38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.”
39 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.
40 “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.
41 “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.
42 “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.”
I suppose it’s a comment on my growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s that I can’t hear someone say the word “sign” without thinking about that 1970 hit by the Five Man Electrical Band, “Signs.” You might remember the chorus:
“Sign, Sign, everywhere a sign,
Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind.
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”
As I drive around town, I see signs all around me for businesses and streets, directions and advertisements. Sometimes I’ll see a sign for an upcoming concert, a sign for an art show, or a sign in a car window that says “For Sale.” I see a lot of bumper stickers, some silly, some crude, some just plain odd. At work, we have signs for employee safety, and on the sales floor we have signs for all those big bargains. When we had a yard sale at church last spring, we put out lots of signs to guide folks to our little church in the woods.
Signs give us directions, they tell us something that we may not have known before. Signs get our attention, and, depending on how well planned they are, they capture our focus and make us read and think. Sometimes we need a sign to get where we’re going, and sometimes we just know the way by heart. A friend gave me very good directions recently on how to get to a job site–“first light, turn east, second right, two blocks”–but I still needed a sign to make sure I started at that right intersection.
The Jews in Jerusalem had seen plenty of signs that they needed a Savior. Their land had been taken over by Greeks first and then by Romans, and they were being oppressed by puppet tetrarchs–four rulers who only sought to appease their Roman masters and keep themselves in big palaces built at the people’s expense. The people felt the need for a new king in Israel, a king from the line of David, a true “branch of Jesse” to kick out the Romans and return Israel to her former glory. Several times in the century before Jesus, various men had risen up and called themselves or been called “Messiah,” and yet all they ever did was foment rebellion and cause the Romans to clamp down on the people even more. And so when Jesus arrived on the scene and people started mentioning Him as the Christ–the Greek word for “Anointed One,” which is the same as the Hebrew “Messiah”–then when the chief priests and scribes weren’t trying to cause Jesus to say something blasphemous, they were seeking a sign from Him that He was indeed the true Messiah.
What did they expect? A sudden fire on a wet altar to consume their daily temple sacrifices? A pillar of fire by night or a pillar of smoke by day? A parting of the Jordan River? Or perhaps they wanted Him to stop the sun in the sky? Never mind all the healings and miracles and exorcisms, they wanted something big and impressive. They wanted an unmistakable indication that the Messiah had come.
Why did they want a sign? We can only speculate, but it would seem that they weren’t ready to shift their allegiance away from the temple and onto Jesus without being absolutely certain He was the One. Take a look at the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews. (John 3:1-21) Nicodemus knew that the signs Jesus brought were from God, but he still didn’t understand Jesus’ message. Jesus responded to Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (John 3:10) In other words, “How could you be one who claims to be teaching people about righteousness and redemption, and yet you do not recognize the teachings and signs right in front of you?” After having the record of Jesus’ birth told to them and how He received the Spirit of God after being baptized by John, the scribes and priests still didn’t understand. Every time the Pharisees and scribes questioned Jesus, they got even more clarification of Scripture, and yet they didn’t understand. Every time Jesus healed someone or casts out a demon, the leading Jews still didn’t understand.
1 Corinthians 1:20-25
20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom;
23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness,
24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Jews sought signs because they wanted something big and impressive, a true signal that they AND the Romans could believe. In short, they wanted a sign that the kingdom of Israel was rising again. If they had that sign, then perhaps the people, the priests, and the rebel zealots would rise up together and throw off the yoke or Roman oppression.
But Jesus didn’t come to bring signs for that purpose. The signs Jesus showed were and are much more subtle. The Son of God came in the form of a man to perform His work in humility and obedience, just as we are meant to do. The Lamb of God submitted to the will of God as a man, so that in His weakness the power and grace of God would show that much brighter. Emmanuel allowed Himself to be slain and buried in a tomb so that the words of the prophets would be fulfilled in Him, bringing the wisdom of God to men through the good news of His life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus’ rebuke in today’s versus is typically harsh. He accuses the Pharisees and priests of being less responsive to God’s Word than the pagan people of Nineveh. Jonah said a mere sentence, and all the people and livestock of Nineveh repented in sackcloth and ashes. And yet Jesus had been teaching for over a year before today’s verses, healing and performing miracles all along the way–MUCH more than Jonah ever did–and yet the Jews still did not repent and believe.
