Evil Request for a Sign – Matthew 12:38-45

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Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
March 29, 2015

Evil Request for a Sign
Matthew 12:38-45


It is good to be back with you. I am grateful for the Lord providing good men to preach His word to you while David and I were away. We praise the Lord for the wonderful time we had in California attending the Inerrancy Conference, visiting family, helping my wife’s family and then stumbling upon a great car for David and having such beautiful weather in driving it back across the country. And though I am grateful for the time I was away, preachers want to preach and I am glad to be able to bring you a message from God’s word today.

This morning we are going to be examining Matthew 12:38-45 and Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees for their evil request for a sign. It is a passage that clearly demonstrates that nothing can satisfy religious hypocrites, and the proud will reject even obvious truth if it will require them to be humble. This passage also brings to a conclusion the disputation that Jesus was having with the Scribes and Pharisees on this particular day.

Background – Matthew 12:22-37

Tension had been rising between Jesus and the hypocritical Jewish religious leaders for some time because Jesus would not compromise the Word of God and follow their traditions. They were especially upset that Jesus would break their Sabbath rules and heal people. Not long before, they were so enraged that Jesus had healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath that the Pharisees even began to plot with their rivals, the Herodians, to murder Jesus (12:14). Plotting to murder Jesus might seem to be as low as you could go, but only a short time later they plunged to a depth of sin from which there could be no recovery. Our passage for study this morning takes place on the day in which this happened. These self-righteous men committed the one sin that could not be forgiven when they blasphemed against the Holy Spirit.

The situation began in verse 22 when a man who was blind and dumb due to a demon was brought to Jesus, and Jesus cast out the demon and thus healed the man. The people began to openly wonder if Jesus was the “Son of David,” a title for the promised Messiah. The scribes and Pharisees started to speak against Jesus telling the people that Jesus “casts out demons by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons” (vs 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 for them to say. Jesus also bluntly told them that though every other sin could be forgiven them, but what they had just done could not. They had sealed their own doom. (See: The Danger of Blasphemy)

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 His work 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 being left alone by God and confirmed in their hardness of heart. These particular scribes and Pharisees had reached that point.

They claimed that Jesus’ actions were empowered by Satan, yet the fruit of Jesus’ life only demonstrated that He was indeed from God just as He said. They claimed themselves to be good, but the fruit of their lives proved just the opposite. In verses 36-37 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.

As we now look at verses 38-45 we see these men who have just been so sternly rebuked by Jesus trying to save face in front of the people.

The Demand – Matthew 12:38

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 acting superior, ignoring what has just been said, and then requesting more proof of what has just been proven? That is what happens here. The scribes and Pharisees held the position in that society as the supposed experts in their religion and 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.

After the stern warning, rebuke and condemnation Jesus had just pronounced, it is amazing that they remain calm enough to respond with basic politeness. They respectfully call Jesus, “Teacher,” and then express that they want, desire, wish (qe;lw / thelo ) that He provide a sign, an attesting miracle, for them to see. 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 (shmei:on / semeion), a miracle of some type that would prove He was from God. Immediately you wonder what other miracle could they possibly want. Jesus had just cast out a demon and healed man who was both blind and dumb. Jesus had openly been healing every manner of disease and sickness sometimes with only a word and not even seeing the person. Jesus had demonstrated His power over nature including stilling the wind and waves with a simple command. Jesus has shown His authority over the supernatural by casting out many, many demons. Jesus had 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 demand that Jesus “show them a sign from heaven.” We are not told exactly what they wanted, but they wanted something big and spectacular on a cosmic level scale.

The Sign of Jonah – Matthew 12:39-40

Jesus answers their request in verse 39, But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign, and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

Jesus rebukes them yet again. He states that they were a wicked and adulterous people for craving such a sign and they would not get what they were seeking. God does not perform miracles for the pleasure of those who are wicked of heart. What more could Jesus do anyway? 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 did such spectacular things they would soon be asking for more since that is what they were doing then. These men had already demonstrated their blindness to the miracles Jesus had already done. Nothing would satisfy them.

Jesus expands His condemnation from just the scribes & 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 Ashterah. 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.

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 instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah goes the opposite direction and gets on a ship heading for Tarshish (Spain). God causes a severe storm to arise eventually resulting in Jonah being tossed overboard and he is swallowed by a 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 try to resolve it by moving Jesus’ death back to Thursday, however, all the texts point out that His death occurred on Friday, the day prior to the Sabbath, and the resurrection took place on Sunday, the first day of the week.

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 the term “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) = night 1 and day 1. Saturday in the grave = night 2 and day 2. Sunday morning rise from dead = night 3 and day 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 – Matthew 12:41

“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 to Nineveh compared to the great amount God gave them, yet they remained hardened toward God. Consider the differences.

1) Nineveh received its message from God from Jonah who was a minor prophet that was sinful, rebellious and foolish. That generation received its message from God from Jesus Christ who is God in human flesh and without sin. 2) 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. 3) Jonah did no miracles or other authenticating signs. Jesus came doing many miracles and authenticating signs. 4) Jonah was speaking to a people completely unfamiliar with the revelation of God in the Scriptures. 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. Hendricksen 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 – Matthew 12:42

“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 & 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 it was considered the “ends of the earth.” She, like the Ninevites, responded to what little she heard.

