My heart goes out to Jesus. After preparing for this week’s PODCAST, I feel such a profound sense of compassion for Him.
The thing of it is… I knew that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day hated Him. I understood that at this point in His ministry they no longer regarded Him as an irritation to be tolerated or a troublesome teacher to be discredited. Now they saw Him as a colossal threat to be killed. I got all of that.
What I didn’t get until this week was how toxic — both to Jesus and to the precious people to whom He ministered — the religious environment in which Jesus found Himself had become.
Even more significantly, the source of its toxicity.
And even more significantly, what it means to our lives today.
The challenges He faced within His own religious tradition were overwhelming. So are ours.
Trust me when I say that we have a sympathetic Savior who knows all about it. He’s been there, and lives to tell the tale.
So, let’s start by reading Matthew 12:
38 One day some teachers of religious law and Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority.”
39 But Jesus replied, “Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.
41 “The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent. 42 The queen of Sheba will also stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for she came from a distant land to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Now someone greater than Solomon is here—but you refuse to listen.
What warranted this response from Jesus to the religious leaders of His day? What created the divide between their plans and God’s plan?
Well, in an effort to seek these answers, let’s first look at a mere generation ago. Not too long ago, there was a tract that spoke Jesus’ message to people all around the world. It was called The Four Spiritual Laws, and it said this:
- God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.
- Man is sinful and separated from God, therefore he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
- Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. Through Him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.
- We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.
An entire generation of people were introduced to what it means to be a committed Christ follower by these Four Spiritual Laws. The tract concluded with this:
You can receive Christ right now, by faith through prayer (prayer is talking to God). God knows your heart and is not so concerned with your words as He is with the attitude of your heart. The following is a suggested prayer:
Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life.
Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.
Then the tract asks the reader the following:
Does this prayer express the desire of your heart? If it does, I invite you to pray this prayer right now, and Christ will come into your life, as He promised.
But, let’s contrast this message of “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for you life” to how Jesus began His first salvation sermon: The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus stood before a vast crowd and laid out for them what it means to be a committed Christ follower. He began this sermon with these “shocking” words – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs alone is the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, blessed are the broken.
Now, to my ear, this rings quite a bit differently than “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I mean, who of us wouldn’t accept the offer of God’s wonderful plan? Simply pray the little prayer at the end of the tract and God will provide all you need. Who wouldn’t accept this?
Yet, by way of a startling contrast, as we look at Jesus’ words… who wants to be broken? Being broken hurts. The pain of being broken doesn’t draw people like “God’s plan for your life” does.
To put it bluntly, the emphasis that we tend to put on someone praying “The Sinners Prayer” and then being blessed by God sets people up for disappointment and a shattered faith when disaster strikes in their life and they can’t see God’s wonderful plan for their lives.
Now, going back to last week’s podcast, Jesus was under significant attack by the religious leaders of his day – people who were anything but “poor in spirit”. To a man, these guys were undeniably “proud in spirit”. So much so, that they couldn’t see who Christ was and instead labeled him as Satan incarnate!
It was in this context that Jesus came at them referencing three people whose stories the religious leaders were more than familiar with: Jonah, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (a prophet, a king, and a foreign queen).
Jonah lived in the Northern Kingdom of Israel – an area that had been obliterated by the Assyrians of Nineveh. So, when he was called by God to deliver His message of love, peace and forgiveness to these “barbarians”, it’s more than a little understandable why Jonah would choose to go the other way. Jonah needed to be broken:
4 But the Lord hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart…
12 “Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.”…
17 Now the Lord had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights.
The rebellious prophet was broken and redirected.
So, what did Jesus mean when he referred to “The sign of Jonah”?
Seems pretty obvious that He was referring to his own resurrection: Jonah in the fish for three days, Jesus in the tomb for three days; Jonah brought out to do God’s work, Jesus resurrected to complete God’s work.
This is true… partially.
For a greater understanding, we need to look at what Jonah went through while he was in the belly of the fish, before he was “resurrected”:
Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish…
‘O Lord, you have driven me from your presence.
Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple…
7 As my life was slipping away,
I remembered the Lord.
And my earnest prayer went out to you
in your holy Temple.
8 Those who worship false gods
turn their backs on all God’s mercies.
9 But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise,
and I will fulfill all my vows.
For my salvation comes from the Lord alone.”
Inside that fish, Jonah was broken. And then, Jonah repented.
You’d think that at least after Jesus’ resurrection, these religious leaders would have gotten the point and repented. But instead we see the contrary in Matthew 28:
12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep…”
15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.
These men weren’t broken.
Jesus also referred to the Queen of Sheba. The ancient land of Sheba was the most fertile and scenic region of Arabia, wealthy beyond description because they controlled the trade of perfume, spices and incense, among other valuable goods. It was also at least 1,200 treacherous miles south of Israel. Yet, as we see in 2 Chronicles 9, the Queen wasn’t satisfied:
The Queen of Sheba heard how famous Solomon was, so she went to Jerusalem to test him with difficult questions. She took along several of her officials, and she loaded her camels with gifts of spices, jewels, and gold. When she arrived, she and Solomon talked about everything she could think of. 2 He answered every question, no matter how difficult it was.
3-4 The Queen was amazed at Solomon’s wisdom. She was breathless when she saw his palace, the food on his table, his officials, all his servants in their uniforms, and the sacrifices he offered at the Lord’s temple. 5 She said:
Solomon, in my own country I had heard about your wisdom and all you’ve done. 6 But I didn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes! And there’s so much I didn’t hear about. You are greater than I was told. 7 Your people and officials are lucky to be here where they can listen to the wise things you say.
8 I praise the Lord your God. He is pleased with you and has made you king of Israel. God loves the people of this country and will never desert them, so he has given them a king who will rule fairly and honestly.
9 The Queen of Sheba gave Solomon almost five tons of gold, a large amount of jewels, and the best spices anyone had ever seen.
10-12 In return, Solomon gave her everything she wanted—even more than she had given him. Then she and her officials went back to their own country.
She came seeking. She was broken, and she left with her faith rooted in the one true God of the universe.
In this passage, we also must acknowledge Solomon, who had everything that he could ever want – including the honor and respect from the likes of the Queen of Sheba, yet he was broken to the point of bowing in worship and sacrifice to the one true God. (verse four).
And yet, when Jesus was talking to the religious leaders of His day – those students of Solomon – He knew that His words were falling on deaf ears connected to hardened hearts. They stood in the very presence of God, but didn’t recognize it.
The Queen of Sheba did. Jonah did. The Assyrian king who heard the words of Jonah did. Solomon obviously did. But the Pharisees didn’t.
For more engaging and encouraging podcasts and videos, visit the E-Squared Media Network at www.e2medianetwork.com