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The Conflict of a Sign

An Exegetical Study of Matthew 12:38-45

1. Introduction

A sign is something that points to another reality. When scribes and Pharisees ask for a sign from Jesus, they are in fact asking him to prove him as Messiah. “They had witnessed countJesus-and-pharisees-taxless miracles pointing to the reality of the kingdom and the truth of Jesus’ proclamation and yet would not believe. They had been the recipients of far more evidence than had the Ninevites or the Queen of Sheba. Whereas the latter acted upon what little they knew, the Pharisees not only failed to accept what they saw, but they attributed it to the power of Satan.”[1] Thus by asking for a sign they are refusing Jesus and his message. For those who fail to believe in Jesus even after the miraculous deeds he performed, the sign which he gives to Pharisees and scribes will be a stumbling block. This is no sign for unbelievers. As St. Paul says, Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1Cor 1:23).

2. Translation

38. Then answered some of the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39. And he answering said to them, “A generation, evil and adulterous, seeks a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it, except the sign of Jonah the prophet; 40. for, as Jonah was in the belly of the sea-monster three days and three nights, so shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. 41. Men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it, for they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and behold! Something greater than Jonah here! 42. A queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon here! 43. And, when the unclean spirit may come out from the man, it goes through waterless region seeking rest but doth not find. 44. Then it says, I will return to my house from where I came out; and having come, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45. Then it goes, and takes with itself seven other spirits more evil than itself, and having entered, they dwell there, and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first; so will it also be to this evil generation.”

3. Text-Critical Notes

Not many textual difficulties can be found with regard to this pericopy. United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament does not mention any variant readings. However, Donald A. Hagner in Word Biblical Commentary mentions a few variants. The important ones are: “B (Vatincanus) and a few other mss (manuscripts) omit καὶ φαρισαίων, “and Pharisees,” probably by accident (homoioteleuton).”[2] “τὸν οἶκον, “the house,” is found only in D (syhmg) (Codex Bezae (A Syriac variant reading in the margin)); a few other mss of lesser importance have αὐτόν, “it.” The words are added in the translation for clarity, not in dependence on D.”[3]

3. De-limitation of the Passage

Although it might look difficult to de-limit the passage in the way I wish to do (Mt 12:38-45), it is clear to an earnest reader. Let me apply the best known methods of de-limitation of a passage.

Change in Place: The place of the passage is the same as that of the passage of the Be-el’ze-bul controversy that preceded and the passage of the controversy over the true kindred of Jesus that followed. Therefore it is difficult to de-limit the text using this criterion.

Change in Persons: A change in persons or characters is evident in the present passage.[4] The earlier passage had Jesus, crowd, Pharisees, Be-el’ze-bul and Holy Spirit as the characters. The present passage has Jesus, some of the scribes and Pharisees (not the whole group of Pharisees), and the mention of Jonah, the people of Nineveh, Solomon, the queen of the South, unclean spirits as the characters. The passage that follows also has different characters. Jesus, his mother and brothers, the crowd, the informer, and the disciples are the characters here. Therefore using this criterion, we can de-limit this passage.

Change in Time: The Greek word ‘τότε’ which in English usually translated as ‘then’ or ‘after that’ could be a mention to the time that elapsed in the narration. Although the events have taken place in a single day, some amount of time has passed in between. This word ‘τότε’ is usually used by the narrators to express the lapse of time and the beginning of a new episode (cf. Mt 12:22; 13:36; etc.) Therefore it is easy for us to say that the passage starts from verse 38. In the same way, the Greek phrase used in verse 46, Ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος, suggests that a new passage starts from here. Therefore using the principles above, we can de-limit the passage from Matthew 12:38-45.

Thematic Change: The earlier passage contains Be-el’ze-bul controversy story and the following passage contains the controversy of Jesus’ true kindred, whereas this passage contains the controversy of sign.

Although using the above mentioned criteria we can easily de-limit the passage, there might arise a few doubts in the reader. The mention of the return of the unclean spirit in verse 43-45 might seem like another passage. But a thematic unity as presented by Matthew dispels such a doubt. A careful study suggests that verses 39-45 are the answer of Jesus to the question that was put before him by scribes and Pharisees in verse 38. The phrase γενεὰ πονηρὰ καὶ μοιχαλὶς in verse 39 and the phrase γενεᾷ ταύτῃ τῇ πονηρᾷ in verse 45, suggests that Matthew has included the answer of Jesus in between these two phrases. This is a typical style of inclusion that Matthew Matthew uses to establish the unity of 12:38-45.[5]

5. Context of the Text

To understand the text, it is imperative to place the text in its context. The text as part of the gospel has a special place in its present context and one need to look at the wider and immediate context of the text.

