Jesus’ Greatness Rules Out Neutrality
Topic: Repentance Passage: Matthew 12:38–50
Some of you know the name Bob Dylan. Dylan has been a prolific songwriter over the last sixty years. It’s hard to say where he stands today with Christianity. But in the late 70s, he converted to Christianity from being a Jewish atheist. He released an album called Slow Train Coming. Many of his fans who once claimed him as their prophet suddenly hated him.
Perhaps because he confronted people with stark reality in words like this: “You may be an ambassador to England or France / You may like to gamble, you might like to dance / You may be the heavyweight champion of the world / You might be a socialite with a long string of pearls / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed / You’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
In 1979 he got that right. When it comes to the Lord, there’s no room for neutrality. You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Our encounter with Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew has stressed the same. In 12:30, Jesus told the Pharisees, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” When it comes to Jesus, you can’t be neutral. You’re either serving him as a disciple, or you’re against him with the devil. Jesus drives home this same point in our passage today; and it hinges largely on what Jesus reveals about his greatness. Jesus’ greatness rules out neutrality. Let’s start in verse 38…
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 43 When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” 46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward 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.”
The Sign of Jonah and Jesus’ Greatness
“We wish to see a sign from you!” That’s what these scribes and Pharisees want. For decades, they have been the authorities of Israel’s faith. But they have found that authority challenged by Jesus. Recently, Jesus healed a demon-oppressed man. The Pharisees then accused him of doing this work by Satan. Jesus then exposed their faulty reasoning: “That doesn’t make sense. Satan doesn’t cast out Satan. Also, you can’t get good fruit from a bad tree. Call it like it is—good fruit comes from a good tree.”
It appears, however, that Jesus hasn’t yet convinced them. So, they wish to see a sign—as if to say, “Prove yourself. Prove that you’re not in cahoots with the devil.” Of course, we might be asking, “What more do they need?” Jesus has already healed the sick, made the blind to see, restored a girl’s life, straightened a crippled hand—all activities of God’s messiah in the Old Testament. Is this not enough?
Apparently not. They want more. Something better. But Jesus doesn’t play their game. There are times in Scripture when the Lord performs signs to strengthen the faithful—like when Moses needs boldness or when Gideon needs assurance. But when it comes to the hardened skeptic, the person unwilling to see what’s already plain, normally we find Jesus denying their request and pushing straight to the heart.
He says here: “an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign.” Evil—they’re not aligning themselves with God’s revealed will. Adulterous is a metaphor. Spiritually speaking, they haven’t been faithful to their covenant husband, their Lord. Instead of acting on what he’s revealed, they are resistant. By saying this, Jesus compares them to the rebellious, wilderness generation. God performed sign after sign in the exodus. Yet the people continue in unbelief, just like these religious authorities.
For that reason Jesus says, “no sign will be given to [you] except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” God did something spectacular through Jonah that made him a sign to the Ninevites. Verse 40 explains what that sign was, and how it relates to Jesus’ own mission: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
What’s the sign of Jonah? The sign is that Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish. That’s nearly a direct quote from Jonah 1:17. The Lord commissioned Jonah to Nineveh. Jonah runs the opposite direction, gets on a boat. The Lord then orchestrates a scenario where the prophet gets tossed overboard to spare some pagans. As part of his plan for Nineveh, the Lord then appoints a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
But it doesn’t stop there. Jonah 2 describes the prophet’s experience in the fish using some retrospective poetry. And it’s in that poetry that we find Jonah wrestling with death itself. Listen to what he says. Jonah 2:1, “‘I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol* I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.’ Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ ‘The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever…”
Jonah’s experience in the fish is likened to death in the grave. As far as his life was concerned, it was virtually over. For three days, it was virtually over. But then the text says this: “…yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you…” God heard his prayer. “The LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” He’s the Lord’s prophet now “back from the dead,” so to speak; and it’s in that state—it’s as that sign[i]—that he then goes to Nineveh and preaches, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” “And the people of Nineveh believed God,” it says. “They called for a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.”
