Requesting More Signs
1. And the Pharisees and Sadducees coming, tempting, asked Him to show them a sign from heaven.
2. And He answering said to them, “When it is evening, you say, [There will be] serenity, for the heaven is red;
3. And in the morning, Today [will be] a winter storm, for the heaven is red, being gloomy. Hypocrites! you indeed know how to discern the face of the heaven, but the signs of the time you cannot [discern].
4. A wicked and adulterous generation seeks a sign, and there shall no sign be given it, except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” And leaving them He went away.
From the lofty heights of the mountaintop, where Jesus feeds the multitudes, we return to the edge of the sea. The setting is in the region of Magdala, on the western shore of Galilee. It is here that the religious leaders confront Jesus again. Even though Jesus has done numerous miracles, they remain unconvinced. They want Jesus to show them a sign from heaven (16:1). This pictures something about the human condition. How often has God miraculously changed our state, lifting us out of our sadness and despair — even without changing any circumstances? And yet we, too, can remain unconvinced of His miraculous ability to renew our minds and revive our souls.
Therefore, like the disbelieving religious leaders, we too come to God and say, “Show us a sign from heaven,” not realizing that the beating of our hearts, the rising of the sun, and the laughter of a child are all signs from heaven. Aware that the religious leaders are not really interested in a sign, but are only testing Him, Jesus says, “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites. You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times” (16:2-3). 1
By these words, Jesus suggests that these religious leaders may well be able to accurately forecast the weather, but they have no understanding of spiritual reality. The Messiah has come. Foreseen by the prophets, this long-awaited event — far more significant than any weather forecast — is now taking place before their very eyes. And yet, they see nothing. The Messiah Himself is standing in their midst, but their self-absorption prevents them from realizing that He is there.
The situation is not unlike our own. Absorbed in materialistic concerns about our future, we study weather forecasts, political trends, and stock market predictions, unaware of the many miracles taking place in the present moment. 2
The religious leaders know how to discern the face of the sky; they are adept at predicting the weather. But they are unable to see Jesus as the promised Messiah whose coming was forecasted by the prophets. Their inability to see past their self-righteousness has blinded them to the divine truth that stands before them.
Even so, they still demand “a sign from heaven.” Jesus has already performed numerous miracles, and yet they are unconvinced. Will another miraculous sign change anything? On two previous occasions, when Jesus cast out demons, the religious leaders claimed that His power to do so was from the devil (9:34 and 12:24). In other words, because they are already bound and determined to destroy Him, there is nothing more He can do for them; no sign will convince them that He is indeed the Messiah.
Moreover, it is contrary to divine order to persuade a person by force. God does not compel our belief. Each of us is kept in freedom so that we may freely choose to accept God — or reject Him — if we so choose. 3
And we accept Him by living according to His teachings, believing that He alone can give us the power to do so. In the process we become increasingly connected to the Lord, to the point where it seems that our will has become one with His will. This is the process of regeneration — the conscious laying down of our old life, so that we can be reborn to a new one. There is no other way, and there is no external “sign” that can prove this inner reality for us. “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign,” Jesus says. “And no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (16:4).
As we have seen (12:39), the “sign of the prophet Jonah” is our individual experience of regeneration as we struggle daily to live according to the teachings of our religion. To the extent that we do this, we begin to notice subtle but significant changes in our character — changes that can only be experienced by those who strive to live their religion. The operant word here is “live.” Religion is not something merely to be believed — it must be lived. If we wait to have its validity proven in any other way, for example by waiting for a sign from heaven, we will wait in vain.
But the more we decide to live according to the Lord’s will we receive wonderful “signs” that progress is taking place. Some of these might include a softened heart, increased sensitivity to the needs of others, a forgiving attitude, a patient disposition, a growing ease at admitting mistakes, and a greater depth of contentment. These, and so much more, are the “signs of the prophet Jonah” (16:4). 4
And, in His mercy, the Lord allows us, to a certain extent, to perceive these wondrous inner changes. 5
If the religious leaders had truly practiced their religion — living by the commandments of God, rather than by “the traditions of the elders,” they would have had all the signs they needed. Through living a deeply spiritual life, they would have evolved to the point where they would have recognized Jesus as the Messiah. But this was not the case. They would not — and therefore could not — see beyond their own prejudices and preconceptions. As a result, there was very little that Jesus could do for them. So, “He left them and departed” (16:4).
Forgetting to Take Bread
5. And when His disciples were come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread.
6. And Jesus said to them, “See ye and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.”
7. And they reasoned within themselves, saying, “[It is] because we have not taken bread.”
8. And Jesus, knowing, said to them, “Why do you reason within yourselves, [O you] of little faith, because you have not taken bread?
