Luke 11:29-32 “As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. 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.’”
We are told that the crowds were hounding the Lord Jesus and crowding around him from dawn to dusk and following him everywhere – like the paparazzi followed Lady Diana day and night to her death. Then one day as Jesus spoke to them he said, “This is a wicked generation.” What harsh words of judgment! He was such a gentle man; when he had invited them to come to him he’d claimed “ . . . I am meek and lowly of heart” and yet now he spoke very solemnly to them, “This is a wicked generation.” Where was the proof of this? Weren’t they ordinary people like our own generation? What evidence of wickedness could he have for making such a judgment? He tells us this; “It asks for a miraculous sign.” This was a refrain of theirs; we see back in the sixteenth verse the same demand; “Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven” (v.16). It is no evidence of faith in Christ that you want to see another miracle.
It had heard the Sermon on the Mount and people were amazed at the tremendous logic of Jesus words. “With what authority he speaks! Where did he get such learning? We never heard anyone speak like that.” They were overwhelmed at the logic on fire; the stringency of the ethic, how they were searched and humbled by what he said, but they wanted more. Then he had spoken parables – the sower who went forth to sow, the good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the King who made a banquet for his son’s wedding and invited men to it who all made excuses, the man digging a hole in a field who finds treasure and many more. They stuck in your mind if you heard them, and yet you enjoyed hearing them again, and how searching the application if you understood them, but they wanted more. They had heard him debate with his critics. They usually chose the smartest, most learned man who would devise a most difficult theological question, one of those questions which, whatever answer you give, leaves you in trouble. “Do we proud Jews living under the boot of Rome, pay taxes to Caesar?” If Jesus said, “Yes,” then he is not a good Jew; he is toadying to the occupying power. If Jesus said, “No,” then he is a revolutionary stirring up insurrection. There were questions like that which he answered with a divine competence which silenced and humbled those who asked him the question. But they wanted more. Then there was a discourse, Jesus’ teaching which lasted for hours at the most sublime level, in the Upper Room to his twelve disciples. But they wanted more before they would believe.
All the teaching was original; it was lucid; it was convicting; it was memorable. Whether he was speaking to one woman at a well in Samaria or to 5,000 men on a mountainside, the common people heard him gladly. Frequently as he was speaking he made the most tremendous claims for himself, that he was the way and the truth and the life and that no one could come to God but by him. He and his Father were one – making himself equal with God. He would one day, he said, judge all men; everyone would receive their eternal destinies from his lips. This is what these people had heard, but they were always asking for more. This was the theme of the discussions of the men at the city gates in the evenings, and by the women at the wells as they drew water, and at the river sides as they washed their clothes. Never man spake like this man, not Churchill, not Lincoln, not Demosthenes, not Dr. Johnson, not Aneurin Bevan, only the Lord Jesus Christ, but they wanted more from him before they would believe in him.
Then there was his life. No one had ever came across him at an unguarded moment when he was provoked beyond endurance and spoke out in a nasty, critical spirit, mean and deadly. He never retaliated; he was always a good man in all he did, and yet he was never Goody Two-shoes, unreal, a cardboard cut-out of goodness. He was a three dimensional man, generous-hearted, giving, considerate, approachable, the kind of man mothers trusted with their children, holy in his denunciation of fake religious people who heaped great burdens on others whilst making big bucks out of religion themselves. When they drove nails through his hands and his feet he prayed for his tormentors that God would forgive them because of their ignorance. The ‘princes of this world’ didn’t know what they were doing in nailing him to a cross.
