Signs or the Saviour
As we continue to look at Luke’s life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ we are going to do so under the following headings:
Great unbelief meets with a great rebuke
Great examples and the Sign
So with no more delay let’s get to it.
Crowds appear frequently in the gospel records and on nearly every occasion the crowds are drawn to Jesus. The people just didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of seeing this man, of hearing this man of seeing what this man would do.
Open the gospels where you will and you’ll probably find a crowd forming, pressing around this most remarkable of men.
Sometimes they surrounded him wanting him to bless their children,
Sometimes they wanted him to heal their sick,
Sometimes they wanted to hear what he had to say and to teach,
Sometimes the crowds formed in order to celebrate and to acclaim him and, sadly,
Sometimes the crowds were sceptical and came together in order to oppose him and to try to destroy him.
Doubtless there were occasions when some, at least, in the crowds were there simply because others were there – they do say that a crowd draws a crowd and you know what that’s like: you’re out shopping and you turn the corner and suddenly you’re confronted by a mass of people and immediately you want to know what is going on, you’re curious to find out more and so you slow down and before you know it you too are part of the crowd.
Well crowds still continue to gather around the Lord Jesus Christ as they did then and have done down through the centuries ever since. Even in post-Christian Britain estimates suggest that more than 6 million people regularly attend church. So you are part of a large crowd this morning – but why, I wonder, why are you here? Which of the categories I’ve just mentioned do you fit into?
The crowd that day was steadily growing – hardly surprising really when you think about it. Jesus had just performed an unusual and impressive miracle for which he had been forcefully criticised by some of the Jewish leaders who were present. Jesus had responded to their hostility with some further challenges of his own - it was often like that when Jesus taught.
Then there’d been a bit of an interruption as a woman cried out from the crowd and this all gave time for word to spread about what was going on and so the crowds continued to grow.
The press was growing and growing so Jesus spoke out.
Great Unbelief calls for a Great Rebuke
While the Jewish leaders had been vocal in their criticism of what Jesus had been doing there were others in the crowd, and plenty of them it seems, who were calling out for yet more signs and wonders.
Jesus did not find their "interest" to be in the slightest way encouraging. As he heard their calls for more and more signs he saw this as evidence, not of any genuine interest at all, rather it was an indication of the hardness of their hearts, indeed the wickedness of their hearts.
Now why was this? Why was Jesus so hard on them? After all they were only seeking for a bit more proof, a little more evidence weren’t they? Surely it is a good thing not to be swayed by raw emotions? Surely it is right to want to be fully convinced before launching out in the way of discipleship?
And, yes, of course it is right to think carefully – we’re not to allow our feelings to sweep us along and to take our decisions with no information in our heads. But that was not at all the danger for these folk. They had already seen so much and had already heard so much – to ask for more was not an indication of wise and prudent behaviour it was a front for unbelief.
Men and women then liked to cover over their fundamental lack of belief and they do just the same today – perhaps you are like them. Just one more bit of evidence, just one more bit of proof and you convince yourself that then you’d believe. But how much do you want and what is it that will satisfy?
Jesus looked at the crowd with its never-ending desire for more signs and condemned it for wicked unbelief and for very good cause – just pause and think about it.
They had witnessed a miracle just that very day – an evil spirit had been exorcised and a poor man delivered from its dreadful effects and influences. But that was by no means the first miraculous sign that he had performed and the crowd was well aware that Jesus had already done many other extraordinary things.
Luke has already told us of at least three previous exorcisms that Jesus had carried out. In addition to this Jesus had healed a whole range of people from a variety of different sicknesses. He had cleansed a leper, he had healed a paralytic and made the withered hand of another man better. He had exercised power over the elements as he calmed a storm at sea and he had also fed large crowds with virtually nothing. If all that wasn’t already enough he had also brought two people back to life again after they had died! And Luke the man who wrote all this down was a doctor!
No, the crowds had sufficient evidence to examine already. They had heard enough and seen enough to put their faith and trust in Jesus – what additional kind of sign did they think they still needed? No, their request for a sign was not so that they might exercise faith it was a request for some mere passing excitement, some bragging rights perhaps along the lines of "I was there when Jesus did..."
So Jesus rebuked the crowd: oh, it was not that this particular crowd was particularly bad, it simply reflected the thinking of the day. But that was no excuse at all. It would of no benefit to plead that they were only behaving like everybody else – because everybody else was in the wrong too! They were all were acting out of unbelief. And unbelief was culpable, it was wicked.
