lord Jesus' character again contrasted with the Pharisees. This time a passage is quoted from Isaiah which predicts the character of the servant of the Lord, and the Lord Jesus again is seen to be the divine Messiah, the one with the true heart for God by that quotation from Scripture in that passage.
Then in verses 22-33 of this passage again Jesus in His healing of the demon-possessed man is set in stark contrast with the Pharisees. All the Pharisees want to do is tear Jesus down. He's going about preaching the gospel of the kingdom, healing the sick, binding up the broken hearted, and sparing the demon possessed from the powers of evil, and all the Pharisees want to do is tear Him down.
And in that context, the Lord Jesus says His fateful words about the unpardonable sin in response to the attitude of the Pharisees there. But again you see a clear contrast between the Pharisees and the Lord Jesus.
And then in verses 33-37 of Matthew chapter 12, the Lord Jesus issues a very stinging rebuke to the Pharisees, and He basically says this: ‘Look, I can tell what your hearts are like by your words and by your actions.’ In that passage Jesus tells us that our words, the things that come out of our mouths, and our actions tell us what's inside us. They betray either a heart that is for God or a heart that doesn't know God. And the Lord Jesus in that passage again is in stark contrast to the Pharisees. Out of the Lord Jesus' mouth–words of grace. Out of the Pharisees mouth–word of destruction and slander and blasphemy.
And so in each of these incidents we see the character of Jesus compared, displayed, contrasted with that of the Pharisees.
And on this Easter day it just so happens that we come to Matthew 12:38-45 and the sign of Jonah, in God's good providence. Let's look then at that passage in God's holy word.
Father, this is Your word, and we ask on this glorious day, Your day, to write Your truth upon our hearts. We pray Heavenly Father that in the midst of the great activity and even the joy and gladness of this day that we would not miss the greatest joy that is in store for us nor would we miss the solemn warning of this passage. Speak to us we pray. Apply this word to us by Your Spirit. Change us from the inside out. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
Some people work very hard to convince them that God is not there. Some people want a definite proof that Jesus of Nazareth is the divine Messiah, the Son of God. Some people only know a little bit about Christ, and yet they love Him a great deal, while others know a lot about Christ and they don't really love Him at all, and some people's lives are filled with busyness, even religious busyness, and yet at the same time are totally empty, devoid of living, saving fellowship with God. Jesus speaks about all those kinds of people in this passage before us today. And I want you to look with me at its important words.
I. Unbelief manifests itself by refusing to accept the proof at hand.
There are four parts to this passage, and I’d like to walk you through them today. First, I would direct your attention to verse 38. Jesus has already issued a stinging rebuke to the Pharisees. Though they were respected as the most moral and most godly religious leaders of the day, yet the Lord Jesus tells them that their words and their actions betray a heart that is not at peace with God, and is not in fellowship with God.
And you can imagine the Pharisees didn't like that. He'd been saying hard things about them, truthful things, but hard things about them from the beginning of the chapter. And they weren't in a very good mood. So they went and they got the scribes and they came back and they tried again.
And we are told what they tried in verse 38. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” This is a polite but disrespectful response to what Jesus has said to them. Now why do I say that? They politely address Jesus as teacher. That was the appropriate way to speak to a rabbi in their day. But the question they ask is disrespectful, because the Lord Jesus had already shown miraculous signs in their presence and in the presence of the generation in the presence of all those who were around. And they are in effect coming to the Lord Jesus and they are saying we want another sign, we want a more spectacular sign. “We want a sign from heaven,” Mark tells us in his version of this passage, “We want a sign from heaven that tells us that you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
In this passage, in verse 38 we learn that unbelief manifests itself by refusing to accept the proof at hand. There were many convincing proofs of who Jesus was, of his claims, but these Pharisees and scribes show their unbelief by rejecting those signs and asking for another.
They ask their question in a very polite way, but the content of what they were saying was the height of disrespect. It was in effect saying, ‘Lord Jesus, Your signs so far have not been convincing to us. Your healing of those who were sick, Your curing of the demon possessed man, Your binding up of the broken heart, all these things, this is not adequate. This doesn't convince us. You need to give us a sign from heaven, something that will really convince us.