9. Do you not yet consider, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you took?
10. Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets you took?
11. How do you not consider that [it was] not concerning bread [that] I said to you, you should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees?”
12. Then they understood that He did not say they should beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
By this time, it has become quite clear that the religious leaders want to destroy Jesus who directly challenges their teachings and their practices. Jesus is especially concerned with their arrogant, contemptuous attitudes, believing that they alone were “clean” while all others who did not believe what they taught were “unclean.” Like leaven in a loaf of bread, they are puffed up, bloated, and filled with self-importance. It is for this reason that Jesus now warns His disciples: “Take heed and beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (16:6).
The disciples do not understand Jesus’ warning about “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They think that Jesus is using the term “leaven” to refer to physical bread, because it is the essential ingredient that makes bread rise. Taking Jesus’ warning literally, they can only assume that Jesus does not want them to accept physical bread from the religious leaders. So, they say to each other, “This is because we have not brought bread with us” (16:7).
The disciples have missed the point. Jesus is not speaking about material bread, but about an arrogant, “puffed up” attitude — the “leaven of the Pharisees.” Jesus’ warning is for everyone. Whenever we feel ourselves slipping into contempt for others, feeling superior in some way, or believing that others should think the way we do and behave in the ways that we regard as “righteous,” we are indulging in “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” This “leaven” which Jesus tells us to “beware of” can secretly fill us with confidence in self rather than in God, inflates us with feelings of pride rather than humility, and delude us into thinking that we have risen above others
To avoid being “leavened” in this way, it’s important to remember that the Lord will always provide “the true bread” — not the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He will provide all we need and more, just as He miraculously fed the multitudes. Therefore, Jesus says to His disciples, “Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered, or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?” (16:10).
It was then that the disciples realized that Jesus had not been speaking to them about physical bread, but rather about the misleading teachings and arrogant attitudes of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were beginning to understand that if they were to follow the teachings and attitudes of the Pharisees and Sadducees, all of which are “leavened” with arrogance and contempt, they would be sadly misled.
Peter’s Confession of Faith
13. And Jesus, coming into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, besought His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”
14. And they said, “Some [say] John the Baptist; and some Elijah; and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
15. He says to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
16. And Simon Peter answering said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17. And Jesus answering said to him, “Happy art thou, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood has not revealed [it] to thee, but My Father who is in the heavens.
18. And I also say unto thee that thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
19. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of the heavens, and whatever thou shalt bind on the earth shall be bound in the heavens; and whatever thou shalt loose on the earth shall be loosed in the heavens.”
20. Then He charged His disciples that they should say to no one that He is Jesus the Christ.
In the previous episode, Jesus warned His disciples to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Leavening, as we pointed out earlier, initiates a process of fermentation through which impurities are separated and bread is perfected (13:33). So, even though Jesus has warned His disciples about the leaven represented by the religious leaders, we still need to deal with “leaven” in our lives — the continual temptation to succumb to the beliefs and attitudes represented by the religious leaders. If dealt with properly, however, a process similar to the leavening of bread and the fermenting of wine can take place within us; we can make progress in our spiritual journey. 6
The leavening process, therefore, corresponds to what happens within us during times of spiritual temptation in our lives. Since there is no regeneration without temptation, this is vital stage in our spiritual development. 7
However, in order to triumph in the combats of temptation, we need to know that they are coming, that they cannot be avoided, and that there are spiritual truths for dealing with them. of all the truths that are available for successfully moving through these times of spiritual trial, one truth, above all, is necessary. It is the foundation of all other truths.
This episode is about that truth.
It begins in the foothills of Mt. Hermon, in the region of Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (16:13). Reporting what they have heard others say, they reply, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (16:14). This is, of course, hearsay — merely the opinions of others, the gossip and rumor that were going around at the time. None of it is significant, for it matters little what others say about Jesus, or who they think He is. What really matters is what each of us thinks in our own heart. And so, Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?” (16:15).
It’s a question that is the very center of this gospel, all the gospels, and Christianity itself: “Who do you say that I am?” (16:15).
Without a moment’s hesitation Peter responds and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16). And Jesus answers, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Obviously pleased with Peter’s answer, Jesus adds, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (16:17-18). This is the rock of truth; the foundation stone upon which all other truths will rest, and the fundamental teaching to keep in mind as we go through our own combats of temptation.
Earlier in this gospel, as Jesus concluded the Sermon on the Mount, He referred to this great truth as well, but was less specific about what it meant. It was the story about a man who built his house upon the rock: “The rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock” (7:25).