Jesus takes that story, that sign of Jonah, and relates it to his own mission. The religious leaders want a sign that proves Jesus is legit. Jesus says the only sign you’re going to get is the sign of Jonah—the sign of my death and resurrection. In the same way Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, Jesus would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
But Jesus’ experience—while it’s like Jonah’s in some ways—it’s different in much better ways. That’s why Jesus will say in verse 41, “something greater than Jonah is here.” When Jonah wrestled with death, he was running from the Lord. He wasn’t faithful. When Jesus experiences death, he does so because he’s faithful to the Lord. He enters death sinless. Also, whereas Jonah had to look to God’s temple for his salvation from death, Jesus replaced God’s temple through his death—he is the ultimate temple and sacrifice that takes away our sins once and for all. Also, when Jonah comes back, it’s not because he defeated death. Jonah would eventually lie in the grave, and this time Sheol would not let go. But Jesus, when he rises from the dead, he defeats death altogether. The grave has no hold on him. He rises on the third day never to die again.
The sign of Jonah established a pattern that pointed to Jesus and his death and resurrection, which is greater. Now, this phrase, “three days and three nights” leads to some questions. Elsewhere Jesus says that he will rise “on the third day,” which seems to mean two nights. Also, all four Gospels agree that Jesus’ body was prepared for burial on Friday, the day before the Sabbath.[ii] Then “after the Sabbath”—that would be Sunday—the women find Jesus’ tomb empty.”[iii] Three days, two nights.
How do we square that with our text? Some have argued that when you read Jonah’s prayer and compare it to Jesus’ final hours on Thursday and how he was distressed “even to the point of death”—that Jesus’ descent into death includes what he began to experience in Gethsemane.[iv] That’s one approach.
A better approach, I think, is to see the phrase “three days and three nights” as an idiomatic way to say three days. In 1 Samuel 30:12-13, a man hadn’t eaten for “three days and three nights.” But he then describes that period as literally, “today three days,” meaning the day before yesterday. Or, again in Esther 4:16, the people didn’t eat three days, night or day. That period ends, the text says, “on the third day.”[v] Same here. Jesus stays in the grave the first day-night, the second day-night, and into the third day-night.
Jesus’ point is straightforward. There was only one sign that Jesus intended to give these skeptics—the greatest sign of all—his death and resurrection. That sign proves Jesus’ greatness. Jesus speaks about it here as a future event. But we have the privilege of looking at this sign as a finished work of God. God proved that something greater than Jonah is here by raising Jesus from the dead.
Perhaps you question that sign of Jesus’ resurrection. Perhaps you came to scope out what Christianity is all about, and you remain skeptical of Jesus’ resurrection. But I would challenge you to consider a few things. Our access to Jesus’ resurrection is no different than the access you have to nearly all historical events. You access historical events through the witnesses present and the testimony or records left behind.[vi]
In Jesus’ case, historians of all stripes agree that we have the records of multiple eyewitnesses to Jesus’ death and burial in a known tomb. Those same eyewitnesses saw the empty tomb in which Jesus’ body was laid.[vii] We also have the records of eyewitnesses to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared for forty days.[viii] Paul names people like Peter, James, the Twelve, five hundred others—most of whom were still alive when Paul was writing (1 Cor 15:5-7). And the idea is, “Hey, if you don’t believe me, go ask so and so. They’re still alive. They’ll tell you the same.”
So, we’re not left with just the potentially open-ended testimony that the tomb was empty. We also have the complementary testimony that these witnesses saw the resurrected Jesus and heard him and touched him and ate with him for forty days.[ix] That means the resurrection of Jesus isn’t just a religious idea. It’s not just a mythological story from which we glean timeless truths. It’s saying that God entered history in Jesus Christ. Jesus died for our sins. Then he rose bodily never to die again.
This makes Christianity vastly different from most other religions. All that matters to most religions is whether the experience holds true regardless of historical verification. Christianity is dependent on its historical claims. The resurrection of Jesus is a historical claim that everyone must face; and Jesus puts it before the religious leaders here. The text has forced you to deal with it today. The resurrection is the sign of his greatness and you can’t ignore it. His greatness rules out neutrality.
