Kent Hughes observes, “The Gospels taken together reveal that there had been repeated personal pain for Jesus in his early ministry.” We should not let that thought escape us as we examine the passage before us.
Our Lord and Saviour experienced much personal pain, including rejection by family and friends. This was not only by Judas, but even many of those before whom he grew up in Nazareth would lift up their heel in rejection of him. Truly, as Isaiah 53:3 records, Jesus was “despised and rejected by men.” Indeed, as Mark records, Jesus was “without honour.” This is astonishing. In fact, as the text reveals, even Jesuswas astonished.
The Gospels record that Jesus was amazed both by faith and unbelief. The recent account of the haemorrhaging woman, who reached out to touch Jesus, is an example of the former, as is the Roman Centurion whom Jesus commended as having faith that even most Jews did not have (Matthew 8). Or consider the Syrophoenician mother, who fearlessly because faithfully trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ (Mark 7). But the account before us reveals Jesus’ astonishment at unbelief. The Son of God was amazed by stubborn unbelief. How terrifying it is to amaze God with one’s unbelief (Hughes)! In our case, what about us amazes him? I hope it’s faith.
This passage serves, among other things, to prepare the Christian for life and ministry in our world, particularly in our world of familiar and familial relationships.
It is one thing to have your integrity rejected by those whom do not know you. It is quite another to be rejected by those who do know you. But more importantly, it is tragic to observe those you love refusing the help that you can provide.
How much more is this the case concerning those who rejected the Lord Jesus Christ, and those who still do so. This should astonish us. It should grieve us. It should warn us of our own tendency to do the same.
May our study lead us to give to Jesus the honour he deserves. May we be astonished, and may he be astonished by our loving faith and adoration.
An Astonishing Return
In v. 1, we read of Jesus’ astonishing return to Nazareth: “He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him” (v. 1).
Having been baptised and then assaulted with temptations in the wilderness, having taught God’s word, having healed numerous people, having performed soul-changing exorcisms, having performed energy-draining miracles (including raising a little girl from the dead), Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth. What kind of reception would he have? What kind of reception did he expect? I don’t know the latter; we do know the former. And it is important that we examine this.
This was probably not the first time Jesus returned to Nazareth since commencing his public ministry. Luke 4:16–30 records a prior visit. This makes the account before us even more astonishing. Even though they had previously tried to kill him, Jesus returned to Nazareth!
Consider also that, in chapter 3, Jesus’ family had assumed he had lost his mind to the point that they came to Capernaum to kidnap him and take him home. Yet Jesus returned to Nazareth to reach them. This is amazing—an astonishing return.
We should be astonished that Jesus goes way beyond the extra mile to reach the lost. Even taking one step toward us is astonishing! We should live in such an astonishing way.
A Returning Rabbi
As he headed back to Nazareth, “his disciples followed him.” This is significant for at least two reasons.
First, with the disciples following him, Jesus was assuming the position of a rabbi. As we will see, this is what was behind the resentment that followed.
Second, Jesus was training the Twelve, and part of that training includes the reality that to follow Jesus is to be confronted with rejection.
An Astonishing Resentment
In vv. 2–3, we are astonished at the resentment that Jesus faced:
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 offence at him.
The initial response was similar: People were astonished. But whereas in Capernaum the astonishment was coupled with an amazement of Jesus’ authority, in Nazareth, the amazement led to scepticism and an unjustified critical spirit. The townsfolk asked, three questions: “Where?”, “What?” and, “How?” These were important questions, but their prejudice barred them from accepting the truthful answers. In fact, all three questions were innuendo assuming the worst. Those who knew him best concluded the worst.
Many were suspicious that the miraculous life and ministry of Jesus was not from God but from—well—elsewhere (see 3:22–30). Probably most would not be so bold or horrible to suggest that he was of the devil, but clearly they were not willing to confess that he was from God. Jesus knew this. In short, they were questioning his credibility. That is always painful.
What led to such scepticism—to people assuming the worst? Verse 3 offers some insight.
More than a Carpenter
The Nazarenes asked, “Is not this the carpenter?” Carpentry is a gift from God. The ability to take wood and to shape it into a functioning item is a wonderful craft. It is a craft that requires patience and lots of practice. But it was not considered to be something that made one climb the social ladder of prestige. In those days, as for many in our day (in most countries), a carpenter was merely a commoner. So, put yourself in the sandals of the average Nazarene. They did not expect much from those in their community—at least, not in the sense of being financially, politically, or socially upwardly mobile. And this included their religious expectations.
Jesus was breaking through the glass ceiling and this made them uncomfortable. They were saying, “Who do you think you are? You, like us, are a common man from our village. Don’t behave like you are any different. You’ve had no training as a rabbi. Stop punching above your weight!” Envy, metastasising from pride, was driving their ridicule and rejection.
Not content with such ridicule, they asked, “Is not this … the son of Mary?” This was a slam of the worst sort. Even if a father was dead (as many assume of Joseph at this point), Jews still referenced the name of the father. This is doubtless an inuendo that Jesus was born of (what they perceived to be) the morally loose Mary. Do you think it is only in our day that people question the veracity of the virgin birth of Jesus?
The townspeople were questioning his origin and hence his character and his credibility. “The issue seems to be suspicion about Jesus’ character—uncertain origin implies uncertain character” (Cranfield).
Though they could not explain his authority in teaching and power in miracles, they were all persuaded that he was a phony. He was either a liar or a lunatic. He was nothing else.
They continued their downgrading, “Is not this … the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not his sisters here with us?” The same thought dominates: “We have nothing against his family. We know them and they are nothing special. They are flesh-and-blood like the rest of us. So, what makes him so special?”
Their questioning smacks of a not-so-subtle suggestion: “Who does he think he is? He is behaving way above his pay grade. Jesus has nothing on us. We are not about to make a big fuss about him. He needs to come back home and live like the rest of us. After all, he’s no better than us.” If this is what they were thinking, how terribly wrong they were! Jesus was infinitely better than them! Thanks be to God!
Rather than submit, the Nazarenes “took offence at him.” These are perhaps some of the saddest words in the Bible. Those who knew Jesus best were blind to who he truly was and therefore they were put off by him. Those who lived within the shadow of his authority and saving power rejected him. In the words of the apostle John, Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not received him” (John 1:11).
Blinded by their own prejudices, they could not see the glory that was shining so bright before their darkened eyes.
The word translated “offence” is skandalon, which would become a common term, a common response to the cross work of Christ.
Sadly, multitudes continued to be offended by Jesus. They had little problem with Jesus being a carpenter. However, they stumbled at his claim, and at the evidence, that he was more than a carpenter.
People stumble over Jesus for the simple reason that he is better than us!
The response of the townsfolk indicates the nonsense of apocryphal accounts suggesting that, when Jesus was a child, he behaved in miraculous ways. For instance, one account says that, as a child, he once made clay birds and then breathed life into them. Another says that he called judgement down on children who picked on him.
Though the response of these townsfolk was wrong, it does reveal that Jesus lived as a human being. He was sinless but, like all children, he got hungry, did not always win the games, was not universally liked, and, when he got a scrape, bled like everyone else. Thank God that he was able to bleed.
Ruining the Curve
We humans are self-centred. We are therefore competitive. We don’t generally like to play second fiddle to others. We are fans of egalitarianism and we resent when someone ruins the “curve.”
I can remember in school taking difficult exams. It seemed sometimes like teachers were setting exams with questions that they had never answered in class! So when exams were given, and we disgruntled students would talk among ourselves, we used to say something like, “I hope she will grade on a curve.” In short, this meant that we hoped the teacher would see how badly most of us did, and so, rather than scoring against the standard of 100% she would lower it to, say, 80% or 90%. That way, a 50% might earn you the equivalent of a score of 70%. But then there were those students who did well. They listened closely in class and scored 90%. The teacher therefore knew that the exam was fair—and most of us suffered! We therefore resented the person who blew the curve. We resented the students who scored better than us. We resented that they made us look bad. We “took offence” at them.
We see this today in sporting contests, and even in some areas of education where no one is declared a winner and certainly no one can lose. Everybody gets a participation award. After all, self-image is so important. We are offendedby those who break the mould. So were the Nazarenes.
While the primary purpose of this passage is not to exhort us to be on guard against a perverse egalitarianism, nevertheless, we can learn about our sinful tendency to not give to others the benefit of the doubt, the sinful tendency to despise those who break out from the norm. Rather, we should strive to be the kind of Christian people who are thrilled when the blessings of God fall upon the lives of others. We should be grateful that the Lord uses others in profound ways. Rather than sceptically (if not cynically) hoping for the worst about someone, let us rejoice at God’s favour on them.
