"Insisting on Signs "
(Delivered Sunday, May 27, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
We have been looking together at what turns out to be a very important moment in the story of Jesus. In the sixteenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel, a very significant change begins to occur in Jesus' ministry toward His disciples.
Prior to this point, Jesus had not said anything to them about the cross. As far as they knew, they would be following Jesus until He assumed His rightful place upon the throne of David in Jerusalem, and began His glorious rule as the King of the Jews. But when we come to verse 21, we read that He shares some startling news with them: “From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.”
And so, when we come to the end of chapter 16, we find it announced that Jesus is drawing very close to that important crisis point—the crisis point of the cross. I don't believe we can appreciate what we read in chapter 16 unless we understand that, in it, the cross begins to loom larger and larger in our Savior's view.
But there's another crucial point in this chapter that is important to keep in mind. Prior to revealing to the disciples His “destiny”—that is, that He must go to Jerusalem to die on the cross—He had been revealing much to them along the way about His “identity”. The works that He did before their eyes had progressively revealed to them that He was the Son of God in human flesh. And so, it's in this chapter that that progressive revelation of His identity comes to a head in an all-important affirmation.
In verses 13-19, we read;
So you see; this is a very pivotal chapter in Matthew's Gospel. It is a pivotal moment in the earthly ministry of our Savior. So much of what has happened prior to this point was meant to bring the disciples—and us, as we read and study this Gospel—to the point of that bold affirmation of Peter. This Jesus, who was about to die on the cross, is none other than the Christ, the Son of the living God. I believe Matthew would have agreed with what John says at the conclusion of his own Gospel account; "And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:30-31).
And so, it's not coincidental that this pivotal chapter begins with the story of how some struggled with the increasing testimony of Jesus. It begins with the opposition He received from those who would not believe on Him. And it presents us with a vital lesson in what it means to truly believe on Him, and to seek Him with a sincere heart.
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Now; we looked at this story last week. The context of this story was a miracle. Jesus had feed a multitude of people with a few small loaves of bread and a few small fish. The disciples were intimately involved in this miracle. Jesus took the loaves and the fish, gave thanks to the Father for them, broke them, and distributed them to the disciples; and it was the disciples who distributed the bread and fish to the crowd. The disciples saw this miracle first-hand!
Immediately after the feeding of this great crowd, Jesus and His disciples left to go to the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee. It's there that He was met with unbelief. And it's then that He teaches us a crucial lesson about seeking Him with a sincere heart.
Last Sunday, I pointed out that there are really two “lessons” in this passage; and as it turns out, they both have to do with faith in Jesus. The first lesson—which we focused on last week—had to do with the fact that the disciples had failed to truly learn the things that Jesus had been teaching them about Himself. He had performed two miracles with “bread”. He had proven that a lack of “bread” was never a problem for Him. And yet, the disciples worried about the fact that they didn't have bread. He rebuked them for their lack of faith in Him, and for not paying better attention to the lessons He had been teaching them about Himself.
And this morning, we'll focus in on the second lesson. This time, it's a lesson that's drawn from those who opposed Him and would not believe on Him. It's a lesson we learn from those who pretended to be 'seekers of truth'; but who, in reality, were hypocritical about their search. They were, in reality, seeking to find ways to justify their unbelief. And what Jesus teaches His disciples from this is that they must beware of demanding “signs” from Jesus—and demanding that He first prove Himself to them—before they will submit themselves to Him by faith.
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Let's look closer at this story. And let's begin by, first, noticing . . .
1. THE DEMAND JESUS RECEIVED FOR A ‘SIGN’ (v. 1).
Consider, first, who it was that made this demand—the Pharisees and the Sadducees. That they would join forces together to make this demand of Jesus must have been remarkable to those who witnessed it; because it would have been hard to find two viewpoints more opposed to one another more than those of the Pharisees and Sadduccees.
