The Greatest Sign
This article is from a talk given to Reformation Fellowship Church on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015.
Today is Easter Sunday, the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. We could say many, many things about the importance of the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection means many things and accomplishes many things. It is perhaps the central event in all of human history. But today I want to look at one little enigmatic statement about the resurrection. This is something Jesus Himself said, and I think it is safe to say that, when He said it, not one person understood what He meant. His statement is found in the Gospel of John.
In John chapter two, we see Jesus going to the temple at Jerusalem. There He finds merchants in the outer courts of the temple selling oxen and sheep and doves. People would buy them and then take them into the temple to offer as sacrifices. Jesus says, “Stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” And then he causes a violent ruckus. He overturns tables. He drives the animals out of the temple. This is the sort of thing that could get Jesus in a lot of trouble.
Naturally, the Jews in the temple were astounded: Just who does this guy think he is? And so we read in John 2:18:
The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?”
Now let’s talk about signs for a minute. Jesus did many miracles as recorded in the New Testament. Sometimes these miracles are called “signs.” They are signs from heaven: they “signify” something; they mean something. That is, they are a message from God saying, “I sent this man Jesus; listen to Him.” Jesus, after all, is claiming to be the Messiah sent from God. Why should anyone believe Him? Well, Jesus does miracles demonstrating the power of God. He heals the sick. He turns water to wine. He feeds five thousand people from a few pieces of bread and fish. He raises the dead. These are “signs,” messages from God that Jesus has come with God’s blessing.
Well, that is what the Jews in the temple are asking for. They want Jesus to perform a sign. Jesus is acting as if he has some sort of authority—as if he had some sort of calling from God to cleanse the temple. And so they are saying to him: Prove it. If you are some sort of prophet from God, prove that you act with His authority. Perhaps they have heard rumors that Jesus has performed miracles elsewhere. So they are saying, Put up or shut up. Show us that God is with you. Do something miraculous.
Now, we know that Jesus is often willing to do miraculous signs. He often tells people that they should believe in him because of the miraculous signs he performs. But occasionally someone will demand a miracle. On several occasions, the Jewish leadership will demand that Jesus perform for them: Jesus, prove that you are from God. Do a miracle. And on those occasions, Jesus responds very differently. We see His response in John 2:19-22:
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
The Jews in the temple have asked for a sign: Prove to us that you have the authority from God to act as you have. And Jesus says, OK, here’s a sign for you: Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up again in three days.
We can see how this would sound to the Jewish leadership: That is your sign? Nice try. First of all, that’s impossible. You are going to rebuild in three days what it took forty-six years to build? And secondly, you are bluffing. You know perfectly well we are not going to destroy the temple. It is easy to make an empty boast about something you know perfectly well will never happen.
They have totally misunderstood what Jesus said. But it is hard to blame them for that. Jesus has said something incredibly cryptic. Even Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand what Jesus said. Not one person there understood what He was talking about. And notice that Jesus did not explain His words, not even to His disciples. Not until after the resurrection did they think back and figure out what Jesus was talking about.
So what was Jesus talking about?
First of all, we can see that Jesus was not making an empty boast. He was talking about a truly miraculous sign, the greatest sign He ever did. But it was not the kind of sign the Jews were asking for. They wanted proof right there and then, and Jesus didn’t give it to them. They were mad at Him for casting the merchants out of the temple. And they would stay mad at Him.
Next, we see that Jesus refers to “this temple.” He is in the temple complex in Jerusalem, so when they ask for a sign, He in essence says to them: You want a sign? I will perform a miracle with this temple. But the disciples only figure out years later that Jesus meant the temple of His body. Why would Jesus call His body “this temple”? The temple is the place where God dwells; the temple is the place where man can come to meet God. From that perspective, Jesus is indeed the true temple. In Jesus, God has made Himself known on earth. In Jesus, we meet God face-to-face. Jesus is the true temple because Jesus is the Messiah of God.
Next, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple….” As it happens, that is exactly what the Jewish leadership is going to do. Because of the many ways that Jesus deeply offends them, they will decide to have Him executed. So although the Jews don’t know it, Jesus is not just making a hypothetical statement; He is making a prediction: You are going to destroy this temple.
And finally, Jesus says, “in three days I will raise it up.” And we know what He is talking about. On the third day after the Jewish leadership has Him executed, Jesus rises from the dead.
So in essence, this is what Jesus is saying to them: You want me to perform a sign, to demonstrate that I act with an authority from God? I don’t perform on demand, so I am not going to do anything for you now. I am, however, going to perform a great sign. I am the Messiah, the man in whom God has manifested Himself on earth, the very temple of God. You are going to kill me, and when you do, I am going to rise from the dead on the third day. That is the sign that will demonstrate my authority as the Messiah.
Jesus is speaking in riddles, to those who actually care what He means. Ultimately the disciples figure out what He meant. Jesus is hinting to them that the resurrection is the greatest of all the signs. How can we know that Jesus is indeed the Messiah sent from God? Well, there are many miracles along the way, many signs. There is the feeding of the five thousand. There are many healings. There is walking on water. And so on. But most of all, there is the sign above all signs. Jesus rose again. Alone among men, Jesus has conquered death. Can we know that God is with Jesus? Yes, because God did not leave Him in the grave.
Now I know that there is another question we must ask: how can we know that Jesus rose from the dead? You and I are relying on the testimony of a man like John, one of Jesus’ disciples. John swears that he saw Jesus dead on the cross. He saw a soldier stab him in the side, and blood and water came out, indicating Jesus was dead. John saw the empty tomb. John spoke to Jesus numerous times after the resurrection. Again and again, John swears that he is an eyewitness and that he is telling the truth.
At another time, we could discuss why we should believe John’s testimony. But in chapter two, John is telling us something important about how Jesus looked at the resurrection. From Jesus’ perspective, the resurrection is the greatest sign of all. Jesus came into the world saying, I am the Messiah sent from God. There are many reasons why you should believe me. But the sign I would point to above all is my resurrection from the dead.
Copyright June 2015 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.