“Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 12:38–39 ESV)
You want a sign? We all do. We need to have our eyes believe for us, to have our ears identify the ring of truth before we listen; and what we may say is “well, if only I could see this I would believe; if only I could see that.” But we live in a world where the parents of children shot in their school in Sandy Hook receive regular mail from people that deny it ever happened, who believe these victims are part of a grand conspiracy. Never underestimate the ability for eyes to see what they want, for ears to hear what they want, and for hearts to feel nothing at all, despite all evidence to the contrary.
But Jesus does give a sign, his death and resurrection. Jesus responds to our frail belief with strong evidence. Still he won’t play the game that pretends to seek truth with the eyes when the heart is already taken.
Jesus diagnoses the cause of unbelief as spiritual captivity. Every person who does not believe is captive to unbelief. Jesus knows he is not dealing with an even-handed trade of ideas; this is not arguing in good faith. Jesus’ point is that opposition to the Gospel is often driven by weakness, oppression, darkness, obsession. The Scriptures speak of it like sorcery. We are unable to love the best things the most. Thankfully the sign Jesus gives is for the hard-hearted, and though we still do not see it, when he rises from the grave he gathers us to him, and by his grace we are captivated, finally, by that which is the most lovely, by that which is best.
Why does it matter to the broader world whether we are spiritually captive or not? Well, we are a part of a culture, we create it together, a world longing for freedom but only able to celebrate it in the most superficial way possible. We purchase the huge package of fireworks but it’s mostly black cats, spinners, and low-velocity bottle rockets. We never get what we pay for, because deep down the Bible says that our captivity is really to these things we love - we do not just follow them, we imbue them with the power to make us happy and to make us safe. But they cannot make us truly happy or truly safe. These may be good things, but they are not the best things.
Jesus uses this language of captive love to say that these things that we live for, we have invested far more than we realize. He says that we love them, we bind ourselves to them. We lock ourselves up and throw away the key. And sadly, even Jesus, when he comes around, is good for a story, good for a moment, but we’re taken, we’re already bound, we’re in love. And the tragedy is that Jesus alone, only Jesus, can be the answer to that deep longing for which we have sold our contentment. So we build our worlds together on lesser loves and with allowances for occasional light they are worlds darkened by oppression or abuse, worlds darkened by a million false hopes. You see it every day on social media - the inability for all of us to build something beautiful together. It’s Lord of the Flies with us, never Lord of the Dance.
It matters because the souls that are free in Jesus fight for the freedom of an enslaved world:
“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:20–22 ESV)
It matters because when our chains fall off they rattle one link looser for the whole suffering world.