The party of the Pharisees was a religious and political party that had its origin about two-hundred years before Jesus walked on earth. At a time when it seemed as if the whole world was embracing Greek culture, a group of Jewish people arose to combat its influence and to preserve Jewish ways. Eventually one branch of this group established itself in regular Jewish life, but were very careful to keep itself separate and distinct from the 'contaminations' of pagan culture. They were "separatists"; and they were eventually named pharisaioi (from the Hebrew word parash; "to separate"). They so esteemed the oral traditions that formed around the law of Moses that they developed a rigid and burdensome set of strict applications of the letter of the law to everyday life.
The party of the Sadduccees—like the Pharisees—was also a political and religious party in Jewish culture. Some scholars believe that they took their name from a high priest in the days of King Solomon named Zadok (2 Sam. 15:24; 1 Kings 1:34-35). The Sadducees rejected the oral traditions that the Pharisees held to. They believed that only the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were authoritative. While the Pharisees believed in angels, spirits, and the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees did not.
By Jesus' day, the Sadduccees were the ruling party in Jewish cultural life. They were generally wealthy men; and they generally tried to get along with the Roman government. But both groups fought against each other for the dominance of their views over the hearts and minds of the Jewish population.
There's a story in the Book of Acts that illustrates the divisiveness between these two groups. A Roman commander once arrested the apostle Paul, and brought him before the Sanhedrin—that is, the ruling court of the Jews. He was being called upon to give an account for his preaching. And the Bible tells us,
Paul, as you can see, really knew how to work a room!
And so, it was representatives of these two groups that came to Jesus. And what's remarkable is that—here, in this story—these two bitterly opposing groups finally found a way to settle their differences long enough to come together. They came together against Jesus Christ. As it says in Psalm 2:1-2; "Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against His Anointed" (or "against His Christ").
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And second, notice the demand that these two groups made of Jesus. They asked that He would show them "a sign from heaven".
Now; to appreciate what an outlandish request this is, you have to put things in their context. Jesus had just performed a wonderful miracle. He had fed a multitude of people—4,000 men, plus the women and children—with a few loaves of bread and a few small fish. Prior to that, He had fed 5,000 men, plus the women and children, through a similar miracle.
There were many times that Jesus had healed great multitudes of sick people, and cast out demons. He had cleansed lepers with a touch, given sight to the blind, and cast out demons with but a command. And these miracles all testified together to the fact that Jesus Christ is the long-awaited, promised Messiah—through whose ministry the Scriptures said that "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing" (Isaiah 35:5-6). What's more, these were not things that He did in hiding. He did them publicly.
If this deputation of Pharisees and Sadducees had sincerely wanted a sign from heaven, they would have had to confessed that they had already been given many. In fact, they'd have to confess that they were given one very notable sign in particular. We're told that, at Jesus' baptism, "the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased'" (Matthew 3:16-17). This became the testimony of John the Baptist to some of these same inquisitors; because he said, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God" (John 1:32-34).
But in spite of all this, they still demanded more. They demanded "a sign from heaven". Perhaps they wanted Him to cause the winds to blow down from the clouds and part the sea—as it did in Moses' day. Perhaps they wanted Him to cause the sun to stand still in the firmament—as it did in Joshua's day. Perhaps they wanted Him to cause fire to come down from sky and consume an offering—as it did in Elijah's day.
In any event, they weren't satisfied with how Jesus had already proven Himself. They were not satisfied with what God had already done to testify of Him. They wanted more. They despised the healings and the feedings. They wanted something big and dramatic—not just something "on earth". They wanted to dictate the terms—and demanded a sign from heaven of their choosing.
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And finally, notice the motive behind this demand for a sign. It wasn't because they truly wanted a sign. The text tells us; they came "testing Him". The word used (peirazo) is the same one that was used of the actions of the devil, when we read in Matthew 4:1 that "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."
They didn't ask Jesus for a sign from heaven in order to test and see if He truly was the beloved Son in whom God was well pleased. Their minds had already been made up about Him when they asserted, "He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons" (9:34). Rather, these were seeking to trap Him in order to discredit Him in front of the crowds, and to justify their hard-heartedness toward Him.
