Matthew 12:38-42

THE ONLY SIGN

Matt. 12:38-42

Then the Scribes and Pharisees answered him: “Teacher,” they said, “we wish to see a sign from you.” He answered, “It is an evil and apostate generation which seeks a sign. No sign will be given to it, except the sign of Jonah the prophet. For, as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. At the judgment the men of Nineveh will be witnesses against this generation, and they will condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and, look you, something more than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise in judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon and, look you, something more than Solomon is here!”

“The Jews,” said Paul, “demand signs” (1Cor.1:22). It was characteristic of the Jews that they asked signs and wonders from those who claimed to be the messengers of God. It was as if they said, “Prove your claims by doing something extraordinary.” Edersheim quotes a passage from the Rabbinic stories to illustrate the kind of thing that popular opinion expected from the Messiah: “When a certain Rabbi was asked by his disciples about the time of the Messiah’s coming, he said, `I am afraid you will also ask me for a sign.’ When they promised that they would not do so, he told them that the gate of Rome would fall and be rebuilt, and fall again, when there would not be time to restore it before the Son of David came. On this they pressed him in spite of his remonstrance for a sign. A sign was given them, that the waters which issued from the cave of Banias were turned into blood.

“Again, when the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer was challenged, he appealed to certain signs. First, a locust bean tree moved at his bidding, one hundred, or according to some, four hundred cubits. Next the channels of water were made to flow backwards. The walls of the academy leaned forward, and were only arrested at the bidding of another Rabbi. Lastly Eliezer exclaimed: `If the Law is as I teach, let it be proved from heaven.’ A voice came from the sky saying, `What have you to do with Rabbi Eliezer, for the instruction is as he teaches?'”

That is the kind of sign that the Jews desired. They did so because they were guilty of one fundamental mistake. They desired to see God in the abnormal; they forgot that we are never nearer God, and God never shows himself to us so much and so continually as in the ordinary things of every day.

Jesus calls them an evil and adulterous generation. The word adulterous is not to be taken literally; it means apostate. Behind it there is a favourite Old Testament prophetic picture. The relationship between Israel and God was conceived of as a marriage bond with God the husband and Israel the bride. When therefore Israel was unfaithful and gave her love to other gods, the nation was said to be adulterous and to go a-whoring after strange gods. Jer.3:6-11 is a typical passage. There the nation is said to have gone up into every high mountain, and under every green tree, and to have played the harlot. Even when Israel had been put away for infidelity by God, Judah did not take the warning and still played the harlot. Her whoredoms defiled the land, and she committed adultery with stone and tree. The word describes something worse than physical adultery; it describes that infidelity to God from which all sin, physical and spiritual, springs.

Jesus says that the only sign which will be given to this nation is the sign of Jonah the prophet. Here we have a problem. Matthew says that the sign is that, as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, the Son of man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. It is to be noted that these are not the words of Jesus, but the explanation of Matthew. When Luke reports this incident (Lk.11:29-32) he makes no mention at all of Jonah being in the belly of the whale. He simply says that Jesus said, “For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation” (Lk.11:30).

The fact is that Matthew understood wrongly the point of what Jesus said; and in so doing he made a strange mistake for Jesus was not in the heart of the earth for three nights, but only for two. He was laid in the earth on the night of the first Good Friday and rose on the morning of the first Easter Sunday. The point is that to the Ninevites Jonah himself was God’s sign, and Jonah’s words were God’s message.

Jesus is saying, “You are asking for a sign–I am God’s sign. You have failed to recognize me. The Ninevites recognized God’s warning in Jonah; the Queen of Sheba recognized God’s wisdom in Solomon. In me there has come to you a greater wisdom than Solomon ever had, and a greater message than Jonah ever brought–but you are so blind that you cannot see the truth and so deaf that you cannot hear the warning. And for that very reason the day will come when these people of old time who recognized God when they saw him will be witnesses against you, who had so much better a chance, and failed to recognize God because you refused to do so.”

Here is a tremendous truth–Jesus is Gods sign, just as Jonah was God’s message to the Ninevites and Solomon God’s wisdom to the Queen of Sheba. The one real question in life is: “What is our reaction when we are confronted with God in Jesus Christ?” Is that reaction bleak hostility, as it was in the case of the Scribes and Pharisees? Or, is it humble acceptance of God’s warning and God’s truth as it was in the case of the people of Nineveh, and of the Queen of Sheba? The all-important question is: “What do you think of the Christ?”

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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