The Power of Unbelief


Mark 6:1-6

In the previous episodes we have noted the recurring theme of the amazement of the disciples and the crowds at the power that Jesus wielded over nature, the demons, illness, and even death. Now it is Jesus’ turn to be amazed, at the unbelief of the people of his hometown. In the previous episode, Jesus himself drew attention to faith as the instrument of salvation. He told the woman with the issue of blood that her faith had saved her; he exhorted Jairus not to be afraid, but to believe. Those people were desperate and turned to Jesus. Now we encounter people who have no sense of a need for Jesus and miss salvation because they have no faith.

Text Comment

v.1

Nazareth was a small village of no consequence. Apart from the dozen or so references to it in the New Testament, the first known mention of the town is by an obscure writer some 200 years after Christ’s birth. Archaeological investigations suggest that it was a hamlet, situated on a rocky hillside, with a population of no more than 500 people. No wonder that the Lord’s having come from such an insignificant place should have become an obstacle to people taking him seriously.

v.3

According to his custom, the Lord chose the synagogue service on the Sabbath as his opportunity to address the Jewish community. And once again the authority of his teaching and the wonderful message that he brought held the people spellbound. We have a more complete account of this history in the fourth chapter of the gospel of Luke and we are told there the tremendous impression that his teaching made upon the people. They had never heard anything like this. What is more, the report of his miracles had reached his hometown and some of them perhaps had already witnessed such miracles, especially if the few healings he performed there, mentioned in v. 5, had occurred before he taught in the synagogue.

But the authority of his teaching, the brilliance of it – and the Jews were masters at evaluating teaching; no one in the ancient world could boast more teachers than the Jews [Edwards, 170] – and his reputation for miracle-working produced a negative, rather than a positive reaction. Part of the reason was that they knew this man. They knew his family. Jesus had grown up among them. He was a carpenter, for goodness sake. There was nothing wrong with being a carpenter – the word actually is broader in its scope than our word carpenter; a tektōn could build you anything from a chicken coop to a house and could work in stone as well as wood; he could repair implements as well as build structures; he was a skilled worker, not a peasant – but still you don’t expect the meaning of life to be found in a tradesman.

Over against Roman Catholic and Orthodox teaching and the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity, the plain sense of v. 3 is that Jesus was the oldest of five brothers and at least two sisters, all of whom were the natural children of Joseph and Mary. We know nothing of any of his siblings except James, later the leader of the church in Jerusalem and the man whose book bears his name in the New Testament, and Jude, the author of the little New Testament letter than bears his name. According to the 4th century church historian Eusebius, grandsons of Jude were still known to the church at the end of the first century.

v.4

As we are wont to say, “familiarity breeds contempt.” There was a similar saying about prophets in Jesus’ time and he repeated that saying to them. It is hard for people to imagine having to reverence someone so familiar to them, and so unremarkable in his family situation. He is too much like themselves. I have had that experience myself. I once was in room with a hundred Air Force colonels, all of whom snapped to attention when my brother entered the room. My brother! The boy I had creamed night after night playing football on our knees in the hallway of our home. We are supposed to stand for him? Now, I was proud of my brother; don’t get me wrong; but I felt the incongruity of it all. I felt something of what the Lord’s siblings must have felt in those days. Our brother, the boy we grew up with, the fellow with the hammer in his hand: he has come from God? Give me a break! It is a striking demonstration of the reality of the incarnation: that the Son of God came into the world as a genuine human baby and grew up as a genuine human boy and young man – grew up to be an ordinary human being who looked and in many ways lived like any other human being in his small town; he grew up in an inconsequential town in an inconsequential family. Can this carpenter who made repairs for me a year or two ago be the Savior of the world? It is an entirely understandable reaction, perhaps, however absurd in this case. The miracles, the teaching should have cleared their heads. It was, of course, easier for the town to take such a dismissive view of Jesus because his own family took such a view of him at this time, perhaps his mother excepted, as we have already read in 3:21. If they who knew him best thought him out of his mind, no wonder the town came to the same conclusion.

v.6

Another of many indications of Jesus’ true humanness. The unbelief of his home town startled him; left him astonished.

