The Sign of Jonah

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 12:38-42

We often think it would be nice if God would give us some unmistakable proof that would make it easy for everyone to believe in him. But he doesn’t choose to give such signs — except for one.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have solid, convincing proof for the existence of God or the truth of the Christian faith? People have a perpetual hunger for certainty. We want to see signs, some sort of clear evidence that God is real, or that we are really in touch with him. We’d love to be able to be sure we’re not making a mistake by believing in and following Jesus. Like old Gideon in the Bible, we’d like to throw out a fleece and see a miracle or two that would prove that God really is with us and stands ready to help us.

Jesus and His Critics

Chapter 12 of the Gospel according to Matthew is largely taken up with controversies involving Jesus and his chief critics, the scribes and Pharisees, or, to put those New Testament groups in modern categories, we could call them the Bible teachers and the seriously religious. In verse 38 we read about a further confrontation. Jesus has just been saying some pretty harsh things about his opponents after they had accused him of being in league with the devil. He calls them a bunch of snakes (v. 34), and says that they will face judgment because of what they have said about him (vv. 36-37). Jesus’ enemies reply this way:

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

“Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” Well, it doesn’t really sound that unreasonable, does it? After all, if knowing and acknowledging Jesus is the key to one’s eternal destiny, if, as Jesus said, everyone will be either saved or condemned by the words they speak, which I think means the words they either speak for Jesus by confessing faith in him or against Jesus by rejecting and blaspheming him, then it seems only fair that people should be given evidence in support of Jesus’ divine claims. The people who asked Jesus for a sign were requesting some proof that Jesus really does come from God. By “sign” they meant a miracle, a direct intervention from heaven, something so clearly supernatural as to be unmistakable.

Jesus’ critics then were saying what they still are saying today: “If you want us to accept you, then prove to us that you are God.” I mean, it wouldn’t be so hard, would it? The Bible says God set the stars in place; that he knows their number and calls them all by name. Maybe he could rearrange the heavens one night so that the stars blinked out the words, “Trust Jesus.” That should convince everybody. Or what if God decided that any time anyone called upon the name of Jesus they’d be instantly healed of every disease and ailment. That would certainly be solid proof of his deity, wouldn’t it?

But there’s just this one thing: God doesn’t like to be asked to prove himself to us. “An evil generation asks for a sign,” Jesus exclaims, “but no sign will be given to it” (v. 39). In this he has the Old Testament on his side. God repeatedly condemned Israel for putting him to the test, for demanding proof that he really was there for them.

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.”

Psalm 95:7-11

This 95th Psalm makes reference to incidents that happened to Israel as they traveled from Egypt through the wilderness to the promised land. The people repeatedly grumbled and complained about God’s provision for them along the way. Exodus 17 tells the story of how God provided them water from a rock when they were camped in a dry place. And it adds that Moses “called the name of the place Massa [testing] and Meribah [quarreling], because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?'” (v. 7).

The Ultimate Sign

No, God does not like to be asked for signs. He doesn’t enjoy being put to the test. Why is that so? For one thing, it’s a bit disrespectful, isn’t it? When Samuel Johnson was invited to a royal reception one afternoon he was asked later if he had spoken with the King. “It was not for me to bandy civilities with my Sovereign,” the great Dr. Johnson replied. After all, who are we to demand anything from God? Presumably, God thinks it is better for us to have to walk by faith, as the Bible says, rather than by sight; to have to trust him rather than having iron-clad proof.

Here is a second reason why I think God doesn’t provide such proof to us. It’s because he knows it wouldn’t work anyway. Arguments, you see, can always be countered, and signs can always be explained away. As pastor/evangelist Tim Keller writes in his recent book, The Reason for God,

There are some arguments that many or even most rational people will find convincing . . . though there is no argument that will be persuasive to everyone . . . all arguments are rationally avoidable in the end . . . you can always find reason to escape it.

(Tim Keller, The Reason for God , p. 120.)

C. S. Lewis once said that he had ever only met one man who claimed he saw a real ghost, and that man was an atheist who did not believe in life after death either before or after his encounter. You can always deny the reality of a miracle or a vision.

But here’s the most important reason why God doesn’t want us to ask for a sign to prove that he’s real. It’s because he’s already given the whole world the greatest sign of all. “No sign will be given,” says Jesus, “except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” You remember the story of Jonah and the whale. What was the sign of Jonah? It was to be buried for three days and nights, as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish, and then to be raised up again to life by the mighty power of God. In Jonah’s case, the death and resurrection were figurative, but for Jesus they would be as real as real can be. Scholar Dale Bruner has a fine comment:

The resurrection of the . . . crucified Jesus will be God’s one great sensation, God’s single authorized sign, delivered once and for all. . . . After Jesus’ holy week, God is not in show business. . . . God will do one impressive thing in the world, not to please the sensationalist but to show human beings his approval of his Son: he will raise the executed Jesus from the dead.

(F. Dale Bruner, Matthew, vol. 1, p.575)

Yet even this ultimate sign is not enough for everyone. It didn’t really happen, some people argue; dead men don’t rise again. (Though if the God who created life in the first place so chooses, why shouldn’t they?) The resurrection is only a symbol, some people say; it can’t be literally true. (Though if it isn’t literally true it’s hard to explain where the story came from, or how the Christian church came into existence.) But Jesus had foreseen these objections too. On another occasion, when dealing with a similar crowd of sceptics, Jesus told a story that ended with this line:

If [people] do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. (Luke 16:31)

Jesus’ point there is about how people come to believe. Folks often claim they would believe if only they could see something spectacular. But even a resurrection isn’t enough to convince someone who rejects the Bible. The word of God is what brings people to faith and salvation. If you won’t believe the Bible no miracle is going to convince you. Not even the greatest miracle of all, the resurrection of Jesus himself. “We are saved by hearing, not by visions” (J. A. Bengel).

So it’s all about how we hear. God’s word speaks plainly about salvation through faith in Jesus. It warns us of judgment after death, and an eternity which will be spent either with God or separated from him. If we reject the witness of the Scriptures, then no experience is going to convince us.

Let’s make this personal for just a minute. What would it take for you to believe in God? Would you believe in him if he personally showed you an unmistakable miracle? But there are no unmistakable miracles. You can always explain them away, if you have a mind to. God has given us his Word, the Word that testifies to One who really did come back from the dead. Isn’t that clear enough?