Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 12:38-42
Lots of people are looking for signs, signs that (1) they need to trust in Jesus in the first place, and (2) that they need to obey Jesus. Well, we’ve been given the only sign we should need: Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Are we holding out for more? If so, why?
“An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah." Matthew 12:39
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Moon Landing and Other Famous Hoaxes. Okay, okay, I’m just kidding. I grew up in the NASA community, so this is one of my all-time favorite stories. Google “moon landing hoax” and it’s amazing what you’ll find. Some people have gone to great lengths to analyze shadow angles, reflections, rock shapes, and everything else. Their attitude is “I don’t think anybody went to the moon and you can’t prove that they did!” Here’s where things get interesting: the conspiracy theorists have a point. How do we prove the moon landing? Moon rocks? Faked. Pictures? Faked. Radio transmissions? Faked. Eyewitness testimony? Lies. The thousands of people who worked together to make it happen? All in on it. Any “proof” that we can offer in defense of the veracity of the moon landing can be dismissed as fabrication.
Of course, it works both ways. There are plenty of phenomena out there that *I* think are faked that other people spend a great deal of time and money trying to prove. There’s of course (1) bigfoot, (2) the Loch Ness monster, (3) the Piltdown Man, (4) alien crop circles, and my favorite (because my mom believed it): (5) Paul McCartney is Dead! (People started playing records backwards and everything! It took Paul appearing in-the-flesh for this hoax to fade away.)
And not all hoaxes are quaint. A devastating hoax was the so-called “Zionist Protocol” which contained the “secret plan” of Jews to conquer the world and which communists used to get support for their anti-Semitic policies. They essentially tricked the people in the exterminating the Jews. Hoaxes can be powerful things indeed.
If you decide to use this as your icebreaker (and I’m sure just about everyone is your class will have some sort of pet conspiracy theory they’d love to bring up), this is where you would go with it: skeptics asked Jesus to prove that He was sent from God. The Jews wanted proof that they should have to listen to Him. Well, Matthew’s Gospel repeatedly demonstrates the clear proof that Jesus gave for this claim, so Jesus knew they were blowing smoke. He was going to give them one proof, knowing that they wouldn’t believe it anyway.
Now, about that moon landing . . .
This Week's Big Idea: The Story of Jonah
The Book of Jonah had a kind of love/hate relationship with the Jews of Jesus’ day. Here’s a recap of the situation in case it comes up in class. God sent Jonah to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Assyria had started asserting itself upon its neighbors in 911 BC, building its reputation on cruelty, violence, and terrorism.
In 853, Assyria started fighting with Israel, defeating it in 841 and collecting tribute from Israel for 100 years until the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser started a new policy of deportations and direct rule by regional governors which led to the war that led to the complete destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jonah (if 2 Kings 14:25 is talking about him) prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel (782-745 BC) during the endless tribute payments to Assyria. Politically, the tide was turning during Jonah’s life. Here’s a summary:
Judah Israel Egypt Assyria King Uzziah Jeroboam II XXII Dynasty Ashur-dan Power strong strong weak weak
This made Jeroboam rather bold, and with little resistance he spread his territory. But he did so without any fear of God. Israel was corrupt from the king down to the people (within a few years of Jeroboam’s death, Israel was in anarchy). The poor were oppressed while Jeroboam funded his military, lining his palace with the spoils of their wars. You can read about this in Amos and Hosea.
But what did God do? Did He send Jonah to rail against the social injustice he saw every day? No, He sent Jonah to a weakened enemy that Jonah hated very much and wanted to see destroyed. I’m not sure we can imagine just how much Jonah didn’t want to do this, but it was enough that he fled from Joppa to the region marked Tartessos. Yikes! And you know what happened as a result. God sent a great fish to escort Jonah back to land, Jonah indeed went to preach in Nineveh, and horror of horror they listened and repented! Jonah’s verbal witness had influenced the pagan sailors and the pagan Ninevites, but he didn’t really believe in mercy himself. He didn’t want them to be forgiven. Eventually a new king came around and this revival was lost, but for a time the hated Assyrians were on better terms with God than His own Israelites.
