Signs And Obedience

This morning we come to the end of our series of studies that we have been having over the past three months in Matthew's Gospel. We have been looking at chapters 11-12. And what we have been studying among other things is people's reaction to Jesus. This morning we are to be looking at Matthew 12 verses 38 to 50. In these verses you have a remarkable summary, almost, of these reactions. And there are three basic positions that people can have with regard to Jesus. First, there is UNBELIEF; secondly, there is HALF-HEARTEDNESS; and thirdly, there is TRUE COMMITMENT. And these are my headings for this morning. First, UNBELIEF The Pharisees here did not believe in Jesus. And there are millions today who similarly do not believe in him. This Christmas has given us more evidence of such unbelief. Cardinal Hume said on Christmas Day: "we have almost succeeded in removing Christ out of Christmas." Sadly this year in the Queen's Speech on Christmas day there was not a single reference to Jesus, or Bethlehem even. If you look up the BBC's web site, there is something about the Christian meaning of Christmas. But it then tells you to (I quote) ...

... hold on to your Santa Hats. Many of our Christmas customs have very little to do with the events that took place in Bethlehem all those years ago. The tradition of holding a special festival in December goes back much further.

There seems to be a relish in telling you that Christmas is fundamentally a Celtic fire festival, or a Roman New Year festival, or part of the orgiastic Saturnalia; or a festival for the God Mithras; or part of the Jewish Hanukkah festival. But the people supplying the information fail to tell you that thoughtful Christians know all that perfectly well. And they fail to tell you that the early Christians chose the twenty-fifth of December to celebrate the birth of Christ for the very purpose of turning people away from pagan festivities to festivities in honour of Christ. Those early Christians knew that the twenty-fifth of December was the peak time of a pagan Roman festival in honour of the Sun. So they said, "No! don't get debauched in celebrating the coming of the Sun but celebrate the birth of the true Light of the World - the creator of the Sun - Jesus Christ." And then you get those people in our schools - and sometimes a tiny minority of out-spoken parents - who demand that our schools do not have a nativity play, or if they do, it must be combined in a multi-faith mishmash with one about a pagan festival as well. And so the supreme uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ is eroded in the minds of impressionable young people - and that in a country where there are only 3 or 4 percent of the population of other faiths while 70 percent, rightly or wrongly, identify themselves as Christian in some way or other. Unbelief in Jesus is so subtle. The bible talks about the deceitfulness of sin. Let me explain. The heart of sin, Jesus said, is not believing in him. And the "multi-faith" road is a very subtle and effective way of not believing in him. Today, it is probably the most seductive way of losing faith in Christ. But there are other roads as well that are also subtle. C. S. Lewis spoke of simple spiritual drift. On one occasion he said this:

If you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned our of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?

Charles Darwin, the evolutionist, put it like this:

I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation ... disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.

But one of the most subtle of all ways of not believing in Christ is that of the Pharisees here in verses 38 - 42:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you." {39} He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. {40} For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. {41} The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. {42} The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.

Notice what is happening. The Pharisees pretend to be seekers after the truth. They seem to be saying that they want more evidence to help them believe in Jesus:

"Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you" (verse 38).

But Jesus knew this was fake. He knew that they were for ever asking for evidence but never open to conviction. Is there anyone like that here this morning? You are still saying, at least in your subconscious - "I want more evidence before I believe in Christ." But if, like these Pharisees, you have had enough evidence already - if you've seen the reasonableness of the Christian faith; if you've examined the good evidence for the Resurrection - that "sign of the prophet Jonah" - and cannot counter it; if you've seen that in some people at least lives have been changed; if you've been sufficiently convinced by the Holy Spirit as you study the bible and the accounts of Jesus and the teaching of his apostles, that he is true; then to ask for more evidence in those circumstances is to incur the solemn charge of Jesus here in verse 39, of being ...

"wicked and adulterous ... [in asking] for a miraculous sign!"

The Pharisees had plenty of signs. As Peter could say in his Pentecost sermon, Acts 2.22:

"Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God ... by miracles, wonders and signs."

Theirs was a problem of the will. Sin was not the result of intellectual difficulties. No! Their intellectual difficulties were the result of sin - of that fundamental spiritual disease we all have that makes us reject God - and God the Son, Jesus Christ. Of course, there are real intellectual problems that people have. But as someone has put it, there is a point at which you have "to separate those who are doubting because they need answers from those who are doubting because they need doubts." And the Pharisees of Jesus' day needed doubts. And millions are like them today. They just do not want to believe in Jesus. The Pharisees having sufficient evidence is suggested by the experience of the men of Nineveh. The Ninevites had weaker preaching to listen to than these Pharisees had. For the Pharisees had heard not Jonah preaching but Jesus. Yet the Pharisees still did not repent, but the Ninevites did. And their having sufficient evidence is also suggested by the Queen of Sheba. She was convinced by the wisdom of Solomon. But Christ's wisdom was far greater than Solomon's. Yet still the Pharisees did not seek Christ's wisdom. But she sought Solomon's. The problem was not in the Pharisees' understanding or in their minds but in their wills. They just did not want to believe. Aldous Huxley, in a famous passage, once was honest enough to explain the psychology of all this:

I had motives [he wrote] for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption ... For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.

