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
As has been mentioned before, Matthew is less interested in providing a detailed, chronologically-ordered history of Jesus’ life and ministry, than he is in supporting the theme of his book. From the outset, he has been working diligently to prove Jesus’ divine nature and Messianic credentials. In this section of his gospel, Matthew has assembled an assortment of incidents involving the Pharisees; designed to illustrate their growing animosity toward Jesus, but also to provide further support to his overall thesis regarding the power and authority of Jesus.
The word “then” should be taken as a link to the previous paragraph, but instead, should be read as “on another occasion.” Matthew is about to share yet another confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in which their evil intentions will be exposed, and the superiority of Jesus will be expressed. Earlier in this chapter, Matthew recorded the words of Jesus, spoken to the Pharisees, saying, “something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 11:6 ESV). Now, he shares a similar and equally bold statement from the lips of Jesus: “something greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42 ESV).
But what is the point Jesus is attempting to make? Why does He describe Himself as greater than or more superior to the temple or even King Solomon? What does He mean when He claims to be “lord of the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:8 ESV).
The temple, Solomon, and the Sabbath were all revered icons of the Hebrew faith. The temple was the house of God, a beautiful and highly ornate structure where God’s presence was said to dwell. It was the focal point of their entire religious system, critical to their practice of the required sacrificial system ordained by God, and a symbol of their unique status as His chosen people. And Solomon had been the one who had been given the privilege by God to construct this magnificent structure. He was the son of David, who had been divinely ordained to fulfill his father’s dream of building a house for God. And the Sabbath was another God-ordained feature of the Hebrew religious system that set them apart from all the other nations on earth.
But Jesus claimed to be greater than any of them. And these audacious assertions did not escape the notice of the Pharisees. They heard all that Jesus was saying and took great exception with His ridiculous and sacrilegious claims of superiority.
So, as was their growing custom, they approached Jesus with the intent of tricking Him into saying something they could use against Him. They were rarely disappointed in their efforts because Jesus was not shy about saying what was on His mind. He had no fear of the Pharisees. In fact, He took every opportunity to expose them as what they were: Religious charlatans and hypocrites of the highest order. They may have fooled the people with their outward demonstrations of piety and righteousness, but Jesus knew the condition of their hearts. And, over time, His attacks on them will only increase in intensity.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 NLT
On this particular occasion, the Pharisees were joined by the scribes. This was a group of learned men tasked with protecting and preserving 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 expressed the desire to see Jesus perform a sign. Earlier, the Pharisees had attributed the miracles of Jesus to the power and influence of Satan. So, it seems unlikely that they are requesting Jesus to perform another miracle. They were looking for something more significant: A sign.
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 healing the blind or the diseased. If Jesus was truly 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.
“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 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 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… – 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 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… – Matthew 12:41 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 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 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. 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 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.
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.