Forecasts, Signs, and Faith

How good are you at forecasting the weather? Better than the weather person on the news? In Matthew 16:1–12 Jesus talks about recognizing weather patterns as he is challenged to produce a sign. But he goes on to rebuke his disciples for their lack of faith and to warn them against what he calls the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. What does he mean by yeast, and does it still threaten the church?

Don’t demand signs. Demanding signs betrays a wicked heart. The Pharisees and Sadducees, though usually opposed to each other, came together to test Jesus by demanding a sign from heaven. They could not have been unaware of the many miracles performed by Jesus. But these were earthly miracles. Did they want some powerful sign from heaven, a plague of darkness, the sun and moon to stand still, a hailstorm to drive out their enemies? Even when Jesus cast out an evil spirit, they attributed the miracle to the power of Beelzebub! Matthew 12:24. Their motivation is clearly not to seek an aid to faith, rather, they are trying to put Jesus on the spot, to embarrass him. Although they could forecast the weather, they ignored the presence of the Messiah, the greatest sign that God could give. (The reference to the weather is not included in some old copies of this Gospel, but is probably original.) The “signs of the times” is not primarily a reference to the details surrounding the second coming of Christ, but rather to what should have been obvious—his first coming, the presence of the Messiah in their midst. Their forefathers, as Zephaniah points out, had longed for the day of the Lord, anticipating God’s judgment on his and their enemies, but not realized that they too fell under condemnation. So these people refused to recognize the reality of God’s presence. Their problem lay not in a weak faith, but in unbelieving and rebellious hearts. Jesus, using strong language, calls them “a wicked and adulterous generation.”

Beware of the sign of Jonah. Jesus briefly repeats his reference to the sign of Jonah, see Matthew 12:39–42. The only sign that Jesus would give them was his own presence, the sign of Jonah. Jesus’ miracles did serve as signs to authenticate his ministry and to strengthen the faith of the people. However, to give in to this demand would not serve to strengthen anyone’s faith, and would only increase the authority of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were already plotting Jesus’ death, Matthew 12:14. The presence of Jesus means that one far greater than Jonah is present. Don’t forget that Jonah had been called to pronounce judgment on Nineveh. The death and resurrection of Jesus would be a powerful sign. The coming death of Jesus might appear to be victory for the Pharisees and Sadducees. Yet his resurrection on the third day would be even more unexpected than Jonah’s being regurgitated by the great fish. The One powerful enough to rise from the dead is powerful enough to serve as the judge of that wicked generation. His presence then is an indication that he will be present again as the Judge in the last day. “The special character of ‘the time’ or ‘the times’ . . . is the fact that salvation has come with Christ and in him the last judgment is to be expected.” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p. 476) Significantly, Matthew records Jesus’ action in leaving these people, v. 4.

Trust Jesus as the sign from heaven. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees. As Jesus and his disciples leave by boat to cross the lake, the disciples forget to bring along food. In that setting, Jesus warns against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. That causes considerable discussion about food, perhaps not surprising, when a dozen young men are beginning an involuntary fast. Jesus rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith. Are they worried about hunger? Have they so soon forgotten the feeding of the 5,000 and of the 4,000? Do they consider him unable to meet their needs? Jesus is warning against the yeast of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. It may be easy to criticize the Pharisees for their approach to Jesus. But Jesus is warning his disciples and you that the attitude of the Pharisees is a real danger to you. Just a yeast permeates and affects the dough, the teaching of the Pharisees can corrupt your relationship with Christ. As different as the Sadducees and Pharisees were from each other, they had common underlying belief: the way to God lay through their own actions and observances. That spirit threatened the churches of Galatia, and Paul had to point them away from their own efforts and back to Christ. Just as the Pharisees extended man-made rules, Christians today need to guard against the idea that there are automatic ways to achieve God’s blessing. “Follow these rules, and you’ll have a wonderful marriage,” sounds closer to a domesticated form of the prosperity gospel than it does to developing Christian maturity, sanctification, and godliness. I don’t see as much of it today as was around in the 90s, but placing on Christian women and girls the burden of the responsibility of keeping men from lusting is not only unfair, it is a mechanical, superficial approach that minimizes the sins of the heart. Without blaming Robert Long’s church or his family (who called the police when they recognized their son in videos) for his actions, and without having to decide whether he was more misogynistic or racist (6 of the 8 killed were women of Asian background), his statement that he was getting rid of temptation ought to give us occasion to examine our own hearts, our own language. Do we view sin as something “out there,” or as something in our hearts? Do we consider women ontologically inferior to men and treat them that way? Do we try to justify ourselves and put blame and responsibility on others? If so, as yourself the sobering question if the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees has infected us. The attitude that God has to be on our side, that he should meet our expectations, that we can demand how he must respond—all of this betrays the attitude of the Pharisees. Any time we become more impressed with who we are than with the gracious presence of the Savior, we have been corrupted by the yeast of the Pharisees. If Jesus’ warning had been intended only for the 12 and not for us, Matthew would not have included it in his Gospel. How do you get rid of that terrible yeast?

Rejoice in the sign of Jonah! Don’t look around for a sign from heaven. Recognize the signs which God has revealed. The disciples, puzzling over Jesus talking about yeast and thinking bread, were rebuked by Jesus for having little faith. But the remedy was right there with them. Jesus was calling them to look away from themselves and their own efforts and to grow in faith, to grow in trusting him. He calls you to do the same. “[F]rom the very beginning, even where in justification it is considered the from a passive perspective, faith is a living and active faith, which immediately appropriates the whole Christ. It can indeed increase and grow in that appropriation, but it nevertheless always has for its object the whole Christ and can never isolate him from his benefits nor can it isolate one benefit from the others…. The more Christ indwells us, the more we are strengthened in faith; and the more our faith increases, the more Christ communicates himself to us.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, p. 264) Recognize the presence of Jesus as the ultimate sign from heaven. Do you want to be sure of God’s concern for and involvement in this sin-cursed world? What more wonderful sign could you find than the incarnation? What sign is greater than the presence of the Messiah? Rejoice in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As you move away from demanding that God meet your standards to throwing yourself on his mercy, you can appreciate the depths of God’s love in the redeeming work of Christ. His death removes the guilt of your sins, including the sin of Phariseeism. His resurrection means new life for you, a life in which you are drawn daily closer to him.

Don’t be too concerned if you’re wrong in predicting the weather. But do pay attention to the presence of the Savior, the greatest possible sign from heaven. And live this week as one who is aware of the presence of the Lord, both as your Savior, and as your coming Judge.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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