Jesus's Mission Against Unbelief

Sermon Passage: Mark 6:1–30 | Preached to Sovereign Grace | 07/18/2021

By Peder Kling

Why Three Stories in One Sermon?

As I’ve walked us through Mark’s gospel over the last few months, you might have noticed that I do not tend to read one story at a time. We just read three stories. Why do we keep looking at several stories at a time, rather than just one? 


My desire is to help us see Mark’s gospel as a single story with interwoven themes and messages, rather than a collection of isolated stories with isolated messages. There’s a reason why Mark organized his gospel with the stories that he chose, in the order he placed them in. He’s telling us something—and, I fear that if we only look at one story at a time, we will miss the greater message that is driving Mark’s gospel forward. 


So, what’s at work in these three stories together? Does one story build upon one another into a great crescendo? Or, is there another “literary sandwich” that is so common in Mark’s gospel (a “Mark Sandwich”, as they are often called)? Again, a “Mark Sandwich” is when Mark’s gospel introduces one theme or story, interrupts it with second theme or story, and then he returns again to the first theme or story. It’s all over his gospel, and he uses these sandwiches to teach us something that the two stories couldn’t teach on their own. 


I think there is something in this passage that is very reminiscent of a Mark sandwich—it’s not as explicit as other sandwiches in Mark, but I do think there’s something here for us to see. Think about these three stories, as they all seem to have the themes of opposition, unbelief, and Jesus’s mission running through them. First, Jesus is harshly rejected by his hometown. Then, in the final story, Jesus’s prophet John is rejected and killed by Herod. But, nestled between these two stories of opposition is a story about Jesus’s mission. He sends the twelve out in a very peculiar way, and he prepares them for opposition by telling them what to do if they are opposed. But here’s the catch. Is there any reference to them being opposed by the towns they went to? Verses 12 and 13 tell us that “they went out and proclaimed that people should repent, and they cast out may demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” And then verse 30, after the story of John the Baptist, we are told that “the apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught”. This isn’t highlighting the disciple’s failure and rejection—it’s highlighting their success! 


In other words—despite the seemingly impenetrable obstacles of unbelief and opposition that we see in Nazareth and Herod, Jesus’s mission is and will be accomplished as he intends it to, even though his ambassadors. The Christian mission may seem impossible, combatting seemingly impenetrable walls of unbelief—unbelief like what Jesus saw in Nazareth, or like what John the Baptist saw in Herod. But, there’s always hope when Jesus is on the move.


Two Faces of Unbelief, and a Successful Mission

So today, we are going to see first two different faces of unbelief and opposition—the face of the Nazarenes (the people in Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth), and then the face of Herod (Rome’s regional king, or authority, over the Jewish area). Perhaps you can identify with or picture these two faces in yourself, or someone you know. We’re talking about blind, frustrating unbelief that makes you marvel. I constantly hear people come up to me with frustration—“Peder, why won’t this person just open his eyes to receive Jesus! It’s so obvious, and yet his unbelief is killing him!”. We’ll see that in Nazareth and Herod, today. But then, we are going to consider the peculiar details that Mark’s gospel presents us with in the middle story, when Jesus sends his twelve out on a successful mission for his kingdom. That story will strengthen and encourage us in our battle against unbelief and opposition.


1. The Unbelief of the Nazarenes

So first, we learn about the unbelief of the Nazarenes in Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth. It’s only 6 verses, so let’s read it again—


1 He went away from there [i.e., Capernaum region] and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 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? 3 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. 4 And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” 5And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6And he marveled because of their unbelief.


Here’s the home front that Jesus returns to after a season of public ministry. It’s a very small town—most people suggest it sat on about 50 acres of land, on a rocky hilltop with at least one cliff below it (cf. Luke 4:29). People believe there about 500 residents in the town. This is a forgotten, secluded village in the middle of nowhere. Remember—Joseph and Mary moved there in order to hide from Herod when he wanted to kill Jesus. This literally was Ash Fork, AZ—a place you could escape from the government. 