And then Jesus calls them up against the Queen of the South–the Queen of Sheba. (1 Kings 10:1-13, 2 Chronicles 9:1-12) The news of Solomon’s wisdom and greatness had reached her court in Africa, and so she herself made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to speak to King Solomon. She was amazed at his wisdom, and it brought her to humility. Because she recognized the hand of God in Solomon’s life and kingdom, she had very rare gifts and woods brought to Solomon’s court. Before she went home to Sheba, she praised God and His wisdom in putting Solomon on the throne of Israel:
1 Kings 10:6-9
6 Then she said to the king: “It was a true report which I heard in my own land about your words and your wisdom.
7 “However I did not believe the words until I came and saw with my own eyes; and indeed the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity exceed the fame of which I heard.
8 “Happy are your men and happy are these your servants, who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom!
9 “Blessed be the LORD your God, who delighted in you, setting you on the throne of Israel! Because the LORD has loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.”
Once she had seen with her own eyes, she believed in the greatness of the Lord God and of Solomon His servant. The Jews in Jesus’ time had seen with their own eyes and did not repent and believe.
I will admit that before I came to Christ, I was waiting for a sign. I wanted God to knock me over with His presence, to show me a clear and unmistakable mark of His work and wonders. Never mind the skies above nor the wonder of my children’s births, I wanted a bona fide, clear-as-day, smack-me-in-the-face, kick-me-in-the-backside, no-doubt-about-it SIGN. But I didn’t get that kind of sign, and now I know why: God was always with me, but He wasn’t about to show Himself to me unless I was truly seeking HIM and not just a SIGN of Him. The sign I DID get was very clear, but it wasn’t a bright light in the sky nor a vision of the Lord. The sign I got was this: when I needed Christ the most, He sent a loving servant into my life to guide me to Him. It was that dear pastor who was the “sign” meant to show me the way. And because my heart had been prepared by brokenness and sorrow, because I desired repentance and salvation, when I sought the Lord, He was found by me.
Since the Jews were so focused on seeking their BIG SIGN that Jesus was truly the Messiah, they lost sight of the fact that God was among them in the flesh, that He was walking and talking, teaching and performing miracles right there and then. They didn’t hear His words, they didn’t see His miracles, they didn’t understand the wonders of His healings. Worst of all, they didn’t know that the signs they had been teaching from the prophets were appearing right in their own time and place.
What are we to learn from the people of Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba? We are to listen to the gospel of Christ, and repent and believe in Him. We are to seek the wisdom of God as found in His holy Word, to seek the gospel itself as the key to our salvation. We are to see the signs of the Holy Spirit among us, and not deny God’s presence but embrace Him. We are to stop looking for outward signs and look to our own lives to see if the signs of His presence are truly there. We need to witness the work of the Spirit through the gifts He bestows on believers, through the spiritual fruit born in saved lives, through the ministries He empowers us to do. And, as happened in my life, WE need to be the signs which point others toward Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“And the sign said ‘Everybody welcome, come in, kneel down and pray.’
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn’t have a penny to pay,
So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign.
I said ‘Thank you Lord for thinking about me, I’m alive and doing fine.'”
Holy Lord Jesus, we no longer seek signs that You have come, for we see it in our own hearts–which burn within us when we hear Your gospel, which melt before the awesome love You bring. Let Your cross be the only sign we ever need to remind us of the price paid for our lives. Let Your Holy Spirit be the unseen sign that works within us so that others may “see the sign” and seek Your mercy and grace. Amen.