Mark’s “he could not” is striking. It emphasizes the consequence of the people’s unbelief. It tied Jesus’ hands. Now it is not true that Jesus never healed unless the patient had faith. There are, in fact, a number of incidents reported in the Gospels in which Jesus healed without the presence of faith on anyone’s part. [Morris, Matthew, 367n] Perhaps ordinarily the Lord performed his healings in response to faith, but certainly not always. But here in Nazareth he met with outright rejection and hostility. Few miracles could be expected in such an environment. His miracles were not entertainment; in the main they were not even for the benefit of those who profited from them – the sick and the demon-possessed – they were his messianic credentials. And to perform them in front of people already hardened in their unbelief served no purpose and, indeed, only increased the guilt and stiffened the penalty that Nazareth would one day pay for the rejection of her greatest son.

The statement with which this short paragraph concludes obviously contains the burden of the lesson that Mark wrote this history to teach. He was amazed at their unbelief. We do not expect this. We don’t expect Jesus to be amazed at anything, really; but we especially don’t expect him to be amazed, nonplussed, startled by his hometown’s unbelief. A man who knew the human heart if anyone knew it, a man who had faced already in his ministry the obduracy of the human heart, was nevertheless dumbstruck by what he encountered in his home town. But that makes the fact all the more interesting and his amazement all the more impressive. We are forced to admit that there is something amazing about unbelief and about people’s refusal to embrace the good news of the Son of God come in the flesh. The unwillingness of men to embrace the gospel really is something amazing. A passage like this, a concluding statement like this, is intended to be an explanation of the world we live in and the life of mankind.

Jesus taught them as he had taught others and they were struck by his teaching as other synagogues full of Jews had been. He taught with an authority that they had never experienced before. He was like no scribe or rabbi they had ever heard. He resolved in the most decisive and convincing way the theological problems the Jewish theologians had created for themselves. He opened the Scripture in ways that made the holy book come alive. His words had the ring of eternal truth. True, he actually condemned some of their pet doctrines, but there was no denying that Jesus was a teacher to reckon with. Their hearts had burned within them as they heard him speak. Something remarkable was up in the life and ministry of Jesus.

And, then, there were his miracles. Not many there in Nazareth, to be sure, but enough to confirm the accounts that they had heard of the remarkable things he had done elsewhere. Not even these hard-hearted Nazarenes were of a mind to deny that Jesus had done wonders. There is no indication here that they thought that the few healings performed in Nazareth were a fraud. No one ever thought that. Unlike the modern so-called faith healers, no one every doubted the supernatural character and reality of Jesus’ healings. So there was every reason for the people of that village to welcome him warmly, enthusiastically and triumphantly.

But fall at his feet, they did not. Receive him gladly, they did not. Ask him to explain the secret of his great power they did not. They did not even keep an open mind to examine, to study, to pray that they might know what to think about Jesus. No, quite quickly, we read, they took offense at him, or, more literally, they were scandalized by him. His riveting and exciting teaching and his astonishing miracles and his good works notwithstanding, everything he said and did only served to make them angry and even to wish him dead! Luke tells us in chapter 4 of his Gospel that it actually came to that in Nazareth. They came near to killing the Savior of the world and his escape from them was almost a miracle in itself.

And why? Well, no doubt humanly speaking we could say some things he said to them offended their pride. We read about that in Luke 4. No doubt it became clear to them that to follow him they would have to abandon some cherished beliefs and practices. No doubt they couldn’t get their minds around the idea of the Messiah being from their village; a boy they had watched grow up before them. No doubt such things as these played a part. But there is nothing amazing about that. Something else must explain the Lord’s amazement at their unbelief. There was something about these people that caused them very easily and very quickly to be revolted by Jesus; not just to disagree with him but to hate him. Instead of welcoming him with open arms as we might have thought they would welcome the hometown hero, they took a deep and abiding offense at him. They gnashed their teeth at him. They thought very hard thoughts of this extraordinarily good man. They said to themselves: Who was he to condemn them? Who was he to tell them what they must do? Who was this pompous local boy strutting back into town, this peacock who expected them to admire him and fall at his feet?

Striking as this instance of unbelief in Jesus may be, it is, in fact, quite typical. The furious unbelief of people is one of the primary themes of the four Gospels. You cannot read the story of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John without having to come to terms with the fact that everywhere he went doing good he offended people. In fact you will not make any sense of the Gospels until you reckon with the reality of man’s visceral rejection and hatred of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to his own, John says, but his own received him not. That terrible fact cries out for an explanation. How could the Jews, supposedly so eagerly, breathlessly waiting for the appearance of the Messiah, reject him so decisively when he came among them, even though he was demonstrating his divine power everyday in the most breathtaking ways? How could they ignore the miracles, the teaching, the goodness, the blessing of his life? How could they miss the Son of God standing right before him?

