Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. (vv. 38-39, ESV)While reading this, I can immediately hear Jesus' rebuke. But, recently I came across this passage and heard mercy in it as well.
I heard the gospel.
The Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus to give them a sign to prove that He really is the Messiah. Many times we are the same way. We ask God for signs. We want proof that He really is the real God. Other people throughout the ages have doubted God and asked for signs. Although indirect, the Israelites in the time of Moses were given many signs because of their complaining. John the Baptist indirectly asked for proof of Jesus being the Messiah. And, here we have the scribes and Pharisees. In all of these responses that I've mentioned, God is gracious and grants a sign. Even with regards to the scribes and Pharisees.
Before Jesus offers any hope, He rebukes these men. He calls them evil and adulterous. After all, what more are they looking for? They've studied the Word. They should simply believe what the Word says - even if experience isn't completely matching their pre-conceived notions. In all honesty, how many times are we the same way? We ask God to give us signs even when we know that God is still by our side and He is leading us as a good Father. Jesus says that there's an arrogance sometimes (not all the time) when we ask for a sign. Yet, Jesus doesn't walk away from these evil and adulterous men. After all, He came to save the evil and adulterous people. Jesus gives them what they ask for. He gives them the greatest sign that has ever been given and ever will be given - the sign of Jonah.
What is that sign? It's Jesus' death and resurrection. Verse 40 says, "For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (ESV) What greater sign could there be? The people of Nineveh repented after Jonah's release of the great fish, and there will be myriads of people who will be led to repentance because of Jesus' power of sin and death once he is resurrected.
This story is profound. Jesus rebukes the men as evil for asking for a sign and then He promises to be a sign to them. These men don't get the sign they're asking for, and many of these men reject Jesus. But, that doesn't change the fact that this sign brings the most profound blessing. Jesus was sharing the gospel with these men. He reveals the bad news - they're evil. Then he displays the beautiful good news - He is the Savior!
Remember, just like the scribes and pharisees, we are evil and adulterous - seeking our own ways. But also remember this: many previously evil and adulterous scribes and Pharisees are now in Heaven today. Not only that, thousands upon thousands of other evil and adulterous people (like ourselves) can know real forgiveness and life because of this gracious sign of Jonah that Jesus offered up on behalf of sinners.