Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just 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. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
Understanding And Applying the Text
The Pharisees seem to have thrown a temper tantrum. Jesus had called them out for their hypocrisy. What was their response? “Yeah, well who died and made you king?” They responded like little children. They wanted a sign. They wanted evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. (FYI no one needed to die for Jesus to be King. He is, always was, and always will be King.)
We are never called to a blind faith. We should have reasons for our faith. And the Pharisees’ request could have been justified. Except for one very important fact. Jesus had already given several signs. And they had refused them all.
In the immediate context, He had cast out a demon from a man. As a result, his blindness and muteness left. They saw it! They were witnesses. They could not deny it. Their response? Jesus was in league with the devil. Jesus called them out for their blaspheme.
But they wanted a miracle on their terms. They wanted to determine what, where, and when. They would decide if it was good enough. They wanted to dictate to God the appropriateness of the miracle. So what sign would they want? Jesus healed the sick. He cast out demons. He fed the multitudes. Blind men saw. Lame men walked. He raised the dead. The deaf heard. What was left? The signs were all around. They chose to ignore them.
Christ called them an evil and adulterous generation. They suffered under a hereditary disease of obstinacy. They professed God to be their husband. But they loved the world rather than God. They had degenerated from the holy fathers. They were not true descendants of Abraham. They were the children of Canaan.
Asking for a sign was not, and is not a sin. Many men have asked for a sign. And God has granted their request. Gideon asked for two signs. And God granted them. Hezekiah did not ask for a sign. But God granted him one anyway. (Isaiah 38:7.) Isaiah rebuked Ahaz for refusing to ask for a sign. (Isaiah 7:11.) So asking for a sign was not the problem. The problem was no sign would suffice. This request was a smokescreen.
Christ told the Pharisees they would only get one sign. That was His resurrection. He used the stories of Jonah and Solomon to drive home His point. We must be careful not to make too strong of a connection between Jonah and Jesus. Christ makes only one. That one is Jonah was in the belly of the fish for 3 days and nights. Christ will be in the earth for 3 days and nights. We must take care not to go beyond what Christ says.
Let me take a side trip here. Christ said the Son of Man would “be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Many have objected to this. They claim Jesus was not dead for three days and nights. That misunderstanding comes from forcing a modern understanding into the biblical text. One of the basic principles of hermeneutics is understanding the historical context. We understand day and night as 24 hours. The ancients did not understand it that way. The eastern nations counted any part of a day for the whole day. Jesus died on Friday. That was day one. Saturday was day 2. He rose on Sunday. That was day three. We would count it as only two days. Friday to Saturday day 1 and Saturday to Sunday. That was day 2. It is a different way of counting days. What about nights? There was Friday night and Saturday night. That is only two nights, not three. Again we must apply basic the principles of hermeneutics. What was the original author’s intent to the original audience? To say something happened after three days and three nights was the same, as saying it happened on the third day. (See Esther 4:16; Esther 5:1; Genesis 7:4, Genesis 7:12; Exodus 24:18; Exodus 34:28. Jon 2:1.)
Let’s return to the text.
Christ told the Pharisees the Ninevites would rise up in judgment against them. The Ninevites had never heard a prophet from God. Jonah had no status with them. They had every reason to reject Jonah. He was a foreigner with a strange message.
But the Jews had the word of God. They had the prophets. They were proud of it. They boasted about it. But it was their pride that kept them from seeing the Messiah. Even as they waited for Him. They believed they knew what the Messiah was. He fit into their nationalistic dreams. In other words, their Messiah served them.
Jesus condemned the Jews, but we are worse. We are worse than all the unbelievers that have come before us. The Jews rejected Jesus as a man. Christ addresses us from heaven, not as a man but as God. Yet we refuse to obey him. We acknowledge Christ as a great teacher. But we ignore His teaching.
It was not so with the men of Nineveh. God warned them through Jonah. And they repented.