Why did Jesus rebuke His listeners for seeking a miraculous sign from heaven? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Luke’s gospel by addressing the ultimate sign that attests to Christ’s divine identity.
Let us continue now with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will begin at Luke 11:27–36:
And it happened, as He spoke these things, that a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts which nursed you!”
But He said, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!”
And while the crowds were thickly gathered together, He began to say, “This is an evil generation. It seeks a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. For Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise up in judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.
“No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a secret place or under a basket, but on a lampstand, that those that come in may see the light. The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore, when your eye is good, your whole body is also full of light. But when your eye is bad, your body also is full of darkness. Therefore take heed that the light which is in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, the whole body will be full of light, as when the bright shining of a lamp gives you light.”
These words from our Lord are preserved for us by the superintendence and inspiration of God the Holy Spirit. They are written for our instruction, our edification, our training in righteousness, and carry the full weight of the authority of God Himself. Please receive them as such. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, how much like the people who sought a sign we are. How weak is our faith. How fragile is our confidence in the truth of your Word. We pray that as we hear the admonishments of our Lord, we will take heart and begin to feast on that Word that yields faith. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The late D. James Kennedy observed that there are three kinds of people in the world: those that can count and those that cannot. I am in the category of those who cannot count. When I came to the pulpit this morning to open the text for this morning’s sermon, I was surprised and alarmed to see that I had prepared a sermon for the wrong text. I had passed over this entire section that I just read to you, forgetting that it was there. In over fifty years of preaching, I have never done that before.
It is not as bad as what happened to my friend Sinclair Ferguson, where he prepared a sermon on the Prodigal Son. When he got to the church he saw that the text for the day was for the parable of the Good Samaritan. The problem is things got worse: in the middle of his sermon he got the two parables confused.
He said: “The young man asked his father for an inheritance or an advance, and he went to a far country. On the way he fell among thieves, and the thieves robbed him and beat him and left him by the side of the road for dead. Then he said to himself, ‘I will come to myself and arise and go to my father’s house.’ On the way he was bypassed by a Levite and a priest, until a Samaritan took him by the hand and came to the local inn, and said to the innkeeper, ‘Kill the fatted calf.’”
He told me that story a couple of years ago here in Orlando when I was scheduled to speak one evening after dinner. He told it to me at dinner. I laughed so hard that I pulled a muscle in my ribcage. He had to preach in my place. I do not think it is quite as bad as that, but this morning I haven’t prepared ahead on this text.
Receiving a Greater Blessing than Mary
The text begins with these words: “And it happened, as He spoke these things.” This was the discourse in which He answered the accusations of the Pharisees, who said that the power He manifested in countering the power of demonic possession was from the devil himself. After Jesus finished that discourse, “a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You.’”
The woman, though not a prophetess, pronounced an oracle of weal. She pronounced a divine blessing, not simply on Jesus, but on His mother, the one who gave birth to Him and suckled Him at her breasts. This is part of the Rosary that the Roman Catholic communion recites when they say: “Hail Mary full of grace, blessed art though among women. Blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now in the hour of our death.”
In the Rosary, Mary, called theotokos, the “mother of God,” is called “blessed” because she gave birth to Jesus. Surely no woman in the history of the world received a higher honor or greater measure of blessedness than this peasant girl, who had the honor of bearing in her womb the baby who would save the world.
Jesus gave an astonishing response to the woman’s oracle of weal. He said: “More than that—more than the blessing that was received by My mother—greater than the blessedness visited upon Mary is the blessedness given for all those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” Do you hear how radical that is? Jesus was saying that as blessed as Mary was to be His mother, you are even more blessed. You have received an even greater blessing than she did by being a recipient of the Word of God. She bore the Word of God incarnate. You have the Word of God written and enunciated in sacred Scripture.
There is a condition attached to the blessing that Jesus gives. This blessedness comes not simply in hearing the Word, but in obeying it. In the Greek language there is a strange twist of wording. The Greek word “to hear” is the word akouō, and the Greek word “to obey” is the word hypakouō. From that prefix hyper we get the English prefix “hyper.” It means that if someone obeys what they hear, they experience a “hyper-hearing.” That is, the hearing is not simply on the surface, going in one ear and out the other, but it is heard in an emphatic way so that the hearer does what the word commands.
