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Study Notes:

Matthew 12:38-50

Doing, Not Just Seeing

Summary:  DOING God’s will is more important than seeing signs or even cleaning up your life.

Have you ever wondered: why doesn’t God do some amazing, attention-getting miracle to prove Himself?  I mean, with all the questions people have, all the things they ask about, with all the doubts or confusion they express, why doesn’t God just do some awesome miracle to prove He’s there and He’s real, once and for all, end the debate, answer the questions, convince all the skeptics, and prove Himself to be true?

Well, this morning we see what happens when some people ask for exactly that kind of thing. We continue to make our way through Matthew’s gospel, or his biography of Jesus and we find Jesus interacting with some of the Jewish religious leaders of his day:

Matthew 12:38 Then some of the scribes [religious lawyers, people with the ancient equivalent of PhDs in religious law] and Pharisees [denomination that took religious rules seriously] answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.”

Now, they know Jesus has already performed miracles.  They’ve either heard about them or seen them in person. And, they knew His miracles were real, there was no denying that.  The question was: what were they all about?  Why was He doing them?  Who was He in the first place, where had He come from, what was all of this leading toward? 

So, these men are asking to be convinced.  They want to judge who Jesus is and what He’s doing, so they’re asking for an immediate and decisive miracle that attests to His power and identity.  They want a once-and-for-all miracle that will prove why they should listen to Jesus.  They want to see some credentials, some hard evidence.

The interesting thing about that is: they act as if there is one thing God could do to convince everyone.  But there isn’t.  It’s not like there’s a shortage of miracles, or a shortage of proof to who God is. No, if there’s a shortage of anything, there’s a shortage of acceptance and belief.  That’s true today and it was just as true back then.

You don’t have to be alive when Jesus was to see proof of the existence and presence of God – God has been making Himself known in various ways before Jesus came and pointing back to Him in various ways ever since.  I’ll give you some examples:

Creation, the material world around us points to intentional design, not random chance.  There are dependable rules for the world and the way it runs, law that govern science.  There is predictability that enables observation and future predictions.  Where did these laws come from?  If everything was truly uncreated, accidental and unordered, you might be able to observe what is happening, but how could you make any predictions for the future?  How could you guarantee some random occurrence wouldn’t make all your predictions and forecasts fail?  Evolutionary theory depends on unexpected things, things that have never happened before, happening.  Believing that everything we see and experience came from nothing and has no purpose or direction requires just as much faith, if not more, than believing it was created by a magnificent God.

For those who are open to receive the message, the world unceasingly whispers, there is a Creator.   

And, the Bible tells us in Acts 17 that God has actually made, from one ancestor,

Acts 17:26…“every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being,

God intends for us to search for Him, to seek Him.  To have our curiosity aroused and go seeking answers.

And then there’s the Holy Spirit, who brings us conviction: that little nagging we get when we’re doing something wrong, that little voice that tells us to listen when we’re hearing truth.  The Holy Spirit comes to people who don’t know God and without them asking, He attempts to bring them to an awareness of God.

On top of that, He has given us the Bible, full of everything He wants us to know – not everything there is to know, but everything He wants us to know.  And the Bible is jammed packed full of things that tell us about Jesus. The Old Testament tells us what to expect, and the New Testament explains what happened. 

There’s the issue of fulfilled prophecies, all the things God said would happen that later came to pass. There’s the issue of material proof of the things God has done.  There’s the record of history and so much more.

The men Jesus was speaking to had all of that going for them, except the New Testament.  But, just like modern people, it wasn’t enough.  Because, somewhere deep down in their soul, they’re resisting the truth, they’re resisting God.  There’s something they’re holding onto instead of reaching out to Him.  They’ve got a reason.  They’ve got an objection.   They’ve got an argument.  So, instead of doing something new, Jesus points them back to what has already been done and promises to expand on it.

39 But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.

Jonah was a prophet sent by God to tell the people of Nineveh God was going to judge them if they did not repent, or change their ways.  The problem was, Jonah hated the people of Nineveh.  He discriminated against them. He was prejudiced and biased.  So when God sent Jonah to warn them, he refused.  He hated these people so much He defied God – which led to the most famous part of his life. 

