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Request for a Sign
1The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested Him by asking Him to show them a sign from heaven.
2He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ 3and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.
Religious leaders from the two prominent sects of Judaism of the time had a request to make of Jesus: “The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested Him by asking Him to show them a sign from heaven” (vs. 1). This is similar to a request the Pharisees made earlier, as recounted in Matthew 12:38. At that time they requested a “miraculous sign.” Though Jesus did not accede to their request at the time, He had performed many miraculous signs since then. This time, beyond asking for a miraculous sign, they wanted “a sign from heaven”, such as, making the sun stand still, or calling down fire from heaven. “They neglect the signs by which Christ revealed Himself familiarly to them. How much less, then, will they profit from a distant and obscure sign?” [Calvin, 176].
They mistook Jesus’ ministry: He was not a circus act. He did not frivolously perform miraculous signs. Rather, the signs He performed had purpose and meaning. They were service-oriented (such as healings, the feeding of the crowds, etc.), or message-oriented (in order to teach a lesson, such as the cursing of the fig tree, and the changing of the water into wine). “It is fit that the proofs of divine revelation should be chosen by the wisdom of God, not by the follies and fancies of men” [Henry].
Yet, are we any better than the Pharisees and Sadducees? There are many today who say, “If God will just give me some miraculous sign, I will believe in Him.” Those who ask for a sign want to make themselves God themselves, ordering God around, while not believing the many proofs of His existence.
It was unusual that the Pharisees and Sadducees united in this request, for they were rivals. The Pharisees were a conservative sect that insisted on a legalistic obedience to the Law of God (as interpreted by them); the Sadducees were a liberal sect that did not believe in the supernatural or life after death. Yet they were united in their opposition to Jesus, whose Truth threatened their power over their constituents. “The ungodly may disagree, but their mutual discord never prevents them from conspiring against God and, as if by a pact, reaching out their hands to oppress the truth” [Calvin, 176]. “Satan’s children, how opposite soever one to another, can agree to oppose Christ” [Dickson].
Jesus’ first reply to the request was to tell them, essentially, that they didn’t need any further sign: “He replied, ‘When evening comes, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,” and in the morning, “Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times’” (vss. 2–3). “For those with eyes to see, the ‘signs of the times’, if not the kind of sign the Pharisees and Sadducees demanded, were already abundant” [Carson, 361]. “The miracles Christ wrought, and the gathering of the people to Him, were plain indications that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, that this was the day of their visitation” [Henry].
Next, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees for their request: “‘A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.’ Jesus then left them and went away” (vs. 4). They were “wicked and adulterous” because they were unfaithful to the God whom they pledged allegiance to. Their request was not “wicked” in itself, but they asked it in the context of a multitude of signs that Jesus had performed. Thus, they chose willfully to ignore all the abundantly clear proofs provided to them that Jesus is the Son of God.
Jesus was not to play circus for them. He would not perform a sign specifically on their behalf. Rather, He spoke of the sign that is the primary sign for all of us concerning who Jesus is: “…but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” As Jesus said elsewhere: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). The sign for all of us that Jesus is the Son of God is His death for our sins, and His resurrection from the dead. We need no other sign. We do not need God to perform specifically for us, for the sending of His Son to die for us was enough.
By the way, we have noted that this meeting with the Pharisees and Sadducees is similar to the event described in Matthew 12:38ff: Jesus was asked to perform a sign, and He gave essentially the same answer. We know that these were two separate events, for they were recorded by a single author. This teaches us that Jesus would repeat similar teaching in different situations. In the four Gospels, there are various passages that are similar, and yet different enough to cause some to think that they are contradictory. A better explanation for the differences, in many cases, is that the differing passages refer to separate events.
The Yeast of the Pharisees
5When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. 6“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
7They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”
8Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? 9Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12Then they understood that He was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
This section, in my mind, demonstrates that Jesus has a sense of humor, for He presented a play-on-words concerning what the disciples were talking about. Jesus must have overheard the disciples speaking about not having brought bread: “When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees’” (vss. 5–6). Yeast was a familiar symbol of insidious corruption, used many times in the Bible as such, for it infiltrates internally, and spreads itself throughout the dough.
Jesus, in the play-on-words, related the physical bread the disciples were concerned about, to the spiritual yeast of the Pharisees. The play-on-words was lost on the disciples. They thought Jesus was talking about literal bread: “They discussed this among themselves and said, ‘It is because we didn’t bring any bread’” (vs. 7). Apparently, the disciples thought that Jesus was warning them not to accept bread from the Pharisees and Sadducees. Such a warning would have been absurd, and had Jesus meant that, would have gone against His teaching that says it is not what you eat that corrupts. The disciples were implying that Jesus was falling into the same kind of ridiculousness as the Pharisees by saying there was something unholy about physical bread from the Pharisees.
Jesus mildly rebuked the disciples for their mistaken interpretation of what He said: “Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? … How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees’” (vss. 8, 11). Interestingly, Jesus did not spell out the entire meaning of what He said, but gave them the hint that He was not speaking of physical bread. He then let them figure out the rest: “Then they understood that He was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (vs. 12). The insidious corruption of the Pharisees and Sadducees was their wrong teaching. It was all the more dangerous because it was coming from the primary religious leaders of the time. “Disciples are in most danger from hypocrites; against those that are openly vicious they stand upon their guard, but against Pharisees, who are great pretenders to devotion, and Sadducees, who pretend to a free and impartial search after truth, they commonly lie unguarded: and therefore the caution is doubted” [Henry].
The wrong interpretation of Jesus’ comment by His own disciples demonstrates that we all must take care when interpreting the words of Christ, lest we wrongly interpret them. “Readily are our Lord’s words mistaken, even by disciples, and upon a mistake, wrong conclusions are drawn, and so the intent of Christ’s words are lost” [Dickson]. Diligent study and prayer for guidance are greatly needed when interpreting what Jesus said.