Today’s message comes from a familiar passage of Scripture in which Jesus scolds the sign-seeking Jewish religious leaders for their hardened hearts of unbelief. The sign of Jonah perhaps meant more to the Jewish listeners than it does to modern readers. What is this sign and what are its implications to us?
In verse 39, Jesus tells us that “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.” We must note that Christ is here addressing a specific request from a specific group of people (verse 38). He is addressing this group of people as representatives of the “evil and adulterous generation” as a whole. But who then is to be understood by this “generation”?
There are various interpretations of this phrase based on the interpreter’s definition of the word “generation.” But the simple fact is that Jesus here uses the word to apply to those individuals that were His immediate audience. In a parallel passage, Jesus uses the phrase, “this generation” four separate times in discussing the sign of Jonah (Luke 11:29-32). We therefore conclude that there is a first-century context to this sign and its fulfillment.
Also important to our study is the fact that “this generation” is “evil and adulterous.” “Evil” indicates a heart condition that is unregenerate and depraved; “adulterous” because they have been unfaithful to their covenant relationship. This is noteworthy, because the Gentiles had no covenant with God. We see then that the immediate audience is those spiritually-dead Jewish religionists who had turned from their covenant with the Lord and had gone about to establish their own righteousness.
The Apostle Paul tells us that the Jews are those that require a sign (1 Corinthians 1:22), and that signs are necessary for the unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:22). We understand then that the sign is a warning to the unbelievers. The Jewish people were facing the impending judgment of God; and they had been given a sign – the sign of Jonah.
Jesus Christ associates Himself with Jonah because of the resurrection (Matthew 12:40). This association verifies for us that the messages they preached were one and the same: “…except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). Christ then rebukes the Jews for their failure to repent at His preaching (Matthew 12:41). Accordingly, the Jews would be condemned by the Ninevites, who repented at the preaching of Jonah. Rather than repenting, this “evil and adulterous generation” crucified the One who called for their repentance.
Nevertheless the Lord was merciful to that generation. The Book of Acts tells us that Peter addressed this same group of Jews on the Day of Pentecost. In his Spirit–filled sermon, the apostle confronts them with their sin, and points to the resurrection of Jesus Christ as an evident token, or sign, of the coming wrath of God.
“And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation.” (Acts 2:40)
The sign of Jonah therefore had a direct relation to the Jewish listeners. History tells us that many of them did not repent; and that the very generation whom Jesus Christ addressed perished in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., when God poured out His wrath by sending Romans soldiers to torch the city, the Temple, and all therein; ruthlessly killing millions. The sign of Jonah (the death, burial, and resurrection) was foolishness to them (1 Corinthians 1:18).
As it relates to us, the sign of Jonah has great implications. The message of repentance is to all (Acts 17:30); and we must remember that a righteous God must judge sin wherever it is found.
Our belief in the resurrection however, shows us New Life from the works of death. So we should lay aside every sin and bring it to the cross of Jesus Christ with repentance and faith that He will cleanse us of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Rather than going astray as the “evil and adulterous” religionists, let us draw near to our Lord, purifying ourselves for His glory and walking in fellowship with Him.