Jonah tried to sail away in the opposite direction, but wound up being thrown overboard where a great fish swallowed him. Inside the animal’s belly, he finally relented and told God he would do it – he would deliver the message – so the fish threw up, regurgitated, or something unpleasant, and Jonah reluctantly wandered ashore.  He went through the city announcing his message in a simple and direct manner, and the people listened.  They repented and turned toward God. But instead of rejoicing, their response just made Jonah bitter so he sat outside the city and sulked about it.  I’m greatly simplifying things but the book of Jonah is just four chapters if you want to check it out this afternoon.

Jesus’ point about it all is – the people of Nineveh received the message God sent to them, even though it didn’t come from the most willing messenger, and now someone much greater than Jonah has come to the people of Israel and they’re resisting the message.

Think of all the ways Jesus is greater than Jonah. 

He’s greater in his identity: Jonah was only a man; Jesus is fully God and fully man, the most perfect man that has ever walked the earth.

He’s greater in obedience: Jonah went to Nineveh reluctantly; Jesus came to earth joyfully to fulfill the Father’s will.

He’s greater in endurance: Jonah lived through a rough storm and was in the belly of the great fish for three days, but Jesus was executed, actually died, and was in the grave.

He’s greater in love: down in his heart, Jonah didn’t want people to receive the message, he was happy to see them face judgment, he felt they deserved; Jesus wept for those who did not understand or accept Him and what they would endure as a result.

Jonah never performed a miracle, but Jesus performed them countless times. 

Jonah only reached one city; Jesus came for the sake of the world. 

Jonah only preached for forty days; Jesus preached for several years. 

Jonah preached wrath and judgment; Jesus preached grace and salvation.

Jesus was greater than Jonah in every way, but the people He was speaking to simply would not receive His message, so one day the people of Nineveh would serve as a testimony against them. 

According to Jewish law though, you need two testimonies to get a conviction, so Jesus calls another witness:

42 The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here.

You can read about this historic event in 1 Kings 10:1-13.  The Queen of the South was the ruler of modern day Ethiopia.  In fact, some people claim she and Solomon had a son together – Menelik, who became the founder of a famous dynasty of rulers in Ethiopia that sat on the throne for nearly 3000 years ending with Haile Selassie in 1974.  According to some sources the Ark of the Covenant has been in Ethiopia for safe keeping ever since Menelik brought it there as a young man.  Now, none of that is in the Bible, but the fact of her trip is. 

And the point Jesus is making is that she made this long journey, from somewhere down south – could be modern Ethiopia, maybe Eritrea, some even say it was Yemen, but she made this long trip from somewhere around the Horn of Africa to visit with Solomon in Jerusalem because she heard of his wisdom, wisdom that was a special gift from God.  It’s a journey of over, at least, 2000miles.  And now, the God who gave Solomon that wisdom has come to them, and they won’t receive what He says. 

Solomon was also famous for the wealth he acquired with his wisdom.  The queen came and was impressed by the royal city and palaces Solomon had built.  But the throne and the kingdom of Jesus are even greater and they’re eternal.  In fact, the judgment Jesus keeps referring to – the one where the people of Nineveh and the Queen of the South will provide their testimony will happen there.  It’s where we will all stand alone before the eternal king and answer for the things we have done in this life.

God gives us a description of it in the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible:

Revelation 20:11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it … 12 And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works.

Friends, there is a God above us and there is a judgment ahead of us. God doesn’t want to punish people, He wants to save us.  That’s why Jesus came, that’s what this is all about.  So, don’t resist Him.  Don’t frustrate Him.  Don’t turn your attention away; don’t go reaching for a device to check on something. When God is speaking, listen.  Hear Him.  Notice what He has done and what He is doing, and respond.

He is merciful and mighty to save – He sent Jonah, and other prophets, He drew in the Queen Sheba and others and wanted more to come, He repeatedly presented Himself to the people of Israel 2000 years ago, and even now He is showing up in the lives of men and women, boys and girls, whispering gently or rocking the foundations, but trying to get our attention and call us to respond. 

My friends, if God is speaking to you this morning, listen.  Respond, and obey, receive Him and submit to His authority.  Find comfort and strength; find wisdom and counsel in Him.  May no one ever rise up against you in testimony and say ‘you had so much more going for you, why wouldn’t you believe like we did?’  Don’t try to manage your life without God, which is what Jesus warns these people about next:

Matthew 12:43 “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. 44 Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.”

From the first to the last pages, the Bible has no problem with the idea that evil spirits, demons, can come inside a human being and affect their life.  It’s a very real thing. But what Jesus is saying here is not primarily about demon possession and exorcism on an individual level, he’s making a point that applies to the entire generation, or really, to the entire population of the nation that is alive at that time. 

