38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 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. 40 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. 41 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. 42 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
These events have been arranged by Matthew thematically, not chronologically. He is not following a hard-and-fast timeline, but attempting to place these stories in an order that allows him to continue his proof of Jesus’ divine nature and Messianic credentials. The word “then” is meant not as a link to the previous paragraph, but almost as if to say, “on another occasion.” Matthew is relating yet another confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. These encounters were increasing in frequency and intensity.
On this particular occasion, the Pharisees were joined by the scribes. This was a group of learned me whose job it was to protect and preserve the law of Moses. As their name implies, they would scribe or copy the law, using painstaking methods to ensure that there were no errors in their transcriptions. They would count letters and spaces in a line of text to check for errors and guarantee accuracy. These men were considered experts in the law and were most likely invited by the Pharisees in order to spot any violations of the law that Jesus might be committing.
The request they made of Jesus was most likely not spontaneous, but prearranged. They wanted to see Jesus perform a sign. These men had seen Jesus perform many miracles, but they had concluded that He did so under the power and influence of Satan. Their request for a sign was something different altogether. The Greek word is sēmeion and it refers to a sign by which anything future is pre-announced (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). In essence, they were requesting that Jesus perform a particular type of miracle, something far more difficult than even a healing. In their minds, if Jesus was divine, He should be able to do something out-of-the-ordinary and impossible, predict the future. They were asking Jesus to make a prophetic prediction, knowing that the Scriptural command regarding anyone who prophesied by the name of God falsely was death.
20 But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ 21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. “ – Deuteronomy 18:20-22 ESV
But Jesus saw through the nature of their request and responded with a stinging indictment.
“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 12:39 ESV
These were men who took great pride in their righteousness and faithful adherence to the law of Moses. So, for Jesus to address them as evil and adulterous was a nothing less than a verbal slap in the face. Not only that, Jesus refused their request for a prophetic pronouncement and, instead, announced a sign of coming judgment. The story of Jonah would have been very familiar to these men. But Jesus gave the story an intriguing new twist. He tied it to His future death, burial and resurrection. Just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish, Jesus predicts His own 3-day long interment in the tomb. And just as Jonah had been sent by God to bring a message of repentance and salvation to the people of Ninevah, Jesus, by His death and resurrection, would make possible the salvation of all those who hear and accept His offer of justification by faith.
In a way, Jesus was answering the request of the scribes and Pharisees, but not in a way that they would have recognized. He was predicting the future, clearly indicating the manner of His own death and the means of salvation it would make possible. But He was also predicting the fate of the scribes and Pharisees, as well as all those who refuse to accept the salvation that Jesus’ death will make available.
The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it… – Matthew 12:41 ESV
The pagan, Gentile people of Ninevah heard and responded to Jonah’s message of repentance and were saved from destruction. But the scribes and Pharisees, like most of the Jews of Jesus’ day, would refuse Jesus’ offer of salvation, choosing instead to rely on their own self-made righteousness. And Jesus made it clear that, at the judgment, the people of Ninevah would stand as witnesses against the Jews for their refusal of God’s gracious offer of salvation made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross.
Knowing the great respect these men had for the Scriptures, Jesus made an interesting statement that would have further incensed them against Him.
…something greater than Jonah is here… – Matthew 12:41 ESV
He was referring to Himself and that fact would not have escaped them. Jesus was placing Himself on a higher plane than their own Scriptures. He was claiming to precedence over the stories of Scripture, because He was the ultimate fulfillment of those stories. Jonah had been nothing more than a foreshadowing of Jesus Himself. Jonah had been just a man, and he had fulfilled the command of God reluctantly. His “death” in the belly of the great fish had been a form of judgment for his own disobedience. But Jesus would prove to be a faithful and obedience Savior, willingly giving His life so that others might experience eternal life.
And Jesus used another familiar Scriptural account to drive home His point, claiming to be greater than the wisest man who ever lived: King Solomon. The queen of Sheba had traveled all the way to Jerusalem to see for herself the great wisdom of Solomon. But Jesus claimed to be greater and to possess a wisdom that far surpassed anything Solomon ever hoped to know.
The apostle Paul would later describe the superior nature of God’s wisdom as displayed in the life of His Son, Jesus.
God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. – 1 Corinthians 30 NLT
Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:24-25 NLT
And Jesus predicted that the queen of Sheba would join the people of Ninevah in witness against the Jews when the coming day of judgment arrived. Jesus was going to die, be buried and rise again from the grave, and all those who placed their faith in His sacrificial death on their behalf would receive forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. But when that sign finally appeared, the majority of the Jews, including the scribes and Pharisees, would refuse to believe the truth. They would refute Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and refuse His offer of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. And they would stand condemned.
The author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus became a man so that He could do what the law could not do. He was better than the law. He offered a better way, something the law was never intended to do.
14 Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. 15 Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. – Hebrews 2:14-15 NLT
And the author of Hebrews will go on to state that Jesus is better than Moses, greater than Abraham, and greater than the high priest. He surpasses all the characters of Scripture, acting as the final fulfillment of God’s promises to mankind.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.