The request for a sign
Pp Luke 11:16,29-32
No sign and the sign
The men of Nineveh and the Queen of the South
1. The men of Nineveh
2. The Queen of the South
3. Comparisons and Contrasts
The Unclean Spirit
In this introduction, I’ve dealt mainly with the passage which runs Mtw 12:38-42 as I originally intended that this web page would deal with just those verses. However, I realised towards the end of studying these verses that Mtw 12:43-45 was an integral part of the discourse and that it needed to be kept together so I’ve attached an exposition of those verses at the end.
Mark’s passage which runs throughout chapter 3 and which parallels fairly closely Matthew’s chapter 12 omits this event which would be placed between the end of Mark 3:30 and the beginning of Mark 3:31 in Matthew’s chronology.
A similar event is recorded by Mark, however, in 8:11-13 but there Jesus is mentioned as refusing the request for a sign before departing to the other side of the Sea of Galilee by boat. It remains entirely possible that such a sign could have been asked of Jesus on more than one occasion (Matthew will go on to record another request for a sign in Mtw 16:1-4 so there’s little doubt that the religious leaders continued with insistence) and this probably represents another request. Certainly, the similarities aren’t conclusive and, if Mark is writing up the same account, his quoting of Jesus ends abruptly after recording the words
‘...no sign shall be given to this generation’
by omitting the concluding phrase in Matthew 12:39 of
‘...except the sign of the prophet Jonah’
Luke, however, places his record of the request for a sign both before and after the statement of the Pharisees which announced to everyone that the power of God at work to cast out a demon was of satanic origin (Luke 11:14-23), the same passage which immediately precedes this request for a sign in Matthew (12:22-37).
However, Luke places the statement of Jesus in Mtw 12:43-45 along with a unique declaration from a woman in the crowd to which He responds (Luke 11:24-28) before the discourse which answers the request for a sign - Matthew records it the other way round.
Luke’s passage, however, appears to be a direct parallel to the one which appears in Matthew even though Luke has introduced the request for a sign in 11:16 before dealing with Jesus’ response in 11:29-32 after noting that the response came
‘When the crowds were increasing...’
so that, although the original request appears to have been asked privately or, at least, when there were few people around (Mtw 12:38), Jesus decided to answer the request to a great many people who may also have shared the desire to have it conclusively proven to them that He was the Christ - as we shall see, however, the religious leaders’ request may not have been so innocently asked and that a sign was still required from the people when they’d had so many miracles done in their midst showed not their spirituality but their unbelief!
Mattask notes that the prefix ‘then’ which occurs at the beginning of Mtw 12:38 is a word which
‘...does not indicate “at that moment” or “directly after that” but is a literary device of the evangelist for linking together stories which are fundamentally similar’
but this seems implausible to be an accurate interpretation in this case for, as we saw above, Luke closely parallels Matthew’s record and includes the information that there were some who requested a sign from Jesus at the same time as they’d labelled the power at work through Jesus to be satanic (Luke 11:15-16).
Finally, it should be noted that Luke 11:24-26 finds an interpretation in Mtw 12:43-45 and is explained by it much better than if that passage should be taken as standing alone. When the latter is done, Luke is normally seen to recording a word from Jesus that primarily had to do with personal demonic deliverance which is not obvious that it should be applied to a national condition. Matthew’s explanation in 12:45, however, shows us that what’s meant is not personal deliverance and the subsequent problems associated but is a word spoken to warn the Israelite nation of what would transpire after Jesus’ departure but it’s more easy to then take it and apply it on a personal level.
The request for a sign
If we’re to take the passage which begins at Mtw 12:22 as being an integral part of the reason for the scribes and Pharisees now requesting a sign from heaven (Luke 11:16 adds the last two words ‘from heaven’ whereas Matthew omits them), we could understand that the sign which the Pharisees demanded to have from Jesus was the proof that they’d been wrong in equating Jesus’ power with Beelzebul (Mtw 12:24). The RSV translates the first part of this verse as
‘Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him...’
where the word ‘said’ is more rightly ‘answered’ as in the AV and the words ‘to Him’ are omitted by many of the later manuscripts. It seems better that the AV is followed here to give the meaning that the religious leaders ‘answered’ the contents of the discourse (rather than Jesus Himself) which had now expired, though both readings are possible. Mattask comments concerning this verb that it
‘...does not indicate an answer to a specific question but draws attention to the speaker’s reaction to a particular situation’
so that it’s more likely that their demand for the sign from heaven was to invalidate the objections they’d made to the power at work in the delivered demoniac. Matmor notes that the use of the word has the implication that it’s
‘...a response to what He had just said’
and it certainly places the request firmly into the setting of their unbelief.
Alternatively, it may have been a general request for a heavenly validation of both His message and ministry which they expected to be given them to substantiate the things which they’d been opposing.
The problem was, however, that if they were unwilling to accept the deliverance of a blind and mute demoniac as being proof that Jesus was operating on earth under the anointing of the Spirit (Mtw 12:22), what could be done for them that would prove to them that what was transpiring was from God? As we saw on the previous web page, their confession hadn’t been a rogue statement that had sprung up instantaneously and afterwards had brought regret, but was a concluding statement of thought processes that had been continuing for probably as long as Jesus’ ministry had been continuing in Galilee.
Matmor comments that the religious leaders
‘...were asking Him now for something that unmistakably came from God’
but the only mistaken identity of the previous healing had occurred in their own assessment of the situation and should have been proof enough that it had originated with God. How was it certain that the same mistake wouldn’t be made again?
Therefore, a sign from heaven would really have been no sign at all for, having settled themselves into the mindset that Jesus wasn’t a true servant of God, anything which was to transpire through Him or for Him would necessarily have been interpreted as another satanic work.
Did they want a voice from heaven to prove to them that the miracle which had just taken place was a work of God? Or was an angel’s handwriting in the sky sufficient proof? But, if a voice came to correct them or writing appeared miraculously, surely it would have had to have been of Beelzebul as well, and a certain proof that satan was bearing witness to his own satanic work! So there was very little that could have been done anyway even if Jesus had acceded to their requests, something which Matfran points out from the Talmud was required from certain rabbis to authenticate themselves (presumably when what they said or did was too far from off the straight and narrow).
Matmor notes a couple of specific instances of signs given by later rabbis which involved turning the waters of the grotto of Paneas into blood, moving a tree either one or four hundred cubits (depending on which reference you read) and making a river flow backwards. If this was the type of ‘sign’ which the Pharisees were requesting, then it seems to have been a spectacular miracle within the created order that they were expecting to be performed - that God would do something which defied the natural laws. And delivering a demoniac, healing the sick and raising the dead weren’t considered to be contrary to natural laws?!
Nothing, therefore, that Jesus had done upto this point was acceptable to them as being justifiable signs from heaven that He’d been sent from God and nothing, no doubt, could have ever been sufficient for proving His mission.
Luke 11:16 notes that the request was made ‘to test Him’ so the insincerity of the question is fairly certain. Therefore, even though we’ve given the benefit of the doubt to the leaders that they ‘might have’ interpreted the sign in wrong terms, there appears to have been no openness that would have believed the sign had it been granted them or even, as Matmor comments, that
‘...they did not expect Him to come up with anything that would satisfy them’
and, in one certain sense, that’s true. Nothing would satisfy them because their hearts had already been set to label what Jesus did as having no divine origin. Mathag comments cynically (but with some justification) that
‘Even if Jesus had performed some astonishing sign for them, such was their unbelief...that they probably would have charged Jesus with sorcery and thus have used it against Him’
It’s worthy of note that Jesus’ ministry had been set apart from the very beginning as one which sought the miraculous for other people rather than for Himself and, through the temptation in the wilderness, we find Him standing up to satan by refusing to use the miraculous to help Him out of His dilemma but neither petitioning the Father to perform the miraculous on His behalf (Mtw 4:1-11).
One who sought the miraculous for the benefit of others was hardly likely to desire the miraculous to justify His own ministry and to gain acceptance before the scribes and Pharisees.
No sign and the sign
Jesus begins His reply by addressing the crowds (Luke 11:29) - and not just the Pharisees who’d asked the question (Mtw 12:38) - with the words
‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign...’
not the most clearly calculated of phrases with which to promote inter-cultural relationships, don’t you think? That there must have been those present apart from the religious leaders who had been yearning for a sign from Heaven seems plain enough by Jesus’ reply because the crowds are recorded as increasing, but to summarise the entire generation of those present as being both evil and adulterous does seem to us a tad strong.
The Greek word translated ‘generation’ (Strongs Greek number 1074) can be translated a few ways but, in the present context, it can mean little other than either ‘race’ or ‘generation’ and, as a word of summation, it should naturally be taken to be referring not to the sum total of the religious leadership but, because Jesus is directing it to the crowds who were gathering about Him, to the entire nation of Israel, the race of the Jews who were alive at that time in their history. Kittels notes that
‘The use of “generation” by Jesus expresses His comprehensive purpose: He aims at the whole people and is conscious of their solidarity in sin’
which, although they seem to go a bit far in their all pervasive interpretation of the inclusion of the entire nation, seems to be the intention of His words. Matfran sees the word being used as referring to all Jesus’ contemporaries and
‘...not just Jews or men in general...’
so that it should be taken to refer to
‘...those in whom Israel’s age-long rebellion has culminated and on whom judgment must therefore fall’
But, if we realise that Jesus’ mission is specifically and specially to the Jewish nation (Mtw 15:24), the commentators choice of the inclusion of the Gentiles within the phrase appears to be a little unfounded. There will come a time when the Gentiles will also reject the message but, for now, the Gospel of the Kingdom is being preached to the Jews alone so that the word must necessarily be taken to mean that nation or, perhaps better, that ‘race’. That some present would have been non-Jews appears correct but, fundamentally, the meaning should be taken to refer to the nation that should have welcomed Him with open arms rather than disbelieve the things which were being done in their midst.
We may object that the disciples such as John, James and Peter were already men who’d proven themselves to be set apart from the nation and had committed themselves to learning from Jesus about the ways of the Father (they may well not have been present at this time but away on their mission to the nation of Israel - Mtw 10:5-6 - we have no way of knowing) but, generally, the nation were seeking after that which was displeasing to God and therefore it could be summarised in such a manner.
Mathag qualifies Jesus’ words as stating that the religious leaders were ‘representative’ of the evil and adulterous nation rather than take the phrase to be directed at the entire population. However, we’ve previously seen that the statement was being directed at the crowds which were gathering rather than just at the Pharisees who appear to have been the originators of the question.
Mattask comments on the verb ‘to seek’ (Strongs Greek number 1934) that it’s used here to convey not just that the nation is looking for proof to substantiate their belief but that they’re
‘...demanding [a sign] as a necessary preliminary to belief’
This certainly appears to be the sense of Jesus’ meaning even though the word is used in a positive sense elsewhere (Heb 11:14, 13:14) and it can’t be said that the word stands alone as conveying this meaning wherever it’s used.
Certainly, the demand for a sign demonstrated that, even though there had already been a multitude of miraculous wonders performed in their midst, the heart of the nation was still turned away from believing that Jesus was the Christ and that, as in the Pharisees’ case, He’d been sent from and was a true representative of God.