Jesus says the people of Israel who were alive at this time thought they were cleaned up and ready for God, but they’re not receiving His message, and if they continue to resist Him they’re going to be re-invaded and their future will be even worse than their past.

Ever since they entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua the people of Israel had struggled to resist the temptation to worship other gods.  If you read the books that describe their history, like Judges, 1&2 Samuel, or 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles, or any of the prophetic books, you see the nation swing back and forth from worshipping God to worshipping idols all the way up to the point where God finally allows them to be taken into captivity, forcefully removed from the Promised Land He had given them.

There, in exile, they gave up idolatry for good.  And then, a little over 400 years before Jesus they began to trickle back into their homeland, and to re-establish worship in Jerusalem.  But there was resistance from the outside this time.  Most famously, Antiochus Epiphanies, a megalomaniac, pagan, ruler from Syria invaded and set up a pagan shrine inside the Jewish Temple.  This act of desecration led Judas Maccabaeus to launch a rebellion to throw out the Syrians, cleanse the Temple, and establish new leadership for the nation – all of this is celebrated by the Jews each year at Hanukkah.

Unfortunately, the people of Israel remained sinful and compromised.  They weren’t worshipping idols, but they weren’t truly serving God either.  So, some additional attempts at moral reformation for the nation were made, this is where the Pharisees came from. 

The Pharisees were focused on discovering what the Bible said, determining what that meant, and then creating rules to guide your life accordingly.  They attempted to live as an example, purging paganism and unholiness out of every aspect of life, public and private and they pressured other Jews to follow that example but their rules could get out of hand at times, and as we all know it’s easy to keep rules on the outside while your heart and your desires are in another place entirely.  Rules don’t work all by themselves.  As Madeleine and I say, we don’t want good rules for our kids, we want good kids who don’t need rules. 

Then you had the Essenes who don’t appear in the New Testament that much, but they were even more strict in their rules, so strict that they began to live in isolated communities so they didn’t have to deal with all the stuff that went on in the rest of the culture and community – they didn’t have to be exposed to what was going on, what other people were doing, and they could try to live holy lives over in a corner by themselves.  The Essenes were all about personal piety.   The problem is, temptation doesn’t just come on us from the outside, it also bubbles up from the inside, and what do you do about that?

While all of this was going on Herod, the ruler of Israel, and his family were rebuilding the Temple, making it one of the most beautiful buildings in the ancient world and people thought, maybe this is it, maybe this is the moment when we will finally see the Messiah come.

That’s the historical backdrop when John the Baptist showed up on the scene to call the nation to repentance and make a way for Jesus.  And many people responded to John’s moral message and call for baptism and renewal.  Many people came out to hear Jesus preach about how to live good lives.  Few people had a problem with any of that.  They were sweeping their houses spiritually and putting things in order.  But they didn’t want to go the final step of accepting Jesus for who He said He was or what He was there to do.  They didn’t like where He said this was all going.

And as a result, Jesus says the problems they had in the past are about to return, only this time it’s going to be seven times worse than anything they’ve ever experienced before.  And if you know your history you know that in 70 AD there was a Jewish rebellion against Rome that led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish nation until it was finally restored in 1948 – a first in human history, that a nation that had gone out of existence for nearly two thousand years was re-established because God is not finished with them yet.

What does all of this mean for us?  Well, notice that the Pharisees were proud of their clean houses both actually and metaphorically, but they were spiritually empty.  Jesus criticizes them time and again during his life because mere religion will not save.  You can’t just build a bunch of rules to guide your life. God wants relationship. He wants your heart. 

The evil needs to be evicted from our lives, but our house needs to be built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ, and then, as we receive Him, the Bible says the Holy Spirit comes and takes up residence inside of us.  We don’t just sit vacant.  When you become a believer it’s not just a little redecorating, it’s not remodeling, it’s not even renovation, it’s regeneration.  When you are born-again, the Holy Spirit moves in and no one is going to evict Him – you are sealed with the Holy Spirit for salvation, and greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.  And you experience fellowship with God. Real relationship. Adoption.

But that only happens to those who actually repent of their sins – who see the wrong in their lives and ask for forgiveness.  There are plenty of people out there today who see something wrong with their life and try to take care of it on their own.  This is the entire self-help movement and the self-improvement resources you see.  They’re saying some good things, but they ground it all in psychology and habits and neuroscience and human performance because they have nothing else to tap into, they have no source of power outside of themselves, so they develop hacks and tricks and routines and mindfulness exercises.

