Fundamental to what it means to be created by God is to be a disciple and learner. We are created to need counsel. The Fall has inclined us by nature and choice to listen to Satan’s counsel instead of God’s, and to rebel against His authority, truth, and right to command and define His world. Since that time, we have been born in unbelief and rejection of God’s viewpoint, and only a radical miracle of regeneration will transform us.
Because unbelief is our default, and because that unbelief is residual in the flesh of the regenerate, the temptation is constant to disbelieve God’s character, promises, perspective, doctrine, and so on, accompanied by a fight to embrace God’s way wholeheartedly.
In Mark 6, the response of Jesus’ childhood neighbors, friends, and family to His person and plan typifies for us the nature, effects, and tragedy of unbelief. As we move out into a world hostile to His rule and reign we need to intimately understand the heinousness and ingrainedness of unbelief in those whom we would reach with the gospel.
Specifically, this text will show us two reasons why unbelief is a tragedy.
A. It Causes You to Reject Christ’s Glory (vv. 2-4)
Our Lord has just completed a magnificent season of ministry that demonstrates His perfect divine power and right to rule all things. He has given foretastes of what the world will look like when fully under His dominion—sickness is banished, demons flee, death is a defeated enemy.
But it is time for Him to return home, and in His continuing assault on the sin that has marred His beautiful creation, He must expose the ungodliness of those who are closest to His heart. As was His custom throughout His ministry, He taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath. We are not told what He said, but we can be sure it was rich and glorious teaching explaining the Old Testament and its perfect fulfillment in His person and work, calling the listeners to repent in light of the arrival (at least in their inception!) of God’s promised kingdom and King.
The people were astounded. Never had they heard teaching with this freshness, vitality, authority, insight, confidence, and understanding of the Scriptures. Their preaching was usually a dry affair dealing in minutia and wholly reliant on the supposed authority of previous rabbis. Our Lord, being God in flesh and the true Messiah of the OT, taught on His own divine authority with an insight and profundity that could only come from a sinless mind wed to the divine Spirit.
But note where their surprise lay: Not at the wondrous truth Jesus proclaimed, not at how the ancient promise-plan of God was being fulfilled before their every eyes in one of the men of their town, not at the faithfulness of God in perfectly keeping His promises—but at how Jesus, who had no formal rabbinic training and was not seemingly in league with any of the respected rabbis, could teach in this way.
This is what I like to call the “surface level” understanding of preaching! It misses the entire point and does not at all engage with the truth that has just been proclaimed. Usually, this is because of a combination of lack of understanding and behind that, rejecting unbelief. So the mind just deals with the little bit it can comprehend—how in the world did that carpenter learn all this stuff?
Moreover, their suspicion and awe extends to His miracles. How did this young man, who grew up in their town and played with their children and sat next to them in Hebrew school and made furniture for their little houses—this Man is performing all of these miracles? He raises the dead, thrusts out demons with a word, heals the incurable, controls the fiercest storms? Who is this man? But this is not the awed, reverent, submissive question of the disciples in the boat. This is a suspicious, rejecting, angry, arrogant question that is looking for any way to reject the gospel and the words of Jesus.
We know that because of how the crowd finishes the query. Who is this man? Oh, He is just Yeshua, Mary’s son, whose brothers and sisters we all know. He is just some guy. No one particularly special, likely under delusions of grandeur. After all, He is just a carpenter from a hick town with a very suspicious birth (“Can you believe His mother actually said she was a virgin? Ha!”). Who is this Man to tell us we need to repent? Who is He to do all these miracles? You know the Pharisees say He’s under the control of the devil…
They took offense at Him. Literally, they stumbled over Him. He was and is the stumbling stone to those who wish to continue on in their unbelief. All of us must deal with Jesus, and for those intent on rejection (note these were religious, observant Jews, not atheists!), they trip over Jesus in a damning way.
Jesus looks out at this crowd of relatives, neighbors, childhood friends, even His own half-siblings, and rebukes them. He says a prophet is always honored wherever he goes…except in his hometown and among his family! What a stinging rebuke to these men and women. He does not even argue with them. He simply asserts His prophetic (revelatory!) office and says that they are dishonoring Him as one who speaks for God!