Wider Context: As part of the gospel of Matthew, the passage is part of the conflict or controversial stories which formulates chapter 12. The events of chapters 12 and 13 take place in a single day. In chapter 12, the rejection of Jesus reaches a new height. The chapter contains three conflict stories. They are

a) Conflict over the Sabbath (12:1–21)

b) Conflict over Satan (12:22–37)

c) Conflict over Signs (12:38–45)

In each of these conflict stories the approach to Jesus was negative, but Jesus responded positively. The rejection of Jesus comes from two main sources, the animosity of the Jewish leaders and the indifference of the common Israelites. [6] The passage of my concern is part of these conflict stories which find a thematic ascension in the tension between the Jewish people and Jesus and will end in the final pronouncement of Jesus about his real household. Since Israel has rejected Jesus as the Messiah, he includes to his household all those disciples who do the will of his Father in heaven.

Immediate Context: The passage comes after the healing of a demoniac who was blind and mute (Mt 12:22). The healing of this demoniac was a clear sign that Jesus is the messiah. But Pharisees fail to understand this and they accuse Jesus of casting out demons with the power of Be-el’ze-bul. Jesus was very critical about their view and unbelief. But scribes and Pharisees would like to question Jesus further and they ask for a sign from him. This is the immediate context in which Jesus gives a sign which is a no sign at all for an unbeliever.

6. Analysis of the Parallel Texts

Matthew records the sign narrative in two places (Mt 12:38-45 and Mt 16:1-4). They are partially parallel. But it is unlikely that we here have two different stories or sayings from the life of Jesus,[7] rather Matthew has placed the story from two different sources. V 38 is similar in content to 16:1 but has scribes in place of Sadducees.[8] Matthew has supplied an introduction resembling Mk 8:11 and thereby making the entire passage conflict story.[9] V 39 is in verbatim agreement with 16:2a–4, except for the latter’s omission of the final two words referring to Jonah as τοῦ προφήτου, “the prophet.” Although both Luke and Mark narrate this passage, this is mainly dependent on Q, which is more developed than Mark 8:11–12.[10] “Matthew reproduces the Marcan form in 16:1-4 and the Q form here.”[11] The notable deviations from Luke 11:29-32 and 24-26, suggests that some material is drawn from Matthew’s special source or he has freely edited the Q source.[12]

“V 38 is probably a rewriting of Mark 8:11 or of the Q source reflected in Luke 11:16 (16:1 is perhaps a little closer to Mark 8:11).”[13] V. 39 is in verbatim agreement with Matthew 16:4 except for the omitted the words τοῦ προφήτου, “the prophet,” and has a more close parallel with Luke 11:29 for the description of the generation as πονηρά, “evil,” and the promise of the sign of Jonah (cf. Luke 11:29 omits the words “the prophet” as in 16:4). Mark avoids the quality of the generation as “evil” completely and also completely denies the promise of a sign. Therefore v 39 is obviously drawn from Q. Though v 40 is in agreement with Luke 11:30, the phrase ουʼτως ἔσται ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, “thus the Son of Man will be” is unique to Matthew.[14] In v 40 Matthew has explained the meaning of the sign of Jonah, which compares Jonah’s three day and night ordeal to the time of Jesus’ stay in the heart of the earth.[15] Vv 41 and 42 are transposed compared to Luke 11:31 and 32, but in verbatim agreement except for Matthew’s omission of τῶν ἀνδρῶν, “the men” (Luke 11:31), before “this generation,” thus producing a more perfect parallelism, and the slight change of the following pronoun. Matthew has thus successfully edited vv 41 and 42 transposing them to keep the references to Jonah together rather than separating them.[16]

For Matthew, the following narrative about the return of the unclean spirit is part of the conflict story of sign. But for Luke, it is part of Be-el’ze-bul controversy and follows that passage. vv 43-45 is in nearly verbatim agreement with Luke 11:24-26. “ The only differences apart from a few very minor changes in word order are the following: Matthew’s inserted δέ, “but” (though here a simple connective and not in its adversative sense), at the very beginning (v 43); Matthew’s ἐπιστρέψω (v 44) for Luke’s ὑποστρέψω, both meaning “return”; Matthew’s σχολάζοντα, “unoccupied” (v 44), probably an addition to Q; Matthew’s μεθʼ ἑαυτοῦ, “with it” (v 45), probably omitted by Luke from Q (given Matthew’s tendency to abbreviate rather than to add); and finally, Matthew’s concluding sentence, “Thus it will be also for this evil generation” (v 45), added to adapt the pericope to its present context and to apply the passage to that generation.”[17]