And I want you to understand that their skepticism is not because of the insufficiency of the evidence. It is not because Jesus hasn't given enough evidence of who He is. It is a perfectly reasonable request to ask for a sign, and the Lord Jesus was claiming to be bringing something as momentous a the giving of a law to Israel, and when prophets came to bring messages to Israel, God usually confirmed them in one of two ways. Either, He would give them a prophecy that would be fulfilled in their lifetime so that the people of God would know that they were prophets from him and therefore could trust the things that they were going to say about the future, or He would give them the power to do miracles. Elijah and Elisha did great miracles. So there's nothing unreasonable about desiring a sign from Jesus.
But the Pharisees were rejecting the signs that Jesus had already given. They were in effect saying, “Those don't count. That evidence isn't enough. We want something more sensational, something more spectacular. Maybe have God speak from heaven and acknowledge You as the divine Messiah.”
Their problem is not, however, that Jesus had not supplied them with enough evidence, or even with enough spectacular evidence. Their problem was in their heart. They did not want to believe and so no amount of proof could convince them. Have you ever seen the sad picture of a mother outside a courtroom when a son has been clearly and evidently convicted of a crime. And you've seen that mother crying in disbelief, “No, no, no, it's not true, it's not true.” And you've seen the evidence, and the jury has seen the evidence, and the judge has seen the evidence, and it's true. But she doesn't want to believe it. The Lord Jesus is saying the hearts of the Pharisees don't want to believe My claim. It's not that the evidence is not there. It's not that the truth is not clear. It's not that there's insufficient proof. It's that they do not want to believe. The problem is with their hearts. Their hearts are opposed to God. That is the root of their problem. The evidence is enough to convince them, but they have no wish to be convinced.
I want you to note that the Lord God does not call on us to believe in opposition to the truth. He doesn't call on us to believe in belief. He doesn't call on us to have faith in faith. He doesn't call on us to take a leap in the dark, to take a leap in faith. The Lord God always calls on us to believe the truth. It is so important for us to remember that that is the character of true Christian belief. There are a lot of people today who characterize Christian belief as ‘believing even though there is absolutely no reason to believe that. You just gotta believe.’ That is not the kind of belief that the Lord calls for, however. The difference between Jesus' disciples and the Pharisees is not that the evidence is ambiguous, but the disciples choose to believe and the Pharisees choose not to believe. The evidence is crystal clear. It is that the disciples, by the Spirit's regeneration, have trusted in God and that the Pharisees' hearts are hardened and they will not accept the truth.
True Christian belief is illustrated as Francis Schaffer said long ago by the predicament of two mountain climbers. They are coming back down on their journey. At one point in their claim they have to leap to a ledge in order to continue safely down. One climber has already made it down past where the thick cloud and fog covering has come. The climber who is higher cannot see the ledge below. The climber below is already on the ledge. The climber below calls to the other climber, “Jump, the ledge is here.” The climber above says, “I can't see it.” He says, “I’m standing on it.” You see, he's not asking him to take a leap of faith. He says, “I’m already standing on it. It's here. Now jump.” It's not two climbers coming down and not knowing whether there is a ledge there and saying, “Oh, well, we'll just believe.” That's not the point. The Lord Jesus has given evidence. He has set forth the truth. He has proved Himself. It's that these men don't want to believe what is shown to be clearly the truth. God, you see, has made Himself known to us. He's manifested himself in creation, and He has revealed Himself in our hearts. And yet there are some people who work very, very hard to deny Him.
And let me say that this unbelief in God has terrible consequences. As I was studying this week, I ran across a quote by a man from another nation written a century ago, but as I read these words it sent shudders though my heart about our own nation. Listen to what he says about unbelief and its consequences on leaders: “The true explanation of a hundred strange things that startle us in the conduct of leading men in the churches and in the government is downright lack of faith. Men who do not believe all that God says in the Bible must necessarily take a vacillating and undecided line on moral and religious questions.” It's frightening, isn't it? But it's true. When you deny transcended truth, it has disastrous effects in the life of individuals, families, churches, and nations. We who live in a time where we need a sound trumpet need to hear moral decisions based on transcended truth. The Lord Jesus in this passage shows that the Pharisees problem is not that they haven't had enough evidence of the truth. It's that they don't want to believe the truth even though it is as plain as the nose on their face.
