The Trouble With Signs (1): The Sign of Jonah
April 12, 2015
Intro – The first time I was ever in Boston I quickly found a great difference between there and where I lived in SoCal. In SoCal, if you want to go to Disneyland or Sea World, you don’t need GPS. Signs from LA to San Diego point you exactly where you need to go. The closer you get, the closer and bigger the signs. We’d just tell out-of-town friends, “Follow the signs.”
Believe me, it’s not like that in Boston. I wanted to find the historical places -- Boston Tea Party – Old North Church. Drove for hours, finally had to ask! Eventually found one tiny sign that announced that the Boston Tea Party happened here in Dec 16, 1773. Finally found a sign for the Old North Church one block away. No wonder you couldn’t find it. If you hung a lantern today, the only people who would see it are the people in the high rise across the street. Years later I was looking for Winter Street. I found Summer Street on the Boston Common so I parked knowing Winter had to be close by, but after 2 hrs searching, finally had to ask. I was told, “Just go down Summer for 2 blocks; it turns into Winter! Summer turns into Winter! Who knew?!
I learned signs are not always dependable. And what is true physically is true spiritually as well. Signs are not dependable. Yet, thousands of people today worship at the cult of the spectacular. Looking for signs – signs to show God is real; to produce a tingly feeling; to meet my personal selfish desires. Signs have become 21st century idols. Faith depends on God producing on demand some flashy, awe-inspiring miracle, and without signs people get insecure, frustrated and helpless. Samuel Goldwyn once expressed his philosophy of film-making, “I want a film that begins with an earthquake and works up to a climax.” That’s how some people look at XN faith. We’ve made idols of miracles and are operating outside of God’s purpose for our time and place.
Does that mean God never does miracles? Not at all. He makes new creations of repentant, broken people every day. There is no greater miracle than that. Furthermore, He acts providentially, within the laws of nature, every day, fulfilling His promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” We can never limit God. But miracles which set aside nature’s laws are not a major part of His plan for here and now for reasons we will see. In all of history, there have only been 3 times when nature-bending miracles were a major factor in God’s plan. The first was when the Israelites were released from Egypt. In that spectacular preview of redemption, God revealed His power in mighty ways over a short period of time to effect the release of His people. But remember, for the next several hundred years, God referred Israel back to those signs. He did not make a bunch of new ones!The second great period of such miracles was during the time of Elijah and Elisha as God unleashed His power to encourage His people from idolatry. The third period of miracles was in Christ’s time and the early days of the apostolic era. The power of God was seen then as never before or since. But other than those periods, miracles have been seldom and random – not the norm.
Why? First, God prizes faith over certainty. In fact, He demands it. Miracles on demand fly in the face of that principle. Second, the cure for unbelief is not signs; it is the Word. That’s how He wants to capture our hearts. It is the Word that is “living and active sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12). Paul says in Rom 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ”, not the miracles of Christ. Those will be plentiful in our future. Yes, they will. But it is to His Word that God points us for now. He desires those who love and trust Him for Himself, not for His blessings.
There are no shortcuts to spiritual maturity. Faith grows proportionately to our time spent with Him in His Word and in prayer. Signs are not dependable as foundations of faith; the Word is.
That is the message of our text. The background goes all the way back to Luke 11:14, “Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled.” Jesus has performed a marvelous miracle, healing a mute (and Mt 12:22 tells us, blind) man who was demonized. Many marveled. But not all. His increasing opposition accused Him of operating by Satan’s power (15) – a charge Jesus answers in vv. 17-28. Others (v. 16) were still on the fence. So they, “to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven.” He deals with that demand beginning in v. 29. Four very helpful principles about signs come from His answer.
I. One Sign is Never Enough
Faith that results from signs always needs another sign. That’s because such faith is focused on the sign, not on the reality. It’s like someone following the signs down the freeway to Disneyland. They can become so focused on the signs that they miss the mighty Matterhorn outside the right side of the car. That’s the problem with signs. Faith is placed in signs, not the Savior!