So, everyone likely knew him and his family quite well, in good small-town fashion. This was an intimate group of people, with families well acquainted with one another.


Unbelief is Offended by Jesus

Now, what does Jesus meet when he arrives? Unbelief. Verse 6 says that Jesus marveled at their “unbelief”—that’s what this passage is describing for us. Unbelief. What did that look like in small-town Nazareth? There’s a few descriptions, here.


First, it looked like an offended person. Our passage says in verse 3 that “they took offense at him”. Let me ask you this—what sort of thing offends you? I can think of a number of things. We usually think “taking offense” means that someone said something that cuts down your reputation or your values. If someone calls you a coward, your reputation is offended. Or, if someone makes a jab at your favorite president, your values are offended, and you take it personally. Or perhaps, you might find that it’s just a person’s presence that bothers you. You might say, “there’s something about that guy that offends me—the way he presents himself and thinks of himself.” 


How did Jesus cause offense to his townspeople? Notice that he spoke in the synagogue on the Sabbath. This would have required an invitation. He showed up, and the ruler of the synagogue knew of his new reputation as a popular rabbi. So, he asks Jesus to give a message. They weren’t rejecting him as a rabbi, or as some sort of spiritual authority. They rejected him as the spiritual authority. When they heard Jesus teach with conviction and eloquence, they couldn’t believe that such a person of authority and conviction could come out of Nazareth. Remember back in Mark chapter 1, the people “were amazed at his teaching, for he taught as one who had [innate, or intrinsic] authority, and not as the scribes”. The Nazarenes got a taste of that teaching, and it offended them that their own would presume that kind of authority.


If you turn to Luke 4, you will read about a sermon Jesus preached in Nazareth. Some believe Luke 4 describes the same visit and sermon that we are reading about here, in Mark 6. Many others believe Mark and Luke are describing two different visits. I personally think they are the same visit—but regardless if you think they are two visits or the same visit, it’s undeniable that Mark and Luke are both describing the same kind of visit. 


Turn to Luke 4, and you’ll know what I mean. There, Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth to preach on the Sabbath, just like he does in our passage. As he’s preaching, he opens a scroll to Isaiah 61, verses 1 and 2 where the prophesied Messiah speaks of being anointed by God to proclaim the gospel, and to set God’s people free from sin, diseases, and oppression. Jesus finishes reading the passage, and he doesn’t give plausible academic interpretations. He simply says with definitive authority, “today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. That’s a very simple, clear claim to be the Messiah who demands everyone’s faith and repentance as their king.


And, the way Luke describes the people’s response is quite interesting. He tells us in verse 22, “and all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming out of his mouth”. This was an “ooh-ahh” sort of reception. It doesn’t say they received him in that awe, but simply that they were entertained by a great speaker who spoke boldly, eloquently, and with authority. Our passage in Mark gives a similar impression. The people say in verse 2, “where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?” Clearly, Jesus was impressing them. He no longer sounded like a blue-collar Nazarene. He didn’t even sound like an ordinary scribe or rabbi who quoted authorities in his preaching. He was the authority in his teaching—and his teaching was flawless. So, they were offended by him—not merely his words, but by him. His authoritative presence was an offense to them.


Here, we see a glimpse of what’s really going on with all form of unbelief. The folks in Jesus’s hometown rejected him simply because he was Jesus. As both Luke and Mark tell us that they were impressed with his teachings, I imagine they felt convicted. They probably knew their responsibility was to either receive him or reject him—there was no middle ground. They couldn’t do what you sometimes do with a preacher and say, “I agree with your premise, but I think you were a little off in that third point”. They knew that Jesus was shining a light that you either walk into, or you run away from—and, that this was a matter of truth or falsehood. Either you let God be God, or you can play god for a few decades. Either you can let God be god, or you can be offended at his rightful claim over you, as the devil is offended by God’s rightful authority over him. The devil knows who is in charge, and he takes offense at it. He rebels. Similarly, unbelief is offended by God and his Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. That offense leads to rebellion, which only ends in judgment. 


