Matthew 12:38-50, Jesus Distinguishes His Own

[July 8, 2012] In today’s portion of the Gospel according to Matthew, the narrative subsection that prepares us for the seven parables of chapter 13 comes to an end. It began with John the Baptist (who was in prison) sending his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are You the coming One or should we expect another?” We moved from disappointment in Jesus to opposition to Jesus over the claims He made with respect to the Sabbath and His relation to it (He compared Himself to King David and insinuated that He was Lord of the Sabbath). This opposition came from certain Pharisees (probably from the school of Shammai). It came to a head when they accused Jesus of casting out demons through Beelzebul (the devil). Jesus answered them but ultimately He made an accusation about their motivations and intentions. He said they were speaking out of the abundance of the evil that was in their heart.

Why Do We Want Proof? (Matthew 12:38-40)

These same Pharisees demand, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You” (see Matthew 16:1-4 in another context). Of course, they have already seen miracles of healing and exorcisms. They want something more than these. Jesus said, “If I by the Spirit of God cast out the demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (12:28). They want proof that Jesus is doing these exorcisms through the Spirit of God and not through Satan; after all, Satan can also perform miracles. What exactly they are looking for is hard to say. In 16:1 they specify that they want to see a sign out of heaven.

Jesus says that He will give them a sign but not the kind that they are expecting. “A sign shall not be given to [this generation] except the sign of Jonah the prophet.” To what is Jesus referring? “For just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” The reference is to His death and resurrection. Literally Jesus was not in Hades for seven-two hours. He was in Hades for a night, a day, and another night: a little more than half of seven-two hours. Jonah, however, was in the fish for three days and three nights. The number is symbolic (it signifies enclosure, among other things) and Jesus applies it to Himself for its symbolic worth. The only “proof” their generation would be given will be His death and resurrection.

Having said that His accusers are evil men who bring forth evil things out of the evil treasure that is in their hearts, He now says to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign.” We should not understand the word “generation” in terms that are too general. He is not speaking of all the people in the world at that time, nor is He referring to the entire Jewish people or even the Galileans. A “generation” refers to a particular type of people—“you and your kind”—that is, you Pharisees who come at me the way that you do. The reason you want me to give you proof is because something inside you feels so threatened that you are willing to ignore your inner sense of truth, of right and wrong, your conscience. To ignore their conscience makes them evil. What it is inside them that feels so threatened by Jesus—this is what Jesus is calling adulterous. As worshipers of the God of Israel, they are espoused to Him, but inwardly they are pursuing other lovers without their divine Husband’s consent or approval. They are adulterers. Who is their other lover? Perhaps they have several. They seek the approval of men; they seek power and influence through the authority that people attribute to them on the basis of their religiosity. In other words, they are lovers of themselves, meaning the image that they have of themselves, which is a delusion, and they are lovers of the world (the cultural matrix)—in which this image has worth. They, in fact, are the ones who are serving the prince of the world, namely Satan.

It is easy to identify the Pharisees as the bad guys, but the accusation persists to our own day and points the finger at us. Do we seek proof from Jesus before we will believe who He claims to be? Generally speaking, of course we do, whether it is through historical scholarship, something that can be scientifically verified (the shroud of Turin, etc.), miracles, or simply answers to prayer. We will not give our allegiance to Jesus until He can remove all uncertainty from our souls. Like guileful Jacob (Genesis 28:20-21) we set up our own terms and demand that God (or Jesus) fulfills them, then we will give Him what He wants. We usually do this unconsciously, but it is our excuse for withholding ourselves. We want to protect our selves, the image that we have of ourselves, that with which we identify, our idol. We revolt against the idea of giving Jesus our total allegiance (that is, our faith). We will believe as long as we can remain our own masters, as long as we can maintain control of our own lives and get ftom our life that which we want.

