It wasn’t uncommon for Jews to ask Jesus for a sign. Oddly, the request often followed a miracle. In Matthew 12, Jesus cast out a demon, which had left a man blind and mute. The Pharisees accused Him of using Satan’s power to do so, but then had the gall to request a sign after (Matthew 12:38). In John 6, a day after Jesus fed the 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish, people from the same crowd asked what sign He would perform so they might see and believe (John 6:30). Mark 8 tells of Jesus feeding the 4,000 people in the region of Decapolis with 7 loaves and a few fish. When He returned to Galilee, He was accosted by a group of Pharisees who sought a sign (Mark 8:11). It is likely there were other occasions too, for Paul characterized the Jews as those who would request a sign (1 Corinthians 1:22).
Reading The Sky
It is possible that Matthew 16:1 is a parallel text to Mark 8:11. Both seem to take place around the time Jesus fed the 4,000. If it is the same incident, Matthew gives details that Mark does not. To answer their inquiry and to point out their spiritual blindness He gave them a parable. He said:
When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times. (Matthew 16:2-3)
Anyone who lives near the sea has likely heard this tidbit of wisdom as:
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight;
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.
Shepherds have their own version:
Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight;
Red sky at morning, shepherds take warning.
The sky can be read with some degree of accuracy to predict the weather. It is something that the average person is able to do simply by looking at the sky. The spiritual leaders of the nation could tell you the weather, but they were clueless about the spiritual significance of the time in which they lived and the One who walked in their midst.
They Did Not Have Eyes To See
Peter tells us the prophets who spoke of the Christ searched diligently, wanting to know details about the Messiah (1 Peter 1:10-12). The prophets were at a disadvantage, for it was not in their day, but the things spoken by the prophets were unfolding before the people in Jesus’ day. If anyone should have known that Jesus was the Messiah, it should have been the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were students of the law, they saw His works and heard His teachings, but rejected Him despite these things. It was the same blindness that caused them to stir the Jerusalem crowd to ask for Barabbas to be freed and Jesus to be hung on a cross. After He was risen, they would not repent, but denied His resurrection, buying off the soldiers who knew the truth. Gamaliel, one of their own, warned them to leave the apostles alone, lest they be found to fight against God (Acts 5:34-39).
The Greatest Sign Of All
Jesus revealed the sign He would give to them, and to all. He said:
A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. (Matthew 15:4)
When that sign came, they rejected it just like they did every other sign Jesus performed. Unlike the prophets before them, they were not focused on the coming of the Messiah, and thus rejected every sign that He gave as evidence of His identity—the greatest of them—the resurrection.
It’s easy to sit back and say the leaders of the Jews should have known. They chose not to. What about us? Are we able to read the sky and discern the weather, but unable (or unwilling) to see things of spiritual significance? Watchful men in the first century realized He was the Son of God, and followed Him. Will we do the same? He gave sign after sign to demonstrate that He was the Messiah they waited for.
The arrival of the Messiah and His work while here was full of signs. Though many in the religious world today are saying there are signs of His return. He has said otherwise (Matthew 24:34-44; 25:13; 2 Peter 3:3; etc.). Therefore, let us be watchful—not for signs of His return, but that we are faithful to Him and ready for His coming.