Now if you would take a Bible in hand and turn with me to the gospel of Mark. We’ve been working our way slowly through Mark’s gospel together on Sunday evenings and we’ve come together tonight to Mark’s gospel chapter 6, verses 1 through 6; Mark 6:1-6, which you can find on page 841 of the church Bibles.
For most of Mark's account of Jesus' ministry thus far, Jesus has been preaching and teaching in and around the Galilean town of Capernaum. That's been His adopted home base. At the end of chapter 3, we learn that Jesus' mother and brothers came down to Capernaum from their family home in Nazareth where Jesus was raised to persuade Jesus to stop all this preaching nonsense and to come home with them. The Pharisees who were Jesus' major opponents, they were alleging that Jesus was somehow animated by demonic powers and that's what was behind His ministry. But chapter 3 verse 21 tells us that His own family, they wondered if He had actually lost His mind. They wondered if there had been some mental break behind all of this behavior they saw in Jesus. Chapters 4 and 5 see Jesus crossing back and forth across the Sea of Galilee in His preaching ministry.
And now as chapter 6 opens, He finally does go home. He makes the journey from Capernaum back to His hometown in Nazareth. But His arrival, if His arrival raised the hopes of His family that He has decided now, at last, to come home for good, He's come to His senses, it soon becomes apparent that He is not there to resume His father's carpentry business. He's there in the service of His growing mission to preach the Gospel of the kingdom. You'll notice in verse 2 and again in verse 6 that His preaching ministry brackets this entire section. Verse 2, "He began to teach in the synagogue." Verse 6, "He went about their villages teaching." This is not a social call. He's not there to meet the expectations of His family. This is a ministry trip. That's Jesus' agenda. But the Nazarenes to whom He is preaching, they don't respond like the crowds that have listened and hung on His every word and responded to willingly to His message in Capernaum. They reject Jesus. Unbelief is what characterizes their response to Jesus.
Now beginning in verse 7 of chapter 6, Mark is going to recount for us the sending out of the disciples a mission trip of their own. Jesus is going to send out the twelve for the first time. Like their Master, they too must go about preaching and teaching and calling people to repent and to believe the Gospel. Their mission was to be an extension of His mission. Which means that we ought not to be surprised when people respond to the church’s mission in much the same way they responded to Jesus’ mission. Verses 1 to 6 show us how they respond to Jesus so that when they respond in just the same way to us we’re not at all surprised. The mission of the church proceeds in the context of the unbelief of the world. So get your expectations right. That’s part of the big story of verses 1 to 6.
But I want us to take a closer look tonight at the unbelief that confronted Jesus as He preached in Nazareth. We’ll think about the unbelief that confronts Him here under three headings. First, we’ll think about the sin of unbelief, the sin of unbelief, in verses 1 through 3. Then secondly in verse 4, Jesus explains that the unbelief that meets Him ironically bears testimony to Him. It tells us something about who He is and why He came. The sin of unbelief then the sign of unbelief in verse 4. Then finally verses 5 and 6, the sadness of unbelief. It’s a great tragedy that takes place in Nazareth as the people refuse to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. So the sin, the sign, and the sadness of unbelief. That’s where we’re going. In a moment we’re going to read the passage and consider each of those headings. Before we do, would you bow your heads again with me please as we pray. Let us pray.
Our Father, we pray now that the Lord Jesus would prosecute His teaching ministry among us tonight and grant by the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word that His voice proclaimed in the Word might not be met in us with the same response with which it was met in Nazareth. Give to us true faith to hear, believe, and respond. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
Mark chapter 6 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
"He," Jesus, "went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?' And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.' And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.
And he went about among the villages teaching.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy and inerrant Word.
According to the first verse of chapter 4 and the twenty-first verse of chapter 5, in His adopted town at Capernaum, there had been significant crowds hanging on Jesus' every word in His preaching ministry. It was marked by, at least humanly speaking, by extraordinary success. But the reception at Nazareth offers quite a contrast. Doesn't it? You can imagine the headline in The Nazareth Daily News that day: “Local Boy Made Good? Questions are Asked About Controversial Carpenter Come Rabbi Who Finally Comes Home.” Oh sure, He’s invited to preach in the synagogue readily enough, but the congregation that Sabbath Day are positively frosty in their response. Notice that Mark begins his account of their reaction to Jesus’ ministry in language that at first glance may not sound so bad. Verse 2, “On the Sabbath He began to teach in the synagogue and many who heard Him were astonished.” Astonishment can be good, right? But let’s remember that the favorite dish of most congregants over lunch after the service is what – Roast Preacher, right? Roast Preacher. Mark 6:2 tells us the recipe is at least 2,000 years old.
