Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

76. No Sign from Heaven (Matt. 12:38-45; Luke 11:24-32)*

The hostile scribes had already asked for a sign from heaven (Lk. 11:16). Now they pressed their demand afresh: ‘You have given signs of a certain kind, as though done by your own powers. Why is it that we cannot see your claims validated by some sign done without your exercise of power, some display of heavenly majesty apart from what you have done through your own word or the laying on of your hands? Signs from heaven were given to bear witness to Moses and Joshua and Samuel. Then why not for Jesus of Nazareth?

These astute men had not listened critically hour after hour without realising that the spirit of this Jesus was different from that of Elijah vindicating Jehovah in the teeth of crude Baal worshippers. They knew right well that with the utmost impunity they could go on challenging him in this brash self- confident fashion. They knew that they would emerge from such a situation with no harm at all to themselves-but with definite damage to his standing before the people.
Here, then, was another way of making him look small. First, in league with Baalzebub! And now, why no mighty sign from heaven? Later on they were to press this challenge with renewed and aggressive confidence (Mt. 16:1; Study 102)

For Jesus it was, in effect, the second temptation over again (Mt. 4:6), and there is at last a hint of anger in his reaction:

“An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign!” Were they showing themselves to be any better than Ahaziah, the son of evil and adulterous Jezebel (2 Kgs. 9:22)? How thankful they should be that there did not come on them the kind of sign from heaven that was given to him. But instead they had now the Lord’s ministry of a still small voice (Mt. 12:19). And in the future, “there shall no sign be given” from heaven, but only from hell-”the sign of the prophet Jonah”.

In different circumstances faithless Ahaz had been encouraged by the man of God to “ask a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth (the grave), or in the height above (from heaven)”; and, faithlessly refusing to ask, he was given an Immanuel sign which was both (ls. 7:13,14).

But now Jesus bade his adversaries contemplate the sign of Jonah. With today’s hindsight it is possible to see a good deal of meaning in the experience of that prophet of the Lord.

Beset with anxious enquiry: “Whence earnest thou?” Jonah offered himself as a saviour, one man dying to save all the rest from destruction. And so he died (Jon. 2:3-6 requires this interpretation). Then, entombed in a great sea-creature, the token of a New Creation (Gen. 1:21 - Hebrew bora), he came forth on the third day, to be reunited in a temple of God (1:16; 2:9) with those he died to save. Thereafter the message of repentance was proclaimed to distant Gentiles so that the threatened judgment of God (“yet forty days”) was withheld.

In particular Jesus emphasized the sign of resurrection followed by the repentance of ignorant Gentiles. What remarkable force this prophecy must have had in the minds of the Lord’s adversaries in later days when despised apostles proclaimed a risen Jesus and with sweeping success took this message to far-off Gentiles!

Three Days and Three Nights

In one important detail this type of Jonah has often been badly misunderstood. The Lord’s quotation (Mt.l2:40) of “three days and three nights” has become the unsupported foundation for an untenable theory that the Lord lay in the tomb for a full seventy-two hours — from Wednesday sunset to Saturday sunset.

The three main reasons why this view must be rejected are these:

No less than twelve times the Lord’s resurrection is described as happening on “the third day” (Mt. 16:21; 17:23; 27:64; Mk. 9:31; 10:34; Lk. 9:22; 18:33; 24:7,46; Acts. 10:40; 1 Cor. 1 5:4).
A copious collection of examples (given in detail in Study 182) establishes that “three days and three nights” is Biblical idiom for “the third day”. (In any case, would not the 72-hour theory require the expression: “three nights and three days”?)
To have the Lord Jesus buried on Wednesday evening makes a shambles of the gospel chronology of the last week (Study 156).

Nineveh’s Repentance

There was another aspect to this sign of the prophet Jonah: “As Jonas was a sign to the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation” (Lk. 11:30). If he was a sign to these remote Gentiles as well as a preacher of righteousness, this must have been through the news of his amazing experience inside the whale. Evidently it was this knowledge which brought such speedy repentance in a city which could well have been expected to turn its back on a prophet of Jehovah.

Thus Jonah was to be a sign to that generation in yet another respect. As with him, so also with Jesus, ignorant Gentiles in far-off cities were to believe the message of his resurrection and turn to the God of Israel.

The Men of Nineveh

Jesus paused to emphasize this truth to these scribes who spitefully denigrated his claim: “The men of Nineveh shall rise in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at (literally: into) the preaching of Jonah; and, behold, a greater than Jonah is here”.

The warning of Jonah: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown”, was promptly heeded. The comparable warning of Jesus: “Yet forty years, and Jerusalem shall be overthrown”, went ignored.

Are the words of Jesus about Nineveh to be taken in a strictly literal sense, or not? Will these men rise in the Day of Judgment, or is it merely a way of saying that the response of the pagan Ninevites shames the Chosen Race? This idea does occur in the New Testament: “And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law?” (Rom. 2:27). “Noah prepared an ark... by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith”; (Heb. 11:7).

In favour of an actual resurrection of Ninevites in the Last Day there are three points:

Jesus used the normal word for “resurrection”.
The phrase: “the judgment” suggests something more specific than condemnation by comparison.
The Lord’s words occur in the Septuagint version of Psalm 1:5: “The ungodly shall not stand in the judgment”; here the context strongly suggests reference to the final Day of Account.

The Queen of Sheba

This example of Nineveh was immediately reinforced with another equally familiar to the Lord’s hearers. The queen of Sheba came from “the uttermost parts of the earth” (Ps.2:8) - part of Messiah’s dominion-to see the glory of Solomon and to marvel at his wisdom. Yet, added Jesus with some bitterness, “a greater than Solomon is here”. Then how fitting it would be that in the Day of Judgment, the men of Biblical learning who rejected the Son of God in their midst should be put to shame by this believing Gentile from afar. If the perfectly valid reading of 1 Kings 10:5 RV margin be accepted, there is emphasis on her appreciation of “the burnt-offering which he offered in the house of the Lord”, and then the Lord’s contrast with unbelieving critical scribes is the keener.

Thus, in cool self-appraisal, Jesus bade his unresponsive contempories see him as a greater prophet than Jonah, a wiser king than Solomon (both of them examples of a message believed without the direct impact of a miraculous sign). But what amazing egotism was this — unless the words spoke only stark truth!

But why did Jesus use neuter gender here? -”a greater thing: than Jonah, than Solomon. Was it to emphasize his message as greater than Jonah’s,<and his atonement as greater than Solomon’s?

A Grim Parable

It is easy to imagine the Lord’s critics rounding on him:

‘Why talk to us about repentance, as though we are benighted Ninevites?’ Did not the entire nation hear the preaching of John? Consider the multitudes who came to be baptized by him!

So as a corrective of their delusion, Jesus proceeded to paint a vivid and even terrifying picture of their spiritual dereliction.

He told a grotesque story of a house which had been inhabited by an evil spirit. But now it was empty, having been cleaned up and tidied ready for its next occupant. But the new owner was not allowed to take it over. Meanwhile the evil spirit wandered about in a wilderness, with nowhere to settle. So back he went to his former abode. Finding it untenanted, he went off gleefully and rounded up seven more spirits worse than himself, so that together they might appropriate the house for good as a den of horror. But the house was a man - “and the last state of that man was worse than the first”!

O.T. Origins

There is a two-fold Old Testament origin to this gruesome story. At Proverbs 9:12 the Septuagint version has a dependable addition to the received text. It says about the man who, like these hostile Pharisees, depends on lies: “he walks through a waterless waste, through a land that is desert, and with his hands garners barrenness”. This is not unlike Christ’s picture of the evil spirit in the wilderness.

