Monday, July 09, 2007

Mark 6:1-6: Wondrous Unbelief

What shocks you? If the modern sociologists are correct in their speculations, then it would seem that the constant barrage of media exposure in which we have become immersed has served to inoculate us from anything shocking. No topic is taboo, no imagery is too graphic, no language too offensive. Could it be that we have done what Postman warned a generation ago, and amused ourselves to death? Are we so numb that nothing causes us to wonder? If it’s true, then it is to our shame, for wonderment is something that the Lord Jesus Christ both evoked and experienced when He walked this earth. If we have lost the ability to wonder in amazement, then in this regard, we have lost something significant.

What causes Jesus to wonder in amazement? In Matthew 8, we find the account of a Roman centurion who came to Jesus and told Him that his servant had become grievously ill. When Jesus offered to go with him and heal him, the centurion replied that Jesus need not come but “speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” The centurion understood the power and authority of Jesus in a way that few others did. As Jesus heard this confident expression of faith in the power of His word, He “marveled,” the Bible says, and said to those with Him, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in all Israel.”[1]

The remarkable faith of this centurion caused the Lord Jesus to “marvel” – that is how the NASB translators handled the Greek word thaumazo in that passage. In the ancient secular Greek writings, the word has the sense of astonishment, with a nuance of awe at something unusual or mysterious.[2] According to the count in one reference work, the word occurs some 46 times in the NT, 33 of them in the Gospels.[3] Most of those occurrences describe the reaction of other people to the words and works of Jesus Christ. We find this word, for instance, in Mark 5:20 where everyone was amazed at the testimony of how Christ transformed the life of the man who had been inhabited by a Legion of demons. Yet only two times in the whole NT do we find Jesus as the subject of that verb. The first is in Matthew 8, where He marvels at the faith of the centurion. The second is in our passage which we have read today. Again, faith is what causes Jesus to wonder, only here it is not the presence of great faith, but the remarkable absence of it. Verse 6 tells us that He wondered at their unbelief. He has encountered unbelief before, and will again, yet there is something different about the unbelief He encounters here. It is wondrous unbelief.

The passage carries us from the shores of Capernaum, where Jesus has been teaching and performing miraculous deeds for some time, back to His hometown of Nazareth. Leaving Capernaum, He and His disciples would embark on a 25 mile journey to that little village that was so obscure that it had given rise to a saying: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Indeed something good had come from Nazareth, and now He returns there only to find wondrous unbelief. There are three realities I want to point out from this passage concerning the unbelief that caused Jesus to wonder in amazement.

I. Wondrous Unbelief Rejects Jesus In Spite of Astonishing Evidence (vv1-2)

We don’t know how long Jesus and the disciples had been in town before the Sabbath, but when the Sabbath rolled around, we find Jesus in the synagogue teaching. That fact alone suggests to us that by this time, He had gained a notable reputation as a teacher, and was invited to speak to the people by the synagogue officials. As He taught the people, they were astonished, the text says. Their questions indicate that at least two things astonished them.

A. They were astonished by His words.

Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him? they asked. Now, Mark does not record for us what Jesus was actually teaching on that day. However, Luke has recorded for us a portion of His words proclaimed in the synagogue at Nazareth. Not every scholar is willing to agree that Luke’s event is the same one as Mark’s, preferring instead to see them as two different visits to the Nazareth synagogue, but I am with those who believe that the details are similar enough to equate the two. So what did He say? Look at Luke 4:16-21.

In the providence of God, the scroll of Isaiah was handed to Him. And opening to the predetermined passage for that Sabbath, Jesus read from Isaiah 61 these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor. he has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

They had heard that passage read many times before. It was not the passage which astonished them, but the commentary that followed, as Jesus said to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” indicating that He was the anointed Messiah who had come to deliver God’s people. That is what caused the questions. They had watched Jesus grow up, they had seen him trained as a carpenter, not a rabbi. He was no mysterious stranger coming in on a white horse to bring victory and deliverance from bondage. He was a neighborhood kid. Where did He get these ideas He was teaching, and what was the source of His wisdom? How could He expect them to believe that He was the One Israel had been seeking for its entire history? They were astonished by His words.

