G.K. Chesterton writes about miracles that those who believe in them, do so because there is evidence for them, and those who reject miracles do so because they already have a belief against them. Jesus clearly knew that a miracle will never convince someone who demands it as proof.
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Matthew #40 . Matthew 12:35-50
Remember that the overall theme of chapter twelve is Jesus’ growing conflict with the Pharisees. We’ve covered Jesus’ staggering claims that he is the “Son of Man” who has all authority, and also “Lord of Sabbath” which is a claim to Divinity, and we saw how this was unacceptable to the Pharisees. We considered how some of the Pharisees, by rejecting Jesus, committed to utterly rejecting the work of God’s Holy Spirit, putting themselves in a place where God could not help them. Matthew closes chapter twelve with three more thoughts centered in this conflict.
First, some of the Scribes and Pharisees said to him: “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
Presumably, these are some of the same people with whom Jesus has been speaking. What they are saying is, “Show us a miracle to prove that you have authority to say these things.”
At one level, this is a staggering request. The whole conflict came about first because Jesus healed the crippled hand of a man on the Sabbath. The present conversation was started because he delivered a man from a demon. Before Jesus did that, the man could not speak or see, and afterwards, he was perfectly normal. Matthew has recorded numerous miracles done by Jesus even before those things, and surely the Pharisees had heard of them. Now, it is barely possible that this particular group of Pharisees did not include anyone who had personally seen him do any of his miracles. In this case, their request is, “Do one for us, so that we can see it for ourselves and judge that you are from God.”
This demand for the “sign” was essentially the very same thing the devil had tempted Jesus to do in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2-3). They are saying, just as Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, prove it!” Satan tempted Jesus to prove it by making bread out of rocks and satisfying his hunger. Through the Pharisees, Satan is bringing the same type of temptation: “Prove it! Just do a miracle.” No wonder Jesus calls them “an evil and adulterous generation.” He recognized that they were doing the work of the devil.
Now, why couldn’t Jesus just prove it? I taught about this a little bit in our sermon series: Matthew #7 (Chapter 4:1-11). Remember, part of the sacrifice Jesus made was to set aside the use of his own divine power, and rely entirely upon the Father through the Holy Spirit. Jesus, in taking on human nature, committed himself to live in complete dependence upon the Father, even as we humans are called to live in dependence upon him. To live as a human, to fulfill his mission, he had to trust in the Father to take care of him. He had to trust in the Father to do his work through him when and where he wanted. The Pharisees said, “If you are Divine, you can easily show us.” But that would have ruined his mission. He would no longer be living, as we must, in complete dependence upon the Father. If the Father didn’t want to do a miracle right then and there, then Jesus chose to trust and obey him, rather than “prove” himself.
There is another thing. Jesus clearly knew that a miracle will never convince someone who demands it as proof. Luke records a parable that Jesus told about an unrighteous rich man, and a faithful poor man named Lazarus. After they die, the rich man finds himself in hell, and sees Lazarus sitting with Abraham in heaven. He calls across the void, pleading with Abraham to send the spirit of Lazarus back to earth to warn his family:
“ ‘Father,’ he said, ‘then I beg you to send Lazarus to my father’s house — because I have five brothers — to warn them, so they won’t also come to this place of torment.’
“But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’
“ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said. ‘But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“But he told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’ ” (Luke 16:27-31, HCSB)
Remember, when the New Testament says “Moses and the Prophets” or “The Law and the Prophets” what it means is “the bible.” The moral of this story is that if we do not believe the words of scripture, even a miracle will not be enough. This story of course is also a veiled reference to the fact that Jesus would die and come back from the dead, and even then, most of these Pharisees refused to believe it.
So, Jesus knows that even if he produced a miracle on demand, it wouldn’t be enough. The Pharisees have already convinced themselves that Jesus can’t be from God. They have already decided in their hearts, they have already ignored the scriptures about the Messiah. The truth is, anything can be explained away. G.K. Chesterton writes about miracles that those who believe in them, do so because there is evidence for them, and those who reject miracles do so because they already have a belief against them. This was certainly true of the Pharisees. They have rejected the testimony of those who saw Jesus heal and deliver others. They have rejected the testimony of the people themselves who said they were healed and delivered by Jesus. It is clear that even if Jesus were to perform a miracle in front of their faces, they would find a way to discount it. In fact, we know that Jesus healed the man with the crippled hand in front of some of the Pharisees, and obviously, they rejected it, saying it couldn’t be a miracle from God because it was done on the Sabbath.
I’ve used this illustration before, but I think it’s useful. Consider a person whom you think is entirely reliable. If she tells you that chicken is only $0.99/pound at Kroger on Wednesday, you know that you can go to Kroger and find chicken for exactly that price. If she tells you that she once met the mayor of New York City, it does not surprise you at all when she produces a picture of her with the Mayor, and a signed note from him to her. If you ask her to give you the square root of 361, you can bet your next paycheck that she’ll say 19.
Now, suppose, one day, your friend tells you that she just found out she has cancer. You know she wouldn’t lie to you. You know she wouldn’t be mistaken. You absolutely believe she has cancer. A few weeks later, she tells you that she went to a prayer meeting, and people prayed for her healing. A few days after that, she went to the doctor, and found out she is now entirely cancer-free. She claims she has been miraculously healed. Would you believe her?
The only reason not to believe her, is that you have already decided miracles do not happen. If that was the case, you might attribute good motives to your friend, but you would be ready with a host of alternative explanations for her healing.
It’s a simple fact: miracles won’t convince people who have already made up their minds.
Jesus does tell the Pharisees that they will get one sign/miracle: the sign of Jonah.
For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s proclamation; and look — something greater than Jonah is here! (Matt 12:40-41, HCSB)
This, of course, is a prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is the first time in Matthew that Jesus has overtly mentioned such a thing. In dependence upon the Father, Jesus can’t decide when and where to do a miracle – he waits for the Father to act. But the Father has shown him his mission: his coming death and resurrection. So that’s the only miracle Jesus can guarantee that they will get to witness. In fact, the resurrection is the main sign that Jesus has the authority to say the things he has been saying. Even so, the Father has revealed to Jesus that most of the Pharisees will reject that sign also.
Jesus continues by chastising the Pharisees and their generation. He calls them evil and adulterous. He says that the people of Nineveh, and the Queen of Sheba will stand in judgment on them on the last day. The point of that is that the people of Nineveh were particularly evil, yet when confronted with the preaching of Jonah they repented and were saved. The queen of the South (Sheba) was a pagan; but she sought the word of God from Solomon, repented and was saved. He is comparing his generation to those people, and pointing out that the main difference is that his generation has not repented. Then he tells a little parable, and basically suggests that they are like a man who was once possessed by a demon which left for a time, and then brought back more demons into the man’s life.
I think sometimes we would get so much more from the scripture when we just pause and think about it for bit, and ask the questions that arise for us. Here’s what strikes me: this is Jesus talking. Jesus is calling people evil and adulterous. He is saying they are going from bad to worse. He is saying they will be judged by previous generations who were considered evil, but repented.
We are inclined to think of Jesus as being loving, and never being judgmental or unkind, so what is going on here?
First, of course, often our idea of Jesus is not much like what the scripture actually tells us about him. We need to let the scripture correct that. Second, I think Jesus says these things because they are true. Third, he says them because it might possibly save a few of these people.
Think of a surgeon performing a heart procedure on a patient. If it is possible, doctors often try to fix blockages to the heart by running a tiny tube through the blood vessels of the patient. Using this method they can clear arteries and insert tiny “stents” which keep the blood vessels open and flowing properly. These types of procedures are best for most patients, because they are minimally invasive. Recovery time after such a procedure is relatively short. Imagine a surgeon doing this, and suddenly the patient goes into cardiac arrest. Nothing the surgical team tries is working. They will progress through a series of procedures that are more and more invasive and dangerous to the patient. The more the patient continues to fail, the more desperate and dangerous the interventions become. If necessary, they may have to cut open the patient’s chest and do open heart surgery. A surgeon may even have to reach in and massage the heart with his own hand.