Add to this the story of king Saul, possessed with “an evil spirit from the Lord”, who had this depression chased away by the inspired music of the young David. Saul, however, jealously refused to recognize the kingly rights of this young man of God’s choice, so as his reign proceeded he was driven to yet more intense vindictive violence (1 Sam. 16:14; 18:10). Driven as by a cohort of evil spirits he ultimately brought about his own destruction.

Prophecy by Parable

Jesus need not have added his own interpretation: “Even so shall it be unto this wicked generation.” With this background to the parable, it would have been easy to interpret the details with reference to his own rejection by the nation’s leaders. The context of the parable makes this doubly certain.

Thus the house “empty, swept, and garnished” represents the nation of Israel after its initial response to the call of John the Baptist: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, The evil spirit was expurgated by the cathartic influence of the austere prophet. But true repentance is not wholly negative. The logical next step, again following the lead given them by John, was to accept the true “Lord of the dwelling”. But already, at the time Jesus told this vigorous story it was evident that the nation, under the vicious influence of its malevolent leaders, was not willing to receive him. So the rest of the parable became a prophecy. The moral cleansing that had taken place would not last. Instead, before very long, the old evil would return, with much more as well (2 Pet. 2:20-22; Heb. 6:4-6; contrast Mk. 9:25). Thus Jesus foretold a catastrophic moral decline in Israel if their opportunity to accept him as the Lord their righteousness were not speedily grasped.

It was a true prophecy. The record left by Josephus of the turbulence, moral decay and ultimate chaos which set in in Israel during the years before A.D. 70 is terrible in its unrelenting detail.

In A.D. 65 Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai bewailed the increase in murder and adultery and sexual vice, in commercial and judicial corruption, in bitter sectarian strife and other evils.

And Josephus similarly: “I suppose that had the Romans made any longer delay in coming against these villains, the city (Jerusalem) would either have been swallowed up by the ground opening upon them, or being overflowed by water, or else been destroyed by such thunder as the country of Sodom perished by...” (B.J. 5.13.6).

All normal standards of decent living were swept away. The last state of that nation had become far worse than the first.
There is room for application also to the temple (“the House”) cleansed by Jesus, but giving no welcome to him, its rightful Lord. cp. also Rev. 18:2 (and see “Revelation” by H.A.W. p. 209ff).

Evil Spirits

This parable is one of the two places in the New Testament (the other is in Acts 19:13-17) where the more usual expression “unclean spirit” gives way to “evil spirit”. Study 30 emphasized the close similarity of idea between current notions about unclean spirits and what the Bible teaches about angels of evil (not evil angels!).

The double problem as to why Jesus should gratuitously bring demons into his parable and why he should refer to them as evil, and not as unclean spirits is solved by the context. Unlike the demons which were supposed to be responsible for lunacy, dumbness and other maladies, these spirits represented moral corruption, so the term “evil spirits” was absolutely right.

Baalzebub slander answered

The introduction of them into the story was also extremely appropriate because of the vile smear, just made by the scribes, that Jesus was beside himself and possessed by the prince of the devils. The parable set this right in telling fashion, for in it Jesus in effect said: ‘It is you, my traducers, who are possessed with an evil spirit, and as time goes on this will become more apparent. All the world will recognize the fact, and will see it bring you to ruin.’ “They made of Jerusalem before its fall a hell of confusion and misery to which the Gentile world has no parallel” (Portable Comm.).

An acted Parable

The next scene in this drama of conflict between the forces of right and wrong is another parable-an acted parable-included by Luke in his record of the early church.