Unbelief is Scornfully Marvelous

And, I think this is part of what led Jesus marvel at them. We are told in verse 6 that Jesus “marveled because of their unbelief”. Unbelief is really something to marvel, isn’t it? They heard his word, saw his miracles, and, they had no reason to reject him other than the simple fact that he was Jesus, sent from God. Unbelief is terribly marvelous, in an scornful way. This characterizes the root impulse unbelief in every person who rejects Jesus. Paul talks about it in Romans 1 when he says that God’s existence, authority, and truth is planted upon the conscience of every person ever to live. Apart from his grace, the natural response to that truth upon your conscience is to suppress it, and rebel against it. In verse 32 of chapter 1, Paul says to the Romans what I think is the most terrifying statement in all of scripture. He says people who reject God, “though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them”. They know God exists, and that sin leads to death. They know it. Yet, they reject God because they know he’s God, and not them. So, they parade around in their sin and rebellion. That’s the world we live in. I’m sure you’ve seen it in yourself, or in a loved one. 


So, Jesus had spoken confidently and clearly, and the Nazarenes decide to suppress their conscience. What does that look like, when the rubber really hits the road? Have you ever done this, where you reject what you know to be true, and you suppress your conscience? It involves a cover-up, or a lie in one form or another. Perhaps an excuse. You have to dismiss God’s conviction somehow—and in the worst situation, you totally sear your conscience. 


We see that going on here, with the townspeople. They dismiss Jesus by appealing not to his arguments, but to him. They appeal to his trade and his family. First, they say to themselves in verse 3, “is this not the carpenter?”. They knew him as a carpenter—and, he has come back to town after trading his carpentry clothes in for a rabbi’s tassel. He came back talking about sacred scriptures with eloquence and authority. What a presumptuous thing to do for a simple carpenter. They dismissed his word with his trade. 


But then, they also appealed to his family. They saw him as a child, and a brother. In Luke, they ask “isn’t this Joseph’s son?". Joseph couldn’t produce an authority in the Jewish faith, he was a nobody. In Mark, they actually disrespect Jesus and his family by asking in verse 3, “Is not this … the son of Mary?”. By referring to Jesus as Mary’s son rather than Joseph’s son there, they were intentionally calling the validity of Jesus’s birth into question. I’m sure the small-town drama in Nazareth included lots of gossip about Mary’s illegitimate son, Jesus. This man Jesus certainly could not be who he says he is—the Messiah from Isaiah 61, sent from God to set God’s people free from sin, diseases, and oppression. “Where did he get this wisdom, and how are such mighty works done by his hands? Isn’t he the carpenter, even Mary’s son?”. It’s a marvelous thing, how unbelief works. The unbelief leds to suppressing truth, which leads to excuses, and the end is judgment.


Unbelief is Short-Sighted

And it’s so ironic that the folks in Nazareth didn’t see it coming. When Jesus said in both Luke and Mark that “a prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household”, he was quoting a well-known secular proverb of the day. People understood this—prophets get rejected by their own people. It was also understood that prophets often came from humble roots. Micah, Amos, David, and Elijah, for all came from small towns. David was from a small town, and he was the youngest and smallest son of Jesse. 


But they couldn’t see this. Unbelief is not just offended and scornfully marvelous, it’s also short-sighted. Unbelief is short-sighted. It is unable to see how God’s power and glory might shine through a humble little town like Nazareth. “Could anything good come out of Nazareth?” That’s how God works! As Paul said to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:27), “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong… so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” That’s how God works—and it requires faith to understand this. 


So, as they are suppressing their conscience and smothering Jesus with accusations about his trade and family lineage, they don’t see the glory of God in their midst. They wouldn’t even consider using Jesus for his healing powers like the crowds did in Capernaum—the crowds who went to him for healing, but wouldn’t listen to his teaching or obey his instructions to keep his identity quiet. These Nazarenes simply wanted nothing to do with Jesus. 


Unbelief is Powerful: “No Mighty Work”

But there’s even more of an ugly picture to unbelief in this story. Verses 5 tells us, “and he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them”. What does it mean that Jesus “could not” do any miracles? Brothers and sisters—this is the power unbelief. Sure, it’s offended by Jesus. It’s scornfully marvelous. It keeps you short-sighted on the world, rather than seeing God’s power and glory shine through the impossible. But in this, unbelief is also powerful. It puts God in a position where, morally speaking, he cannot save those who will not come to him and acknowledge his glory and power. 


When Luke tells his account of Jesus’s visit in Nazareth, Jesus responds to the people’s unbelief by making a comparison between him and Elijah. Do you remember Elijah’s story? He was a prophet of judgment against Israel. Essentially, Elijah pronounced an awful famine and drought upon Israel so that all Israel wasted away with death. The famine got so bad that women were forced to eat their own dead children. That’s the power of unbelief—rejecting God’s word means your under a miserable curse, and an unbearable wrath. So, Jesus says this—“Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” Then he compares Nazareth to the generation of Israel who rejected Elijah and Elisha to their own destruction. These prophets did their miracles of healing outside of Israel, on gentiles. They couldn’t heal Israel in their hard-hearted unbelief. Sound familiar?


When Jesus made this comparison to the Nazarenes in Luke 4, we are told that they rose up against him and brought him to the cliff at the edge of town, to throw him off of it. He miraculously escaped as he passed through them, and went away from them in order to bring his blessings elsewhere. That’s the power of unbelief.


So, Jesus’s hometown visit wasn’t a shining example of success in missions, was it? It was a shining example of the terrors of unbelief. Their unbelief was offended by Jesus, and it suppressed truth to their own destruction. It was short-sighted, for something good can come out of Nazareth. Their unbelief was powerful—it kept God from blessing them. And in all this, their unbelief is scornfully marvelous—it’s something to marvel at, that our desire to be in charge is so strong that we would suppress the truth of Christ and his blessings as we waste away in this cursed world.


Now, there’s one picture of unbelief. It’s one obstacle Jesus’s mission must overcome, if we are to ever have hope. But, what about Herod’s unbelief and opposition to John the Baptist? His unbelief is similar, but there are some differences. 


The Unbelief of Herod

I’m not going to read the story again—it’s a long story and it can be fairly hard to understand all the details. Let me just give you the simplified version. When you look at verse 14, you read, “King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known”. Now, remember that the previous story is the story of Jesus sending out his disciples. So, the news Herod hears in verse 14 is the news of Jesus and his disciples growing and expanding ministry in the region.


Now, when you hear news like this as a king, what’s your first question going to be? “Who is this?”. That’s what Herod wants to know. And here, in verse 14, Mark gives us a quick overview of what people are thinking about that question. 


But if you jump ahead to verse 16, we then learn what Herod thinks of all this. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised”. Do you hear the fear and paranoia in this? And, this wasn’t political fear for Herod—as if his political arch-enemy had been raised. This was spiritual fear. Herod, for whatever reason, feared and respected John the Baptist. Verse 20 tells us that—


Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.


This was a really strange thing for that dynasty of kings—the “herodians”. This king, like his father, was an incredibly paranoid king. They would kill anyone they thought might challenge their reputation and kingdom. But not John the Baptist.


So, what brought about John’s death? As Mark tells it—Herod’s unbelief and sin brought about John’s death, and Herod knew it. That’s why he was so paranoid. 