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Now; that leads us, secondly, to . . .
2. THE RESPONSE JESUS GAVE TO THAT DEMAND (vv. 2-4).
When they made this request, they already knew what His response would be; because they had already asked this sort of thing of Him once before.
Back in the twelfth chapter, we read;
They knew that they could count on Him to answer their request now as He did back then. And they were right. In fact, He answered it in almost the same exact words:
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Now; look at Jesus' words about the Pharisees' and Sadduccees' ability to determine the weather. You need to know that New Testament textual scholars are in disagreement over whether or not those words were originally in Matthew's Gospel. Though they are found in the majority of ancient New Testament copies, the most reliable texts do not contain them. But they do represent the teaching of Jesus on other occasions. At another time when He was teaching, in Luke 12, we read,
We use this saying, in another form, today. We say, "Red sky at night—sailor's delight! But red sky in the morning—sailor, take warning!" And if we assume—as I believe we safely can—that Jesus said something like this to the Pharisees and Sadducees, then it served as a severe rebuke to their pretense in seeking a sign from Him.
They had the ability to read the sky. They could take a look at the signs that were already "in the heavens", and could make accurate predictions and affirmations about the weather. We can do the same today—only more so. But Jesus rebuked them for not being able to discern "the signs of the times". They were not recognizing what the apostle Paul latter affirmed, that "when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son" (Galatians 3:4). They had not been paying attention to the signs that were already all around them.
They had not, for example, recognized that the Book of Daniel had already specified—centuries prior—the very time when the Messiah would come and lay down His life. In Daniel 9:25-26, we read that the angel told Daniel, "Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the command to restores and build Jerusalem until the Messiah the Prince, there shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublesome times. And after the sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off . . ." "One week" was the equivalent of seven prophetic years; and from the command of King Artaxerxes to rebuild the temple in 445 BC to the passing of a total of "sixty-nine weeks" of years, we come to the time when Jesus died on the cross. They should have been watching for Him; for the signs of the times pointed to His coming.
Nor had they recognized the promises in the Old Testament about the coming of John the Baptist. They should have recognize John for what he said he was—"the voice of one crying out in the wilderness" (John 1:23), who was promised in Isaiah 40:3-5; where it says,
They should have recognized John as the fulfillment of what it says in Malachi 3:1; “Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts." And they should have remembered the last promise of the Old Testament—the promise found in Malachi 4:5-6; where it says, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse" (see Matthew 17:10-13).
There were ample signs available to them . . . if they had only read "the signs of the times" with genuine sincerity of heart.
And I don't believe that it was as if God were opposed to give signs in the heavens. After all, it was a sign in the heavens that drew the wise men all the way from the land of the Chaldeans to come to Jerusalem; and to ask Herod, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship him" (Matthew 2:1-2). God is not opposed to giving necessary proofs to those who have a sincere heart to worship Christ.
And that, I believe, is why Jesus says, "A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign . . ." The attitude of heart with which they demanded "a sign from heaven" was not one that God was inclined to honor. How much more "wicked" can a generation be than to persistently reject and harden itself against the "signs of the times" that God had been setting before them? And how much more of an "adulterous" 'covenant-breaking' generation can a generation be than to reject the very Messiah God had promised and had authenticated before their very eyes? Only a "wicked" and "adulterous" generation would continue to asks for signs in such a context—only proving that they were never really interested in signs at all.
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But notice in all this that Jesus does promise a sign. He says that no sign would be given to that generation "except the sign of the prophet Jonah".
We're not left to figure out what this means on our own. Jesus Himself has told us. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus said, "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". The three days and three nights that the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish was a symbolic picture of the three days and three nights that Jesus would spend in the tomb after His crucifixion. That Jesus was crucified was no sign; because many others were crucified. And that Jesus was buried was no sign either; because many others were buried. What proved to be a sign—the sign of Jonah—was that He was crucified, and buried, and only stayed in the tomb for three days; and then arose!
