A Case Study in Unbelief

Moving through the second gospel account a reader can see that Mark is describing, bit-by-bit, what faithful disciples of Jesus Christ look like. For example, they’re ready to suffer, they serve others, and they’re obedient to God’s will. However, in chapter 6 Mark looks away from the disciple and points toward those who refuse the invitation to follow Christ; to those stuck in unbelief. In fact, the opening verses of Mark 6 provide us with a case study in unbelief.

The account ends with a shocking comment:

And he wondered at their unbelief (v. 6a).

In the gospels we often find people amazed at Jesus—his teaching and claims, his authority and power—but only here do we find Jesus amazed. And what shocked him? Their stubborn, obstinate lack of faith.

It’s a head-shaking, awe-inspiring lack of belief. The Nazarenes are confronted with the very embodiment of truth, and they reject him. And its their rejection of Jesus that provide us with a case study in unbelief.

An expression of unbelief

When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to him, and such miracles as these performed by his hands (v. 2)?

The Nazarenes can’t deny Jesus is special. His teaching is like nothing they’ve ever heard: powerful, convicting, unique, wise. The miracles are undeniably supernatural. He’s truly an astonishing man.

But notice a sudden turn in verse 3.

“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not his sisters here with us?”

In other words: “He may be wise and powerful, but he can’t be the Messiah. He’s a common labourer that grew up down the road! We know him and his family. We saw him in pampers.”

Hear the unbelief expressed? They saw him, heard him, were moved and awed by him. But believe him? No way.

And it actually goes beyond simple unbelief. The text says “they took offense at him.” It’s one thing to dismiss a claim, it’s another to be angered by it. The word used here is the Greek word from which we get our word scandalized. They were scandalized by Jesus. They were offended by him and their offence causes them to forget his awesomeness. Instead, they settle into their unbelief, they dig their heels in, and they are scandalized. 

You and I are surrounded by Nazarenes today. This world is a trophy case of God’s power, wisdom, and creativity.

“The heavens declare the glory of God” says the psalmist (Psa. 19:1 NIV). Paul adds, “For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen…” (Rom. 1:20). 

And, yet, many people express scandalized unbelief. They look through a telescope on a clear night and into the face of a newborn baby and say, “Don’t you dare tell me God is behind that."

People say faith is blind, Scripture teaches the opposite: that unbelief is the true expression of blindness.

An explanation of unbelief

How do people get to a place of such blindness? In verse 4, Jesus gives an explanation of unbelief.

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household.”

Notice the tightening concentric circles of intimacy: hometown, relatives, household. It’s not only acquaintances and aunts and uncles that reject him. It’s those who knew him best, his own household.

Why the rejection? Well, Jesus explains the unbelief: They had been familiarized. The people thought they knew him too well to believe what he was saying. “He can’t be what he’s claiming to be, because he’s just one of us! We know him. We’ve seen him running around the village with his friends.” Familiarity can breed apathy and, in the case of Mark 6, contempt and scandalization.

We see this in our relationships, don’t we? There is nobody I love in this world more than my wife. There’s nobody I know better than my wife. And yet, there is nobody I have to work harder at not taking for granted than my wife. I’m sure you can relate with your closest relationships.

It can be the same with God. As years pass excitement for the gospel can fade. We may start taking for granted the indwelling Holy Spirit, the privilege of prayer, and the certainty of our salvation. Familiarity can breed apathy.

In the case of his hometown, Jesus offers a similar explanation of their unbelief: they labeled the extraordinary, ordinary. They were familiarized and that led to the unbelief that amazed our Lord.

An effect of unbelief

And he could do no miracle there except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them (v. 5).

The disbelief of the people stifled the miracle working power of Jesus. Up until this point he had been healing and casting out evil spirits. But now, in his hometown, confronted with such unbelief he was unable. The effect of unbelief is that Jesus was immobilized. That’s a devastating effect.

God will often not work where he is not welcome—not because he can’t, but because he won't. He works in our lives as a response to faith not in an effort to coerce faith from us. 

