6. The business of mission, 11:1-12:50

vi] A request for a sign


Jesus has just healed a demon-possessed man who is deaf and dumb and the Pharisees have made the rather stupid suggestion that Jesus performed this exorcism in the power of Satan. Jesus responds strongly, warning them that their opinion is leading them toward divine judgment. It seems the Pharisees have taken note of Jesus' words, but how can they be sure that Jesus' power is God's power? To answer this question they ask him for a sign. Jesus again responds strongly, warning them that the only sign they will receive is the sign of Jonah, namely, the proclamation of the gospel. Ignore this act of divine grace and the Pharisees, along with all of unbelieving Israel, will find their last state worse than the first.


"An evil and adulterous generation" looks for demonstrations of power and authority to confirm the validity of an asserted truth, but such a quest takes an "adulterous generation" to a state "worse than the first." The only demonstration of power given those who confront the new age of the kingdom is a Word from God, namely, the gospel.


i] Context: See "Issues", 11:1-19.


ii] Structure: A request for a sign:

Words of judgment.

Saying, v38-39:

the request for a sign.

Saying, v40-42:

the sign of Jonah.

Saying, v43-45:

the return of an unclean spirit


iii] Interpretation:

The passage before us continues Matthew's arrangement of the narratives in chapters 11 and 12 to serve as a paradigm for the mission of the church. Jesus' response to the Pharisees request for a sign serves to reveal that the world's negative perception of the gospel is partly driven by the need for some demonstration of power which authorizes the validity of the church's claims. In the end though, the only demonstration of power offered the world is the foolishness of the gospel. The illustration about a returning evil spirit serves to make the point that "this wicked generation" (in the immediate context, unbelieving Israel) faces an inevitable deteriorating spiral from bad to worse as it turns from the gospel. Christian mission will always have to face the reality of secular societies that have chosen to classify the gospel as myth.


The Sign of Jonah: The sign of Jonah has prompted some debate; Chrysostom called it "a dark saying." Numerous suggestions have been offered, but the sign of Jonah in the terms of a preached word of judgment for repentance is most likely intended. The designation, peculiar to Matthew, Iwna tou profhtou, "Jonah the prophet", supports this view. Jonah was a man with a mission to preach a word from God, a word of judgment which calls for repentance. To Jonah's annoyance the people of Nineveh repented and so received mercy / forgiveness rather than condemnation. Such was the message proclaimed by Jesus, a message proclaimed by the church today, and it alone serves as God's sign for an evil generation.

It is generally felt that verse 40 is not from Q but is from Matthew's own hand, possibly reflecting a tradition within his own community. As such, it is suggested that the verse interprets the sign of Jonah in terms of Jesus' death and resurrection - "both the old and the new sign of Jonah consists in the authorization of the divine messenger by deliverance from death", Jeremias, TDNT 3.409. Yet, it can just as easily be argued that the verse was part of Q (or better, the received oral tradition) and that Luke replaced it with a more cryptic statement, so Carson, or even better, a statement which removes the potential for misunderstanding the sign (if anything is cryptic it is Matthew's saying, typical of Jesus' Son of Man sayings).

The prophet Jonah is a sign in proclaiming divine judgment and calling for repentance. This sign / demonstration of divine power is evident in the ministry of Jesus, who, as the Son of Man, is similarly an eschatological preacher, announcing the coming kingdom and calling for repentance, and it is this sign only, as the sign of Jonah, which is appropriate for a sinful generation. Matthew may have thought that the "dark saying" recorded in v40 had something to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus, but he has resisted the temptation to make that clear and has left us with a conundrum. It is very unlikely that Jesus, having denied a sinful generation an authenticating miraculous sign, would then offer the greatest miracle of all, namely, his resurrection from the dead. So, it is unlikely that this "dark saying" has anything to do with Jesus' resurrection. If anything, it speaks of suffering, of Jonah's suffering in the deep, in the belly of the sea monster, and of Jesus' mission as a suffering servant, a conundrum none-the-less. A sinful generation will look for miraculous signs, but the only sign for such a generation is the word of a suffering preacher - as for Jonah, so for Jesus, and so for us.


iv] Synoptics:

Many commentators tend to identify a complex stitching of independent sayings of Jesus: v38-39, v40 + v41-42 (link / stitching words "Jonah" and "generation"), v43-45. For some, v40 is redactional (an editorial creation by Matthew), given that Luke's "For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation", cleanly moves to the issue at hand, namely, the sign = the preached word (the wisdom of Solomon / the preaching of Jonah), cf., Lk.11:30. Q is usually identified as the source of this passage for both Matthew and Luke. The jury is out as to whether Luke's 11:30 or Matthew's v40 is true to source. One suspects Matthew has stayed true to the received tradition, while Luke has employed a touch of poetic license to alleviate a potential problem. The mention of the "three days" leads to the assumption that the sign of Jonah is the resurrection of Jesus, when actually v40 seeks only to strengthen the alignment of the Son of Man with the preaching of Jonah. It seems likely that this set of teaching sayings was present as a single unit of tradition long before Luke or Matthew got to see / hear it, whether as Q, or as oral tradition.

Text - 12:38

A demand for miracles, v38-45: i] The request for a sign, v38-39. The only sign given an adulterous generation is the sign of Jonah, the sign of a word from God that calls for repentance.

tote adv. "Then" - Temporal adverb introducing a temporal clause, serving to indicate a step in the narrative / argument.

twn grammatewn kai qarisaiwn gen. "[some] of the Pharisees and teachers of the law" - [answered him certain] of the scribes and pharisees. The genitive is adjectival, partitive.

autw/ dat. pro. "[said] to him" - Dative of indirect object after the passive verb "to answer." This, along with the attendant participle legonteV, "saying", gives us "some of the scribes and the Pharisees answered him, saying."

idein (oJraw) aor. inf. "[we want] to see" - [teacher, we desire from you] to see [a sign]. The infinitive may be classified as complementary, but it can also be viewed as introducing a dependent statement of perception expressing what the Pharisees and scribes qelw, "will, want, desire", namely, to see a sign from Jesus.

apo + gen. "from" - Expressing source / origin.


apokriqeiV (apokrinomai) aor. pas. part. "[he] answered" - [and, but] having answered [he said]. Attendant circumstance participle expressing action accompanying the verb "to say", redundant; "he answered and said."

autoiV dat. pro. "-" - to them. Dative of indirect object.

moicaliV adj. "adulterous" - [a generation evil and] adulterous. Attributive adjective limiting the nominative subject, "generation", of the verb "to seek." Often a description used of Israel for seeking after other god's and thus of being unfaithful to God.

genea (a) "generation" - Used for the present generation, the present company, Jesus' contemporaries; "you want a sign because you are evil and won't believe", CEV.

epizhtei (epizhtew) pres. "asks for" - seeks after, requests [a sign]. The epi prefix intensifies; "insists on", Gundry. "It is an evil and unfaithful generation that craves for a sign", Phillips.

kai "but" - and. Here possibly with adversative force; "but".

auth/ dat. pro. "it" - [no sign will be given] it. Dative of direct object.

ei mh "except" - Here introducing an exceptive clause expressing a contrast by designating an exception. Although leaving us with much the same meaning, ei mh can sometimes mean "only", which sense suits here; "but no sign will be given, only the sign of the prophet Jonah."

Iwna (as a) gen. proper. "[the sign] of [the prophet] Jonah" - of jonah, [the prophet]. The genitive is adjectival, epexegetic / idiomatic, limiting by specifying the sign; "the sign, namely of Jonah the prophet" / "the sign which was evident in the ministry of the prophet Jonah." The genitive "the prophet" stands in apposition to Jonah.


ii] The sign of Jonah, v40-42. A sinful generation will look for miraculous signs, but the only sign for such a generation is the word of a suffering preacher. Although the sense of these verses remain allusive, the central point is clear enough. Like Jonah, the Son of Man serves as a preacher of judgment, struggling to this end. Sadly, unlike Jonah, only a remnant of Israel will repent, and for this Israel (and the world) stands condemned, even by the men of Nineveh.

