The Gospel records a three year period of time in which Jesus seemingly performed miracles, signs and wonders everywhere he went. Perhaps, the accounts in the Gospels give us an impression that doesn’t correspond to the reality because they recount the many miraculous things he did, but they don’t describe all the times in between.
It seems strange, given all the miracles, signs and wonders that Jesus did that the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus one day to test him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. (Matt. 16:1) Perhaps, they wanted him to do it on command, like a science experiment to prove himself.
Perhaps, they had only heard of the things Jesus did, but they hadn’t actually seen him do anything. Perhaps, they didn’t trust the accounts of the common people Jesus seemed to prefer to hang out with. They were more gullible and less discerning.
Attitudes like that haven’t changed much in 2000 years. The Sadducees and Pharisees were more learned. The Sadducees didn’t believe in supernatural occurrences, miracles or demons. The Pharisees did believe in those things, but they were skeptical. The two groups had very different worldviews, but they were aligned in their skepticism.
When these elite religious leaders asked Jesus for a private performance – “a sign from heaven” – he refused. And, he said this:
“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign[i]; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.”(Matthew 16:4)
The fact that these two groups, one that believed in the supernatural and one that didn’t, were aligned in their skepticism suggests that their “problem” with Jesus was that he challenged their dogmas. They doubted the fact that he did miracles, signs and wonders because of the content of what he was saying.
And, Jesus seemed to revel in provoking them on those differences!
The Pharisees (who believed in the supernatural) determined that healing on the Sabbath is work and is, therefore, prohibited by the Law of Moses. They demanded that Jesus not heal on the Sabbath, but Jesus did it anyway. (Matt. 12:1-14)
Ironically, this healing that was done right in the Pharisees’ presence occurred four chapters before they came to Jesus and demanded a sign from heaven. They had seen a sign from heaven already and dismissed it out of hand because it went against their beliefs.
Jesus challenged their preconceived ideas and expectations. He challenged their authority to determine what is work in violation of the Sabbath and what isn’t. They watched Jesus heal a man with a shriveled hand, but they dismissed it because of what he taught that was contrary to what they believed.
God showed the Pharisees a sign (the healing of a man with a shriveled hand), but they were too focused on his violation of their understanding of Scripture and religious dogma to notice it for what it was.
This story illustrates the danger of our religious dogmas and preconceived ideas of what God should do and not do. Even when the evidence is staring us in the face, we can be tempted to ignore it, gloss over it, and explain it away in favor of how we interpret and understand Scripture.
I will give you an example. One region in the world where Christianity is growing fastest, despite many obstacles, is Iran. Many people in many denominations believe that women should not be pastors and leaders of churches, yet the church in Iran that is growing so quickly despite the hostile environment of the country is led primarily by women!
I have read articles in which people dismiss this apparent move of God’s Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of Iranians despite great risk to them because the movement is primarily led by women. Is such a response any different than the Pharisees dismissing the healing of a man’s withered hand because Jesus did it on the Sabbath.
Jesus didn’t just heal; he cast out demons in a man who was blind and mute, healing him at the same time! (Matt. 12:22) The Pharisees dismissed what Jesus did, claiming that he was casting out demons by Satan. (Matt. 12:24) The people criticizing what is going on in Iran make similar claims – that it could not be a real move of the Holy Spirit because women are leading it.
When we come to commit ourselves to certain conclusions about God, we tend to be blind to other possibilities. When we buy into the conclusions we have already reached, we become incapable of considering contrary evidence.
Atheists do not see God because they have already dismissed the idea that God exists. They miss the signs of God that are everywhere!
The Pharisees did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. They had been waiting hundreds of years for the Messiah to appear, but they were not willing or able to adjust their assumptions and interpretations to recognize him! They missed God in the flesh because of their religious beliefs!
Jesus was doing something else that the Pharisees would not like: he was preparing to extend God’s love to the heathen Gentiles. In doing that, he was fulfilling the words of the Hebrew prophet, Isaiah. (Matt. 12:17-21) He was fulfilling what God promised to Abraham, but, again, they didn’t see it.
Note that Jesus was not actually introducing some new element to what God said in the past. He was fulfilling the Word of God. The Pharisees just did not see it.
