In our last essay we studied 11:14-28, which contained the first part of Jesus’ controversy with the Pharisees. In this essay we are studying the second part of the controversy, Luke 11:29-36. Back in verse 16 of this chapter someone had asked Jesus for “a sign from heaven.” Now in verses 29-32 Jesus returns to that question with a further answer. If you look at Matthew’s parallel in Mt. 12:38, you will see that some scribes and Pharisees repeat the request for a sign (Mt. 12:38). So in Matthew one doesn’t have to go back three paragraphs to get the link to “a sigh from heaven.”
Notice in verse 29 that the crowds were growing larger. Then Jesus said to them, “This generation is an evil generation: it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation.”
Jesus declared his generation to be evil, because when he, the Son of Man, brought the word of God to them, instead of receiving and obeying it, they asked for a sign. But Jesus said they would not be given the kind of sign they wanted. Rather they would be given only the “sign of Jonah.” He explains what he meant by the sign of Jonah. As Jonah himself was a sign to the people of Nineveh, the Son of Man himself would be a sign to Jesus’ generation. And that was the only sign they would get.
Once again Matthew recorded something Luke did not. Matthew says in regard to the sign of Jonah, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:40). Thus Matthew tells us that Jesus drew an analogy between Jonah’s experience in the belly of the great fish and Jesus’ death and resurrection. That helps us understand Luke, because Luke did not record that.?
In Luke, Jesus drives home his point by declaring that there would be two witnesses to condemn his generation in the end-time judgment. One witness would be “the queen of the South,” or the queen of Sheba, because she was willing to travel a great distance just to listen to the wisdom of Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-10). But Jesus’ generation rejected the wisdom of one greater than Solomon, the Son of God.
The second witness that would bring condemnation on Jesus’ generation in the end-time would be the people of Nineveh. They had the good sense to repent when Jonah brought God’s word to them. But Jesus’ generation did not repent when they heard the words of one greater than Jonah, the Son of God himself.
Next, in verses 33-36, Jesus uses the image of a lamp to express the necessity of responding to the light of his teaching. Before we discuss the verses, let me mention a couple of technical things about verse 33 that produced different translations by the NRSV and NIV translators. The NIV translation, “in a place where it will be hidden” is fairly literal. The NRSV translators were not being literal with their translation, “in a cellar.” However the point is the same either way. It is putting the lamp where it would not be seen. Lamps always are put on a lampstand so that they provide light to all who come into the room.
Second, the NIV adds a phrase that the NRSV does not, namely, “or under a bowl.” The thing that is going on there is the fact that some Greek manuscripts have the added phrase and some don’t.
Now then as we look at the meaning, the first thing I want to mention is that Matthew has a parallel to this saying about the lamp; but his parallel is in a different context altogether. It is in the Sermon on the Mount, in Mt. 5:15. The context there has to do with the disciples’ being the light of the world. Therefore in Matthew the saying is connected with the disciples’ letting their lights shine in the world as witnesses to the world.
Here in Luke, the saying is connected with the light of Jesus’ message rather than that of the disciples. As we have seen, the only sign that the people will get is the sign of Jonah, and they will have to decide on that basis whether the message of Jesus is from God or not.
Next, Jesus goes on to say, “Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness.” When he says, “your eye is the light of the body,” he refers to the fact that physical light enters the body through the eyes. And he draws the logical conclusion. If one’s eyes are healthy, they will let the light in; but if they are not healthy, the body will remain in darkness. Jesus uses this as an analogy.
The first thing I would note about Jesus’ analogy is how quickly it breaks down. Of course all analogies break down, but this one is particularly susceptible, because spiritual light isn’t dependent on a physical organ, the eye, to be received. A totally blind person physically cannot receive physical light no matter how bright the light is. A spiritually blind person, on the other hand, has the capacity to accept Christ and his word, provided he or she is willing.
Second, Jesus is saying that the light of his message must get inside us to be effective. As Psalm 119:130 in the NIV reads, quote, “The entrance of your words [meaning God’s words] gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” Jesus’ message consists of spiritual and moral light, and if it is to give us understanding, it must get into our inner being. That is, we must be receptive to it; we must be willing to receive it. Thus he uses the analogy of the eye letting physical light into the body.
The third thing I would mention has to do with the word that is translated “healthy.” The word literally means “single.” And I believe Jesus had that fact I mind when he used the word. In using the word in reference to the physical eye, it absolutely meant a “healthy” physical eye. But to use the word metaphorically, in reference to spiritual light coming into a metaphorical “eye,” the idea of a “single eye” arises. To receive the light of God’s word, we need a single “eye” of faith. If we are trying to balance the ways of the world with the ways of God, we will fail. We must have a “single “eye.” We must concentrate on God’s word.
Jesus makes his application in verse 35, “Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness.” Wow! This little teaching by Jesus is more complex than we thought, isn’t it? Let me remind you of what the apostle John said in 1 John 2:15-17. It reads: Do not love the world or the things of the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desires are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.”
Those who love the world and the things of the world do not have a “single eye,” and the light in them becomes darkness. But for those who have a “single eye,” and do the will of God, the result is entirely different. The light in them shines brightly, and they live forever.
Three examples from the Old Testament of people who began in the light and ended up in darkness because they did what John says we must not do are Sampson, Lot, and Saul. God blessed Sampson with great strength, but he yielded himself to “the desire of the flesh.” Not only did Sampson never use his strength for any particular good, he ended up blind, imprisoned, and eventually dead (Judges 16).
Lot traveled with Abraham when Abraham took his famous religious pilgrimage to the Promised Land. But Lot yielded to “the desire of the eyes” (Gen. 13:10-13). And Lot ended up as a drunk committing incest in a cave (Gen. 19:30-38).
Saul began his reign as the king of Israel as a humble, wise, and able leader. But he yielded to “the pride in riches,” and eventually, he sought spiritual aid from a witch (1 Sam. 28:3-25) and died as a suicide on the field of battle (1 Samuel 31:1-6).
By the power of the Holy Spirit we can have a “single eye” and successfully avoid “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride in riches. And if we do that, we shall use our spiritual gifts to serve our Lord in ways that benefit others.