Seeking Signs And Cleaning Up Our Acts

A couple days ago, I posted a question on Facebook because I am thinking about how Biblical it might be to have communion online. It’s not a question I’ve considered before because I’ve never had the need. Some people sincerely offered their opinions. Only one person actually went to Scripture to parse out the Biblical meaning of communion and discern that application. Some people were just being trolls, trying to start arguments in different directions. Many people had an opinion about the outward practice. After some time elapsed, I followed my initial question with another, “What does communion mean?” Far less people cared to offer an answer. By nature, we tend to care more about outward action than the actual meaning of things. I’m not condemning anyone. Being stupified does not make a person stupid. Ignorance does not equal foolishness. If we remain willfully ignorant, we prove to be a foolish people.

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been exposing this type of outward focus as false religion. In tonight’s text, He gets at it again. I want to invite all my friends into this conversation. What does Jesus teach about outward signs and performance?

Matthew 12:38-45

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.”

But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.”

The pharisaic request (v. 38)

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.”

Prior to this pharisaic question in the story, Jesus healed a mute and blind man (v. 23). The Pharisees, then, accused Jesus of casting out demons by Satan’s power (v. 24). Jesus answered them appropriately. After Jesus successfully answered their accusation against Him, they now ask Him for a sign, the type of sign that would accompany the Messiah—healing and exorcism, as we saw last week. These Pharisees have already seen Jesus heal and exorcise at least one demon. Still, they ask Him for a sign. Jesus has already shown the Messianic signs of healing described in Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 53), but this is the first time anyone has asked Jesus to produce the Messianic signs according to Matthew’s narrative.

Jesus’s teaching about signs and wonders (v. 39-42)

But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign…”

Jesus does not mince words. He doesn’t worry about stepping on people’s toes to tell them what He thinks. Why might Jesus tell these particular Pharisees that an evil and idolatrous generation craves for a sign? Isn’t it good that people want to know for sure He is the Messiah?

Keep in mind, Jesus’s signs were already apparent and widely talked about. Jesus will get at this in the following verses. For now, I want to notice Jesus’s language referring to this group of Pharisees and scribes. He tells them and evil and adulterous generation craves a sign. This language, evil and adulterous generation, resembles Jesus’s insultery in verse 34, where He called the Pharisees son’s of snakes. Since they were in the lineage of wickedness, they could only speak and do what was evil. Jesus reveals the same nature within the Pharisees and scribes, here. They are an evil and adulterous generation. Adulterous meant they craved the signs, not the Messiah about whom the signs testified. As has been His pattern, Jesus once again appeals to the Old Testament, beginning with the story of Jonah.

“…and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”

Jesus alludes to Jonah’s prophecy (Jonah 1-4). In Jonah 1:17, Jonah was in a fish, which was appointed by God, for three days because he ran a direction opposite God’s instruction. Jonah was to go to Nineveh and call the Canaanites there to repentance. Since Nineveh was so vile, Jonah went his own way instead of God’s. Notice, Jesus doesn’t refer to Jonah’s departure from the fish as the sign. Nineveh’s repentance is the sign. After Jonah was released from the fish, he went and called Nineveh to repentance and God saved that generation in Nineveh to eternal life. Jesus claims that something greater than Jonah is here. There is a greater repentance and a greater turning to the Lord than there was in Nineveh, when a wicked, gentile people experienced revival.

Jesus points them back, again, to Scripture. The Scripture’s are being fulfilled in Christ’s incarnation. Because the Ninevites repented, they will judge the generation of Pharisees and scribes Jesus is addressing in this part of the story. Jesus’s indictment against the Pharisees and scribes, here, reflects what we read in chapter 11, verses 20-24.

The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.”

In 1 Kings 10, we read the story about the Queen of Sheba’s visit with Solomon. She came to him skeptical of his godly wisdom. As she talked with him, she changed her mind and blessed God as a result. She, a gentile, know-it-all queen, repented. Her repentance was also a sign in Scripture. Like in His illustration using Jonah, Jesus claims there will be a greater repentance. She, like the Ninevites, will stand in judgment over the wicked generation of Pharisees and scribes before Jesus in Matthew’s narrative.

