Jesus and His disciples were in Capernaum, surrounded by the crowd. They were all packed into Peter’s house as Jesus preached. Religious leaders had come up from Jerusalem to challenge Jesus. The Lord had already cast out a demon and healed a man of blindness right in front of everyone. When the religious leaders tried to accuse Jesus of doing these amazing miracles in the power of Satan, the Lord destroyed their argument with some brilliant argument of his won. He proved that His power must be from God.
In the midst of all this conflict, these religious leaders could have repented at any moment. At any point, they could have gotten on their knees before Christ, just as Peter did in the boat when he saw the miracle of the fish in his nets. All along, Jesus spoke and reasoned with them, giving them chance after chance to repent of their sin and rebellion. Instead, they challenged Him over and over again. This time, they asked for a sign. They wanted Him to give them a spectacular miracle to prove who He was.
The Lord would not go along with their schemes. The man He had just healed from being blind and mute was probably still in the room. Thousands of people had seen His miracles. Nobody could argue that they didn’t happen, because they had happened all over the region of Galilee. What could He do that would be enough for these wretched, hard-hearted men? Instead, Jesus rebuked them:
“‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 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. 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.’”
Wow. Jesus was giving a prophecy about His own death and resurrection. Jonah was a prophet in the Old Testament who was swallowed by a whale. He lived inside the whale for three days before being thrown up on shore. Jonah’s incredible story was a testimony to the people of Nineveh who repented of their sin and turned to the God of Israel. Jesus said that story was an image of what was going to happen when He died. Because they repented, they were saved from God’s judgment. Just as Jonah came back after three days, Jesus was going to come back, too, only He was going to come back after conquering death itself! There could be no greater sign for those who were truly seeking to know the will of God.
Jesus was going about Galilee, preaching just as Jonah did, but He was preaching to the Jewish people. They were supposed to be the children of God. They had been given the Bible and the prophets. They had the sacred covenants of Abraham and Moses. Yet when their Messiah came, their hearts were so hard that they did not repent. The Assyrians were an idolatrous, wicked nation, but when they heard the Word from a mere prophet, they believed. Now the Son of God Himself had come in power, and He was rejected.
Then Jesus told of another foreigner who heard the Word of God and believed. Queen Sheba had heard of the wisdom of King Solomon in the days when he reigned in all his glory. She journeyed perhaps a thousand miles from the south to Jerusalem just to listen to him. When she heard the wisdom that was given to Solomon by God, she was in awe. Jesus was far greater than King Solomon, but the religious leaders failed to have the same faith as Queen Sheba!
How enraged the Jewish listeners must have been when Jesus said that on the Day of Judgment, the Ninevites of Assyria and Queen Sheba would be called to judge them for their unbelief! What offense they must have taken against Jesus, who claimed to be greater than Jonah, one of the mighty prophets, and Solomon, the mighty king! He had already claimed to be greater than the Temple. That was like saying He was the greatest priest of all. Jesus was either telling the most magnificent truth ever told, or the most terrible lie. The beauty of the miracles and the wisdom of His words and the empowerment of the Spirit should have been enough to prove that all He said was true.
Jesus went on to tell a little story about the terrible unbelief of the Jewish people:
“When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 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. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go 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”
As Jesus worked His miracles and brought such wonderful transformation to the people of His time, it was like they were being swept free and clean from the bondage of the curse. But they were not turning and filling themselves up with faith in Jesus. They wanted His help and they liked to see His great displays of power, but they did not want to love Him or to join Him in His mission. So Jesus pronounced a judgment. The Jews of Christ’s time who thought they were so clean would end up far worse off than when they started.
We are about to see a great turning in the ministry of Jesus. Before, He proclaimed the Good News broadly. He answered the questions of the religious leaders with wisdom and discernment, seeking to lead them to the truth. From now on, He was going to speak with a veil over His message. He would proclaim His truth in parables so that only those whose hearts were right with the Lord could understand the meaning of His message.