The actual description of the generation as being ‘evil and adulterous’ is a phrase of which many of us are already aware and we could possibly already have recited it as one of the things that Jesus said against those who failed to believe in Him. Matfran comments on the phrase that it’s
‘...a regular OT metaphor for rebellion against God...’
and we would probably accept the statement with little or no hesitation. However, the exact phrase doesn’t occur anywhere in the RSV’s OT and the only other place in the Scriptures where it’s recorded is in Mtw 16:4 where a similar incident is being recorded.
Perhaps the nearest OT passage where it occurs is I Sam 20:30 when king Saul reproached his son, Jonathan, for favouring David at the expense of his father’s kingdom. He began his condemnation of his son with the words
‘You son of a perverse, rebellious woman...’
which roughly parallels the words. However, the actual phrase never occurs in the OT as it does in the New.
The description of that generation present, therefore, is exclusively Matthean, even though the thought of the words is certainly echoed in the pages of the OT prophets.
The word ‘adulterous’ means ‘unfaithful’ in this context and that the nation’s fidelity towards God had turned into spiritual adultery, serving anything other than God Himself. That may sound fairly hard, for the Jews’ hadn’t exactly gone around the nation putting up molten images for themselves and bowing down to them - but they had caused service to God to be conformed to their own image which was devoid of the presence and will of God. Instead of a living relationship with God, they’d opted for a legalistic observance of both the Law and their interpretations of it.
Besides, they’d already seen the miracles and had been unfaithful towards God in not accepting them as the hand of God (Mtw 12:24) and attributing them to the power of satan, so they’d shown that their hearts weren’t directed towards Jesus at all but were serving their own interests as they sought opportunity to destroy God’s servant (Mtw 12:14).
‘Evil’ means here ‘rotten at the core’ and is, again, quite a harsh word - but they’d just that moment imposed their own rules on God by expecting a sign on their own terms when they’d had numerous signs that had failed to meet with any faith within them (Mtw 12:38).
Instead of believing with faith in what had transpired, they’d responded with cynicism and unbelief and demonstrated that what was on the inside was not what God found pleasing in His sight (Mtw 12:34-35).
This phrase, then, means that the nation were spiritually evil and adulterous rather than morally in their everyday dealings with their fellow Jews. Jesus isn’t thinking that they’re encouraging theft and physical adultery through the land but that their inner being is set against God, seeking after their own way rather than His (though see Mtw 12:14 where we see that they don’t appear to be too apprehensive about murdering Jesus by the legal means at their disposal).
However, what is reflected outwardly by what’s contained within a man can also be demonstrated in a breakdown in the fabric of society and Matmor cites Josephus in the Jewish War (7.259 - I can’t find the passage in my electronic version so I’m using his reference) as saying that
‘...the period had, somehow, become so prolific of crime of every description amongst the Jews that no deed of iniquity was left unperpetrated, nor, had man’s wit been exercised to devise it, could he have discovered any novel form of vice’
a comment which would have applied to the period around forty years after Jesus’ time and not so far removed from that era as to have little relevance. What Jesus observed as the state of the heart of the nation, therefore, was soon to be outworked into immoral behaviour in everyday relationships - a man can’t keep his attitude towards God hidden for very long and it will necessarily show itself in his dealings with men and women that are created in His own image.
This demand for a sign is one which modern day man cannot hope to understand. Matmor comments perceptively that
‘People who serve God in faithfulness may indeed see signs, but sensation-seeking unbelievers will not see them. Signs are granted to faith so how can the faithless ever see them?’
for signs come from faith which sees God’s hand moving even in the less discernible of situations when the unbeliever throws his hands into the air and says
‘Weren’t we lucky?’
‘Isn’t that a coincidence?’
Faith is truly the necessary requirement to see the miraculous (not that faith is the requirement for men and women to receive healing but to see, to perceive, God’s power moving in their midst) and those who’d watched Jesus perform repeated miracles would confess Him (Mtw 16:16) as being
‘...the Christ, the Son of the living God’
But, to those who had no faith in Christ, what was being done was, at worst
‘...by Beelzebul, the prince of demons’
and, at best, enough to get them wondering whether He was the promised One (Mtw 12:23).
The christian singer/songwriter Michael Card in his song ‘Could it Be’ (from the album ‘Present Reality’) wrote and sang the lyric
‘You’ll never solve the mystery of this magnetic Man - for you must believe to understand’
It’s indeed a strange arrangement but it’s necessarily true that many (but not all) who’ve demanded signs and wonders to prove God to themselves have failed to be granted such because what they’ve seen of God they haven’t perceived as being Him - what they’ve seen remains sufficient in God’s eyes for them to be able to believe. But those who believe God have seen many things which the person with no faith would never confess as being a work or move of God.
Signs which confirm the presence of God are more likely to be perceived by those who believe - those who need no further faith - while those who don’t believe aren’t often granted the miraculous that they profess to require before they’ll believe.
No sign, therefore, will be given the nation to prove that Jesus is the One promised except the sign which would occur at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry when belief in the work was too late to be able to share in it.
In other words, the sign was really no sign - and certainly not the type of sign which they were demanding - and was one which was to prove that their condemnation of Him was unfounded, seeing as the miracle would take place as a result of the religious leaders’ deliverance of Jesus into the hands of the Roman authorities.
Ironic though it may have been, the very execution of their Messiah that they’d actively worked towards and of which they approved (Mtw 12: 14, John 11:45-53) is the same miracle that Jesus offers to them to prove that He is who the miraculous signs of healing are declaring Him to be! That very sign which they demanded, then, to disprove that Jesus is the One they’d been waiting for is the very sign that becomes their own downfall and ruination.
