Powerful versus irresistible
We have recently been journeying during our Family Bible Hour on Sunday mornings through the Gospel of Matthew. Our approach has been to take one chapter per week and overview it in a discussion-oriented setting. This morning, we approached Matthew 13, in which Jesus began teaching the multitudes (and the disciples) in parables. The chapter contains several parables relating to various aspects of the kingdom of God, but it is the sad note on which the chapter closes that draws my attention in this post.
In Matthew 13 Jesus “old his hearers “many things in parables.” According to the text, Jesus spoke in parables for three reasons: (1) to fulfil prophecy (vv. 34–35), (2) to reveal truth to true disciples (vv. 10–15), and (3) to conceal truth from false disciples (vv. 16–17).
Immediately following the record of the parables, Matthew gives a real-life example of an enemy of the gospel (a frequent theme in the parables themselves). We find in these verses a practical example of the unbelief. And this example teaches us several things about unbelief.
The finality of unbelief (v. 53)
In Matthew 8:5, Jesus came to Capernaum, which was largely the base of his earthly ministry (Matthew 4:13). He was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1–6) and raised in Nazareth (Matthew 2:22–23) but used Capernaum as his base of ministry operations. He left Capernaum for a brief period but returned again in Matthew 9:1. Ever since that point in the Gospel, Jesus had been teaching in Capernaum.
But now, after giving these parables, we read that “he went away from there” (v. 53). Later in his ministry, the Lord again entered Capernaum, but on that occasion merely passed through. After v. 53, Capernaum—as far as we know—never again heard Christ’s teaching or saw his miracles. It was a sad day of finality for Capernaum when “he went away from there.” They had squandered their opportunity by persisting in unbelief, and the Lord, quite literally, left them without excuse. Earlier, he had warned them of the consequences of unbelief (Matthew 11:23–24), but now these words had finally come true.
God is longsuffering, but his patience always eventually wears thin. He does not forever tolerate those who rub their sin in his face. Unbelief eventually becomes final. The warning is therefore clear: Repent before it is too late!
The force of unbelief (vv. 54–56)
Matthew’s record continues: “And coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’” (vv. 54–56).
Unbelief is a powerful force to be reckoned with. Despite all the evidence, they still did not believe. They knew him. They knew Joseph, his mother, his brothers and his sisters. They also knew that what he did and taught could only be supernatural in nature, for he never had any formal training. And yet—in spite of all this—they still persisted in unbelief.
They disbelieved despite the facts. It was an undeniable fact that Jesus had great “wisdom” and performed many “mighty works.” Yet these people sought some way around it. Instead of submitting to the facts in the fear of God, they questioned his power. They were amazed at the facts but persisted in unbelief.
They disbelieved also despite their familiarity with the Lord. “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”
These were not honest questions, but evidence of unbelief looking for an excuse. Jesus Christ cannot be explained in “natural” terms and those who attempt to do so invariably end up looking for excuses. These people had known him since childhood. They knew that his family was ordinary. Surely they should have concluded that he was anything but ordinary. But they refused to acknowledge that he was different from everyone else.
The fault of unbelief (v. 57)
Matthew records the people’s reaction quite simply: “And they took offence with him” (v. 57). Joseph Thayer defines “took offence” as “to see in one what I disapprove of and what hinders me from acknowledging his authority.” Jesus did not cause offence, but they took offence. Jesus simply revealed their rebellion (cf. Romans 9:33).
Unbelief is never the result of lack of evidence; it is always because of a lack of will. And God holds the unwilling personally accountable for their unbelief. The fault of unbelief always lies at the feet of the unbeliever. The solution is to cast off the sin unbelief and embrace the Lord Jesus Christ in obedience and faith.
The frequency of unbelief (v. 57)
Finding that the people took offence, the Lord responded with a common proverb of the day: “A prophet is not without honour except in his hometown and in his own household” (v. 57). This was such a universal truism that the proverb was commonplace in Jewish, Greek and Roman culture.
It was common for a prophet to have no honour in the eyes of his own kinsmen, and Jesus was no different in this regard. He was a prophet—indeed “the Prophet” (John 7:40; cf. Deuteronomy 18:15-19)—but still he had no respect in the eyes of the people who knew him best. Because he was so familiar to them, they failed to afford him the honour that was his due.
This still occurs today, and the frequency of such unbelief is alarming. The local church may faithfully proclaim the word, clearly present the gospel, and consistently call people to faith, but this is no guarantee that everyone in the church is a believer. Time and again unbelievers have surfaced masquerading as children of God.
The fruit of unbelief (v. 58)
Matthew concludes the chapter with sad, yet exciting, words: “And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (v. 58).
This is one of the saddest testimonies in Scripture. Jesus “did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.” He did not ignore their needs because of their unbelief. He was not rendered powerless by their unbelief. Klasterman puts his finger on the pulse of the text: “The people of Nazareth were so consistently unbelieving that they would not even bring their sick to Him to be healed.” Can you even imagine that? There were plenty of sick and needy Nazarenes, but they would not come to Jesus, even though he was available and willing to help them!
A question may prove pertinent at this point: Is this not sometimes true of us? Do we not act in unbelief whenever we refuse to obey what Christ has revealed to us? We know, for example, that God expects us to give, and we know his promise to meet the needs of those who are faithful in their stewardship, but we refuse to yield our wallets to him, choosing not to believe his gracious promise of provision. Whenever we choose to obey self over Christ, we cave to the sin of unbelief.
The failure of unbelief (v. 58)
But let’s not leave this on a negative note. Note carefully the words of our text: “he did not do many mighty works there” (v. 58). The inclusion of the qualifying term “many” very clearly indicates that he did do some mighty works there. Even though the vast majority disbelieved, some still exercised faith in Christ. He had come to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21) and he continued to do so even in the face of hardened unbelief. He is a glorious Saviour, indeed!
Unbelief is powerful, but God is more powerful! Unbelief may win some battles, but it will never win the war, for God will always see to it that his kingdom progresses! Unbelief always fails in the light of God’s glorious grace. Unbelief is powerful, but grace is irresistible!
We are up against a powerful foe: Unbelief is a force to be reckoned with. But what is our weapon of choice? We wield the gospel of Christ, which is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). The gospel of Jesus Christ is God’s secret weapon, which alone has power to turn hardened unbelief into humble belief. Hence, with William Carey, expect great things from God and therefore attempt great things for God.