MATTHEW 12:38-39a
Sign Mongers
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

Matt. 12:38 (Holman) Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him,
“Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.”

“Then” was immediately after the miraculous, public, undeniable healing of a demon-possessed man, and after a debate the Pharisees miserably lost. Smarting from the widely seen miracle and from their verbal defeat, they altered the playing field, and attacked Jesus from a different direction. They changed the subject.
“Teacher,” they hypocritically said. The word was respectful, but their hearts were treacherous. They had already decided His power was from the Devil.

Matthew 12:39a But He answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign,”

Jesus’ reply may seem a bit harsh. Christianity is a religion of miracles. Its history is replete with signs. The Bible, in itself a record of many miracles, shows God obviously grants signs. Yet according to our text, He also denies wonders.

This paradox presents us with a dilemma. If a miracle-working God exists, and belief in Him is required for us to go to Heaven, why doesn’t He give everybody whatever sign they want to remove all doubt in Him? Why doesn’t He regularly interrupt the natural order, write in the Heavens, or trumpet His voice?
One, God will not cowtow to evil people. Adulterous here refers to people disloyal to God. The Bible teaches us God’s people are married to Him. He is our Husband, we are His bride. When unfaithful to Him, we violate our marriage vow.
The wicked demand from God; the humble request of Him. Attitude makes all the difference. Jesus helps the faith of all who yearn for Him and love Him, but the obstinate are not regarded. The Pharisees had no intention of believing. They wanted not a sign to believe in, but a failure to disbelieve in. Sinful people need not more light, but sight; not more evidence, but faith in evidence already given.
Ingratitude is a sin, and too often people are ungrateful for the abundance of evidence granted in the past. Why should Jesus grant sinners more signs when they are not thankful for, and have not believed in, the ones He has already given?
A common offshoot of ingratitude is insolence, sinners commanding God how He should act. They insist the Sovereign of the cosmos, at their bidding, do something big, stupefying; something quickly, now; something here, at this place.
This is unspeakable presumption. Not even Elijah on Mt. Carmel, in one of the most amazing miracles of history, presumed to tell God what to do. “Today let it be known that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that at Your word I have done all these things” (1 Kings 18:36b). Calling down fire from Heaven was not Elijah’s idea. He was responding to what God had told him to do.
Two, an abundance of miracles would undermine their effect. Their power to influence lies in rarity, not large numbers. Wonders weaken as they multiply. If Halley’s Comet appeared every month, it would soon cease to be a phenomenon.
God does sometimes grant signs to bolster weak faith, but miracles are not His ordinary way of dealing with people. Miracles are the exception, not the rule.
Even the many miracles recorded in the Bible, when spread out over the 1400 years it covers, reveal few miracles happened on average annually. The Bible’s mightiest believers are recorded on average as doing few signs per year.
Three, more miracles would not convince unbelievers. Due to God’s grace, the Pharisees’ request had been granted before they asked. Nicodemus, one of their own, had told Jesus, “We know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him” (JN 3:2).
Some say they would believe if they had more evidence, but Pharaoh saw several of history’s most astounding miracles, yet did not believe. In fact, each miracle made his heart increasingly resist God. Had Jesus performed a miracle, however marvelous it had been, the Pharisees would have ascribed it to Satan.
What would it take to convince the obstinate? James Montgomery Boice’s answer is a classic. “Even if God rearranged the very stars of Heaven to read, ‘Jesus is My Son with whom I am well pleased; believe Him,’ people would look at the stars, scratch their heads, and say, ‘Isn’t that unusual? I wonder how the stars managed to rearrange themselves that way.’” They would obsess more over the method and mechanics of the miracle, than over the meaning of the message.
However powerful a miracle Jesus performed for skeptics today, many would call it ordinary and demand a more fantastic one. For those who require a miracle to have faith, the ounce of amazement given to them must ever be increased to satisfy their ever growing audacity.
Four, miracles emphasize the physical, not the spiritual. When investigating the truth of Christianity, the seeker must have spiritual discernment. Our faith ultimately is born and expressed in the spiritual dimension, not the physical.
Sensationalism is not a firm foundation for belief. Faith, trust, repentance, and other inner traits, are the necessary building blocks.
A hyper-emphasis on miracles puts the emphasis in Christianity on externals rather than internals. Events become more important than truths. Forms outshine principles. The temporary overshadows the eternal.
God is more into relationships than into signs and wonders. He emphasizes inward communion with us. Jesus wants us to love Him for who He is, for what He did in our behalf at Calvary.
Why won’t God do miracles on demand? He won’t cowtow to evil people. An abundance of miracles would undermine their effect. More miracles would not convince unbelievers. Miracles emphasize the physical, not the spiritual.
What does this all mean for unbelievers today? Don’t wait till after the show to get saved. There probably won’t be a show.
Jesus refused to use miracles to win His hometown neighbors in Nazareth (Luke 4:23). When on trial before Herod, Jesus, even to save His own life, would not oblige the ruler by performing a miracle (Luke 23:8).
The religious leaders taunted Jesus on the cross, “He saved others, but He cannot save Himself! He is the King of Israel! Let Him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in Him” (Matthew 27:42). Be thankful Jesus didn’t do this. Had He come down from the cross we would have a magician, but no Savior.
For sinners, Jesus died on the cross, rose from the dead, and appeared to at least 500 eyewitnesses. God has done enough to bolster faith in sincere seekers.
What does this all mean for believers today? Beware the danger of coveting the miraculous in Christianity. We often want to see God in the abnormal, but He wants us to see and enjoy Him in the normal. Jesus loves to deal with us in the ordinary, everyday, mundane details of life.
Pray God will curb our lust for the marvelous. Having given this warning, I also admit the Bible leaves the door ajar for us to ask for Jesus’ miraculous help. God will not let miracles be the basis of faith, but will let them aid weak faith.
When Moses was struggling with God’s call on his life, YHWH had him throw down his rod and turned it into a snake. God then had Moses put his hand inside his cloak, made it leprous, and then healed the disease (Exodus 4:1-8).
For Gideon, God let the fleece be wet when the ground was dry, and then let the fleece be dry when the ground was wet (Judges 6:36-40).
God wants us to trust Him due to Who He is and what He did for us on the cross, due to the life He imparts to us and shares with us. But the Lord knows our frailty. He realizes there will be times when we want a helpful sign. This need for a miracle should not be the norm in our lives, but we are not forbidden to seek it. I often pray the Psalmist’s prayer, “Show me a sign of Your goodness” (86:17a).