We have before us a text that you basically never hear preached unless the minister you are listening to happens to preach through entire passages or books of the Bible. This is not a text that ministers themselves find particularly easy to preach and it’s not a text that congregations particularly like to hear preached. For those reasons it is not preached. But it is in the Word of God, smack-dab in the middle of the Gospel of Luke, and it is ours to seek to know why the Holy Spirit thought it important for us to hear these remarks of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Friday afternoon a Tacoma Police Officer shot and killed a man on the front porch of a house right across the street from our home in the Hilltop. The block, as you might imagine, was surrounded by police officers while the body lay on the front porch covered by a sheet for probably twelve hours before it was finally removed. Of course the neighborhood came out and everyone was standing around offering his or her own opinions about the situation, whether it was a justified shooting, and so on. The police were taking their measurements and interviewing folk. Nobody, I think, scarcely anyone, was really reckoning or considering or pondering the genuinely weighty fact that lay immediately before them under the sheet, on the porch: a human being had been killed. His life had come to an end and what then? What now? What became of this individual? After all, his death came sooner than he thought it would, sooner perhaps than anyone thought it would, but we’re all going to die. What then? What becomes of us then?
v.28 As so often before and after, the Lord took the occasion of a chance remark uttered in his hearing to teach a lesson. He did not deny, of course, the divine gift that it had been for Mary to be his mother, but the greater gift, the gift of salvation itself, he reminded those standing there at that moment, was available to everyone who believes and obeys. The emphasis falls here on the unspectacular, as so often in the Lord’s ministry. His disciples wanted him to do more miracles in Capernaum, they were enthralled by the power he was displaying day after day, but he left that town to preach the good news elsewhere. You could be healed of a disease and still go to hell. What you needed first and foremost was salvation, eternal life. Miracles won’t give you that but the gospel will. Miracles were not as important as proclaiming the Good News. The disciples, returning from their preaching and healing tour, were enraptured that demons had been subject to them, but Jesus reminded them to rejoice much more that their names were written in heaven. And here he reminds them that the patient, unspectacular practice of faith and obedience is more important than the individual blessings that might be granted to one person or another, because they are the path to eternal life.
v.30 The question, of course, is: in what way was Jonah a sign to the people of Nineveh? If you remember our text from last week, there were those who were pestering Jesus to give them a sign (v. 16). As he replied to those who accused him of driving out demons by the power of Satan in vv. 17-26, he now turned to reply to those who were asking for a sign. This request amounted to a demand that Jesus verify his authority – a demand that no one would have made at that time, the Lord having performed so many miracles already — except as an expression of continued skepticism. In fact, we read earlier in v. 16 that the question, the demand for a sign, was a form of a “test.” At this point in the ministry there was little reason to think that the demand for a sign was the expression of any real openness to acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah. The Lord made that clear in his reference to this “evil generation.”
But what was the sign of Jonah? It would be easy to think that in his reply the Lord was referring here to Jonah’s preaching. You remember that after being rescued from the whale, Jonah preached the Lord’s judgment to the Ninevites and they repented and the judgment was averted. But this is not what he meant. The primary reason to think so is that in the parallel passage in Matthew the Lord explicitly says that the sign of Jonah was his deliverance from the whale after three days and then says, “so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” In other words, the “sign of Jonah” is a reference to the Lord’s resurrection. And so here in Luke: it is hard to understand how preaching could be a sign, it is not Jonah’s preaching, but Jonah himself who is said to be the sign, and the tense of the verb is future. This generation has not been given a sign — Jesus had been preaching and working miracles perhaps for as long as two years — but will be given a sign. The sign is yet to be given. [cf. Morris, 219] That is, as in the case of Jonah the prophet, the Lord Jesus will undergo an experience of deliverance from death that will be the proof of his divine commission.
v.32 A point the Lord had made before as when he said that if the things done in the villages of Galilee had been done in Tyre and Sidon those pagan cities would have repented long ago. These two Gentiles, the Queen of Sheba and the Ninevites, showed reverence for the words of Yahweh’s king and Yahweh’s prophet, but the Jews were haughtily rejecting their own Messiah!
