In Matthew 12, the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign.

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

Matthew 12:38-39 (NIV)

Jesus then says:

The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

Matthew 12:41-42 (NIV)

Note that the Ninevites and the Queen of the South were Gentiles. The Ninevites repented when they heard Jonah preach so God didn’t reign down destruction upon them, while the Queen of the South traveled from Ethiopia to see the power of God in Solomon. Then, Jesus spoke this short parable.

When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order.” Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation (emphasis added).”

Matthew 12:43-45 (NIV)

Some think this parable deals with salvation. That someone can be saved and cleaned up by the Lord, and then if they backslide, they lose their salvation and are worse off than before. However, those who think or teach that salvation can be lost based on this, or any verses, is gravely mistaken. Instead, the key to understanding this parable lies in the statement, “That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

Remember that Jesus is responding to the demand for a sign. The sign the Pharisees and teachers of the law require is that Jesus is from God. Hence, Jesus’ statement, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Mat 12:39 NIV). 

Thus, we can define the “characters” in this parable like so:

  • Impure spirit – A demonic spirit
  • House – the Jewish people & religious rulers

As we consider the Gentiles and their response to God’s miracles in verses 41 and 42, we see a contrast between their response and the Jews, God’s “chosen” people. The Gentiles saw God’s hand at work and recognized it as God, paying due homage to him. However, the Jews did not. This cycle of ignoring or discounting God isn’t new to the Israelites.

When Moses was sent to extract the Jews from bondage in Egypt, Moses was concerned that they wouldn’t believe him.

Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”

Exodus 4:1 (NIV)

Indeed, the people didn’t believe Moses and Aaron until they performed the signs that proved they were sent by God.

And Aaron told them everything the Lord had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, and they believed. And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.

Exodus 4:30-31 (NIV)

Once the Israelites left Egypt, they didn’t want to go to the Promised Land either.

All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

Numbers 14:2-4 (NIV)

Because of their unbelief, that generation died in the wilderness (cf. Numbers 14:35). This cycle continues after entering the Promised Land. The people sin, terrible things happen; they repent, and things improve. However, that cycle of sin gets so bad that God sends prophets to warn the people to stop, but they don’t listen, so they are sent to exile to Babylon for 70 years. 

Even after returning from Babylon, idol worship doesn’t stop. Then, Jesus comes on the scene, and although he has healed the blind, lame, deaf, leprous, and raised the dead, he’s still asked for a sign. Thus, “this wicked generation” is like their ancestors who ignored God’s teaching. 

Now that Jesus is here, they are ignoring his teaching too, which comes from God, so the cycle continues. Each time the Israelites sinned, repented, and were made clean, only to get worse, and it will be even worse for them if they ignore Jesus’ teaching. 

Therefore, the parable in Matthew 12:43-45 is about the consequences of ignoring Jesus’ teaching and not about losing salvation.