Matthew 12:38 Commentaries: Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from You."
Matthew 12:38
Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from you.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(38) Master, we would see a sign from thee.—The order varies slightly from that in St. Luke, in which the demand for a sign follows on the parable of the unclean spirit returning to his house. In both, however, the sequence of thought appears the same. The tone of authority, as of one who is the judge of all men, leads to the challenge—“Give us a sign by which you may convince us that you have a right thus to speak.”

Matthew 12:38-40. Then certain of the scribes, &c. — Now present, upon hearing how plainly Christ admonished, and how severely he rebuked them, answered — Probably with a view to divert the discourse to another topic, We would see a sign from thee — As if they had said, Otherwise we will not believe this doctrine. Thus they insinuated that the ejection of devils was but a trifling miracle, which, for all he had said to the contrary, might be done by the help of devils, and that no signs of that kind, however numerous, should convince them; for that they would not believe unless he would prove his mission by what is here called a sign, and in Luke 11:16, a sign from heaven, meaning, probably, some such celestial appearance as several of the ancient prophets gave; particularly Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and Elijah. But he answered, An evil and adulterous generation — A spurious breed, which has degenerated from the faith and piety of their great progenitor, Abraham; or, a generation whose heart wanders from God, though they profess him to be their husband. Such adulterers are all those who love the world, and all who seek the friendship of it. Seeketh a sign — After all the signs they have had already, which were abundantly sufficient to have convinced them, had not their hearts been estranged from God, and consequently averse to the truth. And there shall no sign be given to it, but [or, unless it be] the sign of the Prophet Jonas — Who was herein a type of Christ. For as Jonas was three days and three nights, &c. — It was customary with the eastern nations to reckon any part of a natural day of twenty-four hours for the whole day. Accordingly, they used to say a thing was done after three, or seven days, &c., if it was done on the third or seventh day from that last mentioned. Instances of this may be seen, 1 Kings 20:29; 2 Chronicles 10:5; 2 Chronicles 10:12, and in many other places. And, as the Hebrews had no word exactly answering to the Greek νυχθημερον, to signify a natural day of twenty- four hours, they used night and day, or day and night, for it. See also Esther 4:16; Esther 5:1; Genesis 7:4; Genesis 7:12; Exodus 24:18; Exodus 34:28. In the whale’s belly — Or, in the belly of the great fish that swallowed him. See note on Jonah 1:17. So shall the Son of man be — in the heart of the earth — That is, in the earth; for the expression does not imply that he was to be buried in the middle of the earth, but in the earth simply. Thus, in Ezekiel 28:2, Tyre is said to be in the heart of the sea, though it was so near the continent, that, when Alexander besieged it, he carried a causeway from the land to the city.12:38-45 Though Christ is always ready to hear and answer holy desires and prayers, yet those who ask amiss, ask and have not. Signs were granted to those who desired them to confirm their faith, as Abraham and Gideon; but denied to those who demanded them to excuse their unbelief. The resurrection of Christ from the dead by his own power, called here the sign of the prophet Jonah, was the great proof of Christ's being the Messiah. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale, and then came out again alive, thus Christ would be so long in the grave, and then rise again. The Ninevites would shame the Jews for not repenting; the queen of Sheba, for not believing in Christ. And we have no such cares to hinder us, we come not to Christ upon such uncertainties. This parable represents the case of the Jewish church and nation. It is also applicable to all those who hear the word of God, and are in part reformed, but not truly converted. The unclean spirit leaves for a time, but when he returns, he finds Christ is not there to shut him out; the heart is swept by outward reformation, but garnished by preparation to comply with evil suggestions, and the man becomes a more decided enemy of the truth. Every heart is the residence of unclean spirits, except those which are temples of the Holy Ghost, by faith in Christ.We would see a sign from thee - See Luke 11:16, Luke 11:29-32. A "sign" commonly signifies a miracle - that is, a sign that God was with the person or had sent him. Compare the notes at Isaiah 7:11. Luke adds that this was done "tempting him;" that is, trying him, doubting if he had the power to do it. If these persons had been present with him for any considerable time, they had already seen sufficient proofs that he was what he claimed to be. They might have been, however, those who had recently come, and then the emphasis must be laid on "we" - we, as well as the others, would see a proof that thou art the Christ. In either case it was a temptation. If they had not seen him work a miracle, yet they should have believed it by testimony. Compare John 20:29. Perhaps, however, the emphasis is to be laid on the words "from heaven." They might profess not to doubt that his miracles were real, but they were not quite satisfactory. They were desirous of seeing something, therefore, that should clear up their doubts - where there could be no opportunity for dispute. A comet, or lightning, or thunder, or sudden darkness, or the gift of food raining upon them, they supposed would be decisive. Possibly they referred in this to Moses. He had been with God amid thunders and lightnings, and he had given them manna - "bread from heaven" to eat. They wished Jesus to show some miracle equally undoubted.Mt 12:38-50. A Sign Demanded and the Reply—His Mother and Brethren Seek to Speak with Him, and the Answer. ( = Lu 11:16, 24-36; Mr 3:31-35; Lu 8:19-21).

