Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.”
He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 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. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.” (verses 38-42)
At first blush this request coming from the Pharisees and teachers of the law sounds reasonable. After all, a “sign” points out true direction, making the pathway clear. Wouldn’t Jesus want to provide that?
Indeed, there is good precedent for signs being given to strengthen faith in Old Testament times. When Abraham questioned God’s promise of descendants as numerous as the stars, the Lord gave him a confirming sign (Genesis 15). Gideon received the same when he placed a fleece before the Lord (Judges 6:36-40).
So, aren’t the Pharisees and teachers of the law within their rights to make such a request?
No, simply because their request, unlike Abraham’s and Gideon’s, doesn’t proceed from a timid faith that needs strengthening, but rather proceeds from rank unbelief. The Pharisees have already decided that Jesus’ ministry is aligned with Satan. That’s a position firmly rooted in no faith at all.
Jesus rightly rebukes them for their request. Indeed, he broadens the scope to include all those in that generation who were privileged to experience his ministry but refused to believe.
Yet he affirms they will indeed receive a sign. Not immediately, as they are requesting. But a more powerful sign than they could have ever expected, what Jesus calls “the sign of Jonah.” Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and nights, so Jesus tells them in advance that he himself will be “in the heart of the earth” for that same time period (using a Semitic idiom, “days and nights,” that refers to 24-hour blocks of time, or portions thereof). He’s referring to his death and subsequent resurrection.
The sign is not guaranteed to compel belief, but it will certainly make those experiencing it accountable – they will be liable to judgement. Indeed, the people of Jonah’s day will rise up to condemn those of Jesus’ day, for the Ninevites repented under Jonah’s preaching, and now a greater sign points to one greater than Jonah, namely Jesus himself.
Further episodes of this unfolding story confirm both judgement and grace. Face to face with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, the Pharisees and teachers of the law (together with many others in that generation), refused to believe, solidifying their opposition to Jesus. Judgement results, for “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).
But wonderfully, the story continues, and the grace of God was at work. In the days following the outpouring of the Spirit, thousands came to saving faith in Jesus through the preaching of the Apostles, presumably including many previously labelled as this “wicked and adulterous generation.” Not only that, but even “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
The sign was given, strong and sure. Judgement rested on those who refused to see. But grace softened even some of the hardest hearts.
And the story continues still.
Praise you, Lord Jesus, for your resurrection. Praise you for life in all its fullness, extended by your grace. May grace touch more and more. Please use even me.
Pray: Consider how grace can touch even some who seem so hard. Do you know someone in that category? Pray for resurrection grace to touch them.