Matthew 12:38

ESV Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”
NIV Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, 'Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.'
NASB Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, 'Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.'
CSB Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from you."
NLT One day some teachers of religious law and Pharisees came to Jesus and said, 'Teacher, we want you to show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority.'
KJV Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.

What does Matthew 12:38 mean?

In the previous section, Jesus harshly condemned the Pharisees who accused Him of using Satan's power to cast out demons. He called them a brood of vipers and talked about the evil in them that came out in the words they spoke. He warned them of His coming judgment (Matthew 12:24–37).

It's not clear if the passage beginning here is a direct continuation of those prior conversations. It might have taken place at another time. In either case, certain scribes and Pharisees respectfully address Jesus as "Teacher." Then they tell Jesus that they wish to see a sign from Him. Some commentators believe this group of religious leaders was trying to set Jesus up for another accusation about His power. Demanding miraculous credentials was not an uncommon response to Jesus' actions (John 2:18–19).

If we suppose this group of skeptics is being sincere, this request is puzzling. Jesus has already performed countless signs by healing, raising the dead, and casting out demons. Pharisees had been present for several of those, at least. If this is a continuation of prior conversation, Jesus had—only moments before—removed a demon from a blind and mute man. Why ask for yet another sign?

The most likely answer is that the Pharisees were not being sincere. They were scrambling for any way to ignore the clear evidence in front of them. Though Jesus has provided miracles, they demand something else. Of course, even when a miracle is undeniable, they are likely to reject it, anyway (Matthew 12:24). They certainly want to seem sincere, as if they are being open-minded and willing to consider evidence.

In truth, they're telling Christ "we will decide what counts as evidence, and what does not. No matter how potent a sign is, we won't believe unless it fits our criteria." That's an all-too-common attitude in modern skeptics, as well. Unbelievers in the modern world, just as much as the Pharisees, tend to summarily dismiss all existing evidence, and then demand even more—all the while acting as if such a request is entirely reasonable.

Whatever specific sign these Pharisees are looking for, Jesus will refuse to give it to them. Not because He couldn't provide it, but because it would be a waste of time (Matthew 7:6).
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