Luke11v29to32: THE SIGN OF JONAH

(A) Introduction. Read: Luke11v29to32

It is a strange paradox that Jesus who was meek and lowly of heart made such astonishing claims about himself. He was so humble that for 30 years he never once preached in his local synagogue. John the Baptist never dreamt that his unassertive cousin was the Messiah. Once Jesus began his ministry he made no attempt to cultivate the people who mattered. Yet the humble carpenter from Nazareth came out with statements like, "Now one greater than Solomon is here." Luke11v31. Solomon was probably the most spectacularly successful of all Israel's kings. Jesus could only have made such a provocative remark because he knew it was true and because the Jews needed to realise it was true.

There were times when I needed to assert myself as a teacher. On occasions my pupils seemed to doubt my qualifications to teach Geography. I needed to remind them I obtained a degree in the subject from a top ranking university. Sometimes students treated my advice on how to do well in exams in a very cavalier fashion. It was important to tell them that I had been preparing children for exams for over 30 years and it was one of the few things I was an expert in. I spoke to my pupils about my qualifications and experience because it was in their best interest to have faith in me.

(B) The desire for a sign. Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven. v16.

I find it very strange that the Jews asked Jesus for a sign to demonstrate that he was the Messiah. Surely there had been signs a plenty - the healing of the blind mute, the feeding of the five thousand and the raising of Jairus' daughter. What more did they expect? Perhaps they wanted him to perform the kind of stunt Satan once suggested: to throw himself off a pinnacle of the temple and to be brought safely to earth by angels. Did the sceptics want Jesus to show he was the warrior king by destroying the Roman garrison in Jerusalem with fire? We don't know. Perhaps they didn't know! They just wanted something to make faith easier!

Today people want a sign before they will believe in Jesus. They want:

(1) To be given faith - made willing to believe by the Holy Spirit. If faith can only follow regeneration as some Calvinists affirm this is a reasonable condition. But if faith precedes regeneration a person could wait for ever. I am happy to be guided by Jesus in this matter who said: "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door."

(2) A blinding light - a supernatural experience such as Saul had on the road to Damascus.

(3) A vision or a dream. Some folk become Christian because Jesus appears to them in a vision - so why not them?

(4) A deep conviction of sin. In churches where a conviction of sin is made a prerequisite of salvation a man may decide he cannot believe because he does not feel miserable enough.

(5) A show of good will; if God would only heal their wife, prosper their business, increase their sex drive or tame their children then they would believe in Jesus.

(6) Jesus to bring peace to the trouble spots of the world; to stop the strife in the Congo or the famine in Zimbabwe.

Jesus' reply to everyone who asks for a miraculous sign is the same now as it was 2000 years ago: "None will be given .. except the sign of Jonah." v29.

(C) The sign of Jonah.

I do not believe that the sign Jesus referred to was the three days and three nights Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish. He said of the men of Nineveh: For they repented at the preaching of Jonah." v32. It was Jonah's preaching that produced repentance not his fishy adventure. Jonah preached judgment: "Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed." Jon3v4. The announcement of God's imminent judgment implied an urgent need for repentance.

Against all expectations the Ninevites did repent! What could have impressed them? Here are four suggestions:

(1) Jonah had come a long way to deliver his message. This lent gravitas to his simple proclamation.

(2) The prophet must have come to Nineveh at God's command. Jonah was a Jew. The Assyrians were his people's enemies. He wouldn't have chosen to warn them of an imminent catastrophe. Jonah must have been compelled by the LORD his God to journey to Nineveh with a proclamation of judgment.

(3) Jonah's message was very blunt and very precise. Everyone could understand it.

(4) Jonah was courageous. Forecasting disaster in a foreign city and alien culture was not the easiest of tasks.

(C) Jesus is greater than Jonah.

(1) In some respects Jesus was like Jonah. "For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites so also will the Son of Man be to this generation." v30.

    (a) Jesus had come a long way! He came down from heaven - sent by his Father. He said: "For I know where I came from and where I am going ..... . I stand with the Father who sent me." John8v14to18.

    Things must have been desperate here on earth for God to send his Son. This is a truth highlighted in the Parable of the Tenants. A landowner let his vineyard to tenants. Each harvest he sent servants to get his share of the fruit. But the tenants beat up the servants and refused to co-operate. So: "Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my Son,' he said." Mt21v27.

