SEEKING SIGNS AND WONDERS
Unbelief is Our Greatest Danger
I confess that I am often obtuse. When it comes to spiritual things, I can be rather simpleminded, dull witted and even thickheaded—very much like Jesus’ disciples, in fact. He frequently had to explain His parables and other lessons because His followers failed to grasp what He was saying or even why He was saying it!
They also failed to learn from Jesus’ spectacular miracles recorded in Matthew 14 and 15. On the first occasion Jesus fed five thousand men plus an uncounted number of women and children with just five loaves and two small fish. That event is recorded in each of the four Gospels, but only Matthew records the second miracle. Using seven loaves of bread and “a few small fish,” Jesus again feeds a crowd of thousands.
Confronting the Messiah
Immediately after that second miracle, Jesus and the disciples rowed their fishing boats southward, along the coast of the Sea of Galilee. At the beginning of Matthew 16, they are in Magadan, a small town on the western shore of the lake. There, Jesus and His followers faced the continuing antagonism of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees who confronted Jesus in Magadan may have been the same ones who criticized Him for allowing His disciples to eat with unwashed hands (15:2). They may have even witnessed the miracles in Galilee. In any event, they were undoubtedly aware of the things Jesus had been doing. Confronting the Messiah in Magadan, they were determined to test Him as they had done on so many other occasions.
Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees were becoming increasingly hostile, so He does not seem to be in a compromising mood. Within a relatively short time Jesus had performed two miracles. Yet the Pharisees challenge Him, asking for a sign from heaven. They were not thickheaded. They were not simply obtuse. They were not trying to understand. They simply refused to believe!
That is why Jesus answered them as He did: “‘You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times’” (Matt.16:3). These Pharisees were simply unwilling to accept a miraculous event as proof unless it met their self-determined criteria for significance and authenticity. They were daring Jesus to perform on demand so that they could be convinced and believe—and He knew it.
After this unfriendly exchange, Jesus and His disciples rowed across the lake to journey toward Caesarea Philippi. But the disciples had forgotten to take provisions, so when they landed, they began to discuss what they were going to do about food. Jesus used this as a teachable moment. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” He told them (see Matt. 16:6). The disciples assumed Jesus was talking about ordinary bread, but He chides them for their lack of understanding.
If Jesus had been concerned about bread, there was good precedent in the previous two miracles to suggest that He was capable of providing it. No, He explains, He was talking about the “yeast” of the Pharisees, that mysterious substance that slowly and almost imperceptively permeates dough, altering it irreversibly.
By their teaching the Pharisees managed to circumvent the true meaning of God’s law, focusing on superficial conformity to regulation rather than the transformation of the heart and soul. By their stubborn and persistent unbelief the Pharisees impudently demanded that God prove Himself to them on their own terms. They demanded that He act only as they conceived that He must, according to their own interpretation of Jewish tradition. Thus, God Himself was denied the right to do anything other than what the Pharisees predetermined He must do.
Someone once asked British atheist Bertrand Russell what he would say to the Lord if, after Russell died, he discovered that God did exist. Russell replied, “I should reproach him for not giving us enough evidence.” There are many believers who demand the same. Unless God conforms to their preconceived ideas about how He must work, they will not believe, no matter how convincing the evidence may be!
Like Russell, the Pharisees wanted a sign that would compel faith. Yet the significance of Jesus’ miracles could only be understood by faith.
The Deadliest Sin
I used to think that the greatest enemy of my faith was some direct, serious sin: adultery, murder, hatred, jealousy or selfishness. During the Middle Ages, the Church classified sins into various categories of seriousness. The Seven Deadly Sins, as they are called, all involve the heart: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. But, as heinous as those are, they are not fundamentally the greatest enemy of our soul. That dishonor is reserved for the yeast of the Pharisees. It is unbelief.
Unbelief is often disguised in religious garb. It masquerades as genuine seeking. It is cloaked in expressions of our desire to see God show Himself convincingly and finally demonstrate to everyone that He is real and that He cares. But in the end, that sort of demand for “proof” only reveals the impertinence of unbelief. It presumes to dictate to the Sovereign Lord just what sort of evidence we will accept: “Demonstrate your power.” “Come down off that cross!” “Show us you are real by giving us what we want!”
Thomas may not have been guilty of the same sin as the Pharisees, but he also struggled to believe. And Thomas, like the Pharisees, demanded a sign. The testimony of others, even an empty grave, was not enough for him. He was finally convinced when Jesus appeared to him in the Upper Room. When he saw the Lord’s nail-scarred hands and feet, Thomas at last professes faith. “My Lord and my God,” he cried. Jesus answered, “‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’” (John 20:29).
The Lens of Faith
It is clear from the New Testament accounts that the miracles of Jesus did not generally inspire genuine faith. He refused to entrust Himself to people who believed only because they witnessed miracles. In fact, the miracles were not intended to inspire faith but to uncover it. It is by faith that we truly begin to understand the significance of the miraculous things God does.
What do your circumstances look like through that lens? The answer may be somewhat different for each of us. I must admit that when I listen closely, I often hear a still, small voice in my spirit saying, “‘You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’” (Matt. 16:8–11).
The greatest danger we face in our efforts to accomplish the mission to which God has called us is not a lack of bread. It is not a lack of resources. God can surely supply what is needed to accomplish all He wants. Our greatest danger is that we succumb to the silent, deadening and all-pervasive effect of the yeast of the Pharisees! The greatest threat to our personal spiritual welfare is not the sin we sometimes willfully commit, for Christ died for each of them and extends forgiveness when we repent. No, the menace lies in our entrenched pragmatism—an ostensible “no-nonsense” approach to faith that often masks a stubborn unbelief like that of the Pharisees. Our spirits are most endangered when we insist that God show Himself before we act in order to justify our doing so . . . and that demand is all the more dangerous because it sees no need for repentance.
Miracles do not create faith; they are understood by it! So look and see what God has done. He provides for our needs, but He does not relieve us from the necessity of continuing to live by faith. And He will never do so, because “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). And everything that I read in Scripture has convinced me that God’s highest priority is neither our work nor our mission. It is His glory.