Now, as Jesus prepares His disciples for temptation combats, He reveals more information about the nature of “the rock.” Jesus acknowledges that He is “the Son of the living God.” This is the first thing the disciples will need to know as they prepare to defend themselves against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. So powerful is this truth that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (16:18); in other words, it will overcome and subdue any evil that threatens to attack it.
It should be noted that although Peter refers to Jesus as the Son of the living God, he does not say that Jesus is God Himself. For the time being, this is enough. In fact, Jesus is more than satisfied with Peter’s answer. He tells him that this initial understanding will open the door to even deeper truths, for it is the key to the kingdom of heaven: “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (16:19).
While this passage has been traditionally understood to mean that Peter will literally be able to open and close the gates of heaven, the meaning is much higher. It’s not about Peter standing at the “pearly gates” deciding whether or not to admit us to heaven. Rather, it’s about the spiritual truths that are given to us in the Word of the Lord. Whenever these truths are taken into the mind, loved, and lived, they become “keys” that close the door to hell — allowing nothing evil or false to enter our mind, and open the door to heaven, allowing all that is good and true to flow in. Whatever is damaging to our spirit will be “bound”; and whatever is life-promoting for our spirit will be “loosed.” And the “key of keys,” the rock of truth upon which all other truth stand, is the confession that Jesus is “the Son of the living God.” 8
The Way of the Cross
21. From then Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.
22. And Peter, taking Him, began to rebuke Him, saying, “Pity Thyself Lord; this shall not be to Thee.”
23. But turning, He said to Peter, “Get thee behind Me, Satan; thou art an offense to Me, because thou art not wise in the things that are of God, but those that are of men.”
24. Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wills to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.
25. For whoever wills to save his soul, shall lose it, but whoever shall lose his soul for My sake, shall find it.
26. For what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
27. For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of His Father, with His angels; and then shall He render to everyone according to his doing.
28. Amen I say to you, There are some standing here, who shall not taste of death, until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
Jesus has been steadily preparing His disciples for the inevitable temptations they will undergo. In this next episode, He begins to speak openly about His own temptations and the suffering that He Himself is about to endure. As it is written, “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things . . . and be killed . . . and raised again the third day” (16:21).
Peter does not take it well. Although He is the first of the disciples to acknowledge Jesus’ divinity, he cannot bear the thought of His crucifixion. So he cries out, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You” (16:22).
Like the other disciples, Peter cherishes the hope that Jesus will soon become their great champion and lead them to victory over all their natural enemies. They have been looking forward to the day when He will set Himself up as their rightful king, the long awaited Messiah who will deliver His people and be the ruler of all nations. They may have been familiar with the prophecy recorded in Daniel: “I was watching, and one like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven . . . to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom that all people, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away” (Daniel 7:13-14).
It is easy to imagine that Peter might be thinking in terms of earthly rather than heavenly rewards. It would be natural for him to have great expectations about this new and glorious kingdom, with Jesus as King. At the very least, it would be the end of Roman rule, and a new beginning for his people. There might even be a special place for Peter in the new administration!
But this is to misunderstand the true purpose of Jesus’ life on earth. The real goal of Jesus’ mission is to conquer and subdue spiritual enemies, not natural ones. After all, the gospel begins with the prophecy, “He will save His people from their sins” — not from their physical oppressors (1:21).
This is a new and different kind of salvation, very different from what had been expected of a Messiah. This kind of salvation could only be accomplished through Jesus’ experiencing combats against every evil that could ever assail humanity. To deny the necessity of this process, to think that there is some other, easier way, is to deny the very purpose of the Lord’s advent. So, when Peter said to Jesus, “This shall not happen to you, Lord,” it was tantamount to a repudiation of this essential process. Therefore, Jesus responds to Peter’s denial with these words: “Get behind Me, Satan. You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (16:23).
It is natural to prefer the easy way. But without spiritual trials and combats there is no spiritual growth. This is sometimes referred to as, “The Way of the Cross.” In fact, the cross would be the only way; spiritual temptation would be inevitable, both for Jesus and His followers. Therefore, Jesus adds these words, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (16:24-26).
However unpleasant or unwelcome this news may be, this is precisely what the disciples need to hear at this point in their spiritual development. Jesus makes it abundantly clear to them that temptation will be inevitable, and that it must not be avoided. Peter, we should remember, has taken the first step in becoming truly Christian. He has confessed that Jesus is the Son of the living God. But if he is to make this confession of faith a living reality, he must, from now on, strive for heavenly rewards, not earthly ones. He must even be willing to lay down his life “for whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (16:25).
