And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven.
Now what makes this a subject of interest to us is, that our Lord does expressly promise all Christians a certain gracious manifestation of Himself, which it is natural, at first sight, to suppose a sensible one: and many persons understand it to be such, as if it were not more blessed to believe than to see. Now, that this great gift, whatever it be, is of a nature to impart illumination, sanctity, and peace, to the soul to which it comes, far from disputing, I would earnestly maintain. And, in this indirect way, doubtless, it is in a certain sense apprehended and perceived; perceived in its effects, with a consciousness that those effects cannot come of themselves, but imply a gift from which they come, and a presence of which they are, as it were, the shadow, a voice of which they are the echo. But there are persons who desire the inward manifestation of Christ to be much more sensible than this. They will not be contented without some sensible sign and direct evidence that God loves them; some assurance, in which faith has no part, that God has chosen them; and which may answer to their anticipations of what Scripture calls "the secret of the Lord," and "that hidden manna" which Christ invites us to partake. Some men, for instance, hold that their conscience would have no peace, unless they recollected the time when they were converted from darkness to light, from a state of wrath to the kingdom of God. Others go further, and think that without a distinct inward assurance of his salvation, a man is not in a saving state. This is what men often conceive; not considering that whatever be the manifestation promised to Christians by our Lord, it is not likely to be more sensible and more intelligible than the great sign of His own resurrection. Yet even that, like the miracle wrought upon Jonah, was in secret, and they who believed without seeing it were more blessed than those who saw. All this accords with what is told us about particular Divine manifestations in other parts of Scripture. The saints reflected on them afterwards, and mastered them, but can hardly be considered as sensible of them at the very time. Thus Jacob. after the vision, says, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not." Manoah said to his wife, after the angel had departed, "We shall surely die, because we have seen God" (Genesis 28:16; Judges 13:22; Judges 6:22; Acts 12:9-11). Let no one think it strange to say that God may be holding communion with us without our knowing it. Do not all good thoughts come from Him? Yet are we sensible that they so come? Can we tell how they come? We commonly speak of being influenced by God's grace, and resisting His grace; this implies a certain awful intercourse between the soul and God; yet who will say that he himself can tell in particular instances when God moves him, and when he is responding this way or that 7 It is one thing, then, to receive impressions, another to reflect upon them and to be conscious of them. I have been speaking of the signs which He Himself promised; but others were announced concerning Him by His servants, and these, let it be observed, are secret also, and addressed to faith. The prophet Isaiah was commissioned to promise Ahaz a sign, "Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God," he says, "ask it either in the depth or in the height above." When Ahaz would not speak, the prophet proceeded: "The Lord Himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel." Yet could there be a sign more secret, less exposed to the senses, less addressed to the reason, than the conception of Christ? It was a miracle, yet not an evidence. And so again, when our Lord was born, the angel gave the shepherds a sign; but which was the greater evidence, the angel himself, and the multitude of the heavenly host, or the sign itself which he sent them to see? "This shall be a sign unto you," he said; "ye shall see the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." Was this an evidence of greatness or of meanness? Did it prove Him to be God, or was it a trial of faith? And so again, though it is not called a sign, yet it had been published in the manner of a sign, that the Lord should suddenly come to His temple, even the "Messenger of the Covenant," that "the glory of the latter house should be greater than that of the former," and that God would "glorify the house of His glory." But how did He come to fulfil these prophecies? As an infant in arms, recognized by one or two holy persons, and that by means of faith, without pomp, or display of greatness. Yet still Simeon said undoubtingly, Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel." What is true in these instances is true of all the parts of our Lord's gracious economy. He was "manifested in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen of angels preached unto the Gentile, believed on in the world, received up into glory," yet what was the nature of the manifestation? The annunciation was secret; the nativity was secret; the miraculous fasting in the wilderness was secret; the resurrection secret; the ascension not far from secret; the abiding presence secret. One thing alone was public, and in the eyes of the world — His death; the only event which did not speak of His divinity, the only event in which He seemed a sign, not of power, but of weakness. Let us not seek then for signs and wonders, or ask for sensible inward tokens of God's favour; let us not indulge enthusiasm, or become the slaves of superstition, who are children of God by faith. Faith only can introduce us to the unseen presence of God; let us venture to believe, let us make trial before we see, and the evidence which others demand before believing, we shall gain more abundantly by believing. Almighty God is hidden from us; the world does not discover Him to us; we may go to the right hand and the left, but we find Him not. Opposed to this generous and vigorous faith are carnal blindness and grossness of heart, of which Scripture speaks so often. Whatever there is of spiritual light within us is quenched by indulging our natural tastes and appetites. Our Lord says, "Ye cannot serve God and mammon." He bids us watch and pray, and beware of eating and drinking, buying and selling, marrying and being given in marriage. We cannot have our eyes at once on this world and on the other, Those who live in the sun's glare, can see nothing in twilight: but those when eyes are used to the shade, see many things which the others will not believe they can see. So is it with our souls; the minding of the flesh aiming at this world's goods, seeking to rise or succeed in life, gazing on greatness, rank, distinction, abundance, pomp and show, coveting wealth, measuring things by wealth, eating and drinking without restraint, placing no curb upon the passions, exercising no self-command, living without rule, indolently and weakly following the first idea which presents itself, the first impulse, the first temptation, all this makes the heart irreligious. Then it is that men ask for clearer evidence, and reject the truth; then they say, "How can these things be?"
(J. H. Newman.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven.