Swept Clean and Put in Order, But Empty
Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees and religious authorities. They want Him to produce a “sign” to prove His authority. Jesus refuses. But He points them back to their roots, to a piece of history that they know only too well. He directs them to the story of Jonah and his mission to Nineveh.
“The men of Nineveh will stand up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now one greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41).
Roots. Repentance. Revival.
The root, as Jesus implied, was not in another new sign but in a response to the unadulterated preaching of the old gospel. In Jonah’s day the message was clear. The people were to repent of their sins or be destroyed. When was the last time you heard a message like that? The people of Nineveh chose to repent and lived. The following generation chose not to follow their lead and the city, with its inhabitants, was destroyed—just a reminder that repentance is an individual act of the will that can’t be passed on through the genes.
The waters of the clear and pure gospel are often muddied today. It’s not that we don’t want people to believe, it’s just that we want them to believe so badly that we don't want to drive them away by offending them with the truth. At least that is what we say. The trouble is that it is only the truth that will set them free (John 8:32).
In the name of sensitivity we cloak the truth in phrases that we think might be more palatable for our audience, or devise “steps” in the process that are meant to ease people into the kingdom. I’d like to say that our rhetoric is more in line with encouraging people to “turn over a new leaf” but oftentimes it isn’t even that. We seldom speak of sin, in fact tolerate it even among believers, and hardly ever mention hell. There aren’t many people like Jonah around anymore.
At the end of his rebuke of the Pharisees Jesus illustrated this tendency, obviously true in His day as it is in ours, of leaving out the most important part of the road to the kingdom. The illustration was of an evil spirit who had been tossed out of his home by the owner who was attracted to something other than the evil in his household. The spirit wandered for a while, but then decided to check out the old homestead. When he arrived he discovered the home was swept and cleaned, but unoccupied. So, he moved back in and brought some of his friends with him. Jesus’ conclusion was: “And the final condition of that man is worse than the first” (Matthew 12:45b).
John MacArthur, commented on this story, says: “The problem is that the evil spirit found the house ‘empty.’ This is the description of someone who attempts moral reform without ever being indwell by the Holy Spirit. Reform apart from regeneration is never effective and eventually reverts back to pre-reform behaviour” (One Perfect Man, p. 166).
This is not what we want to see. But this is what we will see unless we get past the muddification of the gospel and tell people the clear and plain truth. They are sinners, but unless they confess those sins, throw themselves on the mercy of Jesus and ask forgiveness of those sins and repent, they may come to church, be part of the community, sweep the “house” a little to fit in with their new-found friends, but that “house” will remain empty just waiting for the evil spirit to return.
And only when we are willing to return to those roots and preach and teach repentance from sin and the consequences of not repenting, will we see revival—something desperately needed in our “unoccupied, swept clean and put in order” but sadly empty of the Spirit houses.