The Context in Matthew
We are in the midst of the second major “action” segment of Matthew. Last week we talked about Jesus’ offer of rest for the weary; Matthew immediately follows that with an example of what Jesus meant: picking grains on the Sabbath. The Pharisees had created a massive amount of rules to “explain” God’s Commandments (which is something we all do). The problem is that the Pharisees elevated their own rules to the same weight as those in Scripture. When Jesus rejected their self-made rules, they thought He was rebelling against God! That He was in league with Satan! (By the way, that is the so-called unforgiveable sin—saying that Jesus and the Spirit are doing things inspired by Satan. A true Christian cannot commit it.) They had made life unbearable for the Jew because it was impossible to do everything they said you had to do to please God. (Sound like some attitudes we still have around?) Jesus came to make things “easier” in the sense that He would make a way for us to be right with God; all we had to do was take His yoke upon us.
Part 1: Seeking a Sign (Matthew 12:38)
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.”
It’s interesting that Mark’s version only mentions the Pharisees (8:11); however, in a similar encounter where Mark mentions Pharisees and scribes (2:16), Matthew only mentions Pharisees (9:11). In other words, I don’t think we should read too much into the subtle differences between Matthew’s and Mark’s versions of this story. In reminder, “scribes” were experts in a particular religious book. They existed throughout the Near East. Their job was to copy their book by hand. If you’ve ever read a book, you know how easy it is to skip a line or repeat a phrase or whatever. So, to do the best job possible, scribes would have to become experts on their book so as to catch their own mistakes before they wrote them down. Scribes could belong to any religious or political party. “Pharisees” on the other hand were a specific group of people devoted to the idea that the purity laws for the priests should extend to all Israel. They meticulously followed the smallest laws and taught everyone to do the same. There were probably only about 6,000 Pharisees in Jesus’ day, but they were very prominent.
The Pharisees are at least kind of being respectful here to Jesus (or being totally disingenuous). They ask Him for a “sign” [semeion] to verify His authority. Note that this is not necessarily a “miracle.” Jesus has performed plenty of miracles, and they are all quite aware of that. I guess miracles aren’t impressive enough? A “sign” is something a little different (see 1 Sam 2:30-36, 1 Ki 20:1-14, Isa 7:10-25). A “sign” is some sort of token that comes about quickly in order to confirm a prophecy. Think of it as a miracle-on-demand (like Gideon’s fleece), something that did not seem to them ambiguous as to its agency (from God or from Satan). Really, they were asking Jesus to jump through their hoops, that they were the proper arbiters of what was a divine miracle or not. Jesus wasn’t going to play their game, no matter how easily He could have done so. Signs can be faked, and certainly a sign isn’t enough by itself to bring someone to faith in Jesus. So what’s the point of a sign in the first place? In John, he calls things signs that point to the nature of Jesus’ ministry (not the act itself, but what it signifies); the preponderance of evidence then paints a clear picture of Jesus as the Son of God. But this one little request wasn’t ever going to put a stop to the Pharisees’ doubts.
Part 2: Identifying the Sign (Matthew 12:39-40)
But He answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet 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.”
Jesus, of course, calls them on it. And not only them but the entire generation of doubters that they represent. “Adultery” refers to their spiritual unfaithfulness. Jesus refuses to give them a sign (at least as they expect it). So here’s the question: what is the “sign of Jonah”? I gave you a bit about Jonah earlier. Some folks read this and conclude that “the sign” was Jonah’s time in the great fish, a sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection. There’s no question that that must be a part of it, but it seems that Jesus has even more of the story of Jonah in mind. (And no, I’m not talking about the running away part—like Jesus fled to Saturn when God told Him to become a human?) Namely, Jesus goes on to talk about Jonah’s message of repentance and the fact that the great city believed. In all of that, Jonah was a “type” of Christ, a foreshadowing of how God would work. In other words, Jonah himself was the sign, not something Jonah did. Why else would the Ninevites have listened to Jonah if not that they heard what had happened to him in the fish, God’s miraculous preservation?
