The Sign of Jonah
Matthew chapter 12 begins with Jesus and his disciples walking through a field when the disciples picked some grains in the field and ate. The observing Pharisees challenged their obedience to the Sabbath law claiming they should not be working. Jesus’ rebuttal to their scorn was an excellent exegetical lesson from scripture on the meaning of the Sabbath law and Jesus declaring his divine authority.
If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:7-8)
During that same day as Jesus healed a man with a withered hand; the Pharisees now challenged his obedience to keeping the Sabbath law. Jesus once again refuted their claim but in a different manner. This time he appealed to the common sense heart of the law rather than the legal obligation.
He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:11–12)
He then continued to heal many people which ultimately led to a demon possessed man whom Jesus delivered from his oppression (Mt. 12:22). In seeing this deliverance; the Pharisees were now bold enough to claim that Jesus was not working for God but rather the devil (Mt. 12:24). When challenged by this blasphemy Jesus began to get irritated by their accusations and further gave them a lesson in spiritual authority proving his authentic work of God (Mt. 12:25-37). Looking to test Jesus further; the Pharisees now asked to see a sign as evidence of his Messianic claim (Mt. 12:38). It is at this point that Jesus tilted his head took a deep breath and must have been thinking something like:
Really? Have you not seen the work I’ve been doing? Have we not discussed that the work I do could only be of God and not the devil? Have I not explained to you that I have come sent from the Father in heaven to establish His Kingdom? Have you not seen from the scriptures enough evidence of what I teach? Is this not enough evidence for you to give credit to my claim as Messiah that you still need the convincing of a sign?
Jesus was now done playing theological games with the Pharisees. He was going to stop this harassment and cut into the core – the heart of their motivation. He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. (Matthew 12:39)
That was it!
Do not sit around and continually ridicule the work of God from your high position in society. Don’t use your wisdom and your education as a shield against the miracles of God. Jesus’ tolerance to teach the scriptures had been tested and now the heart of the Pharisees was revealed. They were not questioning out of true research to gain understanding. Their motives were not that pure. They were questioning out of an impure motivation to disprove he was the Christ, the Messiah, and no amount of teaching, compassion, or signs would suffice. Jesus chose his words carefully and called them ‘wicked and adulterous’. Those words ‘wicked and adulterous’ were direct references to the condition of their hearts and to the fact that they could not recognize the Messiah as he stood in their presence. The label of adulterer must have infuriated the Pharisees. He called them adulterers! These are the devoted teachers of God’s law, they have dedicated their lives to serving as God’s ministers; they are the social watch-dogs of the Mosaic covenant – yet he calls them adulterers. Who does he claim they commit adultery against? Jesus could only be referring to them committing adultery against God himself.
How is this so?
How can they be in adultery to God for asking for a sign? He was claiming their hearts were not in love with God but in love with other things; thus they were adulterers. If they were in love with God they would have recognized Jesus as the Messiah but their devotion to other things blocked their ability to see the signs Jesus was revealing in their midst. Not the miraculous signs they were asking for, but the signs he was showing. His teaching, his compassion, his ministry as a whole – their wicked and adulterous hearts kept them at odds with the ministry of Jesus. So as Pharisee’s what could they be in love with that caused their adultery?
Maybe the lifestyle afforded to them as respected leaders of the community. Maybe the power they held over the people as the moral judges of the law. Maybe pride in their knowledge of scripture. Or maybe they were adulterous in their love for the law itself and in their perceived ability to keep it. It is possible for our love in our faith, or rather our love for an established system of religion, to overshadow our love for the God on whom it is based. We have seen through history that although men have been zealous for their faith and acting out of sincerity they have been wrong at times. As it is said, ‘you can be sincere and still be sincerely wrong’. If we study scripture fanatically and have it memorized but fail to have it’s understanding in our hearts then we are missing the point. The point of the law and the scriptures is to reveal Christ to us and our need for him. They were adulterous because although they were teachers of the scriptures they could not see Christ in them and now they would ask for a sign. The only sign Jesus would give them would be the sign of Jonah.
For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40)
The sign they would get would be the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. If they could not see now that he was the Messiah they could look at his resurrection as evidence.
The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. (Matthew 12:41-42)
The point Jesus was making was a harsh one. Heathen who have heard the messengers of God have believed and as a result were credited as righteous, yet you stand before a messenger greater than any other – you stand before the Messiah himself and refuse to believe. These references were key points that must have enraged the Pharisees even further. Jesus chose two examples of Gentiles (the men of Nineveh and the Queen of the South) recognizing and believing in God’s work as a comparison to the ignorance of the Pharisee’s. The Jews and Gentiles were at constant odds – in Jewish mindset they were the chosen one’s of God, the righteous nation – so to compare heathen Gentiles to the chosen Jews and conclude that the Gentiles were in favor was a slam against everything a Jewish Pharisee was. Christ was making a strong point here. The Gentiles who do not know God – who don’t have the understanding as the Pharisees do – would recognize the Messiah and they did not. Jesus then stated that at the judgment this generation of Israel, the chosen people, would be condemned for not seeing him as the Messiah. Even though the men of Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba were given less, they believed more than this generation of Jews. Specifically, the highly exalted teachers of the law who could not recognize that Jesus, being greater than both Jonah and Solomon, was the Messiah.