v.36 The general point of these four verses is clear enough. The purpose of light is to illuminate things. The eye is what brings the illumination of the light into the body — the organ by which we see. But if the eye is defective or deformed, it matters not how much light there may be in the surrounding environment. We still cannot see. “…the eye is a useful illustration of spiritual possibilities.” [Morris, Matthew, 154] Almost everything we do depends upon the ability of the eye to see. A sound eye then becomes a picture of having spiritual sight which of course is faith. In the context, these remarks clearly refer to the lack of faith among the Lord’s hearers, their inability to see the truth even though it is standing immediately before them. These verses remind me of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s verse:
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteor shower
Of facts… They lie unquestioned, uncombined
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.
The evidence is everywhere, but the ability to see it for what it is is missing. People are spiritually blind.
The Bible is a book of good news, wonderful news, exhilarating news. The forgiveness of sins, the knowledge of God, access to the truth about so many things, and eventually life forever with God in the world of glorious joy are offered for free to the undeserving. This message — God’s grace to sinners — is the great subject of the Bible from beginning to end. But woven into that good news is a lot of bad news: the stubborn refusal of proud human beings to accept the gifts of God, the corruption of human life by sin, and the judgment that awaits those who will not believe and repent. This unhappy truth is also found in the Bible from beginning to end. Whole swaths of every part of the Bible are intended to shine a bright light on the dark side of life and to warn the human race of the judgment to come.
We call the four histories of the Lord’s life and ministry Gospels. “Gospel,” as you know is an old English word made from two old English words: god, an old spelling of “good,” and spell, “spell” meaning talk, tale, or story: the good story, or the good news. In other words, “gospel” is an old English equivalent of the Greek word euangellion – literally “good announcement” or “good news” — which is found many times in the NT as a summary of its message and which is found in the title of these four books: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When we say to someone, “I’ve got some good news…” we mean that we have a report that they will be happy to hear. Well the account of the incarnation, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is certainly good news! Here is life for dying men and women!
But in, under, around, and through the good news is the bad news. And the Gospels have plenty of bad news in them as well. It would take many sermons to account for all the reasons why it is necessary for us to be reminded of this bad news as often as we are in the Word of God. And one large piece of the bad news is the intransigence of unbelief, how impervious people can be to the truth even when it is powerfully presented to them, even when they have it confirmed in ways we would think incontrovertible, and how unwilling to submit to God even if that submission is the path to the greatest conceivable happiness.
You get this sad realism throughout the Bible. Again and again in the prophets of the Old Testament we read the Lord pronouncing the Israelites beyond recovery. They would not turn to God no matter what God’s prophets said and no matter what God brought in judgment against them. Their hearts had become so accustomed to an unbelieving manner of thinking that they were finally what the Puritan John Owen once described as “sermon proof and sickness proof.” Nothing could force them to realize that they had bet on the wrong horse.
You remember that after all that Jeremiah had prophesied about the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians had come true — when all the prophets the Jews were listening to had been predicting Jerusalem’s salvation — and after Jeremiah had long told them that it was their idolatry that would be their undoing, the few Israelites left in Judea to till the land for their Babylonian masters afterward insisted on continuing to make offerings to the Queen of Heaven, the pagan goddess Ishtar, the consort of Baal, just as they had done for generations. Indeed, they said that all their misfortune was the result of their having stopped burning incense to her! [Jer. 44:15-18] No one is as blind as the man who will not see!
And here the same thing was happening again. No overt idolatry in this case, but no matter what Jesus did, no matter how many miracles he performed, no matter how authoritative his teaching, these folk found their objections. It did not occur to them, their hearts being as hard as they were, that what they were looking for was standing right before them and what they needed was not light, but sight. [Cf. Glover in Morris, Matthew, 323]
It is absolutely true that the Lord made utterly remarkable claims, claims that, made by any ordinary man, would have been entirely right to reject. He told people that they could have eternal life by believing in him, that because he lived they would live also, that he would judge the world, that he was the light of the world, that he and the Father were one, that he was greater than Solomon and greater than Jonah, and on and on. He spoke as no man had ever spoken before who was of sound mind. Certainly none of the Lord’s prophets, even the greatest of them — Moses and Elijah — had ever said about themselves or come close to saying about themselves what Jesus said about himself all the time. But then the Lord backed up his claims with his stupendous works of power and eventually by his resurrection from the dead.
