Download Audio

Matthew 12:38-45

Text Comment

v.38     There is a sense in which 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 already by this time so many remarkable works of divine power, no one would have made that demand except as the expression of a continued skepticism.  In fact, both Mark and Luke, in their record of this conversation, add the note that the Pharisees were “testing” Jesus.  But the Lord’s miracles being both real, undeniable, verifiable, objective and breathtaking as they were, there was also, no doubt, some genuine curiosity.  We remember as late as the day of the Lord’s crucifixion, King Herod had wanted to see a miracle, the Lord perform a miracle, something like the trick of a magician that would entertain him. In neither case, however, was this the expression of any true faith or any openness on the part of these men to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.

v.40     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.  But, of course, that sign was in the future and would not be given until Jesus’ ministry was over and he was no longer accessible to these particular men who had come to speak with him.

Unusual as it may be for us as a manner of speaking, three days and three nights was a Jewish idiom appropriate to a period covering only two nights.  We have a similar difficulty if you remember with the Gospels’ assertion that Jesus rose on the third day, when in fact he had been buried only Friday afternoon.  We would have thought a day and a half before.  But this was a typical way of speaking of such a period of time in that time and in that place.

v.42     Having mentioned Jonah he goes on to make a point.  Even the pagans of Nineveh responded to Jonah’s preaching with repentance.  But this generation of God’s people will not repent even at the preaching of the Son of God.  And so the Queen of Sheba.  Neither the Ninevites or the Queen of the South would have been expected to take seriously the words, the teaching of an Israelite, but both did.  Indeed, the Queen of Sheba, a Gentile, made the long, difficult desert journey from what is now Yemen to Jerusalem to hear the wisdom of Solomon. And she brought those remarkable gifts with her. Yet the Israelites will not take seriously the words their own Messiah is preaching to them; the Messiah who has come among them.

This, of course, amounts to another claim on the Lord’s part, another explicit and public claim to being the Messiah.  He is greater than Jonah the prophet, he is greater than Solomon the great king and if you remember he used a similar way of speaking earlier in this chapter in verse 6 to say that he was greater than the temple. So he is greater than the prophet, he is greater than the priest, and he is greater than the king of Israel, those through whom God’s message was delivered to his people in the ancient epoch.

v.44     The spirit is soliloquizing here.  He is speaking to himself. He can still refer to the man he left as “my house” because nobody else has yet taken up residence there.  Indeed, the place is neat and tidy.  A very satisfactory situation for an evil spirit.  The man has been busy on himself while the spirit has been away, but he has allowed no one else to occupy his place, his heart.  [Morris, 328]

v.45     You had “wicked and adulterous generation” in v. 39 now as an inclusio with the “wicked generation” in v. 45 indicating that the whole material between those two statements has to do with the same theme.  The man, in other words, does not simply revert to his previous condition.  Now he has more demons and they are of a more evil type.  This little parable with which the Lord concludes this paragraph – and it is a parable as the last sentence makes clear – sums up the points that have been previously made, going back even into the previous paragraph, and perhaps especially, v. 30.  [France, 214]  Jesus is still talking, as he says at the end, about “this wicked generation.”  And he is saying that an expression of interest that doesn’t lead to a fundamental change of loyalty is of no good, no advantage, it is not enough.  In fact an expression of interest that does not lead to a change in loyalty leaves the person worse than he was at the outset. The effort to remain neutral will leave worsen one’s situation rather than better it.

Now here something happens that we should ponder carefully.  A group of religious leaders – it seems to have been an informal group, not a delegation – comes to Jesus and asks to see a miraculous sign.  They seem to be saying to him, an observer of the conversation might very well think they were saying to him, “Teacher, do something that will leave us in no doubt that you are who you say you are.”  And Jesus refuses.  He certainly could have.  There was no lack of power on his part.  He had done a large number of remarkable things in his ministry to this point.  He had astonished the society of which he was a part and he gathered enormous crowds to people to himself because of his miracle working power.  He could have done any number of things. He could have turned one of the men leprous, as Moses did and then cured him a few minutes later.  He could have walked on water before their eyes.  He could have asked them what they wanted him to do and done that thing.  But he refused.

He took their demand for a sign as proof of an intransigent unbelief.  As he said on another occasion, these people won’t believe even if someone comes back from the dead.  Paul will later describe the Jews, his fellow countrymen, as people “who ask for signs.”  And he meant by that the very same thing that Jesus meant when he referred to his contemporaries as a wicked and adulterous generation.  They ask what God will not give them in order to justify not believing in the one whom God sent to them.  There is always something more they need to see; always another piece of evidence that they require before they will believe or can believe.

Jesus will not play this game because he sees through it.  These people are only seeking to justify their viewpoint; they are not open to changing it.  There has been evidence aplenty, evidence sufficient to establish faith in Jesus Christ many times over.  The fact that these men are asking for still another sign is a demonstration not of their desire to believe but of their unwillingness to believe.