Fundamentally, we need to learn from this text the importance of seeing Jesus as more than a carpenter. We need to be encouraged that he is different from his earthly mother and brothers and sisters. Thank God that Jesus is transcendently different! If he were not, we would be hopeless.
An Astonished Response
When he realised the suspicious conclusions of his fellow Nazarenes, Jesus gave an astonished response: “A prophet is not without honour, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (v. 4).This was a familiar proverb in Jesus’ day, and it is no less familiar today. But, as Grogan notes, a sadder illustration that familiarity breeds contempt has never occurred.
Jesus was not saying, at least in his case, that those who know a person best (such as family) will know too much of their faults to be able to appreciate them. Kevin de Young once told me that that people often ask him how he manages to avoid pride with all the wonderful opportunities he has had to write best-selling books and preach at big conferences with other Christian celebrities. He replied, “I am married to someone who is not impressed at all!” That is a humorously good point. But that is not Jesus’ point here. That certainly would not have been the case with him. Rather, Jesus is saying that sometimes people are too close to the relational trees to see the forest, and therefore they will not appreciate what and whom they should. If you think about it, we can all relate to this.
Sadly, we can become so familiar with which should astound us that it becomes commonplace—very ho-hum.
As I have said, Jesus grew up as a normal child in Nazareth. And yet if the people would have thought more deeply, they would have realised that he was not so normal. They had never seen anything sinful about him. But they had become so familiar that they missed the presence of the Son of God who had become a son of man. They were so close, yet so far away.
Further, what were they doing with what they were hearing in the synagogue each week? Since the Old Testament pointed to Christ, how could they have missed it? He was right there before them!
But what about multitudes in churches every Lord’s Day? Oh, the curse of nominal Christianity. God, holds people accountable to rightly respond to him.
Though by God’s grace we have seen and believed, nevertheless we too can be guilty of taking Jesus for granted. Hughes writes,
There is no danger to us of a physical familiarity with Christ that obscures his divinity and authority over us. But there is a danger of familiarity dulling us to the deep demands of our faith. The sacred words that so easily get tossed around in Christians’ conversations can render holy mysteries banal. This desensitizes us to the personal demands of God.
Our tendency is to respond, “Oh, I know that. It’s not that great. It’s everyday”. Hughes counters, “It is not! Christ, our life, is an ongoing miracle. Incarnation, grace and resurrection are the most beautiful, mysterious words. We must never let our growing familiarity rob us of the dazzling wonder and demands of our faith.”
The text reminds us that Jesus’ own household did not honour him the way he deserved to be honoured. The believing church is now Jesus’ household (1 Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 2:19–22). Let’s be careful to give him the honour which will be his throughout eternity. Be careful. Don’t lose your astonishment. Continue to stand amazed. Seek him. Work hard at this. Listen when the Spirit prompts!
An Astonishing Restriction
In vv. 5–6a, we read of an astonishing restriction: “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.”
This seems strange—potentially a heretical. But, in this context, it is precisely correct.
To be clear, it was because he wouldnot that he couldnot. The impossibility was not because of his inability, rather it was because of their infidelity. As Grogan points out, “we should remember that there is more than one kind of impossibility. On this occasion it was moral; it was not morally fitting for them to receive this blessing. Unbelief so often bars the door to vital blessings from God.”
Mark records that their view of Jesus had the effect of restricting the people in Nazareth from experiencing many blessings that otherwise would be theirs. That is both sad and sobering. Let it sink in.
What are we missing out because we take Jesus for granted? What should we be doing that we are not simply because we will not trust Jesus? What will it take to get us to this point?
I recently spent some time talking with a church planter in India. Several years ago, this man was arrested on false charges. For seven days during that time, he and his family completely lost their appetite. He recalls turning on the TV and seeing his name all over the local church. When he was eventually exonerated, he and his wife committed that they would go into fulltime ministry. Today, they work to plant a church in a particularly dark place in India. God got his attention in a most dark time, and great good has come from it.
An Astonished God
If the restriction is astonishing, how much more astonishing is it that God in the flesh was astonished at their unbelief: “and he marvelled because of their unbelief” (v. 6).
