Wanting to See, Matthew 12:38-42

Surely, we would agree that if we want to see something, we are more likely to see it. When my wife and I go to Ecola State Park (on the Oregon coast) we look for Haystack Rock to the south, down the stunning beach.

Imagine a situation in which the object someone wants to see is affirmatively present, and clearly visible, yet they do not see it. I think we would agree that, in such a situation, something is fundamentally wrong. Jesus confirms!

Matthew 12:38-42

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.

39 He answered, A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a 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 something 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 Solomons wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

What Old Testament figures are named in these verses?

Commentary

We have in verse 38 what looks like an innocuous request, but that is not the case. Just at the moment when Jesus has spoken about being judged for careless words about God, then (verse 38) the scribes and Pharisees make a statement to Jesus. Matthew introduces that statement using a pattern that Greek grammar tells us is significant because it draws special attention to the speech that follows.[1]

Matthew 12:39-40 39 He answered, A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a 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.

Osborne explains that the Jewish religious leaders are asking for a heaven-sent spectacle, something that Jesus has already proven he will not do to draw attention to himself (Matthew 4:1-11).[2] Jesus also uses the verbal pattern to heighten the significance of his refusal and reasons (verse 39). He first notes the ongoing demand for a sign and his decision not to grant one. If you have been following Jesus ministry of healing and casting out demons, then you understand that asking for one more miracle on top of hundreds cannot be a serious request.

While it is easy to find fault with the Pharisees, how do you sometimes stop short of living by faith while waiting for a sign from God?

Since it was not obvious how any sign related to Jonah could be given (verse 39), Jesus explains it in verse 40. Remember that Matthews Gospel was written after the death and resurrection of Jesus, so Matthew knows that his readers will interpret the words of Jesus in light of his death followed by his resurrection three days later.[3]

Matthew 12:41-42 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 something 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 Solomons wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

To understand verses 41-42, keep in mind that shame and honor provided the framework of the dominant moral system. Jesus is contrasting the Jews unbelieving response toward him with the positive response of the Ninevites to the preaching of Jonah. The Ninevites will find honor at the judgment by having repented at the preaching of Jonah, but the Jews of this generation will have only shame from their rejection of Jesus, because Jesus is greater than Jonah. A further source of shame for the unbelieving Jews at the judgment will be the fact that the Ninevites had been Gentiles of the most cruel and violent sort prior to their repentance.

The legendary wisdom of Solomon had convinced the Queen of the South (1 Kings 10), yet the current religious leaders were not listening to the greater wisdom of Jesus (verse 42), so she will rise with honor to condemn them at the judgment. Their shame will know no bounds.

[1] Steven, E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 150. We saw this device earlier in Matthew 11:25. The pattern consists of redundant verbs of speaking, often “answered and said.”

[2] Osborne, Matthew, 485.

[3] By Jewish reckoning, any part of a day counted as a full day. Jesus was in the grave from dusk on Friday until Sunday morning. Osborne, Matthew, 486.

The Power of Words, Matthew 12:36-37

Perhaps you remember learning as a child to say, in response to taunts:

Sticks and stones will break my bones / But words will never hurt me.

To the contrary, Jesus says our words can hurt us forever.

Matthew 12:36-37

36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

Who must account for their words?

Commentary

Frivolous. That is probably my best summary of social media. My apologies to those who indulge. For those who use social media in a hostile way, the summary might be: hateful. The unfortunate truth is that the twenty-first century offers more opportunity than ever to misuse words.

Personally, I subscribe to the speech-act theory, which holds that there is little to no difference between speech and action. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer explains that we do something in speaking: “To speak is not simply to utter words but to ask questions, issue commands, make statements, express feelings, request help, and so forth.”[1] So true!

A great deal of what goes on in Matthew 12 hinges on words. The people light a fire under the Pharisees by calling Jesus “Son of David” (verse 23). The Pharisees attribute Jesus miracles to the power of Beelzebul (verse 24), an alternate name for Satan. Jesus says that such blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven (verse 32), either now or later.

Against the idea that the First Amendment authorizes us to say whatever we like, Jesus says that we will be compelled to account for every empty word (verse 36). The crucial word in this phrase is the Greek adjective argon, which the standard Greek lexicon takes here to mean: “a careless utterance which, because of its worthlessness, had better been left unspoken.”[2] In agreement with “careless” are English versions HCSB, ESV and NASB. The NET Bible is close to that with “worthless.” I suppose the reason that I don’t like the NIV’s choice (“empty”) is that speech-act theory leads me to think that no word fails to make an impression. Remember that the words Jesus was condemning were words about God.

Now that we know what kind of words Jesus condemns, we need to return to verse 36 for some important work. Jesus informs us that we will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word. Does this mean that Christians can never joke about anything in a playful way? No! But it does mean that we speak about God in a respectful way without exception.

How will this revelation affect the way you speak, both to God and to others?

Some of you were peeved that the NSA was monitoring your electronic communications. Well, I have news for you: God has a surveillance program that records every word you say! Further, he may react to our words in real time. Jesus signals the importance of what he is saying in two ways. First, he begins with the phrase “I tell you,” a method of highlighting what follows. Second, he uses a certain Greek particle that marks a development in the progress of an account. To say words are important is one thing, but to bring them up on the day of judgment puts the matter on another level.

Verse 37 makes it obvious that our words are considered to be a fruit that makes it possible to show whether we are a good tree or a bad tree, in the metaphor of verse 33. If you have never been to court, understand that the difference between acquittal and condemnation is huge. As my old textbook on sea power said with classic understatement: “A collision at sea can ruin your entire day.” One day that you do not want to be ruined is judgment day!

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally prepared for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) 63.

[2] BDAG-3, argon, careless, q.v.

Putting Your Heart on Display, Matthew 12:33-35

Contrary to what many think, we have to make judgments about others on a routine basis. Jesus both models and teaches how we can determine the people we want as our friends and the ones to keep at arms length.

Matthew 12:33-35

33 Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.

List the metaphors you see in this short passage?

Commentary

Matthew 12:33 is one of the most difficult to understand in Matthew’s Gospel, particularly because most of our English versions fail to make its original meaning clear. We will take a closer look.

My rough translation:“Either take as an example that a tree is good, and so its fruit is good. Or take as an example that a tree is rotten, and so its fruit is rotten. Because it is from its fruit that a tree can be understood.”[1] (Matthew 12:33).

My paraphrase:“If you want to understand the quality of a tree, start with its fruit. Good fruit means that the tree is good. Rotten fruit means that the tree is rotten.” (Matthew 12:33).

After producing my analysis above, I discovered the following translation (or paraphrase) of verse 33 from the New Living Translation: “A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad.” This shows once again that NLT tends to shine when idioms are being used by the authors of the New Testament books.

This understanding of verse 33 may be confirmed from the context. Jesus has been healing people and casting out demons. Everyone understands that these acts are good, approved by God, as is shown by their pensive question, “Could this be the Son of David [the Messiah]?” (Matthew 12:23).

That question shows that the people who saw Jesus work his miracles of healing and exorcism understand those deeds to be good, and so they take the person doing the deeds to be good. They are judging Jesus by his fruit. However, the Pharisees are trying to confuse everyone by saying that Jesus works his miracles using Satan’s power (Matthew 12:24). With their spiritual authority, they are trying to sell the idea that it was a rotten tree that produced this good fruit.

When we get to verse 33, Jesus is reminding the crowd of the right way to judge a tree, and that is by the quality of the fruit.

Having shown that the Pharisees are guilty of such intentional evil that they cannot be forgiven, Jesus adopts a metaphor for them that John had used: “You brood of vipers” (verse 34a). As vipers, their mouths contain poison! The lies they have told about Jesus come from evil hearts, just as the rhetorical question in verse 34a suggests.

When we get to verse 35, the metaphor seems to change to viewing the heart as a well and the words from the Pharisees’ mouths as the overflow from their innermost self, their heart. Jesus has already said that they are evil, so their poisonous words make a consistent picture. Small wonder that people would stay clear of them.

In verse 35, Jesus contrasts two kinds of people using the metaphor of a treasure house. This verse has two instances of the Greek verb ekballo that we have previously seen with the meaning “cast out” or “drive out” in relation to demons driven out of a person by Jesus. Here ekballo occurs with the meaning “bring forth” and represents the actions taken by the person themselves. The good man brings forth good treasures, while the evil man brings forth evil treasures. Imagine a Christian showing kindness to another person, or a terrorist killing them without an editing thought.

Verse 35 begs the question: what kind of treasures are you storing? Have your treasures changed quality since you gave your allegiance to Jesus Christ? Explain.

You can see that Jesus has used the metaphors of the tree, the well and the treasure house to say that what is in the heart will emerge to be seen by others, especially God. People can only see our deeds and our words, but God knows our hearts and everything that emerges from them!

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials prepared for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] BDAG-3, poieo, take as an example (meaning 5.b.); kai, and so (meaning 1.c.), q.v.