Matthew 16: 1-4 — The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.
We are back near the lake shore. The critics of Jesus try to put him to the test, asking him for a sign from heaven. After curing everyone from Gennesaret all the way to Lebanon, feeding thousands of people miraculously in some isolated place, etc. one wonders what additional sign could anyone ask for.
At this point it is important to remember that Pharisees and Sadducees argued endlessly about the resurrection. According to book of Acts, the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection, something the Pharisees did believe in. In Acts we learn how St. Paul (a former Pharisee converted to Christianity) took advantage of their doctrinal disagreement to gain the protection of the Pharisees. The Sadducees also disagreed with the Pharisees on the matters of the spiritual body or the existence of angels.
It looks like they both agreed to have a truce to go and ask for a sign from Jesus the miracle maker. The asking resembles the temptation by the devil at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:
And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13)
The Pharisees are asking for a sign in the same manner of Satan. The first temptation has to do with bread. Can Jesus make bread from dead matter, from a stone? That would be a great sign! But Jesus refuses in spite of being hungry. He won’t use the supernatural powers to serve himself. The Father gave him those powers to serve others. Bread will be mentioned later in the chapter.
The second temptation has to do with power. The devil offers all the kingdoms of this world to Jesus in exchange of one act of idolatrous worship. See, the Pharisees and Sadducees expected the Messiah to lead Israel in a military conquest of the whole world. Jesus refused to take the short path. His destiny is to be the Divine King of an immortal race. He knows very well that the devil’s kingdom is a kingdom of dead people.
The third temptation is actually an assassination attempt. The devil invites Jesus to show his relationship with the Father by jumping off the Temple pinnacle and survive. Jesus refuses. Later on, the same Pharisees and Sadducees gathered in Calvary will say “Come down from the Cross and we will believe in you!”
Notice the devilish arrogance of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They ask for a sign, a personal sign. They expect God to pass their examination. How different is the attitude of the Psalmist in Psalm 34:8 inviting all to “Taste and see that the LORD is good: blessed is the man who trusts in him!” Compare one with the other, and remember the awesome privilege we have to taste the Eucharist, when God comes humbly to us disguising his body and blood, soul and divinity as a piece of bread.
Jesus never misses an opportunity to teach the teachers of Israel. That must have driven them crazy with jealousy because they were very mediocre teachers!
What is this short discourse about the weather and interpreting the appearance of the sky? Jesus describes two kinds of weather, fair and bad. That is a very charged discourse. It is easy for us to interpret it now. The religious teachers cannot see that Jesus was coming to them from Heaven. That day was the fair day, with Jesus walking among them doing good deeds and healing men of good will. But another day was approaching, a long storm that was going to destroy the Temple and the nation because of their rejection of Jesus.
The “wicked and adulterous generation” looks for a sign, for a personal sign since they consider themselves so important! They believe they can place a seal of approval on the Messiah of God. They really believe that at that point. Why “adulterous generation”? because the Groom is there to visit the Bride (the Jewish nation) but those who should have received the Groom from Heaven, hated him. They consummated their adultery when the Chief Priests shouted “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15)
The Sign of Jonah
The sign of Jonah is a multifaceted sign. It alludes to the resurrection: Jesus himself says in Matthew 12:40, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
The sign also points to the destiny of the Jewish nation. Jonah refused to obey God, who was sending him to Nineveh to preach repentance to that city. Perhaps Jonah was afraid of the fierce inhabitants of that place. Imagine if we were asked to go by ourselves to preach repentance to the criminals of some drug cartel with a history of assassinating people at the least provocation! Well, the Jewish religious leaders feared the Roman legions also. That fear and their own pride clouded their reason:
“Here is this man [Jesus] performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (John 11:47-48)
Jonah decided to save his hide and boarded a ship for Tarshish (Spain) located on the opposite side of the known world. A storm forces Jonah to jump off the boat and he ends up in the belly of a big fish for three days and three nights. “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by …” (Psalm 90:4, see also 2 Peter 3:8) and so this turns out to be a sign of the love of God for the Jewish nation. Their penance for their infidelity will be also a long period of time in the depths of the sea figuratively, where the enemies of God live. So far, it seems the Jewish nation are entering in the third millennia of penance …
Surely God will crush the heads of his enemies, the hairy crowns of those who go on in their sins. The Lord says, “I will bring them from Bashan; I will bring them from the depths of the sea …” (Psalm 68:21-22)
In that day the LORD with His sore and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the slant serpent, and Leviathan the tortuous serpent; and He will slay the dragon that dwells in the sea. (Isaiah 27:1)
The love of God will rescue the Jewish nation at the end of times as predicted by St. Paul in Romans 11:25-31:
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
“and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”
As regards the Gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.
Many pages have been written about “the sign of Jonah” but this should suffice to show that Jesus is proposing a complex prophetic image that we have barely touched here.
The Pharisees and Sadducees argued about the resurrection. The first believed there was a resurrection but the second did not. The very thing that separates the enemies of Christ will be the sign of that will unite the Church when Christ resurrects from the dead. More than anything, the Church is a daughter of Christ’s Resurrection as expressed in the Credo, a sign of union.
It seems like the sign of Jonah is going to be applied to Christ first (he will die and resurrect.) Then it will be applied to the nation of Israel (they will go into yet another long exile among the gentiles before being called to their final mission at the end of times.) The final application of the sign will be for the Church, that inherits the mission to gain the gentiles for God thus becoming the New Israel. In the end of times, the Church will be eclipsed and nearly disappear into a sort of institutional death. She will be called from the depths by Christ after giving witness of Christ’s name to the ends of the world.
Jonah and Nineveh go through the same process: the prophet spends three days in the depths. The city was dead in sin, ready to be obliterated by sin but repentance brings Nineveh back to life. Jonah noted that it took “three days” to cross the city from end to end.
Notice how St. Paul contrasts disobedience and disobedience with life and death: “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.” That counterpoint is present in Jonah’s mission but is missing in Nineveh because the city repents. The penance for disobedience is death but the reward for obedience is life. There is a hidden lesson for us in that counterpoint: the city of sinners ends up being wiser before God than the prophet sent to testify to it. Those who repent after being steeped in sin are wiser than the “religious leaders” of Israel. The parable of the prodigal son brings forth that paradox in all its splendor. The love of God is magnified upon those who deserve it the least. (Compare with Luke 15:1-7 and Luke 15:11-31)
Our friend Emmett O’Reagan has studied the matter in depth. It is worth visiting his article The Sign of Jonah And The Binding of Satan. A very interesting study on the eschatological aspect of the sign of Jonah.
The dialog with the Pharisees and Sadducees serves as an introduction to the foundation of the Church on Peter. The Jewish religious leaders will miss the opportunity of being part of the eternal Israel that will find its destiny and mission in the Catholic Church. Someone “bigger than Jonah” visited them but their pride obscured their vision and they missed Him whom they were so eagerly expecting. They did not know how to read the sign they themselves were asking for.
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