“Show us a sign.”
“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. And when his disciples were come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread. Which when Jesus perceived, he said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread? Do ye not yet understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets ye took up? Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets ye took up? How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:1-12)
Since the beginning of time, unbelieving men and women have always demanded signs to corroborate the Word of God. Before he will believe God, the unregenerate, unbelieving man wants signs and evidences to convince him that what God says in his Word is true. The rich man in hell foolishly imagined that if his brothers could hear a preacher who was risen from the dead they would believe God. But God says, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
God often confirms his Word to those who believe him by special providential occurrences, even as he once confirmed it to his people by special miracles. He show Noah the sign of his covenant by putting a rainbow in the sky. He showed Gideon a sign, using the fleece Gideon spread before him. He showed Elijah a sign on Mt. Carmel. And our Lord performed many miracles himself and by his Apostles, called “signs and wonders” (Heb. 2:4), by which he confirmed to us that he is the Christ.
But any faith that is built upon signs, miracles, and evidences is a false faith (John 2:23). Our faith must be based upon the Word of God alone, not upon signs and miracles, scientific evidence, human reason and learning, or even our own emotions and experiences. As Luther put it…
“Feelings come, and feelings go,
And feelings are deceiving.
I trust the Word of God alone;
Naught else is worth believing!”
Lost religionists as well as scoffing blasphemers have always demanded what God will never give them, a convincing sign from heaven, a carnal sign to convince their carnal minds that his word is true. That is exactly what we have before us in Matthew 16:1-12.
A Wicked Alliance
First, the Holy Spirit describes and sets before us the wicked alliance of the Pharisees and Sadducees. “The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven” (v. 1). — The Pharisees and Sadducees hated each other. Normally, they would have nothing to do with one another. The Pharisees were conservatives, fundamentalists, who would never consider working with the Sadducees, free-thinking liberals. And the Sadducees were just as adamant in their hatred of the Pharisees. But both the Pharisees and Sadducees so thoroughly despised Christ and the gospel of God’s free grace in him that in order to oppose and persecute him, they laid aside their differences and formed the unholy alliance Matthew describes.
How often we see the exact same thing happening in our day. Men and women who despise each other, who have nothing to do with each other, will unite and work feverishly together to oppose the gospel of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ. I have often seen church members, who cared nothing for one another, unite in opposition to a faithful gospel preacher, and churches that are doctrinal opposites, unite to oppose a gospel church. “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9).
Notice the method employed by these pompous, religious, hypocritical friends of hell – “Tempting desired him that he would show them a sign.” Those words mean that these men came to Christ “scrutinizing and testing him with questions.” It is always the method of heretics to ask leading questions with the hope of entrapping the one whose doctrine they despise. They are never open and honest (Jude 1:4). God’s servants are not of their mold. The heretic tries to entrap you. God’s servant simply, forthrightly declares the truth to you. Lost religionists, like dogs, may fiercely bite and devour one another, but unite to pursue their common prey.
Commenting on this verse, John Trapp quotes Zanchius, who said of the heretic Socinus, “He was a learned man, and of unblameable behavior, but full of heresies, which he never propounded to me otherwise than by way of question, as seeming desirous to be better informed. By this subtle means, he drew away many.”
These Pharisees and Sadducees came asking the Lord Jesus to “show them a sign from heaven.” They could not deny the miracles he had performed before so many. So they pretentiously acted as if they would believe him if he would prove himself to them by a sign from heaven. They were asking for some very unusual sight in the heavens as proof of his mission from God. They wanted him to produce a miracle in the visible heavens, to prove that he had come from heaven and that he is the Son of God, and the true Messiah. They wanted him to do something like God did when he set the rainbow in the sky, or dropped manna from heaven.
Of course, it was nothing but a hypocritical desire. Had our Lord suddenly formed fifty rainbows, turned upside down and covered the earth with manna, they would have found a very “obvious” and “reasonable” flaw in the sign. We would be wise, as our Lord did here, never to honor ungodly religionists with an answer to any of their “learned” objections to the gospel. “Foolish and unlearned questions avoid” (2 Tim. 2:23). If every question raised by carping infidels could be answered irrefutably, they would still be carping infidels. The best thing to do with them (always) is leave them alone.