The motives of the Pharisees may have been different to Huxley's. But the goal was the same - not to believe in Jesus. Let's move on. If the first reaction to Jesus is straight unbelief. The second is half-heartedness. That brings us to our second heading this morning. Secondly, HALF-HEARTEDNESS Look at the next few verses, verses 43-45:

"When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. {44} Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. {45} Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation."

This is a little parable. Jesus uses the case of an exorcism - which still happens around the world, and sometimes in this country, though probably not quite as often as some people make out. But the principle applies all the time in less dramatic forms. For the point about this parable is not to teach about the occult (dangerous as that is) - which it does in passing. Rather it is to teach about half-heartedness. And notice that in this whole section Jesus is not teaching primarily here about individuals, although this all applies to us as individuals. No! He is talking about whole "generations." Verse 39 speaks of a "wicked and adulterous generation". Verse 41 speaks about "this generation". Verse 42 speaks about "this generation". And verse 45 here says, referring to this whole parable:

That is how it will be with this wicked generation.

You see, belief and unbelief is not only an individual matter. You get whole cultures of unbelief like the culture of the Western World today. But that is a half-hearted unbelief. For many still believe in Jesus Christ privately; they are simply frightened to say so publicly - at work, in their educational establishments, in Government - in the Public Square in fact. And all this leads to a culture of "half-heartedness". At present, with so much nominal Christianity it is not full blown unbelief. No! It is "half-heartedness". But the half-heartedness in the parable is where, literally, only one half of God's offer of spiritual restoration is enjoyed. And Jesus says that is worse than having nothing. In the parable, the evil spirit is exorcised from the man; but the spirit of God doesn't take the evil spirit's place. There is a void. The Spirit of God doesn't enter and fill the man's life. So the evil spirit can return with a vengeance because his life is empty. How true that is to experience. You get some people who say "I think the Christian faith is good. It is good for morality. It is good to provide us with a moral framework. That is what society needs, especially today." And it is good for a moral framework. But the Christian faith is not just about the "law" or morality. That is only the first half. Yes, you must start with the law; but by itself God's "law" can be so depressing, because we all break it. That is why you need the second half of the gospel as well. The gospel is not just a negative don't do this and get rid of this that is evil or else. No! positively it tells you how when you fail, God picks you up, forgives you through the cross where Christ bore our sins, and how he gives you new life by the Holy Spirit. How important you don't only have "half" of God's truth and "half" of what he offers. He does not just offer moral do's and don'ts - vital as they are. That is just the first half. He also offers forgiveness and new life, because we all fail. That is the vital second half. Who this morning has only "half" the truth? Perhaps you are rightly concerned to stand for Christian moral standards, in the decadent world of today. But you have only one half, if you have never allowed Christ by his Holy Spirit, in the words and the picture language of this parable, "to come in and live in the house - that is your life"? The trouble is that "moralism" cannot sustain itself. Unless there is also the power of God to change lives, moralism becomes hard, arrogant, and, like "back to basics political campaigns" precarious. There will always be notable public failures. Even the greatest of moralists are sinners. That is why the world has to hear the gospel of the forgiveness of sins, as well as the demands of morality and the law and the call to get rid of what is evil. There are, of course, other ways people can just have only some of what Christ offers. In Jesus' own day there were those who liked his healings; but did not accept his teaching on the cost of discipleship. And there are other ways people can be half-hearted today. Is there anyone who is half-hearted here this morning? In the book of Revelation we are told about a church that was "half-hearted" - the church at Laodicea. Listen to what Christ says of that church (Rev 3.15-16):

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! {16} So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold - I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

Remember, it was to that church - the church at Laodicea - that Jesus said, Rev 3.19-20:

So be earnest, and repent. {20} Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

That church and those Christians, were like this man in the parable - there was an emptiness. Christ was not in residence. Have you got Jesus Christ in your life? If not remember the words of the carol? ...

Where meek souls will receive him - stillThe dear Christ enters in.

So finally, TRUE COMMITMENT Look at verses 46-50:

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. {47} Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you." {48} He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" {49} Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. {50} For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."

What counts is not a physical relationship with Christ - a blood relationship. What counts is a relationship of trust and obedience. Of course, Christ was not neglectful of his parents. He condemned the Pharisees for such a neglect. No! Here he is simply making the point that what counts is not what you say, but what you do - doing "the will of my Father in heaven." Nor, of course, was Christ saying you are justified or saved by you good deeds. Of course not. They are never good enough. But he is saying that no amount of pious talk will count, if it is not accompanied by a life and action that proves a level of reality. It is always faith that works by love, not faith without any fruit, that is important. The evidence that faith is genuine and has made the vital connection with Jesus Christ the living and risen Saviour who gives his Holy Spirit, is a level of obedience, including obedience in confessing failure and seeking forgiveness. So we conclude with a challenge from the words of Jesus for each one of us this Christmas and as we go into a New Year:

whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.

Back to top