Springboarding off of the Apostle Paul’s life focus, clearly expressed in 1 Corinthians 2:2, Pastor Greg launched an “open-ended” message series on January 12th, 2020 – focusing on “Just Jesus.” He is walking us through the entire New Testament, pulling passages from the Old Testament for context, and keep us focused throughout the year on “Just Jesus.”
This is week 53, Matthew, part 51 in the series. Today’s message covers Matthew 12:38-45. Pastor Greg shares about Jesus continuing His verbal battle with the Pharisees. Jesus pronounces judgment on the Pharisees, likens them to unclean demonic spirits and tells them the only other sign He will grant to them to prove His claims is “The Sign of Jonah.” Pastor G tells us what Jesus really meant by this and encourages us to learn from the example of the Pharisees as a life course on what NOT to do.
Welcome to week 53 of our Just Jesus series. This is Matthew Part 51. Jesus is continuing His back and forth argument with some of the scribes and Pharisees in Chapter Twelve. If you are ready to hear what God has put on my heart to share with you this morning do me favor and say Hit Me Wit’ It G! I’m ready! —
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “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; 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. ~ Matthew 12:38-40
It is astounding to me that they are still demanding proof from Jesus. A BIGGER sign? A BIGGER miracle than He has already performed. Bigger than casting out demons? Bigger than healing people of leprosy, blindness, deafness, shriveled hands? What in the world do they want from Him. Jesus alludes to His resurrection. Will rising from the dead be a big enough sign for you? He calls them evil and adulterous. We’ve heard Jesus call them evil several times already but here he adds the specific charge of adultery. God and Israel have a marriage covenant relationship ever since Mt. Sinai during the Exodus. God has been a faithful and consistent bridegroom ever since yet Israel keeps cheating on Him. They keep running after other gods, other husbands. They keep breaking the covenant with their spiritually adulterous behavior. Jesus tells those demanding more proof from Him, “You are receiving the SAME sign the people of Ninevah received from Jonah. You are being told to repent by an obvious prophet of God.
In fact, He tells them in a couple of verses, YOU have one far greater than Jonah talking to you right now. Jonah was a prophet but only a man. Jesus is both a prophet man and He is God. What else was similar about Jesus and Jonah? How were their signs similar? Well, people thought Jonah was dead when he was thrown overboard and swallowed by the giant fish. In fact, some scholars believe Jonah did die and then God resurrected him after the fish threw him up onto the beach at Ninevah. People will likewise think Jesus is dead when He is crucified and buried in the earth. Jesus was dead but was resurrected. Both Jonah and Jesus appeared again, a short time after their deaths, alive. We talked about verse 40 a lot at Easter time. As we were talking about Jesus fulfilling the deeper meaning of the Feast of First Fruits, which happened on the third day of the 8 days of Passover celebration that year.
We said that Jesus made MANY predictions that He would rise “On The Third Day.” And we talked about how this verse, Matthew 12:40 is a troubling passage. It differs from ALL of Jesus’ other references to His resurrection and it doesn’t fit the timeline of what we know about His crucifixion and resurrection. Let’s look at it again. Matthew records Jesus as saying:
40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. ~ Matthew 12:40
I’ve shared many times how ancient Jews counted any part of a day as a whole day. So, we know Jesus was dead part of Friday day, all of Friday night, all of Saturday day, and some part of Saturday night. That’s only two days and two nights. Even if we assume He rose AFTER sunrise on Sunday, which, you may remember, I gave a lot of evidence to believe He actually rose well BEFORE sunrise Sunday morning, that’s still, AT BEST, three days and two nights, STILL NOT three days and three nights. So what do we do with that problem passage? That’s what we talked about the Sunday after Easter. We need to revisit it again today since we are at this point in our verse by verse discussion of Matthew. We need some additional context because C.I.E. Context Is Everything. Well, when Luke records this same conversation it goes down a little differently. Luke says what Jesus said was:
For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be a sign to this generation. ~ Luke 11:30
Here, Jesus doesn’t spell out the three days and three nights statement that doesn’t fit the timeline we have. He died on Friday and rose on Sunday. No matter which way you slice it, Jesus was NOT in the belly of the earth for three days and three nights. Maybe parts of two days and two nights.
Unlike Matthew, Luke doesn’t say Jesus said that. In Luke, Jesus just refers to “the sign of Jonah.” Which, actually could refer to several things but we presume it means swallowed up by a fish (or the grave in Jesus case) both presumed dead, Jesus definitely dead, and Jonah possibly really dead as well, only to appear alive days later. Both dead. Both miraculously resurrected. Both on a mission to call their various audiences to repentance. Luke records the conversation without the three days and three nights reference, seemingly trying to take the analogy too far. Because, other than this verse in Matthew, every single one of the other references Jesus makes to His resurrection just says it will happen “On the Third Day.”