The Sin of Unbelief
Look at what they’re saying about Jesus. Mark lists a series of rhetorical questions that they’re asking. Really they’re insinuations. The first three express doubts about His words and works and the last group of questions express doubts about His person. Here I want you to see in the first place is the sin of unbelief. Do you see it? In all its ugliness and its horror. They imply in the first three questions that Jesus’ words and works can’t possibly be sourced in God. That’s the one thing they simply cannot admit. He’s preaching in the synagogue doubtless with the same authority and the same boldness and the same clarity and power we’ve seen Him preach with before. He’s declaring the kingdom of God that has broken into their lives with His appearing. He’s calling them to repentance and to faith and it’s striking preaching, provocative preaching, unsettling preaching. And if they admit that this disturbing message is really God’s message to them, well now they have no choice but to embrace it. So they adopt a familiar experience. They begin to insinuate an alternative explanation.
In the previous chapter, Mark has shown us that people of all sorts, from different backgrounds, come to follow Jesus. There’s Jairus, the prominent, significant man. He’s a ruler of the synagogue and he comes to trust in Jesus. There’s this woman who’s been bleeding for twelve years. She doesn’t even have a name in the story. Jairus is named; she has no name in the story. Apparently insignificant. They could not be further apart socially speaking and both of them come to find mercy in Jesus. They both conclude Jesus’ words and works admit of no other possible explanation than that God Himself was addressing them in Jesus of Nazareth. But the crowds in the synagogue at Nazareth just can’t bring themselves to face that conclusion so they leave these open-ended insinuations hanging in the air. “Maybe He is mad like Mary and His brothers and sisters have been saying all along.”
Problem of the Authority
But then there's this problem of the authority with which He speaks. And what do you do with the mighty works we hear He has been performing? Maybe actually the Pharisees got it right. The Pharisees, remember, were saying "It is by the prince of demons, by the devil that He casts out demons." So they leave these subtle, dark insinuations hanging. But they don't leave it there. They don't even stop there. They go on to attempt to validate their hostility to Jesus by insinuating scandal about Jesus' person. "Is not this the carpenter? I mean, come on, He's a menial laborer!" That's the force of their question – a menial laborer. Hardly Messiah material." And then there's the really juicy tidbit. They've saved this one for last. "Is not this the son of Mary?" In those days, you never referred to a Jewish man as the son of his mother. You always referred to him as the son of his father. Even if the father is dead, you still refer to him as the son of his father unless of course you're implying something rather insulting, which is precisely the point. They know that Joseph really isn't Jesus' dad and the explanations given in the gospels that Christ is miraculously conceived simply won't do. What they're insinuating, rather, is that He is illegitimate. "And who can believe in such a Messiah? Who would ever possibly follow a man like that?"
The last phrase of verse 3 gives us the unvarnished truth about the nature of their astonishment at Jesus' ministry – "They took offense at him." "How dare this local nobody assume such airs? He may have been able to swindle those pushovers, you know, down in Capernaum, but He can't come waltzing back in here and tell us what to think! I mean His brothers and sisters are all here among us. We know who He really is, you see. We watched Him grow up. Our children played with Him as a boy. We know His family. None of them are buying this rubbish!" Familiarity, it seems, has bred contempt. Familiarity has bred contempt.
And I think there’s a warning in that for us, especially in our southern culture where there’s still at least a residue of Christian awareness common to most people. We think we know all we need to know about Jesus. We’re not uncomfortable around church and church folks. We have just enough Gospel to inoculate us against the claims of Jesus Christ, truth be told. When Christians talk to us about their faith, we say, “Oh yeah, I know that. I believe that. Tell it to someone else, why don’t you?” and we pawn them off. Listen, mere proximity to Christ is a perilous position to Christ. Mere proximity to Christ, being here and around Him, familiar with Him, that’s a dangerous place to be because familiarity breeds contempt. It’s easy to tell yourself that the ease with which you move in and out of Christian circles is good enough, that you have religion enough. But then when Christ’s call to repentance begins to hit home, if the message starts to get under your skin, if Jesus puts His finger on your sin and your need, what begins to happen? Watch out, right? Watch out.