[Note that some people, who reject the miracles, claim that verse 40 was a later addition to the text. There is no real evidence to support that idea.]
But what do we do with the reference to “three days and three nights”? This has always confused me. Jesus was put in the tomb on Friday night and was raised early Sunday morning—that’s two nights and one and 2-quarters days! Do the math! Okay - remember that Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience, and Jewish time / day reckoning is different than Greek (which is the way I would approach it). Rabbis thought of a day and night as being part of a day (24-hour cycle), and any part of that cycle could be called a day or day and night (see 1 Sam 30:12-13, 2 Chron 10:5, Esth 4:16). In other words, in Jewish writing from this time, Jesus having been in the grave for parts of three separate 24-hour cycles was the equivalent of “three days and three nights.” We don’t use it that way today, but they did then.
Also, what about this “belly of the fish” / “heart of the earth” parallel? This one’s fascinating. When you read Jonah carefully, you’ll notice a lot of “down” imagery. Jonah does “down” to Joppa, “down” into the ship, “down” into the sea,” “down” into the fish, “down” into the depths. Then he repents and starts going "up" again. With that in the background, a lot of people have used this passage to defend the teaching that Jesus went into hell during His death. I find that compelling, but not conclusive; Jesus’ body was put "in the earth” simply in burial. Jews had a limited concept of afterlife (sheol), and it wasn’t necessarily the same thing as we think of hell.
Elsewhere, Jesus is very clear that His death, burial and resurrection is the true sign of His authority (ex. John 2:18-19). Sadly, we also know that even when that sign happened, the Pharisees still didn’t believe and even tried to suppress the truth.
For us today, we can trust that the Bible has accurately recorded all that Jesus said and did. If we want a “sign” today, we can read the Gospels and see them all! We just have to read in faith.
Part 3: A Warning Sign (Matthew 12:41-42)
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! The queen of the south will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and look—something greater than Solomon is here!
As usual, I’m running out of space. [If you wanted to do a word study on “Son of Man” or “sign” you would find so much more than you could cover in one class!] This is actually the most important part of the passage because it’s Jesus’ clear warning to those who reject Him. The hated Ninevites listened to Jonah and repented. What will the “beloved” Jews do with a message even greater than Jonah’s? The reference to the Queen of the South is kind of obscure (see below), but the point is evident: someone traveled a great distance to learn wisdom from Solomon, and you guys have wisdom greater than Solomon’s right here in front of you! Those Gentiles listened and repented to a lesser message and messenger; what are you doing with a greater?
Jonah and Solomon were kind of folk heroes in the Jewish tradition, and for good reason. They were flawed men whom God still used to accomplish His purposes. Through them, Jesus makes this point: "it doesn’t matter who you choose from the history of God’s people - I am greater and My message is greater. I’m not just teaching about repentance, I’m making repentance possible. I’m not just teaching about salvation, I’m making salvation possible. I have the power to forgive and redeem; no one else does. The proof will be My death, burial, and resurrection."
If anyone in your class is “on the fence” about Jesus, and they’re willing to admit it, ask them what kind of “proof” or “sign” they want in order to believe. For others in your class, it might be a hard decision that they’re looking for a “sign” for. Then, depending on how that goes, ask if they’re willing to trust/accept what they already know? Jesus says that His resurrection is the ultimate sign, and that His Word (the Bible) is the ultimate message. Are we willing to listen to what we already have? If not, is that Jesus’ responsibility (to jump through our hoops) or ours (to learn how to trust and obey)? Do we doubt God’s perfect love and plan for us? This is an interesting lesson; it’s about both believing in Jesus and also following Jesus. We live in a country where a lot of people “believe” in Jesus, but it doesn’t make a difference in their lives. This lesson makes it clear that Jesus has to make a difference. There is no sitting on the fence. People throughout history would give their eye teeth to have the freedoms and opportunities we have today, and aren’t we taking them for granted? Today, Jesus tells us that we need to believe and commit.
