Signs of Unbelief

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.

Matthew 16:1-4

The Pharisees and Sadducees, religious leaders in that community, asked Jesus to show them a sign from heaven. They wanted to test whether they could really believe Jesus was legitimate. Jesus refuses.

It’s important that we understand why Jesus refuses. This is not Jesus saying He won’t do signs and wonders. He had already performed hundreds and hundreds of healings. He had already cast out an overwhelming number of demons. He had already miraculously fed the 5000 (Matthew 14) and then turned around and miraculously fed the 4000 (Matthew 15). And with these miracles we see it bolster people’s faith. Jesus expects miracles to increase faith. But the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13) teaches us that it all depends on the soil of our heart.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were around for most of these healings, miracles and deliverances. They had already seen sign after sign from heaven of Jesus’s legitimacy. But their pride caused their hearts to be full of unbelief, doubt and skepticism. So they wanted another sign. Jesus refused to bow down to their unbelief and doubt.

Jesus refuses to bow down to our unbelief and doubt. Instead, He invites our unbelief and doubt to bow down to Him. Jesus is more than willing to show us miraculous signs, but He is unwilling to throw pearls to pigs (Matthew 7:6). He refuses to be treated like a side show, a novelty act, just for the sake of people’s stubborn unbelief.

Right now, so much of our culture operates with the unbelief, doubt and skepticism of these Pharisees and Sadducees. I’ve seen many of my friends go through a process that is called “deconstruction.” I went through it too. It is basically a process of doing surgery on your faith. It’s like breaking a bone that’s not growing correctly in order to set it properly. At least that is what it is supposed to be.

But so many of my friends didn’t go through this process in an atmosphere of faith. It would be like doing surgery on yourself in an open field. It’s not so much the surgery that causes so much damage; it’s the infection that comes from doing the surgery by yourself in an unclean environment that ends up doing the damage.

When deconstruction is attempted on your own in an environment that is filled with doubt, inevitably the infection of unbelief seeps into your bones. Deconstruction itself–when done with spiritual guidance, in community, and in an atmosphere of faith–can be useful. But when it’s done in isolation, without spiritual guidance, in an environment of doubt, unbelief is often the result. Deconstruction in this context will tear down a person’s faith without reconstructing a healthy faith on the other side. It’s like breaking a bone and never resetting it.

If we’re looking for a sign to overcome our unbelief and doubt, Jesus advises us in this passage to look first to the sign of Jonah. In other words, look first to His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead three days later. That is our primary “sign from heaven” that builds faith. The apostle Paul said it this way:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:6-8

While uncertainty is a normal part of the Christian life, unbelief is not. Unbelief (often labeled “doubts”) is an infection that can grow to the point of killing one’s faith. Don’t let it. We are not helpless, passive victims of unbelief as if we can’t do anything about it. Root it out of your heart as soon as possible. Choose to trust God. Choose to trust scripture. Choose not to give in to your doubts.

If it’s You…

When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Matthew 14:26-29

The disciples didn’t know it was Jesus at first. They saw something miraculous happening, a man walking on water, but they weren’t sure it was from the Lord. They weren’t sure it was Jesus. At first, they thought it might be a ghost.

Jesus reassures them that it is, in fact, Him. But they still aren’t convinced. They feel like they need some kind of proof that it’s Jesus. Peter starts with, “Lord, if it’s you…” Peter wants verification that the miraculous thing they are witnessing is Jesus and not something else.

Peter reasons that if it is really Jesus, he would be able to come to Jesus on the water. In other words, Jesus kept empowering His disciples to do what He was doing. So it makes sense that if Jesus is the one walking on water, He could also empower His disciples to do it. But if it’s just a ghost, then Peter would never be able to walk on the water.

Jesus agrees.

Jesus invites Peter to come to Him on the water. This is Jesus’s evidence that it is, in fact, Him. The disciples could have just taken Jesus at His word. But if they want evidence that Jesus is the one doing the miracle, they’ll have to take a risk and step out in faith.

All of this still applies today. So many people see a miraculous thing and wonder if it’s really Jesus. Even after Jesus shows up in miraculous ways, people still doubt it is Him. They don’t take Him at His word, so they ask for evidence. Yet, the only evidence that Jesus is willing to give comes after a step of faith. He essentially says, “Believe what I am saying is true, take a risk to try it yourself, and then you will know it is me.”

This isn’t exactly the scientific method we western Christians are used to. We wrongly assume proof will come before faith. Jesus says that it doesn’t work that way in the Kingdom. If you want proof, Jesus is glad to give it. But it will only come after a step of faith.

We say we’ll come to Him on the water if He proves to us that it is Him. He says you’ll only know it’s me after you come to me on the water. We ask Jesus to bow down to our doubts to help us believe. He refuses. He tells us to have our doubts bow down to Him in order for our faith to arise.

We actually shouldn’t be surprised by this. This is exactly what God did with Moses. God showed up to Moses in a burning bush in order to send him to rescue the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. But Moses doubted that he was the man for the job. Moses said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?“(Exodus 3:11).

Notice how God responds.

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Exodus 3:12

Did you get that? The sign that it is God who sent Moses is that, once all the people of Israel are out of Egypt, they will worship God on that mountain. In other words, the evidence that it is, in fact, God sending Moses will only come after Moses listens to God and takes the risk to obey. We want the sign to be before we obey. God says that He’ll confirm His word with evidence but only after we obey, only after we take that step of faith.

Have you ever prayed that prayer that starts with, “God, if it’s really you….” I know I have! But we have to understand what comes next. God is okay with us asking this question, but don’t be surprised when God’s evidence that it is really Him comes after a step of faith, after an obedient action, after a risk. We so often want to obey out of certainty rather than from a place of faith.

I have found in my own life that God has given me proof after proof, evidence after evidence that it is Him! But this evidence came after I was willing to get out of the boat and take a risk to believe.

Where is God calling you to take that risk, that step of faith?