God Can Do Anything … But Fail

Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.
~ Mark 9:23

Can we limit God?

Nazareth was a rural, isolated community in lower Galilee on the southern border of Zebulun. It set on a high hill over 1,600 feet above sea level on the western side of a valley. It was somewhere around 400 feet above the valley floor, with a commanding view of the surrounding plain. Proximity to trade routes gave the Nazarenes some contact with the outside world, but they were mostly aloof from the main life of Israel and despised by them (John 1:44-46).

Jesus grew up in Nazareth and lived there for around 30 years before he began his public ministry (Luke 2:39). There he learned and plied his trade as a carpenter. Given the small size of the community and the nature of the family business, Jesus and his family were generally known in Nazareth. Their familiarity with Jesus and his family proved to be a stumblingblock to the people of Nazareth.

Jesus left Nazareth, was baptized by John in the Jordan, spent 40 days in the wilderness, and embarked on an itinerant, public ministry of preaching the kingdom of God and performing kingdom sign miracles. It seems he was gone from Nazareth for at least a year, perhaps longer. His fame quickly spread as he began his ministry in Galilee and multitudes of people came to see him from all regions round about.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus returning to Nazareth and going to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. His fame had preceded him, particularly from Capernaum, which served as a home base for his Galilean tour. The Gospel accounts all end with the Nazarenes rejecting Jesus and Luke adds how they took him out of town and wanted to thrown him down the escarpment to the valley floor, hundreds of feet below. Of course, this was not the predetermined counsel of God and he simply passed through their midst.

Reflecting on the unbelief of the Nazarenes, Mark makes a shocking statement. He wrote of Jesus, “And he could there do no mighty work” (Mark 6:5). He “could do no,” as in, he could not? How can that be true, if all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:27; 14:36)?

Jesus Could Not

Mark uses the Greek word dunato, which means to be able, or capable. Mark really did write that Jesus was not able to do “mighty work,” or miracles, in Nazareth. If you begin reading Mark’s Gospel from the start and read to Mark 6:5, you will have read demonstration after demonstration of Jesus’ power to do great miracles. He commanded an unclean spirit in Capernaum and that spirit obeyed him. He took Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and cured her of a disease. He healed and cast devils out of multitudes of people. He healed a leper, a paralytic, a man’s withered hand, rebuked the wind with his words so the sea became calm, cast a legion of demons out a man, healed a woman with an incurable bleeding disorder, and raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead. After this, he came to Nazareth and could not do mighty work there.

All the accounts reflect the unbelief of the people of Nazareth. Matthew attributes the limitation of miracles to their unbelief (Matthew 13:58), and Mark concludes the same in reflection (Mark 6:6). Luke does not mention the limiting of miracles, but does recount how their unbelief was manifested in their wrath against Jesus and their attempt to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:28-29). Luke also records Jesus’ explanation to the unbelieving Nazarenes why he would not do miracles among them, though they wanted him to (Luke 4:23-27).

Did the Nazarenes limit God and render Jesus incapable of doing miracles? Does unbelief limit God and restrain him from acting? It certainly didn’t in Egypt (Exodus 5:2). Who or what is limited by unbelief? And, in what way was Jesus not able?

A Statute of Limitations

Matthew, Mark, and Jesus’ words in Luke point to some limitation due to unbelief. If we look back in Mark, we find an explanation of unbelief being limiting. Faith, or belief, is the key to understanding parables and is put as having ears to hear (Mark 4:9). When Jesus explained the parables for the disciples, he explained how those who have (ears to hear/faith) will receive more, and those who have not (ears to hear/faith) will not receive more. In fact, those who do not have faith will have what they have received taken from them (Mark 4:10-12, 24-25). That’s the limitation of unbelief. It limits what those who are unbelieving receive. If we consider various accounts of miracles, Jesus emphasized faith was the key for them to receive (Mark 2:5; 4:40; 5:34, 36). Unbelief constrains us. It limits us and what we can receive. It does not limit God’s ability nor render Jesus incapable (Luke 17:11-19).

