Seeking Signs

The US Presidential primaries are in full swing, and voters across the country are looking for signs. We want signs that a person is strong, signs that they can do what we want them to do, and signs that they can beat everyone who is running against them. We look for candidates with money, with an independent streak, and yet who agree with us. Our bizarre presidential election is the most vivid example, but races from sheriffs to senators feature the same drama.

Our need for signs is not only in politics; it is everywhere in life. Employers choose employees by looking at their training, experience, and ability to get along. None of these guarantee that the employee will be successful, but without a crystal ball or tea leaves to read the future, such signs are the best way a company has to choose the person with the best chance of accomplishing institutional goals. Patients seek signs that a doctor will make them well, and car buyers seek signs that a vehicle will make them happy. Interpersonal relationships are the same; men and women seek signs in choosing their friends and even their mates.

Jesus had been healing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching the untrained, and performing miracles for two years when the religious leaders of the day asked Him for a sign in Matthew 12. Ostensibly, if Jesus produced the right sign, these men would believe Him. Ordinary men seek ordinary signs from each other – diplomas, resume’s, and physical feats. Jesus was anything but ordinary, and these leaders sought miracles from Him. I claim to be a physician and people want to see certificates and licenses. Jesus claimed to be the one and only God, and people wanted to see Him do things that only God could do. The Pharisees and scribes search for signs was different in degree but not in kind from what they saw, and what we see, in day to day life.

Why we seek signs

People seek signs not primarily to determine what to believe but to determine what to do. The first step is to gain information and the second step is to make a decision. Voters need to know about a candidate before they can decide whether or not to vote for him or her. Therefore the first reason to seek signs is to learn about something or someone. The Bible says that as we know a tree by its fruit, we will know a person by what he or she says and does. This “fruit” is a set of signs.

The second reason to seek signs is to delay making a decision that we don’t want to make. In this circumstance, “seeking signs” is usually called “getting more information”. Government leaders, business executives, and many others delay decisions until the issue resolves itself one way or another. Passive leadership is a trap; even if an organization chooses not to act, inaction should be a deliberate choice.

The third reason to seek signs is to help decide what to do. Sometimes we follow the direction that the signs lead, as when circumstances point toward taking a certain job and we take the job. Other times we go a different direction than where the signs lead. How many of us have been called to give money to a homeless man, or witness to a neighbor, or go on a mission trip, and we went the other way? God’s sent signs to Jonah that clearly pointed east towards Nineveh, but he went west towards Spain. Our works reflect what we really think, and those works are often inconsistent with what we say we believe. People seek signs both to justify doing something and also to justify not doing something.

The scribes and Pharisees had plenty of information about Jesus. They had heard Him speak countless times and seen His mighty works. They noted the compassion with which He treated the poor and the boldness with which He confronted injustice. They were not waiting for more information; these men knew enough about Jesus to decide whether or not to follow Him.

God’s answer

Jesus accused these scribes and Pharisees of being “evil and adulterous”. They had more than enough data to choose to follow Him, but they refused to do so. We do the same thing in many parts of our lives.

Our Creator gives us all of creation to declare His glory to us and His love for us, and we can choose to see Him in this sign or choose not to. The evidence for God is absolutely overwhelming; indeed almost every person for all of history has seen God in nature. Those who choose to see God in creation will enjoy His beauty, His power, His brilliance, and His love. After all, God does cause the rain to fall on both the evil and the good.

There have always been a small minority who refuse to see God in His creation. Those who choose not to see God in the universe will not enjoy those things. They may enjoy the physical world, but see only random chance or impersonal forces behind it. One of the great appeals of Darwin’s theory of evolution is that it provides a semi-plausible explanation for the existence of the universe without the need for God. For those who don’t want God or guilt to limit their conduct, evolutionism is a handy belief.

God provides signs of His work in every part of life. Our ability to love is a sign of His love, and the warmth of our relationships reflects the warmth of the relationship that we can have with Him. God provides people who know Him to minister to others, and the very existence of the Church is a powerful testimony to the truth of the Bible and the person of Jesus. Thousands of religious movements have come and gone over the millennia, but the work of Christ has remained. God has given us signs, but we must interpret them rightly.

Jesus harsh reply, however, is overshadowed by His spectacular promise. Despite their obstinacy, God would indeed give them a sign, one which was foreshadowed nearly 1000 years before in the example of Jonah. Jesus was about to do something that no one in history had ever done before; He would raise Himself from the dead. What greater sign could anyone do to prove His divine nature than to rise from the dead?