But notice also that Jesus did not come with words only. He came with powerful demonstrations that confirmed the truth of what He spoke. And so we see in their questions that also …

B. They were astonished by His works.

They asked among themselves about the nature of such miracles as these performed by His hands. We are not told if perhaps He had been performing miracles around Nazareth prior to that Sabbath, but we know that the folks in Nazareth had at least heard about His power to heal, to cast out demons, to calm a raging storm, and even to raise the dead. Anyone can say astonishing things, but what do you make of someone whose actions back up their words? Several times in the Gospel of John, Jesus said things to the effect of, “If you don’t believe what I say, believe on the basis of the works I do.” They have been given astonishing evidence – not only in the claims of Christ, but in the confirmation of those claims. How easy would it be for them to take the small step from amazement to faith? But it is a step they are unwilling to take. Astonished though they are, they do not believe.

Astonishment is not enough! There are many in the world and all throughout history who have been astonished by Jesus. Something about His words, something about those stories of the great things He has done, something about the lives that He has changed and the wonders He has wrought intrigues them. They become curious, inquisitive, maybe even analytical. But they do not come to place their personal faith in Him as Lord and Savior. And apart from trusting in Him to save you, there is no hope for redemption from our sins, and no matter how astonished a person may be by Christ, if they do not believe, they will perish. Apart from saving faith, a person may be astonished and lost eternally.

Here is one of the features of wondrous unbelief – they hear the words and see the works, and yet they still do not believe! You and I know people like this. No matter how many times we try to share the gospel with them and convince them of their need for Christ, they do not believe. And we are tempted to think that if only they could see some sign, or if they could witness some miracle, then they would believe. But we see in these Nazarenes that some will not believe, no matter how many times they hear or how many signs they see. How can someone reject Christ when they have heard His words and seen His works? It seems illogical to us, but it still happens every day. And their persistent unbelief not only befuddles us, but it also causes the Lord Jesus to wonder.

II. Wondrous Unbelief Takes Offense at Christ on the Basis of Presumptive Familiarity (v3)

Not only were the people astonished by Jesus, verse 3 tells us that they were offended at Him. The Greek verb used here is the source of our English word scandal. It means “to cause to stumble,” and is figuratively applied to refer to but put off or repelled by something. In this case, they stumble over the scandalous claims of Jesus – they are put off and repelled, offended by Him because His claims of who He is and what He has come to do fly so radically in the face of what they presume to be true of Him. They know this guy. They know His family. They know what the Messiah was supposed to look like and how He was supposed to come, or so they thought. And Jesus didn’t live up to any of their preconceived notions. They thought they had Jesus figured out.

A. They knew His siblings.

His brothers are named here: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. These are all very common Jewish names from the first century. His sisters are mentioned, but they are not named. They are all living normal lives, some if not all of them were probably married, raising families of their own in Nazareth and not stirring up any controversy. In fact, according to Mark 3:21, they all think Jesus has gone a little loco en la cabeza, you know. They don’t believe in Him. So why should Jesus barge into the synagogue and expect anyone else to believe in His fantasies and delusions of grandeur?

B. They knew His skills.

He’s a carpenter. It is interesting that this is the only time in the entire NT that Jesus is called a carpenter. Elsewhere He is called a carpenter’s son, but here it is Jesus who is called the carpenter. There are good reasons to believe that Jesus would have learned Joseph’s trade, and probably spent several years at the trade Himself. After all, He was 30 years old before He entered the public phase of His ministry, and since He would have been considered an adult around age 12, I don’t think He spent 18 years as a freeloader. In the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr refers to plows and yokes having been made by Jesus. To appreciate the scandal of this all, picture yourself as a farmer, and you go to church one Sunday and your tractor mechanic stands up and claims to be the Savior of the World. Most of these folks probably had things in their home or their fields that had been made by Him or by Joseph with His help. Surely He can’t be the Messiah! They were offended at such a notion. But there was something else they knew about Him too.

C. They knew His (a-hem) “secret”

This is also the only time in the NT Jesus is called “the son of Mary.” Those of us who believe strongly in the biblical doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Christ have no problem with this designation. However, we can be relatively certain that when the people of Nazareth called Jesus the son of Mary they weren’t talking about the Virgin Birth. Even though it is widely agreed that by this time Joseph had probably died, it would have still been highly uncommon to refer to Jesus or any other Jewish male as the son of his mother. Anytime this was done, it was not complimentary. We know that there were probably rumors circulating within Jesus’ lifetime concerning the unusual circumstances surrounding His birth. In John 8:41, some of the Jews quickly retorted to Jesus that they were not born of fornication, implying indirectly that they believed or at least had heard tell that He had been born illegitimately. Later on, Jewish polemical writings would claim that Jesus had been born from an illicit liaison between Mary and a Gentile named Pandera. Whether this story was already circulating, we do not know, but certainly there were some who were quick to discount stories about this unwed Jewish girl becoming pregnant through some divine work of the Holy Spirit. Joseph and Mary had likely often felt the piercing stare of onlookers who gossiped among themselves about the mysterious origins of Jesus. A custom of the Jews in ancient days was to never speak of the birth of a person born in adultery as long as he remained faithful. But if that person became an apostate and rejected or blasphemed the ancient faith, “his illegitimate birth shall be spoken of publicly and unsparingly.” So in calling Jesus “the son of Mary,” they were calling attention to the circumstances of His birth (as they understood them), and at the same time labeling Him as a heretic in their eyes.[4] These are not characteristics lending themselves to one claiming to be Messiah in their eyes.