Then there were the signs that he performed. His first was a very simple miracle but quite astounding. He turned the water in six great stone waterpots into the best aged wine, that is, about 180 gallons of wine. He didn’t half fill a single wine container made of skin with some diluted wine! Jesus made a super-abundant supply of wine which on reflection was to speak to them of the great wedding feast in heaven of the heavenly bridegroom and the bride and the fulness of joy and satisfaction which he alone could make, but the people always wanted more before they would believe. Christ gave sight to a man born blind. He gave flexible joints and free movement to a paralyzed man brought to him by four friends, but the people wanted more. The lame walked; the deaf heard; the leper was cleansed. He delivered one demoniac who lived in Gadara, a poor man chained up by the helpless people living in fear of him, and abandoned to exist among the tombs, but Jesus brought stillness and quietness and sanity to that troubled man. He raised the dead. The widow of Nain’s son, Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus the brother of Mary and Martha were all resurrected. People spoke to Lazarus for years after about his experience, but they still wanted more signs from Jesus. When he spoke in a storm the winds and waves obeyed him. He multiplied five loaves and two fishes and with them he fed a crowd of 5,000 men, but they still had not seen or heard enough and always they were following Jesus 24/7 looking for more than all he’d already said and done, and refusing to trust in him. “More,” they demanded, “Give us more. Another sermon on the mount . . . another resurrection from the dead, and then we’ll believe in you.” Jesus soberly confronted them one day and said to them, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign . . .” (v.29). They had had the most sublime teaching the most godlike life and the most extraordinary signs, and yet they wanted more, more, more. “Show us more!” They wanted to turn him into a magician or a conjurer. They wanted entertainment and excitement. “How does he do it?” they would say with a laugh. “I almost believe in him,” they’d chuckle, smiling at their skeptical friends, but having no intention of changing. The issue was not lack of evidence of divinity, it was the perpetual inconvenience of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, knowing the inevitable changes in values and behaviour that would have to occur. There was no will bowing to the Saviour.
JESUS GAVE THEM THE SIGN OF JONAH.
“But none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation” (v.29). You lay down conditions to becoming a follower of Jesus and he is just as likely to say to you. “None will be given to you!” We don’t lay down terms to receiving mercy from Jesus. We aren’t the ones who are in a position to set out the ground for being forgiven for our sins. We don’t state what the conditions have to be for us to repent of our sins. We don’t specify what we’ll do to grace the courts of heaven. We are in no fit state to tell Omnipotent Holiness whom we have grossly offended by our lives and our sins of omission what we are prepared to do and what we are demanding to see and hear as the terms of our becoming followers of Christ. Salvation is all by grace. The Lord Christ does not need to say one more word; he does not need to do one more deed. He has failed in nothing the Father gave him to do. He did not do 75% of the job he’d been set; it was done 100% by him alone. He did a good and proper job of everything. All that the Father had given him to say he said. The whole spirit of love incarnate he displayed throughout his life; there wasn’t the slightest blot on his character in anything he said or did. He could say, “If you’ve seen me you have seen the Father.” Jesus Christ is what God himself is like.
You don’t need any more . . . any more sermons, any more miracles, any more aspects of his character and personality to be revealed before you decide to give to God the wonderful honour of having you as his servant. You must end your excuses, and cease this foolish rebellion. You must give your mind to Jesus Christ. You must hand over your intellect to him. You must bow your will to him. You must make a great bonfire of your unbelief, all the sad excuses which for many years you have relied on as the reasons you have lived without Christ as you have, and said the foolish things that you’ve said, and done the bad things you’ve done without ever confessing them to God. You have to turn from them all and never ever go back to them and henceforth follow the Christ of the virgin birth, the Christ of the wedding feast of Cana of Galilee, the Christ who raised the dead, the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount and say, “He will be my God. Henceforth I am going to worship him. I am going to live with him. I am going to live for him. I am going to die trusting in him. If I go to hell it will be trusting in him. Living, dying, my life is going to be spent with him.”
Then Jesus gives us all a reason for this, and he calls it the sign of Jonah. What does he mean by this? Jonah was a prophet sent by God who then traveled a long distance to bring a message that God had given him to the capital city of the Assyrians, a city of three days’ journey. Maybe that means the circumference took three days to walk around, say 60 miles, or that a visit required three days of immigration and formal etiquette in being introduced and welcomed to the place and presented to the authorities. The main point is that the responsibility of evangelizing that whole area was placed squarely by God on the shoulders of one human being. There is no indication that Jonah had any kind of assistance whatsoever. He was sent himself as the sole bearer of this tremendous message. He was commissioned as God’s only herald to this great people. Incidentally it is in many ways a rebuke to ourselves when we declaim the fewness of the labourers and the immensity of the harvest. Yet we are many times the number of that one man who was sent to Nineveh. There is no reason why we should cry to God and say that the task that faces us is beyond us.