Matthew has thus freely edited Q, introducing his own materials in v 40 and in v 45. He has also changed the order of the verses to adapt to his style and theology. He transposes the vv 41 and 42 to make it a more comprehensive parallelism. He adds vv 42-45 to the present story forming one answer of Jesus to the demand of the scribes and Pharisees to see a sign. He adds the phrase “thus it will be also for this evil generation” to knit these verses well in the present context. Given the importance of the resurrection to Matthew, and his convenient and more emphatic change of the meaning of the sign from repentance to resurrection, and the breaking up of the story to add this dimension, one can for sure assume that Matthew has freely edited the Q source.

7. Literary Genre

If we take the whole of chapter 12, we can find that the whole chapter is a movement towards the pronouncement of Jesus about his household. Since Jewish people have rejected the Messiah, Jesus now includes anyone who does the will of his Father in heaven into his household. Therefore the whole chapter can be taken as one unit and a pronouncement story.

The story of the sign of Jonah (12:38-45) is part of chapter 12. This is the third conflict story in the chapter. The first is the conflict over the Sabbath (12:1–21), the second is the conflict over Satan (12:22–37) and the third is conflict over Signs (12:38–45).

The passage also contains different literary devices. The answer of Jesus to the demand of scribes and Pharisees is adequately articulated in an inclusion (or intercalation) with the reference to the evil generation in v 39 and 45. vv 41 and 42 contain a beautiful parallelism. Although not a perfect parallelism, the being of the prophet Jonah in the belly of the sea monster is paralleled to the resurrection of the Son of Man from the heart of the earth. There is also the parabolic analogy between a person who is repossessed and the present evil generation. There is also the proverbial saying about the last state of the person as being worse than the first.

8. Structure of the Text

The simple structure of the passage can be seen in the following outline: [18]

a. The request of the scribes and Pharisees (12:38)

b. The response of Jesus (12:39–42)—It is fourfold:)

i. He condemns the scribes and Pharisees (this generation) (v.39a)

ii. He promises the Pharisees one sign -the sign of Jonah (vv.39b-40)

iii. He warns the Jewish nation of judgment to come (12:41, 42) (using the twofold examples of their history)

1. Ninevites (v 41) and

2. The queen of the south (v 42).

iv. Caution against a worsened state of this generation (v.43-45)

1. The first state of the man (12:43)

2. The final state of the man (12:44–45)[19]

9. Analysis of the Text

After analysing the background of the text, we are in a position to look at the text more closely. This analysis will therefore contain a verse by verse study of the passage using the above structure and analysis of the selected words or phrases along with the implied theology.

9.1. The request of the scribes and Pharisees (12:38)

Greek Text: Τότε ἀπεκρίθησαν αὐτῷ τινες τῶν γραμματέων καὶ Φαρισαίων λέγοντες· διδάσκαλε, θέλομεν ἀπὸ σοῦ σημεῖον ἰδεῖν.

Τότεἀπεκρίθησαν (then they answered): “The opening words τότε ἀπεκρίθησαν, “then they answered,” relate this passage to the preceding material as a continuation of the exchange between the Pharisees and Jesus begun already at the beginning of chap. 12.”[20] Even though it is a weak connectivity, [21] we can find a thematic continuity between the Be-el-‘ze-bul controversy and this story through these words. Jesus had reacted very strongly to the claim of the Pharisees that Jesus used the power of Be-el-‘ze-bul to cast out demons. He questioned their attitude. Now it was the turn of the Pharisees to answer him. And therefore the above phrase acts as connectivity.

ἀπεκρίθησανλέγοντες (they answerd…saying): There are different arguments put up by the scholars to show that this phrase is just redundant here.[22] They argue that this pleonastic participle, ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν became to such an extent an empty formula that it is even sometimes used where there is nothing preceding to which an answer can be referred. According to them it is just like the common Hebrew formula wayyaʿan wayyoʾmer, or the asyndetic ʿanah weʾamar in Aramaic.[23]This argument is also because it occurs almost exclusively in the Synoptic Gospels.[24] However, the above analysis of the Τότε ἀπεκρίθησαν could tell us that this formula is not a redundant here, but connectivity between the passages.

γραμματέωνκαὶΦαρισαίων (scribes and Pharisees): The scribes and Pharisees are commonly linked in Matthew (see 5:20, and especially chap. 23).[25] According to some scholars, the first group here is subset of the second. [26] They are depicted as the common antagonist in Matthew. They represent the Jewish leaders in common.

