The following is a lightly edited transcript
We’ve been thinking a lot about signs and wonders at Bethlehem in these recent days. I don’t know how many of you are aware of all the attention being given to miracles, prophecy, healing, signs, wonders, and spiritual warfare of all kinds today. It’s quite a popular thing to talk about, and a lot is happening around the world. What do the death of Jesus Christ and the way he responded to the taunts of his accusers have to teach us about signs and wonders? There are a couple of verses I want to highlight. If you’ve still got your Bible open, you can look at them with me. Otherwise, you can just listen. I’m going to read Mark 15:29–32:
Those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.”
They are saying, “Give us another sign. Come on. We want a sign. Jerk those hands off, jump off that cross, and give us a sign, and then we will believe when we see that sign.” Do you think that’s true? Do you think they would have believed had he come down? That’s a trick question. It’s a trick question because the answer is yes and no.
The Real Jesus
You see, had he stepped down from the cross and leveled the soldiers, they would have believed, but it wouldn’t have been belief in the Jesus of the Bible anymore. It wouldn’t have been belief in the Jesus they were rejecting. It wouldn’t have been belief in the Jesus who saves sinners. It would have been belief in a hero who strikes terror, who defeats the Romans, who establishes his kingdom, and whose partners get glory from the world. Yes, they would have believed. They would have been happy to believe in that Messiah, but they wouldn’t have believed the Jesus of the New Testament. They would not. Now how do we know they wouldn’t? How do we know that these taunts, these “Give me a sign” requests, were a camouflage of unbelief? How do we know that?
I think we know it because of what happened not too long before this, with regard to Lazarus. Do you remember Lazarus, the dead man? He was dead four days, and he stunk. Then Jesus comes and raises him from the dead, saying, “Lazarus, come forth.” This was just a short distance from Jerusalem where all these chief priests were. Lazarus came forth and they unwound him. The Jews saw and they ran and they told the chief priests. What was their response? Let me read to you what happened. John 11:45–48 and 53 says:
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said…
Now, did they say, “There’s no doubt, this is the Christ”? No, they said:
What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation…So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.
That’s the response to such a sign. They’re not about to believe in him if he comes down from the cross. Which is greater, to raise a person who’s been dead four days, or to pull your hands off the nails of a cross? Raising the dead is greater. He had done what signs they needed to be done, and they weren’t about to believe in him.
Signs and Wonders
Now let’s just step back a minute and think about this. Signs and wonders aren’t bad. The Book of Acts says many signs and wonders were done by the hands of the apostles. And it says when Philip did the signs, people gave heed to him down in Samaria (Acts 8:6). When Peter healed Aeneas, it said all the people in Lydda gave heed (Acts 9:32–35). When he raised Dorcas from the dead, it says the whole people in that area of Joppa believed (Acts 9:36–42). The New Testament portrays signs and wonders as valuable. They were worthy. They weren’t bad.
So what’s wrong here in Mark 15:29–32? What’s going on here with these chief priests? What’s wrong with them? They wouldn’t believe, but what’s wrong with their hearts here? Why are they closed to the signs he does give and then turn around and demand more signs? There’s a clue given, and I got this clue last night. I was sitting right here behind the communion table and David Livingston was sitting up there in the corner, reading those texts about the trial last night. Then I heard him read this text in Mark 15:10. It says:
For [Pilate] perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up.
What was Jesus getting that caused them to be envious? He was getting the people. He was getting the praise. He was getting the honor. He was becoming a hero. The common people heard him gladly, and the religious hold that these Pharisees and chief priests had on the people was starting to loosen. They were slipping through their fingers. They did not have the power that they once had anymore. Jesus was gaining and they were envious of his authority, his winsomeness, and his crowd. They wanted to get rid of him so that they could have back the praise of men.
At the root of the heart that looks up to Jesus and demands signs, saying, “You haven’t given enough evidence,” is a heart in love with the praise of men. They were in love with the accolades that were being taken from them. That, I think, is what was keeping them from recognizing the love of Jesus on the cross.
