Hans Christian Anderson in The Emperor’s New Clothes tells the story of an emperor who is convinced two criminals have made him a fantastic set of clothes. As the story goes, even though the thieves have created nothing, the ruler’s subjects affirm the beauty of the non-existent garments even though the emperor parades them around town.
As the story continues, a child points out, the obvious that no one else in the town will acknowledge the emperor is wearing nothing at all. The Pharisees and the Sadducees are like the emperor and the townspeople in this story; they have refused to accept the obvious. Instead of coming to Jesus in faith, the religious leaders requested a special sign (Matthew 16:1) while Christ’s enemies also looked for one (Matthew 12:38).
Seeking Signs for Sign's Sake is Wrong
As soon as Jesus returns to Israel’s territory, opposition from Jewish leaders resurfaces: “The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven” (Matthew 16:1). The Pharisees and Sadducees were rival groups of leaders, so this is an unusual grouping. Here they operate together for two reasons. First, they are the two main groups of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council (Acts 23:6). Second, they are united by a common opposition to Jesus. Apparently, they think that the enemy of their enemy is their friend (Luke 23:12).
The leaders’ quest for a sign is misguided, even foolish. Jesus has already performed an abundance of signs, and they never believed. As soon as possible, Jesus leaves their territory again, to escape them (Matthew 16:4). But before Jesus departs, he commends the Pharisees and Sadducees for their ability to read the signs of the weather: a red sky in the evening signified good weather; in the morning, a red sky, plus clouds, meant just the opposite.
How sad, then, that they could read the weather but could not read the signs of great events taking place in their times (Matthew 16:2-3). As religious leaders, they, above all, should know that God had sent the long-expected Messiah. A wicked generation cannot read the signs. The proof that they cannot interpret the signs is that they ask for a sign immediately after Jesus gives a sign! Their spiritual blindness keeps them from seeing Jesus for as long as they refuse to see Him as He is, they remain blind (Luke 13:34–35).
Jesus and Jonah
Jesus then compared himself to Jonah: “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:4). Jonah, you recall, did not perform signs; he was the sign. Thrown overboard into a raging sea, swallowed by a great fish, spat out on the dry ground, then preaching to great effect to the Assyrians of Nineveh, the very life of Jonah was the sign. The mere presence of a Jewish prophet in a hostile city was a sign. So too, with Jesus. The leaders do not need signs by Jesus; they need to see Jesus. His presence, his life, is God’s greatest sign, then and now.
In Matthew 12:38-42, the religious scholars are enraged at Jesus’ harsh words about them (Matthew 12:1-37) and ask Jesus for “a sign” (Matthew 12:38) — a miracle that demonstrates the messianic anointing of Jesus. The request was not wrong in itself, for the Lord gave Abraham a sign to confirm his faith (Genesis 15). Jesus knows that nothing can convince these religious leaders, so He promises the “sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39).
Many first-century Jews were convinced that the Ninevites repented when Jonah preached to them because they knew the Lord spoke through him. They also knew this because they knew the Lord saved him from drowning (Jonah 1:17-3:10). In the resurrection of the Lord, Jesus is like Jonah’s rescue (Matthew 12:40), signifying the vindication of Jesus and the truthfulness of His words (Romans 1:1-4).
The Desire for Signs, Then and Now
People are always looking for signs to guide them. They often seek personal direction in an hour of decision. In the ancient Near East, people sought guidance in some unusual places. The ancient pagan practice of hepatoscopy rests on the belief that memory and intelligence resided in the liver.
Much as 19th-century phrenologists studied the shape of the cranium to discover mental traits, pagan leaders carefully examined the livers of animals such as sheep in order to discern the future. In rhabdomancy, the ancients tossed up arrows and interpreted the pattern they took upon falling. In hydromancy, they tried to interpret the water leftover in a cup.
They also kept idols in their homes, to represent the gods and ask their direction or aid and tried to consult with spirits and studied the stars for guidance. Astronomy studies the stars scientifically. Astrology studies the influence of stars on earthly events. It has an appealing premise: there is a harmony in the universe so that the movements of planets and stars affect events on earth. But as astronomers study the universe and its vast expanse, it has become impossible to believe that objects that are trillions of miles away could directly influence earthly events.
We no longer consult livers and arrows, but we are not so different from ancient people. Millions of people still read palms, tea leaves, and tarot cards. We flip coins. Some Christians flip open the Bible at random, hoping to encounter a verse that will guide them. We seek mentors and counselors, which ordinarily makes great sense. But we also seek five-minute meetings with mentors, pastors, and counselors where we deliver a three-minute summary of our life story, then expect a two-minute oracle on our future.
Signs, Salvation, and Jesus
No miracle will ever be enough for those who love their sin and refuse to turn to the Lord. It is insincere when people say they will believe if God will do a miracle for them as if God owes them a favor or is a genie in a bottle. There is plenty of evidence for the truthfulness of Jesus in the Word, including the testimony of lives and societies changed by King Jesus.
Instead of seeking a sign, seek the fulfillment of the signs, Jesus Himself. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). Jesus is the answer to the sign you seek, and He is the only one who can truly save and satisfy. Don’t seek a sign, seek the Savior while He may be found and call on the name of the Lord and be saved. If you are a Christian, please pray you will always be attentive and soft-hearted to the commands of Jesus, and daily walk in obedience to the revealed will Word of God.
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Dave Jenkins is the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, and the Host of the Equipping You in Grace Podcast and Warriors of Grace Podcast. He received his MAR and M.Div. through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @davejjenkins, find him on Facebook at Dave Jenkins SOG, Instagram, read more of his writing at Servants of Grace, or sign to receive his newsletter. When Dave isn’t busy with ministry, he loves spending time with his wife, Sarah, reading the latest from Christian publishers, the Reformers, and the Puritans, playing golf, watching movies, sports, and spending time with his family.