The Sign to End All Signs

| Matthew 12:38-42

John A. Broadus wrote some introductory remarks to Sunday School teachers about lessons on Matthew that were part of the Sunday School Curriculum for a year from June 1888-May 1889. He said, “It is manifest that Matthew wished to satisfy Jewish readers that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-expected Messiah, and to correct those mistaken ideas of the Messianic reign which so widely prevailed among the Jews, and so greatly hindered the ready reception of Jesus in his Messianic capacity.” We see much of this prevalence of “mistaken ideas” in this text and also find very poignant references to Old Testament narratives with which the readers of Matthew as well as the company of people hovering around Jesus would have known well. Matthew also continued to assault the virtually superstitious attachment the Jewish leaders had to the ceremonial law above true issues of morality and genuine compassion.

I. The Irony of Sign Seeking – verse 38

A. The Signs already given – As Matthew unfolds his narrative, virtually all that Jesus did served as a sign. His birth, the visit of kings, the attempt of Herod to kill him, the ministry of John the Baptist, the place that he went to live (e.g. 4:13-16), his authoritative teaching (5-7) all point to Jesus as Messiah. Other signs and teaching from chapter 8 through 11 led to the severe warnings of 11:20-24. Now Matthew records another series of signs and another warning.

1. Through a work of compassion in leading his disciples to satisfy their hunger on the Sabbath, Jesus opened up a conversation with those who opposed him.

They plucked heads of grain and ate. At this the opponents accused him of breaking the Sabbath. He had in fact not conformed to their personal inventions concerning the Sabbath.

Jesus illustrated, from both historical narrative and Law in the Old Testament, exceptions to the general requirements concerning the Sabbath.

In this, he illustrated that the ceremonial aspects of the law were set aside in special circumstances in order to meet human need. He had done this in 9:9-14 in eating with those the Pharisees considered ceremonially unclean and in summing up his point on that occasion, referred to the same Old Testament principle, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6; compare Micah 6:6-8).

2.  He sealed his point about compassion in it relation to ceremony by healing a man with a withered hand on the same Sabbath. He forced them to see the uncomfortable truth that they took more pains to care for their animals than they did humans, made in God’s image. He concluded, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

3. He continued his ministry of healing (12:15-21) in fulfillment of Isaiah 42:1-3, specifically pointed to by Matthew in his attempt to show his Jewish readers the scriptural character of what Jesus did. It is significant also that two lines of the citation refer to the Messiah’s inclusion of the Gentiles in his work of mercy: “justice to the Gentiles. . . . in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

4. Matthew recorded Jesus healing of a blind/mute demon-possessed man. This was truly a phenomenal display of compassion as well as the overcoming greatness of Jesus’ spiritual power. Matthew had just cited the evidence from the prophecy in which God said, ”I will put my Spirit upon him.” The Spirit of God empowered the ministry of Jesus in two ways, either of which would be sufficient evidence for his messianic standing.

First, in the eternal relations of the three-personed God, the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son. By the nature of God’s eternal being, the power of the Spirit would inhabit the person of the Son of God with an ever-flowing power, an omnipotence mutually expressed and possessed by Father, Son, and Spirit.

Second, The human nature of Jesus possessed the same inflow of power from the Spirit from the initial moment of his incarnation (Luke 1:35) throughout his earthly life, his resurrection, and his ascension (Matthew 12:18; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 9:14; Romans 1:4; Galatians 4:6; Titus 3:5, 6; 1 John 5:6-10).

B. The Responses already made

1. They accused Jesus of conducting himself unlawfully in picking and eating grain on the Sabbath. They “condemned the guiltless” (12:7).

2. The made his healing of the man with a withered hand an occasion of accusing him and soon thereafter “conspired against him, how to destroy him” (12:14).

3. His healing of the blind mute by casting out a demon brought an accusation that his companionship with Beelzebul gave him authority over such demons (12:24)

C. The unpardonable sin – 12:24-32 – Jesus showed the utter irrationality of the Pharisees into which their perversely hard hearts had driven them. This kind of aggressive and hostile resistance to the truth reveals a particularly deep entrenchment in enmity to holiness, goodness, and truth.

1.  Jesus sets forth a principle of the necessary unity of a kingdom in its purpose and its actions if it is intent upon gaining a victory (25).

2. Satan, who has a well-defined goal of defeating the design of God in glorifying his Son through his redemptive work, cannot purposefully fight against himself in seeking to achieve this goal.

3. Jesus, therefore, in casting out demons works against the interests of Satan’s kingdom and cannot be in league with him. Furthermore, in condemning Jesus as an exorcist, they shed great doubt on the work of their own exorcists. The Pharisees cannot have it both ways, condemning the one and approving the other, but heap condemnation on themselves even at the mouths of their “sons.”

4. But if (the only conclusion left in this situation) Jesus, by the power of the Spirit, casts out demons, he is not in league with Beelzebul but with God and his other works and words must be given their appropriate credence. In short, “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (12:28).

5. Jesus, therefore has plundered the strong man, Satan, by binding him as an antagonist of superior power, not by being his colleague.

6. Those, therefore, who are not with Jesus in this matter, in light of the words he has spoken and the deeds he has done, must of necessity be against him.(30) Though many persons may leave the option of indifference toward themselves, such a stance is impossible with reference to Jesus.

