Tuesday, August 25, 2009


By Michael Bahjejian

Mat 16:1-4
1 ¶ Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven.
2 He answered and said to them, "When it is evening you say, `It will be fair weather, for the sky is red';
3 "and in the morning, `It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.' Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times.
4 "A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah." And He left them and departed.

Here is a simple and well known passage in Matthew that seems quite easy to understand, but do we really understand what it means? Could we for example answer some of the following questions: What is the sign of Jonah? Why did the Pharisees and Sadducees want to test Jesus? Why didn’t Jesus show them a sign from heaven, and why did they especially ask for a sign from heaven?

 The sign of Jonah

As you know, many amazing things happened in the book of Jonah (between Obadiah and Micah, it is not the easiest book to find). Which one from these amazing things do you think is the sign of Jonah? Is it the fish that swallowed Jonas in the middle of the stormy sea, spit him on the shore 3 days later, and by doing so saved his life? Is it Jonah's prayer of repentance and supplication in the belly of the fish? Is it his complete change of mind when he decided to go to Nineveh and warn their inhabitants of its coming destruction? Is it the rapid growth of the vine, followed by its immediate withering the next day? Is it Nineveh’s repentance of the entire population of Nineveh with its 120 000 people who were so far from knowing what’s good and what’s wrong that the Bible says that they couldn’t tell their right hand from their left? Or is it the whole book or history of Jonah?

If we consider that the definition of a sign is ‘a perceptible indication of something not immediately apparent’, maybe that the sign of Jonah is none of all these things but just the manifestation of God’s goodness, something that deeply saddened Jonah who was looking for justice, a pre-view of God’s promise of salvation for the whole fallen world.

Mat 12:38-40 sheds some light on this passage.
38 ¶ Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from You."
39 But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
40 "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Jesus makes it clear there that the sign of Jonas’ is a prophecy about Jesus’death and the three days He spent in Hades before His resurrection. And in Luk 11:29-30, Jesus calls Himself ‘a sign to his generation’, as Jonah was a sign for his one.

29 ¶ And while the crowds were thickly gathered together, He began to say, "This is an evil generation. It seeks a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet.
30 "For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation.

 Was it wrong to ask for a sign?

Obviously, Jesus was not happy with the request.

Mark 8:12 goes further:
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.” And he left them, and getting into the boat again he departed to the other side.

This Gospel doesn’t even mention the sign of Jonah. Jesus leaves without an answer. The Pharisees might have found it rude and could have accused Jesus of being in a bad mood. But we know that Jesus is not moody nor rude but that He knows the thoughts of the heart and the hidden intents of people; in that case, the Pharisees were not interested at anything else than accusing Him and in his wisdom, Jesus knew that it was better to keep silent. But there was more to all of this.

 A sign from heaven

Imagine someone asking for something he or her has already been given. People would say, “Open your eyes, you’ve already got it!” And if they insist, wouldn’t they become annoyed with this person? Jesus was the sign already given by God to that generation and the many miracles that occur in chapter 14 and 15 of the book of Matthew attest that, with the many healings that occur, as well as both the multiplication of the food with the 5000 men and the 4000 men. What were they still looking for it? And why did they ask for a sign from heaven? Obviously, they had missed all these signs that made people believe in Him, believe in who He was saying He was. They had not rejoiced with the healed people or with the well fed crowd. And also, you just don’t ask for a sign, it is rude! You wait for it and when it’s there, it is the time to open your eyes, not to close them. It would be like asking someone if she or he is a Christian after that person has performed a miracle in the name of Jesus. Wouldn’t it be weird to answer yes or no? And that‘s exactly what the Pharisees and the Sadducees did. No wonder why Jesus compared them to a blind leading a blind. They didn’t want to see the signs and the sign they were asking for was Jesus himself. When Jesus refers them to the sign of Jonas, He meant, “If you’ve missed ‘the sign’, then go to the previous one!”