    (b) Jesus delivered his message without fear or favour. In the concluding verses of Luke 11 Jesus declares the failings of the Pharisees and the experts in the law in the most uncompromising terms. He does so at a supper party in a Pharisee's house surrounded by his opponents and critics. The gospel of John records numerous acrimonious exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees. This is a sample of what Jesus said: "He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God." John8v47. (See exposition on John8v31to59)

    I wonder how fearlessly we promote the Christian faith and denounce the values of the world.

(2) Jesus excelled Jonah.

He did so in three ways:

    (a) He was reasonable. There was nothing reasonable about Jonah's message. He gave no explanation of why God's judgment was to fall on Nineveh. Nothing could be sparer than Jonah's message: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." Jonah3v4. He doesn't proclaim how the Ninevites have displeased God. They are left in the dark about the precise nature of their wickedness.

    Jesus, unlike Jonah, explained why and showed how the Jews were going wrong. He described the defects of the Pharisees and scribes forcefully and graphically. They were hypocrites, their priorities were wrong, they coveted popularity, made life unbearable for the common man with all their rules and regulations and obscured the truth about God. (See exposition on Luke11v37to54)

    It is important today to demonstrate how worldly values are inimical to the gospel of Jesus. Unless we do this worldliness will infect the church just as it did in the time of Paul. (See exposition on 1cor3v18to23)

    (b) He cared. Jonah couldn't have cared less about the people of Nineveh. He hoped God would destroy them! He cared more for the gourd that sheltered him from the sun than he did for the Ninevites. He was really upset God spared Nineveh and shrivelled his gourd. He was more concerned about property than people. Things don't change! There are plenty of Christians who care more about the fabric of their church than they do the folk who attend it. I have known believers who have been quite willing to donate thousands of pounds for a chapel extension who would never dream of making a monetary gift to their pastor.

    There is no doubt that Jesus cared intensely about people. He was no cool, detached Theologian. He was no cold, cynical observer of the human condition. Listen to him: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing." Mt23v37. Jesus had a mother love for his people. He yearned to provide for them and protect them.

    (c) He had a message of hope. Jonah did not hold out any hope for the Ninevites. This was inexcusable because he was fully aware of the possibility. Jonah wanted God to smash the enemies of his people and so actually had the temerity to complain: "I knew that you are a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity." Jonah4v2.

    Jesus had a gospel to declare and one infused with hope. He said: "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, he has crossed over from death to life. John5v24. This is a wonderfully uplifting statement. It gives me confidence for the future. I will never be condemned and even though I die yet shall I live.

(D) Jesus greater than Solomon.

(1) The greatness of Solomon.

Solomon was great in wisdom and wealth. His wisdom is described in 1Kings4v29: God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. He was an expert on Natural History and Meteorology. In Ecc1v6and7 we find two of the earliest references to the general circulation of the atmosphere and the water cycle. Solomon's wealth matched his wisdom. Such was his prosperity that: Nothing was made of silver, because silver was considered of little value in Solomon's days. 1Kings10v21.

(2) The good example of the Queen of Sheba. See 1Kings10.

The queen of the South set a good example by:

    (a) Responding to what she heard about Solomon. She wasn't sceptical, indifferent or lacking initiative. When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions. 1Kings10v1. The queen decided to find out about Solomon for herself. She wanted a personal encounter with the famous king. She made the effort and travelled from Yemen to Jerusalem.

    Many people in Britain have only a very rudimentary knowledge of Jesus. They certainly do not intend to find out more about him! The last thing they want is a personal encounter with Jesus. They are desperate to keep him at arm's length.

    (b) Generously acknowledging Solomon's wisdom and accomplishments. She examined the evidence and concluded: "Indeed not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard." 1Kings10v7. "Because of the LORD's eternal love for Israel, he has made you king, to maintain justice and righteousness." v9.

    If the Lord Jesus Christ exceeds our expectations and fulfils our deepest needs we should be glad to recommend him to others. It is the least we can do.

The queen of the South was well rewarded for her faith - because it was by faith she left her own country and travelled to Israel. King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for. v13. Jesus told his disciples on the night of his arrest: "I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. ... Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete." John16v23and24.

(3) Jesus was greater than Solomon in four ways

These were:

    (a) In his exalted status. However great Solomon was he could not compare with Jesus. The words of Scripture can never, never apply to anyone other than Jesus: The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being. Heb1v3. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things. Col1v19. (See exposition on Heb1v1to3.)

    (b) In the depth of his teaching. Solomon's proverbs show a keen insight into human nature. He provides good counsel on best practice. However, his view of life in Ecclesiastes is profoundly pessimistic. Solomon concludes that all human endeavour is futile.

    The spiritual wisdom of Jesus is much greater. Consider what he taught:

    • The importance to God of each individual. Jesus said: "Indeed, the very hairs of your head are numbered." Lk12v7. God takes a lively interest in each one of us and this gives supreme significance to every life.

    • The nature of the will of God. "For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." Jn7v40. Life can never be futile and empty in the glorious light of such a generous promise.

    • The way to God. Jesus did not leave us in the dark on how to find God and commune with him. He said: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me." John14v6. God is not remote and unknowable. John wrote in the inspiring introduction to his gospel: No one has ever seen God, but God the one and only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known. John1v18.

    • The secret of a blessed life. We have all heard of sun kissed fruit; the recipe for a God kissed life is given in the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes are Christ's blue print for quality fruitfulness. See expositions on the Beatitudes.

    • How to pray. Solomon has little to say on prayer - the Christian's vital breath. Jesus bequeathed with a blue print for prayer. See exposition on the Lord's prayer.

    • The supremacy of love. Jesus left us in no doubt what he valued most. He wants us to show our love to him by loving others. He prayed: "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." John17v23.

    • That he was returning to heaven to prepare a place for all those who love him. He told his disciples: "I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." John14v3.

    Jesus' teaching stirs the heart in a way the proverbs of Solomon can never do. As we read Proverbs we might be impressed by Solomon's cleverness; when we study the teaching of Jesus we come into contact with the mind and will of God.

    (c) The beauty and excellence of his life. Solomon's life started well and promised much but in the end fame and fortune corrupted him. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. 1Kings11v4.

    The surpassing beauty of Christ's character becomes clearer as his life progressed. He rejected fame and fortune - the plaudits of men and shallow popularity. His ministry culminated in a heroic, loving act of self-sacrifice that was unmarred by resentment, bitterness or impatience. It was the crowning glory of his life.

    (d) The glory of his career. Solomon's career started brilliantly and prospered for years but, at the end, as his character deteriorated, the storm clouds gathered. The Israelites were fed up with conscripted labour. See 1Kings12v4. God was angry at his idolatry and decided to divide the kingdom in the succeeding reign of his son, Rehoboam.

    The career of Jesus began in obscurity and continued in struggle and strife. He was despised and rejected of men - a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He died in utter disgrace. Crucifixion was truly both agonising and shameful. Yet, there on the cross he shouted in triumph: "It is finished." He completed the great work of redemption for which God sent him. He was raised in triumph from the tomb. He has been exalted to the right hand of God on high. His kingdom goes from strength to strength. And, finally, Jesus is coming again:

            Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
            Once for favoured sinners slain;
            Thousand, thousand, saints attending,
            Swell the triumph of his train;
            Jesus comes, and comes to reign!

(4) So why did the Jews reject Jesus?

Jesus said: "The queen of the South will rise up at judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them." v31. John must have written with great sadness: He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. John1v11.

The queen of Sheba's lovely words about Solomon are certainly true of Jesus: "Because of the Lord's eternal love for Israel, he has made you king." IKings10v9. Yet Jesus was rejected. Why? There are at least three reasons:

(1) He did not have the trappings of earthly success - wealth and power - that so impress the world.

(2) Unlike Solomon Jesus had nothing tangible to point to. Solomon could show off the temple, his palaces, fleet of ships, chariots and horses and the books he had written. Jesus had nothing to show off. He had nowhere to lay his head. At the end he was buried in a borrowed tomb, a bloody sweatband, that Joseph and Nicodemus took off and carefully rolled up, his only possession.

(3) Jesus had nothing concrete to offer his followers. They couldn't expect land, wealth, fame or earthly power. In spite of this, Jesus demanded unconditional commitment. He said: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. Lk9v23. (See exposition on Luke9v18to27.)

(E) What is our response to Jesus?

We shouldn't be waiting for signs to believe in Jesus. Anyone reading this exposition knows quite enough to trust him. We know what Jesus offers to those with faith: forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, adoption into God's family, an exalted status - becoming joint heirs with Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit who gives spiritual enlightenment and new life, the fellowship of the saints and a future of eternal bliss.

Only trust him! Surely no-one will say: "I believe Jesus died to save sinners but I cannot trust him to save me. I have every confidence that Jesus saves but I am not confident that he will save me. I trust my husband but not the Saviour; I trust my child but not the Saviour; I trust the Minister but not the Son of God sitting at God's right hand. No I cannot trust him."

Rather may the words of the hymn be true for you:

            Come, ye sinners, poor and needy
            Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
            Jesus ready stands to save you,
            Full of pity, love, and power
            He is able;
            He is willing: doubt no more.