διδάσκαλε (Teacher): In Matthew, it is those who have not accepted Jesus, most often address him as διδάσκαλε, “teacher” (see on 8:19; cf. 9:11; 17:24; 22:16, 36).Although it is a term of respect, in Matthew, it suggests a resistance to Jesus and his proclamation and a refusal to follow in discipleship to him.[27]

σημεῖον (sign): The “sign” in the Old Testament was an extraordinary or paradoxical event that manifested the present activity of God.[28] Considering the fact that the Old Testament heroes did perform miracles to demonstrate the God-given authority ((Exod 4:1–9; 29–31; 7:8–22; Judg 6:36–40; 1 Kgs 18:36–39; Isa 7:10–14; 38:7–8), it was highly reasonable that they should see a sign, that Jesus should by miracles prove his divine mission. Even though “sign” is not used in the Synoptics, as it is in John, as a word for “miracle,” it would be natural to assume that that is what Jesus is now asked for (as it is apparently in 16:1, “a sign from heaven”).[29] In the context the request is directed toward a Messianic sign, the type of event that in Jewish belief would precede the coming of the Messiah; see 24:3. The Be-el’ze-bul controversy is thus followed by an indirect, but not subtle, demand for a verification of the Messianic claims.[30] But when he had given so many signs already it was highly unreasonable to demand a sign now. [31]

The reason for the request was lack of faith. The request was therefore a criticism on Jesus for not giving enough evidence.[32] It was a challenge to prove him through miraculous deeds. This was exactly what the tempter had attempted in the desert. The synoptic parallels are very clear on this.Mt 16:1; Mk 8:11; and Lk 11:16 all have ‘a sign from heaven’, and all use the word, πειράζω, ‘tempt’.[33] Jesus never did any miracle to create an effect or to prove himself. They were part of his proclamation and thus designed solely to meet human needs.[34]

9.2. The Response of Jesus (vv.39-45)

9.2.1. He condemns the scribes and Pharisees (this generation) (v.39a)

Greek Text: ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· γενεὰ πονηρὰ καὶ μοιχαλὶς σημεῖον ἐπιζητεῖ, καὶ σημεῖον οὐ δοθήσεται αὐτῇ

Although the request for a sign is not in itself objectionable, Jesus dismisses the present request because of the attitude of those who have made it. Jesus considers these leaders as the representatives of all those people in general who are not receptive.

γενεὰπονηρὰκαὶμοιχαλὶς: (wicked and adulterous generation) The καὶ here is probably an explanatory καὶ, explaining who are the wicked generation. The wicked are adulterous. The word adulterous to qualify the generation appears only in Matthew and not Luke. By using this word, Matthew refers to the Old Testament metaphor for infidelity of Israel (see Jer 2:1-3, 20-25, 32-33; 3:1-5; Hos 2:3-22).[35] Jesus is hard not only on those who ask for sign, but on all those who do not believe in him. They were indeed evil because they were not faithful to the deeds of YHWH manifested in the person of Jesus. They not only hardened themselves against the conviction of Christ’s miracles, but set themselves to abuse him, and put contempt on his miracles.[36] They would eventually take him to cross.

9.2.2. He promises the Pharisees one sign -the sign of Jonah (vv.39b-40)

Greek Text: εἰ μὴ τὸ σημεῖον Ἰωνᾶ τοῦ προφήτου. ὥσπερ γὰρ ἦν Ἰωνᾶς ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ τοῦ κήτους τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας, οὕτως ἔσται ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ τῆς γῆς τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας.

εἰμὴτὸσημεῖονἸωνᾶτοῦπροφήτου (except the sign of Jonah the prophet): The Sign of Jonah is an exepgetic genitive and therefore it is not a sign given by or to Jonah or in any other way merely connected with him, but is the sign which Jonah was, or Jonah himself, as a sign.[37] “The refusal of a sign is absolute in Mark’s parallel passage (8:11–12), but Matthew and Luke (11:29–30) both qualify it by an enigmatic reference to the “sign of Jonah,” which they then develop differently, Matthew by an explicit typological parallel (v. 40), Luke by stating more cryptically simply that as Jonah was a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.”[38]

γὰρ (for): Γάρ is often used to introduce an explanatory statement. An explanation is less prominent than what is being explained. [39] Therefore the following verse is an explanation of the sign of Jonah. Matthew has significant change in the understanding of the sign from Luke which is probably closer to Q. According to Luke, it is the preaching of Jonah to repentance which is the sign, but in Matthew, it is explicitly the resurrection.[40] Resurrection was such an important theme for Matthew, that he breaks the flow of the passage to add this meaning.

