29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 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. – Luke 11:29-32 ESV
Some in the crowd had accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. Others “to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven” (Luke 11:16 ESV). It is to this second group that Jesus now turns His attention. Both Matthew and Mark include their own descriptions of the same or a similar incident where Jesus addressed the peoples’ demands for a sign. And it would appear that their insistence that Jesus do some significantly spectacular sign to prove His identity was also the brainchild of the Pharisees.
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” – Matthew 12:38 ESV
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. – Mark 8:11 ESV
Their demand was very specific. They wanted a sign from heaven. These men had stood back and watched as Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons. And, in an attempt to repudiate those miracles, they had accused Jesus of being in league with Satan. So, it seems unlikely that they are requesting Jesus to perform another miracle. The Greek word translated as “sign” 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 healing the blind or casting out demons. After all, there were others who claimed to perform miracles and even the Jews practiced exorcism.
No, it seems that they were asking Jesus to do the truly impossible. If Jesus He was divine, as He so claimed, then He should be able to do something out-of-the-ordinary and impossible, such as predict the future. They were asking Jesus to make a prophetic prediction. But the motivation behind their request was evil to its core. They knew what the law said regarding anyone prophesied falsely in the name of God.
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.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 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
Simply put, they were in search of an excuse to put Jesus to death. But He saw through their ploy and responded to their request with a stinging indictment.
“This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” – Luke 11:29 ESV
Jesus knew the intentions behind this request. The hearts of those demanding that He do some kind of miraculous sign were wicked and unbelieving. He knew that no matter what He did, they would refuse to believe. So, not only did Jesus refuse their request for a prophetic pronouncement, but instead, He announced a sign of coming judgment.
“For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” – Luke 11:30 ESV
The story of Jonah would have been very familiar to those in the crowd. They would have made the connection concerning Jonah’s influence over the Gentile city of Nineveh. After refusing to obey God’s command to deliver His message of repentance to the Assyrian capital, Jonah was reprimanded and then rescued by God. Jonah attempted to run from his divine commission but ended up being swallowed by a great fish. This life-threatening incident ended up getting Jonah’s attention, convincing him to follow through on his God-given assignment. And the result was a miraculous revival among the pagan Ninevites. The entire city repented of their sins and worshiped Yahweh.
Jesus infers that Jonah, the reluctant messenger, because a sign to the people of Nineveh. He had spent three days and nights in the belly of the great fish but then had been “resurrected” so that he might deliver God’s message of judgment and His call to repentance. Jesus is predicting His own 3-day-long interment in a 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, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah…” – Luke 11: 32 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 His offer of salvation, choosing instead to rely on their own self-made righteousness. And Jesus made it clear that, at the future judgment, the repentant people of Ninevah would stand as witnesses against the unrepentant Jews. Jesus predicts that the Jews will refuse God’s gracious offer of salvation made possible by His coming death on the cross.
And then, Jesus adds another claim of superiority to His growing list.
…something greater than Jonah is here… – Luke 12:32 ESV
Jonah was a prophet of God and the only one who had been sent by God to the Gentiles. The scribes and Pharisees would have related well to Jonah’s initial reluctance to take God’s message of repentance to non-Jews. The story of Jonah attempting to get out of this undesirable assignment would have resonated with them. Now, here was Jesus was claiming to be superior to Jonah. But, in reality, Jesus was placing Himself on a higher plane than their own Scriptures. He was claiming to have 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 was just a man, and yet 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 obedient servant, 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 the great wisdom of Solomon. But Jesus claimed 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. They didn’t realize it, but Jesus was actually fulfilling their request. He was giving them “a sign by which anything future is pre-announced/.” He was predicting His own death, burial, and resurrection. And He was letting them know that all who placed their faith in His sacrificial death on their behalf would receive forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. But Jesus also predicted that when that sign appeared, the majority of the Jews, including the scribes and Pharisees, would refuse to believe it. 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.
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.