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Follow the Clues

I love murder mysteries, most especially—English murder mysteries. My interest in detective fiction started with Encyclopedia Brown when I was about nine years old. Then in my early teens I discovered Agatha Christie. I think I’ve read at least forty of her eighty novels. In more recent years I have enjoyed Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series as well as the works of P. D. James.

I’m not very good at figuring out “who done it”. I’m usually more interested in the story as story—the characters, the setting, as well as the tingle that goes up the spine when you know one of the characters is about to discover another dead body. However, those readers of detective fiction who are good at figuring out “who done it” are the ones who are able to notice the important clues within a mass of information.

Apparently on more than one occasion, Jesus’ contemporaries asked him for a clue that would help them understand who he was and where he came from. Jesus was none too happy with that request, as we shall see in our passage for today. He basically told his contemporaries that they should have been better detectives. The clue was right under their noses.

But on one occasion Jesus gave in. He gave his contemporaries a clue in Matthew 12:38-45. See if you understand the clue which he gave them. . . .
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.”

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.

“When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”
Remember what happened earlier in Matthew, in the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees? The Pharisees said that Jesus was able to cast out demons because he was empowered by the prince of demons. And Jesus told the Pharisees that if they were going to blaspheme the work of the Holy Spirit in him then there was no hope left for them.

So now in our text for today the Pharisees say in effect, “Alright, if you want us to believe that you are the Messiah then give us a sign.”

Now it is one thing for someone with no information to ask for a sign, but it’s quite another thing to ask for a sign when you should know better. If I’m driving down an unmarked road in a place where I have never been before, and I have no clue how to get where I am going, then it only makes sense to stop and ask for directions.

It reminds me of the story my friend Douglas Gresham tells of visiting some remote area of southwest Ireland. He and his colleague who were traveling together got lost. They wanted to find the right road to take them back to Dublin. So they stopped and asked a farmer for directions. And the farmer said, “If I were going to Dublin I wouldn’t be starting from here.”

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees can seem a little bit like the farmer’s response to Doug Gresham, until we read Jesus’ response in context. Remember, Jesus has just healed a man who was blind and mute right before the Pharisees’ eyes and they are still asking for a sign. How blind can they be? It’s as if the Pharisees are asking for directions in a small town where they have lived all their lives. They are asking for a sign not because they have honest doubts but because they don’t want to believe.

Jesus calls them “an adulterous generation”. Why? Who have the Pharisees committed adultery with? They have gone whoring after other gods of their own making—the gods of power and position. And so they don’t even recognize the one true God when he is standing right in front of them—because they don’t want to recognize him.

And yet, Jesus, in his grace, gives them a clue. Did you catch it? Jesus gives them the clue, the sign, of the prophet Jonah. And what is that clue? You’ve got to know the story of the prophet Jonah if you are going to understand the clue.

The prophet Jonah was commissioned by God to go and preach to the Ninevites, but he refused to do so. Why? Because the Ninevites were Israel’s enemies and Jonah was afraid that if he preached to them they might repent of their sins and God might forgive them. Jonah didn’t want that to happen so he got on a boat going in the complete opposite direction—to Tarshish. So there he is, sleeping in the hold of the ship, when a great storm arises. All the sailors on board are crying out to their gods to save them from this disastrous storm. The sailors cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity. The lot falls to Jonah and so the sailors ask him what is going on. And Jonah tells them, “Look, I’ve been running away from my God so just throw me in the water and the storm will die down.” The sailors are afraid to do this; they are afraid they might be punished by their gods for throwing a man into the sea. So they try rowing to land but are unsuccessful. Finally they give in and throw Jonah into the sea. And miraculously the storm dies down. But God appoints a large fish to come and swallow Jonah and thus keep him from drowning. Finally Jonah cries out to his God from inside the belly of the fish and repents. In response God has the fish vomit Jonah on to dry land. Jonah goes to Ninevah; he preaches to the Ninevites; and just as Jonah expected—they repent, from the king right on down to the common laborer. The whole city repents and God forgives them and doesn’t punish them for their sins. The story ends with Jonah angry at God for forgiving Ninevah.

There are many parallels between the story of Jonah and Jesus’ own time. In fact there is a parallel between the Jonah story and Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. The elder brother in Jesus’ story is angry at the father for forgiving the younger son and welcoming him home. The older son in Jesus’ story represents the Pharisees who were angry at Jesus for hanging out with sinners and tax collectors. The Pharisees are very much like Jonah. They don’t want God to save anyone else but them. They are angry at Jesus for reaching out in love to the outcasts of society. (What might the application of this be to the Christian community today?)

