Sermon preached on Luke 11:29-36 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 04/3/2022 in Novato, CA.
Last week’s passage drew our attention to Jesus’ power over Satan. The hope was given that Jesus would ultimately conquer Satan, that ancient accuser of the saints. It is good news to think of Jesus finally conquering that age old accuser. Yet, in that context, even while we see a growing crowd around Jesus, he tells them that they might not yet escape accusation before God. In a surprising twist, he speaks of how some unlikely Gentiles of history might be those who accuse those of that generation that supposed themselves to be God’s people. So then, today we’ll think first about this present generation to which Jesus was ministering, then on these historical examples of Gentiles who would accuse them, and then lastly on what we learn about Jesus here. I will focus primarily on verses 29-32, but I will discuss the parable of the lamp and eye from verses 33-36 briefly at the end.
Let us begin then by discussing the generation that Jesus was ministering to. This is fitting because no less than five times in these few verses is the word generation used to reference that people he was ministering unto. To clarify, this generation would have most specifically referred to the Jewish people unto whom Jesus at that time was focusing his preaching ministry. He has strong words of condemnation here to that generation. It is true that these words could be more broadly applied to all of fallen humanity. Yes, the world in general was sinful and not seeking the Lord. But I think it is important to recognize that Jesus was most specifically addressing this to the one group of people in the world that should have known better. The Jews at that time were supposed to be the holy people of God. Yet Jesus declares here that so many of them were spiritually blind with darkened hearts, and they were under God’s condemnation because of it.
So then, in verse 29 we see the first thing that Jesus tells us about that generation. He says the were an evil generation. The word here for evil is the typical word for evil in the Greek. It is as broad of sounding description for wickedness and badness and depravity as it sounds like in English. Again, in context, one might remember Satan and his unclean spirits. They are evil. But so is this generation that Jesus is addressing, broadly speaking. They are sinners. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-11). That generation was an evil generation, and generally speaking, they had not repented of their sin.
Verse 29 then goes on to further describe this evil generation by saying that they are seeking a sign. This is relating them to Jesus and his ministry. When Jesus says they are evil, we can think of all the things they are doing that they aren’t supposed to be doing, all their sins of commission. But here, when we think of how they are coming to Jesus, we might at first think they are coming for a good reason. We might think that it shows they are beginning to turn around from their evil by coming to Jesus. Yet, instead, Jesus says that they are largely flocking to him as sign-seekers. This growing crowd that is referenced in verse 29 had come to Jesus for the wrong reason.
There can be different kinds of sign-seekers. We remember the kind we saw last week in verse 16 were people doubted Jesus and demanded more signs in order for Jesus to prove himself. That was after he had just done a sign in casting out a demon, yet such sign-seekers weren’t satisfied with that! Another kind of sign-seeker are those who are just seeking physical blessings, like the ones that are found in John 6. That’s when Jesus had miraculously fed the five thousand and the people returned the next day hoping for another miracle meal. That kind of sign-seeker is just about seeking immediate personal gratification. Yet another form of a sign-seeker is the kind that is enamored with the mysterious and for wonder’s sake they are desiring an experience. Herod will show such an attitude later in Luke 23:7 when Jesus is on trial before him and it says he was seeking some sign from Jesus. So then, these are different forms of sign-seekers. None of these kinds of people are seeking Jesus for the right reason.
These words show Jesus’ condemnation of that generation. But while we reflect on what he had to say about them, this invites us to reflect on our own generation. Does our generation stand under the same sort of condemnation? Let us keep that question in mind as we keep working through this passage.
Let’s then turn now in our second point to think further back in history to the two examples that Jesus gives. Jesus critiques that current generation by reference to people from earlier generations. His examples are the people of Nineveh and the Queen of the South. He raises these examples to say that these people will also serve to condemn that present evil generation. Let us consider both examples.