Respond to Jesus’ lordship with repentance.
If it rules out neutrality, then how must we respond to Jesus’ greatness? I think Jesus gives us four ways we must respond. First, when you recognize Jesus’ greatness, you must respond to his lordship with repentance. I get this from verse 41: “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”
How much revelation did the Ninevites have? What was it about the true God that they knew? Not much! The universe around them and some strange prophet vomited from a fish’s belly that warns them about God’s judgment. That’s pretty much it…and they fall on their faces in repentance for days and days. The king of Nineveh shut down the economy. They shut down their feasts. Even their flocks didn’t eat. Everyone focused on turning from evil and crying out to the Lord for mercy.
How much more should we repent from our evil. We don’t have only the prophetic pattern pointing forward. We know the Lord himself risen from the dead. God has proven Jesus’ authority in heaven and on earth. The appropriate response is repentance. Thomas Watson once said that, “Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed.” Fundamental to repentance is that there is humility before the Lord himself.
The Spirit of God comes into your life, and you agree with Jesus’ words and you love his holiness and you long for the transformation he gives. You will experience godly sorrow over sin and will seek to make things right with God and with others. Repentance also isn’t something for tomorrow, something we put off. No. That’s not taking the lordship of Jesus seriously. If the Holy Spirit has exposed sin—perhaps while reading the Bible, perhaps because something you heard, perhaps it’s just your conscience burdening you over wrongs—stop what you’re doing. Shut down the routine.
Never settle for anything less than a life that keeps with repentance. Repent from vain thoughts, from worldly desires. Repent from backsliding and laziness and harsh words against others. Repent from wayward things you’re keeping secret. Bring your sin into the light, whatever it may be. Confess what needs to be confessed. Mend what needs to be mended. Jesus is Lord. He’s risen from the dead. And that means his cross is effective to forgive and cleanse and restore. Repent. That’s the first response.
Hear Jesus’ wisdom with adoration.
Second, when you recognize Jesus’ greatness, you must hear his wisdom with adoration. Look at verse 42, “The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.”
Have you caught how offensive this would’ve been? These are the religious elite in Israel. They have the Scriptures. They study the Scriptures. They believe themselves superior to the other nations. Then Jesus takes pagan Nineveh and the Queen of the South—both Gentiles, both not part of God’s covenant people. They didn’t have the Scriptures, the promises, the temple. Yet by the little revelation they do receive, it moves them. What’s Jesus implying? “These pagans respond to God better than you. They’re showing themselves to be more his people than you.”
How did the Queen of the South respond? 1 Kings 10:1 says that “when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones. And when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind. And Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her. And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon…” the text says, “there was no more breath in her.” “The half was not told me,” she says.
Jesus says, “something greater than Solomon is here.” Solomon was the king appointed to build God’s temple, whose wisdom would display the beauty of God’s rule over a people. Solomon also ended up failing miserably because of his idolatry. Still, there was a pattern built into his life as king that anticipated Jesus. Jesus is the true King of Israel appointed to build God’s temple—a temple not limited to Israel but for all nations; a temple not set on a chunk of land in Israel but a temple that would swallow the earth and make all things holy.
Jesus is the true King whose wisdom surpasses all. Colossians 2:3 says that “in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” According to Isaiah 11:2, his wisdom will lead to justice in the earth and a renewed earth where all is at peace.
When you hear Jesus’ wisdom, does he take your breath away? Do you say, “the half was not told me!” The longer I walk with Jesus, the more I see how much of him I still have to learn. He is infinite in wisdom. Do you come to him with your problems and questions and confusion—do you tell him all that’s on your mind—asking him for help, asking for his guidance? Are you pursuing his wisdom in the word? Think of the great lengths the Queen of the South went to hear from Solomon. We have something greater. Are you pursuing Jesus’ wisdom, listening to his word preserved and written for you in Scripture? He is greater than all counselors.
You must want him, not just his benefits.