The Lord’s own astonishment at this unbelief is the index of how inexplicable, how shocking their unbelief really was. In defiance of overwhelming evidence they shut their eyes and their hearts to the Son of God. Even Jesus was taken aback by the refusal of so many people – people who should have known better – to recognize the Son of God. Giving commands to demons and having them obey him without question or quibble; healing every manner of sickness immediately and perfectly by the mere utterance of a word; raising the dead to life again; tell me if you think you would brush all of that off and hate such a man who had come among you with such power to do you good. Well, yes, you would have done just as they did. Because what they did is what everyone does. What they were in Nazareth was nothing other than human beings acting as human beings. That is what makes this text so revealing and so important and no doubt that is why Mark has placed it in his story. The man of Nazareth is every man; the woman of Nazareth is every woman.

It is the intractability of human unbelief, the natural offense the human heart takes at evidences of the presence of God, the deep-seated opposition to the truth of God, even more a natural hatred for or animosity toward God that is here on display in Nazareth and so often in the Gospels. There is something mysterious here; something profoundly irrational. It is a violation of reason, of clear-thinking, and of good sense. What can explain the reception that Jesus received except that there is some bent in man that makes him an enemy of the truth and an enemy of God? That is what the Bible in fact says about human beings. Why didn’t the whole world rush to Jesus Christ when once the word got out that a wonderworker, a genuine wonderworker, had arrived and a man of sterling and perfect goodness and love too boot? This is what the Bible says about human beings. They are by nature enemies of God; rebels who will not give in to him even to save their own souls. What the Bible teaches in many places is precisely what we have illustrated in this text.

Whence this intractable unbelief in Nazareth? Why be so offended? Why not just ignore? No, they have to reject, and despise, and then, as we read elsewhere, try to kill Jesus. Nothing explains this but the Bible’s teaching that man’s love of himself and love of sin, and his corresponding hatred of God, is so powerful, so invincible, so much a part of his nature, his character that even the most amazing demonstrations of God’s power and love cannot induce him to forsake his idols and submit to God. He is a rebel by nature. An anti-God principle lies deep in his makeup. He would never admit this, of course, but it is the fact that alone explains man’s behavior in the world as the Bible everywhere takes pains to say. There is something deeply wrong with the human soul. It is bent away from God and that means it is bent away from everything true and everything good. That and that alone explains why when the Son of God came into the world he was regarded so widely as an enemy rather than a friend. Jesus simply brought to the surface and made visible what always lies festering in the human heart.

It was precisely to explain this inexplicable opposition to the one who had come to love and save the world that Jesus would later say, “No one can, no one is able to come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” So deeply fixed is man’s animosity toward God that nothing short of a work of divine power in a human heart can overcome it and make a person a follower of Jesus Christ. Men must be remade from the inside out before they will love God or embrace the truth about God’s Son. This is what the Bible means when it describes ordinary human beings like you and me, if we are not Christians, and everybody as dead in their sins and when it says we cannot and will not submit ourselves to God’s law.

Now, the people in Nazareth certainly didn’t take that view of things. They would never have admitted that they hated God or that their distaste for Jesus had anything to do with a profound moral defect in themselves. They would have deeply resented the suggestion that they were spiritually and morally dead. Far from it they would have thought. They would not have been amazed at their response to Jesus. They thought it quite natural and quite reasonable. They would have had their arguments for rejecting the claims that Jesus had made in the synagogue that Sabbath day. The more sophisticated among them would have found their problems with his teaching; they would have said why it couldn’t be true. Unbelievers are usually quite confident that Christianity is not true and many of them know enough to provide the usual arguments. Here is Sheldon Vanauken recalling a conversation he had with himself before he became a Christian. [A Severe Mercy, 59] The first part reminds me of the things Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are saying today about the Christian faith.