The point Jesus draws from the Jonah story on this occasion is this: just as Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of that huge fish so Jesus claims that he will spend three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

How does this clue help the Pharisees to identify who Jesus is? What is Jesus saying? Jesus is making reference to the fact that he is going to die and spend three days buried in the ground.

Now here we have a problem. We know that Jesus didn’t actually spend three days and three nights in the ground as we would count it. Jesus spent three days buried by Jewish reckoning because the Jews counted the end of each day as being at sunset. So Jesus died before sunset on Friday; that’s one day. Then he was in the tomb from Friday night all the way to sundown on Saturday; that’s a second day. Then he was in the tomb from sundown on Saturday night until early Sunday morning; that’s a third day. So, Jesus was in the heart of the earth for three days by Jewish reckoning, but not three nights.

What is the solution to this problem? Interestingly enough, Luke, when he recounts this saying of Jesus in Luke 11:29-32, doesn’t mention Jonah being in the belly of the great fish. Luke says, “For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” So maybe what Jesus originally said was that HE was to be the sign. “You are asking for a sign—well I’m it. You have failed to recognize me and so you will be judged accordingly.”

So it may be that Matthew interpreted the sign to be that of Jesus’ resurrection, though that may not have been exactly what Jesus said. In any case, Jesus WAS raised from the heart of the earth just as Jonah was raised from the belly of the fish. And many people, including some Pharisees, did then recognize Jesus’ resurrection as a sign, a clue, that he was the Messiah. Pharisees like Joseph of Arimathea who offered his own family tomb for Jesus’ burial—and Nicodemus, the Pharisee who met with Jesus by night because he was afraid his colleagues would find out about his interest in the Master—these, and perhaps many other Pharisees, came to faith in Jesus as a result of his resurrection.

The next parallel Jesus draws to the Jonah story is really rather startling. He compares the Pharisees and their generation to the Ninevites. That comparison really would have stung them. They liked to think of themselves as so much better than the Gentiles. Jesus says, “Look, the Ninevites will stand up one day and condemn you because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, but one greater than Jonah is standing before you right now and you refuse to repent.”

As if that comparison didn’t sting enough, Jesus compares the Pharisees to a woman—the Queen of Sheba. He basically tells the Pharisees they are in the same position as her. That would have hurt their pride. It was a part of every Jewish man’s prayer in Jesus’ day to thank God that he was not born a woman. But Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Look, the Queen of Sheba was wiser than you guys because she came from a long way away to hear the teaching of Solomon. Now someone greater than Solomon is standing right in front of you; but you don’t give him the time of day.” And if those two barbs weren’t enough to awaken the consciences of the Pharisees, Jesus is going to give them one more dire warning.

What is Jesus’ point about the demon going out of a man and then bringing more demons back into the same person? Jesus is saying that if the Pharisees and others who have encountered Jesus reject him, then their situation will be worse than before they ever met Jesus. That’s the dire warning.

There is an accountability involved with receiving knowledge. “Unto whom much is given, much will be expected.” In a sense, those of us who have heard about Jesus are in a far more dangerous position than those who have not. We are going to be held accountable for the knowledge we have and what we have done with it. Having received the evidence of Jesus’ identity, if we nonetheless reject him, then it will be like having seven wicked spirits come to live in us. 

What are we doing with the knowledge we have received? Are we sharing that knowledge with others?

In this little warning about the danger of “re-possession” Jesus is saying something very pointed to his own generation. The Jews had reforms, they had cleaned house in the past. Two hundred years before Jesus came along there was a great battle after a pagan ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, had turned the Jewish temple into a pagan shrine. The great Jewish leader, Judas Maccabaeus, and his compatriots had beaten the Syrians, cleansed the Temple and established a royal house that lasted one hundred years. But that didn’t solve the Jews’ problems. They were still sinners just like before.

So, two new groups came along to try to clean house. The Pharisees tried to get the Jews to obey the Jewish law more completely so that they would be set free from paganism. And then there were the Essenes who were even more radical. They lived a completely separate life out in the desert, following very strict rules for living. A modern equivalent would be something like the Amish. And then there was Herod, who claimed a connection to the Maccabees. He rebuilt the Temple, making it one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Many of the Jews believed that God had left his temple many years before, but maybe now he would return and inhabit it.

Jesus, by his story of the house haunted by demons, is trying to tell the Pharisees, and all of his contemporaries, that it isn’t going to work. He is basically saying, “You have swept the house clean as best you can, but the house, the temple, is still empty. You need to welcome me into your house.”

The same message applies to us today. It isn’t enough just to try to be good people and keep our lives as clean as we can. We need a new occupant in the temple of our lives. We need Jesus inside of us, to live out his life through us.


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