Signs from Heaven and the Way to Be Saved: Jesus and the Pharisees’ Demand for a Sign

The Pharisees and Sadducees approached, and as a test, asked Him to show them a sign from heaven.

He answered them: “When evening comes you say, ‘It will be good weather because the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘Today will be stormy because the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to read the appearance of the sky, but you can’t read the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then He left them and went away.

The disciples reached the other shore, and they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus told them, “Watch out and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

And they discussed among themselves, “We didn’t bring any bread.”

Aware of this, Jesus said, “You of little faith! Why are you discussing among yourselves that you do not have bread? Don’t you understand yet? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the 5,000 and how many baskets you collected? Or the seven loaves for the 4,000 and how many large baskets you collected? Why is it you don’t understand that when I told you, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees,’ it wasn’t about bread?”

Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the yeast in bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:1–12)

When Jesus returned to Jewish Galilee from the Decapolis, having fed the four thousand Gentiles there, he was immediately accosted by religious leaders wanting to see him do “a sign from heaven.”

As pious as that request might sound, it was actually quite the opposite. As Matthew clearly tells us, their intent was to test Jesus. They had already seen plenty of miracles — but they had concluded those miracles might well be demonic in nature, “signs in the earth,” if you will. They wanted to see signs “from heaven” — something unmistakably divine, an immediate answer to prayer that would stamp Jesus indelibly as coming from God.

They wanted Elijah’s fire from heaven, Joshua’s stopping of the sun, Moses’s 24-hour darkness in Egypt. They wanted to see sun, moon, and stars fall in line.

Even though their request wasn’t genuine, it tells us what these religious leaders expected from the real Messiah. He would come with shows of power that expressed God’s wrath and judgment on the wicked. The Messiah would be like a second Moses during the time of the ten plagues, wreaking havoc on “Egypt” (in their case, Rome) with cataclysmic signs in the heavens.

To use the image employed by Jesus in his response, if Jesus was really the Messiah, the religious leaders expected him to bring a storm.

A Red Sky in the Evening

Of course, these men didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah, or could do any such signs — and they probably left this conversation feeling confirmed in that opinion. When Jesus refused to play along with their expectations, they assumed that he did not do a sign because he could not. He was therefore not from God, and his other miracles were demonic in nature as they suspected.

But as Jesus’s reply to them suggested, they didn’t understand God’s timing. Jesus had brought a “red sky in the evening” — signs of God’s favor, of healing and deliverance, of help for the poor, of restoration and liberty. He did indeed come as a second Moses, but not as Moses the plague-bearer, summoning the angel of death: he came as Moses the Lawgiver, feeding the people in the wilderness and teaching them true righteousness. He came as the heir of David, but not as David the warmonger: he came as the Shepherd tending his sheep and as David the homeless deliverer, the champion driving out the real oppressors of the people — the powers of sin and Satan.

Like Jonah on the shores of Nineveh, Jesus came not to bring wrath, but to offer unlooked-for grace. He came offering repentance and healing to those who needed it.

And if the Pharisees and Sadducees had only understood that, they would have responded to Jesus’s signs by humbling themselves and getting their hearts right with God. The problem was they didn’t think they needed to.

That, in the end, was the real irony. In pushing Jesus to show signs of God’s judgment, they assumed they were already on the right side and that judgment would vindicate them.

They would have been wise to listen to the prophets. Over seven hundred years before Jesus’s time, the prophet Amos warned:

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
For what good is the day of the LORD to you?
It will be darkness, and not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion,
And a bear met him!
Or as though he went into the house,
Leaned his hand on the wall,
And a serpent bit him!
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light?
Is it not very dark, with no brightness in it?
(Amos 5:18-20)

Evil and Adulterous

Rather than allow them to continue in their delusion, Jesus refused them the sign they wanted, and he called out their sin: they were “an evil and adulterous generation.”

The word he used for “evil” is the same used to describe the devil as “the evil one” in the Lord’s Prayer. It describes something bad — corrupt and rotten, gone bad, as is the case with every bad thing in the world.

Since God creates all things good, for something to be bad means it has become corrupt, corroded, degraded from its original state. They desperately needed to be restored and forgiven, and the one whose “fair weather” signs were healing and forgiveness had exactly what they needed.

But for the most part, they refused to listen.