We demand proof because we are blind to spiritual reality. The issue is not whether our own soul can force the conversion of itself, like pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. Who Jesus claims to be is not an idea that the mind can simply grasp but it is a spiritual revelation that “flesh and blood” cannot reveal (16:17). “No one knows the Son except the Father” (11:27). “The things of God no one knows except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11). Only by the grace of God, by the work of the Holy Spirit within our spirit, opening our eyes to see what is there, can we know the revelation of Jesus Christ. From within our own spirit, it is in fact the Holy Spirit who knows Jesus: we see Jesus with the eyes of the Father. This takes place in our spirit, which is our very life (biological and spiritual), and transforms our heart, which is our center. It is this which converts the soul (our psychological makeup); the soul is incapable of converting itself. It comes from a higher (or deeper) place within ourselves than our soul.

This kind of insight comes from within. It is not imposed from without. To give ourselves over to the revelation of Jesus Christ is not a burden but rather it is the way of liberation, for it brings us back to ourselves, back to our center, back to authenticity and integral wholeness.

We demand proof, but no real proof will be given to us (though the mercies of God abound), for it is not what we need. The proof that we seek would be irrational in any case, since such signs would not prove what needs to be proven. Reality itself is the proof, but we are blind to it. Extraordinary signs only add to our delusions.

The sign of Jonah is different, for the cross is the judgment of our (constructed) selves and of the world. For in it “the wrath of god is revealed from heaven upon all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold down the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). The resurrection is the revelation of Christ, who He is, but the only sign given to the unbeliever is the empty tomb—and for the unbelieving Jew, the conversion of the Gentiles (see below). Apart from the revelation of the Holy Spirit, these signs only condemn.

We want some sort of proof that will convince us so that we can be in control of our own conversion. We want to manufacture our conversion instead of having it sprout and grow in us organically, with a life of its own, which is really our own authentic life breaking through the film of our delusions. But since we cannot manufacture the revelation of divine/created reality within our spirits, such outward proof would only mislead us and may even reinforce our self-idols.

The Sign of Jonah (12:39-42)

The sign of Jonah does indeed refer to the death and resurrection of Christ. The revelation of Jesus has a power of its own in the world, a force of life that escapes the bounds of ethnicity and culture. It broke through the boundary of Judaism and seeped and then flooded into the Gentile world. This is not to say that Judaism was abandoned or—God forbid—rejected. The Gentiles who were (and are) converted remain Gentiles; they are not the “new” Jews. But they worship the God of Israel (the God of the Jews!) as Gentiles. They worship on the basis of the mercy of God shown to them by the coming of Israel’s Messiah. God’s grace has come to the Gentiles through the Messiah, the Messiah of Israel. This massive conversion of Gentiles to the God of Israel is the sign to Israel of God’s overwhelming grace. “Salvation has come to the Gentiles to provoke them to jealousy” (Romans 11:11)—like Jonah—so that “because of the mercy shown to you [Gentiles] they [the Jews] also may be shown mercy” (11:31). Likewise, Israel is a sign to the Gentiles of God’s election, for “they [the Jews] are beloved for the father’s sake. For the gracious gift and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:28-29).

When the “resurrected” Jonah preached to the Ninevites (Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire), these pagan Gentiles—“who cannot discern between their right hand and their left”—repented “from the greatest of them even to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5). The “Ninevite men will stand up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something more than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41).

The same point is made with respect to the Queen of the South. This African queen “came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon,” a foreshadowing perhaps of the Gentiles who will stream to the mountain of YHWH—Zion—to be instructed in His ways (Isaiah 2:1-6). She was probably the Queen of Nubia or Ethiopia. Solomon (when he was behaving himself, and by what he symbolized typologically) is also a picture of the resurrected Christ, the King of Peace, following his warrior father David on the throne of Israel (David symbolized Jesus who pursued and overcame His enemies and established the Kingdom by the way of the cross). Solomon—as a picture of Christ—is the man of wealth and wisdom and the one who built the Temple. The Queen of the South—like the Magi in Matthew 2—represents Gentiles seeking wisdom who find it in the Messiah of Israel.

She “will rise up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something more than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42).