Of course, Jesus had precedent to do this. Besides their open rejection of Him here, recall that some of them at last are the same people who tried to throw Him off a cliff the last time He preached to them.
How tragic! These people saw the Lord’s goodness and glory in a way few ever would, and their wicked unbelief blinded them to its beauty and wonder. O may God rescue us from this same deception, one that lurks within the flesh of even the godliest saint!
B. It Stifles the Blessing of God (vv. 5-6)
But beyond blinding the spirit to the vision of Christ’s divine glory, unbelief also prevents us from experiencing the blessing of God.
I am thankful this portion is in Scripture. Sometimes, those of us who treasure the sovereignty of God—particularly in an American evangelical context that is codependently, pathologically wed to theological shallowness, man-centeredness, and various kinds of persistent Arminianism—can overcorrect the wrong teaching around us (and the wrong beliefs in our own hearts) by overemphasizing, or drawing wrong implications from, one truth at the expense of others. This passage is helpful because it reminds us we are not passive in our relationship with God or in the unleashing of His blessing on ourselves and the world. We cannot force God to do other than what He has decreed, but in the bringing to pass of that decree we have a real, nonnegotiable, and effectual part. Just as God sovereignly grants faith to the sinner, yet it is the sinner, not God, who believes; or God gives the generous spirit, but it is you who writes the check or gives of your time or resources, so it is that God gives the blessing (and even gives the inclination to pray and put ourselves in the way of blessing) but we must seek and pray and persist and if we will not then there s no blessing to be had!
Here is why this is important: God only works in the “atmosphere” of faith. Yes, Jesus did miracles on behalf of those who did not seek Him, but there are many things He will not do apart from faith and apart from prayerful seeking of His hand. This does not make God somehow dependent upon us or limited by us, but it does underscore that God always works through secondary means and causes, and that those means and causes are inescapably, infallibly necessary if what God has intended is to come to pass.
This, then, is in part why Jesus dd not do many miracles there. It wasn’t that He really, really wanted to and was frustrated by their unbelief, but that the means—humble, trusting seeking of His hand in faith—was not there. So the blessing would not come. Matthew 13:58’s parallel to this records that He did not do many miracles because of their unbelief. These men and women did not seek Him! It seems a few did, or at least the Lord decided to have compassion on perhaps the most elderly or weakest people, for He did heal a few as an act of grace and mercy. But the unmistakable implication is He could have done, wanted to do, more, and did not precisely because the people did not seek Him.
Or, in the words of our Lord’s half-brother, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). But didn’t God decree the lack? Isn’t God sovereign? Isn’t He sovereign over my not praying?! Since when does His sovereignty excuse your real, effectual responsibility? Most of what God does, He does through means. This is why it is so important to be filled with His Spirit through the Worde and thus sensitive to His counsel and leading.
Indeed, I wonder if some of us Calvinists are more susceptible to the very kind of unbelief Mark and our Lord condemn here. God is sovereign—so unreconciled relationships, carnal churches, broken marriages, nations without Christ, cultural apostasy and depravity, etc., etc. ad infinitum are all just to be acquiesced to so we don’t contradict the sovereignty of God. And our sovereign Lord is in heaven saying, “I have this against you!” The sovereignty of God ought to make us the freest, most daring, most importunately praying people in the world. For God gives the inclination and desire, and because God is sovereign, He is the only One who can conquer any obstacle to bring His decrees to pass through the means of our imperfect but grace-enabled obedience!
Do you long to know God’s blessing on your life, family, job, ministry, and all your endeavors? Do you long for revival and reformation in the church and our culture? Are there good resolves and desires you would love to be fulfilled but have only seen many setbacks and failures? Throwing your hands up and saying, Oh, well, God is sovereign, so…” does not honor God and does not bring His perfect decree to pass! Steep your mind and heart in the glorious revelation of God’s character, intents, person, and plan, and then seek Him for the filling of His Spirit that He might guide you into precisely how you can be means to His greater glory in the fulfilling of every good resolve and longing. Only as we renew our minds with the inerrant Word of God will our desires and thinking be shaped according to His holy character—including how His glory and blessing can be ours by stubborn, loyal faith.