Third, when you recognize Jesus’ greatness, you must want him, not just his benefits. Jesus tells a strange little story in verse 43. Perhaps it relates to him healing the demon-oppressed man back in verse 22. But he broadens a point of application.
He says, “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
It seems that Jesus is here speaking of a person that has experienced some of the blessings associated with Jesus. They have experienced Jesus casting out demons by the Spirit of God. There’s been, what we might call, some moral reform going on. Things seem back in order. But the problem is that the house is still empty. There’s been no positive commitment to Jesus. He ends up worse than before. Jesus doesn’t stop there, however, he applies it to the whole community, what he calls “this evil generation.” They have experienced something incredible—the King who comes to restore all things has cast evil from their midst. But despite these good gifts, they remain uncommitted to him.
The house remains empty. What about you? Are you someone who wants evil gone but not Jesus himself? Are you someone who wants moral change but not Jesus himself? Are you someone who wants a particular sin gone but apart from filling your life with Christ? Are there evil habits you want to change, relationships you want healed—yet no positive pursuit of Jesus, no devotion to maturing in discipleship?
We’ve sat down with folks before—some wanting addictions gone, some wanting sexual sin gone, some wanting to overcome anger, some wanting marital conflict resolved, some wanting greater self-control. That’s all good. But to want all those things without a wholehearted love for Jesus himself will leave you worse off than before. Jesus’ story is a warning. He’s making sure that the thing you want most is him. Don’t just want his gifts, want him. Don’t just want freedom from ______, want him. He is the point. He is the goal, the end, the treasure, the glory. Don’t settle for just an absence of evil.
Obey his Father as spiritual kin.
Finally, when we recognize Jesus’ greatness, we will obey his Father as spiritual kin. Verse 46, “While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”
Jesus’ point here isn’t to dishonor his earthly family members, but to teach on belonging to the most important family of all. Being a true child of God was not tied to one’s ethnicity or class or abilities or heritage; it was tied to one’s disposition to Jesus. Luke’s Gospel tells a similar story when Jesus was teaching. A woman in the crowd says, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But Jesus responds, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
Jesus redefines the family around him. As ultimate Son, he obeys the Father and does his will. Those who belong to Jesus will bear the same family resemblance. If you belong to Jesus, you too will be marked by obedience to the Father’s will. It’s not that you obey to enter God’s family. But that you obey as part of the family. God made you part of the family. God adopted you in Christ. God gave you a new status inside the family. Obedience is what God’s children do from a heart of love for him.
Our brother Aaron Finch couldn’t be with us today, due to his recent seizures, followed by some major back surgery. But I was discussing this passage with him yesterday and he responded with some words that I thought would encourage you. I quoted this text, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Aaron responded like this: “They are indeed. I’ve gotta say, I’ve believed that for a long time, but I’ve never witnessed it this clearly. The generosity, the care, the genuine love—it’s unbelievable. The body of Christ is certainly not perfect, but it is just about everything we all wished our genetic families could be. At the end of the day, our blood relations will sell us out to governments and leaders, but the body of Christ will stand beside us as well as might, and we will see each other through to the end…”
You see, by doing the will of your Father in heaven, you guys have displayed the greatness of Jesus to others. They have witnessed his grace and glory as you’ve served and loved and given. Let’s pray this family of God continues to excel in such things, that others might know the greatness of Jesus.
[i] Eugene H. Merrill, “The Sign of Jonah,” JETS 23.1 (1980): 23-30.
[ii] Matt 27:62-64; Mark 15:42; 16:1; John 19:14, 31, 42.
[iii] Matt 28:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1.
[iv] Michael W. Andrews, “The Sign of Jonah: Jesus in the Heart of the Earth,” JETS 61.1 (2018): 105-19.
[v] E.g., France, Matthew, 491; Morris, Matthew, 325-26; Carson, Matthew, 342.
[vi] E.g., Luke 1:1-4; John 21:24.
[vii] Matt 28:1-12; John 20:1-18.
[viii] John 20:24-29; Acts 1:1-11.
[ix] Luke 24:41-43; John 21:1-9; 1 John 1:1-3.