The problem with this way of doing things is: the old thing has gone, but you’re still spiritually empty and it’s all too easy to fall into some new trap or fall back into old habits.  We need the bad to go, but we also need the good to come, set up house, keep us from drifting and protect us against intruders.

And that leads us to the next thing Jesus has to say:

Matthew 12:46 While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. 47 Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.”

48 But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” 49 And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and 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.”

We began this morning with the scribes and Pharisees saying “we want to see a sign” we end with Jesus saying, “whoever does the will of My Father.”

Jesus brings things around to obedience.  Do you receive what He has to say?  Do you do what He tells you to do?  It’s easy to listen to Him speak.  It’s fun to watch Him do miracles, but what then?  How do you respond?  What do you actually do?

It’s interesting that neither Jonah or Solomon performed signs or miracles, and yet the people of Nineveh received the message and repented, and the Queen of the South sought out wisdom and found it.  They applied what they received.  They put feet to their faith.

Where is God calling you to obey this morning?  It’s possible that you’re asking Him to perform some miracle, to do a sign, and He’s telling you, I’ve already given you so much, I’ve already done so much for you, it’s not time for another miracle, it’s time for you to receive, accept, and humbly and patiently obey.

As you do, understand what Jesus says here – He’s claiming you as His family, He’s identifying with you.  He’s calling you His own.  He’s going to be there for you.  He is your source and your strength.  And He’s surrounding you with brothers and sisters in Christ who will walk through things with you.  Yes, you have parents, and maybe you have siblings, but you also have direct access to God your Father, Christ your Savior, the Spirit of God living within you, and the church, the family of God alongside you – obedience is thicker than blood.

And if you’re not a part of the family, if the Holy Spirit has not moved into the house of your life, then you need to take note of one very important word in verse 50 – whoever.  Jesus says whoever does the will of His Father is family.  The people of Nineveh were outside of a relationship with God – so He sent His prophet to them.  The Queen of Sheba was outside of a relationship with God – so He wooed her in to find out more.  God is always calling outsiders in.  He wants to create a place for you in His family.  He wants to evict the things that are controlling you, and move in Himself.  Will you let Him?  I hope so.

Let’s pray.

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.

Now if you take a class on communication, public speaking, or writing, they will tell you how important it is to grab the attention of your audience.  This doesn’t quite seem to hit that mark for us, does it?  So why does Matthew choose to start off this way?

And the answer is: because he didn’t write it just for us.  This is God’s Word, it’s what God wants all people to know – people from every tribe, and language, and county and jungle and village on the planet – people who lived in the 1800s and the 800s, all over the world and all throughout time.  And those people did not, and do not, live in the same media-saturated culture as we do.

To most of them, to most of the people in the history of the world, family is important.  If you meet someone new, you want to know where they fit – who is their family, where do they come from, what’s their connection?  Today, we meet people in total isolation, as if their past and their lineage have nothing to do with who they are.  For most of the world though, and for much of history, people were understood to have a place where they fit.  Matthew is showing people where Jesus fits.

And that was very important, especially for the Jews who were the first to read what Matthew had written.  They knew what God had said in the past, so they expected the Messiah to come through a particular family line, to come through the line of Abraham and also be a descendant of David.  This genealogy shows that Jesus does both.  It proves that God kept His promises and did what He said – Jesus is the fulfillment of what Jewish people had been hoping for centuries.  That’s why it’s so important to open the book with a family tree.

And actually, if you think about it, we do still care about connection and family today.  Some of the most popular stories of our time are about family.  Think of Star Wars, Harry Potter, even Downton Abbey, they’re about family: who is related to whom and who is the descendent of whom, who is the father of whom?  What family are you in?

And then, think of the popularity of DNA kits where you take a swab of your saliva and send it in for analysis to learn where your ancestors came from, or the popularity of sites like  It turns out there is something in each of us that really wants to know: where did I come from, who am I connected to, and how do I fit in?  Sometimes, for all of our modern independence, like Matthew, we wonder if it’s worth the cost of being alone.

Of course, the problem with families is: they’re messy.  We might have some family members and ancestors that we’re proud of and get along with, but we’ve also got some people we don’t exactly like, or aren’t exactly proud of, or that we’re disappointed about or tired of.  Well, you find the same thing in the line of Jesus: heroes and harlots, victims and victors, role models and rogues.