Jesus then adds a great promise: “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works” (16:27). It will be tough going to be sure, and it will even involve the willingness to give up one’s life. But a great reward is promised, and they will not have to wait long either: “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste of death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (16:28).
To the disciples, who understand these words literally, Jesus seems to be saying that He is about to set up His physical kingdom, and that it will happen during their lifetime. In other words, before they die, or even “taste of death,” Jesus will establish His new kingdom.
But Jesus is speaking about something much more interior. He is speaking about how the heavenly kingdom is established in each of us in each of our lifetimes.
The establishment of that kingdom begins with a decision to make use of our God-given ability to raise our minds above the merely natural degree of our life so that we might understand the laws of spiritual reality. This ability, which is implanted in everyone from creation, enables us to open our spiritual eyes so that we may see and understand divine truth (the “Son of Man”) in our lifetime. Whenever we make use of this ability, raising our understanding above material concerns, we come into a new understanding. We see all things in the bright light of higher truth. It is this more interior sight that Jesus is speaking about when He says, “There are some standing here who shall not taste of death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (16:28). 9
1. In the words of an English nursery rhyme: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning.”
2. Arcana Coelestia 2493: “2493. I have spoken to angels about the memory of things of the past and about consequent anxiety concerning things of the future, and I have been informed that the more interior and perfect angels are the less do they care about things of the past or think about those of the future, and that this is also the origin of their happiness. They have said that the Lord provides them every moment with what to think, accompanied by blessing and happiness, and that this being so they have no cares and no worries. This also is what is meant in the internal sense by the manna being received ‘day by day’ from heaven, and by the ‘daily bread’ in the Lord’s Prayer.”
3. Divine Providence 129: “No one is reformed by miracles and signs, because they compel.” See also Arcana Coelestia 6472: “The Lord does not compel a person to receive what flows in from Himself; but leads in freedom; and so far as a person allows, He leads through freedom to good.”
4. Arcana Coelestia 1909:2: “People may see what kind of life they have if they will only search out their primary goals in life, and in respect to which all other goals are as nothing. If their primary goal is themselves and the world, let them know that their life is hellish; but if they have for their primary goal the good of the neighbor, the common good, the Lord’s kingdom, and especially the Lord Himself, let them know that their life is heavenly.”
5. Life 96-97: “It should be clearly understood that the Lord alone fights in a person against evils, and that it only appears to people as if they fought from themselves. The Lord wills that it should so appear, since without this appearance there could be no combat and consequently no reformation. This combat is not grievous, except for those who have relaxed all restraints upon their lusts, and who have deliberately indulged them…. For others, however, it is not grievous; let them resist evils in intention only once a week, or twice in a month, and they will perceive a change.”
6. Arcana Coelestia 7906:1-3: “The words, ‘No leaven shall be found in your houses” signifies that nothing whatever of falsity shall come near good, is evident from the signification of ‘leaven," as being falsity…. As further regards what is leavened and what is unleavened, be it known that the purification of truth from falsity with man cannot possibly exist without fermentation so called, that is, without the combat of falsity with truth and of truth with falsity…. In this sense is to be understood what the Lord teaches about leaven in Matthew: ‘The kingdom of the heavens is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, until the whole was leavened’…. Such combats as are signified by fermentations arise with man in the state previous to newness of life.”
7. Arcana Coelestia 8403: “People uninformed about human regeneration suppose that a person can be regenerated without temptation, and some that he has been regenerated after he has undergone a single temptation. But let it be known that no one can be regenerated without temptation, and that he suffers very many temptations, one following after another. The reason for this is that regeneration takes place to the end that the life of the old man may die and a new, heavenly life may be instilled. From this one may recognize that conflict is altogether inevitable; for the life of the old man stands its ground and refuses to be snuffed out, and the life of the new man cannot enter except where the life of the old has been snuffed out. From this it is evident that fierce conflict takes place between mutually hostile sides, since each is fighting for its life.”
8. True Christian Religion 342:3: “Everyone who wishes to be truly a Christian and to be saved by Christ, ought to believe that Jesus is the Son of the living God.”
9. Arcana Coelestia 10099:3: “The ancients knew that when people are withdrawn from the sensuous things that belong to the body, they are withdrawn or raised into the light of his spirit, thus into the light of heaven.” Conjugial Love 498: “If people were without the power to raise their understanding above the will’s love, they would not be human beings, but rather beasts, for the beast does not enjoy that power. Consequently, they would not be able to make any choices, or from choice to do what is good and right, and so could not be reformed, or led to heaven, or live to eternity.”