τρεῖςἡμέραςκαὶτρεῖςνύκτας (three days and three nights): To be actual, Christ did not spend three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. This is a typical example of a Synecdoche referring to the use of the whole for a part or part for the whole. Thus it could be a reference to the first and third days and all the second.[41] According to Theodore of Heraclea, “we commemorate the third day of those who have died, not when three days and three nights, completed in equal measure, have gone by. But we reckon as a single, complete day that day on which the person died, regardless of what hour the death occurred.” [42]

The sojourn of Jonah in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three nights is a foreshadowing of the resurrection of Jesus. Matthew anticipates his own account of resurrection here.[43] Being a sign in the future, it fails to convince his present hearers. From this point of view, the refusal of a sign remains for the time being absolute despite the tantalizing “except.” It is only Matthew’s readers who have a post-resurrectional view (cf. John 2:21-22 for a similar sign) can understand this sign. [44] The resurrection of Jesus will therefore demonstrate a correspondence between him and the prophet Jonah, each released from Sheol (“the belly of the sea monster” and “the heart of the earth,” refers to Sheol). [45]

The Sign of Jonah, although was given to scribes and Pharisees, was not meant for them. The phrase τῇ καρδίᾳ τῆς γῆς stands in contrast to σημεῖον ἰδεῖν (one cannot see things under the earth) and thereby ‘highlights the fact that the “sign” demanded and “sign” to be given … are diametrically opposed in nature’[46] Those who wish to know the Son of God through a demonstration of signs but not through faith will remain trapped in their disbelief, falling on the stumbling block of his death, which is the sign of Jonah.[47]

However, the analogy with Jonah as it occurs in Matthew is not quite perfect. Jonah, for one thing, did not die as did the Son of Man. [48]

9.2.3. He warns the Jewish nation of judgment to come (12:41, 42)

Greek Text: 41. ἄνδρες Νινευῖται ἀναστήσονται ἐν τῇ κρίσει μετὰ τῆς γενεᾶς ταύτης καὶ κατακρινοῦσιν αὐτήν, ὅτι μετενόησαν εἰς τὸ κήρυγμα Ἰωνᾶ, καὶ ἰδοὺ πλεῖον Ἰωνᾶ ὧδε.

42. βασίλισσα νότου ἐγερθήσεται ἐν τῇ κρίσει μετὰ τῆς γενεᾶς ταύτης καὶ κατακρινεῖ αὐτήν, ὅτι ἦλθεν ἐκ τῶν περάτων τῆς γῆς ἀκοῦσαι τὴν σοφίαν Σολομῶνος, καὶ ἰδοὺ πλεῖον Σολομῶνος ὧδε.

“Two parallel sayings are now appended that indicate the repentance and receptivity found in those who had much less evidence to depend on than did the contemporaries of Jesus. The Ninevites, on the one hand, who repented at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:5), and the Queen of Sheba (i.e., “the south”), who traveled so far to hear the wisdom of Solomon (1 Kgs 10:1–10; cf. 2 Chr 9:1–9), will “rise up” (ἀναστήσονται) in the resurrection at the final judgment and condemn the present generation.”[49] Thus Jesus directs his questioners to two familiar passages of Old Testament. He condemns them of their stubbornness and warns them. Here we encounter a known Matthean motif of believing Gentiles and unbelieving Jews (cf. 8:10–11; 21:43). [50]

πλεῖον (greater): adjective normal accusative neuter singular comparative from πολύς .

The gender of the word πλεῖον is neuter. This is therefore translated as “something greater than.” The neuter gender is understood most naturally as referring to the entire reality of Jesus and his proclamation and the inauguration of the kingdom of God.[51] Thus it refers to the ‘Christ event’ in its totality. Jesus invites his hearers to look (cf. ἰδοὺ) at the Kingdom of God present among them in the person of Jesus.

In this chapter, we have three “greater/more than” sayings (cf. μεῖζον in v 6 and πλεῖον in v 41 & 42). These sayings also clarify Matthew’s understanding of the nature of Jesus. As Jonah represented the prophetic office, Solomon, son of David, represented the kingly office and the wisdom tradition. Thus Matthew affirms that Jesus is greater than the prophets and kings. He is also greater than the temple or priesthood (v 6). It is also notewordy to mention that Solomon was the builder of the temple, which Matthew considers irrelevant with the coming of Jesus (Temple is a prominent theme in Matthew’s gospel). He affirms that priesthood (cf. Matthew 12:6), prophets and kingship can be found in the person of Jesus. Jesus’ questioners have a thought-provoking basis on which to consider the question of his authority.[52] Jesus is thus and someone greater than the temple, and hence a high priest, a prophet, and a king.[53]

