When writing today’s reading guide, there was a question which arose in my own mind…I wrote, “When [Jesus] was in Nazareth, it was not that He could not do many miracles because of their unbelief; He simply did not do many miracles.” I thought, isn’t there a place somewhere else in the gospels where it says or implies that Jesus could not do miracles there because of their unbelief?
Indeed there is. It’s in Mark 6:5: “And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them.” I had this in the back of my mind, but I could not remember where it was and did not find it before sending out this week’s reading guide. To tell the truth, I was somewhat relieved to see “did not do many miracles” in Matthew, because that seemed to conveniently solve the theological conundrum. This is the kind of thing that makes us Reformed types uncomfortable and challenges us to more closely examine our neat theological categories. So, I better correct myself. Mark’s account does in fact report that Jesus “could do no miracle” in Nazareth (which is a good translation of Mark’s Greek); and we are told that Jesus “wondered at their unbelief” (Mark 6:6).
This teaches even more intensely how essential faith is in our relationship with God. Remember, “Without faith, it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6). We could flip this around and say, accurately, it is impossible for God to be—i.e., He cannot be—pleased without faith. This is very clear in Scripture. “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).
Of course we should tread carefully when saying that Jesus the Son of God can’t do something, so let’s seek to understand what’s going on here.
Let’s think about Jesus’ suffering on the cross. His persecutors mocked Him, saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him” (Matt. 27:42). What do you think? Could Jesus have saved Himself? Theoretically, yes, but Jesus was bound by more than just what He had the ability to do. He was also limited in what He could do by something else: the will of His Father. Though He had power and authority to call twelve legions of angels to come to His aid and deliver Him out of the hands of His enemies (see Matt. 26:53), doing so would not have been in accordance with His Father’s will, which was that He suffer and die on the cross. Thus, in a manner of speaking, Jesus was “unable” to save Himself on the cross; not because He lacked power to do so, but because He had willingly and joyfully submitted Himself to keeping His Father’s word. We can truly say that Jesus cannot disobey His Father.
I think this helps us understand what happened in Nazareth as well. The Father sent Jesus into the world to heal those who come to Him in faith. He was not sent to help those who ultimately refuse to trust in God. Jesus is unable to save those who do not place their faith in Him. Why not? Because He Himself has sworn that faith is the means by which we are saved. Therefore, if we do not have faith, He cannot save us, because He must remain true to Himself.
For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him;
If we endure, we will also reign with Him;
If we deny Him, He also will deny us;
If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.
(2 Timothy 2:12–13)
This reminds me of Jesus saying, as Pastor Belcher reminded us a few weeks ago, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Think about it: can a physician “heal” a healthy person? Well, no, not really. Jesus was saying that He would not, and indeed could not, heal those who have no need of healing. Of course, the irony is the Pharisees’ problem was not that they were actually healthy and righteous, but that they refused to admit they needed healing and forgiveness. Jesus’ point was that He did not come to heal those who refuse to acknowledge their need of Him. He came to save those who place their faith in Him. A physician can’t heal a patient who never bothers to come and see him.
Amazingly, Jesus is such a loving and gracious Physician, that He appears to be unable to not heal someone who comes to Him by faith, even if that person seems like they’re supposed to be beyond the grace of God. That’s what happened with the Syrophoenician woman (Matt. 15). Jesus initially refused her request, telling her He was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” However, she overcame this refusal with great faith that Jesus was unable to refuse. How marvelous!
Another wonder of Christ’s love comes into focus when we remember that very few of us have been like the Syrophoenician woman. Many of us refused to come to Jesus, even after many kind invitations from Him. Yet He was patient with us, even “while we were enemies” (Rom. 5:10). And by His grace, we have come to see our need of Him and put our trust in Him, perhaps even after decades of obstinate rebellion. Even in hard-hearted Nazareth, Jesus demonstrated His lovingkindness by still healing a few people, despite the fact that the people in general did not deserve such signs of His power and love.
Here’s a hymn we regularly sing at church (listen here) that beautifully reminds us of these things:
Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity joined with power:
He is able, He is willing; doubt no more.
Come, ye needy, come and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh,
Without money, come to Jesus Christ and buy.
Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Bruised and broken by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all:
Not the righteous—sinners Jesus came to call.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him;
This He gives you; ’tis the Spirit’s rising beam.
Lo! th’incarnate God, ascended,
Pleads the merit of His blood;
Venture on Him, venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude:
None but Jesus can do helpless sinners good.
Joseph Hart, “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched” (1759), Trinity Hymnal (Great Commission Publications, 1999), #472.