At least on two separate occasions during His public ministry Jesus made the candid remark, “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.”
It bears the earmarks of a Mashal, that is, a proverb, or dark saying, frequently used in Scripture for the purpose of forcing itself upon the attention of the audience to set them to thinking, so that they cannot forget it and must ponder its significance, whether they will heed it or not.
Many times Jesus made use of the Mashal instead of speaking outright or ‘plainly’, as the disciples once remarked, “Now speakest Thou plainly, and speakest no proverb.”. One significant incident took place at the beginning of His public ministry when He answered the Scribes and Pharisees, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
The occasion was the cleansing of the temple at Jerusalem, when He drove out the buyers and the sellers, and the scribes and Pharisees asked Him for His credentials for assuming authority in the temple. They demanded a sign, and He answered them that they would destroy this temple, but in three days He would raise it up. After the resurrection the disciples understood that He had not spoken of the temple of stone, but of the temple of His body, which the Jews would crucify, but which He would raise from the dead on the third day.
Again the scribes and Pharisees ask for a sign, as they repeatedly did. And again, instead of giving them a visible, tangible evidence of His power and authority He sends them on their way pondering on the Mashal that refuses to be ignored. They go their way wondering about Jonah, that well known prophet of the past, who spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, and was spewed out again on dry land to be sent to preach to Nineveh. And again they are forced to consider the warning that when they break down His temple, He will build it up again. For Jesus gives His own interpretation of this Mashal by saying, “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”; .
That they could not erase this saying from their memories is evident from the fact that they petitioned Pilate to set a watch over His grave until the third day, because they remembered” that that deceived said, while He was yet alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’”
There is nothing strange about the mere fact that these Jews demand a sign. It was still the time of the old dispensation when God spoke to Israel through types and shadows, and by sign and wonders. Since the Holy Spirit was not yet poured out into the Church, they still had need to be taught by the outward sign. In the past others had asked for signs and had received them. Israel had received signs from Moses when he was sent to them by God to deliver them out of the bondage of Egypt. Gideon had received the sign of the fleece. Hezekiah received the sign on the sun-dial. It was even the expectation of the Jews of those days that when the Messiah would come He would make Himself known to them by signs and wonders. As the believing Jews in Jerusalem asked toward the close of Jesus’ ministry, “When the Christ cometh, will He do more miracles than which this man hath done?” They may well have based their expectation on the prophecy of Joel, “And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come.” Nor did Jesus disappoint the expectation of true Israel, for no one had ever seen the like of it. The blind received their sight, and the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, and the deaf heard, the dead were raised up, and the poor had the gospel preached to them.
Yet in spite of all these wonders which Jesus performed, the scribes and Pharisees still clamored for a sign. Not once, but repeatedly. In a deceitful cloak of sham-piety they ask at any and every occasion, “Master, we would have a sign of thee.” Once, according to Matthew 12, He had just given an amazing testimony of His power by casting a devil out of a man who was both blind and dumb. The people considered this sufficient evidence to declare Him to be the Christ by saying, “Is not this the son of David?” Which only served to stir up the ire of the scribes and Pharisees against Him, so that they accused Him of casting out devils in the name of Beelzebub, the prince of the devils. But Jesus, in turn, accused them of blasphemy, and therefore of being a party to the devils which He cast out. Whereupon they pretend to have a sudden change of heart and ask Him for a sign. If He is the Christ, let Him present His credentials.
Upon which Jesus responds by calling them an evil and adulterous generation. They are a troublesome, burdensome generation that is always out to offend the living God. Evil in all their thoughts and ways, they forsake the living God to go a whoring after vain Gods. As their fathers were, so are they, lovers of sin, forsakers of God, who have trodden His law under foot, broken His covenant and live in a spiritual fornication before His face. Always they clamor for a sign. But it must be a sign according to their own dictates. Seemingly they will believe, if He but grant them such a sign as they demand. In reality they are determined to reject any and every sign He might give. And if He dares to refuse they will brand Him as an imposter. To the clamoring of that generation there is but one answer: “no sign shall be given them, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.”