The story is that Herod married his step-sister, his brother’s wife (i.e., a form of incest). This is a clear contradiction to God’s law, and Herod publicly claimed to be a follower of the Jewish faith. So, John the Baptist held him accountable to it. Verse 18 says that “John had been saying to Herod, ‘it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’”. The verb tense there implies that John said this regularly—perhaps publicly. And again—it’s two verses later that we are told, “Herod… was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly”. Again—unbelief is marvelous in a terrible sort of way. It’s a marvel that a man could hear truth gladly and fearfully, yet not repent. Instead, Herod suppressed the truth and threw John into prison for safe keeping. It’s a strange picture of what we do when we try to hush the Spirit’s conviction upon our lives, isn’t it? A paranoid conscience goes far strides to hush God’s Spirit of conviction.


But the rest of the story reminds us that this attitude toward truth never goes well. As he persists in his sin of incest and lust, Herod holds a birthday party for himself, and he has his niece dance for him and his guests. This is the daughter of Herod’s illegitimate wife Herodias, who hated John for condemning the marriage. In a drunken stupor, Herod essentially tells his niece he’ll do anything for her. That’s when she asks for John’s head on a platter—it was a kind gesture for her mom. As king, he had to make good on his word.


So, Herod’s unbelief didn’t simply drive him into paranoia. It only increased his misery and despair. As he sought to hush John the Baptist’s voice by putting him into prison, he ended up in a worse condition. His lust and incest put him in a position where he had to kill John the Baptist. The paranoia that followed was more unbearable than the calls for repentance that John originally spoke. Unbelief has a way of only worsening your condition, doesn’t it? 


Quieting a Paranoid, Guilty Conscience

Let me ask you—how do you quiet a paranoid, guilty, convicted conscience? You do exactly what John the Baptist, the disciples, and Jesus called for in all these stories. You repent and believe in Jesus. It’s not hard, it just takes some faith and humility. It can be done quickly. And it’s offered to you freely—no penance is needed. You don’t have to beat yourself up. Jesus was beaten for you. He took the punishment you deserved when he died on the cross, and rose from the dead on account of his perfect life of righteousness. He offers this atonement, this righteousness to you if you would repent and believe in his grace every day. That’s how unbelief, with all its miseries, is overcome—by faith and repentance.


As we bring this all together—we have seen unbelief that from a number of angles in both the Nazarenes and Herod. It is this unbelief that Jesus is on a mission to overcome. Nestled between these two terrifying pictures of unbelief, we see Jesus sending out his twelve disciples, and they go out with what seems to be an awesome display of power against the curse, and unbelief. They proclaimed message of repentance in verse 12, and then verse 13—“they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.”


Jesus’s Mission Against Unbelief

As we illustrate Jesus’s mission against unbelief in this story, think about the instructions that Jesus gives to his disciples when he sent them out. Certainly, they are given the famous instructions for what to do when a town rejects God’s word. “If any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Christians love to cite that one as a proof text for rejection. That’s not the focus of this instruction. The focus is on urgency. Go to the next town, if you are rejected. Don’t sit there.


Think of the other instructions he gives—it hammers this point of urgency all the more. No food, bags, or money. So, they aren’t even allowed to bring what we might call the “bare essentials”. They are supposed to just go quickly, and trust that God will provide. Similarly, he instructed them that “whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from [the town]”. So, take the first housing accommodation you can find, and use it for your whole stay in the town. Don’t waste time upgrading to a better house. Expediency, urgency, focus, and mission are what Jesus is communicating. And more than this urgency—he was also communicating that this would be accomplished with an utter dependency upon God. God will provide housing, food, and everything you need. So here are two fundamental qualities to Jesus’s mission, and what he expects of his people on mission—urgency and dependency.