“Christianity was something I wanted nothing to do with. How could anybody believe such rubbish? A mere local religion of earth, quite inadequate for the immensities of the far-flung galaxies. Inadequate, at least, to anyone who had read Stapledon and the other science-fiction greats. I, indeed, had seen through the pretences of Christianity in my teens, and forthwith abandoned it. How could any intelligent person actually believe it, believe that an obscure crucified Jew was God! What was so odd was that quite a lot of people, not just sheep but highly intelligent people, did apparently believe it. T.S. Eliot, for instance. Or Eddington – in fact, quite a few physicists, the very last people one would expect to be taken in by it. Philosophers too. Was it possible – was there any chance – that there was more to it than I had thought? No, certainly not. Of course not! Still, it was odd. Damned odd. And it wasn’t just a matter of keeping their childhood faith without examination, either. Some of them – intelligent people, too – were actually converts from atheism or agnosticism. Could there be more to it? Something I missed?”

According to Richard Dawkins and his ilk, people who believe that Jesus Christ is God and the Savior of the world are simply stupid, mindless, and easily led. Or, they are genuinely evil. But many of the best people and the most brilliant minds in the history of mankind have been steadfast believers in Jesus, just as many brilliant people have been unbelievers. Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, has been skewered by Alister McGrath, the Oxford professor of theology, who was himself once an atheist but is now a Christian and is also scientifically trained as Dawkins is. His book is entitled The Dawkins’ Delusion. Dawkins feels about faith in Jesus pretty much the way the people in Nazareth did. They too would have had their reasons, they would have been able to articulate their reasons for rejecting Jesus, but their aversion to him was not really intellectual. There was something visceral about it; a bent, a bias that came from deep within them. It was, the Bible says, a spiritual disposition that they had. Unbelief is as natural to them as breathing air. It is who and what they are. And nothing so powerfully demonstrates this as the later conversion of Jesus’ family. Some of those who took offense at Jesus in Nazareth later became his followers and they would later explain the change that came over them as nothing short of their being delivered from a bondage they had not themselves felt, known, or understood. When they took offense at Jesus, they would later say, their arguments were simply their justification for an antipathy, a disgust, and an anger that went much deeper. We see that in people so often, don’t we, an anger, a spirit of offense that seems to come unbidden from below to be touched off by any little thing. Why are they so angry? What is wrong down deep?

There was something about Jesus that made these ordinary, religious, moral people hate him. And that was simply Jesus’ God-like-ness. The nearer a person comes to God himself and the truth of God, the more offended he becomes. No one will admit this, but it is the basic truth that explains the world. Human beings hate God. That is what the Fall did to the human heart. It has twisted it away from God and turned it against God. It is astonishing – it astonished Jesus – but these people hated him for the good that he did and the truth that he taught. They were in a grip of irrational animosity toward God.

These people in Nazareth we would today, if we knew them, characterize as sincere. They were good people by the ordinary standards of human judgment. The way small town people often are. We say they are the salt of the earth sort of folk. They really did think that they were doing God a favor by rejecting, condemning, and driving out of town the Son of God. That is how deep the rebellion goes. It completely absorbs the human heart so that even in a man or woman’s most sincere and moral motions, even in his or her most religious convictions, the true and living God remains the enemy. This visceral animosity toward God lies very deep; the person does not recognize it for what it is; just like the angry person who doesn’t recognize or realize or admit that there is something down deep inside of him causing all of this anger. Just as a human beings selfishness comes from way below, so does this animosity toward God. The whole vast structure of human religion and human morality is shaped by this animosity toward God.

As Pascal once wrote, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious convictions.” And as the Scottish evangelist Brownlow North put it, “There exists not on this earth a thing more offensive to God, or destructive to himself, than the honest, genuine belief of the natural heart of man.” One of the commentators I use to prepare these sermons on Mark indicated in a note on this text, that in 1982, he had had the opportunity to speak with Helmut Thielicke, the German theologian and preacher sometimes known as the Billy Graham of Germany. In the course of their conversation he had asked Thielicke what he felt was the worst evil he had experienced living under the Third Reich, the government of Adolph Hitler. Thielicke’s answer: “The unredeemed human heart.” That is the explanation of everything in this world. Man has a sick heart. It is twisted and bent. He doesn’t know it; may be deeply offended to hear you say it. But man’s heart is sick with hatred and that hatred is first and foremost directed to God. And all that man does and says and thinks is shaped by that hatred, by that anti-God spirit within him. Even his religion, however sincerely followed, is, in fact, an expression not of his love for God, but of his hatred for him. The religions of this world are nothing else but man’s elaborate denial of the one true and living God in his nature as he has revealed it to us. The people in Nazareth got a whiff of God in Jesus and that was enough for them. They took offense. They found him disgusting. They wanted him gone.

