Read the passage here.
Looking at the beginning of our passage, right away, we see that the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees that we saw in the previous passage continues. Here, Matthew makes a point that it’s not just the Pharisees, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, the Scribes. So it seems that it’s not that Matthew has a bee in his bonnet about the Pharisees, but against all of those in the so-called religious establishment who claim to have authority. And what we’ve seen is that it’s Jesus who has the true authority.
At any rate, here the Pharisees, in apparent response to Jesus’ accusations in the previous verses, demand a sign from Jesus – apparently in order to validate the things that he has been saying.
Jesus responds, as he does elsewhere (he uses the same phrase in Matthew 16), that “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”
Now firstly, it’s worth remembering that Matthew has given plenty of examples of Jesus’ miraculous signs. Jesus has healed the sick, made the lame walk, the blind see, and cast out demons. In his encounter with John the Baptist’s disciples, just a chapter earlier, Jesus points out how these signs point to his fulfillment of scripture, the fulfillment of the Messianic expectations. But, somehow, these aren’t good enough for the Pharisees.
Secondly – and we’re not going to parse what Jesus means by “none” will be given. We know he continues to do miracles throughout his ministry. In short, it likely means something like “none will be given to your satisfaction.” This makes sense in that Jesus’ goal is not to satisfy the expectations of those who are seeking their own kingdom and not God’s.
So secondly, Jesus says that no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah. Now the question of, “what is the sign of Jonah?” is a little bit more complicated than it might seem at first. Some of this difficulty surrounds the meaning of the preposition, “of.” Is the sign a sign that was given to Jonah? Is Jonah himself the sign? Or is it a sign that Jonah gives or uses? Further, to whom is the sign given? If it’s the Ninevites, there’s no indication that the Ninevites knew about Jonah’s three days in the belly of a whale. Is it possible that it’s the entire tale of Jonah that is the sign? And that it is a sign to this wicked and adulterous nation?
So, in short, there are some questions around this phrase and how Jesus uses it. I wish I had a more definitive answer for you, but I simply don’t.
However, what I would say is that Jesus’ focus seems to be not on the sign, but on the response to the sign. The Pharisees and scribes have just asked Jesus for a sign, even though we, as the readers at least, know that Jesus’ entire ministry has been filled with signs. The question is how this wicked and adulterous generation, typified by the Pharisees and religious leaders, will respond.
It is to illustrate this, it seems to me, that Jesus points out that the Ninevites responded to Jonah’s ministry by repenting and turning to God. Nineveh, as I’m sure you know, was one of the greatest cities of the ancient world (that is, during the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah). In the Israelite imagination and understanding, it was well known for its wickedness. And it’s for this reason that God sent Jonah there to prophecy.
Yet the story of the book of Jonah tells us that even Nineveh, with all of its wickedness, heard the voice of God spoken through Jonah and repented. The book of Jonah reports:
3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.Jonah 3:3-5
The second illustration that Jesus gives is that of the Queen of the South. This is a reference to the Queen of Sheba, the story of which is recounted in 1 Kings 10. Sheba most likely refers to a region in South-West Arabia (i.e. Northern AFrica) – it’s not really important except to note that for the Queen of Sheba, indeed for all other nations in the ancient world, YHWH would have been a foreign god. The Queen hears of King Solomon’s reputation for wisdom and leadership and comes to Israel to see for herself. She is so impressed with Solomon’s kingdom that she honours Solomon and also YHWH, God of Israel:
6 She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. 7 But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. 8 How happy your people must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! 9 Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.”1 Kings 10:6-9
So, by these examples, Jesus contrasts the response of the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba, who – when the revelation of God came to them – turned to YHWH with the response of the religious leaders who, no matter what they see or hear or witness of God in their midst, find only reason to doubt, to question, and to test the Messiah.
In short, this encounter once again highlights how the religious leaders refuse to respond to the message of Jesus. Therefore, Jesus goes on to give a short illustration regarding demons who have been cast out of their host.
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.”Matthew 12:43-45
Usually, when I’ve heard this passage discussed in the past, the interpretation amounts to something along the lines of, “You can’t just empty the vessel of the negative, you have to fill it with something positive instead.” This usually leads to an exhortation to discipleship: i.e. if you don’t focus on prayer, bible study, and etc. – if you don’t fill your heart with Jesus – Satan will come and take over your life again.