II. The divine proof that Jesus is the divine Messiah is the resurrection.
The second passage that I’d like to point your attention to you'll see in verses 39 and 40. In response to what the Pharisees have said, Jesus gives us the great sign of the Messiah in verses 39 and 40. He answered them and said, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet.” In this passage we see that the divine proof that Jesus is the divine Messiah is the resurrection. The resurrection is the great testimony that Jesus is who He claims to be.
I want you to note again that Jesus responds to these people by characterizing their generation as evil and adulterous. He couldn't have picked two things that would have been more offensive to say to the Pharisees. They were considered to be moral, upstanding, the religious leaders of their people. And yet He calls them evil, that is, morally corrupt, and He calls them adulterous, that is, unfaithful to God. Though they thought of themselves as good, and though they thought of themselves as faithful to God, He says, ‘No, you're the exact opposite. You're religious, but you don't love God. You go through the motions outwardly, but you don't love God inside.’
And this would have been highly offensive to them because they thought of themselves as moral and spiritual. And again, He's not rebuking them in verses 39 and 40 because they asked for a sign. He is rebuking their stubborn, hardened unbelief. They don't accept the things that He's already done. They want to see more. But again, the problem is not with the sign. The problem is with their heart. The Lord Jesus knows that no matter how spectacular the sign, their hearts will not believe it.
Let me demonstrate that to you. Turn with me to Luke chapter 16. In Luke, chapter 16, in that famous story of the rich man and Lazarus, in verse 30 the rich man calls from hell and asks father Abraham to send someone back from the dead to convince his relatives to believe so they don't end up in hell, too. And here's what Jesus has Abraham say in that passage in verse 31: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.” See, the Lord Jesus was under no delusion that a spectacular miracle would convince the Pharisees, because they weren't interested in being convinced. The proof of this is in the gospel of Matthew. Turn back with me now to Matthew 28:11. We read the response of the chief priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees to Jesus' resurrection: “Now while they were on their way, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and council together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers and said , ‘You are to say His disciples came by night and stole him while we were asleep.’” It's kind of amazing that they would be able to testify what happened while they were asleep, isn't it. “And if this should come to the governor's ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble. And they took money and did as they had been instructed and this story was widely spread among the Jews as it is to this day. The Lord Jesus knew that it didn't matter if He came back from the dead. These men were not going to believe. You see, the basic problem that we have is not a lack of evidence. It's a stubborn heart.
Many of you have had to read Bertrand Russell, the famous skeptical philosopher from earlier in this century. Russell was once asked in an interview, he was the man who wrote the essay, Why I am not a Christian , and he argues against the existence of God and other things in that essay. He was once asked if, on the other side of life, on the other side of death, if you did happen to run into a divine being and that divine being were to question you and ask you why didn't you believe in Me, what would you say? And Russell impudently responded, “Not enough evidence.” The Lord God will beg to differ. God has written the evidence of himself into the entirety of the created order. And if I read Romans chapter 1 correctly, He has placed it in every heart. In fact, there is really no such thing as an atheist. There are a lot of people who work very hard to convince themselves that they are atheists, but the apostle Paul says that every man and woman ever born has the knowledge of God written on their hearts. They know that there is a God, and they know that they ought to worship Him, but they work very hard not to. Why? Because they don't want to worship God. They want to worship themselves. The Lord Jesus makes it clear that the problem is not with the proof or with the evidence. It's with the heart.
Then He responds by saying that the only sign that will be given to this generation is the sign of Jonah. That's a curious thing to say. He takes you right back to the Old Testament prophet Jonah. Chapter 1 verses 17 through chapter 2 verse 1 of that book. It's the passage in which Jonah was on a ship that he shouldn't have been on. God had called Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach. Jonah wanted his own people, the people of Israel, to repent and believe. And here was God sending him off to preach to Gentiles, and he resented that. And so he got on a ship and he decided to go somewhere else. And on the way that ship ran into a terrible storm. And the sailors were trying to sacrifice to their gods and figure out what was going wrong and Jonah came up from the ship and he stood on the deck and he said, ‘I’m afraid I’m the problem here. My God is angry with me because I have disobeyed Him, and I think what you're going to need to do is throw me overboard. And those Gentile sailors, they didn't have a split second delay. Immediately they tossed him overboard. And immediately everything was alright for them. But not for Jonah, because he was swallowed by a very large fish. And a few days later he was expelled onto the shore. And he made his way obediently, this time, to Nineveh. Jesus goes back to that account and He says, ‘It will be the sign of Jonah that will be given to this generation as proof that I am who I am.’ I want you to note that Jesus clearly accepts that account, that record of Jonah as history. He does not see it as a myth. He does not see it as a parable or a play. He does not see it as a saga. He sees it as an historical occurrence. If you cannot accept Jonah in the belly of a fish for three days, how in the world can you believe that Jesus Christ was raised again from the dead?