κατακρινοῦσιν αὐτήν (they will condemn it): The reference here is that the people of Nineveh and the queen of south will rise up in judgement and condemn this generation. Probably the reference may not be that the people of older generation themselves will judge the present generation in some future time, but they will be they will be the standard by which this generation will be condemned by God.[54] Ninevites and the queen of the south had far less advantages than the generation of Jesus’ day, who were asking for more signs; but Ninevites and the queen responded better to their opportunities. Therefore God will judge this generation more harshly because they had better opportunities. The people of Nineveh repented at the teaching of a prophet, a recipient of the word of God himself. Although, a gentile and a woman, the queen of the South (Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10) was not deterred by these weaknesses. She, merely hearing of Solomon’s repute, desired to see him. But the Jews of Jesus’ time did not receive Jesus who is the Word of God and the wisdom incarnated. Their rejection of Christ will count against them. This principle was also seen in the rebuke given the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum in the previous chapter of Matthew.[55]

9.2.4. Caution against a worsened state of this generation (v.43-45)

Greek Text: 43. Ὅταν δὲ τὸ ἀκάθαρτον πνεῦμα ἐξέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, διέρχεται δι᾽ ἀνύδρων τόπων ζητοῦν ἀνάπαυσιν καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκει. 44. τότε λέγει· εἰς τὸν οἶκόν μου ἐπιστρέψω ὅθεν ἐξῆλθον· καὶ ἐλθὸν εὑρίσκει σχολάζοντα σεσαρωμένον καὶ κεκοσμημένον. 45. τότε πορεύεται καὶ παραλαμβάνει μεθ᾽ ἑαυτοῦ ἑπτὰ ἕτερα πνεύματα πονηρότερα ἑαυτοῦ καὶ εἰσελθόντα κατοικεῖ ἐκεῖ καὶ γίνεται τὰ ἔσχατα τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκείνου χείρονα τῶν πρώτων. οὕτως ἔσται καὶ τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ τῇ πονηρᾷ.

These verses extend the indictment levelled against the Pharisees throughout this chapter and especially the preceding passage, alluding not only to the failure of the Pharisees to accept Jesus and his ministry but also to the miserable future that lies before them.[56] In these verses Matthew gives an analogy between a person who repossessed and the present evil generation. This passage is closely associated with Be-el-zebul controversy in Luke. However, Matthew has a purpose to add this story here and to include in this pericopy. For him, the worse thing than the present rejection of Messiah can only be the crucifixion. Therefore it is apt that the rejection of Messiah which is the prominent theme in the chapter culminates with these verses.

Jesus aptly puts the situation of “this generation” is like that of the newly-exorcized person. They have experienced the liberation through the ministry of Jesus, but if they fail to take the road of discipleship, they are in danger of relapsing into a condition worse than before. The message here reflects that of v. 30: if they are not positively “for” Jesus they will turn out in the end to be “against” him.[57]

ἀνύδρων τόπων (waterless region): Waterless region or dry places or the desert in the Bible is the home of the evil spirit or Satan (cf. Matthew 4:1; Is 32:21; 34:14; Tb 8:3). At another time in the Gospel, Jesus was tempted in the desert. The temptor had asked him to prove his identity as the Son of God through various miracles. One can find such temptation in the demand of the Pharisees.

ἐπιστρέψω (return): The saying casts some light on exorcisms performed in New Testament times (see 12:27); the cure was sometimes only temporary, and the patient relapsed into a worse condition. The parable is a proof that Christ did not cast out devil using the power of Satan as they had accused him earlier. For if he had, the Satan would have returned. Christ’s ejectment of him was final, and such as barred a re-entry: we find him charging the evil spirit to go out, and enter no more, (cf. Mk. 9:25).[58]

εἰςτὸνοἶκόνμου (into my house): Satan speaks like a ruler here. He is imperialistic. It could be alluding to the Roman imperialism which the house of Israel was experiencing. Each time a lesser evil left Israel, there was peace for some time, but it always followed a greater evil.

In the Old Testament, Israel was considered the house of God. Temple was also the house of God. But here by comparing the man possessed with evil spirit to the generation of his time Jesus was calling the house of Satan to which it would return if they don’t fill the house with God’s works. Jesus had cast away the sinfulness of Israel but it would return sevenfold if they don’t accept Jesus and his message.

