Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Matthew 16:1-4; Mark 8:11-13; Luke 12:54-57
1. And the Pharisees, together with the Sadducees, came, and tempting desired that he would show them a sign from heaven. 2. But he answering said to them, About the commencement of the evening you say, It will be fine weather; for the sky is red. 3. And in the morning, There will be a storm today; for the sky is red and lowering. Hypocrites, you can judge aright of the face of the sky; but can you not judge of the signs of the times? 4. A wicked and adulterous nation demandeth a sign, and no sign shall be given to it but the sign of the prophet Jonah. And he left them, and departed.
11. And the Pharisees came, and began to dispute with him, requesting from him a sign from heaven tempting him. 12. And he groaned in his spirit, and said, Why doth this generation ask a sign? Verily, I say to you, That no sign shall be given to this generation. 13. And he left them, and returned to the ship, and departed across the lake.
54. And he said also to the multitudes, When you see a cloud rising out of the west, you immediately say, A shower is coming; and so it is. 55. And when you perceive the south wind blowing, you say that there will be hot weather; and so it is. 56. Hypocrites, you know how to judge of the appearance of the sky and of the earth, and how comes it that you do not understand this time? 57. And why even of yourselves do you not judge what is right?
Matthew 16:1. And the Pharisees came. Mark says that they began to dispute, from which we may conjecture that, when they had been vanquished in argument, this was their last resource; as obstinate men, whenever they are reduced to extremities, to avoid being compelled to yield to the truth, are accustomed to introduce something which is foreign to the subject. Though the nature of the dispute is not expressed, yet I think it probable that they debated about the calling of Christ, why he ventured to make any innovation, and why he made such lofty pretensions, as if by his coming he had fully restored the kingdom of God. Having nothing farther to object against his doctrine, they demand that he shall give them a sign from heaven. But it is certain that a hundred signs would have no greater effect than the testimonies of Scripture. Besides, many miracles already performed had placed before their eyes the power of Christ, and had almost enabled them to touch it with their hands. Signs, by which Christ made himself familiarly known, are despised by them; and how much less will they derive advantage from a distant and obscure sign? Thus the Papists of our own day, as if the doctrine of the Gospel had not yet been proved, demand that it be ascertained by means of new miracles.
The Pharisees, together with the Sadducees. It deserves our attention that, though the Sadducees and the Pharisees looked upon each other as enemies, and not only cherished bitter hatred, but were continually engaged in hostilities, yet they enter into a mutual league against Christ. In like manner, though ungodly men quarrel among themselves, their internal broils never prevent them from conspiring against God, and entering into a compact for joining their hands in persecuting the truth.
Tempting. By this word the Evangelists mean that it was not with honest intentions, nor from a desire of instruction, but by cunning and deceit, that they demanded what they thought that Christ would refuse, or at least what they imagined was not in his power. Regarding him as utterly mean and despicable, they had no other design than to expose his weakness, and to destroy all the applause which he had hitherto obtained among the people. In this manner unbelievers are said to tempt God, when they murmur at being denied what their fancy prompted them to ask, and charge God with want of power.
2. About the commencement of the evening. By these words Christ reminds them that his power had been sufficiently manifested, so that they must have recognised the time of their visitation, (Lu 19:44,) had they not of their own accord shut their eyes, and refused to admit the clearest light. The comparison which he employs is beautiful and highly appropriate; for, though the aspect of the sky is changeable, so that sometimes a storm unexpectedly arises, and sometimes fair weather springs up when it was not expected, yet the instructions of nature are sufficient to enable men to predict from signs whether the day will be fair or cloudy. Christ therefore asks why they do not recognize the kingdom of God, when it is made known by signs not less manifest; for this proved clearly that they were excessively occupied with earthly and transitory advantages, and cared little about any thing that related to the heavenly and spiritual life, and were blinded not so much by mistake as by voluntary malice.
3. Hypocrites, you can judge. He calls them hypocrites, because they pretend to ask that which, if it were exhibited to them, they are resolved not to observe. The same reproof applies nearly to the whole world; for men direct their ingenuity, and apply their senses, to immediate advantage; and therefore there is scarcely any man who is not sufficiently well qualified in this respect, or at least who is not tolerably acquainted with the means of gaining his object. How comes it then that we feel no concern about the signs by which God invites us to himself? Is it not because every man gives himself up to willing indifference, and extinguishes the light which is offered to him? The calling of Christ, and the immediate exhibition of eternal salvation, were exhibited to the scribes both by the Law and the Prophets, and by his own doctrine, to which miracles were added.
There are many persons of the same description in the present day, who plead that on intricate subjects they have a good right to suspend their judgment, because they must wait till the matter is fully ascertained. They go farther, and believe that it is a mark of prudence purposely to avoid all inquiry into the truth; as if it were not an instance of shameful sloth that, while they are so eagerly solicitous about the objects of the flesh and of the earth, they neglect the eternal salvation of their souls, and at the same time contrive vain excuses for gross and stupid ignorance.
A very absurd inference is drawn by some ignorant persons from this passage, that we are not at liberty to predict from the aspect of the sky whether we shall have fair or stormy weather. It is rather an argument which Christ founds on the regular course of nature, that those men deserve to perish for their ingratitude, who, while they are sufficiently acute in matters of the present life, yet knowingly and willfully quench the heavenly light by their stupidity.
Mark 8:12. And groaning in his spirit. By these words Mark informs us that it occasioned grief and bitter vexation to our Lord, when he saw those ungrateful men obstinately resist God. And certainly all who are desirous to promote the glory of God, and who feel concern about the salvation of men, ought to have such feelings that nothing would inflict on their hearts a deeper wound than to see unbelievers purposely blocking up against themselves the way of believing, and employing all their ingenuity in obscuring by their clouds the brightness of the word and works of God. The words, in his spirit, appear to me to be added emphatically, to inform us that this groan proceeded from the deepest affection of his heart, and that no sophist might allege that Christ resorted to outward attitudes to express a grief which he did not inwardly feel; for that holy soul, which was guided by the zeal of the Spirit, must have been moved by deep sadness at the sight of such wicked obstinacy.
Luke 12:57. And why even of yourselves, etc.? Here Christ opens up the source of the evil, and, as it were, applies the lancet to the ulcer. He tells them that they do not descend into their consciences, and there examine with themselves, as in the presence of God, what is right. The reason why hypocrites are so much disposed to make objections is, that they throw their swelling words into the air without any concern, and never exercise calm thought, or place themselves at the tribunal of God, that the truth, when once ascertained, may be fully embraced. When Luke says that this was spoken to the multitudes, he does not contradict the narrative of Matthew and Mark; for it is probable that Christ adapted his style generally to the followers and disciples of the scribes, and to other despisers of God who resembled them, of whom he perceived that there were too many; as the present complaint or expostulation was applicable to the whole of that rabble.
Matthew 16:4. A wicked and adulterous nation. This passage was explained 426 under Mt 12:38. The general meaning is, that the Jews are never satisfied with any signs, but are continually tickled by a wicked desire to tempt God. He does not call them an adulterous nation merely because they demand some kind of sign, (for the Lord sometimes permitted his people to do this,) but because they deliberately provoke God; and therefore he threatens that, after he has risen from the dead, he will be a prophet like Jonah. So Matthew at least says — for Mark does not mention Jonah — but the meaning is the same; for, strictly speaking, this was intended to serve as a sign to them, that Christ, when he had risen from the dead, would in every place cause the voice of his Gospel to be distinctly heard.
See page 93 of this volume.