The Glory of Man or the Glory of God
Now, let me give you a verse that has functioned in my life for years and years, to explain why it is that the Pharisees, the chief priests, and the religious leaders were blind to the quiet sign of Calvary love. Why couldn’t they see? John 5:43 says:
I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
Now think of this: He says, “How can you believe when you have a love affair with the praise of men and not the praise of God?” That means you can’t have both. Change the question into a statement. You can’t believe when you have a love affair with the praise of men. When you love the praise of men more than you love God, you are blind to Jesus. Why? Because Jesus’s life is a living indictment of those who live for the praise of men. That’s why he wouldn’t come down. He did not care about being praised by men. He would rather save them than have them extol him as a strong hero or a powerful warrior or a political giant. He wanted to save.
If you have a heart that is so different from Jesus that you live for the praise of men while he is living for the salvation of men, you can’t see him. You can’t see the sign of Calvary love, and therefore you demand more and more signs of the kind that you want because the sign would confirm your heart. If he were to give you the very sign you wanted, you wouldn’t believe in the Christ who was hanging there. You’d believe in a Christ that confirms you in your love affair with the praise of men, and Christ won’t give that sign because he loves you.
Seeking after Signs
Now we’re onto something very, very important here about signs and wonders. Signs and wonders and the seeking of them can be very dangerous. What we’ve seen now is that they demanded a sign in that case because they were blind to the sign of love that was being given to them. And they were blind to the sign of love that was being given to them because they loved the praise of men. Now, I want to take you to a text that I think gets a lot of light from this truth. Matthew 16:1–4 says this:
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”
Jesus admits there are signs and they ought to know them, but they demanded a sign from heaven — something flashy, something big, and something that would rock people into submission without a change of heart. Then he gives an explanation for why they want these signs. He says they are an adulterous generation. Now, what does that mean? Be careful here. I don’t think it means that they commit adultery physically. One of the reasons I don’t think it means that is because the harlots and the tax collectors were going into the kingdom before the Pharisees and chief priests (Matthew 21:31).
Adultery here is speaking about a spiritual reality, isn’t it? God is the Father or the husband, and his people Israel, or the church, are the bride. Adultery is when our love turns from our husband, God, and begins to be infatuated with another lover; like the praise of men, the world, money, prominent places in the banquets, greetings in the marketplace, or being called doctor or teacher or pastor. That’s the adultery that made them ask for signs.
Do you see the connection with the Pharisees and chief priests at the cross? They love the praise of men. They didn’t want the stumbling block of the cross in their own lives. They didn’t want to have to suffer. They didn’t want to be obscure. They didn’t want to be nobodies. They didn’t want to live for others. They wanted the praise of men for themselves, and in that they were adulterers. They didn’t love the praise of God. They didn’t love their husband in heaven. And Jesus says, “An adulterous generation demands a sign.” Why does an adulterous generation demand a sign? Because demanding a sign is a camouflage for the heart that has gone after another husband.
You see, if you can keep looking in a skeptical kind of way, saying, “Prove yourself, husband, that you’re really my husband.” Then you’re free to go and consort with another until he does that. And if you want to consort with another, you will find a way to make your husband look unfaithful. So if we want to love the world, we will find a way to escape the claims of Jesus. We will find a way to make God look as though he hasn’t given us enough signs, as though all the work that Jesus has done in the quiet sign of Calvary love is not enough. Why would we say it’s not enough? Because we want another lover. We don’t want to yield to the kind of love that’s being offered us on the cross. So how does Jesus respond to this kind of heart?
Remember Satan said, “If you are the Christ, get up on the pinnacle of the temple and jump down. Give us a sign like that.” And Jesus says, “No way” (Matthew 4:6–7). Later on when he said the Son of Man must go and be rejected and crucified, and Peter said, “I’m not going to let that happen.” What did Jesus say? “Get behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:22–23). And then he comes to the cross and they say, “If you are the Christ, if you are the king, come down and we’ll see and believe.” Jesus just hangs there, loving them, dying for sinners.