Jesus, the Son of God stood amazed. He marvelled—he was astonished—that those who knew him best assumed the worst. Those who should have believed him the quickest, refused to believe in him. Edwards therefore notes,“What amazes God about humanity is not its sinfulness and propensity for evil, but its hardness of heart and unwillingness to believe in him.”
Note that, in what preceded Jesus’ trip home, he responded to a woman’s faith who believed that she would be made well if she could but touch his garment. There was an element of superstition, no doubt, and the orthodox folk from the Nazareth synagogue would perhaps have looked down their noses at her. But she went away healed, while many in Nazareth remained sick. Yes, he healed “a few,” most not most.
Jairus chose to believe the words of the Lord and his dead daughter experienced the mighty work of resurrection, while in Nazareth we read, “he could do no mighty work.”
Those who believed Jesus were staggered by him. Jesus staggered at those who refused to believe.
How sad. I wonder what blessings I have missed out on, what blessings I continueto miss out on, because of my own faithlessness resulting from my familiarity with Jesus. And you?
This is not some version of the prosperity gospel. This is simply taking the text of Scripture seriously. At least in the passage before us, there is a direct connection between faith and fruit, albeit in this case, the connection is between faithlessness and fruitlessness.
Jesus is God, and therefore we know what pleases him: faith (see Hebrews 11:6). It is not our great feats that please the Lord; it is our graced faith that brings him pleasure. Faith in God honours his revealed character. Our faith in God is attestation that we trust whom he has revealed himself to be. It is in this way that we honour him. So it is with Jesus.
When the Nazarenes merely shrugged their shoulders at his presence, they were rejecting his self-revelation and therefore, without faith, not many mighty works could nor would be done. This does not mean that Jesus refused to show mercy to those who asked for it. It does not mean that Jesus was being petulant towards all because of some. No, clearly what it means is thatJesus literally could not do any more than the people believed him capable to do.
They did not believe in him and therefore he did not do works for them. In words reminiscent of James (the Lord’s brother), they did not believe and so they did not ask (James 4:1–2). In response, Jesus did nothing, and they received nothing. It really is that simple.
What should we learn from this? Let me suggest two things.
First, we should learn to keep our eyes open to the glory that surrounds us in the person of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Don’t take him for granted. For instance, in South Africa we are so familiar with Christianity—it is so acceptable—that we can lose our appreciation for how amazing it is! We can lose our amazement about saving grace even though we sing about it weekly.
Second, we should learn to take seriously the power of Jesus Christ. What I mean is that we must be careful not to replace faith with fatalism. In other words, it matters whether or not we believe in Jesus. If we desire Jesus to do mighty works, then we need to believe that he can do mighty works. We want to be careful to avoid limiting Jesus! We must not limit his power to convert people, to answer prayer, to heal sickness, to build his church (even in the most difficult places), to overcome sin in our lives, to give us grace to raise children for the Lord, to enable us to overcome our greatest challenges, etc. Our faith in Jesus matters. It matters a whole lot. The context of this account proves this.
An Astonishing Rejection
The text closes with an astonishing rejection: “And he went about among the villages teaching” (v. 6b).
I noted previously that Jesus does not stay where he is not wanted (see Mark 5:16–18; cf. 5:40). We see this perhaps again with these final words in v. 6.
As Ferguson summarises, “They were blind to his identity, deaf to his message, and hardened their hearts against him. Mark does not record any further visits to Nazareth. Perhaps there were none. Even what they had was taken away from them (4:25). Let us learn from their example.”
This is deeply troubling. And as someone has noted, the thought of God being astonished at our unbelief should terrify us.
We tell Jesus that he is not wanted when we fail to believe who he is. We tell Jesus that he is uninvited into our lives when we refuse to take him and his word seriously. It is because of this that we need to be growing in our knowledge of his character by growing in our knowledge of his word. God’s word reveals God’s character, and that is who God is (see Exodus 33:13; 34:6ff).
We need the fellowship of the saints to grow our faith in Jesus Christ. This is why meaningful church membership is so important. We exhort one another. We build up one another in our view of Jesus. This increases our faith and therefore mighty works can be done by Jesus in our midst.
Concluding Observations and Applications
Let us conclude with some observations and applications.
