Matthew 12: 38-42,
“Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ 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. 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. 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. 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.'”
In the text above, the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign; they want some proof of His claim to be the Messiah. What needs to be noticed is that in a very real way Jesus refuses to give them this, and that certainly isn’t out of character for Jesus. For example, in John 6:30 the Jews ask Jesus for a sign there, too. They tell Jesus that Moses was able to validate his prophetic authority by giving the Jews bread miraculously. Those hungry Jews were manipulating the Scriptures to get a free meal.
Interestingly enough, the Jews in John 6 had also received a major sign moments before their asking Jesus as well! In John 6, Jesus fed 5,000 people moments before the Jews in asked him for proof. In the same way, the Pharisees in Matthew 12 above ask for a sign moments after Jesus released a man from demon possession.
This proves the point made here. Jesus clearly can’t win. He gives no sign, and they accuse Him of having no proof. He gives them a sign, and they accused Him of being a demon. Why wouldn’t they simply do the same thing when He gives them the sign they are currently demanding, moments after receiving a sign?
Like unbelievers today, the Pharisees here are not actually wanting what they are asking for. They are asking for signs and proofs, but when Jesus gives them, they simply reinterpret Jesus’ workings in light of their established presuppositions, and this is why Jesus tells them they are a wicked generation for seeking such a thing. Thus, it’s really not a sign they desire; they are seeking an excuse for their unbelief.
Romans 1 reveals that unbelievers do not disbelieve due to a lack of signs or proofs, but because of their sin and hardened hearts toward God. Unbelief is a spiritual problem, not a logical, intellectual, or scientific one.
The sign Jesus does tell them they have is Scripture Jesus tells them that His future death and resurrection will be the sign they need, but Jesus phrases His response as to demonstrate that He is not pointing to a resurrection in a vacuum. He does not simply tell them He would conquer death. He instead grounds His proof in Scripture. He calls His Jewish audience to see that He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, that He is the Messiah, by explaining that Jonah was a type of Himself. Thus, the resurrection not only demonstrated the raw power of God, but it more so proved Jesus as being the Son of David, the Messiah. Jesus came to be the new and better Jonah.
Acts 17: 1-3 (emphasis mine)
Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.”
Paul spent much effort demonstrated to the Jews that Jesus’ death and resurrection was not to be a surprise. Paul showed, from the Old Testament, in a synagogue, that Jesus was the Christ, and that the Scriptures taught of His death and resurrection. Paul proved Jesus on the basis of the Old Testament alone. Thus, what evidence was it that Jesus ultimately gave by referring them to Jonah? The Bible. If they wanted a sign, they simply needed to read what the Scriptures said about Jesus, and apparently, the story of Jonah would have been a good place to begin.
This is consistent with the nature of evidence in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Luke 16: 19-31,
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
Jesus says specifically the greatest evidence anyone needs of the truth of God is Scripture. This text says explicitly that even resurrections will not change someone’s heart. The evidence of men coming back from the dead is not strong enough to change the heart that won’t first submit to the Scriptures. Evidence is not the issue. Those who don’t believe there is evidence for the truth of Jesus’ resurrection are people who reinterpret their realities to fit within their worldview which begins with a rejection of Scripture.
After referring them to Jonah, Jesus then refers them to the pagan Queen of the South.
“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 says that this pagan queen is allowed to wag her finger at the 1st generation Jews. Jesus’ logic is airtight. The Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame. She left her land to see for herself if in fact it was true. When she finally saw Solomon face to face, she immediately saw he truly was a good King, and she paid him money to honor him. She never converted; she came and left a pagan. However, even as a pagan, she was able to humbly admit and recognize Solomon’s worth.
“If the men of Sodom can rise up to condemn Capernaum, then the men of old Charleston can rise up at the day of resurrection and condemn us. They did things that appall us, true enough, and we are right to be appalled. But we do things that would appall them and they would have every right to be even more appalled. John Rawls once said that your concept of the ideal society should be constructed without you knowing where you were going to be born into that society. This is just one more variation on the Golden Rule, and by this measure, if you were going to be conceived as the child of black parents in North America, would you prefer Charleston in 1850 or Chicago in 2015? I know which one involves a certified nurse counting up all your pieces so that they can make sure they throw all of you away. Be honest… You are not living in the kind of country you thought you were, and the myths you were taught about our recent history are just laughing at you behind your back.”