I wonder whether you think that is a bit harsh. You might do if you are busy trying to excuse or justify your own refusal to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. You see it is so easy for men and women to try to pass the buck and to make out that they’re not the ones responsible. It so easy to make out that it’s reasonable to hold back because of lack of faith, as though the fault is not your own but someone else’s, perhaps even God’s!
But Jesus cuts through such subterfuge and calls it what it is: wicked unbelief. And it is a wicked unbelief that will be clearly revealed for what it is and roundly condemned on the day of judgement.
Is he speaking to you today? Is he challenging your thoughts and exposing the duplicity of your own inner being? If he is it is because he wants you to realise what your condition really is like and he wants you to come to him so that he can do something about it.
But make no mistake – unbelief puts you in the wrong; God does not consider the refusal to believe in Jesus as a weakness or failure to be pitied but as a crime to be exposed and eventually punished.
Great Examples and the sign
The people were clamouring then for some further sign to prove who he was and to authenticate what he said and did. Jesus denied that they had a right to such further gratuitous demonstrations of his power. He wasn’t about to satisfy their desire for the extraordinary, he wasn’t about to "perform" for their good pleasure.
It wasn’t the first time that Jesus had been tempted in this manner. Do you remember back to the temptations that Satan hurled his way in the wilderness as he set out on his ministry? Satan too tried to suggest he should do something spectacular to attract attention to himself and so convince them of his credentials. Let me remind you of that incident:
Lk.4:9-11 "And (the devil) took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, "‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and " ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’"
Jesus refused to dance to Satan’ tune then and he refused to dance to the tune of the crowd here.
Their unbelief did not warrant the type of sign that they wanted to see and instead Jesus told them they would have no other sign than the sign of Jonah.
Luke doesn’t pause to give any explanation of this somewhat cryptic phrase but pushes straight on to present a couple of examples from the OT which he holds up for his hearers to learn from. We’ll follow Luke’s pattern and then having done that we’ll consider the explanation Matthew gives in his gospel of this sign of Jonah.
The first example that Jesus puts to his hearers concerns the Queen of Sheba way back in the days of King Solomon. Solomon was one of Israel’s greatest ever Kings. He reigned over a large area for many years in peace and his influence and reputation spread much further afield still.
News about him got all the way down to Sheba (located in modern day Yemen) and what the Queen heard about him impressed her. She heard tell of his wisdom in such glowing terms that she determined it really was worth her while to go and see for herself. It wasn’t an easy journey – the round trip would be in excess of three and a half thousand miles and that in a day before motorised transport.
The OT accounts of her visit tell us that she was not disappointed in what she found rather her analysis was that she hadn’t been told even half of the truth about Solomon’s wisdom.
If the Queen of Sheba should take the reports about Solomon seriously to do something about it then shouldn’t Jesus’ hearers consider seriously what they know about him?
The second example is similar. God sent Jonah to preach against the Ninevites because of their evil-doing. It sounded like a message of doom but in reality it was a wake-up call, a call to repentance. (Jonah didn’t want to go to preach to these foreigners not because he feared they wouldn’t like his message but because he feared God would be merciful to his nation’s enemies!)
Well, when his efforts to wriggle out of God’s plan failed, Jonah did finally arrive in Nineveh where he preached. Just as he feared, his message was made the means of salvation for the Ninevites. He preached the imminent destruction of the city but the inhabitants were so deeply affected by his preaching that they repented seeking God’s mercy. Nineveh was spared.
The Ninevites listened to the preaching of a relatively insignificant foreign prophet who had arrived as a stranger amongst them. He hadn’t backed up his preaching with miracles of healing, exorcisms or the like and yet the inhabitants of the city hadn’t asked him to prove his credentials. Instead they acted upon his words. If the Ninevites could react like that then the crowds listening to Jesus that day should in their turn react not with unbelief but with faith and trust.
Now back to the sign of Jonah. If Luke’s gospel was all we had to go on then we might be justified in saying that the sign of Jonah refers uniquely to the faithful preaching of God’s word in unfavourable circumstances. But we don’t only have what Luke says we also have Matthew’s gospel and Matthew added some words of explanation when he referred to this "sign of Jonah".
Mt.12:40 "For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."
Jonah was reluctantly thrown overboard by the sailors of the ship he was travelling when it was in danger of sinking. He disappeared from their sight. To all and intents and purposes he was dead and would have died had God not intervened in a most remarkable way. Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and so kept alive though for three days he seemed lost to the world. During that time he came to his senses and had renewed dealings with God. The fish vomited him onto dry land where Jonah was told for the second time what his mission was and this time he carried it out. He went, as one returning from the dead, to preach his message of judgment which became under God the means of salvation for the Ninevites.
