Yesterday at our congregation’s sermonette workshop, one of the speakers and an occasional dinner companion gave a sermonette that opened with a worthwhile mystery that I found greatly intriguing. His main text was Matthew 12:38-41, which reads: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For 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.” Most of us, especially at this time of year, are generally interested in the chronology that three days and three nights involves, requiring a Wednesday crucifixion in order to have a resurrection late in the Sabbath . However, the message given did a swerve here, and I think it is one that many people who read the Bible will find genuinely at least a little bit mysterious. The question is: why did Jesus view so harshly the request of those scribes and Pharisees for a sign? Why did he say that an evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign?
In order to answer this question, we have to deal with the fact that asking for a sign and providing a sign are not in themselves generally bad things. In at least one case, for example, not asking for a sign was viewed as particularly perverse. We see this example in Isaiah 7:10-14: “Moreover the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; ask it either in the depth or in the height above.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!” Then he said, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” Here we see Ahaz, one of the weakest kings Judah ever had, refusing to ask a sign from a prophet of God when it is specifically asked. But all the same, Ahaz is rebuked for not asking a sign, and the scribes and Pharisees are rebuked for asking for one. How is this just?
To begin to answer the question, it is worthwhile to examine the context of the statement Jesus made in Matthew 12. The whole passage excerpted by my fellow speaker can be found in Matthew 12:38-42: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For 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 in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here.”
Here we see that Jesus’ condemnation was not a blanket one on all generations who seek after a sign, but rather all generations like those He happened to be a part of that sought after a sign but did not combine that seeker mentality with genuine repentance towards God. One might be tempted to say the same thing about our own generation, one that applauds those who seek after the truth so that they may justify themselves but is not a generation blessed with any kind of motivation to turn from our wicked ways and seek our Lord and Savior. The subject material of Matthew 12 is fairly dark, and the chapter provides a wealth of material for somber and serious reflection–it begins with the Pharisees attacking the disciples for Sabbath breaking, goes on to show Jesus healing on the Sabbath leading the Pharisees to attack Him as a Sabbath breaker and look for ways to destroy Him, has Jesus heal a demon-possessed person only to be accused of doing it by Satan, leading to the famous house divided reference and then to a discussion of the unpardonable sin, followed by a discussion of the judgment we will suffer for our words, the passage in question, and then another dark passage about the failures of self-reformation when it comes to demon possession. All of this material is exceedingly dark, reminding us just how fallen the religious leadership of Jesus’ day was, and how much they needed God’s mercy, which they would have received had they only sought it diligently instead of attacking the bearer of that mercy.
In fact, Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees’ search for a sign was most similar to His response to Satan for similar signs in Matthew 4:1-11, in the well-known passage on the three temptations of Christ in the wilderness: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’” Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.”
Here in this passage we see Satan requesting signs from Jesus Christ, and Jesus having no part of it. Satan knew who Jesus Christ was before rebelling and taking with him a third of the angels in their failed rebellion. There was no possibility that Satan would repent from His wickedness with one more sign from God. And so Jesus resolutely refused to perform signs that would be treated as merely parlor tricks and entertainment by our adversary. We see a similar mentality in Jesus’ refusal to do any tricks for the scribes and Pharisees. These were people, for example, who followed him around all over the place to try to get something to use against Him. They did not come in order to repent or to praise or honor God. In fact, John the Baptist gave a similar warning to these people who came to spy on him in Matthew 3:5-12: “Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
John the Baptist we see, had the same view towards these religious leaders that Jesus Christ did. He saw that they were not coming to him in order to repent of their sins and seek after God, but rather came for much more malicious purposes, as agent provocateurs. Thus, because they had malicious motives for visiting God’s servants, and had no desire for repentance or a genuine relationship with God, but rather sought to preserve their own corrupt religious control, they were strongly rebuked by both Jesus Christ and John the Baptist. After all, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry these leaders knew that Jesus Christ had been sent by God. They didn’t need a sign in order to have faith, they simply deliberately chose not to believe a leader they knew to be sent by God simply because it did not fit their own political program. How do we know that they knew? Well, Nicodemus told us, in John 3:1-2: “There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”” The Jewish leadership, from the signs that Jesus Christ had already done at the beginning of His ministry, had seen enough to know that Jesus Christ was a teacher that came from God. Those signs were not enough for them to show public faith or come in repentance, in general. No other signs would have been good enough for such a faithless audience; let us make sure we are not such a faithless audience ourselves.
 See, for example: