Demanding a sign from Jesus, and getting the Jonah sign.

Mark 8.10-13 • Matthew 12.38-42, 16.1-4.

I grew up among cessationists, folks who think God has multiple dispensations, and think he turned off the miracles in the dispensation we’re in. Which is a hard view to maintain, ’cause God still totally does miracles. But they try; they insist their anti-supernatural doctrines are more important than God’s revelation. They know better than he does—although they’d never ever phrase it that way.

So whenever they wanted to defend their worldview, they’d pull up this passage, and spin it to mean Jesus rejected and rebuked miracles. Even though he did miracles. Even though he deliberately did miracles as signs to foster belief. Even though God did ’em all the time to foster belief. It was the entire point of the first miracles Moses ever did!

Exodus 4.1-9 KWL
1 In reply Moses said, “Look, the Hebrews won’t believe me, won’t hear my voice:
They’ll say, ‘The LORD didn’t appear to you.’
2 The LORD told Moses, “What’s this in your hand?” Moses said, “A stick.” 3 The LORD said, “Throw it to the ground.”
Moses threw it to the ground. Now it was a snake!—and Moses fled from its face.
4 The LORD told Moses, “Reach your hand out and grab its tail.”
Moses reached his hand out, grabbed it—and in his hand it was a stick.
5 “In order to believe the LORD God of their ancestors appeared to you—
Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, Jacob’s God.”
6 The LORD told Moses again, “Please put your hand to your chest.”
Moses put his hand to his chest, then held it out: Look, his hand was leprous, white like snow.
7 The LORD said, “Return your hand to your chest.”
Moses returned his hand to his chest, then held it out: Look, the flesh was restored.
8 “If it happens they don’t trust you, don’t hear the voice of the first sign,
the Hebrews will trust the voice of the last sign.
9 If it happens they don’t trust these two signs, don’t hear your voice: Take water from the Nile.
Pour it into something dry, and the water which you took from the Nile will be blood in the dry vessel.”

God’s okay with giving us signs. Okay with people asking for signs. Jg 6.36-40 What he’s never okay with, is hypocrisy—is people who ask for a sign, but have no intention of believing or recognizing it. He sees no point in providing signs for such people. They’re not worth it.

Cessationists fall straight into this category. Doesn’t matter if you perform a miracle right in front of them. They’ll just do as certain Pharisees did, and claim Satan empowered it to deceive them. (Apparently in this dispensation, God can’t do miracles, but Satan can. Wait, which of them is Almighty again?) Jesus warned those Pharisees they were blaspheming the Holy Spirit, but good luck warning cessationists they’re committing the same sin: They’re vaccinated themselves against that accusation by redefining “blasphemy” so they’re not really committing it. Then they keep right on committing it. I’d really hate to be them on Judgment Day; I’m pretty sure they’re gonna try to psyche themselves into thinking the entire experience of getting judged by Jesus is also a devilish trick.

Anyway here’s the passage they pull out of context: When certain Pharisees in Dalmanutha requested a sign from Jesus, and Jesus, who knew no sign would work on them, blew ’em off.

Mark 8.10-13 KWL
10 Quickly getting into the boat with his students, Jesus went to the border of Dalmanuthá.
11 Pharisees came and began to debate Jesus, requesting a heavenly sign from him, testing him.
12 Groaning deeply in his spirit, Jesus said, “Why does this generation ask for signs?
Amen, I tell you if anyone gives this generation a sign…”
13 Getting into the boat again, Jesus left the Pharisees
and went to the far side.
Matthew 16.1-4 KWL
1 Approaching Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus for a heavenly sign to show them.
2 In reply Jesus told them, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It’s red; clear sky.’
3 And in the morning, ‘Storms today, for the sky is red and gloomy.’
So you know to interpret the face of the sky—and can’t interpret the signs of the day?
4 An evil, adulterous generation pursues signs—and a sign won’t be given them other than Jonah’s sign.”
Leaving them, Jesus went away.

The Textus Receptus adds ὑποκριταί/ypokrité, “hypocrites,” to Matthew 16.3. Which is fair; it’s precisely what the problem was. These folks had every intention of watching Jesus do a sign, or point to an existing sign… only so they could debunk and dismiss it. They didn’t want proof. They wanted to set him up to fail.

