Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet.” (Matthew 12:38-39. See also Matt. 16:1-4; Luke 11:16, 29-30.)
The Gospels are full of signs that Jesus did. So why, when people asked Him for a sign, did He refuse to give one except the mysterious “sign of Jonah”? What was that sign and why was it the only one He offered?
The pattern of Jesus’ responses to the questions of different types of people is part of the answer. When His disciples asked Him to explain the parable of parables or other things He readily did so. If they asked for guidance, He gave it. Judas wondered why Jesus would disclose so much to them and not to the world. Jesus’ answer was that His followers did what He asked (John 14:22-24).
On the other hand, those who resisted Jesus often got little or no answer. False accusers and Herod (who hoped for a miracle show) were basically ignored. The trick questions of religious leaders only received answers that exposed their mistaken worldview and their evil intentions. It was hardened people, like them, who asked for signs.
“Don’t throw your pearls before swine.” That seemed to be Jesus’ practice. True disciples hear and obey; if anyone is unreceptive, move on (Matt. 7:6; Luke 10:10-11). That’s a caution to us: what is the purpose of our questions to God? Do we want truth from Him or are we skeptically resisting Him?
If resistant people had witnessed a special sign they would probably have dismissed it just as they dismissed all the other signs and teachings. Even so, Jesus said they would get one sign. That sign, the sign of Jonah, was not a concession to cynics; it was Jesus’ central act. It would function as a sign but it had a bigger purpose.
“For 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. The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:40-41)
When Jonah arrived in Nineveh the people surely heard his amazing story. No one had ever survived swallowing by a sea monster before. Perhaps this helped them respond to his warning by repenting. Jesus knew His vindication would come after three days in the tomb. If anything could amaze and convict them, resurrection could. But it wouldn’t convince everyone (Luke 16:31).
All of Jesus’ brief answers to requests for signs allude to His resurrection. They demanded one when He overturned traders’ tables in the temple. His answer: “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.” (John 2:13-22) Immediately after feeding five thousand people the Jews wanted another sign (John 6:30). He spoke of being the bread of life, and about His death, resurrection and ascension. Resurrection was the only sign He promised. Open hearts respond; hard hearts still shrug it off.