Isn’t that what’s happening here? “How dare this local boy speak to us like He’s our better!” That’s what they’re saying. And they’re darkly hinting at all sorts of incongruities and improprieties in Jesus’ backstory in order to justify their position. But do you see what’s really at the root of all of this? Is it that they have in fact poked holes in Jesus’ message, they’ve fact-checked His claims and now they’re exposing Him for the fraud He really is? Is that what’s happening? Is Jesus just another religious snake oil salesman peddling His wares around town and they’re going to debunk the whole story? Not at all. No, what’s really happening is that their pride has been offended. Their pride has been offended. Their egos are bruised. That’s what’s really going on. They’re offended at Jesus. They don’t want Him or His message and so they refuse to believe Him or His message.
The Real Character
And listen, that’s always the real character of unbelief. Jesus’ claims trample on our sense of autonomy. Don’t they? We tell ourselves we are free to think whatever we like and live however we please. “This Jesus stuff, it might work for you. And look, I’m pleased that you found something that seems to help, but just keep it to yourself. Would you? I’m just not buying it.” But when you ask people, “Have you actually investigated the claims of Jesus? Have you yourself actually considered the arguments honestly, really heard His message with clarity?” You will discover if you ask that question and they give you an honest reply, you’ll discover again and again that the Jesus they are rejecting is a Jesus they’ve never properly considered. They refuse to hear, because unbelief, you see, isn’t simply a tragic condition like some spiritual congenital disease that limits us. We are not victims of unbelief; we are perpetrators. Unbelief is a willful wickedness that refuses to hear and actively distorts the truth. Mark wants to expose this spiteful, sneering posturing of Jesus’ Nazarene neighbors so we can see how unbelief really works.
I recently read an article, perhaps you saw it, by MIT professor, Rosalind Picard, in which she describes being challenged – she’s a scientist, MIT professor – challenged to read the Bible for herself, and for herself to honestly consider the claims of Jesus Christ. Listen to what she said as she took up the challenge. “More than anything,” she said, “I wanted to get past this religion phase because I knew I didn’t want religion. I resented what felt like an unwelcome ultimatum. I didn’t want to believe in God. But I still felt a peculiar sense of love and presence I couldn’t ignore. I knew Jesus claimed to be the way to God, but I had been trying to avoid anything Jesus related. I couldn’t help hearing His name with the word ‘freak; attached.” So she’s struggling as a scientifically minded person. But you see the roots of her struggle, they’re not intellectual first of all. Are they? It’s not that it’s not credible to believe. This was her confession. Looking back on those days, she eventually did become a Christian, and looking back on those days this is what she said. “I once thought I was too smart to believe in God. Now I know I was an arrogant fool who snubbed the greatest mind in the cosmos, the author of all science, mathematics, art, and everything else there is to know.”
If today you find yourself keeping Jesus at arm’s length, might it be that your rejection of His claims really has very little to do with honest intellectual inquiry and much more to do with the scary thought that following Jesus will mean giving up control. It will mean losing freedom, surrendering yourself. But here’s what Rosaline Picard, the MIT professor, had been missing for so long but eventually found, what the people in the synagogue at Nazareth missed altogether. Here’s what you might be missing – If Jesus really is who He says He is, rejecting Him isn’t freedom; it’s foolishness. It’s not freedom, it’s foolishness. Denying Him isn’t the way to keep your independence. It’s actually the great evidence that you already live in terrible spiritual blindness and bondage. Mark wants us to see the sin, the sin of unbelief. The sin of unbelief.
The Sign of Unbelief
Then secondly, Mark wants us to see the sign, the sign of unbelief. Look at Jesus' response to their skepticism in verse 4. You see how He responds? "Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.'" It's an expression that crops up in various forms in other places both in the gospels and actually in the broader literature at the time. It's a common aphorism that seems to fit the occasion and so Jesus deploys it here. They've rejected Him, He's from His hometown, and so He says, "A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown." But He's doing more than simply shrugging His shoulders and saying, "Que sera, sera." He's actually making a claim about Himself and His mission. He's saying, "Well, of course, they reject Me and deny Me and despise Me. That's what people do to the prophet's who've been sent from God." Isn't that what the scriptures tell us to expect when Messiah comes?
So for example, speaking of the coming of Christ, Isaiah puts it this way. “Many were” – isn’t it interesting? This is the very word Mark uses to describe the reaction of the crowds in the synagogue. “Many were astonished at you. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not.” Their unbelief is actually one of the marks of Messiah. There’s an irony in that, isn’t there? Jesus is telling us that the unbelief of the people itself actually points to the very truth they deny. Jesus is sent from the Lord, the great prophet of God, to proclaim the Word of God – more than a prophet, Messiah, the Lord Himself. As you read about the unbelief of the crowds, as you read about the unbelief of the crowds, please do not take your place among them. Instead, will you see that even their unbelieving reaction bore testimony to Jesus’ true identity and the real reason He came. He was the one long promised, the suffering servant, the Lord come down, the final word, rejected indeed by men but chosen of God and precious. The only Savior of sinners. He is your rescuer. He is your rescuer, come to show you the heart of God and to make Him know. The sin of unbelief. The sign of unbelief.
