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Words! Where do they come from? How far do they go? What does it matter?
"Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things. For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from You." But He answered, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
"The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and indeed a greater than Jonah is here."
Matthew 12:34-41 NKJV, condensed
Sneers, Snakes and Signs
For now, this is Jesus' final response to those who questioned his integrity and authenticity. They had said his power to perform miracles came from Satan. They accused him of being an imposter, faking his way though life, pretending to be God's special agent. You can tell how hurtful these words were to Jesus by the forcefulness of his reply. The one who taught us to turn the other cheek, is not about to take their lies lying down.
Jesus called them snakes! Slimy, sneaky, slippery creatures slithering along the ground with mud on their brains. Not just one snake but a whole brood of them. Attacking the innocent in sudden strikes, promoting fear, doing their mischief in secret. Reminiscent, too, of God's adversary in the Garden of Eden, that one who tempted Adam and Eve and provoked their downfall.
The "snakes" couldn't distinguish good from evil. They confused Jesus with the Devil! And projected their muddled thinking onto others. Jesus told them it wasn't just their words that were vile, they were evil through and through.
Did you ever notice that when you hear someone speaking ill of someone else, you learn more about the person who is speaking than you do about the person they are speaking about? A dishonest person judges others to be dishonest. A cheat thinks everyone else is doing it too. A gossip prides them self into thinking they hold the moral high ground.
Jesus put it this way: What's in your heart, comes out when you speak. In your attempt to take me down, you are just describing yourselves! Heed the warning. You better be careful with your words, because you will be judged by them. Not only here and now, but in the judgment day to come.
Then, as though to give more fuel to this debate, certain scribes and Pharisees asked for a sign. Jesus, let's talk about you! Give us some evidence that you are who you say you are. Prove to us that you're from God! Show us; do it now.
Seeing signs was nothing new in their religious tradition. This type of sacred moment was as old as father Abraham. But there was something uniquely different about this request. Not in the wording of it, but in the heart and mind of those doing the asking.
What was wrong with these scribes and Pharisees? Did Jesus call them snakes simply because they did not believe in him? No, it wasn't that. Their intentions toward Jesus were sinful because they operated out of self-interest. Jesus threatened their place in the established scheme of things, so they took whatever means necessary to stop him and protect their own positions.
When they taunted Jesus to put on a little show for them, Jesus called them evil and unfaithful. There are many descriptive words that fit this situation--perverse, stubborn, greedy for power and influence, malicious, hateful, treacherous, deceitful, negligent, arrogant, smug in their own self-righteousness.
Jesus picked a curious analogy: Just as Jonah spent three days in the belly of a large fish, so the Son of Man would be three days in the heart of the earth. There was no way they could comprehend that riddle, and since they didn't want to believe anyway, Jesus took no pity.
Speaking of Jonah, Jesus continued, the people of Nineveh repented when they heard his message. They changed their ways and turned toward God. And now a greater than Jonah is here and you, who hold positions of respect and honor in your religious community, refuse to see it.
Asking for a sign does not make a person good or bad. The crux of the matter is, do you want to believe? Are you willing to learn how God is working within your midst? Are you open to hearing the truth? The Pharisees and scribes were not. So Jesus told them if they're going to allow themselves to be blinded by doubt, their sign will come after the fact.
Jesus wanted to see signs too. Not sneers, unbelief, apathy or pretense; but trust, humility and repentance. Show your faith. Prove it by your words and deeds.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: When you step out of your door, what are the first signs of life you notice?
According to Jesus, where do our words come from? Do you agree? Would you like to add anything more? What are some words which really disturb you? How much power and influence do these words have?At this point in his ministry, why were the words of his detractors so important to Jesus?
How do you react to Jesus calling religious leaders "snakes"? Do words like that enhance or detract from the story? Do you think these scribes and Pharisees were evil people? Give some reasons for your answer?
Give an example of someone condemning themselves or being justified by their own words?
If you want to know more about signs, look up these passages: Genesis 9:12-16; Deuteronomy 11:18-21; Isaiah 55:12-13; Luke 2:8-12. In each of these passages, What was the sign? Who gave the sign? Who was the recipient? What was the purpose of the sign?
A sign has been described as a "Yes!" from God. What are some other ways to state the meaning of a sign? Did you ever receive a sign from God? If so, describe that experience.
The people of Nineveh in Jonah's day were serious sinners. The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus' day were seriously religious? So what gave the sinners a right to condemn the righteous? Picture in your mind any "sinners" who could condemn you on judgment day.
Suppose a friend would just like some small sign that their belief in God is not in vain. Some slight indication or reward to encourage them to persevere even though life seems futile. Just a little nod from our Lord that says, "Yes, I know you are trying and I like that about you." Is he or she wrong to ask God for a sign? What would you like to tell this person? Is it true there are signs of God's presence all about us? What can we do to recognize the signs God has already given us?