But it all fell on deaf ears, or mostly so. It was all invisible somehow to most of the people. Even after the resurrection most refused to believe. Even those religious leaders who knew very well that Jesus had risen from the dead — as he had said he would — would not bend their knee to him. Their hearts were dead to the truth and couldn’t be revived. As Jesus has predicted, if they wouldn’t believe his miracles, they wouldn’t believe even if a man returned from the dead — the sign of Jonah! The resuscitation of Lazarus only infuriated them and the resurrection of Jesus himself a few weeks later only hardened an already inflexible determination to be rid of every vestige of the man and his movement. It is the saddest fact of our world — that so many people will not believe.
And what we have before us in our text this morning is the Lord’s honest acknowledgment of this tragic fact of human life.
You know the famous story about the man who thought he was dead. Nothing his family or friends could say had disabused this man of the conviction that he was dead. But then his psychiatrist hit upon a plan he thought might work. He asked the man if dead men bleed and the man agreed that they did not. But the doctor did not stop there. He put the man to reading books about death and the circulatory system and articles about the effect of death on the circulation of blood. Again and again the point was driven home: dead men do not bleed. Then one day in the doctor’s office he put the question to the man once more: do dead men bleed? The man admitted that he now knew they did not. Then the doctor suddenly picked up a pin from the table, stepped over to his patient and poked him in the arm. The blood immediately began to ooze. The man’s face went white and he cried out: dead men do bleed! A funny story meant to illustrate a desperately unfunny truth: the willfully blind cannot and will not see, no matter how bright the light.
This is a truth that we should ponder carefully. It ought to be part of our understanding of the world. A group of religious leaders came to Jesus and asked to see a miraculous sign. They seem to be saying to him, “Teacher, do something that will leave us in no doubt that you are who you say you are.” And Jesus refused. He certainly could have provided such a sign. There was no lack of power on his part. He could have done any number of things. He could have done what Moses did and made one of the men leprous in a moment and then cured him. He could have walked on water before their eyes. He could have commanded the weather in some way as Elijah had done. Of course, he had done many such things before this. He could have asked them what they wanted to see and then done that. But he refused.
He took their demand for a sign as proof of an intransigent unbelief. Paul would later describe the Jews, his fellow countrymen, as people “who ask for signs.” And he meant by that what Jesus meant here by his reference to them as an evil generation. Namely, they ask what God will not give them in order to justify not believing in what God has done. There was always something more that they needed to see; always another piece of evidence that they required before they could believe with a clear conscience.
Jesus would not play this game because he saw through it. These people were only seeking to justify their viewpoint — really to justify themselves — they were not open to changing their minds. There had been evidence aplenty, evidence sufficient to establish faith in him many times over. The fact that these men wanted still another sign was a demonstration not of their desire to believe but of their unwillingness to do so. In refusing to provide such men a sign he was as much as saying that these men and many like them would be last seen falling through the circles of hell crying out in aggrieved confusion, “I need a sign! You must give me a sign!” Hell itself would not change their minds or, at least, it would not soften their hearts to the truth as it was so obviously made manifest in the life and work of Jesus Christ.
What is striking here — striking, sobering and solemnizing — is that Jesus as much as handed these men and that generation over to their unbelief. He didn’t explain to them the error that he found in their request. They didn’t deserve an explanation. He didn’t plead with them to forsake their unbelief and be saved. It wouldn’t have done any good. It would have been a case of casting pearls before swine, as he once put it. He accused them of their unbelief, compared them unfavorably with the Ninevites – notorious pagans – and with the Queen of Sheba and then prophesied their doom. “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with the generation and condemn it.”