Look, people have good points. We know that. Most people have a number of good points. I read a biography of Ghengis Khan sometime ago and even he, the scourge of the world, had good points. He was, in many respects, a more enlightened ruler than the so-called Christian princes who ruled Europe in Genghis Khan’s day. He was a pretty good father to his sons, all things considered. The people in Nazareth had good points too. They didn’t reject Jesus because they were unusually bad people. They did not reject him because they were different, but because they were the same as other human beings; because they had within them the same aversion to God that everyone has by nature since the fall of man into sin. Humbling themselves before God is something they will not do. Submitting to his will they will not do. It is their very nature to be rebels against God.

This is the brute fact about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No one willingly believes it. No one will embrace it. That is why so many in the world who hear the message do not believe it. That is why even the church is constantly succumbing to unbelief herself. There is a predisposition in the human heart not to believe, not to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, and not to submit to his will. We sometimes are inclined to think that if only people could be made to see this or that, if only they would consider carefully the evidence, they would believe in Jesus as we do. But the fact is that all the evidence in the world is not enough to convince a person to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It has nothing to do with the evidence. Jesus was all the evidence anyone should need and most people not only didn’t believe in him, they came to hate him.

Pascal, that giant of philosophy, mathematics, literature, and theology once explained why he became a Christian believer, what prevailed to make him follow Jesus Christ and confess him Lord and Savior.

“The Gospel to me is simply irresistible. Being the man I am, being full of lust, and pride, and envy, and malice, and hatred, and falsehood, and all accumulated and exasperated misery, to be the Gospel of the grace of God, and the redemption of Christ, and the regeneration and sanctification of the Holy Spirit, that Gospel is to me simply irresistible. And I cannot understand why it is not equally irresistible to every mortal man born of woman.”

Pascal was amazed at human unbelief, but only after he became a Christian himself. Pascal didn’t always think it incomprehensible that everyone didn’t become a Christian. There was a time in his life when he would have felt no amazement at the unbelief of others. He found unbelief entirely natural, completely reasonable. C.S. Lewis argues from his own experience that there is a great peace and pleasure in unbelief. To be able to keep God at bay, at the far edges of one’s mind, or to ignore him altogether, is very comforting to the human soul. It is what the soul desires: to be rid of God. That is why most religions do precisely that: keep God at bay and at the far edges of the mind.

What the people of Nazareth, what even the members of the Lord’s own family, and what the Lord’s amazement at their unbelief teach all of us this morning is that apart from the grace and the power and the working of God and his Holy Spirit, we too, you and I, would have remained forever offended by the Lord Jesus. We might have even called ourselves Christians, but we really would have been offended by the Lord Jesus Christ as he is revealed to us in the pages of God’s Word, his goodness, his power, his love would have angered us and disgusted us, not drawn us to him. The one whom now we count on for everything, whose presence is the light of our lives, who has invested our hearts with the hope of everlasting life, we would have thought a bad man, a foolish man, perhaps even a man who was out of his mind. How horrifying that thought!

If you are not a Christian this morning don’t imagine it a small thing to become one. It takes the power of God at work in you to overcome your natural rebellion against God. You wouldn’t believe in him or submit to him if he stood in front of you. God must remake you from the inside out if you are to believe in Jesus and follow him. And you won’t ask him to do it, unless he is already at work in you. Is he at work in you? And for those who are Christians, it is ours to remember every day that we live in this world that it was God’s grace alone, God’s power alone that made us see in Jesus what others will not see and to embrace as love and light and hope and life and joy what others continue to find just so much offense and absurdity. As you come to the Lord’s Table this morning, reflect on this: left to yourself you would have hated Jesus Christ all your life, and you would never have believed in him or followed him. There is no surer evidence that you have encountered the living God and that he has done something for you and in you than that you believe in Jesus Christ, His Son and you trust in him for your salvation. People never do that without God drawing near to them and working within them.

It is amazing, the world’s lack of faith; its intractable unbelief. It makes no sense. But there is something more amazing than that: the faith in Christ that fills your heart and mine. “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!”