What sign could be more fitting? They knew the history well. Jonas had been born and reared among the ten tribes of Israel, of the tribe of Zebulun, during the days when God was about to visit apostate Israel with His judgments by banishing them into captivity. The God-fearing prophet, who seemingly had so much work to do among his own people, was suddenly called away to go to Nineveh to preach repentance. Jonah knew full well that God could have no other intention with sending him to Nineveh than to bring this heathen city to repentance and to the knowledge of salvation. Evidently God was about to turn to another people, which until now had been outside of the sphere of His covenant, with the sole purpose of taking them unto Himself as His people. What else could that mean than that the day of reckoning had come for the kingdom of Israel. God would turn away from them and cast them away forever. That seemed so entirely wrong to Jonah that He refused to obey and tried to run away. But God did not leave Jonah out of His sight. Jonah went to sea, but God followed him by sending a storm upon the sea which threatened to destroy the ship, its crew and passengers. He was thrown into the sea, yet God had prepared a special fish which was ready at that very moment to swallow him up. Jonah spent a living death in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Then the fish spewed him out on dry land, and went to Nineveh to preach, with the result that Nineveh repented in dust and ashes upon the preaching of Jonah, who had passed through death and lived,
How entirely proper it was, that this evil and adulterous generation should be reminded of Jonah as a type of Christ. They claimed to believe Moses and the prophets, let them, then, believe the sign of Jonah, the Old Testament type of the risen Lord. They would see before their own eyes the greater Jonah swallowed up by the power of death, bide his allotted time in the heart of the earth, to arise again in power on the third day. Unwittingly they would help to fulfill this prophecy. For with their own wicked hands they would take Him and crucify Him, casting Him into the sea of death, even while the storms of God’s judgments raged and surged about them. They would seal His grave with an iron chain and set a watch to hold Him there until the third day, and thereby they themselves would give evidence through the empty tomb that He was actually risen from the dead.
What greater sign could anyone ask? When Jesus goes to the cross He presents His credentials before the eyes of the whole world as the Christ Who is sent of God. He is powerfully proven to be the Son of God through the resurrection from the dead,. He showed Himself to be the Resurrection and the Life, for He willfully entered into our death, spiritually already on the cross in the body of the flesh, and afterward He gave Himself into the bonds of physical death to be laid away in the grave. God spoke from heaven with mighty signs and wonders while He hung on the cross and when He gave up the ghost. It was the time of blood and fire and pillars of smoke, of which Joel had spoken. God laid His divine seal upon His finished work of the cross by raising Him from the dead on the third day “according to the Scriptures.”
If this evil and adulterous generation actually believes Moses and the prophets, let them take note. For the greater Jonah will continue to witness from heaven as the risen Lord. He will pour out His Spirit upon His disciples on the day of Pentecost. He will send them out to preach the gospel to all nations, in order to provoke Israel to jealousy by them that are no people, and by a foolish nation He will anger them. Nineveh repented on the preaching of Jonah, but Christ will witness through His apostles of His cross and resurrection, the fulfillment of all the promises spoken by the fathers. The Jews will continue to clamor for a sign and the Greeks will seek after wisdom, but Christ’s servants will preach Christ crucified, “unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God,”.
An entirely proper sign. Yet just because it is so entirely proper, that wicked generation is bound to reject it. Already by demanding a sign they show the rebellious wickedness of their hearts. Already they are prepared to reject the testimony of Jonah. Already they declare Christ accursed of God, worthy to be condemned to the death of the cross, and already they are preparing to say that the disciples came at night and stole His body while the guard slept. Therefore this sign must serve as a greater condemnation to them. The men of Nineveh will arise in judgment against them in that Great Day and condemn them. These men of Nineveh experienced a godly sorrow that works repentance unto salvation, upon the preaching of Jonah. They will stand with the righteous when Christ and His saints appear to judge the world. They will call that evil generation to trial, accuse and condemn them. It will be more tolerable in that day for Tyre and Sidon, and for Sodom and Gomorrah than for them. For they will stand guilty of despising the blood of the New Testament and of crucifying the Lord of Glory.
Nor will it ever be different. That evil and adulterous generation within the church always clamors for a sign. They prefer outward emotionalism to the inward working of the Spirit. They demand stirring signs and wonders, altar calls and saw-dust trails, instead of the “dry” preaching of the Word. They prefer a diet of water because they cannot digest the unadulterated milk of the Gospel. They will believe if only the church will cater to their carnal whims. For them there is but one sign, the sign of Jonas, the prophet; but one message, the preaching of the Word of the Cross, which is the one and only power unto salvation.
That generation, unless it repents, is bound to reject it. If they will not believe Moses and the prophets, they will not believe, no, not if Christ personally arises from the dead to witness of His power. Even while they clamor for a sign they are busy crucifying the Christ and endeavoring to undermine God’s Church. But they shall never succeed. For through it all God works His work. He gathers His own unto Himself from generation to generation until the fullness of the elect is gathered in.
Let the Church be on the alert, determined to preach nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. “For more than Jonas is here.”