They might have been too focused on the threat of Jesus to their authority and their control. Maybe they “honestly” rejected Jesus for their religious dogma. Either way, they failed to recognize that Jesus was the very hope for which they had been waiting for generations!
Our beliefs often are tied to our own desire for self-preservation. We tend away from views that are unfamiliar to us and threaten the understandings into which we have comfortably settled. If those views also threaten a loss of control, including the worldviews we have constructed in our own minds, the knee jerk reaction is to dismiss and reject them and look for explanations that fit the worldview we have constructed.
This is very serious business! It was in this context that Jesus spoke of the “unpardonable sin”. Jesus said: “sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven, but blasphemy[ii] against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven.” (Matt. 12:31)
If we call good evil, and evil good, there is no hope for us. We have rejected the very thing that can save us! (God’s Holy Spirit) We have missed the very signs God has given us.
After all these signs and wonders – healing a man’s withered hand in the Temple, casting out demons and healing the blind and mute man (and fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy) – the religious leaders had the audacity, still, to demand a sign. (Matt. 12:38) Really?!!
Reading this thousands of years later, we might be tempted to yell, “How could you have missed all the signs?!!”
But not so quickly.… Are we really any different? We settle into our preconceived notions as easily as the Pharisees did. If we have position, honor among men, wealth and comforts, we are as apt to miss what God is doing as the Pharisees out of an innate desire for self-preservation and resistance to chance.
God will disturb the flow of our lives, and if we are too focused on our own comforts, familiarity and desire for self-control, we might miss what He is doing? We probably have missed it! Many times!
So what is the “sign of Jonah”? Jesus said, “[J]ust as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt. 12:40) Jesus was obviously (obvious to us) speaking of His death on the cross and resurrection.
His death fulfilled other Scriptural prophecies. More importantly, His death is the sacrifice that wipes away our sin. His death allows us entry to God’s Kingdom by eliminating the sin that disqualified us. His death means life for us and all generations! … if we accept it.
Like the Pharisees, who were the religious leaders most like Jesus, people in the church might even miss God working in our very midst if we are not careful. We need to hold our religious dogmas a little looser. We a need little more self-awareness of the biases toward preserving our own comfort, position, and familiarity with the world that might get in the way of recognizing what God is doing in the world.
[i] 4592/Sēmeíon – a sign (typically miraculous) which confirms or corroborates (authenticates). Sēmeíon (“sign”) then looks to the end-purpose of the one giving it – used dozens of times in the NT for what authenticates the Lord’s eternal purpose. That is, pointing to what mere man can not replicate or take credit for.
[ii] 988/Blasphēmía (from blax, “sluggish/slow,” and 5345/phēmē, “reputation, fame”) – blasphemy – literally, slow (sluggish) to call something good that really is good – and slow to identify what is truly bad that really is evil. Blasphemy (blasphēmía) “switches” right for wrong (wrong for right), i.e. calls what God disapproves, “right” which “exchanges the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25). Blasphemy reverses moral values, regarding light as “darkness” and sweet as “bitter,” etc. blasphēmia “re-identifies” (re-defines) what is moral, as immoral (evil) – and “justifies” it. Blasphemy (ultimately) calls God the author (doer) of sin. Blasphemy naturally rejects God’s will (2307/thélēma), refusing to respond to what is good – i.e. give proper credit (value) where God has assigned value (worth). Blasphemy is “a perversion of spirit which, in defiance of the truth, chooses to call light darkness”. (William Lane, The Gospel of Mark, NICNT, 145) The ultimate sin is “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” – the process of repeatedly rejecting the Holy Spirit’s invitation to be drawn to Christ. Doing this leaves someone without salvation (the most frightening sin!). Jesus referred to “the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” as the one-and-only unpardonable sin (Mt. 12:31) because directly (or in effect) attributes God’s work to Satan (or vice-versa). It calls “light” darkness and darkness “light” which brings God’s judicial hardening (cf. 1 Jn. 5:16). The (habitual) lifestyle of resisting the Holy Spirit ultimately results in meeting God in unforgiven sin, which must bring eternal damnation (cf. 2 Thes. 1:9; Jude 7). Only by steadfastly refusing the Holy Spirit’s efforts to convict them about “sin, righteousness, judgment” (cf. Jn. 16:8) can a person die without Christ’s forgiveness. Here they commit (over time) the unpardonable sin.