While people are busy looking for miraculous signs, God has been sending His messengers to teach us directly. While people await thunderous voices from the sky, God sends His humble and devoted loving servants who speak simply and clearly. These are more than signs: These are direct communications from God.
You see, God is a very practical Person.
We can certainly look back into the history of the prophets and of Jesus and see that God has continuously sent messengers to show us and teach us how to renew our relationship with Him. Continuously? Consider for example John the Baptist, Jesus' teacher. John also had a teacher, his father, who was a priest. His father had a teacher. This succession goes all the way back to Solomon, Jonah, David, Jacob, Moses and Abraham, who all were empowered by God to teach and passing on the same message from God.
The people of Nineveh, for example, heard Jonah's message about God and began to repent their ways and worship God. This was not due to some big miraculous sign but rather from the simple preaching of Jonah as God had instructed Jonah to do:
[God speaking to Jonah] "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before Me." (Jonah 1:2)
Jesus is saying to those who were asking for a miraculous sign that the people of Nineveh, who had been called "wicked," repented their ways because Jonah's preaching convinced them to fast and pray to God (see the book of Jonah).
Jesus is also saying that those people around Jesus would be judged as wicked even by the wicked people of Nineveh. In other words, those whom Jesus was speaking to were more wicked than the people of Nineveh.
Jesus is indicating that those people surrounding Jesus were - just as the people of Nineveh - also in a position to receive clear instructions from God through Jesus. Yet they were not listening to Jesus. They were only looking for miraculous signs instead of simply hearing Jesus' teachings.
Many have interpreted part of Jesus' statement to mean that Jesus is claiming that he is greater than Jonah and Solomon. Does this make sense? Is this the same Jesus that said, "So the last will be first and the first will be last." (Matt. 20:16)? Is Jesus considering himself as "first" then? Certainly not.
Jesus had in fact clearly stated that he considered John the Baptist greater than himself:
"I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." (Matthew 11:10-12)
Was not Jesus also born of a woman - Mary? The reality is that John the Baptist was Jesus' teacher, which is why Jesus took initiation (baptism) from John. Jesus certainly gave reverence to his teacher, although John also recognized Jesus' greatness. This, in fact, is the way of the spiritual world: The loving servants of God always feel they are lowest, and other loving servants of God are greater.
This humility before ones teacher is the tradition of spiritual life, as evidenced by the second part of Jesus' statement about John. Thus an interpretation of Jesus’ statement as promoting himself as better than Jonah and Solomon would be inconsistent with Jesus' own teachings.
We might add that if a person is claiming to be greater than another, why would the person present this in such a puzzling manner. Why wouldn't they simply say, "I am greater"?
How many people do we know will speak of themselves as the third person? If we walk into a business meeting and introduce ourselves, we will say, "my name is John Doe and I am in corporate sales." We won't say, "someone in this room is named John Doe, and someone in this room is in corporate sales" will we? Certainly not. As a matter of etiquette and common sense, people speak of third parties as third parties and speak of themselves as first parties.
Quite simply, Jesus is not speaking of himself as "One greater.” Jesus is referring to God.
The reason why Jesus is referring to the "One greater" in the third person is because Jesus is not God. Jesus is teaching about and representing God, just as Jonah and Solomon did before him. God is thus present in Jesus' teachings, and that is why Jesus can refer to God as being present. And the reason Jesus is speaking of God as greater than Solomon is because the people he was speaking to (the Pharisees and their followers) revered Solomon as a prophet. So Jesus is illustrating that Solomon worshiped the same God that Jesus is teaching about.
Both Solomon and Jonas were, just as Jesus was, humble and devoted confidential loving servants of God, and certainly God was present in all of their teachings, as evidenced by God's instruction to Jonah quoted above. None of them would claim they were better or greater than each other. This is not the style of a humble surrendered servant of God. They would, however, make claim that God was greater than all. This is an oft-repeating proclamation of every bona fide prophet and spiritual teacher, as evidenced throughout the scriptures.
It should also be noted that "son of man" is an incorrect translation of the Greek phrase, υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. The Greek word, υἱός (huios) might be translated to "son" in the context of a physical relationship of this world, but in the context of a spiritual relationship, it is more appropriately defined, as given by the Greek lexicon, as "one who depends on another or is his follower, pupil or servant." In other words, a devoted follower, or loving servant.
Furthermore, ἀνθρώπου, according again to the Greek lexicon, can be translated to "man," "mankind," or "humanity." (And τοῦ means "of").
This means that Jesus is referring to himself as the servant of humanity. This is a humble description of himself was consistent with Jesus' washing the feet of his disciples and other acts of humility, such as healing others and being compassionate upon those who were poor and hungry. Consider also David's remark about himself as he prayed to God:
"O Lord, what is man that you care for him, the son of man [servant of humanity] that you think of him?" (Psalms 144:3)
The loving servant of God is also the servant of humanity because he comes to deliver God’s message to bring us back to God. Because the loving servant of God has humbly surrendered his life to God, every part of him, including his physical body, is devoted to God. And because God loves all of us, the loving servant of God naturally loves us as well, and wants to give people God's message: This is the ultimate service to all of humanity.
Spending three days in the "heart of the earth" after the death of Jesus' physical body was also part of Jesus' service to God and humanity. Jesus' service was supposed to illustrate to all of us how important serving and trusting in God is (that a person would be prepared to die for God), and that each of us is a spiritual being - not these temporary physical bodies. We should remember that Jesus taught not to focus upon the needs of the body, but instead focus upon God. This is because our identity is spiritual, not physical.
And the "sign of Jonah" Jesus is referring to? Jonah trusted God when he was swallowed by the fish, and God protected Jonah. Jesus compares this to his own sacrifice because his sacrifice also illustrated the trust Jesus had in God (to allow his body to be killed in his service to God). Jesus showed that God had saved him when he made himself visible three days after his body was killed. The body that Jesus showed after three days was not his physical body. Otherwise they would have immediately recognized him. This is evidenced in Mark 16:12: Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country...
Also the disciples did not recognize him at first either, and he even ate with them without them recognizing him.
Thus, while ecclesiastical Christians focus upon the many miracles of Jesus, including his birth and re-appearance, as signs, they gloss over his teachings. This puts this generation of salvation-focused "Jesus saves" ecclesiastical Christians in the same category as those Jesus was speaking to above. And what was Jesus' central teaching, also taught by Moses and all the other prophets?
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matt. 22:37-38)