If we ever approach God with the same lousy attitude, of course it deserves condemnation, and we shouldn’t expect God to take such requests seriously, ’cause he won’t. But cessationists treat all requests for a heavenly sign as if they deserve condemnation. ’Cause to their minds, they do: God turned off the miracles, so how dare we ask him to switch ’em back on for our selfish, petty reasons? And so forth.

Basically cessationists are preaching out of their unbelief. But enough about them today.

Which heavenly signs did they have in mind?

For the Pharisees and Sadducees, the sign they sought from Jesus had to do with their End Times timeline. Pharisees believed Messiah would return to end this age and start the next one, God’s kingdom, with himself as its king. But they expected Messiah to have various heavenly signs point him out to them. Thus far Jesus hadn’t presented those signs. Which stands to reason: None of their signs came from bible, but Pharisee tradition, which was loosely based on bible… but exactly like today’s Darbyist ”prophecy scholars,” they insisted their fast-’n-loose out-of-context interpretations totally were bible, and Jesus’d better fulfill them, or he’s no Messiah.

That’s what they had in mind when they challenged Jesus in synagogue in John:

John 6.30-31 KWL
30 So they told Jesus, “So what miracle are you doing so we can see it and trust you?
What’d you do? 31 Our ancestors ate manna in the desert.
Like it’s written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” Ps 78.24

Pharisees claimed when Messiah returned, their enemies would beseige them and try to starve them out, but Messiah would provide ’em manna, exactly like Moses did with the Hebrews. Darbyists teach the very same thing. The idea doesn’t come from bible; it comes from stretching the idea of the End Times “prophet like Moses” so he’ll do everything Moses did, including bring on the manna.

But Jesus isn’t obligated to fulfill Pharisee timelines any more than he’s obligated to fulfill Darbyist timelines. They aren’t his timelines. And make no mistake: He has one. That is, he has a plan. But he’s not chosen to share all its details with us. We get some data, but the rest is just for him to know, not us. Ac 1.7 No matter what Darbyists claim—including claims they totally do know the plan; they’ve got diagrams!

This insistence Jesus give ’em a sign from their catalog, indicates the Pharisees claimed to know God’s plan. Presumed to know his mind. They knew all the signs Messiah had to demonstrate, so Jesus needed to cough one up so they could evaluate whether he’s Messiah or not. Let them have final say about whether he’s their king.

What about the Sadducees? Well, none of their writings have survived to the present day, and what we do know about them was written by their opponents. (So, imagine if all we know about Roman Catholics was written by anti-Catholics. Yikes.) From the accounts we have, it doesn’t look like Sadducees even had End Times views—since they neither believed in resurrection nor spirits, Ac 23.8 and didn’t acknowledge any of the bible past the books of Moses, which is where Messiah and all the End Times stuff comes from. So why were Sadducees there with the Pharisees to request a sign? Two possibilities.

  1. Contrary to what we know of them, they actually did have End Times views, and wanted to see whether Jesus would fulfill their own views.
  2. They had no such views, but were curious to see how Jesus would answer the Pharisees.

And since #2 is the most likely option, this’d make them hypocrites just as much as the Pharisees. They didn’t expect Jesus to really do anything, and if he did, they expected to easily nitpick it to death. They didn’t truly seek Messiah; just a bit of fun debunking someone they figured was yet another fake Messiah.

Jesus wasn’t having any of that.

Whenever Jesus talks about generations, Mt 11.6, 12.34, 17.17, 23.36, 24.34 he meant that generation: The teens and 20somethings of his day. Not so much his own; Jesus was in his 30s, Lk 3.23 which made him the senior generation. (I know; hard to imagine in a culture where people regularly live into their 90s. But his culture didn’t. You were lucky to make it to 60.) Jesus’s generation was the one with the duty to lead and train the next generation to succeed them. That was the whole point of Pharisaism and their synagogues: Teach the kids the Law so they could break the cycle and not plunge the nation into judgment, and have the Romans destroy them all. The problem: Jesus knew that was coming in 40 years. Other than a remnant of scattered Jews and Christians, this was the last generation.

