38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
Rarely does a movie add anything to a book, much less The Lord of the Rings movies. Wonderful as they are, they do not compare to reading the real thing! But there is one little scene that may actually add a bit, if I may be so bold. Shortly after the hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party, as Bilbo is preparing to slip quietly out of The Shire, the wizard Gandalf, who had only just been at the party and had earlier done some amazing fireworks for some amazed children, tells Bilbo that he needs to leave the ring of power behind. When Bilbo, under the ring’s spell, angrily accuses Gandalf of wanting the ring for himself, the room darkens and Gandalf seems to grow taller, filling the room, as he rebukes the now-terrified Bilbo for his foolishness. All of that happens in the book, but the movie version has Gandalf deliver a nice little line of perspective to the quaking Hobbit. In the film, when Bilbo false accuses Gandalf of wanting the ring, Gandalf grows tall and thunders down at Bilbo: “BILBO BAGGINS!! DO NOT TAKE ME FOR A CONJURER OF CHEAP TRICKS!! I’M NOT TRYING TO ROB YOU!! I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU!!” Bilbo, horrified, rushes, quaking with fear, into Gandalf’s comforting arms.
It is quite a moment. In this moment we are reminded that, in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is more than fireworks and parlor tricks. In fact, he is mighty and powerful and, when he desires to be so, terrifying!
My mind went to this scene when reading Matthew 12:38-42. Here, the scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus to perform a sign for them. Instead, they get a glimpse behind the curtain, we might say, and are informed that Jesus is no conjurer of cheap tricks. On the contrary, He is more powerful than they could ever imagine.
Jesus does not do magic tricks.
We begin with a simple fact that we must understand: Jesus does not do magic tricks.
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39a But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign
Speaking of Jesus’ rebuke, Craig Blomberg writes, “Jesus refuses to play their game.” That is a nice way of putting it. It was indeed a game they were playing, and it was a dangerous game…for them.
No, Jesus does not perform for us! He is not some whimsical juggler who wants to titillate us. That is not what his miracles are about. That is not what He is about. Now, we know that Jesus did, in fact, do signs. Consider John 2 and the wedding of Cana.
11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
Here is one of many positive references to Jesus doing signs. At Cana, Jesus’ sign “manifested his glory.” And we see too the fruits of His miracle: “his disciples believed in him.”
But in our passage Jesus calls them “[a]n evil and adulterous generation” because of their request. Why? Because He knows what lurks behind their request.
In Matthew 16, we get a glimpse of their motive.
1 And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven.
Yes, they are attempting to test Jesus. In Matthew 4:7 Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test…” To do so is to question the Lord’s character and to assume that you yourself are in an exalted enough position to catch Him in the wrong. To presume to test God is the height of arrogance and folly!
To ask the Lord to perform for you so that you can evaluate His works for your own intellectual pursuits is as blasphemous as asking Him to perform for you so that you can catch Him in a trap or misattribute His power and signs to the devil, which the Pharisees earlier did. There are lots of wrong reasons to ask for signs! You can see this dynamic at play again in Mark 8:
11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13 And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.
There too they try to “test him.” There too Jesus questions their motives and refuses to do any signs. What is more, as one early anonymous commentator on Matthew explains, in asking Jesus for a sign these scribes and Pharisees were actually questioning His honesty. This commentator writes:
Likewise, to seek from the Son of God a sign of his divinity is to insult the Son of God, because to seek from him a sign of his divinity is nothing else but to disbelieve the words of him who is speaking, as it were, false things about himself unless he backs up his words with overt signs.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1, shares in this negative assessment of those seeking signs with wrong motives.
22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is not a magician or some conjurer of cheap tricks! In some churches and even some denominations the emphasis on miracles and signs almost seems to reduce Him to a magician. Jesus does not put on shows for bored audiences. This is not who He is and this is not what He does and we must not make this mistake.
The miracles of Jesus are all in service to the greatest miracle which is Jesus Himself.