For those who have eyes to see, it was a sign. It was the greatest sign that’s ever been given, for those who have eyes to see. The quiet sign of Calvary love is real unless you love the world so much that you will find a way at any cost to reject his claim on your life.
Let me close by just raising the question, what lessons we can learn from this? I wrote down three:
1. Your heart must be changed today if you would see Jesus for who he is.
I don’t mean that your heart must be changed just to believe in him. I mean, your heart must be changed to see him as beautiful and trustworthy before you even believe in him. Something has to happen within you to sever the root of love for the world, the root of love for money, the root of love for praise, the root of love for power, the root of love for prestige, and the root of lust. Something has to sever that root in your life, and then all of a sudden the clouds lift and he’s glorious. Now, where do I get that notion? I get it from the Apostle Paul, as well as Jesus. Do you remember this text in 1 Corinthians 1:22–24?
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
What does “those who are called” mean? Isn’t everybody called? No, because the Jews and the Greeks are not seeing the gospel as power and not seeing it as wisdom, but the called see it as power and the called see it as wisdom. What has to happen in your life this morning in order for you to recognize the glory of Jesus is a divine act in your life called a call. The Holy Spirit has to come in and say, “Come forth, Lazarus. Get out of the deadness of your blindness to the beauty of Jesus. I will shine it upon you.”
2. Give heed to the word of God.
Then you might sit there and say, “Well, if God has to do that to me before I can recognize the beauty of Christ like you describe it, what can I do?” The Bible is plain about what you can do. Whence comes this new birth? Whence comes this eye-opening miracle of regeneration and divine call? It comes according to 1 Peter 1:23, which says:
[we are] born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…
The word of God causes the miracle of new birth when it is granted power by the Holy Spirit. Again, James 1:18 says:
Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
So the thing to do, if you’re sitting there feeling, “I don’t love him the way you say I ought to love him. I don’t see him the way you say I should see him. I have a large love affair with money. I have a large love affair with my house, my family, and my work, and Jesus isn’t at the top of my priority list. What should I do?” Answer: Betake yourself to the word of God; open your ears to the word of God; give heed to the word of God, preached in this very moment. And then later on this afternoon, in meditation and in prayer over your Bible, ask him, “Lord God, come.” Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you (Matthew 7:7). Ask that he give you this call.
3. Signs and Wonders
My last lesson, besides those first two (namely, that we must be changed and that we must give heed to the word which changes) is something about signs and wonders. These are some guidelines about seeking and longing for signs in our lives. Everybody has longed for signs. I’d like to see more signs in my ministry from God. I won’t hide that from you. I’d love to see the Holy Spirit come down on this room right now and knock everybody off his seat if it would mean holiness and changed lives. So let me just close with some guidelines for how to seek signs.
First, ask yourself this: Am I demanding more proof, more evidence of God’s grace and power because I’m ashamed of the stumbling block of the cross? Am I asking for more power because I’m ashamed of lowliness and obscurity? Or put it slightly differently: Am I demanding a sign? Am I demanding more power? Am I demanding the supernatural to be displayed in extraordinary ways because I have a love affair with the praise of men and I know I’ll get more attention if that happens in my church or my life? That would be wearing the shoes of the chief priests at the foot of Jesus saying, “Come down here.”
Third, ask yourself: Am I demanding a sign because I don’t even see the infinite sign of love that’s right in front of my face? Am I demanding of God something because I’m so blind to the wonder of the quiet sign of Calvary love, not to mention Easter Sunday morning with his death-defeating resurrection, but just Calvary love, the quiet sign of his refusal to come down so that we might be saved? Is it that I don’t see that, that I’m not blown away by it? Is it that my church isn’t ravished by the love of Christ that I have to scramble for more signs? Is that the reason I want healing? Is that the reason tongues or prophesy?
Mind you, I don’t think any of those things are bad to seek and that we ought to seek them. I’m just signaling a warning that we must avoid being like the chief priests at all costs. And I think the main reason that they were at fault is that they were blind to the sign of Calvary love, and so the cure of all such false sign-seeking is to look to Jesus who refused to come down steadfastly and kept on showing the quiet sign of Calvary love.