First, consider the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Jesus references the Ninevites during the time of the prophet Jonah who lived sometime around the 8th century BC. While this Jonah was briefly mentioned in the historical book of 2 Kings, his ministry to Nineveh is recorded in the four chapter book of the Bible named after himself. Jonah is the prophet that God called to go and preach to Nineveh but didn’t want to so he tried to run away by getting on a boat going the opposite direction. But God sent a storm, and ultimately Jonah ended up overboard, but God saved him through a great fish swallowing him. After three days and nights in the belly of the fish, he was vomited out, and he then proceeded to obey God. He went to Nineveh and preached and they repented of their sin. It is there when we learn why Jonah didn’t want to preach to Nineveh. Jonah was afraid they’d repent and God would have mercy on them and he didn’t want that. The Assyrians were the main enemy of Israel at that time, and Jonah surely wanted them destroyed not spared.
But Jesus’ point here is to commend Nineveh’s response. They repented at the preaching of Jonah. But notice how Jesus describes that in verse 29. It speaks of Jonah as being a sign. In what sense was Jonah a sign? Well, this is where the parallel account in Matthew 12 helps shed some light. There, Jesus speaks of Jonah as sign in his being in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights. Jonah was as good as dead, and it would have been because of his sin that he had died. But God had mercy on him and saved him. Jonah was a visible sign of God’s saving mercy toward sinners, of even life from death. It’s been suggested that Jonah might have visibly looked like such after being in the belly of the fish and then vomited up. But Jonah was a sign of God’s mercy toward sinners, a sign which the people of Nineveh hoped in, and they did find mercy themselves from God.
So then, Jesus says that this generation of Ninevites would end up condemning the current evil generation. To be clear, the Ninevites themselves had been an evil generation. They were notoriously wicked, and history even records their atrocities. But they repented at Jonah’s preaching’s, which Jesus says that is something this current evil generation wasn’t doing.
The other historical example then is the Queen of the South in verse 31. This refers to the Queen of Sheba who is recorded as visiting King Solomon in 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9. Remember the context for this. King David’s son Solomon succeeded him to the throne. God appeared to Solomon at Gibeon and offered Solomon to ask him for a gift. Solomon asked for wisdom, and that was pleasing to God that Solomon would prioritize wisdom over more worldly things like riches or long life. God granted Solomon’s request and gave him wisdom above all others. We have a record of his great wisdom, for example, in the book of Proverbs. And so, his wisdom became so well known even internationally that the Queen of Sheba traveled long and far to pay him a visit. Scholars think this land of Sheba was either in modern day Yemen or possibly Ethiopia, though either would have represented a tremendous distance to travel. This great distance is acknowledged here by Jesus when it says that she came from the ends of the earth to visit Solomon. This reminds of us how important wisdom is, that it would be worth such a long trip. The account of this visit says how pleased she was when she finally met Solomon. Solomon gave her a grand tour and showed here how he organized his kingdom. She was so impressed with his wisdom and it exceeded her expectations. And she had come bearing Solomon great gifts, but he in turned blessed her not only with his wisdom but also with great gifts in return. It’s a wonderful picture of Psalm 2 which speaks of the rulers of this earth seeing the Lord’s anointed king in Zion and paying him homage. Solomon’s glory was great, and this foreigner queen from Sheba sought it, that she might be blessed herself from his great wisdom.
So then, Jesus says that the Queen of Sheba would end up condemning the current generation. Do you see the contrast Jesus was making? They both were seeking things. The Queen of Sheba sought something grand and commendable because she sought out Solomon for his wisdom. But that generation of Jesus’ day they gathered unto him to seek out signs. They were seeking the wrong things, and Jesus says that the Queen of Sheba would condemn them for it.
In this second point, I want you to recognize that for Jesus to reference Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba is for Jesus to point to the Song of Moses dynamic. What I mean is that the Song of Moses prophesied that one day God’s people would go astray and reject him and run after false gods, gods that were not gods. In response, God said he would then reject his people and turn away from them and go after peoples who were not a people. God says he would do this to make his people jealous that they might then repent and return to him. That is the dynamic Jesus again brings out here. He points to these Gentile former pagans who God had saved. These Ninevites and this Queen of Sheba would stand as a testimony to the Jews of God’s saving of Gentiles over them. Would that spark jealousy unto repentance? Would they seek God’s mercy in Jesus Christ?
That leads us then to our third point to see what Jesus teaches of himself in this passage. You may already recognize the close correspondence that is going on here between the current evil generation, these past historical examples, and Jesus himself. So then, with Jesus we see that he is presented as a better sign than Jonah and as something greater than Solomon and his wisdom.