As the prophets had often before him said similar things to the generations of the church to which they had preached, Jesus likewise said that this generation of God’s people had passed the point of no return. They would not turn, they were unwilling, and they had worn out God’s patience and he would not turn them, he was unwilling. In Hosea 5:4-7, for example, we find both of those realities — their intransigent unbelief and the exhaustion of the Lord’s patience — side by side in Hosea’s description of the hopelessness of Israel’s spiritual condition in his day, a few decades before the destruction of the northern kingdom.
“Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. A spirit of prostitution is in their heart; they do not acknowledge the Lord. When they go with their flocks and herds to seek the Lord, they will not find him; he has withdrawn from them.”
There is, in fact, a great deal of this same perspective in the Gospels and we will find more of it in the Gospel of Luke as we read on. This generation was doomed. Its unbelief was fixed and irreversible. There were, to be sure, some individuals here and there who would be plucked out and saved, even the odd Pharisee as we know — there would be a remnant of believing people — but, by and large, nothing lay ahead of this generation of the church but the wrath of God. The great sign and demonstration of that wrath would, of course, be the devastation of the people of Galilee and Judea and the utter destruction, the annihilation of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 70. If you’ve never read an account of the thoroughgoing destruction of the people of God in A.D. 70, you should read it. It makes terrifying reading.
Indeed, so much was this the case, so transparently was this the teaching of the Jesus himself that in the Gospels he was not unwilling to say that God himself had blinded the eyes of that generation so that they would not see and repent and believe. Their stubbornness was a divine judgment on their unbelief perpetuated in the face of the Son of God himself. Sin had become, as it often does, the judgment of sin! At the end of Matthew 11, remember in one typical text, one of many, the Lord had said:
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you
have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and
revealed them to little children.”
The Lord’s words here were words of direct and explicit condemnation. These were a people, he said, without excuse. They had less faith and less willingness to believe than did the pagan Ninevites of Jonah’s day.
And it is clear, very clear, as we read the Gospels, that this was his fixed outlook. He made little effort to turn the religious leadership. He made increasingly little effort to turn the general population of the Jews as time went on. He saw what they had become; what they had made of themselves, and, on any number of occasions, he predicted God’s judgment and moved on.
We are not used to hearing this or thinking about it, no matter how impressively, even provocatively the Gospels hold our noses in this teaching and this reality. In our modern American sentimentalism we are accustomed to think that Jesus would press the unbeliever, would seek to win him until the bitter end. But it was not so. It was very plainly not so in the history recorded in the four Gospels. Here in Luke 11 we are reminded how much like the OT prophets the Lord Jesus could be, so stern, so categorical. As gentle and winning as he often was, he was as often pure steel. As Hosea had put it in his day and as Jesus did in his, a refusal to give answer to God, to listen and heed his word, protracted over time, can at last cause the Lord to withdraw from that person, or that generation of his people, to leave and never to return.
The great preachers of the ancient epoch, Jesus himself, his apostles proclaimed, as faithful ministers of the Word of God have always proclaimed – however the idea may cut across the grain of what we would like to believe – there is in fact a point of no return. Today’s comfortable and non-threatening approach to salvation is brought up short with this unassailable fact of the spiritual life: there is in fact a point of no return. We cannot tell where that point is found, but that there is such a point is the clear teaching of God’s Word.
There is a time, we know not when,
A point, we know not where,
That marks the destiny of men,
To glory or despair.
There is a line by us unseen,
That crosses every path;
The hidden boundary between
God’s patience and his wrath.
With addiction to tobacco or to alcohol, there is a point which is reached sooner or later when damage done to the lungs or the liver cannot be undone. Though that person may live for some time yet, he or she has passed the point of no return. He is beyond cure, no matter that he has ceased to smoke or drink. Well, so in the spiritual realm. A persistent refusal to believe what God says and to obey his commandments can finally harden the heart and poison the mind that he or she becomes spiritually and eternally dead already in this world even while remaining physically alive, maybe even vitally alive.
