The Sign of Jonah

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Matthew 12:38-45 (Asking for a miraculous sign)

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called Mission and Conflict, and we have been seeing how these two themes play out together in Matthew 10-12. When you go forth on mission for God, you can expect to experience conflict. Jesus certainly did, and we have especially seen this in his growing conflict with the Pharisees and the religious leaders of his day. Last week we saw this conflict as they actually accused Jesus of being empowered by Satan rather than the Spirit. This week we see the conflict as they ask Jesus for a miraculous sin.

We have said there are blessing and warning passages in Scripture. Well, today we come to another warning passage. You might wonder why the Bible isn’t all blessing passages. Why do we need the warning passages anyway? The warning passages are there to make sure you don’t miss the blessing!

It’s like a warning sign on the road saying, “Dangerous Curve Ahead.” The purpose of the sign isn’t to be negative. It’s to make sure you get safely to the other side. And it’s the same with the warning passages in Scripture. God just want to make sure you get safely to the other side. (Read Matthew 12:38-40 and pray.)

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Have you ever asked God for a sign? If you have, you’re not alone. Plenty of people have asked God for a sign over the years. Sometimes God accommodates them. Sometimes not. But one of the things we learn from today’s Scripture is that it’s probably not the best thing to be asking God for a sign. In today’s passage the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign, and they get a warning passage in return.

Last week we looked at the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. This week we are looking at the sign of Jonah. Jesus says no sign is needed except for the sign of Jonah. So, what is this sign, and why are no other signs needed, and what is wrong with asking for other signs anyway?

We will be looking at three truths as we work our way through this next section of Matthew 12 which will help us to answer these questions and more along the way. 1) No sign is needed but the resurrection of Jesus. 2) You need to repent and listen to Jesus. 3) You need to respond to the gospel. So, let’s get started.

I. No sign is needed but the resurrection of Jesus (38-40)

The first truth we learn is that no sign is needed but the resurrection of Jesus.

   A. A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign

This whole section begins when the Pharisees and teachers of the law ask Jesus for a miraculous sign. Look at verses 38-39:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” 39 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 12:38-39)

Now the timing of the Pharisees’ question is suspect here. Jesus just cast a demon out of a man who was blind and mute, so the man could see and speak again, and they ask Jesus for a miraculous sign? Once again, what more do you want?

Jesus says, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign.” The word wicked means evil or morally corrupt. The word adulterous here is used symbolically of spiritual adultery or unfaithfulness to God. The Pharisees ask Jesus for a miraculous sign, and Jesus calls them wicked and adulterous. Jesus says, “No sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

So, what was wrong with the Pharisees asking Jesus for a sign? Well, a couple of things come to mind here.

      1) Signs are given by God, not asked for by us (Hebrews 2:3-4)

First of all, signs are given by God, not asked for by us. Notice Jesus says, “No sign will be given except the sign of Jonah.” There’s nothing wrong with signs when God gives them. In fact, God gave a lot of signs in conjunction with Christ’s birth, Christ’s life, Christ’s ministry, Christ’s death and resurrection. And then God gave further signs as the gospel went forth. We read in Hebrews 2:3-4: “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (Hebrews 2:3-4)

So, there’s nothing wrong with signs when God gives them. But we’re not supposed to go around asking for them. Signs from God are not like cable on demand. You don’t get to dial up God and put him on notice for a sign. As one person put it: “It is not a good sign when people seek signs.” (Fredrick Dale Bruner, Matthew) Signs are given by God, not asked for by us.

      2) You won’t believe a sign if you don’t believe God’s word (Luke 16:27-31)

And then a second problem with the Pharisees’ request is this. You won’t believe a sign if you don’t believe God’s word. Jesus came from God and taught the people God’s word. The problem with the Pharisees is they didn’t believe. They didn’t believe Jesus, and they didn’t believe his teaching. Their request for a sign was not motivated by faith but by unbelief. They already showed their cards earlier when they accused Jesus of being empowered by Satan rather than the Spirit. A sign is meant to strengthen faith, not to replace faith. And if you don’t believe God’s word, you’re not going to believe a sign anyway.