This ‘sign of the prophet Jonah’, then, is a parallel experience of Jesus just as the OT prophet was three days and nights in the belly of the whale though, in Jesus’ case, it’s transformed to be interpreted as the same time period ‘in the heart of the earth’ - a phrase which means little more than ‘dead and buried’! Mattask objects to this interpretation, stating that it
‘...does not mean “in the grave” for the body of Jesus was not given earth burial but laid in a tomb hewn out of the rock’
going on to interpret the phrase as referring to the dwelling place of the dead, Hades. Even though his association of the phrase with that place is entirely possible, his logic is somewhat unfounded for ‘in the heart of the earth’ means not that the body had to be literally buried under six feet of earth but that it had been dealt with as was required, even in a tomb.
Besides, how could Jesus’ entry into the dwelling place of the dead have proven to be a sign for them? How would they have known that this event had actually taken place if all they could observe was the entombment and then the resurrection? Although I’m not denying that Jesus would have been amongst the dead for three days and nights, the phrase can mean no more than ‘dead and buried’ or else it wouldn’t have been regarded as a sign that the scribes and Pharisees could have witnessed. But they seem to have understood perfectly well what Jesus meant by His speech here (Mtw 27:63).
Besides, the sign is a parallel with the prophet Jonah and, although Jonah is never reputed to have physically died only to be resuscitated, the point of the analogy is that the prophet was concealed from view, out of sight of humanity until the third day when he was delivered onto dry land from the whale’s stomach (the fish was probably relieved to get rid of that old bit of meat that had proven to be indigestible!).
Finally, the phrase ‘three days and three nights’ has caused not just much discussion but also a fair amount of angry exchange - and theories of the Passion timetable have largely been changed to accommodate a more literal interpretation of the time period that corresponds to our 72 hour period. After all, it’s true that, literally, Jesus was in the tomb three days and two nights by the change from the traditional interpretation.
The phrase only occurs three times in the Bible (I Sam 30:12, Jonah 1:17, Mtw 12:40) and, here in Matthew’s Gospel, it appears as if it’s a direct quotation from the OT book of Jonah. It doesn’t appear in the other places where Jesus speaks of the time period of His burial, the words ‘three days’ being substituted (or, better, ‘used’).
It would appear, then, that the original phrase is more likely to be an OT saying that continued to be employed in the First Century than one which was solely in use during the time of Christ, but some commentators, because the phrase only appears here, have considered the parallel passage in Luke 11:30 and noted that the writer there stops short of recording anything like Mtw 12:40 going on, rather, to speak of the prophet Jonah who (Luke 11:30)
‘...became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation’
without explaining how the prophet was to be that sign. Very often, therefore, the verse is removed from the text as being a later addition by a scribe. However, there appears to be no good reason to do so (except on the ground that the explanation of Matthew’s phrase is difficult!).
That the phrase appears to have been a Jewish saying (possibly not in use commonly in NT times but used because it was a direct quotation of the OT passage) which corresponded to an indeterminable period which encompassed three parts of three consecutive days is the more likely explanation. Therefore Matmor writes that
‘...the Jews did not reckon as we do: they counted the day on which any period began as one day, and they did the same with the day on which the period ended. Thus we have Friday, Saturday, Sunday - three days; it does not matter that neither the Friday nor the Sunday was complete’
and goes on to quote two rabbinical sources - each of which have no reference attached to them (I would have been more impressed with references supporting quotations so I could attempt to check them out!) - but which run (my italics)
‘A day and a night make an Onah [day] and a part of an Onah is as the whole’
‘The part of a day is as the whole day’
both of which I’ve been unable to find in the Mishnah! There isn’t a reference to a part of a day being regarded as a ‘day and a night’, here, only that a part of a day was to be regarded as a complete day for legal purposes, and Hullin 5:5 notes that
‘”one day”...means the day together with the night that went before...’
so that a more accurate phrase would possibly have been ‘three nights and three days’ seeing as the Jewish day began at sundown and ended with the following sunset. Esther 4:16 notes something similar and records the queen as instructing Mordecai (my italics) to
‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish’
and, in 5:1, that she approached the king
‘On the third day...’
indicating that the Jews probably began fasting as soon as they heard the word proclaimed (and didn’t begin at sundown when the Jewish day began) and continued through two night periods into the third day when Esther approached the king to petition him for the life of her people. However, it’s significant that the day is referred to here as a night and a day rather than the other way round, in accordance with Jewish custom.
By comparing I Sam 20:12 and 18-19, it can be clearly seen that the phrase ‘The Third Day’ is a label used to refer to ‘the day after tomorrow’ and would be talked about in the present day and age as ‘in two days’ time’. In I Sam 20:24,27, the new moon is counted as the first day so that the next day is labelled as the second. Therefore, had you been living on the day of the new moon, ‘tomorrow’ would have rightly been regarded as ‘the second day’ and not ‘the next day’ as we say in the present age.
When Jesus referred to being raised on the Third Day, therefore, a death on the Friday and a resurrection on the Sunday is fully in keeping with the Jewish idiom. It also shows that, when the disciples referred to Jesus as speaking of ‘three days and three nights’, they would hardly have used a literalism that denied the other label.
It’s more logical to accept that ‘three days and three nights’ must be an equivalent of ‘on the third day’ and, as such, meant to convey the OT meaning.
Jonah 1:17, where the original time period occurs, has been interpreted by some scholars to be representative of the time which the ancient people believed it took for a person to travel from the land of the living to Sheol, the place of the dead (and back again), so that the expression could be taken to be indicating to the reader that God rescued, so to speak, Jonah from the underworld and certain death.