So Jonah went to this city; the description of his evangelism is found in Jonah chapter 3. The prophet was not called to use his imagination, or to innovate, or to find some great original message. He was a preacher under duress. He had to preach the message that God gave him – just like the Son of God some hundreds of years later. That remains true of everyone who remains true to the message of Jehovah. It is immovably and irreversibly defined by the gospel tradition, by the inspired and infallible word of God. We have no right to preach some other gospel. We have no right to claim any authority for any single proposition that we make apart from this authority – “Thus saith the Lord.”
The message that God gave Jonah was this, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” It was God’s utterance of judgment, and this lonely man was sent to this great city to try to screw into the minds of its inhabitants one great and simple conviction that they were living in a moral universe and before them there lay a great day of evaluation for what they had done with their lives, how they had lived and how they had treated other people. And is that message still relevant in the Christian dispensation? Has that message any relevance in the 21st century? Has it relevance to us in the congregation today? Is there not here too a great principle? Can I raise the question, does God ever overthrow? Does God ever destroy? There are many who take the most precious and evangelical parts of the New Testament and they say, “These parts mean that God never overthrows and never destroys.” Then you go into the depths of divine revelation, the depths of the Word which God has given, and of which he says that it tells us all we can know about him, and I ask are there warnings of the perils of great wickedness there? Is there a consuming fire there? Is there a holy and just and sin-hating God there?
Did the Saviour use such words as this? Did he say to these people, “The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment . . . the men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment.” Did he not say it in this text before us today, and not here only, but many times he spoke of the Day of Judgment, and of the Good Shepherd separating his sheep from his goats as he would in that great day? Did he not speak of the fires that were not quenched and the worm that did not die? Didn’t Jesus weep over the judgment to come on the city of Jerusalem? If there be a God, and if his word is true, and if he has sent his prophets and his Son into the world – these are my only presuppositions – and if these presuppositions are true – then in our town today there are thousands and they are ruined men and women. They are already being destroyed. They are lost, and God sent one man to another lost place called Nineveh to tell them this.
Then you know the response of Nineveh. They did not ask for signs to prove the word was true. Jonah did not give them a single miracle. All he did was to preach the word God gave him, but we are told what response this received; “So the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jon. 3:5). They saw this poor man Jonah, so human, so ordinary. They saw this traumatized man Jonah, who had been on the run from God for so long and passed through a storm only delivered by a divine act of God. Perhaps he wasn’t attractive or eloquent, but they heard him speak this appallingly monotonous word, telling them that they were lost, and they believed God. It is not that they believed Jonah. They believed God. What did they believe? They believed that God would destroy them. Do we believe that? Do the ungodly believe it? Do the inquirers here? Do they believe that they are facing a judgment and the verdict is going to be a guilty one? Do they believe that God will destroy them?
We are not told that Jonah somehow proved it. We do not read of any arguments. They had the bare word of God from the prophet that God had sent, and they believed that God’s judgment hung over them. Do I imagine that I can sin with impunity? Or do I believe the Lord at this point, that he will destroy? But they not only believed God, they repented, they turned every one from his evil way. Not only were they convinced of sin in their minds, they were convinced emotionally. They were upset by their sin, and you see how they took practical steps; “they turned every one from his evil ways.”
Is it just possible that there is one single soul in this congregation today who has an evil way? And is it just possible that that one soul here with that particular problem is me? Or is it possible that it is you? Have you ever asked what on earth should be done with an evil way, a lifestyle that ignores God, a way of life that never considers Jesus Christ the Son of God? Turn from it, says the Lord. The message could not be simpler. It could not be less profound, less philosophical, less cultured, less beautiful. These men had no other theology but this, that God judges men and God destroys men and then they cried mightily to God. They did not discuss the preaching style of Jonah at the gates of Nineveh and award it points. The women did not lament at the wells that he had not performed more signs and so encouraged them to believe. They cried mightily to God. And shall we cry mightily to God? “Lord from the depth of my unbelief . . . Lord in my fear . . . Lord on the threshold of my impending judgment . . . O Lord have mercy . . . after thy loving kindness have pity, O God forgive, and if there is any light I need then illuminate me, and any little push I need propel me.” Cry mightily to God. Have we done that?