A Wise Answer
He who is the Wisdom of God and Wisdom incarnate here gives us a great display of his great wisdom. Notice how he dealt with these people. First, he exposed their spiritual ignorance. — “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?” (vv. 2-3)
They could predict the weather with a fair measure of ease and accuracy by observing the sky. But they were so blinded by religious tradition that they could not see the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets when he stood square in their face. The natural man, no matter how thoroughly educated, no matter how religious he may be, is totally ignorant of all things spiritual (1 Cor. 2:14-16). Every thought he has, every opinion he forms about man, sin, God, Christ, redemption, salvation, righteousness, faith, justice, truth, mercy, love, and grace is totally wrong. Faith in Christ is a matter of divine revelation (Matt. 16:18). No man can see the things of God until he is born of God (John 3:5-7). That means that the opinions of people who do not believe God are totally irrelevant, and should be looked upon with utter contempt by those who do believe God.
When our Savior here speaks about “the signs of the times,” he is referring to the undeniable fact that all the signs given in the Old Testament of the times of the Messiah were fulfilled in him and by him. They have nothing to do with people today being able (as multitudes imagine they are) to discern the time when prophetic events connected with our Lord’s second coming are to take place (Acts 1:8).
Second, the Lord Jesus exposed the utter hypocrisy of these pretentious, religious deceivers. – “O ye hypocrites!” When it came to dealing with the deceivers of men’s souls, the Son of God did not mince words. He frankly and publicly declared them to be “a wicked and adulterous generation” (v. 4), because they not only forsook God; but they attempted to justify their unbelief because they lacked sufficient proof.
Third, our Lord declared that one solemn, indisputable sign would be fulfilled by him, — “The Sign of the prophet Jonah” (v. 4). Jonah was sacrificed, one man for many, to save all who were in the ship with him from the wrath of God. So the Lord Jesus was sacrificed as our Substitute, one Man for many. He died to save all God’s elect (John 11:47-52) (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 1:18). As Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights, so the Son of God was buried in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. As Jonah was delivered from the whale’s belly, so the Lord Jesus was raised up from the dead on the third day. Having put away our sins by the sacrifice of himself, he was “justified in the Spirit” when God raised him from the dead. As Jonah declared, so the Son of God declared, in all that he did and suffered for us, “Salvation is of the Lord!”
Then, at last, “He left them” (v. 4). Oh, what a solemn word! “He left them and departed;” and the people of that place saw him no more. Because they would not hear him and would not believe him, he left them to themselves! This is horrible to consider; but it is his just judgment upon men who will not receive his Word (Hos. 4:17; Pro. 1:23-33). What great wrath our God heaps upon those who refuse to believe him! He orders his servants to preach no more to them. He allows none to tell them of the good news of life and salvation by him. He even commands his prophets not to pray for them. And even if they try to do otherwise, they simply cannot.
What a solemn passage this is to read! Here is a band of lost men showing great concern for the things of God. There are multitudes in every age who amuse themselves and deceive others by falsely interpreting the Scriptures to suit themselves, and by misrepresenting God’s faithful servants to get people to follow them. Like Diotrephes, they love to have the pre-eminence. The cross of Christ is always an offense to them. They want something more, “a sign from heaven.” But no sign shall be given them. And they shall only be offended more, if God has given them up to their reprobate minds.
A Warning Announced
In verses 6 and 12 our Savior announces an ageless warning to his disciples. — “Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees…Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.”
If you will read the four gospels carefully, paying attention to what our Savior taught, you cannot miss the fact that he warned us more often against false religion and false prophets than anything else. Nothing else is so dangerous to your soul. Nothing else is so deadly! Let us be wise and hear what the Savior says.
To whom is the warning given? “Then Jesus said unto them,” his disciples, “take heed and beware.” This is a warning given to the apostles themselves. If these men needed warning, how much more do we need it (1 Cor. 10:12).
What is the danger against which the Son of God here warns us? “The doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” The warning goes beyond the spirit of hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and ritualism in the Pharisees. It goes beyond the spirit of the free-thinking, compromising, half-infidel intellectualism and rationalism of the Sadducees. Our Lord warns us to take heed and beware of their doctrine.