However, that the Hebrews understood the term in this manner is impossible to prove even though cultures round about appear to have accepted it as such and, though it sounds reasonable, a direct connection with Jewish thought and culture would need to be made before it could be accepted as an idiomatic phrase implying deliverance from death.
If Jesus used it in this context, though, and the Jews present understood the same from it as was meant to be conveyed in the OT, they would have realised immediately that Jesus was referring to a death experience even without the qualifying phrase ‘in the heart of the earth’.
Jesus repeats the declaration - but this time only to His disciples - in Mtw 16:21 but, there, the ‘three days and three nights’ has become the statement that He will
‘...on the third day be raised’
It appears likely, then, that the phrase was used by Jesus as a direct quote in Mtw 12:40 because of the ‘sign’ that He was offering to the nation as a proof that the works He was doing were from God but that, in subsequent recordings of Jesus repeating the saying, the writers chose rather to give the sense by using the term ‘three days’, a term more easily acceptable as meaning ‘three parts of a day’ or ‘two days from the start’ as noted above (where the day on which the time period started is day one).
If this was solely spoken to the disciples, then all the chief priests and Pharisees would have known of the ‘sign’ was Jesus’ declaration that He would be dead three days and nights, but they approach Pilate in Mtw 27:63 requesting that the tomb be guarded because they had heard Jesus proclaim that
‘After three days I will rise again’
So they clearly understood what Jesus had meant and their request which came on the sabbath, the second day, was limited to ‘the third day’, after which the tomb had no reason to be guarded (Mtw 27:64) but which would have had to have been extended to the fourth day had a full period of 72 hours been intended (Saturday and Sunday would have been two full 24 hour days but only part of the Friday and part of the Monday would have made the full period of the third 24 hour cycle).
It’s also, perhaps, surprising just how often the shortened form ‘three days’ occurs in the NT, not only in the Gospels when the burial of Christ isn’t being referred to (Mtw 15:32, Mark 8:2, Luke 2:46) but also outside as an indication of a specific time period and which is not necessarily to be taken as being indicative of an exact 72 hour period (Acts 9:9, 25:1, 28:7, 28:12, 28:17) - though it’s impossible to be precise as to what time period it was normally taken to infer in these places.
In summary, the explanations which see ‘three days and three nights’ as being a current Jewish phrase at the time of Christ to denote three parts of a day seem, to me, to be both unconvincing and inconclusive. However, that the phrase meant this in the OT is more likely.
Jesus’ phrase, though, appears to be a direct quotation of the OT book of Jonah and, as ‘belly of the whale’ is paralleled by ‘heart of the earth’ (Mtw 12:40), it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that ‘three days and three nights’ should be paralleled in the more obvious ‘three days’ on the lips of Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels (and which would mean ‘two days’ in present day Western usage).
All that Jesus is doing is telling the Pharisees very simply that the sign of His death and subsequent resurrection (which may not have been immediately understandable to them) would be the sign which would prove that what He was doing at that time was genuine and from God. But the sign was also a sign too late for it couldn’t come about until the religious leaders who demanded the sign had so rejected their Messiah that they would be the ones responsible for His own death.
The fulfilment of the sign, then, sealed their rejection of the One sent them.
The men of Nineveh and the Queen of the South
One naturally thinks that the continuation of Jesus’ words from Mtw 12:41 must be a progression of the thought of Him being buried, seeing as a later incident from the story of the prophet Jonah is being related before Jesus goes on to speak in similar language about an incident drawn from the life of Solomon.
However, there’s a sudden change of direction here and, instead of using the event to further speak of His burial, He goes on to speak of the judgment which already hangs in the air awaiting the generation of Israelites who had seen first hand and heard of the things which were transpiring in their midst through the ministry of Jesus, but who were refusing to respond positively to them.
As such, both these verses should have served as a reinforcement of Jesus’ words of Mtw 12:39 that no further sign was to be given the nation and that they had, in the miracles which had already been done within the nation, ample evidence to persuade them that the Kingdom of God was coming in power and that they should turn from their own ways back to God.
Jesus could have used the story of Naaman (II Kings chapter 5) who came from the Syrian nation (a Gentile in like manner as the Ninevites and the Queen of the South) to seek a miraculous cure for his leprosy but, instead, He chooses to use two examples which speak to the nation of being drawn to the words of a messenger of God to hear the words of God.
By the two examples from the OT, Jesus speaks specifically, however, about the teaching which He’s been bringing to the nation rather than the miraculous because it is this that was calling them to get themselves right before God and turn round their lives from following after things which were against the will and purpose of God.
So, the miraculous signs should have led the recipients on to a place where they came to terms with the necessity to repent and turn back to God rather than for them simply to either feel honoured that God was blessing them or to respond negatively against the move because to acknowledge it spelt out consequences from which they were trying to flee.
1. The men of Nineveh
Mtw 12:41, Jonah chapter 3
The typology of this example is that, like the Ninevites, the generation of Jews present should also have felt the need to turn to God for the forgiveness of their sins.
The Ninevites had heard the prophet of God, Jonah, tell them of their sin and the subsequent judgment that was about to fall upon them after a forty day period (Jonah 3:4). It’s significant here that one of the gods of the Ninevites was the fish-god and some commentators point out that they’d been expecting that this god would ultimately send them a messenger to declare to them its ways. How true this is is something about which it’s difficult to be certain but it would certainly have added weight to Jonah’s words when he approached the city, bleached white by the acids in the whale’s stomach and smelling of cod! This may be too much of a simplification, however, for, once vomited up on the shores of the east coast of the Mediterranean, there still remained a journey to reach Nineveh which would have allowed the natural skin pigmentation to return - I’m sure that he’d also washed at least once in all that time!
