We have here Christ’s discourse with the Pharisees and Sadducees, men at variance among themselves, as appears Acts 23:7, 8, and yet unanimous in their opposition to Christ; because his doctrine did equally overthrow the errors and heresies of the Sadducees, who denied the existence of spirits and a future state; and the pride, tyranny, and hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who were the great imposters of the traditions of the elders. Christ and Christianity meet with opposition on all hands. Observe,
I. Their demand, and the design of it.
1. The demand was of a sign from heaven; this they desired him to show them; pretending they were very willing to be satisfied and convinced, when really they were far from being so, but sought excuses from an obstinate infidelity. That which they pretended to desire was,
(1.) Some other sign than what they had yet had. They had great plenty of signs; every miracle Christ wrought was a sign, for no man could do what he did unless God were with him. But this will not serve, they must have a sign of their own choosing; they despised those signs which relieved the necessity of the sick and sorrowful, and insisted upon some sign which gratify the curiosity of the proud. It is fit that the proofs of divine revelation should be chosen by the wisdom of God, not by the follies and fancies of men. The evidence that is given is sufficient to satisfy an unprejudiced understanding, but was not intended to please a vain humour. Ant it is an instance of the deceitfulness of the heart, to think that we should be wrought upon by the means and advantages which we have not, while we slight those which we have. If we hear not Moses and the prophets, neither would we be wrought upon though one rose from the dead.
(2.) It must be a sign from heaven. They would have such miracles to prove his commission, as were wrought at the giving of the law upon mount Sinai: thunder, and lightening, and the voice of words, were the sign from heaven they required. Whereas the sensible signs and terrible ones were not agreeable to the spiritual and comfortable dispensation of the gospel. Now the word comes more nigh us (Rom. 10:8), and therefore the miracles do so, and do not oblige us to keep such a distance as these did, Heb. 12:18.
2. The design was to tempt him; not to be taught by him, but to ensnare him. If he should show them a sign from heaven, they would attribute it to a confederacy with the prince of the power of the air; if he should not, as they supposed he would not, they would have that to say for themselves, why they did not believe on him. They now tempted Christ as Israel did, 1 Cor. 10:9. And observe their perverseness; then, when they had signs from heaven, they tempted Christ, saying, Can he furnish a table in the wilderness? Now that he had furnished a table in the wilderness, they tempted him, saying, Can he give us a sign from heaven?
II. Christ’s reply to this demand; lest they should be wise in their own conceit, he answered these fools according to their folly, Prov. 26:5. In his answer,
1. He condemns their overlooking of the signs they had, Matt. 16:2, 3. They were seeking for the signs of the kingdom of God, when it was already among them. The Lord was in this place, and they knew it not. Thus their unbelieving ancestors, when miracles were their daily bread, asked, Isa. the Lord among us, or is he not?
To expose this, he observes to them,
(1.) Their skilfulness and sagacity in other things, particularly in natural prognostications of the weather; “You know that a red sky over-night is a presage of fair weather, and a red sky in the morning of foul weather.” There are common rules drawn from observation and experience, by which it is easy to foretel very probably what weather it will be. When second causes have begun to work, we may easily guess at their issue, so uniform is nature in its motions, and so consistent with itself. We know not the balancing of the clouds (Job 37:16), but we may spell something from the faces of them. This gives no countenance at all to the wild and ridiculous predictions of the astrologers, the star-gazers, and the monthly prognosticators (Isa. 47:13) concerning the weather long before, with which weak and foolish people are imposed upon; we are sure, in general, that seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, shall not cease. But as to the particulars, till, by the weather-glasses, or otherwise, we perceive the immediate signs and harbingers of the change of weather, it is not for us to know, no, not that concerning the times and seasons. Let it suffice, that it shall be what weather pleases God; and that which pleases God, should not displease us.
(2.) Their sottishness and stupidity in the concerns of their souls; Can ye not discern the signs of the times?
[1.] “Do you not see that the Messiah is come?” The sceptre was departed from Judah, Daniel’s weeks were just expiring, and yet they regarded not. The miracles Christ wrought, and the gathering of the people to him, were plain indications that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, that this was the day of their visitation. Note, First, There are signs of the times, by which wise and upright men are enabled to make moral prognostications, and so far to understand the motions and methods of Providence, as from thence to take their measures, and to know what Israel ought to do, as the men of Issachar, as the physician from some certain symptoms finds a crisis formed. Secondly, There are many who are skilful enough in other things, and yet cannot or will not discern the day of their opportunities, are not aware of the wind when it is fair for them, and so let slip the gale. See Jer. 8:7; Isa. 1:3. Thirdly, It is great hypocrisy, when we slight the signs of God’s ordaining, to seek for signs of our own prescribing.
[2.] “Do not you foresee your own ruin coming for rejecting him? You will not entertain the gospel of peace, and can you not evidently discern that hereby you pull an inevitable destruction upon your own heads?” Note, It is the undoing of multitudes, that they are not aware what will be the end of their refusing Christ.
2. He refuses to give them any other sign (Matt. 16:4), as he had done before in the same words, Matt. 12:39. Those that persist in the same iniquities, must expect to meet with the same reproofs. Here, as there, (1.) He calls them an adulterous generation; because, while they professed themselves of the true church and spouse of God, they treacherously departed from him, and brake their covenants with him. The Pharisees were a generation pure in their own eyes, having the way of the adulterous woman, that thinks she has done no wickedness, Prov. 30:20. (2.) He refuses to gratify their desire. Christ will not be prescribed to; we ask, and have not, because we ask amiss. (3.) He refers them to the sign of the prophet Jonas, which should yet be given them; his resurrection from the dead, and his preaching by his apostles to the Gentiles; these were reserved for the last and highest evidences of his divine mission. Note, Though the fancies of proud men shall not be humoured, yet the faith of the humble shall be supported, and the unbelief of them that perish left for ever inexcusable, and every mouth shall be stopped.
This discourse broke off abruptly; he left them and departed. Christ will not tarry long with those that tempt him, but justly withdraws from those that are disposed to quarrel with him. He left them as irreclaimable; Let them alone. He left them to themselves, left them in the hand of their own counsels; so he gave them up to their own hearts’ lust.