A sign of the times — Matthew 16:1–4

The surprise of Jesus — part 1

40 blogs of Lent — day 20

Red sky at night, Shepherds’ delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning.

I have heard this little rhyme from my youth. The people who taught it to me probably had no idea that it is based on a saying of Jesus in the Bible, but here it is:

Ibiza sunset

And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.

Matthew 16:1–4 ESV UK

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice there is a scene where King Herod taunts Jesus, singing:

So if You are the Christ
You’re the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that You’re no fool
Walk across my swimming pool

© The Really Useful Group Ltd.

I have heard Christians complain that the song is blasphemous, but as the Gospels say that Herod taunted Jesus I think that the musical got the tone just right. The attitude of the Pharisees and Sadducees in this passage comes over the same way to me, innocent on the surface but hiding a threat behind the jovial facade.

After the miracle comes opposition. In Matthew and Mark Jesus crosses the lake back into Jewish territory and is met by the Pharisees and Sadducees asking for a sign. John’s gospel does not have the feeding of the 4000, but after Jesus crosses the lake following the feeding of the 5000 he gets the same response, people asking for a miracle.

There is a difference between trusting Jesus and tempting Jesus. Jesus is shown to be moved with compassion on the crowds before he heals them or miraculously provides food. Here there is no need, just a desire to be entertained. The inclusion of the Sadducees for the first time in Matthew’s Gospel is ominous. They held the power as religious and political leaders, being the sect that tan the Temple. The High Priests were Sadducees. The opposition to Jesus by the Jewish authorities has stepped up another notch.

Jesus spoke about the weather to reveal the dishonesty in his opponents position, they could interpret the evidence they saw in nature but refused to examining the evidence in front of them. Like the people of Nazareth, the Pharisees and Sadducees had already made up their mind about Jesus, no miracle that they saw would change their mind: They could not believe because they would not believe.

Jesus told them the only sign he would give the unbelieving religious leaders was the sign of Jonah. This in context the last time he said it was about his death and rising three years later. That is also true here, but there is a further dimension. Jonah preached to Nineveh, not only a pagan country, but the capital city of Assyria, the country at war with his country Israel. Nineveh repented, but at that time there was apostasy In Israel. People who were supposed to be God’s People were turning from God while the pagans were turning to God. The sign of Jonah was already happening in front of the Pharisees and Sadducees, but they were unable to see it.

What I am asking for in these blogs is for an open mind, for people to examine the evidence without prejudice. Think about who Jesus says he is from evidence of what the Gospel writers said and what Christians say about what Jesus means to them.


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