Strangely, the message which God first instructs Jonah to proclaim (Jonah 1:2) and the message which he declares to them as from God when he finally arrives (Jonah 3:2,4) includes no opportunity for the inhabitants of the city to repent. Even though Jesus had openly proclaimed the need for repentance from the very beginning of His ministry to Israel (Mtw 4:17) so that they had opportunity to reassess their ways and turn to God for healing, most of the nation seem to have ignored it and were pleased, rather, just to experience the blessings of His miraculous ministry.
Jonah, on the other hand, had no miraculous signs with which to confirm His message (unless we accept that coming from the mouth of the fish was a confirmation to the Ninevites that their messenger had arrived) - but, there again, there was no need for these to accompany the preaching of the message because there was no offer of repentance held out to the inhabitants that would likely change their ultimate fate.
However, they recognised immediately that Jonah’s message was from God and, although they could have simply resigned themselves to the consequences of their own actions or simply got on with their own lifestyle which was opposed to the will of God, they heeded the warning and repented of their sins that, somehow, God might turn from His intended course of action and withhold judgment (Jonah 3:5-9).
God, therefore, turned back from what He was about to do when He saw their response (Jonah 3:10), something which pleased Jonah no end (Jonah chapter 4)!
Yet, here was Jesus, God’s Word made flesh (John 1:14), the prophet that Moses had spoken about (Deut 18:15-22) revealing to the chosen nation before God their need of forgiveness through repentance (Mtw 4:17), confirming the truth of the message through the signs which accompanied His teaching.
What was present in Jesus was far greater (the Greek word in Mtw 12:41 translated ‘something greater’ is neuter and not masculine and it’s therefore more likely that ‘something’ rather than ‘someone’ is being referred to - that is , the sum total of God’s work in and through Jesus) - far greater than anything that Jonah was bringing to the Ninevites, for his message was one of condemnation whereas Jesus’ was one of repentance. Besides, the message of Christ was for the establishing of God’s Kingdom upon the earth through the Jews in accordance with a Divine promise made to their forefathers - Nineveh had no such promise and their repentance saved only their city rather than saw themselves raised up as messengers of God into the nations of the world to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Therefore, the Pharisees - along with the rest of the people - should have responded to the message. But they neither accepted the Person who’d been sent nor the message which He’d brought and refused to acknowledge and repent of their sins.
The Ninevites had been given no opportunity to repent - yet they did. They’d been given no miracles to persuade them that the message was genuine - but they responded to it. Therefore, at the final judgment, the Ninevites of that generation back in the OT would consequently be the Jews’ own condemnation (rather than people who would literally issue decrees and judgments against them!) who had asked for a sign (Mtw 12:38) when others had needed nothing except the message to turn to God.
2. The Queen of the South
Mtw 12:42, II Chron 9:1-9,12
The Queen of the South (OT ‘Queen of Sheba’) is singled out as another Gentile who heard a word being spoken by one of God’s messengers and who responded positively to it. The typology here is one of acknowledging the need for both enlightenment and revelation.
Solomon had been given a revelation of God and asked what he most wanted to be given (II Chron 1:7-13) and His response was to ask to be given
‘...wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can rule this Thy people, that is so great?’
This had been granted him supernaturally (I Kings 4:29-30) along with wealth, the like of which it appears that the nation has never since seen (I Chron 1:12). Men came from the furthest points of the then civilised world to hear Solomon speak, so highly was his wisdom regarded (I Kings 4:34). In that context, the Queen of the South travelled to see Solomon - a journey which would not of itself have been as easy as we would find today but which would have involved hardship and probably many months on the road (if the dust tracks could be considered as ‘roads’!) - a distance, if the location of the region can be guessed at as somewhere in present day Yemen, of somewhere around 1200 miles.
Nevertheless, she came because of the things she’d been hearing about him (II Chron 9:1,5-6), not that she’d witnessed some great miracle or that she’d specifically received an invitation to attend the palace to hear the king - she came because she’d heard that something was happening in Israel that she wanted to know more about and to experience first hand.
When she met with the king, she recognised that Solomon was both God appointed and anointed (II Chron 9:5,8) and that he spoke with the wisdom of God, ultimately offering him part of what belonged to herself in awe - and perhaps with a touch of reverence as well (II Chron 9:9).
And yet, just as in the previous example used, there’s a striking contrast.
Jesus was God’s eternal anointed King (Ps 2), the Messiah, full of wisdom (Is 11:2) and speaking to the multitudes with the words of God and, even though what was being brought to the nation was something greater than that which Solomon could have conveyed, the nation generally refused to listen and to respond positively to the message.
The Pharisees had travelled down from Jerusalem to see Jesus (Mark 3:22, 7:1), yet not to learn from Him but to condemn Him. They had already set their hearts to reject the revelation of God that came from Him and therefore refused to give themselves freely over to the words that were being spoken, insisting rather on some sort of sign where the Queen of the South had only heard a rumour which she’d come positively to share in.
3. Comparisons and Contrasts
The Pharisees had shown themselves to neither want Jonah, typified by a call to repentance (Mtw 4:17, Luke 3:1-3, 7:29-30) nor Solomon, typified in the impartation of wisdom and revelation (Mtw 9:34, 12:24, John 9:34).
The Ninevites had heeded Jonah - and the Queen of the South, Solomon - but the Pharisees had rejected what was present in their own generation which was greater than both the events of the OT had brought.
