In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus has healed (4:23-24; 8:1-4; 8:5-13; 8:14-17; 9:1-8; 9:27-31; 11:9-14), raised the dead (9:18-26) and cast out demons (4:24; 8:28-34; 9:32-34; 12:22-32). His ministry has been characterized by powerful deeds of healing and rescue as He brings the reign of God into a sinful world.
And yet we read in Matthew 12:
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. 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” (Matthew 12:38-41 ESV).
Jesus has been doing wonders and miracles, and then the scribes and Pharisees come and ask him for a sign! And this is not the last time it happens. In the chapters that follow Jesus heals many (15:29-31) and performs two miraculous feedings of very large crowds (14:13-21 and 15:32-39).
Then immediately after he feeds the 4,000 we are told:
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed (Matthew 16:1-4 ESV).
This time the Pharisees and Sadducees, two groups that were opposed to each other on many topics, approach Jesus in order to test him. They again ask Jesus for a sign – this time described as a “sign from heaven.” Since Jesus has been performing various kinds of miracles and they come asking for a sign, it seems that they have something more specific in mind. Most likely they wanted Jesus to predict or describe ahead of time some miraculous act that God would presently do – something that would immediately be verifiable.
However, Jesus won’t be pulled in to something like that. Instead he twice responds by saying that the only sign that will be given them is the “sign of Jonah” for just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights, so also the Son of Man will be in the in the heart of the earth for three days and nights. The only sign he will give to demonstrate the validity of his ministry is his resurrection from the dead.
As it turns out, Jesus’ opponents are so dead set on rejecting him, that even when the sign of Jonah occurs on Easter and a report about it is brought to them, they refuse to believe. They invent a story to cover it up:
While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day” (Matthew 28:11-15 ESV).
I have been working with Matthew recently, and was thinking again about the fact that Jesus gives this same answer twice, and that he refuses to give any other answer. The only proof that he gives them is his resurrection. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection. The apostle Paul comes right out and says that: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19 ESV).
Obviously we know this, but I wonder if we regularly allow this fact to shape the way we talk to others about the faith. As we bear witness to Christ, do we hold up the resurrection as the definitive sign that demonstrates how all of Christianity’s claims about Christ are true? Do we allow it to be the “sign of Jonah” that it was for Jesus?
There are many topics into which discussions with those who don’t believe in Christ can wind. They may want to talk about the nature of the Scriptures, or evolution, or the problem of evil or any number of other subjects. These are all significant topics that are worthy of discussion and for which Christians have good answers. But ultimately they are all merely sideshows; they are diversions from the real issue. The one real issue is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because when a person believes in the resurrection it puts all of those other questions in a completely new light.
The resurrection brings to bear the strength of Christianity as a historical religion. These are not events that occurred “long ago in a place far, far away.” Instead they occurred in first century A.D. Palestine and we have eye witness accounts and historical documents – documents that if they were about any other ancient historical event would be treated as primary source material. The available evidence (including the historical development of the Church and her theology) only really makes sense if Jesus rose from the dead.
Although a far longer list could be compiled, this evidence can be summarized for conversation with others under five points. First, the New Testament writings, the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus leave no doubt that Jesus really lived and was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
Second, something happened to Jesus’ body. The story of Jesus’ resurrection would have fallen apart if the highly motivated Jewish opponents of Christianity had produced his rotting corpse. However, they couldn’t. The fact that the tomb was empty on Easter is attested by multiple witnesses in the New Testament sources. The primary witnesses were women – exactly the kind of people you wouldn’t supply as witnesses in the first century Jewish world if you were making up a story meant to persuade.
Third, the New Testament sources provide evidence for multiple appearances by Jesus to multiple people in multiple places (both in and around Jerusalem and far to the north in Galilee). The sources do not describe these appearances by the resurrected Jesus as the one time experience of a small group that easily could have been misunderstood. In fact very early (before Paul even became an apostle) information about these witnesses was passed on as a kind of creed. Paul reports:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 ESV).
Such an account could not have been passed on if the resurrected Christ had not appeared to these people. At the start of this tradition you are going to have to be able to come up with more than five hundred people who claim to have seen Jesus, or else when probed by hostile Jews it will collapse. Beyond this, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, you are going to have to find a large number of people who are willing to keep the secret as they perpetuate a fraud. Our own observations about life demonstrate how difficult this would be.
Fourth, the willingness of these self-proclaimed eyewitnesses to suffer and die because of the resurrected Jesus requires some explanation. As it has often been observed, people are willing to die for something they believe to be true, but no one dies for something that they know to be false. And as the previous point makes clear, the scope and nature of the witnesses could leave no doubt as to whether the resurrection was true or false.
The apostle Paul provides a particularly powerful illustration of this. By his own account, Paul was a happy and successful Pharisee (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4-6). However an encounter with the resurrected Jesus (Gal 1:12, 16; 1 Cor 15:8) turned his world upside down so that he came to count all of those things as garbage (Phil 3:8) and instead he focused on Christ. Paul said that now his goal was “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11 ESV).
Finally, the unified theology of the early Church about what had happened in Jesus has to be explained. The first Christians did not believe that Jesus had simply come back to life after dying (though this belief in a bodily existence after death was, in and of itself, absurd to the pagan world). Instead they declared that the resurrection of the Last Day had already begun in the one individual, Jesus of Nazareth (1 Cor 15:20-23). This was a belief that did not exist in Judaism because resurrection was a Last Day event that involved all people. What caused the united witness of the early Church to make this utterly unique claim about Jesus?
The most reasonable way to explain this evidence is that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. The rationality of the argument cannot create faith that declares Jesus to be Lord. Only the Holy Spirit can do that through the Gospel – the message about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our salvation (1 Cor 12:3). But as faith seeks understanding, these facts confirm the historical accuracy of what is believed and helps to support the life of faith.
In the same way, these facts cannot force the unbeliever to believe. The report about what had happened at the tomb did not prompt the Jewish leaders to believe in Jesus. Not even the requested sign – the sign of Jonah could puncture their unbelief. But what it can do is to demonstrate how empty the objections to Jesus Christ and his resurrection really are. And in that recognition it may be that the Holy Spirit uses the sign of Jonah to create faith in the crucified and risen Lord. After all, it is the one proof that Jesus Christ provided to the unbelievers of his own day.