Additionally, this passage has two points for the Gentiles. First; that even before Christ there was a way to God for Gentiles. As we have seen many times in the Old Testament; God has made provisions for those outside of the nation of Israel to believe in him and thus be saved. And secondly; that now through Christ there is salvation for all who believe, both Jew and Gentile. His salvation is available to all. Before his death and resurrection, before Peter’s vision of Gentile acceptance, and before Paul’s missionary journeys; Jesus was stating that any one who believes in him as the Messiah – not just the Jewish – would be found righteous at the judgement. It is at this point in the teaching that Jesus issues a severe warning.
When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation. (Matthew 12:43-45)
The placement of this teaching after a rebuke to the Pharisee’s can seem odd on the surface. Why would Jesus begin at this time to teach on spiritual authority and demonology? Although he did just heal a demonized man in the verses prior to this; this is not a lesson on demonology. Being that the teaching holds true, he is comparing the demon possessed man to the nation of Israel or specifically this generation of Israel who was witnessing his ministry. They have become so callous to the heart of God they missed the true sign of the Messiah. Over generations of focusing on the laws of God they have become a people of rules and rituals and lost all relationship. They have given their devotion to the creation and not the creator; they have fell in love with the law and not the God of the law. Their hearts were hard and their eyes could not see the signs in front of them – they were walking with Christ and did not recognize him. As Wiersbe puts it:
The nation had been purged of the demon of idolatry which had plagued them in the Old Testament. But reformation was not enough. Reformation could cleanse, but it could not fill. The nation should have received the Savior and been filled with spiritual life. Instead, the people rejected Him and the end was destruction. It is not enough to clean house; we must also invite in the right tenant. The Pharisees were proud of their “clean houses,” but their hearts were empty! Mere religion, or reformation, will not save. There must be regeneration, the receiving of Christ into the heart.
The Jews came back from captivity purged from their sin of idolatry. The “house” had been swept clean, but it was still empty. They had religion and outward morality, but their hearts were empty and their religion was vain. Consequently, Satan was able to reenter the house with other sins, and the latter end of the nation was worse than the first! In the OT, the Jews worshiped idols, but in the Gospels they killed their own Messiah! The Apostle Peter warns of this when he writes:
If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. (2 Peter 2:20–21)
Peter was there when Jesus spoke these words to the Pharisees. He understood the meaning of the lesson and when his explanation is read in light of Jesus’ teaching it is clear he is making the same point. We are responsible for what we have learned! After being exposed to the teaching’s of Jesus, after witnessing the effects of his ministry we are now responsible for the decision we make whether to believe in him or not. In addition, as Peter expands this teaching to those who have chosen to believe, the point is amplified. We are in far worse condition having known Christ and turned our backs to him, than never knowing him in the first place.
I can’t help but have this teaching reflect on our society and the current knowledge and belief in Christianity. As a country founded on Christianity almost every person in the United States can claim to have a knowledge of Christ, but that knowledge is far off and not embraced. We have become condescending, apathetic and comfortably numb toward Christianity. We do not see it as applicable to our lives and as such we are in a far worse condition. Jesus’ teaching on the evil spirit returning is exactly the position we are in. We are not just complacent in our Christianity we have now turned our back on Christ and seek to disprove him. In our education we have moved from skeptical to non-belief and are teaching unsubstantiated theories as fact in order to disprove Christianity. We place higher credibility in the uncorroborated theories of humanism than in the more evidential signs of the Bible. We conclude that the Bible is full of fables and therefore not relevant or applicable to our advanced society; yet as a highly educated society we ignore the archaeological and historical evidence. We have allowed our ‘wicked and adulterous’ hearts to blind our eyes and capsize our logic to support far less reliable theories. We are far worse off than had we never known him.
Our application of this in our own lives should be clear. Christianity is not about religion we are about relationship. The more we learn of our salvation and of God the more we are to be in love with him. If our knowledge does not result in a deeper love with God we must examine our hearts for adultery. Our salvation is not an order of moral obligations and duties but of a transformed heart and a renewed mind. We are to hold tightly to our relationship with God and not allow it to become a religious act – or we find in time we become a ‘wicked and adulterous generation’.
We are warned by both Christ and Peter to be careful not to fall backward into a wicked and adulterous lifestyle. Now that we have received grace and are enlightened as to salvation; a reversal of our transformation would leave us worse off than before we were saved. The ‘sacred command’ passed on to us was that from Christ to ‘love one another’. Our transformation is not complete when we are saved but rather it is at this point that our transformation begins. Our redemption is complete upon salvation but we are to continue in a transformation of our heart and renewing of our mind. Our transformation is to move away from the old ways we felt, thought and acted and now be moving toward our new feelings, thoughts and actions in Christ. If we fail to keep our transformation active we find ourselves falling out of love with God and falling back into our old ways; risking being labeled ‘wicked and adulterous’.
 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Mt 12:38). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
 Wiersbe, W. W. (1997). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (50). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.