Denominations often look back to specific revivals through which their own credal statements and organisations came into being, even though what takes place within their meetings is normally a pale reflection of what God was doing all those years ago. If God is truly restoring His people back into (or bringing His people for the first time into) the fulness of the work of Christ, then there are lessons which we should also learn from our denominational history.
The lesson exemplified here is that, just as those who were part of the move of God upon which our structures are built responded positively to the move of God within their generation, so too must we do the same when God begins to move once more perhaps in ways which don’t appear to be reflected in the experiences of our ‘spiritual’ forefathers - after all, Jonah and Solomon’s words were without the miraculous, Jesus’ words were with all signs and wonders with which to confirm the message being proclaimed.
The Jews, who no doubt lifted up Jonah and Solomon as examples of Jews who’d been specially blessed by God, failed to ally themselves with the types of people that both the Ninevites and the Queen of the South were, who heard a messenger of God and responded positively to them so that they could receive from God what they’d been drawn towards - in the case of the Ninevites, this meant repentance while, for the Queen of the South, it meant wisdom and revelation.
But, more than this, in both these examples that Jesus brings to their attention, it’s significant that it’s pagans who’d responded to a demonstration of the presence of God whereas those present amongst the Jewish nation in Christ’s era had not. That is, the children who’d been given the great promises ended up rejecting them whereas those who’d had no such promise from God are the ones who ultimately respond to the message and receive what belonged to another.
Although this has significance for the Jew and Gentile in the pages of the NT and how the Jew generally rejected the message of the Gospel which was then taken up by the Gentiles, there is relevance here for those churches which have been promised that great events will transpire in their midst but who only see others experiencing what they were expecting to receive.
We must remember that a simple acceptance of the message was what caused both the Ninevites and the Queen of the South to receive from God, whereas the cynicism and criticism of the scribes and Pharisees was what caused them to miss out on receiving the fulness of what God desired to do for them. If that same spirit at work in the religious leaders is present in the life of the Church, it’s hardly a surprise when the Spirit of God by-passes individual churches and reaches people who are receptive to His message to them.
Finally, we should note Jesus’ words here that something greater is present and contrast it with the similar statement in Mtw 12:6. There, the priesthood is seen to be lesser than what’s present. Here, in Mtw 12:41-42, it’s the role of the prophet (Jonah) and the king (Solomon). What Jesus brings is therefore seen as greater than the priests, prophets and kings which have gone before. Matfran comments that
‘...the One in whom all these are transcended is surely God’s ultimate revelation. It is not that Jesus was visibly more impressive than the temple, Jonah or Solomon, but that in His Messianic role He brought the reality to which all pointed forward’’
Jesus should be seen as the ultimate expression of God’s will on earth seeing as that which He’s bringing is far superior to all that has preceded Him.
The Unclean Spirit
I had originally intended to give this short three verse passage it’s own web page but, in the end, decided against it as it struck me that I would do more harm than good to imply that Jesus’ words could be taken without the necessary context of the previous verses (notably, teaching of Jesus concerning repentance which came by the hand of Jonah and wisdom and revelation which came through Solomon) and have therefore included it here.
As I noted in the introduction to this web page, the parallel passage of Luke 11:24-26 finds an interpretation in Mtw 12:43-45 and is explained by it much better than if that passage should be taken as standing alone and as concluding the passage which deals with the casting out of a demon from the life of a blind and mute man.
Should that be done, Luke is often taken to be referring primarily to personal demonic deliverance and it remains somewhat obscure to take the passage and then apply it to a national condition when there isn’t any supporting evidence to do so in the immediate text.
Matthew’s explanation in 12:45, however, that the outlined situation shall be indicative
‘...also with this evil generation’
forces the commentator to wake up to the necessity of an interpretation which places it firstly as a word spoken to warn the Israelite nation of what would transpire after Jesus’ departure, But, from this point, it’s then more easy to take it and apply it on a personal level where the principle is duplicated.
The interpretation must, therefore, be given in the light of Israel’s rejection of their Messiah and of their insistence that they wanted to see a sign from Him before they would believe (Mtw 12:38) but, more especially, of the repentance and the seeking out of wisdom which has immediately preceded these verses (Mtw 12:41-42).
There is a sense in which what Jesus explains to the nation had already taken place a number of years ago through the Babylonian exile and the return to the land. Their first ‘unclean spirit’ had been one of idolatry that had existed before the exile of the Israelites into both Babylonia and Assyria. They’d been ‘healed’ of their evil state, however, nevermore to wholly go over to the worship of idols even into the times of Jesus - there were, of course, exceptions to this but predominantly the nation of Israel shunned the setting up of false images and even paid for their lives to remove them.
The problem was, however, that they hadn’t replaced such uncleanness with the presence of their God. Instead, the study of the Torah and the expansion of it into legalistic observances was as empty and as void of the presence of God as their former idolatry had been and was just as much a matter for God to have to judge.
Even though Isaiah spoke directly into the Jews’ situation in Is 29:13-14, his words are remarkably applicable to the age in which Jesus lived and bear close reading. The prophet recorded God as saying that
‘...Because this people draw near with their mouth and honour Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvellous things with this people, wonderful and marvellous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid’
indicative of an age when miraculous signs and wonders would be poured out on the nation even though there was only a form of religion within the nation that had failed to experience the true presence of God.
Into such a situation, then, Jesus appears, when what has replaced idolatry is just as much a problem than their present national condition. This can’t explain, though, Jesus’ words which projects the return of the evil spirit into the nation in terms which can only be taken as a future event. Instead of saying (my italics throughout) either that
‘So it is with this generation’
‘So it was with this generation’
He actually says
‘So shall it be...with this generation’
implying a future fulfilment rather than a present or past one.