This is a perfectly fine explanation of the saying, and I’m sure Jesus would have agreed with that application. However, it begs the question of, “what is this doing here?” Why would Jesus be talking about discipleship or spiritual practices here?
Now this is my opinion – an interpretation of what these verses are doing here. But I’m inclined to think, in light of the immediate context, that Jesus is still responding to the Pharisees’ demand for a sign. Jesus is still criticizing the religious leaders’ inability or refusal to respond to the message of the Messiah.
Remember the incident that we discussed last week, that occurred immediately before this passage (Matthew 12:22-24). I think these verses can be seen in the light of Jesus’ healing of a demon-possessed man (the blind and mute man), and the Pharisees response that Jesus must be casting out demons by Beelzebub. In other words, the religious leaders rejected the possibility that the kingdom of God was moving, and indeed was even in their midst. They were, as far as they believed, following all the rules, keeping order amongst the people of Israel – they were keeping the house clean – but in doing so, they made no room for the Kingdom of God, they made no room for the Son of God.
It would make sense that the religious leaders, and people in general, were suspicious of supposed Messiahs. They’ve seen plenty in their history and have been disappointed every time. But now the true Messiah is in their midst. And they can continue to be skeptical, continue to doubt, but if they do so, what they will wind up with is an empty house. Because they refused to allow the kingdom of God into their midst, they will be ripe for the picking when something else comes along.
So, when we get the final few verses of this passage, regarding Jesus’ mother and brothers, we can tie all of this together.
46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”Matthew 12:46-50
The meaning of these verses isn’t obscure. But again, I don’t think this is a random incident, tacked on to the end of this narrative section. It’s an innocuous statement by a bystander, “Your mothers and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But Jesus uses the moment, in my opinion, to underline his point. The Pharisees pride themselves on being the “true people of God.” Paul’s words in Philippians, demonstrate the kind of perspective the Pharisees would have probably taken:
4 If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.Philippians 3:4b-6
What Paul says ironically here, the Pharisees would have said in all seriousness. They think they are persecuting Jesus, testing Jesus, rejecting Jesus on behalf of God, on behalf of the kingdom. But (I think) Jesus is effectively saying that it’s not by blood, ancestry, or inheritance that one belongs to the kingdom. “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” (Rom. 9:6). Rather, whoever does the will of the Father, who hears the words of Christ, whoever responds to the call of the kingdom belongs to the kingdom.
Our passage today wraps up the narrative portion of the third major section in Matthew. Immediately after, we get the discourse in which Jesus shares several parables regarding the Kingdom of God. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but the parables seem to be talking about a proper response to the Kingdom of God.
Now this seems to make sense in light of what we have just seen – a group of people who were not able to respond to the kingdom of God – because they had different ideas in their heads about what the kingdom is supposed to look like.
I feel like I’ve been, in some sense, saying the same thing repeatedly for the past several weeks, so I don’t want to beat a dead horse. And I’ve been talking a lot (and not just in the past few weeks) about how what we believe about Christianity and how we actually act and live can be informed by an awful lot other than Jesus. Hopefully all of this should make us think about what we expect – what we think the kingdom of God is supposed to look like. And we should really think about where these ideas come from.
But we’re not going to re-hash old territory today. What I want to say is that Matthew’s concern in his gospel is to demonstrate that Jesus is actually the Messiah. And this, perhaps contrary to what a lot of people may have thought, based on some of the things that we’ve mentioned.
But at the end of the day, it’s about Jesus. Christians of all sorts and stripes believe a lot of different things about a lot of different things. In a lot of things, we agree; and in many things, we disagree. But what Matthew is showing us is that there is no kingdom apart from Jesus. There is no salvation apart from Jesus. If we want to know how to enter the Kingdom of God, listen to Jesus. If we want to know what the Kingdom looks like, listen to Jesus. If we want to know how to treat others, look at Jesus. And if we want to know how we are called to proclaim the kingdom of God, how to demonstrate the truth of the gospel, how to share the love of God, then we have to keep our eyes fixed upon Jesus. For there’s no other name in heaven or on earth by which we are saved.