We also have the obvious problem with the number of days and nights not working out anyway. So some scholars say – and I agree – Jesus probably only mentioned the sign of Jonah and did not specifically spell out 3 days and 3 nights – for the reasons I mentioned a few minutes ago. Then some later scribe – copying a Matthew manuscript – tried to help fill in the blanks with the extra details of three days and three nights that did apply to Jonah but did not apply to Jesus. Again, our understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture is that it is inerrant in its ORIGINAL manuscripts which we don’t really have. We do have some really old fragments of manuscripts and many copies of manuscripts. While 99% of the copies we have are identical, over the many years they were copied by hand, there are a few differences and discrepancies where it seems clear a later editor added a detail here or there that doesn’t show up on every other manuscript copy.
So, this is a confusing, problematic verse that doesn’t match the context of everything else we know but again, other than this one problematic sentence in Matthew 12:40 that makes no sense, in EVERY OTHER PLACE of Scripture, Jesus NEVER said “I will be dead for three days.” Instead, He ALWAYS said “On the third day I will rise.” And of course, He DID — IN FACT —- do THAT. Every account agrees 100%. So, He was not dead for three full days and three full nights but He absolutely DID rise on the third day of the Feast of Passover that year. That seems pretty clear that that was what Jesus was referring to in His resurrection prediction. The third day of Passover also happened to be the same day as the Feast of First Fruits that year. First Fruits is always celebrated on the Sunday that occurs during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
That year, that First Fruits Sunday, happened to fall three days into the overall 8 days of Passover, and Unleavened Bread. But, if that Sunday had fallen earlier or later that year, Jesus would have said “On the fifth day I will rise, or on the second day, I will rise, or on the fourth day I will rise.” You follow me? As I shared at Easter, that is the TRUE meaning of His prediction that He would rise on the THIRD DAY, not I will rise 72 hours after I die. Jesus continues speaking to the Pharisees in verse 41 and makes the rest of His “sign of Jonah” analogy more clear.
The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. ~ Matthew 12:41
Of course this is the real meaning of Jesus’ reference to “the sign of Jonah.” It’s not about three days and three nights. It’s about their similar missions but dissimilar results. Jonah was sent by God to the people of Ninevah to preach to them that they should repent of their sins. Imagine this if you are the people of Ninevah. This dead guy gets vomited out near the beach by a big fish and then wakes up and comes walking up out of the water onto the beach. His skin has been bleached white and his clothes half digested by the gastric fluids in the fish’s stomach. He’s soaking wet, hair all over the place. He’s got a piece of chewed up seaweed on his head! He raises his bony finger toward the people of Ninevah and says “REPENT!” Imagine if that happened today down at Hapuna Beach! What would you do? I’D REPENT!!!!! Evidently the people of Ninevah felt that way too and they repented and God forgave them.
Yet, here is Jesus in Israel. As He says, someone far greater than the prophet Jonah, doing far more miraculous signs than even the sign of Jonah popping out of a fish, and still the people of Israel, unlike the people of Ninevah, will not repent and receive Him as Messiah. Astounding! And despite all the proof they’ve already seen they still want more and more proof. Jesus calls them an evil and adulterous generation who keeps insisting on being more before they will be faithful to their covenant with God. This is similar to Jesus’ teaching a few weeks ago about how He says the wicked cities of Tyre and Sidon and Sodom, even they would have repented if they had seen what the people of Israel had seen in Jesus. Because the Ninevites did repent, Jesus says they will come out better in the judgment than the people who are rejecting Jesus now. Then Jesus says this in verse 42.
The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will 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. ~ Matthew 12:42. The Queen of the South is, of course, a reference to the Queen of Sheba, who had a historic meeting with Solomon when he was King of Israel. You can read that whole story in 1 Kings 10:1-13. Let’s just look at the first nine verses.
Now when the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with difficult questions. So she came to Jerusalem with a very large retinue, with camels carrying spices and very much gold and precious stones. When she came to Solomon, she spoke with him about all that was in her heart. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was hidden from the king which he did not explain to her. When the queen of Sheba perceived all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his servants, the attendance of his waiters and their attire, his cupbearers, and his stairway by which he went up to the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her. ~ 1 Kings 10:1-5
In other words, she was deeply humbled by Solomon’s wealth, wisdom and power.
