The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side (Mark 8:11-13, NIV).
The fact that the Pharisees began to question Jesus was not an unexpected or bad thing. Rabbis taught by asking questions. When a rabbi came into town that was not known, it was neither uncommon nor impolite to be questioned. It was a way of verifying who you were, where you stood on important theological issues, and what quality of teacher you were.
But it quickly became apparent that they were not interested in verifying Jesus’ teaching; rather they were trying to trap Him. The word in the Greek the NIV translates as “to test” in this context means to test in a negative way, or to tempt. I like the way the CJB translates verse 11, The P’rushim [i.e., the Pharisees] came and began arguing with him; they wanted him to give them a sign from Heaven, because they were out to trap him.
How did Jesus respond when it became clear they were not asking to understand but asking to figure out how to discredit Him? He left. He turned around, got back into the boat with His disciples and left.
There is a difference between listening to understand a person’s point of view whether we agree with them or not, and listening for an opportunity to attack, embarrass, or discredit. When Jesus came up against the latter kind of debate, He didn’t try to justify Himself or shine on His adversaries, He simply turned around and left.
When Christians approach “debate” with other people (Christian or not) with the intent of making the other person fall on their face, or shaming them into submission, they are acting no different than the Pharisees were here. They were sinning, and sinning big. When we come to the table with the attitude, “when I know I am right I want it to show, and when others are wrong I want them to know,” we are not acting out of love. If we are not acting out of love then we are not representing Jesus well or doing a positive service to the person we are debating.
If you are talking to a person who is arguing in that manner, even if that person claims to be a Christian, pull a Jesus on them and walk away. They are not there to listen, or learn, or grow. Their goal is to tempt you to sin, to trap you, and to show off. Spend your time with people who are listening to understand. After all, if anyone could have debated the Pharisees into the truth, it was Jesus. If He knew He would be wasting His time on them, you can be sure you would be too.