“He was not able to do a miracle there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. He was going around the villages teaching.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Can anything stop the power of God? Of course not! Right? Yes! I think so… Why the indecision? Because this is yet another of those stories in the Scriptures that leaves you asking some hard questions at first read. The plain text here says Jesus was not able to do a miracle. Now, if it said He wouldn’t do one, that would be interesting, but okay. But couldn’t? Wasn’t He Jesus? Let’s talk about it.
We started looking at this story out of Mark 6 yesterday morning. In Jesus’ preaching and healing tour, going from village to village in Galilee, the time came for Him to visit His hometown of Nazareth. His reception there was less than warm. In fact, as Luke includes in his telling of the story, the whole episode ended with the people of Nazareth mob rushing Jesus to the edge of a local cliff with plans to throw Him off to His death. I’ve had a few sermons over the years fall flat, but I can safely say I’ve never so enraged an audience that they tried to throw me off a cliff. I’ve never preached at the church where I grew up, but the one time I preached at my parents’ current church with an audience that included many folks I had grown up going to church with, it went pretty well.
Well, Jesus’ normal pattern as He went from town to town was to preach in the synagogue and then spend the next few days healing people before going on to the next place. And in most of the places He went, that was exactly what happened. Except here. Here Jesus finished preaching and was not able to do a miracle there. Now, Mark quickly qualifies that by noting that He was in fact able to lay His hands on a few people and heal them, but that was it.
Now, perhaps your first reaction to that is to point out the apparently glaring contradiction. And at first glance that looks like a contradiction. But it’s not. Mark is using a hyperbolic figure of speech that we still use all the time today. Let’s say you went to a party you expected to be a big event, but there was only a small crowd in attendance. What would you say when describing the party to a friend the following day? You’d probably say something along the lines of, “There was nobody there!” But is that actually true? Not at all. At the very least you were there. And there were other people there too. Your point is that there were many fewer people in attendance than you expected there to be. But we don’t talk like that. We use the hyperbole for effect. We say there was no one there as a way to more emotionally and emphatically make our point. In saying Jesus was not able to do a miracle and then to follow that immediately by noting how few miracles He was actually able to do, Mark isn’t contradicting himself. He’s doing the same thing we were doing in talking about the party’s attendance.
For my money, though, the more eye-catching part of this verse is the fact that Jesus couldn’t do many miracles. Again, it’s not that He wouldn’t. The issue was one of ability, not willingness. But this was Jesus. How could His ability to do miracles be impacted by the lack of faith of His audience? Were His powers somehow regulated by other people’s belief the way so many Christmas movies portray the powers of Santa Claus being regulated by the belief of the world’s children? This fact makes you stop and think about just how Jesus’ miracle-performing abilities worked and why He did miracles in the first place. Did Jesus do miracles in response to faith or to create faith?
The short answer to that question is an unqualified “Yes.” Wait, what? That was an either-or question, not a both-and? I know. But the answer is both-and. Jesus did miracles both in response to faith and to create faith. The relationship between Jesus’ miracles and the faith of the recipients of His miraculous works was dynamic. Sometimes Jesus was moved by the great faith of a person to do a miracle for them in some way. The faith of the unnamed woman with the chronic bleeding disorder we spent time with in Mark 5 would be an example of this. Also, the faith of the four friends who lowered a fifth friend through a roof in order to get him to Jesus demonstrated this side of Jesus’ miracles. On the other hand, when Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, no one there had any particular faith in Jesus. Most people didn’t even know the miracle had happened until later. When Jesus fed the enormous crowd of people from a few loaves and fish as we will talk about later in this very chapter, their faith in Him had nothing to do with His abilities. Rather, He was feeding them as a sign intended to encourage faith to grow.
The problem in Nazareth was not simply a lack of belief on the part of the people, but an outright resistance to it. They not only didn’t believe Jesus was someone who could do the things people said He did, they didn’t want to believe it. As a result, Jesus couldn’t do any miracles for them. This doesn’t mean He literally was not able. He was still Jesus. He still had full access to all of His divine abilities. He could have done anything He wanted to do. But the doing wouldn’t have made any difference. They still wouldn’t have believed Him. They would have found ways to explain away the act as some kind of a trick. They would have accused Him of being demonic as later Pharisee opponents would do. They were not merely an unbelieving people, but incorrigibly unbelieving people. So Jesus couldn’t do any miracles. He healed a few people and moved on to the next place marveling at the hardness of their hearts.
So, what does this mean for us? Well, there are two kinds of people who don’t currently have a relationship with Jesus and who should be the objects of our evangelistic efforts as His committed followers. The first kind is the unbelieving. These are people who simply don’t believe in Jesus. The reasons for this are manifold, but the bottom line is that they don’t believe. Our goal is to convince them to change their minds using all of the apologetic tools at our disposal with love as our lead. These folks are a harvest waiting to be gathered. We only need to make ourselves part of the harvesting crew committed to the hard, but rewarding work, of gathering in the bounty of the Lord’s goodness.
The second kind of people are the unwilling unbelievers. These are folks who don’t simply not believe, they don’t want to believe. They have become so committed to their unbelief that they aren’t going to change their minds regardless of what we do or say. Everything will be explained away as so much nonsense. They’ll commit themselves to insane fantasies that have no basis in reality, but they will not believe in a God who loves them so much that sent His Son to give up His own life to secure their eternal life. With these folks, no amount of evangelistic effort will make a difference. Their hearts are hard. We are wasting our time casting pearls before swine.
So then, how do we know who is who? Well, without a whole lot of engagement and effort, we don’t. As a result, we love everybody and share the Gospel with conviction and intentionality. When we have been rejected at every turn and when it becomes clear that their unbelief is itself convictional, we focus our efforts in other directions until and unless we are led by God back in their direction. In the meantime and especially when they are a part of our life, we just keep right on loving them because that’s what Jesus did. This all makes for a messy approach to evangelism, but when life itself is so messy, evangelism is going to be a bit messy too. We do it anyway because that’s our command in Christ.