That was how Jonah was a sign to the people that God had sent him to; because, as Jesus says, "For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation" (Luke 11:30). Jonah—having been spit up by the great fish, and walking around alive in Nineveh—was a sign to the Ninevites. And Jesus—having been raise out of the tomb on the third day, and presenting Himself alive in Jerusalem—was a sign to that wicked and adulterous generation.
In fact, it is a sign to the whole world. As Paul said to the Athenians in Acts 17:31, God has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness "by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead." And as he writes in Romans 1:4, he speaks concerning God's Son Jesus Christ, "who was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead".
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to test Jesus. But the resurrection is what tests all people. To those who seek a sign in order to justify their unbelief, the resurrection of Jesus is the only sign that they will be given—and even then, they still will not believe. But to those who genuinely and sincerely seek the truth, the resurrection is the only sign that is necessary.
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And all of this leads us, finally, to . . .
3. THE WARNING JESUS GAVE TO HIS FOLLOWERS ABOUT INSISTING ON ‘SIGNS’ (vv. 5-12).
After this encounter, Jesus told His disciples, "Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (v. 6).
Jesus uses "leaven" or "yeast" here as a symbol of that which is small, and that operates and spreads in a hidden way; but that once allowed into a thing, it spreads its influence and ends up permeating the whole thing. Just as a little leaven leavens the whole lump, a little of the "leaven" of the Pharisees and Sadducees can work its way in, spread its influence, and end up permeating the whole of a person's soul.
Now, the disciples misunderstood this. They thought Jesus was speaking of literal bread. But He corrected them. He says, "How it it that you did not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?—but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees?" And Matthew goes on to tell us, "Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine [or "teaching"] of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (vv. 11-12).
Here, Matthew explains that Jesus spoke of the "doctrine" of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Now; what does this mean? I believe we are given the fullest explanation in Matthew 23; and we'll study that chapter when we get to it. But in Luke 12:1, we're told that Jesus—on another occasion—said, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy." And I believe that is specifically what is meant in this particular context.
The outward form of what the disciples needed to be on guard against from the Pharisees and Sadducees was their "doctrine" or "teaching". They appeared in the eyes of the people to be sincere "seekers of the truth". But the inward nature of what they were doing—the dangerous "leavening" aspect—was that it was "hypocrisy". They were pretending to seek the truth; but they were not seeking the truth at all. They were, in fact, seeking ways to avoid the truth. All the signs and the evidences were pointing to Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah—the Son of God and King of the Jews. But they didn't want Him. They would not bow down to Him and worship Him. They would not accept God's plan for them through His cross. Their pursuit of the truth was a sham.
And Jesus was warning His disciples—and you and me today—to beware of that attitude! We must be on our guard against the hypocritical pretense of "seeking the truth" that is often characterized by seeking "signs". "I'll believe what God says if He does this or that! I'll put my faith in Jesus if He shows me the evidence I demand of Him." The reality is that He has already given us all the evidence we need for a saving faith in the cross of Jesus Christ.
To ask for more than that is to ask out of a wicked and adulterous heart.
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Now in closing, I'd like to point out that not all were hypocritical. There was at least one Pharisee who had already seen the signs that were present, and that already sought Him with sincerity.
In the third chapter of John's Gospel, we read, "There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God . . ." And note how it was that this could be known: ". . . for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him" (John 3:1-2).
Nicodemus the Pharisee believed that Jesus was "the teacher come from God". And Jesus responded to his faith by giving Him more. He taught Him that he must be "born again"; and gave him those words that have led to the salvation of countless numbers of people ever since: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
All the evidence any genuine, sincere 'seeker of truth' needs has already been made available to them. All that God has revealed about Jesus is sufficient for a sincere faith in Him and in His cross. And now, it's up to us to receive Him by faith, believe on the sacrifice on the cross He made on our behalf, and yield ourselves to Him as Savior and Lord.
May God help us to believe with sincerity of heart; and to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
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