Some thoughts on Matthew 12:39-42

But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” (Mt. 12:39-42 NASB)

Jesus testifies in 12:39 that no sign is forthcoming to an evil and adulterous generation. No doubt, he knows the Pharisees are testing him, which testing comes from sinfully hardened hearts, not genuine interest in Christ’s gospel message. In Mt. 4:7, Jesus rebukes Satan for his temptation, the temptation being that Jesus should cast himself from the top of the temple. This temptation is very similar to the test the Pharisees have put before him. In the one, Satan tries to outwit Jesus by quoting Scripture. But our Lord does not falter, quoting Scripture to refute Satan. The Pharisees sought after a sign. Not because they wanted to see if Jesus was truly the Anointed One. More likely, they were hoping he could not produce a sign on demand, or that it could be explained away as trickery, or worse, witchcraft. Their evil intentions were discerned by Christ just as easily as Satan’s.

In many ways, Jesus demonstrates a number of lessons regarding the spreading of the gospel and the state of the hearts of those who hear it. As he says in John 3, those who come into the light work the truth, but the wicked cannot come into the light, for they find only reproof. The Pharisees, obviously, fall into this latter category. Even if Jesus had worked for them, their hearts would simply have been hardened by it. In Mk. 3:28-30, he does indeed do a good work, casting out an evil spirit. The Pharisees, rather than realizing that Jesus is Lord, say Jesus is evil! That he was casting out demons by the power of Satan. This example (and many others) demosntrate that an hardened heart does not look for reasons to become soft, it looks for reasons to remain hard. The same is still true today.

Atheists employ the same skepticism and the same temptations the Pharisees did. Michael Newdow (the atheist doctor/lawyer who wants “Under God” taken out of the Pledge), in his debate with Cliff Knechtle, said during his first argument, “If God does exist, why doesn’t he come down here right now and show himself to everybody?” (well, that’s a paraphrase, anyway). This kind of attutide is recisely what the Pharisees used to affirm their own unbelief. In fact, John testifies that God withholds regeneration so that they will not believe because their hearts have been hardened and they reject the word of God (Jn. 12:39-41). This encounter also helps to illustrate to us that those who refuse the word of God are still hardened against Jesus’ testimony. In John 8, Jesus states that this testimony is not his own, but the testimony of the Father. When one rejects the Son, he rejects the Father. Stephen confronted the Pharisees with this, saying their hardened hearts led them to reject the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). John writes, “There are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (1 Jn. 5:7; see footnote). The rejection of the word of God amounts to a complete rejection of the testimony of God´┐Żall Persons. Jesus tell us this in Jn. 16:13, 14, saying that he testifies of the Father (Jn. 14:24), and that the Father testifies of him (Jn. 8:18), and that the Spirit testifies what he hears (Jn. 16:13), which is the witness of the Father of Christ’s perfect righteousness and his glory.

Consequently, we learn that an hardened heart is closed to the word of God. Not that any of us didn’t know that already. But it does help to discern someone’s true intentions when they say they have “questions.” Someone who has “questions” but completely rejects the testimony of the word of God isn’t interested in hearing the testimony of Jesus Christ. More than anything else, I believe one of the foremost defining characteristics (certainly not the only one, though) of a Christian is a complete and total trust in the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God. When I’m talking to someone who says they believe the Bible is truly the word of God, I assume I am talking to a Christian until proven otherwise (although I’m wary of cults here, too). Conversely, when I’m talking to someone who rejects Scriptural inerrancy, I assume I’m not talking to a Christian until proven otherwise. Christ said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). But how can one keep his commandments if he doesn’t believe his word?

Soli Deo Gloria


(1) The best mss. do not contain this part of the verse. It is found in late Vulgate mss., but in no Greek mss. before the 16th century. It is possible it was an editor’s addition or clarification. It is also possible that some Vulgate editor preserved this portion of the text and the editors of the Textus Receptus, in their zeal to preserve the word of God, thought it better to add the fragment if that so happened to be the case. Anyway you slice it, you can certainly derive the same meaning of the verse from other places in Scripture. But if the fragment is indeed a distortion, the meaning of the verse is changed radically. If the fragment is genuine, vv. 7, 8 read as follows:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

If the fragment is not genuine, vv. 7, 8 read as follows:

For there are three that bear record, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

As you can see, the meaning of the passage has been greatly affected.
Gill gives a defense of the fragment in his commentary. Barnes discusses the problems with it. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown pretty much repudiate it. Clarke says it is most likely not genuine. On this, almost all scholars are agreed today.

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