8 November 2015

Matthew 12:38-44

“... but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (v. 39)

Psalm: Psalm 146


These verses open with the scribes and Pharisees asking Jesus for a sign, presumably to prove to them who Jesus was. Jesus' reply suggests that it is worth having a read of the book of Jonah in consideration of this passage; it is only four chapters long. The book of Jonah has been seen as a reworking of the story of Noah in which the implacable destruction wrought by God is transformed into a desire for mercy by God in Jonah's story. Yet in the new story, that lack of mercy previously found in God is found in Jonah's desire for judgement on the Ninevites.

When Jesus speaks of the evil and adulterous generation he is probably speaking of the hard-heartedness of his questioners, similar to that of Jonah. But also, we are reminded that the God of Jonah is no longer interested in destroying the whole world as he did in Noah's time but is instead interested in offering mercy to the whole world. This is Jesus' mission too and there is no room for national pride or complacency.

At the heart of this discussion is the very profound metaphor of going down and coming up again transformed. For Jonah this would be a descent into the watery abyss inside the giant fish before being unceremoniously spewed onto dry land (Jonah 1:17 - 2:20). For Jesus, this descent would be into the bowels of the earth before being raised from the dead.  As Christians we believe that this is a metaphor for transformation in this life but also the hope of eternal life after death.

Verses 43 and 44 are curious verses that use the imagery of waterless regions in contrast to Jonah's watery story. But what is Jesus talking about here? The departure of the unclean spirit and its subsequent return seems to be about the problem of compromise or half-hearted measures. The fact that the scribes and Pharisees continued to ask for a sign even when plenty had been performed already angered Jesus because to keep on asking for signs was to hedge your bets. It was time for a decision.

To Ponder

  • Is it ever okay to ask for a sign or should we just have faith? Why?
  • Have there been times when you have 'gone down' and 'risen up' in this life? What effect did it have on you, if any?
  • What does it mean to you to be completely committed to Christ today?

Bible notes author

The Revd Jonathan Mead

Jonathan is a Methodist minister, who works part time in the London NW Mission circuit and part time as a learning and development officer in the London District. He enjoys keeping fit, reading history and visiting Mediterranean destinations..