7. It is entirely understandable that one could misinterpret the person of Christ if given only his humble appearance in his manhood, seeing him only in the unimpressive state of his humiliation, a Nazarene, the son of a carpenter, without honor even in his own town. But when it becomes evident that his works are a clear manifestation of the power of the Spirit, and his work and words done in the Spirit are opposed, ridiculed, and represented as having their origin from an evil source, then a particularly egregious case of rebellion is laid bare. This kind of blasphemy will soon, if not immediately, render one completely cut off from any operations of grace. This is not to say only that in the life to come the day of grace will be past, but in this present age, one may come to such a circumstance of hubris, hatred, hostility, and hardness that no means consistent with conversion ever will be presented him again.

D. The “Radical” nature of sin as an explanation for hard-heartedness – 12:33ff Jesus, by making an analogy to a well known truth, shows that such misjudgments about holy things arise from an inner perversity, the root of the tree. This perversity is evident in the fruit of their lives and in the judgments that find expression through their lips.  Their settled judgments about the work of Christ, whether it be evil or an outflow of the approving power of the Holy Spirit, will constitute their judgment on the last day.

II. How Moral Character affects the search for a sign – 39a

A. Jesus makes specific application of what has just transpired in calling them a “wicked and adulterous generation.”

1. They rejected the witness of the Spirit in the ministry of Jesus that was a biblical sign pointing to his messianic power (3:11; Luke 4:14, 18). Their blindness to this had led to the warning about committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

2. They had shown that they were “bad trees” yielding “bad fruit” and had revealed their corruption of heart and wickedness through the evil words they spoke (12:37).

B. “Seek for a sign” – What kind of sign they sought it is hard to imagine. They sought for something beyond those that showed Jesus’ unique conformity to the prophetic expectations delimited in Scripture. Jesus’ entire ministry was an expression of the messianic rule. John the Baptist and his disciples asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”, and were satisfied with Jesus giving an answer directly from Scripture. These seemed to desire some special honor of a revelation that would set them on an equality with the gracious privilege of Moses in Exodus 32:16-19 and 33:6-9. They were worthy of a greater sign than the common crowds.

C. We show our unbelief and corruption when we ask for a surer witness to truth and to the gospel than what God has given us in his word. In his revealed truth, if we sense its importance and set our minds to it with no bias against it, there is sufficient, even overwhelming, evidence of its truthfulness, beauty, and excellence. We will know for sure that by its standards we will be judged and that Christ himself has won the authority by his messianic faithfulness to all of his Father’s will.

III. The Sign of the Prophet Jonah – 39b – 40 – The final seal of all that Jesus claimed about himself would be accomplished by his resurrection. Jonah, swallowed by a fish and in its entrails for three days, came forth again and went forward to accomplish the work that God intended for him to do. Even so, Jesus, having given up his life and surrendered to the grave, nevertheless, obliterated the apparent victory of the latter and took again to himself the former verifying the truth of his claims in John 10:17, 18: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

IV. Jesus again points to the degree of guilt in relation to advantage – 41-42

A. The first comparison

1. Nineveh – This was a wicked city, nearing divine judgment and a deadly enemy of Israel. It is hard to imagine a more powerful image of hard-heartedness and hostility to the God of Israel than would have existed in Nineveh.

2. Jonah – He was a reluctant prophet, who had no heart for the people to whom he was sent, preached a message of impending judgment, did not call for repentance nor indicate that redemption was possible. The people of Nineveh had to infer from the fact that a messenger issuing warning had come, that if they repented perhaps they would receive mercy. This they did and that generation of Nineveh found mercy from God.

3. Greater than Jonah – But now, to this people supposedly filled with the revelation of the glory of God, the admonitions to holiness, and the promises of mercy and forgiveness, comes a preacher of the stature of the Son of God himself who not only issues a call to come to him (11:28-30) but will himself be the way of redemption.

4. Even as the sons of the Pharisees will be their judges for their blindness to the power of God in Jesus (12:27) so will Nineveh rise up in judgment against this generation that had the presence, not of simple and reluctant Jonah, but of the compassionate clear preaching Christ.

B. The Second comparison

1. The Queen of the South – First kings 10:1-13 records the visit of the Queen of Sheba to see and converse with Solomon. Her own wealth was great but she was left literally breathless at the great wisdom and riches of Solomon. “Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard. . . . Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel!”

2. Solomon – He was the final king of Israel before the division into the tribes of the North and those of the South. “Thus King Solomon,” so the text says, “excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom.” His great gifts led to great pride and pursuit of personal glory and pleasure so that “the Lord was angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel” (1 Kings 11:9).

3. A greater than Solomon – Jesus never turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel. His riches are not temporal but eternal; he not only has been granted wisdom as a grace, but he embodies wisdom and becomes to us “wisdom from God—righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

4. The Queen of the South will rightly arise in judgment against that generation, and perhaps our own, for she made a journey to see Solomon, and truly marveled at the blessings of God on his reign. A greater than Solomon, the king of kings “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” has come; the queen, seeing the glory of Christ as opposed to that of Solomon, will come forth to utter condemnation against the unbelievers of that generation and those of ours who do not rightly recognize the greatness of Jesus and fall at his feet in adoration and trust.