We see this in v. 16. Jesus has just restored the blind, mute man to perfect health and “the people marveled” (v. 14). Yet v. 16 tells us, “while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven.” Despite the marvel they’d just seen; despite miracles all over Galilee, including raising dead people, these demand more. Faith based on signs always needs just one more! Know why? It worships the miracle rather than the miracle-giver.
Jesus had an opinion about sign-seekers in v. 29: “When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Here’s some of the most morally upright people of their time, but Jesus calls them evil. It’s the same word He uses to speak of Satan as the “evil” one. They’ve accused Him of being in league with Satan; now he turns the tables suggesting it is they who are evil as Satan. He sees the heart of unbelief at the root of the request. He knows faith built on signs isn’t faith at all. He’s seen it all before.
After Israel was freed from bondage in Egypt, Moses sent spies to look things over in Canaan. Two of them, (Caleb and Joshua) return saying, “Wow! God is good. This land flows with abundance. Yes, there are some powerful tribes there, but God has removed their protection. Let’s go take it.” But the other 10 thought otherwise: “Hey, there are some tall dudes over there – fearsome! It seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them. (Num 13:33). It would be a suicide mission to go there!” Guess who the people sided with? Num 14:2 “And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!” Remember, these people had seen the greatest array of miracles of anyone in history. They’d seen God demolish the greatest army on earth just to protect them. These people knew miracles. The problem was they didn’t know the miracle-maker! God says in v. 11, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” Jesus had seen it all before. When faith is based on signs, there is always a need for one more.
Jesus saw it in His own time. He’d fed 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. So they all believed, right? Came to faith in Christ? I wish. Next day they are looking for more food, but Jesus challenges them in Jn 6:27 “27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Believe in me. Have faith in me. So they do, right? Well not quite. V. 30: “So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?” What sign?! I just fed 5,000 of you yesterday out of nothing. What sign? Do you see, Beloved, one sign is never enough. The sad end to this story is in v. 66: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” Faith that is dependent on signs is not true faith. It worships the miracle. Pray for the miracle – yes! But trust in the miracle-worker – whatever the result! Check out Daniel 3 to see an example. I’ve known Christians who live completely defeated lives because they didn’t get their miracle this week, or they didn’t get the one they wanted. The trouble with signs is, it always takes just one more.
II. The Ultimate Sign Has Already Been Given
In vv. 29-36, Jesus specifically answers the demand that He give another sign. In the first part, 29-32, He identifies two witnesses who will testify against His audience at the final judgment. These are the most moral, upright, self-righteous people on the planet at the time of Christ, but in rebelling against Him they are the ultimate in wickedness. Two non-Jewish, pagan witnesses will put them to shame – the people of Israel’s arch enemy – Nineveh, and the Queen of Sheba. Each teaches a different lesson about signs and belief. From Jonah – the ultimate sign has already been given.
29 “When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Their demand for a sign implied Jesus hadn’t done enough, that He was to blame for their rejection – because he didn’t perform to their expectations! It’s a wicked request because it comes from a heart of rebellion.
Jesus quickly lets them know, He doesn’t answer to them; they answer to Him. He tells them “no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So, what is the sign of Jonah? Some have pointed to v. 32, “for they [Ninevites] repented at the preaching of Jonah” and suggested that the sign of Jonah was his preaching. Jesus’ point was the Ninevites repented with no sign at all except Jonah’s preaching. Thus the repentant Gentiles will condemn these spectacle-seeking Jews who refuse to believe despite incredible signs. And all of that is true – but the sign of Jonah has much deeper meaning than that.
Several things suggest this. First, the word “sign” inevitably refers to a miracle in the Bible. Preaching is an act, not a sign. Second, the sign is Jonah himself, not just his preaching. And Jesus’ ultimate sign is Himself, not just His preaching. V. 30: “For as Jonah [person, not preaching] became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” Third, when we compare with other Scripture the situation becomes crystal clear. Matt tells us exactly how Jonah became a sign. Mt 12:40: “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.” That removes all ambiguity. Jonah’s 3 days in the belly of the fish are a type or preview of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jonah’s experience pointed forward to that.