Edersheim, however, sees the OT situation as the explanation for Jesus’ words contained here and writes
‘...As compared with the other nations of the world, Israel was like a house from which the demon of idolatry had gone out with all its attendants...And then the house had been swept of all the foulness and uncleanness of idolatry and garnished with all manner of Pharisaic adornments. Yet all this while, the house was left really empty; God was not there...So this house, swept of the foulness of heathenism and adorned with all the self-righteousness of Pharisaism...would only become a more suitable and more secure habitation of satan...’
That is, their present condition is regarded as being empty, having been cleansed from their idolatrous ways years previous through the exile but that they continued to be empty and that, very soon, what was to take hold of the nation was to be worse than their former state.
As I noted above, however, the interpretation should really be taken to be referring to the rejection of their Messiah and the context of the verses which immediately precede them and, if so, the work that Jesus had been doing in cleansing the nation of it’s ‘spirit’ (personified here for the analogy - Matfran calls it a ‘little parable’) which would soon return unless they were to heed the new way of God that was being brought to them, repent and turn to God for healing.
Mattask states that
‘Repentance can be regarded as a kind of exorcism for it involves an expulsion of the demon of self-centredness’
and, although the last phrase of his sentence is obviously incorrect (unless it, too, is meant to be parabolic), we should accept the first part for it was this which had been the experience of many of those who had come to hear Jesus speak - though, amongst the Pharisees and scribes, it wasn’t their experience at all! Notice that this passage was spoken to the crowds who were beginning to increase (Luke 11:29) and not just to the scribes and Pharisees who appear to have been the ones who originated the request (Mtw 12:38).
But, although many had heard the message of the Gospel and had responded initially to it, there had been no real development of it in their lives and the seed which had been sown within them hadn’t come to fruition (Mtw 13:18-23).
Though they had initially responded to the call to put away the way of serving God which relied upon observance to an external written code, they had failed to take up the instructions to follow after God in the new way. Matfran observes that
‘...this evil generation might be “cleansed” by Jesus’ ministry among them, but a repentance which does not lead to a new allegiance leaves a void which the devil will exploit; he who is not positively with Jesus must inevitably end up against Him’
At best, they’d seen the way to change from.
At worst, they hadn’t committed themselves into the way that they were to change into.
Their state was, therefore, one of emptiness - and that wouldn’t remain for very much longer. Mathag sees the expulsion of the demon as being a result of the benefits brought about by Jesus’ ministry and notes that repentance had not occurred in the nation’s life so that it was simply empty. However, I feel that repentance is being implied here for there appears to be a willingness to get oneself right (the ‘swept and put in order’ of Mtw 12:44) but there does remain the possibility that this is not in view especially as Mtw 12:41 implies that repentance had not generally taken place - perhaps it would be better to say that true or the fulness of repentance had not taken place but that some turning back towards God had.
Matmor sees the emptiness of the house as an
‘attempt at neutrality’
but the point is surely that some action has taken place within the nation by which the evil in their midst has already been dispelled. It’s not that the nation had been neutral towards Jesus - they had either rejected Him as the scribes and Pharisees had done or had come to Him to receive deliverance and to hear Him speak.
There was no neutrality, therefore, only an uncommitted attitude to go on from their initial positive response to the Gospel to fill their lives with doing the will of God. Although the man out of whom had gone the spirit had reorganised his life so that it appeared to be ‘swept and put in order’, the problem was that it wasn’t positively full and, as such, it was fit for reoccupation.
Moral reformation, therefore, was not what Jesus had come to bring Israel and it’s more a reflection of the state of the Pharisaic way of salvation than it is Jesus’ way - response to the Gospel is not just an abstention from but also a commitment to, it isn’t just a ceasing of certain activities but a decision to follow after the things of God. Although the Pharisees personified the empty life of the man delivered in this analogy, their end was to be worse than if they’d filled their lives with what Jesus had brought to them even though they saw in their religious service the ultimate and only way to God.
I noted above a quote from Josephus’ Jewish War (7.259) and it deserves special consideration here seeing as it’s a historical account of the time some forty years afterwards and shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire. Josephus writes
‘...the period had, somehow, become so prolific of crime of every description amongst the Jews that no deed of iniquity was left unperpetrated, nor, had man’s wit been exercised to devise it, could he have discovered any novel form of vice’
If we take this as a fulfilment of Jesus’ words, we can see that the warning wasn’t heeded and that the nation became worse than it had formerly been before the times of Christ. However, it would be wrong, I feel, to narrow down the interpretation to this one phrase and it’s best to note that there appears to have been a degeneration within the Israelite society from the times of Jesus until the final destruction of the holy city.
As individuals, we should learn from this parable also.
What use is it for us to be delivered from the idolatry of our former life if we do not replace it with the presence of God?
Such a condition will only lead us into something worse than our former one, into lives of legalism and Pharisaism if we’ve been delivered from idolatry (to cite the example of the Babylonian exile) or into lives which become wholly immoral if we shun freedom (however strange that might sound. After all, it’s in excessive ‘freedom’ that licentiousness springs but it’s equally a manifestation of a life that relies on legally pleasing God for there are always ways round the Law to justify our own experience - and, eventually, to ignore the Law completely).
Whatever we had in our former lives needs to be replaced and not just removed - and replaced with what is true and correct - otherwise we will find that what we become is far worse than what we originally were. Mathag summarises the problem well. He writes
‘Those who are privileged to experience signs of the Kingdom must respond in what will truly be a life-transforming and permanent way, namely, in commitment and discipleship to Jesus’
and it’s only this which can ‘fill up’ a believer’s life to prevent the last state of the person from becoming even worse than what they were previously.
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