There is a sign from heaven mentioned in 1Thes 4:16, the Lord himself descending from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. However, this was not yet the time for this to happen, and it hasn’t happened yet, 2000 years after Jesus death and resurrection. This sign is for another time, another dispensation. Jesus had to suffer and to die first and be resurrected of the third day. There was an agonising hour to go through, a cup of sorrow to drink, a crown of thorn to wear, a door to go through to be called the good shepherd and not a thief and a robber. When Satan tempted Jesus after his fast or through Peter’s human advice later, he wanted to lead Jesus away from his purpose of going through the cross. Jesus had already rebuked them and here again, this wicked generation asks for a sign coming from heaven, a sign that is supposed to make them see and believe without the need to have faith. This generation was wicked because they didn’t understand the need for salvation and God’s plan of redemption. God‘s plan was, “If you believe, you’ll be saved’. Faith came first.

Today, we are the signs for this generation; the glory of God veiled for still a little time in a perishable body. Like Jesus, who came into the flesh and was born in a stable from a poor family, our Christian lives are lived in humility and sometimes humiliation but always by faith. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were expecting a Messiah dressed in heavenly glory, a Messiah who would have delivered them from the Roman occupation and oppression, a Messiah who wouldn’t have challenged their unbelief and exposed their wickedness. They didn’t want to deal with their sin problem that was also, by the way, the reason for their political problems because hey thought they were healthy and didn’t need a saviour.

 Pharisees and Sadducees

Sadducees and Pharisees who requested the sign from heaven had never stopped testing and questioning Jesus. For example, they accused him of blasphemy when He forgave the sins of the paralytic, accused him of violating the Sabbath when He healed the dry hand, tested Him on the legitimacy of the tax to Caesar, and kept questioning Him on many topics. They wanted to find a reason to accuse him and eventually to kill him. The more they did so, the more numerous were the layers that hardened their hearts to the point that Jesus started speaking in parables to avoid being accused all the time. When Jesus was challenged, he would always send his accusers back to their hearts: “If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out? If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” And they had nothing to say. (Luke 14 5) The wrong understanding and use of the Law had destroyed the life itself in those who were supposed to teach it to the point that they did not recognise their God when Emmanuel, ‘God is with us’ came to live in their midst.

 To be religious versus to be holy

In Mat 15:3-9, Jesus touches the heart of the problem of the religious authorities when He accuses the Pharisees and scribes to void the word of God that is holy for the sake of their tradition.

Jesus presents the word of God, ‘Honour your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death’. It is the word of God and it is a command. The tradition has changed it in “If a man says to his father or mother, ‘whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God’, he is not to ‘honour his father’ with it.”

Jesus means ‘Here is your tradition. It is not the word of God anymore. You’ve changed it. You’ve changed it because you are hypocrites. You pretend to honour me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me.’

What are the differences between these 2 commandments?

In the first one, the real word of God, the word God is not mentioned. It is like with the book of Esther where the word ‘God’ is never mentioned. However, it is mentioned in what Jesus calls a tradition. They added the word God to God’s commandment.

Also, the first one involves people, love and respect for people. The second one involves people and God, but it lacks love and respect for people. It looks more holy and religious but God’s aim is betrayed by it. Hypocrites look religious, but in their hearts, hypocrisy reigns when love is absent. God never dissociates the love for God and the love for human being, in that case, parents. For Him, the love for your neighbour has an equal value than the love for God as He considers the two commands as similar. When tested again about the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,’ this is the first and the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ All the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” Mat 22:37-40.

 Conclusion

As Jonah was a sign for his generation and Jesus a sign for his generation, we are also today’s sign for our generation. And as we have been reminded this week in a 2 day course on Islam Sylvie and I attended, we are the only visible Bibles people around us can read. Whatever we do, whatever we are, let us be a light in this world of darkness, a sign that shows clearly to people the right direction towards the One who is the way, the truth and the life.

May God bless you.

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