We’ve been thinking a lot about signs and wonders at Bethlehem in recent days (such as miracles, healings, spiritual gifts, prophecy, spiritual warfare, and so on). So, I couldn’t help thinking about all this as I read the story of Jesus’s death again this year. What does the death of Jesus have to teach us about signs and wonders? about the condition of our hearts and why we desire them?
In Mark 15:32 the chief priests and scribes are asking for a sign. They want another miracle to prove to them that Jesus is the Christ, the King of Israel. “Come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Give us more proof. Is this a bad thing to ask?
Acts tells us that:
- many signs and wonders were done at the hands of the apostles (Acts 5:12);
- Samaritans gave heed to Philip when they saw the signs that he did (Acts 8:6);
- when Peter healed Aeneas, all the residents of Lydda turned to the Lord (Acts 9:32–35);
- when he raised Dorcas from the dead, it became known throughout all Joppa and many believed in the Lord (Acts 9:36–42).
And Jesus himself said, “Believe me . . . or else believe on account of the works” (John 14:11).
It is not wrong to see a sign and be drawn to Christ by it. But what about the chief priests and the scribes in Mark 15? What was wrong here? We want to avoid this.
Question: Would they have believed if he had come down?
Be careful: It’s a tricky question. The answer is yes and no.
Yes, but then the Christ would not have been the Christ they were rejecting.
No, they wouldn’t have believed on the kind of Christ who came not to be served but to serve — to die, and to gather a group of people ready to die for the sake of love. It was his suffering that was the offense!
Question: How do we know that they would not believe in this way?
Because the raising of Lazarus after four days of death was an even greater sign than a wounded man pulling himself down from the cross. But what was there response?
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, “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.” (John 11:45–48)
No, they did not believe even this greater sign. Why should we think they would believe in Jesus if he came down from the cross?
Question: What was wrong with these religious leaders? Why were they so closed to the signs that Jesus did do and so demanding that he always do something more and do something greater?
Here’s a clue: Mark 15:31 says, “So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself.’” Cannot?! Why do they assume he cannot? Because the possibility that he would not if he could is inconceivable to their kind of hearts. They have no heart for love or mercy or compassionate self-sacrifice. (For instance, Jesus tells them in Matthew 9:13, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’”).
They are morally incapable of making sense of one who saves others and freely chooses not to save himself because, in not saving himself, he goes on saving others. That is so foreign to their set of priorities they can only mock it.
Let’s go deeper. Question: What is the priority that makes them so blind to the truth and love of Christ? Mark 15:10 gives us a clue: “For [Pilate] perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up.”
Envy! What is that? It is a resentful feeling that someone is getting something that you want instead. And what was Jesus getting? He was getting a following. He was becoming a hero. The common people heard him gladly. The religious hold on the people that the priests had was being loosened. They were losing their esteem and power and praise. This is what blinded them to the truth and love of Christ: their love for the praise of men.
“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?” (John 5:43–44)
How can you believe? You can’t! When you are in love with the praise of men, you are blind to the truth of Christ. Because Christ lived for the joy of others, not the exaltation of himself at others’ expense. He was unwilling to come down from the cross because he had come not to be served, but to serve and suffer for the sake of others. If you have a love affair with the praises of men, you will be so offended at Jesus that you will mock him.
Now we are onto something important about signs and wonders and the cross.
They demanded a sign because they were blind to the wonder of love, and they were blind to the wonder of love because they loved the ego boost of men’s praise. This sheds a lot of light on what Jesus said about their sign-seeking earlier in his life:
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.” (Matthew 16:1–4)
Jesus admits that there are signs. But they demanded a sign from heaven. They wanted something more than he was offering. They wanted something that would take away the offense of lowliness and obscurity — something that would really rock the Romans and knock people into submission to the Jews. But Jesus says something startling: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign.” Adulterous? What does he mean?
I don’t think he means that if you have committed adultery, you can’t see the signs of the kingdom. It was harlots and tax collectors who were entering the kingdom before the scribes and Pharisees. No, he means spiritually adulterous. God is the husband of Israel. Israel is the bride. Adultery is having another lover besides God. And that is exactly what they had. They loved the praise of men. They loved the world and its approval and comforts. They loved the prominent seats at dinners and they loved greetings in the marketplaces. They loved exalted titles. And Luke 16:14 says they were lovers of money — since money has more potential than anything else of giving you a sense of power and esteem.
Question: Why does this kind of generation seek a sign? Because asking for more and more evidence, and especially evidence of worldly, attention-getting power, is a camouflage for the love of the world. If he doesn’t give this sign, then they say they don’t have to believe on him in his weakness. If he did give the kind of sign they wanted, it would simply confirm them in their worldliness.
How does Jesus respond?
- Satan says jump: “No!”
- Peter says don’t go: “No!”
- Priests say give us a sign from heaven: “No!”
- Come down from the cross: “No!”
Why? Was it because he would give no sign at all? No. It was because he wanted to give the quiet sign of Calvary love for those who have eyes to see. If he saved himself, he would not save others. “Unless a grain of wheat falls . . . ” (John 12:24). “God shows his love for us in that . . . ” (Romans 5:8). So, Jesus was giving a sign — not a flashy sign that would sway people to bow without a change or would confirm them in their own love for praise. He was giving a sign of love.
Hearts must be changed before we can love a crucified Lord and come to him and trust him. In 1 Corinthians 1:22–24, Paul writes, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom . . . but to those who are called . . . ” The call is necessary to see the power and wisdom of crucifixion. “No one can come to me [Jesus] unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).
How shall we be changed? Born anew — by the word. “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18).
Beware of the way you long for signs from God. Ask yourself: Am I demanding more proof because I am ashamed of the stumbling block of the cross? Am I demanding a sign because I am in love with the praise of men and I think a greater sign will get me more admiration? Am I demanding a sign because I do not see the wonder of love and long more than anything to serve rather than be served? The cure for all such false sign-seeking is to look to Jesus, who refused to come down and steadfastly showed the quiet sign of Calvary love.