The Sadness of Unbelief
And then finally, the sadness of unbelief. The sadness. Look at verses 5 and 6. “He could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.” That’s a striking phrase, isn’t it? “He could do, He could do no mighty work there.” Now Mark doesn’t mean that somehow the people of Nazareth blocked the power of Christ from working by their unbelief, that their unbelief robbed Him of the capacity to do among them what He was able to do everywhere else. That’s not what Mark is saying. Rather, Mark is telling us that Jesus was morally unable. He was compelled by the demands of His own righteousness not to respond to unbelief. He was morally constrained by their rejection of Him to refrain from pouring out upon them the saving blessings that He gladly lavished on others. Mark says He marveled because of their unbelief. They were astonished at His teaching and took offense at Him. Jesus is astonished at their unbelief and would not bless them. You see, they ought to have believed in Him. They’ve had ample opportunity, abundant evidence for faith in Him. They have no excuses not to believe in Him. They grew up around Him. They’re familiar with His story and still they persist in their unbelief and Jesus is amazed.
Some of you here know all about Jesus. You know all about the Gospel. You’re familiar and comfortable with Christian things. But you don’t know Jesus. Not personally, not intimately, not really, not savingly. It is superficial and skin deep. You’ve heard the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus, over and over. You’ve been urged to trust in Christ. You’ve been shown the wonder of His love at the cross, You’ve been warned about the horrors of sin and the judgment to come, and still you are unconcerned. No wonder Jesus was astonished. It is astonishing, after hearing all this, that we carry glibly on in a path of willful rebellion against Him. There really is no excuse for unbelief. You have no right not to believe in Jesus. What a tragedy it is if we persist in unbelief, what a tragedy.
The anonymous woman in the previous chapter who’d been bleeding for twelve years, she found mercy in Jesus. Jairus, this prominent member of the community, the ruler of the synagogue, he found mercy in Jesus. Over on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the Gadarene demoniac who’d been possessed by a legion, he found mercy in Jesus. But there will be no mercy for you from Jesus if you will not come to place your faith in Him. He could do no mighty work there. He is willing and able, but if you persist any longer in your unbelief, He will be constrained by His righteousness to withhold from you what you most urgently need. And what a tragedy that would be; what a tragedy. Stop messing around on the sidelines of Christianity. Time to climb down off the fence. Don’t let familiarity breed contempt. Come to Jesus humbly. Come to Jesus urgently. Come to Jesus confessing your sin and your guilt. Come to Jesus begging for pardon. Come to Jesus trusting Him to rescue you. Come to Jesus resolved by His help to live His way and not your way. But come to Jesus, abandon your cynicism, admit that you don’t come because you don’t want to come. You don’t want to believe. Admit it. Admit that your unbelief hasn’t been an expression of an independent mind or whatever rationalizations you’ve offered to justify it. It’s been rebellion all along. Give it up and come to Jesus, because while the Nazarenes missed it, countless others found the mercy they need in Him, and you still can too. You still can too.
You know so far as the Gospel records are concerned, it looks like Jesus never visited Nazareth again. This was their opportunity and they would not take it. Please, will you make sure this isn't an opportunity you refuse to take tonight. Who knows whether it will be your last. Let's pray together.
Lord Jesus, we pray for one another sitting around in this room this evening. And we ask You for grace that we and those sitting around us, that we together might run back to Jesus. Some of us have been walking with Him for years and years and still the call to trust Him challenges us because we fall back into trusting self and prefer paths of sin to paths of righteousness. Help us to come back tonight repenting and believing anew the Gospel. And there may be some tonight who don’t know Jesus at all, not because they haven’t heard, not because they don’t know what Christians believe, but simply because of willful rebellion. They’re offended at Jesus. They want their independence. O Lord, give grace, that tonight, that now they might give up their rebellion, lay down their arms, stop the fight, and embrace the good news that there is in Jesus a perfect Savior for them, that trusting Him isn’t the path to bondage and slavery and misery, but the path to freedom and pardon and peace. Bring us, all of us, every one of us back to Him, for we ask this in His precious name. Amen.
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