“This generation” in verses 41 and 42, which will be condemned, is the evil and adulterous generation in verse 39, which refers to the Pharisees of verse 24 and their ilk. It does not refer to the Jewish people; it does not even refer to all of the Pharisees, many of whom became believers and yet remained Pharisees (the apostle Paul for example), and many of whom kept a respectful or defensive stance with respect to the church. Would they not be among the sheep in 25:32-40 and the blessed of 10:40-42?

The great miracle of the Acts of the Apostles is the going out of the Gospel to the Gentiles. We take this far too much for granted. I think Gentile Christians ought to see the New Testament from the point of view of God’s covenant with Israel. Matthew is deeply concerned for the Jewish people, even as he witnessed the beginning of the church’s mission to the Gentile world. Jesus, of course, operated completely within the parameters of Israel, as a Jew among Jews, and when He demonstrated His love for the Gentiles, it was always as a Jew. This is not to say that Gentiles do not have their own point of view. The pagans do, and there is much wisdom—especially the wisdom of nature—among the pagans, but “Christianity”—that is, the Gospel in its Christian form, needs to be understood within its Jewish context, or it will be misunderstood.

This Generation” Becoming Worse for Having Been Cleansed (12:43-45)

Jesus continues to speak of “this evil generation” in verses 43-45: “Thus shall it be also with this evil generation.” At first it seems that He is speaking about exorcism; after all, His immediate controversy with the Pharisees began with the exorcism of a blind and dumb man (12:22). There is a lesson there. A person is exorcized, that is, his or her interior house is cleansed, and if the person is not careful, the old obsessive and addictive behavior—or worse, one’s vulnerability to demons—will find new masters. The obvious lesson to be drawn is that the exorcized person needs to submit to God, here by becoming a disciple of Jesus, or they will in fact become worse than they were before. Perhaps this accounts for why many Christians eventually become worse than they were before their profession of faith: they become self-righteous, judgmental, arrogant, and hypocritical or pretentious. The old demon has been replaced by a host of new ones.

However, Jesus is speaking of “this evil generation.” It is my opinion that He was speaking of what will happen to the land of Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, between the years 30 CE and 70 CE. Jesus addressed the nascent Zealot movement, especially as it was manifesting in Galilee under the leadership of the Shammai Pharisees. These nascent Zealots were completely intolerant of Jews having anything to do with Gentiles or even non-practicing Jews (the sinners). They were the persecutors of the church on account of its Gentile mission. They also led the revolt against Rome in the Jewish War of 66-70 CE that brought the destruction of the Temple. The effect of the preaching, death and resurrection of Jesus was the exorcism of this “demon,” and the church in the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles shows the cleaning out of the house. But when so much of Israel did not repent, the old “demon” came back with revenge. “The last state of that man” became worse than what Jesus encountered during His ministry in Galilee and in Jerusalem. What was incipient came to full growth and God’s historic judgment came down on it, transforming (and purifying) Judaism in the process—giving rise to Rabbinic Judaism.

I wonder if the same demon or its cousins are not now afflicting much of the world, and in particular I think of my fellow Americas. The idea of the Zealots was to impose God’s Kingdom by our own efforts, and by force if necessary. “God’s Kingdom” may equate in people’s minds with the American Dream, or the Progressive Agenda, or some other Utopia (Corporate Capitalism is the opposite of God’s Kingdom, but some people push it forward as if it too were a species of the same), and many are willing to impose it on others. The use of the tools of mutual intolerance and coercion keeps the game rolling within the system of the world, and so does our willful ignorance and denial (of climate change and ecological collapse, for example), and may or may not bring down on us the judgment of God. Christians, however, ought to clean their house and not allow such demons entrance.

The Messiah’s True Family (12:46-50)

In this context we read the next story. I read it in correspondence with chapters 9—11 of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Of course, it spells out the new community that the Messiah is raising around Himself, those within His sphere. His relationship to them is that of family. They are His brothers and sisters, which makes them like Him, that is, on the same footing, sharing the same relationship to the Father that He has. Who are they? His disciples, for they are the ones doing the will of His Father in heaven. The will of His Father in heaven is that they come to Him, adhere to Him in a relationship of fidelity, commitment, loyalty and faithfulness, and thus enter His space and allow themselves to become what He is as they give themselves existentially to His Person (and the revelation of His Person).

