We’ve all experienced failure to varying degrees of severity and publicity, making mistakes in things we’ve thought, said, and done. Sometimes the blunders are containable, rectifiable, and forgettable. Other times, however, they’re not. At those times, failures do, indeed, stink. But they can also be very fertile times in life. When our missteps and mistakes are examined, they can be fodder for growth and recalibration. A thoughtful and intentional person learns from failure, identifying factors that contributed to it, and recognizing how to best avoid its repetition.
Matthew 12 has recorded one of the greatest failures in the history of the world: Israel’s rejection of their messianic King. What were the consequences of such a blunder? What were its causes? Is there a cure that could help us avoid similar foolishness?
I’ve heard it said: “Failures are like a compost heap. They stink but are the most fertile part of the garden.”
We’ve all experienced failure to varying degrees of severity and publicity. We’ve made mistakes in things we’ve thought, said, and done. Sometimes these are containable, rectifiable, and forgettable. Other times they’re not. At those times, failures do, indeed, stink.
But they can also be fertile times in life. When we examine our missteps they can become fodder for correction, growth, and recalibration. A thoughtful, intentional person learns from failure, sees factors that contributed to it, and recognizes how to best avoid its repetition.
As we come to the last section of Matthew 12, Matthew has just recounted one of the greatest failures in the history of the world: Israel’s rejection of their messianic King. A huge, public error, with ramifications that reach all the way into today.
And this morning we’re going to perform a post mortem on that failure; examine the corpse of their mistake to learn from it. We’re going to endure the stink in order to glean the growth. First, we’re going to recognize the consequences that Israel faced because of this failure. Second, we’ll identify some of the causes that led to the error. And, finally, we’ll seek to identify a cure.
Jesus didn’t mince words. In verse 39 he labels first-century Israel an evil and adulterous generation. Those are heavy words for God’s people to hear. Many times in their history they had been rebuked by God through his prophets for their adulterous idolatry and apostasy, each time being promised divine discipline for their unfaithfulness and unbelief. So, for them to hear these words again is bad news.
And what was that judgement going to look like in this case? That’s where we start this morning, by noting the consequences of Israel rejecting their King. And I can see three mentioned in this passage.
Consequence #1: Incriminating revelation. After the religious leaders ask for another sign from Jesus to prove his identity—something he’d done nearly ad nauseam at this point—Jesus announces there’s only one sign left for them (vv .39b–40).
Jonah, a prophet who, though once supposedly dead, was brought back from the depths by God’s power to offer salvation to sinners otherwise under divine judgement.
The only sign Israel’s leaders were going to get is that Jesus was going to descend into the grave, be brought back from the depths by God’s power to offer salvation to sinners otherwise under divine judgment.
While Israel’s leaders are asking for a sign to convince, Jesus says they’ll get a sign that will incriminate. They want more proof to believe but they’re going to get proof that they should have believed. While they failed to accept Jesus’s claims and will eventually put him to death, God will vindicate Jesus’s claims by raising him from the dead. Christ’s resurrection will be an incriminating revelation for first-century Israel.
Consequence #2: Humiliating condemnation. Piggybacking on the sign of Jonah, Jesus points to the embarrassing judgement that awaits the generation of Israel who rejected him (v. 41).
The Pharisees believed rightly that after death came judgement (see Hebrews 9:27). All people will face their sovereign Creator and holy Judge. And, on that day, says Jesus, the people of Nineveh will stand as a humiliating testimony against first-century Israel because they repented when faced with the authority of a fish-smelling prophet while Israel didn’t repent at a far greater authority.
And, on that day, the Ninevites won’t be alone (v. 42). This refers to the Queen of Sheba who, according to 1 Kings 10, travelled North to Jerusalem because she had heard of Solomon’s wisdom. She put herself in harms way, endured discomfort, and traveled a long way just to be in the presence of such knowledge. Yet, first-century Israel wouldn’t do anything even though they were in the presence of the very embodiment of divine wisdom. It’s going to be embarrassing.
Films like the Rocky saga are beloved because we love to see underdogs succeed. Rocky’s a boxer who has less skill, opportunity, and fanfare but rises up and defeats an athlete who has everything. Rocky is about someone doing more with less.
And that’s going to be the reality for first-century Israel on the day of judgment. They will be condemned by the Ninevites and the Queen because they did more with less. They repented and submitted with less information and revelation than Israel had. This is the second consequence of Israel’s failure: Humiliating condemnation.
Consequence #3: Unprecedented degradation. Jesus tells a parable involving a demon. In it, the demon leaves its host for some reason and, when it decides to return, finds its life in order but unoccupied. So, it gets some roommates, even more powerful demons.
As with all parables, we want to be disciplined in not letting the details distract from the point, and the point here is stated in verse 45b.
Israel was being compared to a demon-possessed person. They had been liberated for a season, but because they simply tidied up their lives with religiosity and didn’t invite a more powerful Tenant to occupy their space, because they thought their own self-righteousness could keep the evil at bay, they’re now in a worse position than ever. As a consequence of rejecting Jesus, the one who could have helped them, they’re now facing unprecedented degradation.
These are the consequences of Israel’s failure to accept their messianic king: Incriminating revelation, humiliating condemnation, and unprecedented degradation. Not good!
As we know all too well, while there is always forgiveness available to those of us who call upon the name of the Lord and always salvation waiting for those who come to God through Christ in faith, there are still consequences for sin, consequences when we foolishly walk the path of disbelief.
Now that we’ve seen the consequences, let’s look back through our text and notice the causes that led to the fateful rejection.
The first thing we can identify is what we could call insatiable minds (v. 38). They had had plenty of signs that Jesus was who he claimed to be and could do what he was claiming he could do. But nothing was good enough for these leaders. No sign, miracle, or teaching would convince them. They were obstinate, calloused, hardened. They had insatiable minds that refused to be convinced.
You may know people like that. (Or, you may have been a person like that.) Nothing can convince them. They’re unsatisfiable. And make no mistake, while the world may applaud these insatiable minds as virtuous, as evidence of great intellect, it’s nothing more than pride.
There’s a holy curiosity, a turning our questions humbly upon the Lord, and then theirs the egocentric, creation-worshiping, unsatisfiable groping for truth that, to be honest, characterizes much of our culture. As Augustine famously prayed to God: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
Israel had restless insatiable minds because they sought answers where they could not be found and denied the answer given them.
The second thing we might identify as a cause of Israel’s failure is their unrepentant hearts. We noticed in verse 41 that even Nineveh, with less information, repented. They heard the warning, recognized it as being a gracious gift from God, and turned from wickedness. Israel did not. John the Baptist called: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Jesus echoed him. But Israel rejected him and it. They were stalwart in their rebellion. Unbending with unrepentant hearts.
A third cause was Israel’s apathetic ears. The Queen, in verse 42, went to great lengths to hear divine wisdom. It seems Israel couldn’t care less that wisdom manifest walked their roads inviting them to join him. While the Queen came running, Israel’s leaders shrugged their shoulders. They heard Jesus’s words. They were there at the Sermon on the Mount. They just didn’t care. They had apathetic ears.
I’m told that, as a teenager, I would drive my parents crazy with a single, repeated word that dripped with smugness, condescension, and unearned confidence: “Whatever.” My dad would warn me about the dangers of a decision I was making. “Whatever.” My mom would lovingly direct me toward wisdom she had earned through years of trial and error. “Whatever.” “Whatever” is one of the pathetic mantras of one with apathetic ears.
Jesus came to offer the long-awaited kingdom to Israel. They looked at him and said, “Whatever.”
The fourth and final cause that led to Israel’s rejection was their erroneous goals. Remember, they were trying to keep their house clean without getting a sovereign tenant. They were banking on internal self-righteousness to keep them holy when only external supernatural righteousness can deal with the evil.
Add to that the exchange in verses 46–50. Jesus uses the arrival of his mother and brothers as an opportunity to illustrate how off-the-mark Israel’s leaders had become. They were convinced that connection to their coming king and his kingdom was secured through bloodlines; more specifically, through their connection with Abraham (compare to 3:8–9).
Jesus corrects that erroneous goal: You’re connected to the king and his kingdom by doing the will of his father who is in heaven which, in this case, is accepting Jesus as Messiah. When that’s done, when faith is exercised, welcome to the family. Israel had erroneous goals.
With our post mortem coming to an end, how did Israel fail so spectacularly? They had insatiable minds, unrepentant hearts, apathetic ears, and erroneous goals. And these cumulative causes led Israel to the rejection that brought the consequences they now faced.
So what’s the cure? Is there a corrective in this passage that can help you and I combat these causes taking root in our lives and help us avoid some of the consequences Israel faced? What’s the cure?
Well, I think we see a cautionary funnel illustrated in this passage. How do we develop an insatiable mind? By being unrepentant people, set in our sin and unwilling to entertain God’s correction. How do we develop unrepentant hearts? By failing to listen to God, his word, his Spirit, and his people; having apathetic ears. And how do we develop apathetic ears? One way is by committing to erroneous goals. It’s like a tragic slip-and-slide: Once you dive on it moves quickly to the end.
Whether ignorantly or knowingly, when we commit our lives to self-righteousness, to keeping our house tidy on our own merits and by our own power and by trusting our religious pedigrees to secure our relationship to the king, our ears grow increasingly deaf (see Proverbs 18:15).
When we become deaf to God’s knowledge our hearts become hard and unrepentant (see Ephesians 4:18). When we’re unrepentant nothing can satisfy our minds (read Romans 1:18–25).
So, what’s the cure? How do we avoid these causes and, ultimately, the consequences that come with such failure? We don’t get on the slip-and-slide! We make sure we understand what makes us righteous, how to pursue holiness with our lives, and what keeps us in the family of God.
The disciples weren’t perfect. They weren’t keeping the Mosaic law entirely, so it can’t be religiosity that Jesus is pointing out. No, it’s that they believed he was who he claimed to be—the Christ—and followed him.