A Sign Demanded, and the Reply (Mt 12:38-45).

The occasion of this section was manifestly the same with that of the preceding.

38. Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master—"Teacher," equivalent to "Rabbi."

we would see a sign from thee—"a sign from heaven" (Lu 11:16); something of an immediate and decisive nature, to show, not that His miracles were real—that they seemed willing to concede—but that they were from above, not from beneath. These were not the same class with those who charged Him with being in league with Satan (as we see from Lu 11:15, 16); but as the spirit of both was similar, the tone of severe rebuke is continued.

We read the like to this Matthew 16:1, and Luke seemeth to relate the same history, Luke 11:29.

Master was the usual title which they gave to any whom they owned as a teacher. By

a sign they mean something that might confirm unto them that he was sent of God; they expected that an extraordinary mission should be so confirmed: so John 6:33, What sign showest thou then, that we might see and believe thee? What dost thou work? Moses showed them signs, (as they there go on), he brought down for them bread from heavens. Had not Christ showed them signs enough? What were all the miracles he had wrought in their sight? They either speak this out of a further idle curiosity, (their eye being not satisfied with seeing), or else they speak it in direct opposition to the whole scope and tendency of our Saviour’s former discourse, which was from his miracles to prove himself truly God, and sent of God: if the latter, which seemeth from our Saviour’s sharp answer most probable, the sum of what they say is this, Master, we have seen thee do wonderful works, but no other than what impostors may do by the assistance of the devil; we would see something done by thee which magicians cannot do, such as Moses did, Exodus 8:19, when the magicians confessed they were outdone, and cried, This is the finger of God. Then certain of the Scribes and Pharisees answered,.... Not the same that charged him with casting out devils, by the prince of devils; but others, that were present, as appears from Luke 11:16 and who do not take upon them to make a proper reply to what he had said, or return an answer to that, but address him on another account; being willing to divert the discourse, and try what they could do with him in another, and more gentle and crafty way; saying, master, not fellow, magician, Samaritan, thou that hast a devil, and casts out devils by Beelzebub, and art a devil, and Beelzebub himself; but doctor, teacher, allowing him, at least, in a flattering way, that he was an instructor of mankind, though they would not own him to be a prophet, unless he would give such signs, as would make it appear he was one; hence they say,

we would see a sign from thee: that is, a sign from heaven, as they desired at another time, Matthew 16:1 and, as Luke says, they did now, Luke 11:16 they had seen a sign from him on earth, in the cure of the man that had a withered hand; and another, in dispossessing the devil out of the man, that was blind and dumb; but these they looked upon rather as signs from hell, and done by confederacy with the devil; and therefore desire, or rather, in an imperious way, demand one from heaven, where they thought Satan had not such power, as on earth; and where there could not be such collusion and deception, as they wickedly imagined were in this last action: they seem to require some such things to be done, as were on Mount Sinai, at the giving of the law, when there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud, and the voice of a trumpet, and some visible appearances of the divine majesty; and intimate, that if something of this kind was done, if there was any visible and miraculous appearance in the heavens, produced by him, they should believe him to be the prophet that was spoken of, and the true Messiah; but if not, should give no credit to him: however, this is to be learned from hence, that the Jews, in Christ's time, expected signs and wonders to be wrought by the Messiah, in proof of his being so, though now they reject them as needless (g).

(g) Maimon. Hilch. Melachim. c. 11. sect. 3.

{8} Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.

(8) Against perverse desires of miracles.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
Matthew 12:38. The narrative is more original than that in Luke 11:16.

σημεῖον] a manifestation of miraculous power that, by appealing to the senses, will serve to confirm thy divine mission. In such a light they had not regarded the cure of the demoniacs, Matthew 12:24. In thus insisting as they did upon yet further proof, they were actuated by a malicious desire to put Him to the test and reduce Him to silence.

ἀπὸ σοῦ] from Thee Thy sign.