But Jesus also says that they are His mother (not His Father; we know who His Father is). To be His mother they would have to give birth to Him, and nurture and console and teach and form Him. These are only some of the verbs we could provide. Mary did all of this. The women who stayed in His company and who would accompany Him from Galilee, and Mary and Martha of Bethany—they ministered to Him with their labor and substance. Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her own heart, probably referring to the time when her Son would die. A mother not only consoles but suffers sympathetically with her children. Perhaps we are mothers to Jesus when we give birth to Him in the world through the Gospel, when we nurture and console and teach and form Him in each other, and when we suffer and rejoice with each other. This makes sense to me. Brothers and sisters do not have the same obligation to each other that a mother has for her children, and she exercises this not out of a sense of obligation but out of the love in her heart. No one can stop her. This is how Christians ought to be towards each other!

What about the natural relationships of mother and siblings? Jesus seems to deny this kinship. “Who are my mother and my siblings?” But does He? In the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus does not say it confrontationally, though in the Gospel according to Mark there is a confrontation with the relatives who thought He had lost His mind. Mark, however, has a different point to make. Jesus’ mother is a superb example of someone who did the will of the Father. When Gabriel appeared to her and God chose her for the unimaginably difficult role that she was to fulfill, she did not hesitate but said, “I am the Lord’s slave; be it unto me according to your word,” and she fulfilled the task of raising her Child like no other woman could. Even as a young teenager, she was a deeply spiritual woman. Jesus’ brothers James and Jude were also those who did the will of the Father in heaven (whether they were slow on the uptake or not, we do not know, but it was not long before they were manifested as leaders in the church). However, Jesus seems to be saying that they are His family on this basis, not on the basis of blood. We are bound by family ties of affection and obligations, no doubt, but the Messiah’s family ties derive—from the moment of His human conception—from their obedience to the Father.

Some commentators have used this passage to say that Jesus renounced His natural kinship to Israel, that the church replaced His Jewish identity. After all, His natural connection to Israel is through His mother, though His father Joseph also adopted Him legally into the lineage of David. But are we prepared to say that Jesus’ connection to David and to Israel is meaningless, or was only temporary? Not only would that fly in the face of Matthew’s presentation of Jesus, but it practically denies the relevance of the Old Testament covenant. It would be saying that it is only a useable metaphor when it comes to the NEW message of Jesus, and therefore it would come close to the heresy of Marcion.

In Romans 9—11 Paul struggles to help us understand. The covenant with Abraham was on the basis of faith, or faithfulness (the word is the same in Greek). Yet it was also with the biological, familial and legal descendants of Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob). There is here obviously a paradox, and Paul attempts to grapple with it. By the time he concludes in chapter 11, the biological, familial and legal children of the covenant—“all Israel”—are saved, but only because they come to believe in the Messiah and fulfill their faithfulness to the covenant. Only faith or faithfulness fulfills the terms of the covenant, yet God remains faithful to all the seed. John the Baptist told the people not to rely on some sort of privilege of election, that God could raise up children to Abraham from the stones (for example, God redeems even Gentiles). This does not deny, however, that such an election exists—in the biological and legal (familial) heirs of the covenant.

This is the paradox: God will bring salvation to Israel—the natural and familial children of Abraham—but it will be not be on the basis of their genetic or legal connection to him but rather on the basis of their faith or faithfulness and adherence to the revelation of the Messiah. Their genetic and legal connection is not a form of entitlement, for no one is entitled. But it is a sign of the Promise.

Jesus does not deny His connection to Israel, which would invalidate the form of His whole ministry. Rather He asserts that “entitlement” adheres only to the one who does the will of His Father in heaven. Naturally and legally His membership within the elect people of Israel—the earthly people of the Promise—counts for something irreplaceable. Nevertheless, within the sphere of the Kingdom of the Heavens, only those who adhere to His Person are His mother and brother and sister.

Leave a Reply