gar "for" More reason than cause, explanatory; best left untranslated.

w{sper ...... ou{twV "as ....... so" - just as [jonah was in the belly of the large fish three days and three nights] so [will be the son of man in the heart of the land]. A comparative construction; "just as ...... so also ......" The analogy is made using Jonah 1:17; "the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside he fish three days and three nights" - as for Jonah, so for the Son of Man. "In the same way that .... so ....", TEV.

treiV adj. "three" - three [days and] three [nights]. Accusative of measure. It is only natural that we align Jesus' words here with his numerous prophecies concerning the death and resurrection of the Son of Man, of his being "killed and after three days rise again." Yet, here we don't have the third day (actually less than two days, but the third day by Jewish counting), but three days and three nights. Jesus was not in the grave three nights - contra, note 1Sam.30:12. The suffering of the righteous is symbolically counted in the OT with the number three since the Lord cuts short the suffering of his righteous ones, cf., Gen.2:16, Ex.19:11, Josh.2:16, Hos.6:2, ... Rather than the three days of Jesus death and resurrection, Jesus / Matthew is referring to something else, probably the suffering of God's servant, even possibly in terms of his three years of earthly ministry.

en + dat. "in" - Local; expressing space / sphere.

thV ghV (h) gen. "[the heart] of the land" - The genitive is adjectival, partitive. An allusion to Jonah 2:3, "You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the sea", hurled into the kardiaV, "heart = center", of suffering. Such is the case for the Son of Man.


Niveuitai (hV ou) "[the men] of Nineveh" - ninevite [men]. This noun stands in apposition to "men", defining the "men".

anasthsontai (anisthmi) fut. "will stand up" - will rise up. "Probably refers to the resurrection", D&A.

en + dat. "at" - in = at [the judgment]. Temporal use of the preposition.

meta + gen. "with" - with [this generation, and they will condemn it]. Expressing association / accompaniment.

oJti "for" - because [they repented]. Here introducing a causal clause explaining why the men of Nineveh will join in the condemnation of "this generation".

eiV "at" - into [the preaching]. Here with a rare causal sense; "because of", or "in light of", BDAG, 291.10.a, although a causal sense for this preposition is not widely accepted.

Iwna (a) gen. proper. "of Jonah" - of jonah [and behold greater than] jonah [is here]. The first use of the genitive "Jonah" is usually classified as adjectival, verbal, subjective, with the second as ablative, of comparison.

pleion neut. adj. "greater than" - There is debate over the "something greater than Jonah." The greater is usually understood as Jesus, so Carson, ...., but Dodd suggests it is the kingdom, and there is even the possibility that the greater is the preaching of the kingdom itself, ie., the gospel, so Manson.


notou (oV) gen. "[the Queen] of the South" - The genitive is adjectival, attributive, idiomatic / of source; "the queen who comes from the South." The queen is of course the Queen of Sheba, cf., 1King.10:1-13. She came and tested Solomon's wisdom, but unlike the Pharisees, she recognized his wisdom and accepted the truth.

egerqhsetai (egeirw) fut. pas. "will rise" - will be raised. Divine passive, again probably referring to the resurrection of the dead in the last day.

en + dat. "at [the judgment]" - Temporal use of the preposition.

meta + gen. "with [this generation]" - Expressing association.

oJti "for" - [and will condemn it] because. Introducing a causal clause explaining why the Queen of the South will rise with this generation and judge it; "because".

ek + gen. "[she came] from" - Expressing source / origin.

thV ghV (h) gen. "[the ends] of the earth" - The genitive is adjectival, partitive.

akousai (akouw) aor. inf. "to listen to" - to hear. The infinitive is adverbial, final, expressing purpose; "in order to listen .."