σχολάζοντα σεσαρωμένον καὶ κεκοσμημένον (empty, swept, and put in order): Words σεσαρωμένον(swept) and κεκοσμημένον (put in order) are in aorist tense whereas σχολάζοντα (empty) is in present tense. Therefore empty is the problem. The house of Israel is now swept and put in order by the words and deeds of Jesus, but if it fails to follow it up with good and godly things, the evil spirit would return. The rejection of Messiah would lead to far grave consequences. “It is not enough that demons, whether literal or figurative, be cast out of the heart and mind; the Spirit of God must come into the life and be placed in control of the thought and conduct (see 2 Chron. 6:16; Eph. 2:22). It is not enough to hate the evil; we must ardently love and cherish that which is good (see Amos 5:15; 2 Thess. 2:10; see on Matt. 6:24).”[59]

ἑπτὰ ἕτερα πνεύματα (seven other spirits): This refers to a more complete possession by the evil spirits.

καὶ γίνεται τὰ ἔσχατα τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκείνου χείρονα τῶν πρώτων (and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first): This generation has witnessed the powerful deeds of Jesus including exorcism but failed to recognize them. Israel has rejected Jesus and his teaching. The last worse thing that can happen to them is the complete rejection of Messiah on the cross.

ουʼτωςἔσταικαὶτῇγενεᾷταύτῃτῇπονηρᾷ (thus it will be also for this evil generation): This verses added by Matthew applies the parable to the present pericopy and completes the unbelief and resistane Jesus has encountered from Pharisees. According to Donald A. Hagner, “This evil generation (cf. v 39) had experienced the powerful deeds of Jesus, which included demon exorcism, and to that extent had benefited. But there had been no repentance, no acceptance of and commitment to Jesus and his cause, and thus this generation would be as susceptible to the power of evil as ever; indeed, the judgment it would later experience would be far worse than when Jesus began his ministry. In view (contra Davies-Allison) may be the destruction of Jerusalem (cf. 24:2, 15) and not simply eschatological judgment.”[60]

10. Significance of the Text

St. Paul calls the Jews as those who “seek signs” (1 Cor 1:22). There are many instances in the Old Testament, where people demand a sign or YHWH himself provides them a sign. The request by scribes and Pharisees becomes evil here, because they had already good and sufficient signs available to them to believe in Jesus. But they rejected them and accused Jesus of using the power of Be-el’ze-bul. Their unreceptively and unbelief is the root problem. Today also Jesus continues to do miracles every day. But failing to see those miracles and explicitly asking for spectacular signs to believe in the works of the Lord is testing him. Like in this case, it is very unlikely any sign would be given to such persons. Such demand is to test the Lord is equal to the work of the tempter in Matthew 4:1-11 and the demand of the Pharisees in Mk 12:38. In these circumstances, to ask for more evidence, more signs, is to reflect a deep-seated unbelief in the reality of God and his grace.[61]

Accepting Jesus as the Messiah is the key towards the discipleship. Those who cannot see Jesus as Christ will fail to accept him. The more we know of Jesus, the more will be demanded of us. Sometimes like the learned scribes and Pharisees, and like Israel, the house hold of God, we might be unable to see the miracles of God and the signs of the times (cf.16:3) in our midst. It is only those who have faith can really see and recognize God’s works. Faith can see signs. The sign of Jonah is a perfect example of that. It can be understood and recognized only by the faithful.

The Christian discipleship is not only refraining from evil, but filling oneself with the power of God, so as to be the house of the Holy Spirit. It is not prohibitions that constitute the discipleship but the affirmations towards God and life. Those who have experienced the freedom of the Lord must fill themselves with good things. They should represent Jesus in each day’s life. Those who are privileged to experience signs of the kingdom must respond in what will truly be a life-transforming and permanent way, namely, in commitment and discipleship to Jesus. [62]


Blass, F., and A. Debrunner. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Translated by Robert W. Funk. 9th Ed. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1896. Repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Blomberg, Craig L. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson. Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007.

Brown, Raymond E. et al., ed. The Jerome Biblical Commentary. 2. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1996, c1968.

———The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1990. Repr., Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 2009.

Butler, John G. Matthew. Analytical Bible Expositor. Clinton, IA: LBC Publications, 2008.

Constable, Thomas L. “Notes on Matthew 2012 Edition.” No pages. Cited 29/7/2012. Online:

Courson, Jon. Jon Courson’s Application Commentary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003.

Davies, W. D., and Dale C. Allison. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. 3 vols. Commentary on Matthew VIII–XVIII 2. London; New York: T&T Clark Ltd, 2004, c1991.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.,, 2007.

Gingrich, Roy E. The Gospel of Matthew. Memphis, TN.: Riverside Printing, 1985.

Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 1–13. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger et al. Word Biblical Commentary 33A. Dallas: Word Books, 2002, c1993.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible : Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996, c1991.

Moulton, James Hope, and Nigel Turner. Syntax. Vol. 3 of A Grammar of New Testament Greek. 2d ed., with corrections and additions. London & New York: T. & T. Clark, 1963.

Moulton, James Hope, and Wilbert Francis Howard. Accidence and Word-Formation. Vol. 2 of A Grammar of New Testament Greek. 2d ed., with corrections and additions. London & New York: T. & T. Clark, 1963.

Porter, Stanley E. Idioms of the Greek New Testament. 2nd Ed. : JSOT Press, 1992. Repr., Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.

Simonetti, Manlio, ed. Matthew 1-13. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture NT 1a. Downers Grove, Ill: Inter Varsity Press, 2001.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996.

Willmington, H. L. The Outline Bible. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999.

Young, Richard A. Intermediate New Testament Greek : A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman, 1994.

Zerwick, Max. A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament. Translated by Mary Grosvenor. 5th Revised Ed. Rome: Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1966. Repr., Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1996.

Zerwick, Maxmillian. Biblical Greek Illustrated by Examples. Translated by Joseph Smith. Rome: Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1963.

[1]Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (ed. Bruce M. Metzger et al.; WBC 33A; Dallas: Word Books, 2002, c1993), 352.

[2]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352.

[3]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 356.

[4] cf. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible : Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996, c1991), Mt 12:38.

[5] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (3 vols.; A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew 2; London; New York: T&T Clark Ltd, 2004, c1991), 351.

[6] Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Matthew 2012 Edition,” n.p. [cited 29/7/2012]. Online:

[7] Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 351.

[8] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352.

[9] Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 351.

[10] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352.

[11] Benedict T. Viviano, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” NJBC 654.

[12] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352

[13] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352

[14] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352

[15] Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 351.

[16]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352

[17] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352

[18] cf. Roy E. Gingrich, The Gospel of Matthew (Memphis, TN.: Riverside Printing, 1985), 34.

[19] cf. H. L. Willmington, The Outline Bible (Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999),Mt 12:44-45.

[20]Hagner, Matthew 1–13,353.

[21] Constable, “Notes on Matthew,” n.p.

[22]James Hope Moulton and Wilbert Francis Howard, Accidence and Word-Formation (vol. 2 of A Grammar of New Testament Greek; 2d ed., with corrections and additions.; London & New York: T. & T. Clark, 1963), 453.

[23]Maxmillian Zerwick, Biblical Greek Illustrated by Examples (trans. Joseph Smith; Rome: Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1963), 127.

[24] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 649.

[25]Hagner, Matthew 1–13,353.

[26]Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 280.

(also)cf.Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament (2nd Ed.; : JSOT Press, 1992; repr., Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 111.

[27]Hagner, Matthew 1–13,353.

[28] John L. McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” JBC 2:85.

[29] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.,, 2007), 486

[30] McKenzie, JBC 2:85.

[31] Henry, Mathew Henry’s Commentary, Mt 12:38.

[32] John G. Butler, Matthew (ABE; Clinton, IA: LBC Publications, 2008), 209.

[33] Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 351.

[34]Hagner, Matthew 1–13,353.

[35] McKenzie, JBC 2:85.

[36] Henry, Mathew Henry’s Commentary, Mt 12:38.

[37] Zerwick, Biblical Greek,16.

(also) James Hope Moulton and Nigel Turner, Syntax (vol. 3 of A Grammar of New Testament Greek; 2d ed., with corrections and additions.; London & New York: T. & T. Clark, 1963), 214.

[38] France, Matthew, 486.

[39] Richard A. Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek : A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 182.

[40] Craig L. Blomberg, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (ed. G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson; Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007), 44.

[41] Richard A. Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek : A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 238.

[42] Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13 (ACCS NT 1a; Downers Grove, Ill: Inter Varsity Press, 2001), 254.

[43] McKenzie, JBC 2:85.

[44] France, Matthew, 486.

[45] France, Matthew, 486.

[46] Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 351.

[47] Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13 (ACCS NT 1a; Downers Grove, Ill: Inter Varsity Press, 2001), 254.

[48]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 354.

[49]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 354.

[50]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 355.

[51]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 355.

[52] France, Matthew, 486.

[53]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 355.

[54] Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 351.

[55] Butler, Matthew, 209.

[56]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 355.

[57] France, Matthew, 486.

[58] Henry, Mathew Henry’s Commentary, Mt 12:38.

[59] Courson, Application Commentary, 91.

[60]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 357.

[61]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 355.

[62]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 357.

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