But what is striking here is that Jesus as much as hands them over to that unbelief.  He doesn’t explain to them the error that he finds in their request.  He doesn’t plead with them to forsake their unbelief and come to him and be saved.  He accuses them of their unbelief, compares them unfavorably with the Ninevites – notorious pagans – and then prophesies their doom.  “The final condition of that man is worse than the first.  That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

There is, in fact, a great deal of this in the Gospels and you will find more of it, we will find more of it in the Gospel of Matthew as we read on.  This generation is doomed.  Its unbelief is fixed, its irreversible.  There may be individuals here and there who will be saved, even the odd Pharisee, but, by and large, nothing lies ahead of this generation of the church but the wrath of God.  And so it was as events were to prove.

Indeed, so much is this the case, so transparently is this the teaching of the Gospels and the Gospel of Matthew, that the Lord is not unwilling to say that God himself has blinded the eyes of this generation so that they would not see, they would not repent, they would not be saved.  At the end of the previous chapter, at the very end of chapter 11, we read Jesus say:

            “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.”

Very soon after this text which we have read this morning, in chapter 13, verse 11 we will hear him again say a similar thing.  To his disciples he says,

            “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has

been given to you, but not to them.”

And then he quotes from Isaiah who said a similar thing in his time, 700 years before the appearance of Jesus Christ in the world, namely that God had determined that he would not overcome Israel’s rebellion, would not open her eyes, would not soften her heart.

In other words, we can look, and we are taught to look at Israel’s spiritual situation in the days of the Lord’s ministry in two ways.  In the first place, she was a wicked and an adulterous generation.  She had rejected the gospel of God, she had replaced trust in him with trust in herself.  She was so adamantly unwilling to bow to the teaching of Holy Scripture and that teaching that came from the son of God himself that by this time, even when the Messiah came among her and performed his mighty works, she found her reasons not to believe.  She was willing to call the Son of God an agent of the Devil rather than to submit her will to his.  Jesus makes this point directly here.  His are words of direct and explicit condemnation.  These are a people, he says, without excuse.  They have less faith, Israelites though they be, synagogues goers though they be, readers of Holy Scripture thought they be, they have faith, they have less true understanding than did the pagans of Nineveh in Jonah’s day.

In the second place, this generation of God’s people had reached a point where God was no longer willing to extend himself to save it.  And it is clear, very clear, as we read the Gospels, that this was Jesus’ fixed policy.  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.  In our naïve understanding we are accustomed to think that Jesus would press the unbeliever, would seek to win him, until all possible opportunity had been exhausted.  But it was not so.  It was very evidently not so.

These people had passed the point of no return and Jesus knew it.  They would not believe.  Their hearts were too hard.  And, what is more, God had lost patience with them and would not turn them.  We find this situation many times in the Bible.  In Hosea 5:4-7 we find both circumstances side by side in a description of the hopelessness of Israel’s spiritual condition.

“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.  [That is, they have by their constant sinning and especially by their constant refusal to heed God’s warnings, so hardened their hearts that they have become impervious to his Word.]  [But Hosea goes on.]  When they go with their flocks and herds to seek the Lord, they will not find him; he has withdrawn from them.

Here in Matthew 12 we are reminded how much like that of the OT prophets was the preaching of the Lord Jesus.  In how many ways so stern, so categorical.  As gentle and winning as he often was, he was as often pure steel.  As Hosea 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, never to return.

The great preachers of the ancient epoch, Jesus himself, his apostles proclaim together, as faithful ministers of the Word of God have always proclaimed – however the idea may cut across the grain of today’s comfortable and non-threatening approach to salvation – that in the spiritual life, there is in fact a point of no return.  We cannot tell where that point is found, but there is such a point.

                        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.

As 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.  The damage done is beyond cure.  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 to the point that the person has become, in John Owen’s memorable words, “sermon proof and sickness proof.”

The Israelites of Jesus’ day had become sermon proof, sickness proof, and even miracle proof!  The people had become so habituated to their rebellion against God that they could not see the light of noonday sun when it was shining on them and had so long continued in their rebellion against God that he had lost patience with them and would not open their eyes.

“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 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 everyone of us: that a person could reach such a condition of objective hopelessness, could pass the point of no return and not even know it, and, still more, that vast multitudes of church people have done it through the ages.  For it is church people we are talking about here, not the unchurched, not those who live outside of the church and kingdom of God.

It has happened times without number in the history of the church since the days of Jesus and his apostles.  In medieval Christian 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.  But did those superstitious people, religious but profoundly rebellious in their religious viewpoint, did they repent and turn to God?  You might have expected that of a people so superstitious when God’s hand of judgment was so heavy upon them.  But, in fact, they became more wicked than they had been before – as Jesus here says they would – and indulged themselves in all sorts of 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 black death?  Well, here is the answer.  They had, by long sinning and long ignoring 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]

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 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 God’s voice.  The Puritan Thomas Brooks put it this way:  Though true repentance is never too late; late repentance is seldom true.