They knew His siblings, they knew His skills, and they even knew His secret, or so they thought. And on the basis of this presumptive familiarity, they were offended at Jesus’ claims to be Messiah. But they didn’t know the whole truth. They didn’t know, or at least didn’t believe, that He had been conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin. They didn’t believe that His true father was God Himself. They didn’t accept that God would choose such an unorthodox method of bringing His Anointed Messiah into the world. And because they were offended at these things, they discounted Jesus with wondrous unbelief.

This remains a besetting problem for people in our day who presume to have Jesus all figured out. We hear it in conversation with those who grew up in Sunday School and perhaps who regularly attend church, but who have become presumptively familiar with a pseudo-Jesus who is not the Christ of Scripture. “My Jesus,” they say, “would not say and do things like this and such.” We proclaim without hesitation or apology that Jesus Christ is the virgin-born incarnation of God who lived a sinless life and died a sinner’s death as our substitute on the cross for the atonement of sin, and who rose victoriously over death, and that He alone is our only hope for salvation – there is no other means of salvation except through Him, and anyone who rejects Him will spend eternity in hell. What response does that evoke? People are offended. “No, no,” they say, “My Jesus would never condemn anyone to hell. He’s not that narrow-minded. Not the smiling happy Jesus I saw on the flannel-graph in VBS. My grandma told me all I need to know about Jesus, and she never said a word about that.” They think they’ve got Him figured out, but they do not consider His very clear claims. He said, “No one comes to the Father but through Me.” That is offensive, but the offensiveness does not make it less true. Wondrous unbelief denies the claims that Jesus makes of Himself and substitutes the pseudo-Jesus with whom we are presumptively familiar.

III. Wondrous Unbelief Receives a Surprising Response from Jesus (vv4-6)

How does Jesus respond to their astonishment and their offense at Him? He doesn’t argue with them, He does not beg them to reconsider. He doesn’t offer to show them more proofs. That is what we might do. We might say, if one of us were in His shoes, “So, you don’t believe in me, well, what if I call down fire from heaven to destroy your house, then would you believe me?” That is how James and John wanted to respond when the Samaritans would not receive Jesus. They said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” I kind of wish Jesus had said, “Well, let Me see what you can do?” But He didn’t. Instead Jesus rebuked them led them on to another village. And here, His response is equally as surprising.

A. Jesus Expected Their Unbelief (v4)

Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household." He employed a well-known saying in those days to indicate they responded exactly as He knew they would. Similar sayings to this one are found in ancient writings from many different cultures, but this had special relevance to the Jewish culture. God had been raising up prophets in Israel for centuries, but they were seldom well-received. In fact, in Luke 11, Jesus said that God sent those prophets knowing they would be persecuted and killed. He didn’t expect that He would be received any better than Moses or Jeremiah were in their day. He expected rejection in Nazareth, and from His relatives, and in His own household, so their reaction to Him did not take Him by surprise. He is God – He knows how they will respond. But it says something about the persistent pursuit of God for His people that even though Jesus knew how they would receive Him, or more to point, that they wouldn’t receive Him, He went to Nazareth anyway to proclaim the truth to them. In God’s time and in His way, some of these who initially had written Jesus off came to believe in Him. We know that Mary believed. We know that later on, James would come to faith and be a leader in the early church in Jerusalem. We believe it was him who wrote the letter of James in the NT. And Judas, the brother of Jesus mentioned in v3, is the one we believe wrote the book of Jude. There is evidence in the writings of the early church that some of these had children and grandchildren who were in the faith nearly a century later.

