Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Presumption, and Refusing to Believe the Evidence - Matthew 12:38-50

What Are Signs For?
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from You."
39 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;
40 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.
41 "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.
42 "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."
Let's start with the simplest thing, shall we? :-)  The "sign of Jonah" that Jesus is referring to here is His resurrection.  If you're not familiar with the story of Jonah, you can read it here (it's a really short book - only 4 chapters long), and if you'd like to read an account of Jesus' resurrection, check out Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, or John 20-21. 
Now, what is the purpose of signs?  1 Corinthians 12:12 shows us that miraculous signs and wonders are one piece of evidence that someone who claims to be ministering for God really is...but, at the same time, demons can also fake these powers.  The *big* (and double!) purpose of signs is explained in 1 Corinthians 14:22: "So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign but to those who believe."  So, some signs are to give unbelievers reason to believe (we see this play out in Acts 2 and implied in Mark 16:17-18), and others are a reward for those who already have faith - a confirmation of their faith, if you will (think about John 20:29b,"Blessed are they that did not see, and yet believed").  Some signs to unbelievers are BIG signs, like the resurrection mentioned here and creation (see Romans 1:20). 
The problem here is that these scribes and Pharisees had already seen, and heard testimonies of, plenty of signs.  They're not actually wanting to see a sign to confirm a suspicion that He is the Son of God; they're trying to test Him.  Another problem is that many of the Jews as a whole at this time demanded sign after sign after sign to be convinced - they had absolutely no faith.  1 Corinthians 1:22 speaks to this when it says, "For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness."  It makes me think - how many times do we test God by ignoring what He's telling us, knowing it is true but demanding He "prove" it time and time again?
That brings us to the people of Nineveh and the Queen of the South.  These people from the Old Testament chose to follow God merely after hearing about Him; they didn't even need signs.  Now that is faith!
Umm...What's that Got to Do with Demons?
43 "Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it.
44 "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.
45 "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 generation."

This seems like quite a bit of a topic shift, doesn't it?  Well, the other place this discussion appears is in Luke 11, part of a larger chunk about demons but still coupled with the "Sign of Jonah" passage.  What does it mean?  A lot of people follow this interpretation: If your "house" is you, and a demon is cast out but finds you unoccupied later (i.e. by the Holy Spirit), then it can enter again --- so, the interpretation is that Christians cannot be possessed by demons.  Is this accurate?  Well...maybe.  Having had almost no experience with possessed people, I would tentatively venture that I don't think Christians who are walking closely with the Lord and being careful to stay away from demonic influences (like fortune tellers, ouija boards, music with Satanic lyrics, etc.) can be possessed.  But, while I think the principle of that interpretation is probably valid, I don't know if that's necessarily the meaning of this passage here.  Especially because that interpretation makes absolutely no sense in the context in Matthew here.
So, what is its purpose here in Matthew?  I *think* Jesus is comparing their hardness of heart - their absolute refusal to believe in Him despite all the evidence that He is the Messiah - to a demon.  So, it would follow that if they harden their hearts a little, and don't do anything to change that state, their heart will be hardened even more (the seven more demons thing).  Fitting with this, I think the demon wandering without finding rest part is saying that if you don't specifically deal with your hardness of heart, but just let it fester, you'll never get rid of it, and it will return.
That's far from a flawless interpretation, but I think it makes more sense than the whole Christians-can't-be-possessed thing. :-)
God's Family
46 While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him.
47 Someone said to Him, "Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You."
48 But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, "Who is My mother and who are My brothers?
49 And stretching out His hand toward the disciples, He said, "Behold My mother and My brothers!
50 "For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother."

Let's clear up a couple minor questions before diving in to the deeper meaning.  First, why was his family waiting outside?  Because so many people had come to hear Jesus speak that the house was packed to its limit, so there was no way more people (His family) could squeeze inside.  Second, why did His family come for Him?  Because they thought that, since He was claiming to be the Messiah, He must be crazy, and they wanted to force Him to come home
Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, turns random occurences into deep lessons.  Here, He is saying that just because they had a physical claim to Him as family, that didn't mean they were truly His family - that is, they didn't have the power to demand things of Him just because of that relationship.  This is the same principle Jesus speaks of in Matthew 3:8-9, when He says, "Therefore bear fruit in keeping withe repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham."  The exact same thing applies to us today - just because we were raised in a Christian home, or used to be on fire for God, or whatever, we dare not presume that He somehow *has* to treat us as His children.  God cannot be trapped by our past relationship with Him; He is concerned with our relationship with Him now.
But, this serves as not only a warning, but also an expression of intense love.  Jesus welcomes all of us, no matter how unimportant we feel or how badly we've screwed up in life, into His very own family.  We are not just His followers or His worshipers; He has adopted us!
Let's Make It a Conversation! :-)
What brought you to Christ?  Was it a miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit?  Intellectual convincing?  Share your story. :-)
Do you have any insight on those three verses about demons?  (I'm serious - I'd love to hear your views!)
Any other comments or questions?  No question is too small or too big - I'll help in any way I can.  Don't feel restricted to this passage, either; do you have any other Bible questions?
Giving Credit Where It's Due
Image Number One:  "Biblical Illustration of Book of Jonah Chapter 1" by Jim Padgett.  Attribution:  Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing.  Used by permission.
Image Number Two:  "Teremok in Talashkino" by Julmin.  Wikipedia.  Used by permission.
Image Number Three:  "Valentinian III Family" by Michael Sanders.  Wikipedia.  {{PD-1923}}  Public domain in the United States.

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