Which is more impassable for a natural, rational man. The Lord Jesus, in fact, says that His resurrection is a greater miracle than the sign of Jonah. He points us to that occurrence, and He says, “That is a foreshadowing of My resurrection.”
I want to say in passing, He uses a curious phrase, three days and three nights. Why do people get hung up on that? First of all, they get hung up because Jesus wasn't in the tomb for three full days.
Secondly, they get hung up because He wasn't in the tomb but for two nights. Three days, two nights. What do you mean, three days and three nights? Jesus said it Himself. Had He forgotten something? Is He contradicting himself? No. Three days and three nights is a Hebrew idiom. It refers to three days either in whole or in part. It's just like, if you were to say to me, “You hit the nail on the head.” You're not saying to me that I took my hammer out and I hit a nail on the head with it. You're saying that I had the right point. So also three days and three nights was an idiom, and expression of speech. It wasn't meant to be taken in absolute, exact literalness. At any rate, Jesus says that this sign is a foreshadowing of My resurrection and that His resurrection is God's vindication of His claim.
Why does He call the sign the sign of Jonah? Well, because Christ was in the grave as Jonah was in the belly of the fish. Because Christ was in the ground for three natural days, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three natural days in part thereof. Because Jonah was expelled from that fish to preach repentance to Nineveh, so also Jesus Christ was raised from the dead to confirm the gospel and to preach that truth to the nations.
The resurrection is the great truth that Jesus is the Messiah. The great proof of His divine Sonship is in the resurrection. That's why Paul can say in Romans chapter 1, verse 4, Jesus Christ was declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead. And let me say that the resurrection is not an incidental Christian doctrine. It is central. The Apostle Paul says in first Corinthians 15, “That if Christ is not raised from the dead, our faith is in vain.” Don't believe people who tell you that the resurrection teaching isn't central to Christianity. The apostle Paul says, ‘ I want you to understand, in no uncertain terms, that if I didn't believe in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, I would not be a Christian. I would eat and drink for tomorrow I die, and that's it.’ The resurrection is central to Christianity.
IV. Our judgment will be according to the measure of our light.
And so the Lord goes on in verses 41 and 42, and He speaks to them some very strong words. In fact, the Lord Jesus makes some astounding claims. In those verses we see that our judgment is going to be according to the measure of the light we have. Jesus says absolutely stunning things to the Pharisees here. He says, ‘I want you to know that someone greater than Jonah is here.’ He has just told them the story of Jonah, the great prophet, used of God in the Old Testament, and He stands before them and He says, ‘I want you to know there is someone greater than Jonah here.’ And then He tells them a story again, of the Queen of the South coming to hear the wisdom of Solomon and He says, “And I want you to know there is someone greater than Solomon here.”
You see what the Lord is setting them up for. The Lord Jesus knows that they are not going to accept even the sign of His resurrection. He knows that they are going to reject Him even after He is raised from the dead. And so He is building a case against them. He is saying to them, ‘Look, these people of old believed in God with far less light than you have had and you are going to reject God even though you see the resurrection with your own eyes.’ But imagine how astounding what He said would have been to them. Can you imagine a preacher standing up in this pulpit and saying, “I want to tell you that someone is greater here today than John Calvin.” Why, you'd say, “What in the world have you been drinking, man.” And here is the Lord Jesus Christ saying, “There is someone greater here than Jonah. Your great prophet Jonah.” And there was. And He was standing there saying there is someone here who is wiser than Solomon.