We are told what happened in the city; “From the greatest of them even to the least of them” they cried to God. Not the beggars alone, not just those down on their luck. Not those only who had nothing to lose by trying religion, but the greatest of them, in economic terms, in social terms, in intellectual terms, those who had most face to lose trusting in God, they are the ones who began to cry to the Lord. Just imagine on the Penparcau bus tomorrow morning as people are coming into work the driver and the passengers all talking soberly about God and their need to be reconciled to him; “According to your loving-kindness O God have mercy upon me.” The King himself sat down in sackcloth and ashes; the government met in the fear of the Lord and passed an immediate act and called upon the people to fast and pray. Is there any hope for the survival of our civilization apart from that? Isn’t it something to pray to God for? What a marvelous picture, the whole centre of the Assyrian civilization and the entire city of Nineveh led by its ruling party, crying to God for forgiveness.
Why were they moved to pray like that? Was it because they had the Sermon on the Mount? No. They had the parables of Jesus? No. They had the great Upper Room discourse? No. They had the turning of the water into wine? No. They had the blind of Nineveh seeing and the deaf of Nineveh hearing, and Nineveh’s lepers all being cleansed? No. They had the dead of Nineveh raised? Did one word from Jonah end the drought of Nineveh and the rains descended? No. Nothing at all like that. They had one gaunt prophet who preached one relentless message of judgment that in forty days they they would be overturned, and they believed the prophet and they said to one another, “Who knows what will happen if we turn from our sins and cast ourselves on the mercy of God?” You know it is an amazing thing and often something we fail to reflect on, that you can never land in destruction unless you are on the road to destruction. No way. Why did these men not land in destruction? Because they left the road, and so they never perished, and suppose that you entered this church today as lost and as lost and as lost as anyone can be, yet if at this moment you moved into faith in God you would not be overthrown, without seeing any miracles at all then still you would not be overthrown but become a child of God pardoned, healed, restored and forgiven.
You may not fob off God with excuses that you need to see a miracle or hear God’s voice speaking from heaven before you can possibly believe. Believe God. That is the great sign that Jesus gives the people who heard his preaching for some years, and saw his great miracles and yet refused to trust in him until he did another sign and yet another sign. “Consider the sign of Jonah,” he said to them. Jonah had given them the word God gave him to declare, and he preached it and the people of Nineveh didn’t complain. They didn’t ask for more; they repented of their sins and believed, and they escaped the wrath to come. Then Jesus told that wicked people this; “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” (v.32). They did what they had to do with the word they had received from God, and you who are much more privileged than both the people of Nineveh and the people of Jesus’ day, have you responded to the word from God? You have four gospels; you have the letter to the Romans; you have the letter to the Ephesians. You have the knowledge of the Saviour risen on the third day from the dead, the conqueror of the grave. You have the day of Pentecost and the Spirit poured out on the church. You have 2000 years of the message of Jesus being believed upon through the whole world. You have the friendship of Christians, you have the gospel preached with the Holy Spirit each Sunday. The men of Nineveh will stand alongside you when the time comes for all the world to be judged, and they will say, “We never had anything like that. We never say the incarnate God; we never heard the Sermon on the Mount; we never saw Lazarus rise from the dead, and yet we believed God and repented of our sins, while you were defiant. You did not believe the Lord Jesus Christ and you did not repent? Shame on you. You will be condemned by those whose privileges were far less than yours and yet responded to what light and truth they had. That was the sign of Jonah that Jesus gave to his unbelieving generation.
JESUS GAVE THEM THE SIGN OF THE QUEEN OF THE SOUTH.
This is what Jesus said to them; “The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here” (v. 31). You remember the incident well; it is recorded for us in I Kings chapter 10. Let us read the first seven verses; “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. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan – with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones – she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the LORD, she was overwhelmed. She said to the king, ‘The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard.”