In deference to Mark 8:11, Luke 11:16, many erroneously suppose that in this instance it is specially a σημεῖον ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ that is meant. In Matthew 16:1, however, the sign is being requested for the second time.Matthew 12:38-45. A sign asked and refused, with relative discourse (Luke 11:16; Luke 11:29-36). Both Matt.’s and Luke’s reports convey the impression that the demand for a sign, and the enunciation of the Satanic theory as to Christ’s cures of demoniacs, were synchronous. If they were, the demand was impudent, hypocritical, insulting. Think of the men who could so speak of Christ’s healing ministry wanting a sign that would satisfy them as to His Messianic claims!38. we would see a sign from thee] This is the second expedient taken by the Pharisees after their resolution to destroy Jesus.

38–42. The Pharisees ask for a Sign

St Luke 11:16; Luke 11:29-32. St Luke omits, or at least does not state explicitly, the special application of the sign given in Matthew 12:40, to understand which required a knowledge of the Jewish prophets which would be lacking to St Luke’s readers.Matthew 12:38. Ἀπεκρίθησαν, κ.τ.λ., answered, etc.) As though they would not otherwise believe the words which they had just heard.—θέλομεν, we wish) Why do we wish? Because it so pleases us. They thus deny the signs which our Lord had already performed.—ἀπὸ σοῦ, from Thee) i.e. from Thee Thyself, as in ch. Matthew 16:1ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, from heaven.Verses 38-42. - Before entering on this difficult passage, it seems necessary to make some preliminary observations.

(1) Luke 11:29-32 is the recognized parallel.

(2) According to Luke 11:16, our Lord had been already asked for a sign, in what would be the middle of our preceding discussion, i.e. between the accusation by the Pharisees (our ver. 24) and the Lord's answer to it (our ver. 25, sqq.). This shows that either the demand was in fact made at some time during this discussion, or at least that it was such a demand as our Lord's opponents were likely to make when they were hard pressed, and such as they did in fact make on a somewhat similar occasion. Notice that in Luke 11:16 it is expressly attributed to others than those who had brought the accusation.

(3) Very similar verses are found in Matthew 16:1-4 (parallel passage: Mark 8:11-13); Luke 11:16 agrees more verbally with the demand as described there than with our ver. 38.

(4) Thus Mark and Luke relate such an incident once, but Matthew twice.

(5) The four passages (Matthew 12:38-42; Luke 11:16, 29-32; Matthew 16:1-4; Mark 8:11-13) contain so much similarity of language that we cannot suppose them to be absolutely independent of each other.

(6) Hence two hypotheses present themselves:

(a) The demand was made twice (in itself exceedingly probable), and our Lord's answers were to a great extent identical in substance (in itself not very probable), and when identical in substance were closely identical in language (distinctly less probable). Or perhaps we might suppose that this identity of language was rather due to the narrator than to our Lord himself; familiarity with one answer may in the curly Church have moulded the record of the other.

(b) The demand and the answer, as recorded, refer to one and the same occasion. But the account existed in more than one of the sources used by St. Matthew, and as each form of it had its own peculiarities (especially our ver. 24 and Matthew 16:2, 3), he retained them both. Anyhow, Matthew 16:1-4 seems to have belonged to the Framework, and our passage to the Discourses.