And the reason it was the last generation was ’cause it’d been messed up so bad by the people who hoped to save it. They’d been taught to expect certain signs of Messianic candidates—wrongly. They expected specific, strange omens… none of which they actually needed because Jesus's miracles demonstrate he's obviously from God. Jn 3.2 Plus he took various kingly prerogatives because he knew who he was. He’s clearly Messiah, and you gotta be willfully dense not to see it. But these Pharisees and Sadducees were. They were denying their own commonsense in favor of unbiblical cultural litmus tests.

Which meant they prioritized Pharisaism over bible. Over God. So, idolatry—which the prophets regularly compared with adultery, because idolaters are cheating on the LORD with their idols. When young Pharisees put their elders’ teachings ahead of actual God-breathed scriptures, that’d be adultery… much like cessationists who prefer to imagine a God who leaves them be, rather than a God who’s involved—and acts.

Jonah’s sign.

This story happens twice in Matthew, because people asked Jesus for signs plenty of times. Multiple times in John too. Seems his stock answer became “You only get Jonah’s sign,” Mt 16.4 which he explained in greater detail here.

Matthew 12.38-42 KWL
38 Some of the scribes and Pharisees replied to Jesus, saying,
“Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
39 In reply Jesus told them, “An evil, adulterous generation pursues signs—
and a sign won’t be given them other than the prophet Jonah’s sign.
40 For just as Jonah was in the whale’s belly three days and three nights,
likewise the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
41 The men of Nineveh will rise on Judgment Day with this generation and condemn it:
They repented at Jonah’s message, and look, more than Jonah is here.
42 The queen of the south will rise on Judgment Day with this generation and condemn it:
She came from the end of the earth to hear Solomon’s wisdom, and look, more than Solomon is here.”

Jonah is a short book, and a good read. But most people only know the bit about the whale swallowing him, and little more.

The LORD ordered his prophet Jonah to warn the Assyrians he was gonna smite Nineveh, their capital. But Jonah fled in the opposite direction. Not, as people commonly assume, because Jonah was afraid the Assyrians would hate his message and kill the messenger. Jonah bluntly said he didn't want them forewarned, lest they repent and the LORD forgive them. Jh 4.2 Jonah wanted them dead. The Assyrians had done terrible things to Jonah‘s people, and he wanted God’s wrath, not God’s mercy.

So Jonah took a boat to Tarshish, Spain; the opposite direction. But when the LORD assigns us a mission, sometimes he won’t take no for an answer. He hit Jonah’s boat with a storm; the pagan sailors threw him overboard to appease whatever god he’d outraged; Jonah survived by getting gulped down by a whale. (That’s what Jesus called it in Matthew 12.40, a κήτους/kítus, “whale.” I know; Jonah says דָּ֣ג/dag, “fish.” Yes, our animal classification system identifies whales as cetaceans—sea mammals, a word based on kítus—not fish. But it was invented in the middle ages. In Jesus’s day whales were considered fish. Bible ain’t wrong; our definitions changed. As for translators who try to “update” the bible to jibe with modern scientific ideas: They’re wrong.) The whale puked up Jonah three days later on the Mediterranean west coast. By the time he got to Assyria his story was everywhere, and the Assyrians paid attention—and repented.

And that’s what Jesus meant by Jonah’s sign. Jonah survived the whale three days, and that substantially proved God’s hand was on him. Jesus, in comparison, was gonna survive death. And if that’s not a sign that convinces you, you’re cold, dark, and dead inside.

Hence Jesus points out how on Judgment Day, the Ninevites are gonna be there (they repented, remember?) and look upon the kids of that generation, and call them idiots. Jesus’s resurrection is way more convincing than Jonah surviving a whale’s digestive tract. And for good measure Jesus also threw in “the queen of the south,” the queen of Sabea (שְׁבָ֗א/Ševá, KJV “Sheba”; in present-day Ethiopia) who came to Israel to check out Solomon. 1Ki 10.1-13 Unlike how they came to check out Jesus, the queen came with an open mind, and left impressed. And on Judgment Day, she’s gonna be there, likewise look upon the kids of that generation, and call them idiots: How could they be so dense as to miss their Messiah?

Well, that’s what happens with know-it-alls.

Christ Almighty!