Regarding him as a better sign than Jonah, we see this in verse 30. Referring to himself again as the Son of Man, he says that he will a sign to the present generation in a way that Jonah had been a sign to the Ninevites. I already mentioned how Jonah was a sign of life from death. Jesus would be such a sign even more so than Jonah. Jonah didn’t actually die, though he was as good as dead. Jesus actually would die on the cross, and then on the third day rise again. He did this to secure God’s mercy for sinners. As evil Nineveh repented at the sign of God’s mercy in Jonah, so that evil generation is being called here by Jesus to repent of their sins and find new life in him. Sadly, Jesus speaks of how largely speaking that generation would not respond as they should to his preaching.
Regarding Jesus being one greater than Solomon and his wisdom, we find that in verse 31. God gave the human Solomon wisdom from above. Jesus was the Son of God come from above into this world in the incarnation. He was the embodiment of divine wisdom on earth. As Paul says of Christ in Colossians 2:3, in him, “Are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” I think especially of God’s wisdom that is manifested in the gospel of Christ at the cross. Christ crucified is the wisdom of God according to 1 Corinthians 1:24. For in Christ and the cross, God found a way to be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. And in Christ and the cross he found a way to shame the wisdom of this world so that no human can boast in the presence of God, but be humbled so that they might turn in faith to Christ in order to be redeemed. Jesus is saying that this is why that current generation would be so condemned, because they weren’t seeking what they really needed to be seeking. They needed to come unto Jesus to seek this saving wisdom, this wisdom that will bring them righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor 1:30).
So then, this passage shows that the current generation needed to see their evil and seek salvation. They had been seeking after the wrong things and needed to see what they should be seeking. This pairs nicely with the parable Jesus then gives in verses 33-36. The parable speaks of a lamp and that you don’t hide it after you light it; no, you want its light to shine so you can see through the light. He then applies that to the human eye and basically is saying that when the eye is healthy it’s like the lit lamp than shines the way. If your eye is healthy, you can see where you need to go. In other words, a healthy eye gives sight; the alternative is that you are in the dark because you are blind. Jesus’ stops his parable there, but we should realize that there is an implied application. Surely Jesus speaks about physical sight and physical blindness to say that we need to have spiritual eyes to see lest we be in spiritual darkness. He had been confronting this generation because they had been in spiritual darkness. They had been spiritually blind. He was confronting them that they might find in him the light they really needed so they could begin to truly see these spiritual truths they desperately needed. This parable should get each of the people there to ask, were they seeing? Or were they in spiritual darkness? And it should bring the same question today. Do you see? Or are you in spiritual darkness?
In applying today’s passage, I would say that what Jesus warned that generation of, would only be a stronger warning now. If that generation, should have seen what Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba had come to see, how much more us? Because we have been given more light. Think about what Jesus did when he compared what he brought to what Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba had received. When Jesus said that something greater had come, really, the fullness of that was still just a future prophecy by Jesus. Jesus as a sign to die and rise again was still in the future for them. For them it was just a prediction, but we’ve now seen it happen. And Jesus’ great wisdom to be shown at the cross was still in the future for them. But we’ve now seen it. If that generation during Jesus’ earthly ministry would be guilty for rejecting Jesus, how much more so would be now?
And remember that when Jesus threatened that generation, the threat also something for the future too. Jesus warned them something about the future; that warning was also a prediction and a prophecy. And in that case, the warning is still in the future for us too. Jesus said that Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba would condemn them in the judgment. Jesus is referring to the final day of judgment at the end of this age. That hasn’t happened yet. But it will. And that means that if we reject Jesus, if we won’t repent of our sin, if we won’t seek his gospel wisdom to find his salvation, then we too will be accused and condemned on that final day of judgment.
Yet, this passage holds out another way, a better way. May God grant to each of us here today eyes to see the light of the gospel. We are evil by nature – may we repent at Christ’s preaching. We are prone to seek the wrong things, but let us today seek the salvation Jesus holds out in the gospel. If we have such light today to spiritually see, then on that final day of judgment we will be openly acknowledged and acquitted. If we turn to Jesus in this life, there will be no one to condemn us on that final day, but only Jesus’ welcome into the eternal brightness and light as he ushers us into the glorious age to come.
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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