In point of fact, the works and signs and miracles of Jesus are means, not ends. The end of all of them is intended to be Jesus Himself!
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
This is truly amazing! Jesus says that they will, in fact, see a sign and it will be a greater sign than they could ever imagine. It will be the sign of Jonah. Clearly this is a reference to the resurrection. Just as Jonah was in the fish three days and nights, so too will Jesus be in the earth! Lest this create any confusion, the HCSB Study Bible helpfully observes:
Since Jesus’ resurrection occurred on Sunday, some have argued that the reference to three days and three nights requires a Thursday or Wednesday crucifixion. However, 1 Sm 30:12-13 suggests that “three days and three nights” could be idiomatic for a span of time that covered all of one day and parts of two others. Thus Jesus’ interment late on Friday and His resurrection early Sunday counts as three days.
The greatest miracle that Jesus ever performed was the resurrection and this is the miracle we most need. In other words, the miracles of Jesus are all in service to the greatest miracle which is Jesus Himself! The point is not that you can go “Oooooooo! Aaaaaaaaaaaah!” The point is so that you can see Christ crucified and risen and fall at His feet as Lord.
Do you want to see a miracle? Do you want to see a sign? Look at the empty tomb of Easter. Look and marvel! See the greatest miracle of all: Jesus Himself! There is no other point for miracles than the glory of God revealed in Christ. There should be no other motivation.
Ask yourself: why do you want to see miracles? In the movie Gladiator Russell Crowe’s character looks up at the crowd and derisively yells, “Are you not entertained?! Are you not entertained?! Is this not why you are here?” Jesus never does this. He is not here to entertain. He is here to reveal His glory and majesty!
To seek a sign without seeking Jesus is to attempt to manipulate Jesus for your own glory and your own purposes. This is blasphemy! To seek a sign to see if Jesus can perform enough to your liking so that you can believe in Him is likewise wrong. Jesus still does miracles, it is true. But consider this: if the sign of Jonah, the resurrection of Jesus, does not move you to faith, what else could He do that would do so?
The miracles of Jesus call us to faith and repentance, not to mere wonderment.
And this leads us to a more fundamental fact about the works of Jesus: in drawing us to Himself, the miracles of Christ are intended to draw us to faith and repentance.
41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
Jesus moves from rebuking the scribes and Pharisees for their wrong motives to showing them what should be the proper results of seeing the mighty works of God: repentance and faith and worship. After all, Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah. The queen of the South traveled to hear the wisdom of Solomon. And Jesus is greater than either Jonah or Solomon!
Here we see the ultimate test of our desires for signs: is it so that we can see Jesus, know Him more, love Him better, and follow Him more closely? Or is it so that we can be amazed and possibly amused at some kind of heavenly magic show?
In Matthew 13, there is a startling little verse about Jesus’ time in Nazareth:
58 And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.
This lets us know that false motives and lack of faith do not walk hand-in-hand with divine workings. Again, God does not “perform.” God does not do tricks for the incredulous. When God moves, He moves to draw us to Himself. So ask yourself: what are your motives for wanting to see signs?
Do you want to be entertained or do you want Jesus?
Do you want to be amazed or do you want your heart transformed?
Do you want to be dazzled or do you want to worship?
Do you want to examine Jesus like a specimen in the laboratory of your own curiosity or do you want to fall at His feet as the King of Kings?
Do you want a great story to tell others or do you want to be touched by holy fire?
Do you want a “Wow!” moment or do you want genuine repentance?
Do you want to applaud at a spectacle or do you want to trust in the Lamb of God?
What is it that you want from Jesus? And why?
What He most desires is to give you Himself!
 Blomberg, Craig L.. Matthew (The New American Commentary) (p. 206). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13. Ancient Christian Commentary On The Scriptures. Gen. Ed. Thomas C. Oden. New Testament, Vol. 1a (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.255.
 Holman Bible Editorial Staff, Holman Bible Editorial Staff. HCSB Study Bible (Kindle Locations 134121-134124). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.