Then she said to the king, “It was a true report which I heard in my own land about your words and your wisdom. Nevertheless, I did not believe the reports, until I came and my eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. You exceed in wisdom and prosperity the report which I heard. How blessed are your men, how blessed are these your servants who stand before you continually and hear your wisdom. Blessed be the Lord your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the Lord loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.” ~ 1 Kings 10:6-9
They traded profound wealthy gifts with one another as a sign of peace and mutual respect and she returned to her own land, a believer in all she had heard about Solomon, about Israel and about Yahweh. This is again, a similar example to what Jesus has been saying throughout this chapter. One greater than the Temple is here. One greater than Jonah is here. One greater than Solomon is here. Yet, you don’t recognize it. If the wicked pagan cities saw what you have seen they would get it. The wicked people of Ninevah got it when they saw Jonah. The Queen of Sheba got it when she saw Solomon! How in the world can you Pharisees and Scribes NOT get it as you see Jesus! Again, it is so OBVIOUS who Jesus is, especially to trained EXPERTS in the law and the prophets and prophecies!
They are personally seeing and speaking with Jesus, the Son of God, the Word of God, God in the flesh, the one who is clearly fulfilling all the prophecies about Messiah, the one who is doing major miracles all the time, as plenty of proof for who He is presenting Himself to be. He is obviously far greater than any of these other historical figures and yet they still don’t get it! Jesus says, on judgment day, the people of Ninevah and The Queen of Sheba, the people of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom will all still look better than you Pharisees. You guys are unbelievable! Jesus isn’t done with His smackdown of the Pharisees. Look at verses 43-45. He says:
“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.” ~ Matthew 12:43-45
This hits us as an odd passage. Are we meant to take this as a literal teaching of Jesus or is it classified as a parable? Doesn’t seem to be a parable. It doesn’t follow the structure of other Jesus parables like “The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” something. So, is Jesus telling this is literally what happens every time, or at least potentially every time a demon is exorcised from a person? It goes through waterless places aka deserts seeking rest or peace. It is still tormented so it decides to go back and repossess the person it was cast out of. When it gets there it finds the person is, as Jesus puts it, unoccupied, swept and put in order. (Which all sound like positive things to us yeah?)
So the demon calls in seven buddies who are even more evil than it is, and they all repossess the man and the poor guys is worse off than he was before. If that’s literal, then maybe you are better off to stay possessed by one demon instead of eight yeah? So weird! How are we to take this? What is Jesus telling us? We need some more context! Why? C.I.E. – Context Is Everything. After telling this weird story Jesus says in verse 45:
“That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.” ~ Matthew 12:45
AHA! So this WAS an allegory!! An allegory is a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. This is yet another reference to this evil generation that isn’t getting who Jesus is despite the many proofs Jesus has already shown them. So we’re aren’t meant to take this as literal truth about the way demon possessions and exorcisms usually work.
Jesus is putting some symbols and images together in an allegory that He eventually likens to the Pharisees and others like them – aka this evil generation. He is continuing His judgment commentary on the Pharisees. He has already compared them and others like them to the wicked cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom. He has already compared them to the wicked people of Ninevah. He has already compared them to the Queen of Sheba who came to Israel full of doubts but left a believer. Ninevah and the Queen got it. If Tyre, Sidon and Sodom had seen what Capernaum, Chorizin, and Behsaida even they would have believed. In the SAME WAY, these Pharisees and other’s like them have seen overwhelming proof that Jesus is the Messiah – Daniel’s Son of Man/Son of God who will one day come in the clouds to judge every person. Still they refuse to believe. Worse than that, they are actively opposing Him, fighting against Him.
Earlier in this conversation, Jesus told them, “you are either for me or against me.” I’m gathering souls, if you aren’t helping me then you scattering souls. That’s the work of evil and that makes us enemies. The Pharisees make it clear that they are going to stand against Him and Jesus calls them evil for this multiple times. Every time Jesus does something good, the Pharisees swoop in to try to undermine it. That’s a big part of our context here. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus exorcised a demon from a man and simultaneously healed the man of the blindness and muteness that was caused by the demon. The Pharisees responded by publicly accused Jesus of being Satan and said that was the only way he controlled the demon.
Jesus responds by telling them how stupid that conclusion is. He also tells them, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This is ALSO true for the house of Israel, the temple, the religious leadership of Judaism at the time. If they keep the people of Israel divided from God by rejecting Jesus their house, their temple, their nation, their power, will not stand. That, in fact, is proven true when Israel is fully conquered and destroyed by Rome in 70AD just over thirty years after this conversation is taking place. So, let’s go back through this passage one more time, verse by verse and see what point Jesus is making.
“Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it. ~ Matthew 12:43
We can also read “waterless places” as deserts yeah? There was a cultural belief that demons and other spirits, ghosts, inhabited deserts and other wilderness places. Water was seen as a sign of judgment (think Noah’s flood) and so they hid out in the deserts waiting to possess or haunt unsuspecting travelers. Jesus is calling this popular image to mind. The tormented spirit is looking for a place of rest (or peace) where it will not be judged but, of course, it can never find peace.
So Jesus is painting a word picture here: You guys remember that demon I just cast out a few minutes ago? Without its human host, where does it go? Well, we all know they typically hang out in the desert seeking peace from the tormented state but they never find it, and eventually they will try to possess someone again yeah? And everyone there would have said “Yeah, yeah, of course. Continue.” We’ve already seen Jesus call the Pharisees evil spirits in a sense too haven’t we? They have blasphemed or rejected the Holy Spirit of God. So there is some subtle linking of His battle with the demon and His battle with the Pharisees going on here. Then, look at the first half of verse 44a.
Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; ~ Matthew 12:44
Unable to find peace, still evil, the demon longs to go back to the house (aka person) it possessed where it can have power again. As an allegory, think of the Pharisees, being expelled from power and authority by the truth of Jesus, longing to come back to the house of Israel, the Temple, the religious power positions. Jesus continues in the second half of verse 44.
and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. ~ Matthew 12:44
Leviticus 14:33-57 gives rules for priests cleaning unclean houses of leprosy or other diseases. We don’t need to read that whole passage but Jesus is pulling that word image in here as well. A house that is empty, swept, and put in order is a house on the verge of being cleansed by the priest. Jesus, the ultimate High Priest, has come to do this for the house of Israel. Jesus is working hard to put Israel back in order. This infuriates the wicked Pharisees who want things to stay the way they are, with them in power. Look at the first half of verse 45 again.
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. ~ Matthew 12:45a
The Pharisees, aka the evil spirits of our allegory, keep coming back behind Him, recruiting more and more people to their side, finding places, people, situations, conditions, that Jesus has swept of evil, disease, etc. only to spread their evil again, even deeper than it was before Jesus cleansed it. He has come to bring the Kingdom of God and the Pharisees are fighting against Him. Every time He shuts one down they come back with more friends and try to undermine the good that has been done. We’ve talked MANY times about the significant symbolic use of the number seven in ancient Hebrew thought. Seven is not always a literal number. OFTEN it means total, complete, entire. That’s the meaning in Jesus’ allegory here. The Pharisees won’t be satisfied until they win EVERYONE to their side and defeat Jesus once and for all. Jesus closes the conversation with the Pharisees in the second half of verse 45. Just like in Jesus’ allegory about an exorcised demon coming back again and bringing friends with him to help, Jesus says:
That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.” ~ Matthew 12:45b
Just like the unclean spirit in the allegory rejects the truth and calls for reinforcements, the Pharisees are doing the same thing. As a result, the last state of Israel is worse than the first because to reject the truth is worse than being ignorant. Every human heart has the potential to become the residence of unclean spirits, except those which are temples of the Holy Spirit. Being filled by the Holy Spirit instead of by an unclean spirit happens only by putting our faith in Christ.
Again, the overall Big Idea of most of Matthew 12 is, the people directly experiencing Jesus in the flesh, seeing and some of them even receiving His miracles, all of them hearing His teachings, they have no excuse. It is OBVIOUS who He is and they should have ALL come to faith in Him. To resist Him, worse yet to intentionally and actively OPPOSE Him, is a sign of profound evil, more wicked than the famous inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon, Sodom, and Ninevah. Even they would have all repented and received Jesus.
The Pharisees are out-eviling everyone. So, what’s the takeaway for us? How do we make this practical in our daily life? Our generation needs to learn from the mistakes of the Pharisees and others who rejected Jesus. We don’t want to be like the generation of Jesus’ time that He refers to in verse 45. While we don’t have Him physically standing before us, doing these miraculous things, we have the eyewitness testimony that He did them. People who were willing to die for this testimony. Our world grows more and more wicked every day. Unclean spirits are always trying to gain entry into our homes, our lives, our hearts, and our minds. If we submit to the HOLY Spirit of God instead we have nothing to fear from them. Our spiritual houses can remain clean, swept out, and in order.
The other big takeaway from Jesus’ battle with the Pharisees is that human religious legalism can actually pull us away from God and even cause us to miss God’s will when He is standing right in front of us. Keeping human traditions and obeying manmade rules are not the way to Jesus’ heart. The way to Jesus’ heart is through trusting, obeying, following, and loving Him. That’s all Jesus expected of the Pharisees and that’s all He expects from us as well. Have confidence that Jesus is who He said He is and that He will do everything He promised to do.
AMEN? ~~~~~ LET’S PRAY ~~