God’s warning

The scribes and Pharisees had refused to believe in Jesus despite His words and His works. Jesus healed hundreds if not thousands, but that was not enough. He fed over ten thousand, but that was not enough. He uttered millions of the most wonderful words ever to pass through human lips, but that was not enough. There was one last thing that Jesus could do to try to reach these hard-hearted men; He could conquer death. If the scribes and the Pharisees refused to believe in Him after that unmistakable sign, there was no sign that they would ever accept. Thus their doom was sure.

In this example, the scribes and Pharisees were about to make a poor choice, and they would unfortunately pay dearly for it. Non-Christians today must make the right choice or pay similar consequences. Christians, however, also need to trust and obey God, both in small and large matters. Our eternal salvation is not at stake, but our effectiveness is. Luke tells us that to whom much is given, much is required (12:48). God gives us little signs which He expects us to follow, and faithful obedience in these little things enables faithful obedience in the big ones.


Seeking signs is a common and important human activity; God even commands us to do. The error of the scribes and Pharisees was not in seeking a sign, but in choosing poorly with the information that they already had. The Lord’s grace to them, and to us, was and is overwhelming. But we can still choose to disbelieve. If we do, if we close the door to our last hope of salvation, we have no hope.


The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes

The Pharisees, whose origin is probably in the “pious ones” or Hasidim, were a prominent religious group of at least 6,000 members in first century Palestine. After the catastrophe of the Babylonian exile and the growing threat of Hellenism during and after Alexander the Great, the Jews tried to recover what was right about their religion and culture and prevent anything similar from ever happening again.  They were dedicated to the Law, including the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, and they believed that they should focus on three things.

  1. To know the Law expertly and judge wisely from it
  2. To make disciples
  3. To build a fence around the Law.

“Building a fence” around the Law deserves special mention.  The Jews had been punished for breaking the Law of Moses, and so building a fence meant generating laws (the Oral tradition) to prevent their countryman from violating the written Law of God.  For example, the Torah instructs God’s people to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  Pharisaical laws prohibited walking more than 1200 yards, starting a fire, or lifting too much weight.  Their hope was that if they did not violate the oral tradition, they could not violate God’s law.  Over time, the Pharisees came to value the oral tradition as much as the original written law.  They were active in ceremony in the synagogues and to a lesser extent the Temple, and their piety and religious focus made them popular among the people.  They were not as political as the Sadducees.  Two major schools of thought include the slightly more permissive Hillel and the slightly more conservative Shammai.  The Pharisees were neither strongly for nor strongly against the Romans, with some members encouraging rebellion and others’ submission.  They believed in eschatology, including angels, the resurrection, and the dual nature of man (body and soul) (Acts 23:8).

Jesus’ primary contention with the Pharisees was twofold.  First, their scrupulous adherence to the Oral Tradition often made them proud of their conduct and their spiritual state.  Pharisees too commonly looked down on others.  Second, in striving to keep every law, they completely missed the purpose of the Law.  God wanted justice, mercy, and humility from His people (Micah 6:8), manifest by obedience and love, not some slavish adherence to a list of misunderstood laws and rote performance of a ceremony (1 Samuel 15:22).

Pharisees are negatively portrayed in the New Testament on the whole, but some Pharisees supported Jesus and seemed generally righteous men.   After Jerusalem was destroyed and the rebellion crushed in AD 70, the Sadducees vanished and the Pharisaic tradition evolved into Judaism today.

The Sadducees were Hellenists and Roman supporters.  They controlled the Temple and were and affluent and politically connected.  These men held only the Torah as authoritative and so did not believe in angels or an afterlife.  Sadducees controlled the High Priesthood during the time of Christ, and Annas and Caiaphas both served in that role.  They were fierce opponents of the Pharisees, but were not popular with the common people as the Pharisees were, so the ruling council of Judea, the San Hedrin, contained both groups.

The Essenes are not mentioned in the Bible, but were extremely strict followers of the Law.  They were ascetic, monastic, and celibate.  The settlement at Qumran belonged to an Essene group.   Archaeological evidence suggests that there were no women living at Qumran, although some skeletons of women and children have been found.

The Pharisees’ theology, accepting the entire Old Testament including eschatology, is much more in line with the whole Bible than the Sadducees’ or the Essenes’ theology.   The danger into which the Pharisees’ fell (and the Galatians) is to abandon grace.   The Law is good but it is not the main thing in Christianity.  The main thing for each one of us is our relationship with Jesus Christ.