But the doctrines of the Pharisees and the Sadducees were totally different. They did not agree about anything. Their creeds were as opposite to one another as any two religious creeds could be. That is how it appears; but that is not really the case. True, the Sadducees denied the authority of the prophets, which the Pharisees defended. The Sadducees denied the resurrection and future judgment, which the Pharisees vigorously maintained. Yet, the Pharisees and the Sadducees really believed the same thing. Their doctrine was the result of human tradition, the commandments of men, and the inventions of religious leaders being mixed with the Word of God. They taught the freewill of man, justification by works, and religious ritualism. The Holy Spirit calls it “the doctrine,” not doctrines, “of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.”
There are many churches and denominations in this world. Some are liberal. Others are conservative. Some are large, wealthy, and influential. Others are small, poor, and insignificant. But, if you cut through all the trappings of the various religions of the world and get to the heart of things, you will find that really there are only two religions in the whole world. The one is true. The other is false.
True religion, the religion of the Bible, is the religion of free grace. It traces salvation to God. It ascribes the entire work of salvation to God alone. It makes election, redemption, regeneration, preservation, and glorification to be the works of God’s free grace alone. All false religion is the religion of freewill. No matter what denominational name it wears, freewillism traces salvation to man. It does not omit God altogether. (Satan is too sly for that!) But it ascribes salvation to man, not to God. It makes the determining factor in salvation to be the will, work, and worth of man. Whereas the Word of God makes salvation to be determined by the will of God (Rom. 9:11-18), the worth of Christ (1 Pet. 3:18; Rom. 3:24-26), and the work of God the Holy Spirit (John 6:63).
Is your religion true, or false? Think about it? Does your religion glorify God, or man? Read Proverbs 16:25. The religion of the Bible honors the triune God alone (1 Cor. 1:30-31).
What word does our Lord use to describe the doctrine of the Pharisees and the Sadducees? — “Leaven.” Leaven once admitted, even in the smallest quantity, works secretly, without noise, and gradually changes the whole character of the loaf. So false doctrine and heresy works in the church to corrupt it from “the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3). If the church of Christ is to be strong and established in the faith of the gospel, the pulpit must be strong, relentlessly proclaiming the faith of the gospel. It is the responsibility of every faithful pastor to see to it that he faithfully preaches the doctrine of Christ. It is also his responsibility to see to it that everything taught in the assembly trusted to his care is consistent with and reinforces the message of God’s free and sovereign grace that he proclaims in the pulpit. Every piece of literature in the assembly ought to reflect the message of the pulpit. If it does not, it is because the pastor is weak and irresponsible. The hymns sung must be gospel hymns. It is inconceivable to me that any pastor would preach free grace in the pulpit and then allow freewill hymns (if that title can be used for such trash) in the congregation. Yet, many do. If that is the case, it is because the pastor is weak and irresponsible. A faithful father would never allow poison to be served at the family table, no matter how much his wife and children were addicted to it.
This is a warning for all ages. We must add nothing to the gospel. We must take nothing from the gospel (Gal. 1:6-8). Any human additions or subtractions are “the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.”
A Wretched Assumption
In verses 5-12 we see our Lord’s disciples make a wretched assumption. Because of the weakness of their faith, they assumed that the Lord Jesus was talking about their failure to bring food with them and almost missed the lesson he was teaching. How much we are like these poor disciples!
“And when his disciples were come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread. Which when Jesus perceived, he said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread? Do ye not yet understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets ye took up? Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets ye took up? How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.”
Their reasoning was carnal. “They reasoned among themselves”(v. 7). Such reasoning is always carnal and leads to error. The poor disciples had forgotten their past experiences (vv. 8-10). It was their lack of faith that caused them to misunderstand the Savior’s words. Spurgeon said, “If it were not for our wretched little faith and our reasoning among ourselves, the memory of our former deliverances would lift us beyond all tendency to mistrust God.” But our Lord is always better to us than our fears. We have a gracious and faithful Savior and Teacher who mercifully causes us to understand his Word, even as he did these disciples.
As we read and study Holy Scripture, we should always look for an obvious, personal and spiritual application, not merely the facts contained in the letter of the Word. — “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). Let us ever keep in memory the wondrous works of our God on our behalf, and review them often, so that we may learn to trust him implicitly. That which he has done, he will do. He will always care and provide for his own.