Matthew 16 1-12: THE DEMAND FOR A SIGN

Introduction. Read Matthew16 1-12

Jesus was prepared to take on the religious and political establishment. This did not make him popular - nor will it make Christians popular today. It is surprising how little attitudes have changed since the days of Jesus. His teaching is highly relevant for the era we live in.

(1) An unholy alliance.

The Pharisees and Sadducees had very little in common and were indeed sworn enemies. Yet they join together to oppose Jesus who was seen as a threat to both the religious and political establishment.

(a) The Pharisees were outwardly very religious. They observed the written Law of Moses - especially the ceremonial aspects of it - and also put great store on the commentaries on the sacred text. Jesus said ironically that they would no permit one jot or title of the law to be changed. The Pharisees believed in miracles, angels and the resurrection. They also looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. However, according to Jesus, the Pharisees did not practice what they preached. Jesus said on one occasion: "On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." Mt23v28. The religious leaders were self-satisfied, self-righteous, judgmental, intolerant and uncharitable.

(b) The Sadducees were very different. They accepted the authority of the Law of Moses but not the many commentaries on it, so beloved by the Pharisees. They were rationalists and did not believe in miracles, angels or the resurrection. The Pharisees were the priestly party. The High Priests were Sadducees and sat on the Sanhedrin. Their party believed in co-operating with the Romans so long as they could retain their status, wealth and power. They were self-serving, cynical and liberal in their Theology.

The Pharisees and Sadducees joined forces because Jesus threatened their position. He threatened the Pharisees position as guardians of religious orthodoxy and the Sadducees cosy, lucrative relationship with the ruling Romans.

(c) The modern equivalents of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

The 21st century Pharisee tends to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, takes much of it literally - especially the six days of creation, holds tenaciously to doctrinal distinctives, has little to do with Christians of different denominations and puts great store on trivialities like what version of the Bible to use.

The 21st century Sadducees are likely to exercise power in a hierarchical system of church government; they enjoy their positions as deacons, vicars, bishops, arch-bishops, cardinals and the like; their worship involves much dressing up and a lot of ceremonial; they do not accept the inspiration of Scripture and deny the virgin birth, Jesus' miracles and his resurrection.

(2) Why did the Pharisees and Sadducees ask for a sign from heaven?

The religious and political leaders demanded from Jesus a sign of divine approval. Satan had already tempted Jesus along these lines. The devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'" Mt4v5and6.

This is the sort of sign Elijah looked for on Mt Carmel. He wanted God to show his approval of him by sending fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice he prepared in a contest with the prophets of Baal.

Peter, James and John did receive a divine sign on the Mount of Transfiguration with the arrival of Moses and Elijah. Finally, God spoke words of commendation from a cloud.

The Pharisees and Sadducees doubtless hoped the absence of a sign from heaven would cast doubt on Jesus' status and integrity thereby invalidating his ministry.

Many today challenge Jesus to give them a sign from heaven if he wants them to follow him. Very often the sign involves Jesus doing them a favour. They ask God to heal their illness, get them a job or find them a husband.

There are some evangelical Christians who derive a good deal of satisfaction from signs. They look to signs from God before making a decision or for confirmation that the right decision has been made. A friend of mine emailed me this about the birth of his daughter:

In the Spring of 1989, our youngest son was less than a year old. In those days bottles and teats were sterilised in a container of sterilising solution - the one we used was Milton.

One day as I went to clean the bottles I looked at the Milton bottle on the window ledge. As part of its decoration it had a simple cartoon of a smiling duck. Instantly from within a strong impression rose up. The idea that immediately formed in my mind was: "You're going to have another baby."

I didn't know the Holy Spirit as well then as I do now but I was so convinced I told Dianne. She was a little surprised but sure enough 'Ducks', as she became known, was on the way.

Nine months or so later on 15th December, I left work to catch up with Dianne who had been taken to the delivery suite at Wordsley Hospital. On the way I was pondering the name. I can't remember having any boy's names, but if it was a little girl it would be either Rebecca Florence Darby or Hannah Florence Darby. As I pulled up behind a red Maestro at the bottom of Hagley Hill, the number plate was HFD - that deep impression rose up again - this was God's choice - Hannah Florence Darby.

To Dianne's surprise it was a girl - she had been very happy with four boys and was anticipating another one.

It would not be possible to round off the wonder of this story without commenting on the midwife's charity badge. Remarkably 'Ducks' midwife had a badge of a cartoon duck.

I have to confess to being a sceptic so far as signs and wonders are concerned. I would not deny that they sometimes take place - but only infrequently and in time of great need.

(3) The response of Jesus.

(a) Jesus tells the Pharisees and Sadducees that they have all the observable evidence they need to arrive at the correct conclusion concerning his ministry.