Let me give you an example from Luke 16. Starting in verse 19 Jesus tells of two men who die, a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. The former is found in torment while the latter is in paradise. Pick up the account in verse 23.

In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.”

But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.”

And he said, “Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”

But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”

But he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!”

But he said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (vv. 23–31).

Notice what’s going on here: The rich man claims that if his unbelieving family sees a miraculous work, then they’ll believe. Abraham responds, “that’s just not the case.” If they don’t respond to Moses and the Prophets with belief, a miracle won’t help them either. Why? Because they’ve already hardened their hearts, they’re already in unbelief.

We’re at the edge of deep theological waters—the issue of God’s sovereignty and human free will. We’re not going to solve it here. But for now, let’s let the text speak for itself. People have the responsibility to respond to divine revelation. Those who respond with unbelief do so as an expression of their God-given free-will and, by virtue of their unbelief, they immobilize that same God in a way that does not diminish his authority and power.

Jesus, seeing the unbelief of his hometown, is immobilized. He can’t work miracles because, like the rich man’s family from Luke 16, that won’t convince them anyway. 

If you’re reading this today and you’re waiting for a miracle to convince you, don’t bother. The fact is you’ve been given ample evidence to believe. Is it possible that your unbelief has immobilized Jesus from working in your life? 

And if you really want a miracle, I can guarantee you a way to experience the greatest of all. If you will, today, humble yourself before God, confess your own sinfulness and your need of a Saviour, and if you trust in his Son, Jesus, I promise you’ll experience the miracle of new birth, of conversion. But, until you believe, you are immobilizing God’s power. That’s the devastating effect of unbelief.

Mark 6 presents us with a case study in unbelief. It’s expressed as a scandal, it’s explained as being rooted in familiarity, and its effects are shown to be immobilizing for the power of God. It’s a wicked reality, highlighted by the acknowledgement that we were all there at one time also and that we know and love people who still are.

Our response to unbelief

In closing I want to suggest three possible responses to unbelief. What do we do with this, as as individual believers and as a church family? They are simple, straight-forward, but critical.

Give thanks

If you’re a believer, you’re not in unbelief. You may struggle with doubts—you’ve yet to be glorified—but that’s not the unbelief of Mark 6. If you’ve trusted in Christ for your salvation, you are not in unbelief. And I think an appropriate response to that realization is thanksgiving.

Eph. 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” What do we teach our children to say when they get a gift? Thank you! Thank you, God, for the gift of salvation, for the law that shows me my need for salvation, for your Son the author of my salvation. Thank you for my friends and family members who believe.

Let’s not take our faith for granted. If you’ve believed, you have believed in something God has provided. Let’s give thanks.

Fight familiarity

We don’t want the truths of the gospel to become commonplace and ordinary. How do you know if they are?

A good litmus test can be our zeal for evangelism. Have you ever been around a new grandmother who also has a cell phone full of pictures? Try stopping the slideshow! Why? Because it’s good news. You can’t stop sharing what you believe to be good news. 

If I’m not burdened to share salvation with people who are going to hell, perhaps my deliverance from that same deserved fate has become too familiar.

So how do we fight that familiarity? Be in the Word and be in the church. The fire of my passion for the gospel will dwindle if its not fed with the wood of the Word. And be with the church. Share your story with other believers and hear their stories. This is what the author of Hebrews means when he says “encourage one another.” Fighting familiarity means intentionality. But it’s worth it, because the alternative is brutal.

Pray hard

We all have people in our lives that we love dearly that do not have a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. They are in unbelief. Their hearts are hardened to truth and, whether they admit it or not, they are scandalized by the gospel. It’s foolishness to their ears. 

We cannot argue them into the family of God. No slick presentation will convince them. We have to dedicate ourselves to praying for them.

One theologian once wrote: “the personal element in true soul-winning work is more a service of pleading for souls than a service of pleading with souls.” So let’s pray hard that unbelief would be conquered by the only one who can.

Let’s grow into a people who, motivated by the existence and effects of unbelief, give thanks to God that we’re not there, fight familiarity in our lives, and pray hard for those who have yet to experience the miraculous grace of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

For his glory, and his glory alone.