The text in Mark said Jesus was unable. In what way was Jesus unable to perform miracles? Jesus was not limited in power and he demonstrated that on many more occasions than we have record of (John 21:25). In Mark’s Gospel, he had just raised a girl from the dead. He had the power. Jesus was not able to do mighty works in Nazareth, not because he did not have the power to do it, but because he did not have the will to do it.

Jesus expressed his sovereign will, the will of the Father, in healing a leper in Mark 1:40-41. Mark repeatedly demonstrates Jesus acting according to will and not the dictates or limitations of men. He spoke words of command to wind, water, demons, disease, and death, and all obeyed. He healed whom he willed to heal and even in the calling of his apostles, he demonstrated his sovereign choice to call whom he would. He was not at the disposal of the clamoring crowds (Mark 1:35-38), but acted according to predetermined will.

He shows the signs of the kingdom to those who receive the kingdom in faith, not to those who unbelievingly clamor for a sign in Nazareth (Luke 4:23) or in Capernaum (John 6:26-27, 35-36). Those clamoring in Nazareth and Capernaum were not doubting the presence and power of miracles. However, they did not believe in the Messiah and thereby rejected his kingdom. They were part of an evil generation seeking a sign (Luke 11:29). Jesus reinforces this message in the synagogue in Nazareth when he describes God’s sovereign acts of miracles to Gentiles rather than Israel in the cases of Elijah and the widow of Sarepta and Elisha and Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:25-27).

Oh, the Irony!

It’s somewhat ironic that the only miracle he performed for the angry Nazarenes that day was passing through their midst without them being able to grab him. Something tells me they didn’t appreciate that sign though, the sign of Jesus departing.

Champurrado for Breakfast

As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.
~ Proverbs 26:11

A parable of legal marriage.

Esposita sat at her kitchen table with a small bowl of champurrado. She stared through the steam above it at the grain of the table beneath it. It had pits and marks, but they were only surface scars. The table was thick, heavy, and sturdy. Nomo had built this table. She could jump up and down on top of it and it would be unharmed, unmoved. She glanced around the kitchen and thought of how Nomo had built this house piece by piece. Every part of it was built by his hands or put there by them. How many times had he fixed that sink? Even the dingy yellow light bulb, embarrassed by the white sunlight flooding through the window, had been screwed into the socket by Nomo.

Nomo had been her husband for many years. Nomo was a nickname Normando had borne from his earliest days, after his parents finally named him. Nomo had selected a plot that was the highest spot in their mountaintop village. He cleared the land, dug the foundation, laid the pipes, and built his house. He was now ready to marry, and Esposita was the only girl in the world. She would be proud to have such a husband and live in such a house, which was the crown of the village and meticulously maintained.

Esposita remembered many good years. She had never lacked anything. She had material to make clothes. She had wheat to make bread. She had corn, beans, and rice. She had te de poleo and horchata. What more could a poor girl want? Sometimes Nomo would bring home chickens or goats and they would have delicious meat. She had never been hungry.

Nomo was always the same. She could not remember him ever laughing, though she tried to make him. He did not daydream with her or chat about nothing. Nomo spoke evenly of what was done and what was to be done. When villagers would ask Nomo how he was, he always responded, “Con vida.” If Esposita ever spoke of particularly enjoying anything, he would correct her. “We have life. It is enough.”

Esposita traced her finger around the rim of the bowl. The steam was barely there now. She and Nomo had champurrado their first morning as husband and wife. The smile she had been wearing was losing its fight and the corners of her mouth fell. Though she could not complain about what she received from Nomo, she always fell short of his expectations. She blew the steam and put both hands around the bowl. She had never given Nomo children. This was her greatest fault in Nomo’s eyes. It was a weight affixed between her should blades that made her begin to look like a swayback old burro that had borne too many heavy loads of bread to the market.

