Throughout history, man has sought ‘signs’ and ‘proof’.  This is also true of some people in the Bible.  Their faith was, at times, weak.  Sometimes they just weren’t listening to God’s or Jesus’s direction.  Today, we also get caught up in this way of thinking: ‘If only there were a sign’ or ‘Seeing is believing’. Yet, Scripture warns us of the dangers inherent in seeking signs, which are often of our own making.

Today’s Forbidden Bible Verses are not available in any lectionary.  Our reading comes from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Matthew 16:1-12

The Pharisees and Sadducees Demand Signs

 1And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2He answered them,”When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3And 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.

The Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees

5When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” 8But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? 9 Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. 

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The Pharisees and Sadducees meet with Jesus to see if He has their powers of observation and prediction (verse 1).  If He is who He says, then, they reason, surely He can show us a heavenly sign, a portent.  Jesus knows what these men are after and refuses to give them what they want. He knows that they are not asking out of naiveté or innocence. He acknowledges their intelligence in reading the heavens and predicting the weather (verse 2).  Today, that maxim would be ‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor, take warning’.  Jesus rebukes these wise men of their time for being able to predict what happens in the material world (verse 3), yet that wisdom is incapable of reading not only what is in men’s hearts but just who Jesus Himself is — the long-awaited and prophesied Messiah. How could they not recognise Him by all the miracles He had performed? How could they have the audacity to ask not only for a sign but for a specific one — from Heaven, no less?  Jesus adds that only the ‘evil and adulterous’ [unfaithful to God in their worldliness] would ask for such a manifestation (verse 4).  He states that they will receive nothing more than the sign given to Jonah — in short, ‘repent or die’.  Jesus, no doubt irritated with the conversation and with these perceived paragons of wisdom, made his excuses and left. 

A word about the Pharisees and the Sadducees before going further.  The Pharisees were experts in Mosaic Law and legalism.  As a result, they were also self-righteous and often attached more importance to legal observance than to Scripture.  They were powerful men in society and eager to make converts.  People sought their opinion and respected their learned minds.  Think of today’s experts we see on television — the Pharisees were similar.  ‘Oh, he went to Harvard — he knows what he’s talking about.’ ‘She has a degree from Oxford — why doubt what she’s saying?’

The Sadducees were free-thinking rationalists who used the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament — written by Moses) on which to base their judgments.  If a belief was too airy-fairy — angels, for one — they dismissed them either through ridicule or posing questions asking for proof or for a display of logic behind such a belief.  So, although they were religious Jews, they would not be dissimilar to some of today’s secularists — asking for a neatly factual answer to a difficult question of faith.     

The sign of Jonah which Jesus cites in verse 4, may refer to two of the prophet’s experiences.  Most of us know that Jonah lived in the belly of the whale for three days until he repented of his sin of disobedience and once again found favour in God’s sight.  Imagine the darkness, the terror, the separation from God that Jonah — all alone — endured.  Would he make it out alive?  He prayed that God would forgive his disobedience. God forgave Jonah because he was correcting the prophet’s nature.  He wanted to put Jonah to use once again to His purposes. Once on dry land, Jonah immediately turned his life around and became obedient to God.  But, Jonah had a second sign when the Lord commanded him to preach to the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.  The Assyrians were powerful enemies of Jonah’s people of Israel.  So, Jonah obeyed the Lord and told the city to repent of their ways. Soon, Jonah wondered why he was giving aid to the enemy.  They already had physical strength, why should they also find favour with God?  Jonah decided he wouldn’t preach any more and sat down in the shade under a large gourd with leaves, similar to a tree.  God sent a worm to infest the gourd and cause it to wither.  Jonah ended up in the heat with no shelter.  After an angry exchange with God, Jonah obeys Him and resumes his work with the people of Nineveh.  Bottom line: disobey God and suffer the consequences; obey and find favour in His sight!    

Back to the Gospel passage.  The disciples discover they have no bread (verse 5).  Jesus tells them in so many words (verse 6), ‘Never mind a loaf of bread, what about the yeast of the Sadducees and Pharisees?  Pay attention to that instead!’  The disciples don’t understand (verse 7).  Jesus upbraids them for their lack of faith (verse 8), as if to say, ‘Who said anything about a loaf of bread?  Don’t worry about it!  Haven’t we fed the multitudes before now?  Where is your faith?’ Again, in verse 11, Jesus says, ‘Worry about what these guys are teaching — it goes against God, My teachings and Scripture!’  Verse 12 tells us that the disciples finally grasp what He is telling them. 

Error is so widespread — the call for signs, the one-upmanship of debate about faith, the demands for proof.  ‘Show me’, ‘Where is it written’, ‘You haven’t answered my question’, ‘It’s not logical’.  We do much the same today.  And it doesn’t take a lot for us to doubt the Word, overanalyse our faith, wonder if our beliefs are wrong or decide how we can make Christianity palatable to our culture.  We also fall into the trap of thinking that God must be tangibly present in our world. Some churchgoers and ministers say, ‘The Holy Spirit was with us — we spoke in tongues’ or ‘God came to me in a dream’ or ‘The Lord appeared before me and spun me around in my bedroom’. (The last one is paraphrased from a popular Christian book.)  Beware! 

Instead, we would do well to focus on humbly praying to God, repenting of our sins, reading the Bible and obeying His will.        

For further reading:

Matthew Henry’s Commentary

J C Ryle’s ‘Warning No. 4 to the Church

John MacArthur on Jonah: ‘The Tragedy of an Unwilling Missionary

Msgr Charles Pope: ‘What is the Sign of Jonah and Has It Come upon Us?

Charles H Spurgeon: ‘Jonah’s Object Lessons

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