Take a look at the ladies in this list.  Now, first of all, you have to know that it was extremely rare for women to be included in a genealogy, but these ladies are, and when you get to know at a little more about them, you might be shocked that this is line of Jesus.

First you have Tamar, you meet her in Genesis 28 where she put on a disguise and sold herself as a prostitute to her father-in-law Judah because he wasn’t keeping up his responsibility to take care of her, in the process she got pregnant and gave birth to the twins Perez and Zerah. So yeah, you’ve got a bit of a mess right there.

Then you have Rahab who really was a prostitute, and she wasn’t a Jew, she was a Canaanite, a different ethnicity. We meet her in Joshua 2 where God takes extraordinary measures to save her and her family from the destruction of Jericho and bring them into His blessing and promises for Israel.  And this is a common thing, to see God adopting people in, bringing people that you would not expect into His family.

It’s the same thing that happened with Ruth who we meet in the book of Ruth – she was from Moab, a nation the Jews hated.  She had been married to a man who was a Jew, but he died along with all the other men of the family leaving Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi in a precarious position.  But God changed her life and her destiny through the kindness of Boaz, and the woman who once felt as though she had nothing, eventually had a grandson who sat on the throne of Israel: King David, Israel’s most beloved king.

Of course, David didn’t always make the best choices.  He’s famous for things like slaying the giant Goliath, but he’s also infamous for stealing the wife of another man.  Bathsheba “had been the wife of Uriah” until David used his position of power to take advantage of her, which you can read about in 2 Samuel 11.

Each of these women were in a vulnerable place – Tamar couldn’t get the support she was entitled to, Rahab was a citizen of a city facing destruction, Ruth had lost her husband and all economic security along with him, and Bathsheba was the victim of a predator.  Some of them brought difficulty on themselves, others were just victims of circumstance or the choices of others, but God redeemed them all and turned their stories into part of the lineage of Christ.

And then you have the kings – they’re a mixed bag as well.  From King David on you have a list of rulers who had a spotty record of righteousness and debauchery.  We just mentioned David’s highlights and humiliations, but then you have men like his grandson Rehoboam who was a wicked ruler – so bad in fact that it led to a split in the Kingdom.  His son Abijah was wicked like dad, but then things turned around with Asa who was good, and so was his son, Jehoshaphat, but Joram his son was wicked and then he had Uzziah who had some good moments, but was also struck down with leprosy for attempting to enter the temple and burn incense, something only the priests were allowed to do (2 Chronicles 26:16-21).

What’s the lesson here?  It’s this: politicians will never be our saviors, it doesn’t matter what party they represent, they’re still human beings and human beings are tempted to make bad choices because of power.  They don’t, and can’t know everything, do everything, or fix everything. And even if things are good for a season, they’re going to be bad again sooner or later because human beings are still involved.  No political party is ever going to save us or be 100% reliable.

The flip and flop of the character of the kings also shows us that good parents can have bad kids and bad parents can have good kids because we all, every generation, need to have our own relationship with God.  You can’t ride on your parent’s coattails on the one hand, but neither are you doomed by your parents on the other.  We all need Jesus and we can all have Jesus.

So, what we find in the genealogy is God fulfilling His promises – doing what He said He would do: provide a savior through Abraham and David who would be a blessing to all humanity.

But we also find a sample of the kind of people Jesus came to save: Jews like Jacob, Jesse, and Josiah, Moabites like Ruth and Canaanites like Rahab, men like Solomon and women like Tamar, saints like Boaz and sinners like Uzziah, rulers like David and carpenters like Joseph.  People like you, and people like me.  We all need Jesus.

This genealogy shows us that no one has it together enough, no is popular enough, no one is powerful enough to create their own forgiveness and salvation.

But it also shows us that no one is too far gone, no one has too much or sinned too big to be forgiven.  We all need Jesus who came to call sinners to salvation, and to give us a new identity in Christ.

This genealogy presents God’s extravagant grace on display and we see it again in the life of the man who wrote it down.  There is a God who brings the outsiders in.

This morning if you will turn to Jesus He will include you in His family – where your sin abounds grace abounds much more.  And if you will make yourself available to Him, He will go to work in your life like He did in Matthew and redeem and transform your skills and abilities for His glory.  Will you do that?

We’re about to celebrate communion, and as the men distribute the elements, I want to encourage you to take a moment and pray.  Confess your sins to God, ask for forgiveness, and offer Him your life once again – to make of it whatever He pleases.  For His glory, and your satisfaction and joy.

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