When Nomo died she had felt as though an internal knot had been untied. Not a knot, but the knot. The knot that held all the strands of her inner being together. Though her skeletal frame was as it was supposed to be, she felt floppy inside like a limp water hose with no water running through it. Her own death must be soon.

***

Espa, as she was now called, had first met Salvador at the market. All his friends called him Sali. She had set out that morning with no purpose. She would go to the market, but she had no money. She would not beg. She had never begged. She would not steal. She had never stolen. She wasn’t even particularly hungry. She could not explain why she went to the market. Espa would’ve said that she did not go to the market, but was rather brought to the market.

She came around a stall and ran into a mango. Well, she saw the mango first and then the hand that held it. She looked up into a youthful face with kind eyes and a wide smile. “Here, for you.” She did not speak. “I’m Sali. I want you to have this.”

Nothing had changed with Espa. “I … I have no money.”

Sali laughed. “I would not take it if you had it. This is for you.”

Espa took the mango. “Gracias.”

Marriage to Sali was like a dream. He was always happy and she enjoyed life more than she had ever imagined. Sali provided wonderful foods for her to make and she ate as she never had. Sali hired everything done. He hired men to build his house. He bought furniture and decorated their home with bright cheerful colors. He hired a woodworker to carve them a beautiful table that seemed always to have bread and wine on it.

Espa wasn’t sure how or when it happened, but one day she thought of Nomo. She had not thought about Nomo in many years. Thinking about Nomo began to work on her. She started making her own clothes again and left the fancy clothes Sali had bought in the closet untouched. She sought out simpler foods and made them smaller portions. She painted over the bright colors and had her old table brought in to replace the one Sali had hired out to have made. Piece by piece she remade her house until it was as close as possible to the one she had lived in for so many years.

One morning she awoke and Sali was not there. He did not come home until the next day. He would continue to leave and to be gone for longer times. After a while, Espa realized she had not seen Sali in a week, or a month. She couldn’t remember for sure how long it had been. She sat at her table with a bowl of champurrado and realized there were no signs that Sali had ever lived in this house. Everything reminded her of Nomo.

***

A rooster crowed. Espa sat up straight in the bed. It was still dark. The rooster crowed again. Her hair was stuck to her face and she was shivering. Is Sali gone forever? Will I never see him again? Why has he not come home? Why has he not contacted me? The longer she chased those thoughts the more she felt like something was pulling her together from inside her. Her breathing was faster and she had the heart of a rabbit. She ran to the streets calling for Sali. They were mostly empty. After a while, she began seeing people and pleading with them to tell her where Sali was. But they cursed her and pushed her away.

The rooster crowed and a bell rang. Not quite a bell, but a clanging that sounded like a bell. Was Sali at the door? “It’s dawn. It’s time.” She opened her eyes to look through bars at a brown face with a walrus mustache. His name was Severo.

“Where is Salvador?” Espa sat up in the cot.

Severo tilted his head. “Who?”

“Salvador. My husband.” Espa stood up.

“Salvador?” Severo spat on the ground. “There is no Salvador. You were married to Nomo. You killed him three months ago and today is your hanging.” Espa collapsed to the floor, choking and sobbing. “Your grave is ready. You will be buried with Nomo.” Severo set a bowl on the floor inside and closed the barred door. “Here’s your champurrado. I will be back in thirty minutes.”

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Half the Distance

Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law.
~ Psalm 119:136

A modern fable and the interpretation thereof

Theoretical physicist, Grayson Eccles, BS, MS, PhD, solely occupied a table for two at his favorite restaurant. At the late hour he preferred, the dining room was quiet and sparsely populated. He cut a portion from his filet mignon and winced at the clatter of plates and knives and forks, which interrupted his reverie. The diner opposite Eccles had a white-knuckle grip on the circular table in front of him with both hands. Eccles was mentally noting the diner’s pallor when commotion set to.

