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"...and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas" (KJV, Matthew 12:39)

Jesus, in fact, did a lot of miracles during His earthly ministry and each one of those could be considered as a sign. If I remember well, John called the act of turning water into wine by Jesus first sign. If so, why then here He says that only one sign will be given to the evil and adulterous generation?

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In the Gospel narratives, Jesus never performed signs simply for the sake of performing signs. He never acceded to a request "I would see a sign from you." All the miracles attributed to him were either to fulfill a need that he saw, or to demonstrate the power of God. Even the miracle at the Wedding of Cana was done to help the bride and groom, who would have been shamed to run out of wine for their guests, not to show off.

And that's what the Pharisees are asking him to do--show off.

So he never performed signs on command for the Pharisees. Yes, there are several other miracles attributed to him, but he was not one to do tricks for skeptics.

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  • So, then, following your logic, does that mean that Jesus' performing the sign of the prophet Jonas was His act of acceding to a sign request? – jaguar Sep 25 '16 at 17:48
  • Well, according to the narrative, he was planning on doing that anyway.... – Justin Eiler Sep 25 '16 at 18:23
  • More seriously, yes--it was the only sign he gave them. Again, according to the narrative, he wanted the Pharisees to repent, too. "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" was meant for them just as much as it was meant for the common folk. – Justin Eiler Sep 25 '16 at 18:25
  • (1) I agree and understand that He wanted the Pharisees to repent, too, however, it looks like He singles out His Jonas sign from among numeral other signs that He performed. He sets this one apart from all the others and does so on the basis that ''it will be the only sign given to the evil generation". Does that mean that He didn't consider all the – jaguar Sep 25 '16 at 18:35
  • (2) other miracles performed by Him as "given to the evil generation"? If yes, then in what sense? Could it be that the miracles that He performed were specially for those who, upon having considered those signs, would eventually believe in Him, while His death and resurrection is an ultimate act that will eventually have to be considered both by the believers and the unbelievers (ion the day of judgment in their case)? – jaguar Sep 25 '16 at 18:35
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Being a Hebrew speaker I’d say that there’s a difference between “miracles” and “signs”.

  • Miracles are acts of the supernatural intervening in the natural.

  • Signs are indicative acts that proof one’s legitimacy and
    confirmation of a message.

Isaiah told Ahaz, who did not want to test God:

“Moreover the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; ask it either in the depth or in the height above.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!” Then he said, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:10-14)

The leaders were asking a sign in disbelief as if all the miracles and the words that came from Jesus were not enough a “Sign” for them, that He IS, in fact, the long awaited Messiah.

So Jesus was saying that His acts WERE the proof of His identity as The Messiah, but they did not believe the works and were looking the TEST God in their rebellion, as the psalmist says:

“Today, if you will hear His voice: Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, As in the day of trial in the wilderness, When your fathers tested Me; They tried Me, though they saw My work. For forty years I was grieved with that generation, And said, ‘It is a people who go astray in their hearts, And they do not know My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ” (Psalm 95:8-11)

They were adulterous to God bc they were going astray in their hearts, seeking their own ways;

their hearts are far from me and their honor of me is the teachings of man. Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work Among this people, A marvelous work and a wonder; For the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, And the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden.” (Isaiah 29:14)

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  • this was such a helpful answer! Really cleared things up for me, thank you! – Gremosa yesterday
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In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus twice tells his opponents that there will be no sign except that of Jonas (Jonah), using very similar words in each case:

Matthew 12:38-40: Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Matthew 16:1-4: The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven. He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed.

An explanation for these passages may come from Mark's Gospel and the hypothetical 'Q' document, as these are now believed to have been the major sources used by the author of Matthew's Gospel. The passage in Mark's Gospel could have been adopted into 'Q', with the unexpected reference to Jonas added, before being used by the authors of Matthew and Luke. Unlike Luke, Matthew seems not to have realised that the accounts in Mark and 'Q' were of the same event, and therefore used both, although in different contexts.

Mark 8:11-12: And the Pharisees came forth, and began to question with him, seeking of him a sign from heaven, tempting him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and saith, Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation.

Mark's reference merely tells us that there will be no sign in this generation, with no mention of Jonas. However, Jesus has a good reason for saying that there will be no sign for this generation.

In Mark 13:22, Jesus tells the disciples why there can be no sign given to this generation, saying that anyone claiming to show signs and wonders is a false Christ and a false prophet:

Mark 13:22: For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.

Conclusion

Matthew followed Mark in saying that there will be no sign for this generation. The reason for this is given very clearly when we look at Mark 8:11-12 and 13:22 in combination: There will be no sign for this generation because anyone claiming to show signs and wonders is a false Christ and a false prophet.

