Every chapter of the Bible is important, but you know what they say about all persons being born equal: “Some are equaler than others.” So also with the Bible. Some chapters are more important than others, though all are important. Matthew 16 is one of these “more important” chapters. It is the central chapter in Matthew’s account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Or to put it another way, it is the high point in Jesus’ teaching and the disciples’ growth in spiritual understanding.
This chapter is the climax of those chapters in which Jesus withdraws from the crowds to teach His disciples privately. The change began in chapter 13, when Jesus began to teach in parables, explaining that this was so the crowds might not be able to understand His teaching while those who had been given to him by the Father would understand it. Chapters 14-16 contain private teaching through which the disciples make slow spiritual advances. In chapter 16 Peter makes the single most important confession of faith in Jesus so far in Matthew—“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” – after which Jesus begins to teach the disciples that it is necessary for Him to die and then be raised again.
Chapter 16 also contains the first mention of the Church (v.18), as well as Jesus’ important teaching that anyone who would be His disciple must “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” All in all, it is a critical collection of vital teaching in a small amount of material.
This teaching begins with a prelude that relates another confrontation with the religious leaders of Christ’s day. Matthew identifies them as the Pharisees and Sadducees, saying that they came to test Jesus “by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.”
This was an odd combination of forces, for the Pharisees and Sadducees held different views and were rivals and antagonists in the leadership of Israel. The Pharisees’ very name means “separated,” and they separated themselves by strict observance of the law and traditions of Israel. The Sadducees were modernists. They did not believe in miracles, and although they looked for a Messiah, the Messiah they looked for was no more than an effective political leader. They were really politicians themselves, and their policy was to collaborate with and support whatever government happened to be in power at the time.
War, like misery, makes strange bedfellows, however, and here both the Pharisees and Sadducees appear side by side in their opposition to Jesus. More than likely they were representing the Sanhedrin, which included both groups, and this was probably an official delegation. Matthew says that they wanted to discredit Him by demanding a miracle that He either could not or would not perform.
It took a great deal of unbelief to ask for a sign from Jesus after He had already given so many. Matthew alone has told us about His healing the sick, casting out demons, calming storms on the Sea of Galilee, feeding the hungry, even raising the dead. Most, if not all, of these miracles must have been reported to these leaders, which is why they had come to challenge Jesus. But it was not really a sign they were after. They hated Jesus for who He was, and their demand was really only an attempt to discredit Him. “Show us a sign! Show us a sign from heaven!”
At this same point in the next Gospel, Mark tells us that Jesus “sighed deeply,” so we may conclude that Jesus’ answer came from a heavy heart. He was distressed at the fierce unbelief and lack of spiritual understanding of those who should have been leading Israel to believe on Him as their Messiah. “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times,” Jesus said. “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Then He “left them and went away.” Those last words are ominous with meaning.
We have already studied the sign of Jonah, since Jesus spoke of it in nearly the same words earlier. What is new here is His reference to the leaders’ skill in predicting changes in the weather. We have almost the same saying: “Red sky at night: sailors’ delight. Red sky at morning: sailors take warning.” Yet we might be closer to Christ’s meaning if we compare His saying to our preoccupation with weather reports. Some people watch the evening news on television chiefly to see the weather predictions, which are really quite amazing. We have satellite pictures that display cloud cover and moisture density; computer generated graphics of clouds, rain, and snow patterns; live pictures of hurricanes, floods, and blizzards; and five-day forecasts – all on a global scale, if we want it. It is quite remarkable.
Wouldn’t Jesus say to us, if He were here to speak to us directly, “You know how to forecast the weather, but you cannot interpret the times in which you live. I came, I died for sin, I have been raised from the dead, and all that means nothing to most of you. You worry about whether it is going to rain tomorrow, but you don’t give a single serious thought to where you will spend eternity.”
What will it take to get through to such a wicked and adulterous generation as our own? Nothing, of course – if we will not believe on the basis of the sign of the prophet Jonah, which is a reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org