Aside on Nineveh
Near the modern city of Mosul, Iraq, on the Tigris River, Nineveh was once the mighty capital of the feared Assyrian Empire. During Jonah’s day, it wasn’t the spectacle that Sennacherib made it (with his enormous palace) or that Ashurbanipal later made (with his world-famous library), but it was still a major city. Jonah 3:3 says it was a “three days’ walk” which likely refers to the length of time it would take to conduct a business trip in the city. Jonah 4:11 says “more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand” lived there. Some scholars say that refers to children, but even at its largest (during the years of Sennacherib), Nineveh could only house 175,000 people, so it is more likely this refers to the fact that these people were living in ignorance of God. Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians in 612, about 150 years after it repented due to Jonah’s message. The region has been at near-constant war to this day.
Bonus Aside: The Queen of the South
In 1 Kings 10, we read that Solomon received a visit from “the Queen of Sheba.” This queen was extremely wealthy (the Bible says that she gave Solomon more spices than Jerusalem had ever seen, before or since), able to leave 4 tons of gold with Solomon as a gift. And she was apparently very interested in wise leadership because she peppered Solomon with hard questions, presumably about life, governing, statecraft, society, and religion. Anyway, the Bible makes it out that she was a very noteworthy character, someone the readers would know. Conventional wisdom now says that Sheba was a mercantile nation on the edge of Arabia, made extremely wealthy by sea trade with eastern Africa, Egypt, and India. It also regulated the overland routes that allowed shipments to Israel and Syria etc. to avoid Egypt completely. (Seba was the great-grandson of Noah; his descendants were known as Sabeans and Shebans, so it’s possible that "Sheba" referred to more than one location.) For our purposes, we note that this queen recognized the wisdom of Solomon and associated it with Solomon’s God. Jesus spoke with that same wisdom, and yet the people who heard Him (who really should have known better) either failed to realize or rejected outright that He spoke from God.
I think all of us have asked for a sign at some point, and it’s not wrong to do so as long as you’re not testing God. We all have moments when we genuinely don’t know what to do and we need God’s help. And when people are genuinely seeking Jesus they can ask for a sign, BUT the more specific the sign request, the more demands being put on God, the more it sounds like that person is just trying to figure out how much they can tell God what to do. That’s not very genuine. And these guys weren’t taking Jesus seriously, so this request wasn’t very genuine.
Closing Thoughts: Jonah? A Great Fish? Really?
There’s really no avoiding this one, so you may as well get ready for it. There are a lot of people out there who reject the historicity of the tale of Jonah. They say it reads too much like a fable or legend (as do the apocryphal works like Bel and the Dragon) or even a parable, and shouldn’t be read literally. I get that a lot, actually, even from people in our churches. And I understand it. How could somebody survive in the belly of a whale?
Well, let’s start with the word we translate “whale” - dag gadol really just means any large sea creature. They weren’t professional taxonomists back then, and Jonah only saw this thing from the inside, right? So who knows what it was. If God told me that Jonah survived by purely natural means, I wouldn’t bat an eye. The fish would have swallowed air with Jonah, and digestion happens differently in different types of fish. I lean toward (1) miracle (God preserved Jonah through supernatural means; maybe even a supernatural fish!) or (2) resurrection (Jonah did in fact die in the fish, and God brought him back to life when he was cast ashore; resurrections do happen in the Bible, you know). What’s the point? God can’t be thwarted by our efforts, and He will use very undignified means if our rebellion warrants it.
But why does it matter at all if Jonah was really swallowed by a whale or not? It’s just a fun story about God’s forgiveness. Nope. Here’s why: because Jesus compares Jonah to Himself. Jesus will have an experience very much like Jonah’s; if Jonah’s story isn’t true, is Jesus’? If Jonah only metaphorically spent time in a whale, did Jesus only metaphorically die? (I also use this argument with respect to Noah’s ark and the great flood which is referenced by Jesus in Matt 24).