Augustine said that there is one case of deathbed repentance recorded in the Scripture – the thief on the cross next to Jesus – that no one may despair who wishes to be saved – but only one that no one should presume.  That is, if you put off the Lord’s summons thinking you can always respond 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 has gone on and you cannot find him.  What is more, it is worth pointing out that we know nothing of the spiritual background of that thief who was crucified next to Jesus.  We do not know whether he was a man who all his life had known the Word of God and had many times been summoned by that Word to trust the Lord and to keep his commandments.  Perhaps it is much more likely that he was an irreligious man who knew very little of God and of God’s salvation until he saw it in Jesus’ face and heard it in his words as our Savior hung on the cross.  For all we know, the first time he was summoned to repent was there on his cross in the last hours of his life.

The fact is, however possible in theory it may be for practiced unbelievers to repent late in their lives, after years of protracted refusal to heed God’s call, repentance is God’s grace and God’s gift and, as we are reminded here, he does not ordinarily give that gift or grant that grace to those who have spent their lives spurning his offers of mercy and especially not to those who have lived in the church, but time after time have not believed in Christ or repented of sin when invited and summoned to do so.

Is this not precisely the burden of the text before us this morning?  And what then are its applications to our hearts and our lives.  Well, surely these.

  1. First, we must believe that it is a grave error not to fear sin’s grip on our lives.  No one will ever take the presence of sin in his heart and his life lightly who knows that sin can so easily become a habit that will eventually take one’s life quite beyond hope of repentance or mercy in Christ.  When you see the sins of these men who came to Jesus – which are, after all, just the ordinary sins of human beings, of you and me:  selfishness, pride, envy, complacency, worldliness – taking hold because they were permitted to take hold, becoming finally so much the habit of life that they could not be broken even by the most dramatic and powerful measures, then you will fear your own sins and their terrible potential.  John Owen – the expert of all experts in sin and its ways and its dangers – reminds us that “Sin always aims at the utmost…every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could…every thought of unbelief would be atheism.”  And that is what happened here.  Individual sins permitted to thrive finally so completely mastered the hearts of these so religious men that they would not and could not see the truth when it was standing gloriously in front of them.  It is precisely because of sin’s capacity to gain an absolute mastery of a life, however polite that life might be, that we read in the Bible such things as “Flee youthful lusts…” and “Be merciful to those who doubt, snatch others from the fire and save them, to others show mercy mixed with fear – hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”  Sin is so dangerous that we ought to be afraid of it every moment of every day.
  2. Second, in view of the truth that it is possible to pass the point of no return, to become so habituated to a sinful state of mind that we are incapable of seeing the truth, it is surely important and wise for us to make a practice of nipping sin in the bud whenever it appears, of giving it no quarter in our lives, no entrance into our hearts.  When Diabolus sought to retake the City of Mansoul in John Bunyan’s allegory The Holy War, his first move was to shoot down Captain Resistance.  His strategy is the very same today.  But if we see sin as an infection, every instance of unbelief as a virus that can spread throughout our entire selves until we are thoroughly infected and beyond cure, we will be more determined, more anxious to keep it out.  McCheyne admitted for us all that “Satan often tempts me to go as near to temptations as possible without committing the sin.  This is fearful – tempting God and grieving the Holy Spirit.  It is a deep-laid plot of Satan.”  Just remembering what sin can achieve in finally blinding the mind and deadening the heart to the influences of God’s grace and the Holy Spirit should make us wary, very wary, of toying with sin and temptation.  Rather we will take Owen’s advice and, in our battle with sin and temptation, we will “venture all on the first attempt.”  That is, throw everything we have against sin when we first see it coming – whatever sin, for any sin, given reign will destroy us forever – beat it down when its suggestion first rises in our minds, while we still have our wits about us, are still in command of our spiritual powers, before it has sung its bewitching song and taken away from us a sound mind and a stout heart.
  3. And, thirdly, the fact that it is possible in this life and this world to pass the point of no return, and to be doomed already and not know it, should make everyone of us and some of us especially stop right now with this procrastination, this putting off of God, this keeping his summons at arm’s length.  You may think it is not so urgent now because there is still more time and, after all, you are attending church, going to worship.  That is the worst possible situation to be in.  Nothing so deadens a heart as the constant ignoring of what God is saying to you.  It is much worse to hear and hear and not respond in faith and obedience than never to hear and never to respond.  That is precisely what Jesus said.  It is better to be a pagan in Nineveh or in Tyre or Sidon, than to be a churchman or a churchwoman who refused to answer the summons of the Word of God.

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, call upon the Lord and offer him your complete and unqualified faith, repentance, love, and obedience and then 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 those, like these many people, these religious people, these moral people, who remained deaf to God’s call even when his summons was loud enough to awaken the dead.