The Israelites of Jesus’ day had become sermon proof, sickness proof, and miracle proof! The people had become so habituated to their rebellion against God, so proud of their false religion, that they could not see the noonday sun when it was shining on them; could not see its light or feel its warmth. And this is hardly a rare condition. It has been true of many generations of the church in the world since Jesus’ day.
In medieval Europe in the 14th century there came the black death, the terrible plague that claimed perhaps as much as 1/3 of the population of Europe in the course of twenty years. But did those supposedly Christian people, as they were, I say, did they repent and turn to God? You might have expected repentance of a people who supposedly knew of the true God and of his willingness to forgive those who turned to him in faith and repentance, all the more when his hand was so heavy upon them. Medieval Europe was supposedly a Christian place. But, in fact, they became more wicked than they had been before and indulged themselves in the coarsest and most impure revelry, practicing with eager abandon the ancient adage: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” How could a Christian people not be brought to its knees by the scourge of the black death? Well, here is the answer. They had, by long sinning and long ignoring the plain speaking of the Word of God passed the point of no return; they had become sermon proof and sickness proof. Blind, deaf, and dumb spiritually speaking! They were like the people the Apostle John describes in his Revelation who, though plagues had been visited on the earth and vast multitudes killed by them, “still did not repent of their sins…” [9:20-21]
Why is this teaching in the Bible? Why do we have these remarks of the Lord, stark and depressing as they are? Why all of this gloom in the Gospels, which are ostensibly all about good news? Surely, this is a warning to us. There is nothing in these paragraphs except warning, except an admonition to believe and repent while there is still time.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found and call upon him while he is near,” the Scripture says.
But Israel had not done that. And then suddenly the Lord couldn’t be found even when he was near. Now the Lord could not be found though he was standing right in front of them. That should be a solemnizing and frightening thought to every one of us: that a person could reach such a condition of objective hopelessness, could have passed over into eternal death while still living in this world, but not realize it at all. It should solemnize us still more to learn that great multitudes of church people have done the same through the ages. For it is church people we are talking about here; not the un-churched, not the nations of the world, not the Ninevites, not those who live outside of the church and kingdom of God. We’re talking about the church. It is to you these statements are addressed particularly if you think yourself a child of God, or hope to be. It is to you — if you think yourself a child God, or hope to be — but will not follow Jesus now.
But you say, “Does not the Scripture say that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”? “Does that not mean that it is never too late; that one can always be saved, even to the last moment he lives in this world?” Well, yes and no. It is always a theoretical possibility that one might believe and repent late in one’s life, even on one’s deathbed. But, in fact, this almost never happens. It is very rare that older people are won to Christ under any circumstances – when it happens it strikes us as very wonderful precisely because it happens so rarely – but it happens still less in the case of people who have lived their lives in the church and under the sound of God’s Word and have learned to ignore that truth and God’s voice and have contented themselves with religion instead of Jesus himself. The Puritan Thomas Brooks put it this way: Though true repentance is never too late; late repentance is seldom true.
That is, if you refuse to answer the Lord’s knock on the door of your heart thinking you can always answer him later, you may find, you in all likelihood will find, as Robert Murray McCheyne so solemnly put it, “God has last knocks.” And at that time you suppose you will want him to come to you and invite you to heaven, you will discover that he is no longer knocking; he has gone and you couldn’t find him even if you wanted to, which you will not.
These short paragraphs of the Lord’s remarks are intended to make us very serious about salvation and about our finding it and keeping it. As soon as possible. There is a point of no return. The Jews of Jesus day, by and large, had passed it. You will never know that you have passed it until it is long since too late. So now, this very moment, while you can, call upon the Lord and offer him your complete and unqualified faith, repentance, love, and obedience. Pledge with everyone else in this sanctuary this morning to take the utmost care of God’s salvation, protecting it always from even the faintest beginnings of the grip of sin and unbelief. In that way we will never be numbered among that great multitude of people, those, like these many people, these religious people, these confidently moral people, who remained deaf to God’s call, even when his summons was loud enough to awaken the dead, and blind to the truth even when it shone upon them like the noonday sun.