If you hear the Word of God and if you obey the Word of God, our Lord has pronounced a blessing on you greater than the blessing that the Father gave to His own mother.
The Most Blessed and Wicked Generation
“While the crowds were thickly gathered together, He began to say, ‘This is an evil generation. It seeks a sign.’” Let us pause there. Jesus tacitly pronounced an oracle of woe, an oracle of doom upon the generation of His contemporaries.
The Scriptures tell us that all generations are evil because all generations are made up of corrupt human beings. What Jesus was singling out was His contemporary generation as being peculiarly, especially evil and wicked. I think the reason for the higher degree of wickedness that Jesus pronounced upon that generation is because, in contrast, it was the most blessed generation that ever walked the face of the earth.
The generation Jesus was addressing experienced the visitation of God incarnate. This was the generation that was on the earth when divine light shone on the planet in an unprecedented manner. This was the generation that had, because of that extraordinary light, a much more somber and sober obligation to respond. To reject the Messiah during this kind of extraordinary light accentuated the degree of evil of that generation.
A Generation that Demanded a Sign
Jesus went on to define why He found that generation to be so particularly evil. He said: “You’re a generation that demands a sign. You want proof that I am who I say I am. You want to see miracles. You want to see a sign that is so weighty it is irrefutable.”
In John’s gospel, John characteristically does not speak about miracles. He speaks about signs. One of the principal words of his gospel is the Greek word sēmeion, which is translated “sign.” For example, Jesus did the first sign at Cana of Galilee in the wedding feast, where He turned water into wine.
What is a sign? A sign is something that has significance beyond itself that differs subtly from the word symbol. A symbol participates in that which it directs or points to, but a sign points to something outside of itself, something beyond itself.
When you go toward the City of Orlando, and you see a sign that says, “Orlando, five miles,” you are not in Orlando. You are headed to Orlando. You are going in the direction of Orlando because you are following the sign that directs you there. But once you pass the city line, then you are no longer outside looking to something in the future, but you are in it.
Jesus was saying, “You want some kind of special sign that will prove to you that I am the Messiah, that I am God incarnate.” Notice that He was saying this to a group of people who had just seen Him cast out a demon. When the Pharisees accused Him of doing casting out the demon by the power of Beelzebub, Jesus responded by saying, “If you see Me casting out demons by the finger of God,” what? It is the conditional statement, an “if then” statement: “If you see Me casting out demons by the finger of God, then you know that the kingdom of God has come upon you.” In other words, Jesus was saying: “This is the sign. I just gave you a sign and the sign went right past you. Apparently, it was not a big enough sign. It was not a convincing enough sign. You wanted a bigger sign, a better sign.”
God’s Ultimate Sign
Jesus continued, “This generation seeks a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” How did Jonah get into this discussion? How is Jonah a sign? Jesus explained this elsewhere. He said that as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days, so the Son of Man will be in the earth for three days. He was pointing to the ultimate sign, the supreme sign, the most significant of the works God did in Christ—raising Him from the dead.
When Paul was with the Athenians in Acts 17, he said to them: “These former days has God overlooked,” pointing to God’s forbearance to an unbelieving world, to God’s longsuffering and patience toward the obstinacy of impenitent people. Then he said: “But now, everything has changed, for God commands all men everywhere to repent and come to Christ, whom He has appointed to be the judge of all the world. He has proven that through raising Him from the dead.”
Those of you still looking for signs, those of you still waiting to be convinced, if you are looking for more evidence from God than He has already given, your hope is futile. You are on a fool’s errand that will get you nowhere, because the reality is, God has already provided you with the ultimate sign. Sometimes we overlook the importance of the sign God has provided.