“You of Little Faith”

Knowing that the religious leaders would not respond, Jesus left them. He and his disciples pushed off for another shore, and Jesus warned his disciples to beware of the “leaven” — the yeast — of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

His disciples’ response may not look immediately wrong to us. They realized they’d forgotten to bring bread with them — evidently something they were responsible for — and they thought Jesus was passive-aggressively notifying them of the fact. They began discussing the problem amongst themselves, apparently trying to figure out a solution.

But Jesus called them out for their lack of faith, which operates on two levels in this story.

There was their evident lack of faith in the power and will of Jesus to provide for them, which he pointed out by reminding them that he had just personally fed two enormous crowds essentially out of thin air.

But there was also their total missing of Jesus’s priorities. They had forgotten to bring bread, and he didn’t care — his heart and mind were still on the religious leaders and the condition of their hearts, not on whether his disciples were nailing their day-to-day responsibilities. Their minds were a million miles away from his.

In reminding them of his great feeding miracles and the “baskets they took up,” with all of their startling symbolic numbers, he called them back to the epic story they were living out — the reality that risked being choked out by the cares of this world. His rebuke was fitting, gentle, and a little sad — “You of little faith.”

D.A. Carson, in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, writes:

“Jesus’ charge against the disciples ran deep. He had already denounced the Pharisees and Sadducees for their particular ‘teaching’ that demanded manipulative signs and for their unbelief in spite of the bountiful evidence already supplied. Now the disciples are perilously close to the same unbelief in Jesus’ person and miracles. The miracles Jesus performs, unlike the signs the Pharisees demand, do not compel faith; but those with faith will perceive their significance.”

In Jesus’s clarification, that he was speaking about the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the warning had less to do with specific doctrines and more to do with the conditions of the heart. In fact, the Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed on major doctrinal points and were, in general, enemies — it seems only their mutual hatred and rejection of Jesus was enough to unite them.

In Luke 12:1, Jesus defined the “leaven of the Pharisees” as hypocrisy. To say one thing and live another drives us to hardness and blindness. It infects even the truth we know and makes us “evil and adulterous.”

In Jesus’s day, the religious leaders of Israel were his most outspoken and active enemies. Yet, I don’t believe the gospel writers recorded so many interactions with them, in such great detail, simply to explain why Jesus ended up at odds with them.

Rather, Matthew and the others paint vivid pictures of the Pharisees and Sadducees — “spiritual,” conservative, biblically learned people who assumed God was on their side — because there is always a danger that we will become them.

Jesus’s disciples needed to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees because it could infect them too.

The Pharisees give us an example of a very real phenomenon: that it is possible to do all the “right” religious things and say all the “right” religious things, to believe them intellectually and even to act on them, and yet still be blind and hard and dead when it comes to God and his work and will in the world. It is true that there are people whose whole lives appear to revolve around God, the things of God, what we might call “religion,” and yet whose hearts are far from him. Pride and hypocrisy go hand-in-hand; they are the most dangerous of sins, because they refuse to ask for help or believe that they need it.

That the Pharisees and Sadducees were community leaders gives another dimension to the seriousness of the warning. They had become infected, and they were in a position to spread the infection.

In Proverbs 4, we are told to guard our hearts with all diligence, for out of them flow the wellsprings of life. This is the warning Jesus gave his disciples, and the warning he gives us — our hearts matter.

In our day, many people are watching for signs of Christ’s return, and most who do so assume that he will be on their side when he comes. Many others are distracted, wondering if they’ve brought enough bread and how they’re going to get through another day. But it would benefit all of us to think about the multitudes Jesus fed and the baskets his disciples took up. It would benefit all of us to remember that Jesus has come to feed us, and that we are hungry; that he came to call together a people, and we need to respond to his call; that he came to restore the rotten and forgive the adulterous, and we need his cleansing and his deliverance.

Jesus brought a red sky in evening, and today is still the day of salvation. We are still in the world as Ninevites, with the way of salvation open to us. But as Jesus also indicated, the way will eventually close — the day will end, and the morning will bring darkness.

Repentance and faith are not difficult or beyond anyone’s reach. The Pharisees and Sadducees could have availed themselves of the way of salvation at any time — and by the grace of God, some eventually did.

They simply needed to humble themselves. They simply needed to respond to Jesus. Not to test him, not to manipulate him, not to control him, not to judge him — but to respond to him.

It’s no different for us. Jesus’s call has not changed. The way is the same.

The question is whether we will take it.

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This is Part 238 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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