When Paul was at Ephesus the seven sons of a certain Jew, a chief priest, called Sceva, posed as exorcists and set themselves to rival Paul in the teaching and healing which caused his ministry there to prosper so phenomenally. The exposure of the pretensions of these men came when they attempted to cast out what was deemed to be an evil spirit from an afflicted man. After the usual mumbo-jumbo of that period they began to rebuke the “evil spirit” in the name of Jesus. (One early magical papyrus has these words: “I adjure thee by the God of the Hebrew Jesus”.) The effect was magical, but not in the sense they intended. For all his dementia, the man had the wit to know that these charlatans had nothing to do with Paul. With a frightening roar he turned on them: “Jesus I recognize, and Paul I am familiar with; but who are ye?” Then he leaped at the two who had taken the lead in this theatrical mummery and seriously mauled them about, so that they were glad to escape battered, dishevelled, and with the very clothes torn off their backs.

The incident did its work, and in Ephesus the forces of magic and superstition beat a hasty retreat.

All this was another parable. The name of the Jew Sceva means “a vessel prepared”. This and his priestly office emphasize the special role of Israel before God. The action of the exorcist sons (seven sons - seven evil spirits!) corresponds in the parable to the astute attempt made by hostile Jewry in the first century to wreck or take over the ecclesia of Christ from within. But the outcome was that they were overcome - they fled out of the house, naked and wounded. This was the very fate which befell Jewry, the inevitable consequence of belonging to a house which had been taken over by a seven-fold spirit of evil.

“Blessed is the Womb”

In the crowd, listening to the Lord’s sombre parable, was a pious woman who, it may be surmised, had been forcefully and bitterly reminded of her own wayward son, going from bad to worse, from one demon to eight, and she cried out:

“Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the breasts which thou didst suck!”
It was her way of saying:

“If only God had given me a son like you, Jesus!”
Admirable as her outlook was, it was not idealistic enough to satisfy the Lord:

“Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it”.
Better than taking pride in a good son, better even than having Jesus as a baby at the breast, is the matchless satisfaction of a life of loyalty to him, the Word of God. Let Jesus be the new tenant of “the house”, for there can be nothing to surpass such an experience.

In this brief but emotional incident there was yet more emotion, for all this encounter, beginning with the Baalzebub mud-slinging, had been sparked off by openly-expressed conviction of the Lord’s family (including Mary herself) that “he is beside himself” (Mk. 3:21). The lovely words for “Blessed” earlier used to Mary in her rejoicing (Lk. 1:28,42) are inappropriate here-and understandably, for now the family had come forth not to “keep the Word of God” but to seize him (Mk. 3:21,31), so that the ensuing reproof (3:33-35), however sad it might be, was inevitable.

Notes: Mt. 1 2:38-45

Master. A bland pseudo-respect!
ln the heart of the earth. Jon. 2:3 LXX. s.w.
Verses 41,42 come in reverse order in Lk. 11:31,32 - because so used on some other occasion? They repented, and were forgiven, apparently without sacrifice offered.

The preaching of Jonah. Greek: kerugma, meaning the content of the message, not the mode or style of its delivery.
The queen of the south. According to Velikovsky’s revised Egyptian chronology she is to be identified with the famous Hatshepsut.

To hear the wisdom of Solomon. Apparently, no demand for miracles; contrast v. 38.

A greater (thing) than Solomon. Alternatively, read this neuter as implying also the neuter word for “sign” (v. 39).
Gk: gone out of the man. Definite article with reference to Saul, the prototype?

Seeking rest from any but the true source of rest: 11:29. Cp. the vivid description in ls. 34:13-15 LXX.
Seven other. Gk: different in character, i.e. worse.

Worse than the first. This word “first” implies not two stages of badness but three - those depicted in v. 43,44,45.

Lk: 11:24-32

Blessed is the womb. Cp. Ps. 22:10; and contrast Lk. 23:29.
The people were gathered thick together. But not only now; cp.Lk. 12:1; 14:1,25; 15:1; 18:26,43; 19:3,37,48; 20:19,26,39,45; 21:38. The verb comes in Num. 20:2 LXX where again there is a context of murmuring against the man of God, a great temptation to produce an impressive sign, and anger against a hard-hearted people.
There is a contrast here between “the men of this generation” in the immediate presence of Christ and the one woman seeking Solomon’s wisdom from a great distance.

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