Demanding a Sign

by Matthew W. Bassford

Matthew 16:1-4 is one of the more off-putting passages in the gospels. Some Pharisees and Sadducees come to Jesus asking for a sign. A reasonable request, right? Don’t you have the right to ask a self-proclaimed prophet to show that he’s really from God before you believe in Him?

However, Jesus does not accede to this apparently reasonable request. Instead, He condemns the sign-seekers as belonging to an evil, adulterous generation and then leaves. If Jesus were merely human, the exchange might leave us wondering if He woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning!

Of course, Jesus is not merely human, and His response clues us in to an important piece of spiritual wisdom. Contextually speaking, the Pharisees and Sadducees were not seeking a sign. After all, Jesus had just miraculously fed more than 4000 people! Instead, they were seeking another sign, not because they were looking for a reason to believe, but because they were looking for a reason to doubt.

Jesus makes this point in Matthew 16:2-3. His critics were perfectly capable of assessing the atmospheric conditions and reaching a conclusion about the weather, but when it came to Jesus, they all of a sudden got dumb: “We don’t have enough information yet! We need more!”

Really, though, their problem wasn’t an information problem. They had all the information they needed. Instead, they had a heart problem, and all the information in the world wouldn’t help.

Today, Christians frequently encounter modern-day sign-seekers. These are people who already have made up their minds that they don’t want to believe in the Bible, or that they don’t want to believe something in the Bible. However, they hide their hard-heartedness behind reasonable-seeming requests for more evidence, and whatever evidence is supplied, it still won’t be enough.

Here, I’m particularly reminded of a story that a sister in Joliet once told me. She was talking Bible with a friend of hers who belonged to a denomination that practiced baptism by sprinkling. Naturally, they started talking about the necessity of immersion.

The friend asked to see a passage that showed that baptism was by immersion. The sister turned to Acts 8 and the story of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. She noted that Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and came back up out of the water. Ergo, immersion.

The friend replied, “I want to see another passage besides that one.”

No, she didn’t. She wanted to go on believing that sprinkling was an acceptable mode of baptism, and a whole Bible-full of evidence wouldn’t have been enough to change her mind.

In our discussions with others, it is useful for us to be able to recognize the “one more sign” pattern of behavior. If we make a solid Scriptural argument, and a friend immediately asks for more proof without engaging the proof we’ve provided, that’s a sign that they’re not being honest. Nothing we say is going to get through to them, and we might as well stop wasting our time.

Most of all, though, we need to watch out for such a spirit in ourselves. One passage is enough to establish a spiritual truth, and if somebody reasons from that passage to a conclusion, we are responsible either for rebutting the argument or accepting the conclusion. What we must not do is cry out for more evidence when the evidence provided is sufficient.

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