A good example of this is found in the gospel of Luke in Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is in hell or Hades, and Lazarus is in paradise at Abraham’s side. The rich man has five brothers who are still living, and so he begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house to warn his brothers, so they won’t also come to this place of torment. Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, father Abraham,” the rich man replies, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” And Abraham said to him: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31)

God’s word is sufficient. God’s word is enough. If you don’t believe God’s word, then even if someone rises from the dead, you’re not going to believe. That’s the second problem with the Pharisees’ request. You won’t believe a sign if you don’t believe God’s word.

   B. Jesus’ resurrection is the only sign you need

And speaking of resurrection, someone rising from the dead, that’s exactly what Jesus speaks of next. There is one sign above all other signs that God has given to confirm that Jesus is his Son and we should listen to him, and that is the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is the only sign you need. Look at Matthew 12:40:

“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)

Jesus told the Pharisees in verse 39 that no sign would be given this generation except the sign of Jonah. Now he tells us what the sign of Jonah is. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

      1) Jonah is a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Jonah 1:17)

In other words, Jonah is what we call a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection. A type is a person, thing or event in the Old Testament that prefigures or foreshadows a person, thing or event in the New Testament. We read in Jonah 1:17: “The LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17) Now Jesus tells us that this was a type of his own death and resurrection.

Jesus was crucified on a Friday and rose early Sunday morning, so some people get thrown off by this phrase “three days and three nights.” They say, “Jesus wasn’t in the grave for three whole days and three nights. There must be something wrong with the Bible!” Well, there’s nothing wrong with the Bible. “Three days and three nights” was a common Jewish expression for any part of three days. Even in the book of Jonah it doesn’t necessarily mean Jonah was in the fish three full days and three full nights but rather three parts of three days.

We do a similar thing today. For example, our church has a men’s retreat coming up next week. It’s a two-day retreat, Friday and Saturday, April 5-6. Now we’re not going to be there for two full days. We arrive Friday night and leave Saturday afternoon. We won’t even be there for a full 24 hours. But no one is going to accuse us of false advertising. Because the retreat overlaps two different calendar days, it’s fine to call it a two-day retreat.

It’s the same way with Jesus’ three days in the grave. The rabbis said, “The part of a day is as the whole day.” (Strack and Billerback, I, p. 649) Elsewhere in the same gospel Matthew speaks of Jesus as rising “on the third day” (Matthew 16:21) and rising “after three days” (Matthew 27:63), and there’s no indication that Matthew sees any contradiction between these different expressions. (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, pp. 325-326)

And so, Jesus says that Jonah is a type of his own death and resurrection. By the way, this is one of many indications in Scripture that Jesus knew in advance about his own death, burial and resurrection. Now of course the Pharisees did not know in advance, and so they would not understand this sign until after Jesus died and rose from the dead. It was a riddle or puzzle for them for right now. But no sign would be given them except the sign of Jonah. Jesus would die and rise again on the third day.

      2) The gospel is the power of salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16)

No sign was needed for the Pharisees except the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And it’s the same way for us today. The apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16)

The gospel is the power of God for salvation. The gospel is sufficient. The gospel is enough. What is the gospel? It is the good news that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection is the only sign you need to be saved. That’s the first truth we learn from our passage this morning. No sign is needed but the resurrection of Jesus.

II. You need to repent and listen to Jesus (41-42)

The second truth we learn from the passage is that you need to repent and listen to Jesus.

   A. Two illustrations: Jonah and Solomon

Jesus warns the Pharisees of their need to repent and listen to him. And he does so by giving them two illustrations from the Old Testament: the illustrations of Jonah and Solomon.

      1) The people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching (Jonah 3:5-10)

Let’s look at the illustration of Jonah first. Jesus has just spoken about the sign of Jonah, and now he draws another lesson from Jonah’s life. The people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching. Look at Matthew 12:41:

“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.” (Matthew 12:41)

We read about this incident in Jonah 3. The Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. Jonah obeyed God and went to Nineveh to proclaim the word of the Lord. As an old song puts it: “From the boat to the belly from the burp to the beach, Jonah’s on his way to preach, preach, preach!” (Mark Heard, Appalachian Melody, “Jonah’s Song”)

So Jonah goes to Nineveh. He proclaims God’s word. The people believe and repent. This is a powerful illustration, because the people of Nineveh were not even a part of God’s people. They were a pagan city, and yet they repented at Jonah’s preaching.