They were familiar with using observations of the sky to predict the weather. A red sky in the evening as the sun sets in the west signifies fair weather in the morning whereas a red sky in the morning as the sun rises in the east signifies stormy weather is on the way. The validity of these observations is borne out by experience.

Jesus provided his critics with a huge amount of observable evidence of God's approval. No one in the experience of the Pharisees and Sadducees had performed the miracles Jesus did. He healed the lame, the blind, the crippled and mute. See Mt15v29to31.

When John the Baptist doubted that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus sent him a message: "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor."

Even the Pharisee, Nicodemus, had to say, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him." Jn3v2and3.

Today there are still signs that Jesus is changing lives by gifting his Spirit to all who believe in him. Millions are brought out of spiritual darkness into his glorious light.

Jesus also works through his church to relieve hunger, homelessness, pain and misery in many parts of the world.

(b) Jesus informs his critics that he would receive one last, great sign of divine approval. Matthew records that it would be the sign of Jonah. Now, I greatly admire William Barclay but I feel he goes wrong at this juncture in his commentary on Matthew. He claims that the sign of Jonah was nothing to do with the prophet being swallowed by a great sea creature and regurgitated three days later. But this is just what Jesus claimed earlier in his ministry. He told some other Pharisees and teachers of the Law: "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." Mt12v39to40.

The resurrection of Jesus is without doubt the miraculous, conclusive sign of God's approval of everything his Son did and said. Those Christians who deny the resurrection are fools because it is the emphatic sign that God has accepted Christ's saving, sacrificial death on the cross on behalf of sinners. Paul made this absolutely clear in his wonder affirmation of the resurrection in 1Cor15.

(c) Jesus condemns his critics as a wicked and adulterous generation. It was a generation so unfaithful to God and so blinded by self-interest that they rejected God's one and only Son. So, Jesus left them and went away.

This is the inevitable consequence for all those who deny Jesus - who reject his claims and denigrate his status. Some folk are very privileged; they are given many opportunities to believe. Eventually their hearts are hardened and Jesus abandons them for ever.

(4) The warning of Jesus.

Jesus warned his disciples of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Leaven is a yeast - a fungus that if mixed into flour and water feeds on the sugars in the flour to produce bubbles of carbon dioxide as a waste product. The bubbles make the dough rise, giving the bread a spongy texture.

In the time of Jesus the yeast was contained in a piece of fermented dough - unclean dough! It is possible that the Pharisees and Sadducees warned against eating bread like this - bread commonly made by Gentile bakers. The disciples who hadn't brought any bread with them, except for one loaf, faced the problem of buying bread in Gentile territory on the far side of Lake Galilee. So, they may have assumed the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees was the leavened bread they would need to buy from Gentiles. However, Jesus was not concerned about this. He was warning his disciples about the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Jesus lumps the Pharisees and Sadducees together notwithstanding the differences between them which we have already looked at. So we have to ask, in what way was their teaching similar. Both advocated a kind of political correctness with an emphasis on externals - ritual cleanliness, abstinence from certain meats, Sabbath observance, dressing up, sacrificial offerings and Temple upkeep. The Pharisees in particular were always taking umbrage at what Jesus did and said.

Over the last 40 or so years there has been much legislation on gender, disability and race in order to try and end discrimination. This has given rise to equality warriors, language police and self-righteous vigilantes who attack anyone taking a different view to them.

So, it is dangerous to suggest that a man is better than a woman at anything. Stephen Fry was taken to task because he questioned whether women had the same sex drive as men. However, feminists don't get it all their own way. Gender equality legislation means that young women drivers have to pay the same insurance premiums as young men drivers even though they are ten times less likely to have a serious accident.

Health and Safey legislation has also spawned legalistic, kill joy decisions. Dodgems at Butlins are forbidden from bumping into one another under new health and safety regulations. 'The point of our dodgems is to dodge people, not run into people.' explained a spokesman.

Secularists in Britain, on the pretext of not wanting to offend people of other religions than Christianity, have renamed Christmas: Winterval, Easter eggs: spring spheres, and dropped terms like B.C.(Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domino).

An electrician and former soldier, Colin Atkinson, faced the sack for displaying a crucifix in the window of his company van. Yet, Muslim supermarket employees are perfectly entitled to refuse to serve alcohol on the grounds it offends their religion.

You are a brave Christian if you speak out against homosexuality these days. This is a sure fire way of getting the sack from your job. Nowhere is the spirit of the Pharisee more evident than amongst all the militant members of the Gay lobby. Why should Christian parents send their children to schools that teach five and six year olds the acceptability of Gay sex? How did my opposition to Gay marriage make me a poorer Geography teacher - a subject I taught with some success for 37 years.