1 And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. – Matthew 16:1-4 ESV
After their brief foray into the Gentile region of Decapolis, Jesus and His disciples returned to Jewish territory. And as soon as they arrived, they were met by a delegation comprised of Pharisees and Sadducees, whose sole intent was to test Him. These two religious sects made up the Sanhedrin or high council of the Jews. Like modern-day Democrats and Republicans, these two groups were diametrically opposed to one another, but they found a common enemy in Jesus.
They were willing to set aside their differences and join forces against what they believed to be a growing threat to their power and prestige. Jesus was attracting huge crowds with His miracles and messages about the coming kingdom. And the growing jealousy of these religious leaders was keeping pace with Jesus’ reputation.
At first blush, their request appears somewhat innocuous. They simply asked Jesus to show them a sign from heaven. But He saw through their ruse, fully comprehending the motive behind the request. This was not the first time this had happened. Back in chapter 12, Matthew records another instance when the Pharisees demanded that Jesus perform a sign for them. But He had refused. And now, they add a caveat, asking that He perform a sign from heaven.
In the Jewish way of thinking, demons could perform earthly signs, which is why they had accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. But a sign from heaven would require the power and approval of God. They could not deny that Jesus did miraculous signs. They were well aware of the many healings He had performed and they had witnessed His power over demons, but they still refused to believe that He was divinely anointed.
In essence, these men were demanding verifiable proof that Jesus was who He claimed to be. They were not convinced and would not be satisfied until He met their criteria for authenticity. But Jesus knew these men would never believe. There was nothing He could do that would change their opposition to Him. They were spiritually blind to the truth. Paul would later describe their sad predicament:
Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – Corinthians 4:4 NLT
There was no sign that Jesus could do that would change the hearts of these men. Their hatred for Jesus blinded them. He had already given ample proof to His divinity, but they had stubbornly refused to accept the reality of His miracles and message. And Jesus had already made clear the issue at hand.
“If I were to testify on my own behalf, my testimony would not be valid. But someone else is also testifying about me, and I assure you that everything he says about me is true. In fact, you sent investigators to listen to John the Baptist, and his testimony about me was true. Of course, I have no need of human witnesses, but I say these things so you might be saved. John was like a burning and shining lamp, and you were excited for a while about his message. But I have a greater witness than John—my teachings and my miracles. The Father gave me these works to accomplish, and they prove that he sent me. And the Father who sent me has testified about me himself. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face, and you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you.
“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” – John 5:31-40 NLT
These men were experts in the Old Testament Scriptures and they knew well what God’s Word had to say about the coming Messiah. They were fully expecting His arrival but were unable to recognize Him when He showed up in their midst. Because their hearts and minds were hardened.
But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand. – 2 Corinthians 3:14-15 NLT
They could look at the sky and predict the weather, but they were blind to the clear and present signs taking place all around them. They remained unimpressed and unconvinced by all that Jesus had said and done. So, they demanded more. And Jesus gave them the same response He had the last time they demanded a sign.
“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” – Matthew 16:4 ESV
This time around, Jesus didn’t bother to elaborate on His statement. But the first time they had demanded a sign, He had told them:
“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.” – Matthew 12:40 ESV
The day was coming when Jesus would die and be buried, remaining in the grave for three days. But He would be raised back to life by the power of the Spirit of God. And news of this miraculous event would spread all throughout the land of Israel. But the Pharisees and Sadducees would end up rejecting this sign as well. They would continue to discount the claims of Jesus and the testimony of the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. The apostle Paul would clearly articulate the requirement for salvation.
…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. – Romans 10:9 ESV
But even when faced with the sign of Jonah, the Pharisees and Sadducees would remain stubbornly opposed to Jesus. His inexplicable resurrection would do nothing to change their minds about Him because their hearts and minds were hardened against Him. And Matthew simply records: “So he left them and departed.”
Matthew chose to use a very specific word when referring to Jesus’ departure. It is the Greek word, kataleipō, and it can mean “to forsake or abandon.” In a sense, Jesus turned His back on these men, focusing His attention on His disciples and beginning to prepare Himself for His ultimate destiny in Jerusalem.
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.