SolomwnoV (wn wnoV) gen. "Solomon's [wisdom]" - [the wisdom] of solomon [and behold something greater than solomon is here]. Best taken as adjectival, either possessive, or verbal, subjective, with the second use of the genitive, "greater of Solomon = greater than Solomon", being comparative.


iii] The return of an unclean spirit, v43-45. This saying is most likely an illustration (contra Luz) which has nothing to do with the blind and mute demon-possessed man, v22, but rather, is directed toward "this evil generation" who, having failed to repent, will find themselves in a situation similar to a person who has been freed from a demon, but then finds themselves infested with seven demons. The final condition of that person is worse than the first. Matthew initially reveals the Pharisees as hostile toward Jesus ministry; they claim that he casts out Satan in the power of Satan. The Pharisees are then presented in a more neutral light, seeking a sign from Jesus, but "one cannot be neutral toward Jesus", Morris. "For many of Jesus' contemporaries, his healings and exorcisms are like a windfall. But if his ministry is met with a failure to repent and to engage with the coming kingdom of God, the windfall will be short-lived; instead disaster looms", Nolland. As part of Matthew's paradigm for mission we are to note that what was true for Israel is true for the world at large. "For freedom Christ has set us free" and in this freedom, bound by compassion, Western civilization has flourished, enriching the lives of its citizens. Yet today, having chosen to turn from the gospel of grace, this short-lived windfall will be replaced by a condition "worse than the first". For a summary of the many interpretations offered on this passage see D&A, 2/359.

de "-" - but, and. Indicating a step in the argument.

oJtan + subj. "when" - whenever [the unclean spirit goes out]. Introducing an indefinite temporal clause, although translated "when" rather than "whenever". Often establishing a conditional clause, as here, and often expressing repeated action.

apo + gen. "from" - from [the man]. Expressing separation; "away from."

dia + gen. "through" - [it goes through] through [dry / waterless places seeking rest and does not find]. Spacial use of the preposition, redundant due to the dia prefix of the verb "to pass through", but standard form; "through". "It roams through waterless tracts", Cassirer.


It's not wise for a landlord to ignore a bad tenant; the situation can only get worse.

tote adv. "then" - then [it says, into the house of me I will return]. Temporal adverb used to express a step in the argument / narrative.

oJqen adv. "I left" - from where [i came]. Adverb of place.

elqon (ercomai) aor. part. "when it arrives" = having come. The participle is adverbial, best treated as temporal, as NIV, but possibly conditional, "if it arrives."

scolizonta (scolazw) pres. part. "the house unoccupied" - [it finds] having leisure = being empty [having been swept and having been set in order]. This participle, as with the participles "having been swept" and "having been set in order", serves as the complement of the assumed object "the house" standing in a double accusative construction.


tote "then" - then [it goes and takes]. Temporal adverb again serving to indicate a step in the argument / narrative.

meq (meta) + gen. "with" - with [itself seven other spirits]. Expressing association / accompaniment.

eJautou gen. pro. "than itself" - [evil] of itself. The genitive reflexive pronoun is ablative, of comparison; "more evil than itself."

eiselqonta (eisercomai) aor. part. "they go in and [live there]" - [and] having entered [it dwells there]. Attendant circumstance participle expressing action accompanying the verb "to dwell, inhabit."

ta escata adj. "the final condition" - the last things = state. The adjective serves as a substantive, nominative subject of the verb . "That person ends up worse off", Peterson.

tou anqrwpou (oV) gen. "of [that] man / person" - The genitive is adjectival, possessive. Possibly adverbial, reference / respect, "with respect to that man."

twn prwtwn gen. adj. "[is worse] than the first" - [becomes worse] of the first. The adjective serves as a substantive, the genitive being ablative, of comparison; "than the first."

ou{twV adv. "this is how [it will be]" - thus, so [also it will be]. Inferential / introducing a logical conclusion. "If it continued on its self-opinionated way, the generation that refused the opportunity presented to it by the appearance in its midst of the very Son of God, the generation already characterized as 'evil and adulterous', faced a future that was bleak indeed", Morris.

kai "-" - and. Adjunctive; "also".

th/ genea/ tauth/ th/ ponhra/ dat. "with this wicked generation" - Dative of indirect object / interest, disadvantage; "for this evil generation", but possibly adverbial, reference / respect, "with respect to this evil generation." "That's what will happen to this wicked generation", NJB.


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