“As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, ‘This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah.’”
The main issue in this verse is the identification of the “sign of Jonah.” The phrase is used in Matthew 12:39 and 16:4, although in 16:4, Jesus doesn’t elaborate on the phrase—he simply walks away from the crowd. It is apparent from these passages and others (Mark 8:11; John 2:18; 4:48; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:22)) that the people to whom Jesus ministered were seldom willing to take Jesus at his word. The depth of their disbelief was such that even miracles, which they had either seen or about which they had heard, required some secondary sign as evidence that he was whom he claimed (Matthew 12:22; Luke 16:14-16). No wonder he viewed the generation of his time as evil, wicked, and adulterous. But we should not be too quick to judge them as inferior or more perverse. “Prove it!” or “Give me some extra-biblical evidence to support what the Bible says.” rings often in the ears of many who witness on behalf of the Lord. The problem both then and now is, therefore, not one of credible evidence, but one of incredible unbelief—no sign would have been good enough and Jesus was not about to give them one, except the sign of Jonah, the Sign among many signs.
Basically, the identification of the sign goes in one of two directions. If Matthew 12:40 is considered a late typological addition to the text, the tendency is to understand the sign as “the preaching of repentance.” However, if 12:40 is authentic, that is, not typology, (“Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”), it properly compares to Luke’s less specific comment in 11:30 (“For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so shall the Son of Man be to this generation.”). Note that the sign in Matthew 12:39 and Luke 11:29 is future to Jesus’ statement—He is not referring to His past preaching, that is, a sign given by him, but of something yet to take place. Jonah personally overcame judgment or calamity (his struggle with the great fish) through obedience, and through obedience Jesus, on behalf of all humankind, would overcome judgment (death: total separation from God) to live again. Jonah’s deliverance points to an even greater deliverance not yet realized. His personal deliverance foreshadows and is the sign of a deliverance that would become universal in nature.
Through Jonah, Jesus is pointing to Himself (“Just as Jonah became a sign, so shall be the Son of Man.”). In Christ alone is deliverance possible! To the unbelieving sign-seeking Pharisees, scribes, and to their followers, Jesus is saying, “I am the only sign you’re going to get” (cf. John 2:18-19). But unlike the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba, who believed Jonah and Solomon, the generation of Jesus’ day would question the Messenger of messengers to their own demise (Matthew 12:41-42; Luke 11:31-32). To all generations, Jesus says: “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:28). Though the message is not the sign, it most certainly identifies it, that is, Him—Christ is the sign, the only sign to which every generation, to include this present modern generation of God-misusers, mockers, and deniers, must yield. But sadly, the modern world chooses to fear signs of global warming, overpopulation, national borders and a “naïve” belief in the supernatural God of creation, the Lord Jesus Christ. In reality, they need only to fear their last phobia, the only true sign of what is certain to come, for He alone is clearly identified as the world’s only salvation, the Voice among the voices, the Sign among signs. Hence, through obedience and sincere love, we boast in Him, the Author and Finisher of true faith.
Stay faithful—even so come, Lord Jesus!
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