(7) It will be noticed that all the passages except Mark 8:11-13 speak of "the sign of Jonah." How was Jonah a sign? Our ver. 40 seems to answer the question, and to say that it was by being in the whale's belly three days and three nights. But there are serious difficulties in accepting this view as finally and alone right. For in Matthew 16:4 no explanation at all is recorded (though, indeed, it might be urged that the evangelist might fairly expect his readers to remember our ver. 40), and in Luke 11:30 apparently a different explanation is found, "for even as Jonah became a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation" - words which, taken alone, would seem to refer to Jonah being a sign by the mere fact of his preaching. Thus our Lord would mean - As Jonah preached, so I preach. The future is used in Luke 11:30 (ἔσται), as bringing out more clearly than the present would have done the final relation in which Christ should stand to his contemporaries. Godet, indeed, urges that the future excludes any present reference to Christ's work as preaching, and that the demand for a sign from heaven (Luke 11:16) can only be fully satisfied by Christ's resurrection, "in which no human agency intervenes, and in which Divine power appears alone." He, therefore, makes Luke's meaning identical with that of our ver. 40, and paraphrases thus: "It was as one who had miraculously escaped from death that Jonas presented himself before the Ninevites, summoning them to anticipate the danger which threatened them; it is as the Risen One that I (by my messengers) shall proclaim salvation to the men of this generation." But this would almost assume that Jonah told the Ninevites of his miraculous escape, though there is not a hint of his having done so. On the contrary, Jonah 3:4, sqq., implies that the call to repentance on the basis of punishment threatened was the sole and only means employed by the prophet to accomplish his mission. Jonah the preacher became, by virtue of his preaching, a sign to the Ninevites (for, quite apart from his miraculous preservation, his appearance in Nineveh and his preaching there were no small portent and sign of Divine interest in the Ninevites' affairs), and they accepted him. Matthew's addition, "the prophet," emphasizes this thought, even though he passes on to give what appears to have been the Lord's secondary interpretation of the sign of Jonah. Christ's primary object, then, in his reply was to show to his opponents that heathen Ninevites and a heathen queen accepted the truth without any such sign as that which they were now demanding, and, if possible, to shame them into doing so. Thus ver. 40 is to be considered as parenthetical rather than as the main subject. It has, indeed, been suggested that ver. 40 was in fact not spoken at all by the Lord himself, but is only the result of a very early interpretation by the Hebrew Christians of our Lord's phrase, added before the formation of our Gospel. The explanation is tempting, but, in the entire absence of corroboration, cannot be accepted (cf. note there). So far as our present evidence goes, we must attribute ver. 40 to Christ, and consider that as he was mentioning the reception of Jonah by the Ninevites, the thought occurred to him that in Jonah's history lay as it were a prefigurement of what he himself would be. Just as on another occasion he illustrated his death and resurrection by the figure of destroying and building the temple (John 2:18, 19), so now he uses the figure of Jonah in the whale's belly.

(8) This is not the place to enter upon a discussion of the question whether the event here referred to literally happened or not, much less to examine the deep and mysterious subject of the Lord's kenosis (Philippians 2:7). But it should be observed that some at least of those critics who do not believe that the narrative of Jonah being in the whale's belly is to be understood literally, consider that his preaching to the Ninevites at all is equally metaphorical (cf. C. H. H. Wright, 'Introduction to Old Testament,' p. 207, sqq.), so that not only ver. 40 but ver. 41 and Luke 11:32 are affected, and that indeed more seriously, since the Lord says that the Ninevites will stand up as witnesses. The reasons for taking the narrative as only metaphorical are far from convincing, yet even if they were overwhelming, the illustration in ver. 40 (though not ver. 41) would still remain valid, just as (with all reverence be it spoken) any one to-day might illustrate his action from that of one of Shakespeare's characters whose historical existence is more than doubtful. While, however, the frequency of the allegorical and pictorial in Hebrew poetry and prophecy must be fully allowed for, there seems to be no strong reason (apart from the miracle) to doubt the historical character of the narrative. Further, as to the miracle, Jonah 1:17; Jonah 2:10 are so closely connected with Jonah 1, 3, and 4, that it is best to understand the writer as intending to represent it (marvellous though it is) as literal history. Verses 38-45. - Some of our Lord's opponents try to defend themselves by asking for a sign of his authority to claim so much; e.g. ver. 30 (ver. 38). In his reply he refers them to their own histories for proof that such a demand is inexcusable. The Ninevites did not require one when Jonah became a sign to them - and in mentioning Jonah he refers to his being in the whale's belly three days and three nights as a symbol of what should happen to himself - and "the queen of the south" took immense trouble to satisfy her craving after wisdom (vers. 39-42). Therefore let them beware; their present state was one of extreme danger; the improvement that they showed was only negative, and if they did not take care worse would happen to them in the future than in the past (vers. 43-45). Verse 38. - Then certain. The demand is only made by a portion of those present, who, according to Luke 11:16, were not the same as those who spoke our ver. 24. Of the scribes and of the (Revised Version omits the) Pharisees. They are represented as forming but one party (Matthew 5:20, note). Answered (him, Revised Version, with the manuscripts). It is worth noticing that the insertion of the pronoun makes the passage more like Matthew 16:1 and parallels. Saying, Master (διδάσκαλε); Matthew 8:19, note. Only in this place is their request given verbally. We would see (Θέλομεν... ἰδεῖν). Observe that their language is rather brusque; they express their own wish regardless of him. But they may have intended it only as a plain statement of the difficulty they felt in believing him. They wished to see a sign first. A sign. More than a miracle of healing, however wonderful; they desired, as expressly said in Matthew 16:1; Mark 8:11; Luke 11:16, a sign from heaven, presumably some portent in the sky, which should be a sign of his mission (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:22; John 4:48). From thee; i.e. happening, not accidentally, but at thy command.
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