Here is the parallel with Jesus and here is how the sign of Jonah applied to Jesus. The parallelism is not exact but that shouldn’t surprise us as OT types are normally upgraded in the NT.
Jesus too would be "lost to the world" only he would not merely seem to be dead but he would actually have died! Jonah cast into the sea spent his time in the belly of that great fish whereas Jesus was buried in the tomb. Jonah was coughed up on the beach and so was figuratively coming back from the dead and he then proclaimed the message which had been entrusted to him. Jesus too returned from the dead only his return was not figurative but literal. The gospel message that would subsequently be proclaimed the world over centres on both his death and his resurrection and is the means whereby our sins are dealt with and we reconciled to God.
(Sometimes folk get hung up about the three days and three nights and worry that if Jesus was buried on Friday evening and raised early Sunday morning then he was only in the grave for some 36-38 hours and nothing like the 72 hours of three days and three nights. The answer is simple enough: Jews didn’t reckon time in the way we do: they used what is called ‘inclusive reckoning’. The expression "day and night" did not primarily mean a period of 24 hours it simply meant an indivisible unity. Even a few hours in any one day could and would be referred to as "day and night". So Friday evening = 1 "day and night" Saturday = 1 "day and night" and early Sunday morning = 1 "day and night" taken together 3 "days and nights".)
As in the case of Jonah judgement and salvation are very much to the fore in Jesus resurrection from the dead. Jonah had been a sign to the Ninevites by returning from the apparent death at sea Jesus resurrection would function in the same way in the future for the crowd to whom he was speaking.
This was not at all the kind of sign that Jesus’ actual hearers were waiting for but it was the only sign he would deliberately give them and prepare them for.
A Great Saviour
It is now time to take a closer look at what Jesus has to say about himself in this section and so we need to return to the examples Jesus spoke about, namely the Queen of Sheba and the Ninevites. When we considered these examples I didn’t emphasise something that Jesus did emphasise because I wanted to do that now.
The Queen of Sheba went to see Solomon and Jesus applauded her for doing so. But he wanted to add something very important:
Lk.11:31 "behold, something greater than Solomon is here."
Similarly, after commending the Ninevites for repenting when they heard Jonah preach, Jesus went on to add:
Lk.11:32 "and behold, something greater than Jonah is here."
Some of the translations render this "something" as "someone" and while that is true it doesn’t tell the whole story.
1. Someone greater than...
The first thing to notice is with what consummate ease Jesus compares himself favourably with these two different men.
If Solomon wasn’t Israel’s greatest king he certainly was the second on the list. He was the wisest of men and extraordinarily wealthy and successful. Yet, without a second thought Jesus declares himself to be greater, more significant and more important than Solomon. If the Queen of Sheba could put herself out so much to meet with Solomon how much more should Jesus’ hearers then and now heed what he has to say!
Jonah wasn’t a particular important prophet – we don’t know much about him and the book that bears his name is small – but we do know that he was an incredibly successful prophet of the Living God. What results he witnessed to his preaching even if he didn’t welcome what he saw. He preached and an entire city was transformed and a nation’s judgment delayed for well over a hundred years.
Yet Jesus doesn’t hesitate to declare himself to be far more important than Jonah.
Let me stop and press this question on you: Are you treating this man Jesus seriously? And if not why not?
2. But the word means more than just someone.
Jesus is not simply referring to his person but also to his ministry. Solomon carried out great work informed and directed by his great wisdom. Jonah preached with clarity and effectiveness. Jesus is not only greater in personal terms but he is also far greater in terms of the work he had come to carry out. Jesus came not to build a temple or to be engaged in one foreign mission’s trip but to be the Saviour of the World!
How serious a matter it is to ignore then then extraordinary man!
Let me ask you again: "Are you treating this man Jesus seriously? And if not why not?"
Jesus challenged the folk of his day but not because he was a megalomaniac who had delusions of grandeur way above his station. He wasn’t stamping his feet because like a frustrated two-year old who couldn’t get his way.
No, he challenged folk because he knew that a day of reckoning is coming, a day of judgment, when the issue will be determined by our relationship to him.
You can enter that relationship through faith as you repent of your sin and put your trust in him – his person and his work. If you don’t then what will your excuse be?
I commend the Lord Jesus Christ to you again this morning and plead with you to be reconciled to God through the death of his Son.
To God be the Glory