WHERE’S THE SIGN?
The hours between Jesus’ arrest and his crucifixion are the focus of a large portion of all four gospels. Much of the attention is given to Jesus’ trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. But in the one of the gospels – the gospel of Luke – there’s an interlude in this trial that is often overlooked. The interlude involves an additional hearing – this one before the Jewish ruler Herod.
According to Luke, Pilate examines Jesus and can find no basis for a charge against him. But the Jewish leaders continue to insist that he’s guilty. They tell Pilate, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.”
The mention of Galilee immediately catches Pilate’s attention. Pilate doesn’t really want to have anything to do with this troublesome case that’s been brought before him. With the mention of Galilee he suddenly realizes he may have a way out. If Jesus is from Galilee, he may be somebody else’s problem. Galilee is ruled by Herod. Galilean cases fall within Herod’s jurisdiction. Herod can sort all this out.
Israel under Roman rule is divided into various districts. Jerusalem is in Judea, which is governed directly by the Romans themselves. Pilate has been placed in Judea as governor, to run things on the Emperor’s behalf. But in Galilee, in the northern part of Israel, there’s a different arrangement. In Galilee, the Romans have appointed Herod to be the ruler. They’ve given him the title “tetrarch”, which is something a bit lower than a king. It means he’s the ruler of a quarter of the country.
As tetrarch, Herod has made a show of living as a faithful Jew, but behind the façade a different picture of him has emerged. Herod has married his half-brother’s ex-wife, who also happens to be his niece. That’s complicated, in more ways than one. John the Baptist took a very dim view of Herod’s marital arrangements, and criticized him for it. Herod responded by putting John in prison, and eventually having him killed. In his treatment of John, Herod has shown that, even though his kingdom may be relatively small, within his own territory he is nothing less than a tyrant.
Normally Herod has nothing to do with Jerusalem – it’s not part of the territory he governs. But it turns out that he just happens to be in town for the feast of the Passover. When he learns of this, Pilate sees an opportunity to wash his hands of a difficult problem. He sends Jesus to Herod, for Herod to decide what to do about him.
Luke tells us that when Herod meets Jesus, he’s greatly pleased, because he’s been wanting to see him for a long time. For a moment, you almost think Herod is going to be sympathetic to Jesus. But that’s not why Herod has wanted to see him. Right from the very start of Jesus’ ministry Herod had been hearing about what Jesus was doing. Some people were saying that Jesus was actually John the Baptist raised from the dead. Herod didn’t believe that, but he was curious. Luke tells us he tried to see Jesus, but that didn’t happen, because Jesus knew what Herod was up to. A little while later some people came to Jesus and told him that Herod wanted to kill him. Herod is not sympathetic to Jesus.
But Herod is interested in the possibility of seeing Jesus perform a sign of some sort. Herod knows that the word around Galilee is that Jesus has been healing the sick and driving out demons. Jesus has been doing things that have left people astonished and amazed. Herod would like to see some of that. He wants to see a sign.
In Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, Herod sings to Jesus, “Prove to me that you’re divine/Change my water into wine …Prove to me that you’re no fool/Walk across my swimming pool.” It’s a parody of what really went on, but the underlying tone may not be so far from the truth. Herod wants a sign, and it’s not entirely clear whether he wants that sign in order to have proof, or merely because he wants to be entertained.
Wanting a sign in order to be entertained sounds completely frivolous, but you can’t say it’s unheard of. What greater spectacle could there be than a miracle performed on demand? There are plenty of people, even today, who would sign up for something like that. We do after all live in a culture that values entertainment above all else. This was a point Neil Postman made thirty years ago in his very insightful book Amusing Ourselves to Death. This point is even more valid today. Postman says that we expect just about everything in our culture to be a form of entertainment. The news is supposed to be entertaining. Shopping is supposed to be entertaining. Education is supposed to be entertaining. Politics is supposed to be entertaining. So it’s not surprising when people turn to spiritual matters, they also expect entertainment. In this way of thinking, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, just as long as it’s not boring. Don’t show us the truth, just show us a good time.
Herod undoubtedly is looking for a little amusement to spice up his otherwise empty life. A miracle from Jesus would be a nice bit of entertainment – enough to keep the boredom away for an hour or two. But what would be even better, of course, would be a miracle that’s spectacular enough to prove that Jesus really does have divine power. If Jesus can do that – wow – that would really be something. That would be a sign of something really big.
But Jesus is not going to give Herod a sign. It’s true that Jesus’ ministry has been filled with signs and wonders. It’s true that he has displayed the power of God in many ways. Jesus is fully capable of producing miracles. But he refuses to do it on demand. Luke tells us that Jesus did not respond favourably to those who were always pestering him for a sign. At one point he said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”
When Jesus talks about the sign of Jonah, he’s talking about the resurrection. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days, Jesus will be in the grave for three days before he is raised to new life. The resurrection will be the only sign the people need. The resurrection will be the confirmation that Jesus really is the Christ, the Son of God.
But Herod doesn’t want to wait for that. He wants a sign, and he wants it now. And perhaps, to some degree, we’re the same. We too want a sign, and we don’t understand why Jesus doesn’t give one. Why do we have to wait for the resurrection? Why do we have to watch Jesus being defeated, abused and killed? Why do we have to watch him suffer on the cross? Why doesn’t he just do something to avoid all that? Why doesn’t he reveal who he really is to Herod, to Pilate, and to all the rest? Why doesn’t he just throw off the cloak of his human nature and show himself to be the God that he really is?
It would be easier to understand this if Jesus never performed any signs at all. But he was performing signs all the time. Although, even as he was doing that, he was clearly aware of the limitations of such signs. One commentator has suggested that the problem is that we tend to view signs as proof, but in fact the signs Jesus performed are probably best thought of as pointers. They point to something important, but they don’t prove it.
The signs Jesus performs point to the presence of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that has come to earth in him. The signs also point to what the kingdom of God will look like when it is finally fulfilled. When God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, disease and sickness will be banished, evil will be completely defeated, and death will be no more. Jesus’ signs point towards this glorious future. They say, “This is what’s coming – see a glimpse of it now.”
This is why Jesus performs signs. He’s pointing us towards the kingdom of God. He doesn’t perform signs to give us proof. That’s because signs don’t work too well as proof.
In the book of Exodus, Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh to convince him to let the people of Israel go free. Pharaoh refuses to listen to them until they perform a miracle. So Aaron throws down his staff and it turns into a snake. Pharaoh shrugs and calls in his own magicians. They throw down their own staffs, which promptly turn into snakes. In other words, Pharaoh is saying, “If you want to do magic, I can do magic too.” Now, you’d think Pharaoh would be impressed when Aaron’s snake proceeds to swallow up the magicians’ snakes, but he isn’t. His heart is just as hard as ever.
This is the problem with miraculous signs. Perhaps some people will be convinced by them. But many others are just going to say, “I wonder how he did that? What kind of magic trick did he use?” When you get right down to it, every sign can be explained away, if the person observing it does not have faith. Every sign can be explained away, if the person observing it hardens their heart.
This is true of even the most compelling of all signs – the resurrection itself. It’s significant that even the resurrection is not displayed in a public way. God has a purpose in this. The risen Christ doesn’t come back to Herod and say, “Here’s your sign now.” The risen Christ only appears to those who have already shown an openness to him. He only appears to those who already have the seeds of faith. The one exception to that may be Paul. But even Paul recognizes how unusual his experience is. Generally speaking, signs are only given to those who are prepared to receive them in faith.
Demanding a sign is the very opposite of faith. Demanding a sign implies that we are in control, not God. It’s a way of saying that we are sitting in judgment on God, deciding for ourselves whether God is living up to our expectations. We’ll believe in you, God, if you do this. It’s putting God to the test. It’s saying to God, “Prove it.”
Faith is about surrendering ourselves to God. It’s not about trying to make God surrender to us. Faith is about recognizing God’s authority over us. It’s not about trying assert authority over God. Faith is about giving ourselves into God’s hands. It’s not about trying to force God’s hand, to make him do something that suits our purposes. It’s about accepting that God is God, and we are not.
Jesus is not going to do a sign for Herod because he knows Herod is not going to accept that sign in faith. No amount of miraculous evidence would be enough for Herod. His heart would be just as hard as ever, closed off from God by a complete lack of faith.
So is faith belief without proof? Are we supposed believe something for which there is no evidence? That’s what the so-called New Atheists like to say. They like to say faith is belief without evidence. But that’s a misunderstanding of what faith actually is. Elton Trueblood once said, “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.” In other words, faith places its trust in what God has revealed about himself, but it doesn’t demand proof. There is plenty of evidence of God’s work in the world – plenty of signs that point us towards God. But if you’re asking for proof, you’re asking for the wrong thing. Proof may be important in science, or the court of law, but it’s not really the point when it comes to God.
Proof in matters of faith makes about as much sense as proof in matters of love. How, for example, can we prove that our loved ones love us in return? We can’t. There may be pointers – signs that support our belief that they love us. But these signs are not proof. We can only have faith that our loved ones love us. We can trust – without reservation – but we cannot speak of proof. This is just not something where proof has any relevance.
It’s the same when it comes to God. The more we demand proof, the further we move away from trusting without reservation. The more we demand proof, the further we move away from faith.
As Herod bombards Jesus with questions, Jesus remains silent. The Jewish leaders continue to level their accusations at him, and eventually Herod begins to join them. He begins to ridicule and mock Jesus. For his amusement, he even gets an elegant robe and puts it on Jesus. Then he sends him back to Pilate.
Much to his frustration, Herod doesn’t get the sign he’s looking for. But if he had faith, he would be able to see a sign of sorts. He’d be able to see a pointer giving a hint of a divine truth. He’d be able to see in this silent prisoner, bound and beaten, and wearing a royal robe, the love of God. He’d be able to see a love that’s willing to humble itself, a love that’s willing to sacrifice itself fully and unreservedly. He’d be able to see a love that reaches out to the whole world – even to him – if he would just surrender himself to it.
When we look at Jesus, the one whose body was broken for us, may we see that sign too.