The Sign-Seekers
Matthew 12:38-45
Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from you.

After Jesus had denounced the blasphemy of the scribes and Pharisees, and threatened them with the severity of the judgment, certain of their number demanded of him a sign to sustain his asserted authority. In his reply we notice -


1. They sought a sign, viz., from heaven.

(1) The sign of the Prophet Daniel was evidently that for which they looked (cf. Daniel 7:13; Matthew 16:1; Luke 11:16; 1 Corinthians 1:22). They were eager for the visible kingdom.

(2) In this clamour former miracles are ignored. He who is unconvinced by proofs so stupendous as those on which Christianity rests is an unbeliever, not from want of evidence, but from an evil bias upon his judgment and will which no additional demonstration can remedy.

2. But this sign was not for that generation.

(1) They were "evil." The Pharisees and scribes were eminently so. Speaking against the Son of man. Blaspheming against the Holy Ghost. A "generation of vipers."

(2) They were adulterous. Literally so. They were guilty of polygamy, frequent divorces, and other sensualities, which they covered by hypocrisy or defended by Immoral casuistry. About this time the Rabbi Joachim ben Zacchai abrogated the trial by the bitter waters of jealousy, because so many were found to be thus criminated.

(3) Figuratively. The Hebrews were by the Sinai covenant married to their Maker, as Christians become the spouse of Christ by the covenant from Zion. Idolatry and worldliness, which is a form of idolatry, are spiritual adultery (see James 4:4).

(4) The clamourers did not consider that the sign from heaven is the signal for judgment. Had they faithfully read the Prophet Daniel they would have seen that the judgment precedes the visible kingdom. It is in his mercy that God does not answer the prayers of wicked men.

3. He gave them the sign from the earth.

(1) Jonah was a type of Christ in his burial. Jonah spoke of his position in the belly of the fish as that of one buried in the grave. He calls it "the belly of hell," Sheol, or the grave; and "the pit" (see Jonah 2:2, 6, margin). The type was all the more remarkable in the miraculous preservation of his life. For the Holy One must not see corruption. He cannot be holden of death.

(2) Jonah was a type of Christ in his resurrection.

(a) As to the fact.

(b) As to the time (vide Exposition; see also Hosea 6:2).

(3) Jonah preached to the Ninevites after his return from his burial in the sea-monster. The true preaching of the gospel followed upon the resurrection of Jesus.

(4) The miracle in the case of Jonah was a sign that he was a divinely commissioned prophet; and it authenticated his words to the Ninevites. So is the resurrection of Jesus the authentication of his mission and words (see Luke 11:30). Those who will not accept this sign are in no condition to accept any sign, though it should be even "from heaven."

(5) In God's order the sign of the Prophet Jonah must anticipate the sign of the Prophet Daniel. Messiah must first come in humiliation, in suffering and death and burial, before he can come in power and great glory.


1. The men of Nineveh will confront them there.

(1) The Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah. They credited the sign. Their faith saved them from vengeance. Note: God's threatenings, as well as his promises, are conditional. No one goes to perdition by arbitrary predestination.

(2) How will the scribes and Pharisees appear in the judgment when confronted with the men of Nineveh? They repented not at the preaching of Jesus, who came to them authenticated by miracles and prophecies innumerable.

(3) Jesus is a "greater than Jonah." The Ninevites repented at the preaching of the lesser prophet. The scribes and Pharisees resisted the preaching of the greater. Note: Responsibilities are heavier as privileges and opportunities are greater.

2. The queen of the south will confront them there.

(1) She came to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Solomon was but a type of Jesus. He is Wisdom itself - the Eternal Word of God. The Wisdom of God himself" came to his own" privileged people, "but they received him not."

(2) She came "from the uttermost parts of the earth." She came up out of a dark heathen land, far away from the light of the oracles of God. How strongly did her case contrast with that of the very doctors of the Law, who, in the "Valley of Vision," were visited by the God of glory!

(3) Gentile believers in general will come into judgment with the Jewish rejecters of the gospel. So will those who amongst the Gentiles improved inferior light rise up to confound those who have neglected or abused the superior. The rising up alludes to the custom of witnesses rising from their seats and standing in court to give their testimony.

(4) Opportunity and privilege will have their value in the judgment in determining the measure of the rewards and punishments.


1. The sentence is the sequel of the trial.

(1) The certainty of the trial cannot be disputed. It is certified in the sign of the resurrection of Christ. This is the very gist of the reference to the sign of the Prophet Jonah. In this sense also Paul cites the sign: "He hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath gives assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead (Acts 17:31).

(2) Not only is the resurrection of Christ given for a sign of the judgment; it is, moreover, given to evince the certainty of the particular doctrine, viz. that men shall be then judged by their words, and by them justified or condemned. Let this great truth influence all our conversation.

(3) As certainly as there will be a judgment, so certainly will the destiny of the judged be determined. The judgment will be no mere parade. The doom of the wicked is portrayed in the parable of the unclean spirit.

2. Communities are punished in this world.

(1) This is obvious from the nature of the case. They belong exclusively to it, and exist in it. So the parable sets forth the doom of the "generation" or race of unbelieving Jews.

(2) Their "first" state was melancholy, viz. when they were visited by the gospel. It is described under the similitude of a demoniac. The prevalence of demoniacal possession at that time was a consequence, and therefore fittingly a figure, of the wickedness of the nation.

(3) They had a season of merciful visitation in the preaching of John and of Jesus. There was a partial reformation through the preaching of John. Jesus, in consequence, appeared, and expelled devils to evince his power to drive them away from the hearts of the people.

(4) The reformation, however, was but partial. The people relapsed; and now their condition had become worse than ever. Instead of being the victim of one, they now became the victim of seven devils, and these more wicked than the former. Note: There are degrees of wickedness in devils. Hence the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. Hence also their filling up the measure of their iniquity in crucifying the Just One; and hence the consequent "days of vengeance" in the destruction of Jerusalem.

3. Individuals also are punished for sin.

(1) Sinners, as individuals, do not wholly go unpunished in this world. The wrath upon communities is felt by individuals. The condition of the backslider is itself a punishment.

(2) Satan finds his soul inviting. For out of humanity he is restless. He is uneasy when he can do no mischief. Hell is the devil's heaven. There is nothing to keep him out.

(a) He finds it "empty" of God, of Christ, of his Holy Spirit.

(b) It is "swept" from love, lowliness, meekness, and all the fruits of the Spirit.

(c) It is "garnished" with levity and security.

The lodgings are furnished. "Servants make the house trim and handsome against their master comes home, especially when he brings guests with him, as here the devil brings seven more'" (Gurnall).

(3) The last state of the backslider is worse than the first.

(a) His powers were expanded under the heavenly influences of the gospel, and he is the more capable now of refinement in iniquity. He can now entertain "seven" devils, whereas formerly he had accommodation for one only.

(b) Evil habits are formed and strengthened by relapses. The condition induced by multiplied relapses is therefore the more incurable.

(4) The final doom of the sinner is at the judgment of the last day. Then balances are struck and arrears paid up. Then the severity of the tyranny of the "seven devils" is felt. - J.A.M.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.

WEB: Then certain of the scribes and Pharisees answered, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from you."

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