“The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 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.”” (Mark 8:11–12, ESV)
Jesus seems a little peeved here doesn’t he? As if the Pharisees caught him on a morning where he might have eaten some bad fish and his gut was bothering him. Why does he react so strongly against the request of the Pharisees for “a sign from heaven?”
The NIV Application Commentary points out that it might be that a sign from heaven had a specific sort of request in mind:
Gibson argues that “a sign from heaven” refers to “apocalyptic phenomena which embody or signal the onset of aid and comfort for God’s elect and/or the wrath that God was expected to let loose against his enemies and those who threaten his people.”
We must understand the Jewish perspective here. Their chief concern was the pesky Romans who had invaded their land and forced them to become subjects of Rome [if not citizens]. They wanted a Messiah who was going to kick the Romans and everything they represented right back to Rome. This would usher in the era that they were looking for, an era of peace and prosperity for the Jews as they ruled themselves and worshiped God in the temple without harassment from foreign invaders.
Wouldn’t it be quite cool then, if this so-called Messiah who certainly did seem to have extraordinary power might wave his hand and cause all of the Romans in Palestine to drop dead? That would certainly prove he had power, and even better it would get rid of the hated Roman occupiers. What the Pharisees wanted was wrath to fall upon God’s enemies, aka “The Gentiles.” “Let justice roll down,” they seem to be asking of Jesus, “on those whom we hate.”
The NIV Application Commentary goes on:
Ironically, this request comes after the miraculous feeding, a miracle that pointed to the blessing, not the destruction, of Gentiles. Jesus refuses to give the Pharisees a sign from heaven because God has sent him to give his life on the cross for all humanity, not to smash the enemies of Israel or to give the nation political mastery of the world.
Rather than kill all of the Gentiles and make Palestine safe for the Jews, Jesus fed them for Pete’s sake. It was almost as if he actually cared about these unclean pagans!
As we might imagine by now, this incident doesn’t end well. Jesus certainly is peeved, not because of health problems, but because of the spiritual blindness of the people who in theory should best be able to see. This is frustrating and indeed, this will get him killed.
It’s interesting that the parallel passage in Matthew says that the Jews will indeed receive a sign, just not the one that they were expecting:
“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” (Matthew 16:4, ESV)
What was the sign of 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.” (Matthew 12:40, ESV)
As the NIV Application Commentary puts it: “Jesus will offer this generation no noisy sign from heaven, only the wind whistling through an empty tomb after his crucifixion.”