Now, there’s something beautiful going on, here. Where else do we see urgency and dependency in God’s mission like this in our Bibles? Does it sound anything like the Exodus, when God’s mission to redeem a people for himself? In the Exodus story, when the firstborn in Egypt all died, the “Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste… so the people took their dough before it was leavened.” They were urgently sent out of Egypt, and they were put into the wilderness where they would be forced to fully depend upon God’s care and power for life and salvation. God literally fed them mana from the sky, and provided water from a rock when they had no food or water. I don’t think it is a coincidence that when the disciples return from this mission, Jesus takes them out “to a desolate place” where he would feed the multitudes as God fed the multitudes in the wilderness. Do you see the pattern here? In the Exodus, God was on an urgent mission to create and provide for his people, against the odds of the Egyptian military, the desert, among other obstacles. The people felt two fundamental aspects to God’s mission: urgency and dependency. So also in Christ, the same is true today. 


Our Mission of Urgent Gospel Preaching Against Unbelief

You just heard how vile and destructive unbelief is—do you think God wants us to confront it with a sense of urgency and zeal, both in our own hearts and in the hearts of our neighbors? It’s dangerous to let unbelief settle in your heart, or to let it stew in another person’s heart for even a split second. Urgency and zeal are necessary—if you aren’t urgent, you’re complacent. You’re like the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:15 of whom Jesus said, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” That’s what Jesus does to Christians who are not filled with urgency against their unbelief. They’re phlegm to him. So, what does he commend them to? “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” Urgency is a necessity. And not just in yourself, but in your relationships. When Paul considered his family—his kinsmen, the Jews who had rejected Christ, he said in Romans 9, "I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers." Do you hear the urgency there? Paul, speaking rhetorically, said he’d commit spiritual suicide if it meant saving his Jewish brothers. May God save the nations from their ugly unbelief. May God give us that zeal for his mission against sin and unbelief. He bled for its success.


But not only should be we urgent against unbelief, but we should also be wholly dependent upon God to battle it. God’s power and grace in Christ should be your chief motivator in your urgency against unbelief. When Jesus sent the disciples out on their mission, they were equipped with power that no human person had ever experienced before. Elijah and Elisha were perhaps the more prolific miracle workers of the Old Testament, and it looks like these disciples did more miracles than Elijah and Elisha did in their ministries put together. Nobody in the Old Testament cast out demons. Nobody was able to walk through at town and heal whomever would desire to be healed. Do you think the disciples suspected that this power came form themselves—even as they entered the town without arrangements for food, water, or shelter? If Jesus was teaching the disciples anything at this point, he was teaching them that his mission against unbelief and the curse required extraordinary, never-seen-before power, and that it required a radical dependency upon Jesus’s power for success. Their strength in food, their protection in a home, and their success in overcoming the curse was entirely in God’s hands, not their own. Does that sound similar? What does Christ’s forgiveness and Spirit give you—if not strength, freedom, joy, protection and power. As Hebrews 13 says, after describing the crucified Christ and all his benefits, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus… equip you with everything good that you may do his will…”. 



As I wrap this up, let me remind you that the unbelief in Jesus’s hard-hearted family in Nazareth was eventually overcome. In Acts 1:14, Mary and Jesus’s brothers were with the apostles, eagerly waiting for the Spirit’s blessing at Pentecost. At some point, Jesus broke through their unbelief and softened their hearts, and deliver them from a life of tirelessly opposing him and suppressing the truth of his authority. They were freed from their paranoid, offended consciences. It reminds me of 2 Corinthians 3:16–18, where Paul says, 

When one turns to the Lord, the veil [of unbelief] is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 


That’s freedom from unbelief, and it comes from the Lord. So pray, as the despairing father cried to Jesus in Mark 9:24, “I believe, help my unbelief!” Or, “help my brother’s and my children’s and my friend’s and my co-workers unbelief!”. That’s the proper response to all this. Feel the weight of unbelief, in all its ugly faces. See it in yourself, and in everyone around you as it manifests itself in varying ways and degrees. When you see it, cling to Jesus with faith and repentance, with an urgency and dependency upon him and his grace. Let’s pray.