First, if you follow Jesus, be prepared for some rejection. It is interesting that the rejection account is followed immediately by Jesus sending out the Twelve (vv. 7–13). There is no necessary historic connection between these two accounts, but there is an important thematic connection. And it seems to be this: Jesus was widening his ministry. He had stuck close to home so far (Capernaum, Nazareth, and surrounding villages). But now he was preparing to send his disciples out on mission. He had been training them; now they needed some personal experience “in the field.” Therefore, in these verses, Jesus gave them important instruction.
Again, the timing is significant. They had just learned by events in Nazareth that they should not expect that all will welcome their teaching or their mighty works. Many would not respect their authority; in fact, many would despise and reject it, just as some had responded to Jesus. These disciples needed to be prepared for the hardship of following Jesus. They needed to be prepared to be disregarded.
We will not take time to expound these verses in detail, but it is important to highlight that following Jesus is wonderful, but at times it can be painful. Following Jesus is glorious, but it can also be grievous. There are times of great victory and appreciation (vv. 12–13) and times of great defeat and rejection. The disciples, who became apostles, would experience a similar response as Jesus. He was training them for this. He took them along to observe what they should also expect to experience (see v. 1). We should expect the same.
But how should we respond to those who reject us. We can say several things.
We should pity them. Jesus prayed for the Father to forgive those who opposed him most strongly. Paul admitted that, had they realised who Jesus was, they would not have crucified him (1 Corinthians 2:8). Apart from the light- and life-giving ministry of the Holy Spirit, people will never see Jesus for who he truly is (see Luke 4:16–30). This truth will help us to know how to respond to those who wrongly reject us and our message of the gospel.
We should also pray for them. What else can you do?
We should persevere without them. That is, don’t quit just because others do. Jesus moved on. He did not allow his critics to determine his identity.
At the same time, we should patiently hope for them, trusting that God will work mighty repentance in their lives.
In Galatians 1:19, James is called the Lord’s brother and Jude 1 identifies the author as the brother of James. Were these two of the blood brothers mentioned here? Perhaps. Let that encourage you.
These brothers, at first, rejected Jesus (John 7:5), but they apparently came to faith sometime later. And we can perhaps fairly guess that, after Jesus’ dying work on the cross, and his subsequent vindication by the resurrection, others from Nazareth believed as well. I was recently visiting a pastor friend in Abu Dhabi and was blessed to see how many South Africans were there who had been raised in nominal Christian homes but had come to faith in Abu Dhabi. God is able to convert those who initially reject him.
Second, let us remember that Jesus is still committed to doing mighty works. Don’t be guilty of missing out on them through your unbelief. Regularly feed your faith, at least as much as you feed your face! Encourage one another in this regard. Gather to grow our faith together.
Third, don’t allow the unbelief of others to rob you of what God can still do in your life. Don’t allow the sceptics to keep you from believing Jesus for great things. Be committed to moving beyond the status quo, trusting God to do for you what his word has made clear he will do.
Consider how the early church literally had to go against the flow of the majority of what will become known as the old covenant church. For decades after the resurrection, the world saw the church merely as a sect of Judaism. To the average Roman citizen, there was little difference between the two. So, when people—especially Jewish people—were converted to Christ, they were up against a whole culture of people, including family, who claimed to have the truth. For a Jewish person to turn to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith was to go against the accepted norm. Yet in doing so, they experienced the mighty works of Jesus, commencing with salvation from their sins.
Friend don’t allow family tradition to keep you from believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. And once you believe and turn to him, expect great things from God, and therefore attempt great things for God.
Fourth, don’t allow the cynics to control you. Realise who you are in Christ. Realise that God knows who you are under the skin. You are his beloved and he favours you.
Fifth, remember the rejection Jesus experienced and take comfort that he knows what it feels like. He knows what you are feeling, what you are going through (see Hebrews 2).
Sixth, remember that Jesus was vindicated (see Psalm 17:1–9).
His credibility was continually assaulted, until it culminated in his being crucified as a criminal. Yet in that travesty, good and grace flowed from it. For his crucifixion secured the salvation for all of those who would repent and believe on him; including any of those who were in Nazareth. Three days later, he rose from the dead with a glorious body. He ascended into heaven where he is exalted above all (Philippians 2:9–11). His vindication means our salvation.
Unbeliever, Jesus was willing to be maligned for your sake. Repent and trust him for forgiveness of your sins against him.
Christian, be encouraged. You might be maligned, misrepresented, and resented. But God will vindicate you in the end. One day, whether in this life or in glory, you will have wonderful reason to be astonished.