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  • Can you, please, add a conclusion in your answer? – jaguar Sep 25 '16 at 22:52
  • Hi @jaguar I thought the paragraph I put in bold was a conclusion, but I will add a further statement. – Dick Harfield Sep 25 '16 at 22:57
  • "The passage in Mark's Gospel could have been adopted into 'Q', with the unexpected reference to Jonas added" - These words look a bit confusing to me. Are you saying that the Q was written based on Mark??? I thought these two were inter-independent. – jaguar Sep 26 '16 at 6:20
  • Q is thought to have been written in at least 3 stages, with the 'wise sage' material earliest and probably pre-Mark, and the 'apocalyptic' stage last of all. When Q and Mark are in agreement on early material, Mark and Q are probably dependent on a common source, elsewhere called the 'Common Sayings Source', but when they agree on material late into Q, it is my view that Mark was fed into the later stage(s) of Q. That is only one possible explanation for their agreement, so I deliberately said, "could." – Dick Harfield Sep 26 '16 at 6:30
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    Sorry if I'm making this seem confusing. a) we know what is in Mark. b) We know that similar material is in Q because Matthew (M) and Luke (L) contain very similar material that is not in Mark - that is the references to Jonah and to the Queen of the South. To many scholars, when M & L are in close agreement, then it is like having a copy of Q in their hands. They can then see that Mark and Q do contain some primitive material in common - the reference to the Pharisees questioning Jesus and his response about signs. – Dick Harfield Sep 28 '16 at 1:16
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As noted in another answer, the reference also appears in Luke (11:32):

And when the people were gathered thick together, he began to say, This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn them: for she came from the utmost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineve shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.

The full passage from Matthew (12:39-42):

But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.


The question asks why, if so many miracles are recounted in the Gospel, do the Evangelists state here that Jesus said there shall be no sign given.


In both accounts, Jesus responds to requests made in malice:

Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee (Matthew 12:38)

And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven (Luke 11:16)

Jesus is not saying that He will not perform other miracles, but rather that none of these would result in the evil (and adulterous) believing in Him. As Cyril of Alexandria (378-444) recalls in his explanation of Luke's passage1:

The wicked shall seek me but shall not find me (Proverbs 1:28 LXX).

John Chrysostom (d.407), commenting on Matthew's passage, explains that other signs were, in fact, given, but that these were for the sake of others and not those whose hearts were hardened:

What then? one may say; was no sign given it? None was given to it on asking. For not to bring in them did He work His signs (for He knew them to be hardened), but in order to amend others. Either then this may be said, or that they were not to receive such a sign as that was. For a sign did befall them, when by their own punishment they learnt His power. Here then He speaks as threatening, and with this very meaning obscurely conveyed: as if He said, innumerable benefits have I showed forth, none of these hath drawn you to me, neither were ye willing to adore my power.2


1. Sermon LXXXII on Luke (tr. from Syriac)
2. Homily XLIII on Matthew (tr. from Greek; in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1.10)

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The resurrection is the one sign for the question asked by the Pharisees.

"Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah" - Matthew 12:38-39 (ESV)

They were seeking to know if Jesus is the Messiah and the resurrection is the ultimate sign. Consider that prophets also made signs.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers: "There shall no sign be given to it.—The words seem at first to place our Lord’s miracles of healing outside the category of signs, and yet it was to these that He referred the messengers of the Baptist as proof that the Christ had indeed come (Matthew 11:5). They must, however, be interpreted by the context. One sign and only one, such as they demanded, should be given to those for whom the other notes of Messiahship were insufficient, and that should be the sign of the prophet Jonas." - from https://biblehub.com/commentaries/matthew/12-39.htm

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I think about this topic often... What is "the sign of Jonah"?... The 3 days/nights provided as obvious explanation, but what is Jesus fully saying?

John 2.11 uses word: 4592 σημείων sēmeiōn

If you notice, John begins his account in chapter 1 trying to tell us somethings about Genesis 1. One of them seemingly highlighting for us the old testament Hebrew punn-like reference to the likeness of the word "made" with "Jesus" Name. Notice how word 4592 looks like Hebrew Word "Shem"... Not a coincidence, I promise. Listen to the things the apostles are trying to say this way... its everywhere in NT.

When Jesus taught them His Sayings - it seems He talked this way often.

After getting further into Genesis with my discovery of the above, I really feel like in Matthew 12, Jesus was really trying to reach the ones listening, telling them something specific about the word generation that directly relates to what they were asking for.

Folded within His answer its true the "adulterous generation" received "no sign, but..."

1 Corinthians 1.17-31 1 John 4.1-6

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