Here, we recognize another difference between the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of the world. The world seeks a sign or wonder—people must prove themselves. This tendency is driven by the works-based nature of the wicked heart. In contrast, like the Jews we read about in verse 23, those who are being saved consider God’s word and are led by it. The wicked seek signs and wonders. Those who are being saved seek after God through His word. The wicked seek validation. Those who are being saved seek repentance.

Other than seeking miracles or prosperity, people in our own day have a tendency to seek what they must do or how they must perform to validate their self-righteousness. That is also a form of sign-seeking. God’s true children seek not what they must do to be accepted or prosper; they seek to know God through His word with repentant hearts.

Returning spirits (v. 43-45)

“Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it.”

Jesus continues in the same teaching sequence, only He seems to change the subject to demon possession and exorcism. If we read this out of context, we might be tempted to treat it in isolation from the surrounding story. Recall, Jesus has just expelled a demon (v. 24). These particular Pharisees and scribes are now trying to instigate Jesus to do more signs like the recent exorcism. Jesus has refused their request and takes the opportunity to teach a significant truth. First about demons—they prefer to inhabit someone or something. We saw this truth in chapter 8, verses 28-34. This is how demons blaspheme the Holy Spirit.

Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”

Whereas the Pharisees and scribes were focussed on the sign, the exorcism, Jesus turns the focus to a man’s condition. When we seek signs or when we seek merely to overcome some circumstance, sickness, or oppression, we only seek what is outward rather than what is inward. People always clean up their act and think their conditions are changed as a result. No, our conditions cannot be changed because we overcome some addiction or other hurdle. The demon returns with friends and we degenerate instead of being revived because we have sought a sign rather than to know God through His word. In this case, Jesus is referring to literal demons, but His teaching applies to metaphorical demons as well.

“That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.”

In contrast to the blind, deaf man He healed, Jesus reveals that because of their focus on what is outward and on human works or performance, they will degenerate. They are sons of snakes, an evil generation, and in the lineage of wickedness. 

To think merely about exorcism, miracles, or performance at all is dangerous. Jesus, here, reveals a man’s state if he is only healed physically, if a demon is merely cast out, or if he merely cleans up his act. There must be something that occupies the space. That something is the Holy Spirit (cf. v. 31-37). The same is true if we are merely concerned about giving up addictions or trying to better ourselves. That is dangerous because our eyes are fixed upon ourselves rather than on Christ—our work rather than His.

Kingdom of HeavenKingdom of This World
Kingdom of priestsKingdom of consumers
Kingdom of prestige even for the leastKingdom of comparison and contrast
Kingdom of judgment even for the greatest
Exists throughout time—even before Christ’s incarnation
A people not a physical locationDefined by visible structures and conquests
Kingdom of suffering in the midst of this worldKingdom of force
Able to hear and understand Christ’s teachingUnable to hear and understand Christ’s teaching
Kingdom of wisdomKingdom of faultfinding
Kingdom of repentanceKingdom of pride
Chosen and built by God’s will aloneRejected by God’s will alone
Kingdom of restKingdom of merit
Kingdom of libertyKingdom of restriction
Kingdom of willing purityKingdom of unwilling rule-keeping
Kingdom of healingKingdom of using people
Kingdom whereby all human life is absolutely sacredKingdom whereby rules, programs, and organizations are elevated above  human worth
Kingdom of sincerity in learningKingdom of dogma
Kingdom of satisfaction and enjoymentKingdom of bondage and decay
A people forgiven of every imaginable sinA people not forgiven because they are not regenerate
A people seeking to know God through His wordA people seeking signs, wonders, and outward performance

Questions:

  1. What is so wrong with seeking signs and wonders?
  2. What is so wrong with asking others to perform well as a means of acceptance?
  3. Why is it so dangerous to merely clean up our acts?

Andrew Paul Cannon

Andrew has been in vocational ministry since 2011 after volunteering from his teens. He has served in the lead pastorate since he was 25. He holds both a Bachelor of Arts in Applied Ministry with an emphasis on Youth Ministry and a Master’s of Divinity in Christian Ministry with an emphasis on Apologetics. Andrew is currently in pursuit of his Doctorate of Philosophy, where he will specialize in Systematic Theology. Andrew has written several books, has served in both large and small churches, and started his own non-profit missions organization. Andrew’s wife, Kati, and family serve alongside him.

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