We have a certain jargon in the religious world where evangelists stand up, give a sermon, and then give what they call the “invitation,” inviting people to come to Jesus and to receive Him as their Savior. If you get an invitation in the mail to attend a particular event, such as going to someone’s home for dinner or going to a party, usually at the bottom of the invitation there will be the letters “R.S.V.P.” Those letters are asking you to respond, stating whether you intend to come or if you are not able to come. The idea of an invitation is that it is an offer you are free to refuse with impunity.
God does not invite people to come to Jesus. He commands them. It is not an option. If you refuse that command, you will perish. You will not be excused. No R.S.V.P. comes with the gospel. Those days are over. In the former days, God overlooked that, but no more. Now He commands all men everywhere to repent because of the resurrection. He has given the ultimate sign.
So, Jesus said: “No sign will be given to this generation except the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation.”
Jesus gave another illustration: “The queen of the South,” namely, the Queen of Sheba, “will rise up in judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon.” She made that journey without an airplane or an electric car. It was an arduous trek indeed, particularly for royalty. But she made that journey for the sake of learning wisdom. The reputation of Solomon and his wisdom had gone to the far corners of the earth, and the Queen of Sheba was so impressed that she said: “I must meet that man, whatever it takes. I’ll go over land and sea to get wisdom from the lips of Solomon.”
Jesus said, “There is one here who is greater than Solomon.” So, the Queen of Sheba and her entourage will rise in judgment at the last day to those who ignored the invincible sign of Christ Himself.
“The men of Nineveh will rise up in judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah.” Jonah was a great man, despite all his flaws and his imperfections. He was prophet of God. He pronounced the Word of God and the pagan people of Nineveh repented en masse. It was Nineveh’s great awakening.
Jesus said: “You’re not watching Jonah. This isn’t Solomon you’re listening to, but one greater than Solomon and one greater than Jonah.” Do you hear the implication? If you will not hear Jesus, whom will you hear? You can have all the rest, but give me Jesus. If you have Him, you have it all.
Without Light, a Life of Darkness
Jesus went on to say, “No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a secret place or under a basket, but on a lampstand, that those who come in may see the light.”
Jesus made an analogy between the lamp that you use to illumine the dark places of your house and the eye. The way we perceive light is through the organ of the eye. If your eyes are not functioning, if you are blind because your eyes no longer work, then your life is a life of darkness.
I think about what happens to people with various maladies, diseases, injuries, and how they cope with it. At Ligonier’s national conferences, we often have people who are hearing impaired. When we speak, we have the message translated through sign language for those who cannot hear. One of the highlights of those conferences is the music, and the words are translated to the deaf by virtue of sign language, but they cannot hear a single sound. I cannot imagine what that would be like.
How much worse is it to be blind, to be confined to darkness every second of the day. You have been in a room without light. You have experienced total darkness. You know how intimidating that is and how scary that can be.
I remember as a boy having to go down into the cellar with the coal bucket to get some coal from the coal bin, and how frightened I was to go down there because it was dark. I had no idea what was hiding in the corners in the basement. Woe betide if the light bulb burned out.
Even as a little boy, when I had to turn the light off in my room, I used to have a race with the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. I would turn off the switch and try to get to the bed before the light went off. I lost that race every single time. Oh, to have a life confined to darkness. Jesus said, “That’s where this generation is.”
The Light of the World
“The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore, when your eye is good, your whole body is full of light. But when your eye is bad, your body is full of darkness. Therefore take heed that the light which is in you is not darkness.”
What was Jesus saying? It is not difficult to understand the point: You are blind, and the blindness extends through your whole life. If you do not have the light of Christ in your heart and soul, no matter how well your eyes function organically, you are living in utter darkness. Darkness will be your destiny for eternity.
The image of darkness is in Scripture to describe our fallen condition. We are by nature children of darkness; we prefer the darkness rather than the light. If we stand in the light, we are stripped naked as it were, and all our sin is exposed. The light of the gospel does that. That is why we flee from it.
The light of the gospel exposes us until we rejoice in it and are covered by the gracious righteousness of Christ. The gospel is the light of the world because Christ is the light of the world. Without Him, your whole life is darkness. With Him, it is nothing but light.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.