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. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
(Matthew 12:38-42 ESV)
After Jesus’ scathing words for the Jewish leaders yesterday, they ask Him to perform a sign. In the original Greek, the emphasis in their statement is on the word “you”. In other words, they wanted Jesus to prove that He had the authority to speak to them the way He did.
This is quite an absurd request as these leaders had already seen Jesus perform numerous “signs” to prove His identity as God [Matthew 12:10, 24]. Apparently they wanted an even greater sign – perhaps a celestial sign (e.g. darkening the sun) – to prove His power over the universe. Only then would they believe that Jesus had authority over them.
Here we see an example of people who stubbornly refuse to believe. Like many people today, the scribes and Pharisees were not approaching Jesus objectively. They had already drawn a conclusion about Him and ignored any evidence that contradicted that conclusion.
Interestingly Jesus calls such people adulterous. God often describes man’s relationship with Him as a marriage [Jeremiah 3:8; Hosea 4:15 et. al]. When we seek fulfillment and joy in things other than Him we are committing spiritual adultery, just like a husband might seek these things apart from his wife (or vice-versa).
Jesus states that He is not going to give these men the immediate sign they are seeking. Instead He informs them that He will be all the sign they need. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so would Jesus (referring to Himself as the Son of Man) be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Jesus here is predicting His own death and resurrection. He would die, be buried, but would only spend three days in the grave.
One gets the impression from their question that these leaders doubted Jesus’ could perform a sign and were asking only to expose His “weakness” and thereby “prove” He lacked authority over them. In asking this question they were really rejecting God’s authority over their life and were instead attempting to exert their own self-appointed authority over God.
As a result, Jesus tells them, they will be condemned at the judgment when they see the highly evil men of Nineveh (a Gentile city now known as Mosul, Iraq), who repented when a mere man, Jonah, preached a message from God to them, entering heaven [Jonah 3].
Similarly, the queen of the South (aka Queen of Sheba) recognized the God-given wisdom of Solomon and, apparently, believed in God, repented and will be in heaven too [1 Kings 10:1-10].
Jonah and Solomon were two human “signs” of God’s love and power. The Gentiles who heard them humbled themselves and repented. Yet the Jewish leaders, who were in the presence of God Himself – something greater than Jonah and Solomon – refused to believe.
Sadly, they – and anyone else who refuses to believe God – will someday watch as those who did believe and repent enter heaven while they themselves are refused entry.
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