What does Jesus say about her? She had less truth and less privilege than those people had to whom Jesus was speaking. She had only Solomon’s wisdom, and she wasn’t one of Solomon’s people, yet she came on a thousand mile journey to hear what Solomon had to say. When she met Solomon how she listened to him! How impressed she was with his wisdom and power and wealth; “the half of the matter hadn’t been told me” she said. Now Christ was born, and Israel was facing a greater than Solomon. Jesus was superior to Solomon in his birth, born of a virgin, the promised seed of the woman. Jesus was greater in his person, the infinite, eternal and unchangeable Son of God equal to the Father in honour and glory. He was liable to no mistakes, to no errors of judgment, or belief or practice. He exceeded Solomon in the purity of his life. He would not marry a young bride and put her through his terrible sufferings, and so he remained single man, while Solomon took hundreds of wives. Jesus was pure and holy in his relationships with women. He humbled himself to death even the death of the cross out of redeeming love for sinful men who had failed their wives. How much greater than Solomon was our Lord Jesus, in his nature, in his character, in his influence and in his power to bless.
Israel finally had the promised Messiah; they had his impeccable life, and his atoning death. They had his miracles and his sermons; they had the testimony of 500 people whose lives had been changed by him whom he was to meet after his resurrection. None of this was enough to the nation as a whole. He came to his own and his own received him not; they still demanded more from him, more signs and wonders; more miracles, and all Israel’s great privileges wouldn’t secure for Israel immunity from judgment. The Queen of Sheba would stand alongside the people of Nineveh in the Day of Judgment as the witnesses for the prosecution. She would protest to the men and women who had seen Lazarus rise from the dead and had sat on the mountainside with 5,000 other men and had heard the preaching and been fed by the loaves of fishes. She would say to them, “All I had was Solomon, his wisdom and his wealth, and his beautiful buildings and yet I came far to hear him and learn from him.”
So often people feel that their power and increased privilege gives them freedom to do anything with impunity. C.E.M Joad was a household name in Britain in the glory days of radio appearing on the popular programme, the Brains Trust. He was considered the fount of wisdom, but he even judged himself so popular that it was not necessary for him to buy a 17 shilling railway ticket on his journeys on the London, Waterloo, to Exeter line. He thought his face and his reputation was enough, and finally after a number of these escapades he was arrested and fined for his crime. His fame and wisdom aggravated his responsibility.
Again, Dale Ralph Davies reminds us of Mrs. Rose Kennedy and how delighted she seemed in her role as top mother after Jack Kennedy had been elected President of the United States. She would be reading newspapers as Frank Saunders, her chauffeur, drove her around. Whenever she finished reading a paper, Mrs. Kennedy would pitch it out the car window. Saunders warned her that they could be fined for littering. Rose’s response? ‘Oh, Frank. They know who we are!’ In other words: Our position and privilege put us above all that. (Dale Ralph Davis, I Kings, EP, 2002, p.108)
But Jesus says no. And we must heed him because most of us stand in Israel’s sandals; indeed we have even more light than Israel had during Jesus’ tenure on earth. And whether we are viciously resistant or merely casually indifferent to him makes no difference. So don’t you dare read about the Queen of Sheba and pat her on the head. You can do that, you know. You may view the regal story in 1 Kings 10 in the same way you look at a Charlie Chaplain movie – it has entertainment value but no serious relevance. Jesus says this Queen has much to teach us. You shall meet her, and the occasion will be such a strange place. It will be with all the world gathered together before the King of kings on the great Judgment Day. There will also be the men and women of Sodom and Gomorrah there saying that they’d never had the privileges that the people of Jesus’ lifetime had had. There will be the citizens of Nineveh who had the monotony of Jonah’s preaching, nevertheless they heeded it and they cried to God for mercy, and there will be the Queen of Sheba who had traveled far to talk with Solomon and learned much, but longed that it had been God the Son whom she had heard.
You have heard Jesus for many years, for Jesus said to those whom he had sent that those who heard their voices preaching the gospel would be hearing him, and those who heard him would be hearing God the Father who sent him. God has been speaking to you and have you been asking for more, more than the voice of God? You want signs and wonders. You want goose-pimples and hairs on your neck standing on end. If only you had those then you would believe, you think. I am asking you to be satisfied with Jesus. I am telling you that it is enough to respond to the Lord Jesus in repentance and faith because it is true, and there is no better reason that anyone should worship the Lord Jesus Christ reverently and in godly fear and love him as his prophet, priest and king other than this, that it is true. The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world, and it is true, so respond to him in faith in the name of truth.
August 1 2010 GEOFF THOMAS