Matthew 12:38-45 New International Version (NIV)
The Sign of Jonah
38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 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. 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 something greater than Jonah is here. 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 something greater than Solomon is here.
43 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, 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 person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”
As we continue our long series through the book of Matthew, it is passages like this one that become the reason why it is so important for us as a church to go through books verse by verse chapter by chapter. Many people approach this passage (especially verse 43 to 45) as a guide on demonology, or to find out what happens to a person when they are exorcised. The problem with this approach is that it ignores the context of where this passage is found and ignores what Jesus is saying. What Jesus is addressing here is so much more profound!
So, what is this passage about tonight? It is about the state of the Pharisees, the nature of unbelief and the consequences of our desire to fix ourselves, and it is about what does actually fix the human problem and condition.
So let's dive in and see firstly:
1. A sign won't save you
The Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign. Now, the question that you might be asking is why is asking for a sign such a bad thing? Well, it was not that they were honestly seeking God and asking honest, questions of God, it was that they were demanding of God that He show them exactly what they wanted to see. They wanted a sign on their terms.
Remember this passage sits in the context of the Pharisees declaring that Jesus casts out demons and heals by the power of Baalzebub (or Satan). and Just before this encounter, we read of how Jesus had performed many miracles (Chapter 11). It was not the issue of a sign that was the error of the Pharisees it was the thought that if God would simply prove Himself (if Jesus would simply prove Himself) then I would believe. This is simply just not the case.
Many people claim that their unbelief or doubt of God is because they have look at the "evidence" and "seen" that it just doesn't add up. You will hear this is statements such "I want to believe in God, but I just can't accept that God would allow this terrible thing to happen" or "how can a good God allow something like this to happen to me?" or even, “if God would just prove Himself to me I would believe in Him.”
The reality is that God has given more than enough for us to know Him (Rom 1), we all chose to interpret the information to justify our desired outcome (we essentially come to the evidence biased on the outcome we want); we don't want God to be true, we don't want Jesus to be who He says he is because it would wreck our plans, our desires, our wants for our lives. So, we reinterpret the information, ignore the signs, and effectively ignore Him.
All this leads us to how we then try to fix our lives which we see in the passage from verse 43 to 45
2. A clean house will not save you
When Jesus talks here about an unclean spirit going out of a man, He is not talking primarily of a demon possessed man, rather, He is talking about the Pharisees themselves. We see the clearest evidence of this by Jesus' conclusion in verse 45 where Jesus says;"...That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”
So, if Jesus is not talking about Demon possession, what is He talking about? Many commentators make the observation that what Jesus is talking about is essentially a parable of people who try to fix their life by morality by "cleaning their house". Essentially, it is a description of people who try to fix their life through their own effort. In other words; it is people who believe that they can please God by keeping themselves from sin.
People can cast off temporarily the problems in their lives, they "send the demons out". This can work for a season, we can build a type of moral life, by pure effort. The Bible never denies this reality; in fact it makes great light of this; however, what Jesus is addressing here, and what the entire Bible is a declaration against; is that this type of morality and life works. Jesus says that they end up worse than when they started. Church this is the destination of all who try to build their life on their own effort and morality.
The reason the Pharisees hated Jesus is the same reason people who build their lives on their own morality today hate the gospel; it exposes the fact that their morality is a lie. The constant lie we tell ourselves church (and everyone does it) is that I'm a good person. But we know that our goodness is temporary at best and a complete farce at worse.
In fact, this is why I find the Bible so comforting; is that it exposes brutally that we are all failures, we all don't measure up! Surely that is the greatest fear in this room tonight; deep down we are terrified that we will be found out; that people would see behind the mask and we would be exposed. Why is that such a common human experience? Well, the Bible states that we feel that because we don't measure up and we know it!
The crisis of humanity, of your life, is that you cannot fix yourself! You cannot save yourself, and deep down you know it! Which leads me to the hope of this passage:
3. Being saved by the sign of Jonah
Tucked away in this passage is the beautiful hope of the gospel. Jesus says harshly to the Pharisees that an evil generation demands signs but then says the only sign that will be given is the sign of Jonah.
What does he mean here? Well, Jesus, in saying this, was taking the Pharisees to the Old Testament Prophet Jonah who was swallowed by a large fish and then after being spat out went to Nineveh and preached repentance to the city and the city turn to God to save them.
Jesus is doing two things here; firstly, he is drawing our attention to the fact that it was not morality that saved the Ninevites, it was their repentance and hope in God's mercy that saved them. And, secondly, he was predicting His own death and resurrection.
The two things are intertwined and connected because the only sign we need from God is Jesus' death and resurrection, and Jesus death and resurrection and our faith in that is the very means of our salvation and attaining mercy from God: this is how our lives are “fixed”.
Church, your life will not heal and get better by your trying to fix it. Your life will not make sense making it all about you! The more we try and fix our mess the greater the mess becomes. How many of you have really struggled with a sin and yet the more you obsessed about that sin, the more you tried to overcome the deeper it became. So, we cry out to God to fix us; but what we are really trying to do is God give me the trick to get around this thing that is getting in the way of my plans and is making my life miserable. We haven't given a second thought to how God hates our sins; and how much it hurts him. We want to use him to give us the trick to overcome this obstacle so we can continue with our life.
We try and clean our house, but the problem is us! Alexandra Solzhenitsyn in his book the Gulag Archipelago states it so clearly when he says that so many of us want to cut out evil of this world and be on the side of good without realising that good and evil run through the centre of the human heart, and who is willing to cut out their own heart.
Many of us come to God saying fix this issue as if we are the victim of sin; not many of us are willing to say; you know what is wrong with the world; you know what my real problem is; it is me! And so rather than looking at the great sign of our healing; the cross, rather than believing God, we cover up; we try and fix ourselves and continue to blame God saying; "if only God would..."
God did deal with your sins once and for all on the cross! The cleansing happens not because anything you can do, but by accepting what Christ did do! It is as we see the depts of the love of God in the cross of Christ that we are made new, and it is as we accept that there is nothing we can possibly do for God that we then pursue God for His sake, and it is there through the in-working of the Holy Spirit in us that God Himself doesn't just make our lives right, He makes us new!
God doesn't want to make your dreams of your life come true; God wants to make you new so that you can come home to Him where you will discover that you were made for Him and your dreams and hopes and needs are actually Him. So, stop trying to fix your life, accept that what you have built in your life by your own strength is a mess; but God in His endless love sent Christ to take your mess upon Himself; so that you could get His perfection; the healing and goodness that you have always longed for!
Christ bore your consequences so that you could receive His reward! That is the gospel and we are called to believe! The beauty and hope of the Gospel is that it is not something we do, it is something that is done! So, I can say with eternal confidence tonight that Because of Christ; God loves me! Because of the cross I am forgiven! Because of Christ I am loved and accepted! And because of that love I want to pursue Him with every ounce of energy I have! I pray that you would experience that powerful good news tonight and for the rest of your life, in everything that you go through that the love of God in Christ Jesus is your definition!