These difficult and dangerous procedures are not usually recommended, but sometimes, it becomes the only chance the patient has for survival. It may be extreme, but it is done when hope is failing, when all measures are being used to try and save the dying patient.
I think that is exactly what is going on here. The Pharisees are in danger of rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit. A kind, gentle word is not sufficient to save them anymore. That “procedure” has become ineffective on them. Jesus speaks to them so harshly to try and get their attention, to warn them, to save them, if possible. Make no mistake, these harsh words are spoken in love, as Jesus tries everything possible to bring them back to repentance and faith.
Matthew adds a final incident here.
We know that Jesus had a least two half-brothers: James, who became a leader in the early church and wrote the Epistle of James, and Jude, who wrote the second-last book of the New Testament, a short letter. Imagine being the younger brother of Jesus! Your teachers at school would never let you hear the end of it. Matthew doesn’t record why they wanted to see him. But Jesus takes the moment to teach those around him.
But He replied to the one 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, that person is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12:47-50, HCSB)
Jesus is putting into action his own words that the kingdom of God is even more important than family relationships. This is also a final word aimed at the Pharisees. True fellowship is found in doing the will of the Father. I want to point out here that in the Greek, Jesus does, in fact, says “sisters” as well as “brothers.” This would have been a bit surprising to the Jews. Jesus is including women as equals members of the kingdom of Heaven.
I have a tremendous spiritual heritage in my earthly family. The first Hilperts that we know about were French Huguenots, who stood up for their faith. They were persecuted for it, and lost land and home and all they owned, but they continued to remain faithful. They had to leave France, and flee to Germany. The next we know of them, the first Hilperts in America came as Lutheran missionaries. Since coming to America, the record is fairly well known, and every generation of my family has had at least one individual who served the Lord full time as a pastor or missionary.
My wife has none of this spiritual heritage in her family. She was the first in her family to follow Jesus. When she was in Bible school, she would meet missionary families like mine, and feel like she was some sort of second-class Christian.
But you know what? As much as I am grateful for the spiritual heritage of my family, it doesn’t do me any good unless I myself trust Jesus and obey. I don’t mean I have to be perfect at it. Jesus knew we weren’t perfect – he knew that’s why he was here on earth, to address our inability to perfectly do the will of the Father. But what he wants is for that to be our orientation, our direction. When we fall, we get back up, and continue in the direction of trust and obedience. In any case, my point is, I have to trust and obey for myself. I am not “born” into Christianity – I enter in faith and obedience, like everyone else. My wife Kari, with no spiritual ancestors, is just as much part of the family of God as I am. He welcomes us all on the same basis.
So, what do we do with all this?
I think the piece about miracles is worth considering. Do we demand that God act in order to satisfy us before we will trust him? Jesus had some harsh words for the Pharisees who were like that. Sometimes, this is a comfort to me. I think, “If only God would do ________, my friend would believe and trust!” But God doesn’t do it. However, this passage shows that my thinking isn’t necessarily right. Miracles do not always help a person in their relationship with God. I suppose it depends on the person and the situation, because clearly, Jesus continued to do miracles after this.
Speaking of Jesus’ harsh words to the Pharisees, I think it is far more difficult for us to judge when harsh words might be needed. Too often, we use harsh words because we are angry, not because it is the extreme act of love in trying to help someone turn back to the Lord. I think great caution is required here. We are not Jesus. It isn’t easy for us to tell when this approach is needed. But I do think it is important for us to understand that sometimes, telling the truth without sugar-coating it is necessary, and it might possibly lead someone to repentance and faith.
I think it’s also important for us to see Jesus’ harshness here for what it is: love, doing everything it possibly can to bring people into reconciliation with God.
Likewise, I love the picture of Jesus looking at his disciples and saying, “You are my family. You are my brothers and sisters. We’re bound more closely than family, because we all trust and obey the Father.”
Listen to what the Lord is saying to you today.
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