This says something to us in our efforts to witness to unbelievers in our hometown, in our place of business, in our own family. Many of you know firsthand that the hardest ones to reach are often those closest to you. And while we have great hopes that our loved ones will come to Christ, God already knows what their response will be. And some will believe and some won’t. But still, we must be persistent to present a consistent witness before them. Never give up! And I believe it is also vitally important that we pray that God will put others in their path, for if they don’t listen to us, maybe they will to someone else. I am so glad my Christian friends never gave up on me. I ran into a guy at the Baptist State Convention who used to witness to me in high school. When he saw me at the Convention, he thought I must have been in the wrong place. He actually apologized that he had not been a better witness to me. But what more could he have done? He and other Christians were persistent in speaking of Christ to me, and living their testimony before my eyes. And though they thought I may never come to faith, God knew that they were not sowing seeds in vain. In His time, and in His way, God invaded my life by His Spirit, convinced me of His presence, convicted me of my sin, and converted my soul to faith in Him, bringing all the seeds of those witnesses to fruition.

B. Jesus Withheld Further Revelation From Them (v5a)

He could do no miracle there …. Underlying several of the preceding miracles that have been performed by Jesus in other places was the common denominator of faith. What then should we expect where it is absent? Now we should not understand this to mean that the power of Jesus was somehow involuntarily limited by the unbelief of these people. No earthly force can limit that power of God. However, God often, on the basis of His sovereign will, chooses to limit Himself. John Calvin put it this way: “Unbelievers, as far as lies in their power, bind up the hands of God by their obstinacy; not that God is overcome, as if he were an inferior, but because they do not permit him to display his power.”[5] William Lane comments, “The performance of miracles in the absence of faith could have resulted only in the aggravation of human guilt and the hardening of men’s hearts aginst God.” Jesus knew that they would not believe even if they saw more signs, or else that their belief would have been forced and would not have come from a sincere heart ready to receive the gracious gift of God’s salvation. Thus, by refusing to show them more signs, Jesus is graciously withholding from them the greater guilt of rejecting more revelation. Lane goes on to say, “Unbelief excluded the people of Nazareth from the dynamic disclosure of God’s grace that others had experienced.”[6] And so, in saying that Jesus could do no miracle there, the point is not that they limited Jesus’ power, but rather that their collective unbelief has deprived Nazareth of the opportunity to receive it.

C. Jesus Availed Himself to a Believing Remnant (v5b)

In the midst of an aggregate of wondrous unbelief, there were still some who came to Christ in faith, and these were healed by the touch of His hand. We often speak of a place as being “God forsaken,” but there are no such places. For wherever Christ finds faith in the hearts of men, there He makes Himself available and demonstrates His power to save, to heal and to transform lives. And in so doing, Jesus not only changes that life forever, but leaves an abiding testimony of the grace that could be received by others if only they would turn in faith to Him. Jesus left Nazareth that day, and we don’t know if He ever returned there. But there remained several people there whose transformed lives would forever witness to His grace and His power.

We began this morning by asking the question, “What causes Jesus to wonder in amazement?” The answer is faith. On one occasion, He marvels at the presence of it. On another, He wonders at its absence. And so we would ask today, when Christ examines your life, does He marvel at the presence of your faith, or does He wonder at the absence of faith? If you have trusted Him as Lord and Savior, then He has saved you and transformed your life by His grace and you are a testimony for all to see. You are a living, breathing display of His glory and power. But if you have not received Him, we would simply ask, what more is needed? Do you need more evidence? Are you open-minded enough to believe even if He gave it to you? And what more can He give? He has given His life for you and conquered death, Luke will say in Acts 1:3, with many convincing proofs. Do you deserve more evidence than that? Or would you still scoff at His claims even if He gave you more proof? At what point would your response cease to be faith and become coercion? Have you resisted Jesus because you are offended by the things He has said and done? Have you created in your imagination a more palatable and less-offensive Jesus? Unfortunately, that pseudo-Jesus is not the one before whom you will give account. It is the Christ of Scripture with whom you have to do, and if you reject Him, there is no other hope available for you. The pseudo-Jesus is not the saving Jesus. There is only one who saves: The One who is God-incarnate, who was born of a virgin, who died in our place, and who conquered death by His resurrection. It is this Jesus whom we present to you today in hopes that if you never have before, you will turn in faith and repentance to Him and find forgiveness of your sins. It is this Jesus we must present to the world, though they may be astonished or offended at Him, though they may cause even Him to wonder at their unbelief.

[1] D. Edmond Hiebert, The Gospel of Mark: An Expositional Commentary (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1994), 157.

[2] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Abridged in One Volume (Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich, eds) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 316.

[3] George V. Wigram, The Englishman’s Greek Concordance of the New Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998), 360-361.

[4] Hiebert, 154-155.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke, online at

[6] William L. Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 204.

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