It differed, of course, because according to v. 32, “something greater than Jonah is here.” That something is actually some one! And that someone greater is Jesus. Jonah nearly died; Jesus actually died. Jonah retained a life that appeared lost; Jesus regained a life that was lost. Jonah’s experience saved the physical lives of the sailors. Jesus’s death and resurrection provides spiritual salvation for anyone who will believe. His death and resurrection paid the price for the sins of the Ninevites who repented at Jonah’s message, as well as for anyone, anytime, anywhere who will believe.
Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites. He preached that judgment was coming in 40 days if they did not repent. And he no doubt told them he had been saved after 3 days in the belly of the whale when he repented, the only means of avoiding judgment. Having heard (faith by hearing), but not having seen that sign, these pagans repented. But Jesus’ audience, having full exposure to God’s revelation in the OT and having seen numerous signs, and having yet in their future the ultimate sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection, were obstinate in their unbelief. No wonder the Ninevites will one day witness against them.
From the beginning of His ministry, Jesus saw His death and resurrection as the ultimate sign. When He drove the swindlers out of the temple early in His first visit, we read in John 2:18-20, “So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body.” A new day has arrived. The temple, the place where God meets man, is no longer the physical building; it is now the person of Christ. This is a stupendous change. Neither the people nor Jesus’ disciples understood that yet. But: 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
Jesus points to that ultimate sign that Jonah’s experience prefigured as the one last chance these people would have. It was coming soon. Did any of them come to faith as a result? Maybe. Many believed in the early chapters of Acts. But what about us? Jesus’ passion is a clear reality to us. It’s now actually happened. And the question for us as for them is what have you done with Jesus Christ? He can give no greater evidence of His Person and work than He has already given. It makes all other signs passé. It is the resurrection of Jesus that is ultimate. Thus Paul says in Rom 10:9, “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The trouble with seeking further signs is that the ultimate sign has already been given. Reject it and hope is gone.
Conc – A little boy, Sammy, was sobbing in his room one night. He had swallowed a penny and was sure he was going to die. Thinking quickly, Dad palmed a penny from his pocket and pretended to pull it from Sammy’s ear. Sammy was convinced. In a flash, he snatched the penny from his father’s hand, swallowed it and demanded, “Do it again, Dad!” That’s what sign-seekers do – say to God, “Prove yourself. Do it again. Do it for me!” God’s definitive answer is, “Look at the cross, and then look at the empty tomb. I’ve done all I can do. It’s now over to you. Believe, or die in your sins.”
Josh McDowell entered college looking for a good time. He’d given up on religion long ago. But he was invited to a Bible study. He asked a young lady, “What do you talk about?” “Jesus Christ.” “Oh, don’t give me that garbage about religion.” She replied, “I didn’t say religion; I said Jesus Christ.” The group suggested he examine the claims of Christ and the evidence supporting Christianity. McDowell took it as a challenge, figuring that if he could disprove the resurrection of Jesus, it was all down the drain. The evidence he found became the basis for the great apologetic book of my generation, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. McDowell found that rather than disprove the resurrection, the evidence all pointed to its validity.
The greatest evidence is the apostle themselves. Eleven ordinary men, scared spitless when Jesus was crucified, thinking it was all over. Yet all eventually gave their lives, alone in far-flung places, preaching the resurrection. No one dies for a lie, and these guys were in a position to know for sure. They didn’t die for a lie. When asked why he became a believer, Josh McDowell answered, “For a very simple reason. I am not able to explain away an event in history – the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” That is the sign that counts, Beloved. It is the one that will eventually save or condemn every person who ever lived. I beg you – let it be the thing that saves you. Let’s pray.