Matthew 12:38-42 – The Hopelessness of Signs


Matthew 12:38-42


Jesus invokes figures from Old Testament history to reject the importance of signs and to condemn the unbelief of the scribes and the Pharisees.


Despite Jesus’ emphasis on words and testimony (see Matthew 12:33-37 – Good from Good, Bad from Bad), the scribes and Pharisees respond by asking for a sign. Like Moses turning his staff into a snake (Exodus 7:8-13), the performing of a sign was meant to validate the words of a prophet. The book of Matthew is full of other references to the prophet Moses. With this in mind, Jesus’ rejection of signs can be a reference to the unbelief of Pharaoh and the Egyptians in the face of all the mighty acts that God performed among them. 

In rejecting their request for a sign, Jesus makes a pun. When the scribes and the Pharisees asked for a sign, they meant divine confirmation of Jesus’ authority. Jesus offers them Jonah as a sign (like a highway sign) that points to the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

Jesus then goes on to invoke two sets of witnesses who will stand up in accusation at the last judgment. Notably, both of those groups are non-Israelites. The people of Nineveh believed God’s Israelite prophet. The Queen of Sheba came to hear the wisdom of the king of Israel. The scribes and the Pharisees who should be experts in the scriptures cannot even recognize God’s Messiah in front of them.