Her country was on the Mediterranean to India trade route, and because of that she was very wealthy and 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 journey 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 instead 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 for it. They had been invited and urged to come to Jesus and follow His wisdom, but they refused which is why Jesus pronounced woes upon the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum in Matthew 11:20-24. Their leaders even 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 – Matthew 12:43-45

“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 this passage because they try to develop their doctrine of demonology from it and neglect the purpose of the passage. 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, and 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 since 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 the last sentence, “That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.” That points us back to verse 39. The purpose of 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 “swept, and put in order.” The man had undergone some reformation. No doubt he had replaced some bad habits with good ones. However, the reformation was only outward because as the text states, 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, which he does, only this time the condition is worse because that demon got seven more demons more wicked than itself to join him resulting in the man now being inhabited by eight demons. His last condition was far worse than when he started.

Israel as a nation had fallen into the worship of the Canaanite idols eventually resulting in their captivity. Israel was taken away by Assyria and Judah was taken away by Babylon. While in captivity, they got their lives back in order. The demon of idol worship was taken away, but over time, since the nation as a whole did not turn whole heartedly 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.

That particular generation also had a reformation in part. At the preaching of John the Baptist and the early ministry of Jesus, many in the nation including some of the religious leaders were baptized as a sign of repentance. However, for many there was no real change of heart. Why? They were so embedded in their self-righteous religious traditions that they quickly returned to them instead of continuing to follow Jesus and His teachings. They gave more heed to the religious leaders who accused Jesus of doing His miracles by the power of Satan than making the obvious conclusion for themselves that Jesus’ power came from God and following Him. The earlier moral and spiritual reformation was partial and was not a lasting transformation resulting in a return to their traditions and the severe judgment it would bring. 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 might say, “so what does that have to do with me? That was that generation in Israel. This is a different generation in a different place. “ That is true, but there are two principles in this text that serve as a strong warning to us in our own generation and place.

First, God gives revelation of Himself to man. To some He gives much and to others little, but each one must be careful not to neglect to make the most of whatever God gives him, and whatever God does give is adequate for that person.

Some of you have not yet confessed your sin before God asking Him to mercifully and graciously forgive you for those sins based on the 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? Is there something you do not understand? If so, then you must become serious about getting the answers you need. There are plenty of resources available to you including myself. Get the confusion cleared up. You are risking your eternal destiny in putting it off.

Is it pride? Are you failing to see your sinfulness and need for Christ? Do you still believe that you can be good enough on your own to appease God? Then you need to humble yourself as many Scriptures command, for God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. You are destined for eternal hell if you remain proud.

Or perhaps you are like those in our text today who are looking for Jesus to do some sign before you will believe? If so, then heed the warning of the message today. 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. Creation itself declares His existence and power. You have been given God’s written word to read for yourself. 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. You also live after Jesus has fulfilled the sign of Jonah by His death, burial and resurrection. If you continue to neglect what has been given to you, then you will be just like the scribes and Pharisees and will stand condemned before Jesus.

Christians take warning too. 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? Do you expect Him to first heal your hurts or fix the mess you and others have made of your life? Do you think He has to make you healthy, wealthy and remove all the struggles of life before you will submit to Him? I am here to tell you that Jesus does not have to do anything else to prove Himself or His love to you for He has already done all that He needs to do. He died for your sin in your place and proved His promises to be true when He rose from the dead. Certainly Jesus goes beyond even that do to all sorts of things for us beyond all measure, but when you demand something from Him before you will obey Him, then you are acting like the scribes and Pharisees. You were saved from your sins to serve God. It is time to get past the foolishness of wanting something from God before you will believe Him and acting like you are doing God a favor when you obey Him.

The first principle then is that God has already given each person all the revelation of Himself that is necessary for each person to seek, believe and serve Him. God graciously gives you more understanding of Himself as continue to seek Him.

The second principle is that outward reformation is not enough. Cleaning up the outside accomplishes nothing if the inside is not also cleaned up. You can fool people but you cannot fool God for He knows your heart. Change must come through the regeneration that comes by the Holy Spirit who changes your heart to desire God’s glory instead of your own. If you are pursing the mistaken idea that you can somehow make yourself acceptable to God, then please understand that you are wasting your time. Entrance into God’s kingdom is only for those who are poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3). You must humble yourself to believe and follow what He has revealed in His word. Salvation from sin and a transformed life only comes by God’s grace through faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Bible text this morning has given us strong but necessary words that challenge and warn us. Are you seeking signs from Christ before you will believe and follow Him? Or are you seeking Jesus Himself so that you can better follow Him? Don’t leave today, whether believer or non-believer, until you can leave knowing that your life is right with God and that you are seeking Jesus Himself.