      2) The Queen of Sheba listened to Solomon’s wisdom (1 Kings 10:1-13)

And then Jesus gives them an illustration from King Solomon’s life. Look at verse 42:

“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 12:42)

We read about this incident in 1 Kings 10: “When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions.” (1 Kings 10:1); The Queen of Sheba came a great distance specifically to ask Solomon questions and to learn from his wisdom.

   B. Jesus is greater than either Jonah or Solomon (cf. Matthew 12:6)

The people of Nineveh were a pagan people, and yet they repented at Jonah’s preaching. The Queen of Sheba was a pagan ruler, and yet she listened to Solomon’s wisdom. Jesus warns the Pharisees that the people of Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba will both condemn them at the day of judgment. Why? Because Jesus is greater than either Jonah or Solomon.

Jesus is greater than Jonah the prophet. Jesus is greater than Solomon the king. And back in Matthew 12:6 we learned that Jesus is also greater than the temple. Jesus is prophet, priest and king. He is the anointed one, the Messiah, who came from God.

Jesus is greater than either Jonah or Solomon. If the people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching, how much more should you repent at Jesus’ preaching! And if the Queen of Sheba listened to Solomon’s wisdom, how much more should you listen to Jesus’ wisdom!

The Queen of Sheba traveled a great distance to visit Solomon, but Jesus came a great distance for you. He came all the way from heaven to earth. We could never get to heaven on our own, so Jesus came to earth for us. He didn’t meet us halfway, because we can’t even get halfway there on our own. That’s the second truth we learn from this passage. You need to repent and listen to Jesus.

III. You need to respond to the gospel (43-45)

And then, finally, you need to respond to the gospel.

   A. Illustration: an evil spirit who returns and finds you empty

And Jesus teaches us this by way of another illustration, a rather disturbing illustration this time, the illustration of an evil spirit who returns and finds you empty. Look at Matthew 12:43-45:

“When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 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. 45 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)

And so, this evil spirit comes out of the man, looks all around for a place of rest, and not finding it, comes back to the man it left. It finds the man empty, swept clean and put in order. In other words, the man has begun to put his life back together. There are external changes because the demon is gone, but external change is not enough. As Jesus said in another place, you need to be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven.

And so, what does the evil spirit do? It comes back with reinforcements! Jesus is warning his hearers that if they do not respond to his teaching, their spiritual condition will go from bad to worse.

   B. It’s not enough to be empty; you need to be filled (Ephesians 5:18)

You see, it’s not enough to be empty. You need to be filled. What good does it do you to get your life together, if you don’t give your life to Christ?

It’s not enough to be empty of evil or wickedness. You need to be filled with Christ’s righteousness. Ephesians 5:18 tells you: “Be filled with the Spirit.” (Ephesians 5:18) Well, you can only be filled with the Spirit when you come to Christ for salvation.

It’s not enough to hear the gospel. You need to respond to the gospel. It’s not enough to be empty. You need to be filled.

   C. Those who hear the gospel and reject Christ are worse off than they were before (Hebrews 10:26-31)

And this illustration of the evil spirit teaches us one more very challenging but vital truth to understand. Those who hear the gospel and reject Christ are worse off than they were before. We read in Hebrews 10:26-31:

“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:26-31)

You need to respond to the gospel. It’s not enough to be empty; you need to be filled. Just like the man with the evil spirit, those who hear the gospel and reject Christ are worse off than they were before. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

CONCLUSION: As we said earlier today, there are both warning passages in Scripture and there are blessing passages. This is most definitely a warning passage. But what is the purpose of the warning passages? So you don’t miss the blessing!

If you have never responded to the gospel, what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for a sign? God already gave you the best sign he could ever give. Two thousand years ago Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and he rose again on the third day, triumphant over sin and death and the grave. He offers you new life through the Spirit, forgiveness of sins in the present, and eternal life with him when you die.

It’s not enough to be empty. You need to be filled. It’s not enough to hear the gospel. You need to respond to the gospel. No sign except the resurrection of Christ is needed for faith. Will you believe in Jesus Christ today?

© Ray Fowler

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