He is pronouncing judgments, you see, against the scribes and Pharisees and the unbelieving Jews of His generation. He's saying, “Look, if even the pagans of Nineveh will repent when a minor prophet, Jonah, goes to preach the gospel to, and you'll reject the very Son of God who has come with power and grace. Why, I tell you those pagans will stand up at the last day and they will condemn you. And if this foreign woman from Africa can make her way to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and you won't even respond to My gracious invitation, why, she'll stand up at the last day and she'll condemn you.”
Don't miss Jesus' important claims here. His claim to be greater than Jonah and to be greater than Solomon is a clear claim of deity. C.S. Lewis says, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said here wouldn't be a great moral teacher. He'd either be a lunatic on the level of a man who says he's a poached egg or else he'd be the devil in hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God or else He was a mad man or something worse. But don't come up with any patronizing nonsense about Him being a great human teacher. He hasn't left that option open to you. He didn't intend to.” That's true, my friends. The Lord Jesus will be worshiped as Lord of all or not at all. Now that's before us today. Will we join ourselves with the evil generation who has rejected the Lord of glory and crucified Him, or will we embrace Him by faith and find that the Lord of all is for us and will carry us all the way to glory? These men, He said, would be judged by their rejection, because though they had much greater light than the sons of Nineveh or the Queen of the South, yet they have rejected the truth.
V. A Spiritual void is the most dangerous thing possible for a human being.
There's one last thing I would point you to today. In verses 43-45 Jesus utters a curious story. If you're reading along in this passage, you may actually wonder, “Jesus, are we running off on a rabbit trail? Have we changed the subject and I just missed something here? Why are we suddenly talking about demons and people who are being possessed not by one but by eight demons? What's the connection here?”
Jesus is not giving here a discourse on demonology. He's explaining something to us that has happened to the people of his generation who heard John the Baptist. He's telling us here, in verses 43-45, about the peril of spiritual emptiness because there is nothing more dangerous than a spiritual void. A spiritual void is the most dangerous thing possible for a human being. In this passage He says this: “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 whence I came,’ and when it comes it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes in 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.” And here's the key phrase. Look at the last sentence. That is the way it will also be with this generation.
Jesus is warning about the dangerous spiritual consequences of the partial awakening that had occurred in the lives of some of these very people to whom He was speaking under the preaching of John the Baptist. Many of these ;people had gone out in the wilderness to hear John the Baptist. They had gone out and had been baptized with the baptism of repentance by John the Baptist. They had publicly repented. They were attempting to put their spiritual lives in order. They were attempting to do business with God. But Jesus says it was only superficial. There was a superficial turning. They seemed to repent, but it obviously didn't change their lives. God wasn't living in their hearts. They were outwardly moral. They were outwardly changed, but inwardly they were still empty. And so He tells the story about the demon. The demon leaves during their time of spiritual renewal. He decides it isn't so good in the desert. He comes back and, lo and behold, everything is in order in their house. They look good. There's been some moral reform. There's been some external behavior change. But the heart is empty. In fact the room is swept and the demon says, ‘This is great, I’ll bring back seven of my friends.’
What's the Lord Jesus saying? He's saying it would have been better for them never to have made any external profession of faith that was false than for them to be deceived that they were truly in fellowship with God and yet be dead in formalism. Listen to what J.C. Ryle says: “There are men who seem at one time of their lives to be under the influence of strong religious feelings. They reform their ways. They lay aside many things that were bad. They take up many things that are good. But they stop there. They go no further. And by and by they give up religion all together. None proved so hopelessly wicked as those who after experiencing strong religious convictions have gone back again to sin in the world.” They appeared to be changed but they are empty.
Jesus' warning is a warning to us as a nation and to a church not to play games. Our hearts will either be filled with the fellowship with God which is only through faith in Christ or they will be desperately empty and the haunt of demons. That is the only option. To believe in the resurrected Lord and to find in Him resurrection life for our lives or to be bereft in Him.
Christ's call to you today is to trust in Him. The truth is clear. The proof is plain. It's indisputable.
Trust in Him. Let us pray.
Our Lord and our God, how solemn and how joyful these words are. How solemn are these truths if we reject them. How joyful it is to know that by grace through faith we reign with the Resurrected One forever. Help us to believe that and to live that. For His sake and ours, Amen.