Sermon Notes: Evil Request for a Sign
Matthew 12:38-45

Background – Matthew 12:22-37

Tension between Jesus & the religious leaders was __________because Jesus did not follow their traditions

Jesus’ casting out a demon and ____________ a blind & dumb man was the cause of the current conflict

The scribes and Pharisees _____________the Holy Spirit – leaving no means by which they could be saved

The Demand – Matthew 12:38

Though rebuked and warned, they use their ____________in society to try to put Jesus on the defensive

They insinuated that the Messiah would provide a _________which they would judge to be valid or not

Though polite, they were making a ___________of Jesus – they should have been asking for His mercy

____________Jesus’ many miracles, they want a sign (shmei:on / s meion), a miracle of cosmic proportions

The Sign of Jonah – Matthew 12:39-40

Jesus rebukes them as a wicked and adulterous people that __________________be satisfied

Jesus condemned that generation because they also ________Jesus despite the miracles (Matthew 12:20-24)

God sent Jonah to Nineveh, but he sailed for Tarshish instead and God had him swallowed by a great _____

The sign of Jonah is a prophetic “_____” – as Jonah was in the fish, so the Son of Man would be in the earth

Jesus affirms the story of Jonah – if you don’t believe, then you don’t believe Jesus is ______________

Jesus died on day prior to Sabbath (_____________) and rose on first day of week (Sunday)

Hebrew idiom, “day & night,” refers to entire diurnal period or ________________of it

Friday afternoon = night & day 1. Saturday = night & day 2. Sunday evening / morning = night & day 3

Jesus’ own ___________________would be the sign given to them, but they would reject that too

The Judgment from Nineveh – Matthew 12:41

Nineveh received its _______from God from a reluctant & sinful prophet – They received it from God’s son

Jonah only pronounced coming ___________- They received a message of mercy and hope from Jesus

Jonah performed no miracles – They saw Jesus performed ________________miracles

Jonah preached to a people unfamiliar with God’s word – They _____________God’s word well

Nineveh ______________and turned to God seeking mercy – They rejected God, His message and His son

The Judgment from the Queen of the South – Matthew 12:42

She is the Queen of _________(1 Kings 10:1-13 & 2 Chronicles 9:1-9) about 1,200 miles southeast of Israel

She traveled _____to hear the wisdom of Solomon – They only had short distances to hear to wisdom of God

She had only heard stories about Solomon – They had Jesus in their ________to see and hear for themselves

She brought gifts for Solomon – They gave nothing to Jesus and plotted to _______________Him

She came without invitation and rejoiced – They were invited and urged, yet _______________follow Jesus

The Judgment from Neglect – Matthew 12:43-45

This story is not about the demon, it is an ____________of the judgment that would come on that generation

The man had an ______________reformation after the demon was gone (“swept, and put in order”)

However, the man is still “unoccupied” at the demon’s return, so 7 more join him & make the man _______

Israel had _____________reformation due to the captivity, but their idolatry was replaced by false Judaism

That generation had outward reformation due to John’s preaching, but they returned to _________________

Without internal _________________, they returned to their traditions – and were destroyed in 70 A.D.

The Warning to Us

God __________________Himself sufficiently to each person that they will justly be held accountable

Non-Christian: What _____________you from repenting, believing and following Jesus? Confusion? Pride?

You have the Bible available to you and teachers to explain it – do not ____________what God provides

Christian: What keeps you from following Christ whole-heartedly? Jesus has _______done all that is needed

1) God has ________________given each person what is necessary to seek, believe and serve Him

2) Outward reformation is not enough – there must be internal ______________________by the Holy Spirit

Entrance into God’s kingdom requires _______to believe and follow what God has revealed – He transforms

Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up later. 2) Count how many times the word “sign” is said. Talk with your parents about the miracles Jesus did and how they prove He is God in human flesh.

Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others. Why were the Jewish religious leaders so antagonistic to Jesus? Why were they plotting to murder Him? What was their reaction to Jesus casting out the demon and healing the blind & dumb man (Matthew 12:22-24)? Why was their accusation against Jesus illogical, inconsistent with their own practices, insurrectionary against God and inane (stupid)? What was Jesus’ condemnation of them and why? What is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and why couldn’t it be forgiven? Why were they demanding a “sign” from Jesus? Why didn’t they believe the many miracles He had already done? What kind of sign were they looking for? Why does Jesus call them a wicked and adulterous generation? Why does He include that generation along with the scribes and Pharisees? Who was Jonah – what did He do – what happened to him? How is Jonah a prophetic “type” of Jesus? Is the story of Jonah true or not? Explain. If Jesus died on Friday and was raised on Sunday, how did He fulfill the prophetic type of Jonah – three days and three nights in the earth? Contrast what God did for Ninevah and their response with what God did for that generation and their response? Contrast the actions of the Queen of Sheba to hear Solomon’s wisdom to that generations response to following Jesus? What is the point of Jesus illustration in Matthew 12:43-45? How is that point a warning to the generation that Jesus is talking to? Why was the reformation / repentance that occurred at John’s preaching not lasting? Does God give sufficient revelation to every person to repent, seek and believe? Explain. If you are not a Christian, what is keeping you from repenting, believing and following Christ? What has God already provided to overcome your objections? What will God’s response be to you if you continue your present course? Christian – what keeps you from following God whole-heartedly. What needs to change? When?

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