The Lord said of the Jews, "Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe." (John 4:48) But it is not useful for those who do not love the Lord in their hearts to be compelled to believe in Him by any outward means. That kind of belief is not deep and will not last. The Lord said, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." (Luke 16:3 1) That is why the Lord comes to us so gently in His Word and the story of His life, and in His works in the world around us and in His providence, not compelling us to believe in Him, but asking us to feel how good He is and to love Him with all our heart. That is why the Lord was grieved when the people asked for signs, and gave them none. (Matthew 16:1; Mark 8:11) In the Bible a sign means anything which convinces the understanding. This is never useful except when the heart is also touched. "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still."
Before the Lord came into the world prophets and wise men had been sent as types and signs of His coming. There were Gentile people then who listened to these messengers, not with their understanding only, but with their heart, and repented and received wisdom. Jonah was a prophet who was sent as a sign of the Lord who was to come. He came in the days of the second Jeroboam, king of Israel (2 Kings 14:25), and he was sent to preach repentance to the great, strange city Nineveh, far away on the Tigris river. (Jonah 1-4) You remember how he was unwilling to go and tried to escape from the Lord, and how after the storm and the three days and nights in the belly of the great fish, he was obedient and went. The people of Nineveh repented at his preaching, for their hearts were tender. Who would be more ready for heaven when they came into the other world where all hearts are known, the men of Nineveh who repented at the preaching of Jonah, or those who did not repent at the preaching of the Lord Himself?
Another who came in the old days as a sign of the Lord's coming was Solomon. You remember the richness and peacefulness of his kingdom, and the beauty of the palace and temple which he built, and his great wisdom; and you remember how the queen of Sheba came with her camels from southern Arabia, bringing spices and presents, to see Solomon's glory, and to prove him with hard questions, and how the king answered all her questions, and she was filled with wonder. (1 Kings 10) Which would be more ready for heaven, the queen who was tender hearted and was glad to learn wisdom from Solomon, or those who hardened their hearts and would not learn wisdom from the Lord Himself?
But we must not think that all the people hardened their hearts against the Lord. There were the faithful disciples who listened to Him and loved Him and obeyed Him. They were His little family, very near and dear to Him, nearer than those who had lived in the same house in Nazareth, but who did not understand Him, nor believe in Him. (Mark 3:21; John 7:5) He called the faithful disciples His brother and sister and mother, and we may all be as near and dear to Him.
1. Who wished for a sign from the Lord? Why does the Lord not give signs that would compel everyone to believe in Him?
2. Who was Jonah? Where was he sent? What happened before he obeyed?
3. Who was Solomon? Who came to hear his wisdom?
4. Whom does the Lord call His brother and sister and mother?
The Lord's reference to the story of the Ninevites and of the queen of Sheba implies that what was represented by those events was having its fulfillment. There were some who were ready to listen to the call to repentance, but they were not of the learned Jews; they were ignorant Gentile people like the Ninevites. There were some who were tender and open to heavenly wisdom but they were simple-hearted people like the queen of Sheba. (A. 1188, 3048.) When the Jews were angry because the Lord gave His blessings to the Gentiles and the publicans and sinners (verses 14-24 of our chapter) they showed the same selfish spirit which Jonah showed when he refused to go to the Ninevites and was angry that they repented and were saved. (P. P.)
The unclean spirit going out and returning. The house is our own soul, and the spirit is any evil which has an abode in us, and also the evil spirits which prompt it. We need by the Lord's help to have all such occupants of our house cast out. Sometimes a bad habit seems to be cast out, but it is only from fear; the love for it still remains; and when it dares it returns stronger than before. Sometimes a false idea is overcome by reasoning, but if the heart loves the false thing it comes back again. This would be the case with belief compelled by signs. The last state is worse than the first, because the wrong is more wrong after we have learned better and are able to do better if we only would. The increase of the evil is described as seven other spirits more wicked than the first. Seven is usually associated with a holy Sabbath state when through patient effort some good thing has become easy and delightful. Here it means the deliberate choice and confirmation of the evil thing. The Lord's words are a warning not to grow careless about a wrong thing which seems to be cast out, but to be always on our guard and to ask His protection against its return. (A. 8394; R. 10; P. 133, 231)
The Lord's saying of His disciples, that they are His brother and sister and mother, expresses in a very tender way how near they are to Him who love Christian goodness and truth and cherish them in the world. (E. 746)