“We need a doctor!” Lots of people were rushing about and talking at once, but that cry at least was clear. If Eccles had not understood it, it was repeated sufficiently so he could make it out. “Hey!” Eccles turned his head as his waiter nearly perched on his left shoulder. “Aren’t you a doctor?” Eccles sighed. “I am not that kind of doctor.” The waiter moved closer, though Eccles didn’t think that was possible and concluded the waiter must be attempting to resolve the dichotomy paradox.

“I think this guy’s choking! Don’t you know the Heimlich?” Eccles thought about reaching for the glass of wine on his table, but rather drummed his fingers. “Sir, I am in the unbroken line of intellectual investigators traced back to the Copernican Revolution. If you wish to know about Descartes, Newton, Lagrange, or Einstein, I will happily oblige. If you’re trying to work out an understanding of thermodynamics, general or special relativity, or quantum mechanics, you could not apply to a better man for assistance. While Dr. Henry Heimlich was a commendable researcher and accomplished thoracic surgeon, I am not studied in his maneuver.”

A deathly still descended on the room. The waiter looked up at the victim, no longer struggling. EMTs poured through the doors and knew they were too late. They set about their solemn work. Eccles looked at the remains of his steak with pursed lips. He finished off his wine and sat the glass down. He glanced at his bill, mentally calculated 18%, laid down his cash, and left to go home. The waiter, as he later recounted the events of the evening, said Eccles went through door, putting on his hat, and muttering something about “half the distance.”

What meaneth this?

It is natural to be disgusted or angry with the Eccles character. How could he sit nearby, eating and drinking, while a man choked to death? How could he return home in his own cloud of abstract thought without being affected by what had just happened? It’s unthinkable, but do we well to be angry? In Eccles’ defense, he was a brilliant physicist. He was a man engaged daily in the great work of life. He had no medical training—not even a simple class in CPR. Staying consistent with the story, had he stood up and rushed over to the man, he would not have been able to save his life.

You recognize I have a point here. We can hardly fault the man for not saving someone’s life when it was not possible for him to do so. But…But, though he was not able to save the man had he tried, his indifference to the man’s suffering and death are inexcusable. Aside from the interruption from the waiter, his evening went on much the same it would have if the man had not choked. This is reprehensible. How could he simply not care?

Thou art the man

How can so many Christians be coldly indifferent to the condition of their lost family, friends, and neighbors? How can they go on about life while the lost are dying around them? Many Christians are scrupulous concerning abstract points of theology and distinctive doctrinal formulations, but are unmoved by the lost around them. We have all heard the excuses for indifference.

“I can’t save anybody. God does the saving.”
“No use pleading with sinners to come to Christ.”
“God’s going to save his elect regardless of what I do or don’t do.”
“Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine.”
“You will be eaten by cannibals!”

It is absolutely true that we cannot save anyone else. We cannot even save ourselves. However, to disobey the commands to evangelize and to be without compassion for the lost is to not follow or be like Jesus. Jesus was moved with compassion for the lost and wept over the lost (Mark 1:41; 6:34; Luke 7:12-13; 19:41-42). Paul was similarly moved concerning his lost kinsman (Romans 9:1-3; 10:1). Paul plead with sinners to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20). Even in the Old Testament we find a compassionate call to the lost (Isaiah 55:1-7; 65:2; Jeremiah 31:18-20). God has revealed himself as a God of wrath but also of mercy. Because he is so great in mercy, sinners are bid to come to him (Psalm 51:1; 130:7; 1 Timothy 1:15-16).

Do not blame doctrine for indifference. We could not produce a sounder theologian than Paul, or even Jesus himself, yet they both were moved with compassion toward the lost. Brother pastors and preachers, have we misplaced the emphases in our preaching such that we have lost Gospel-centeredness, and Christ-centeredness, producing a people with calloused indifference toward the lost and dying world? If so, we are actually leading people away from following Jesus and becoming more like Christ. Brothers, we must repent of such disobedience and misleading of God’s sheep and return to knowing nothing but Christ crucified and the preaching that manifests Christ in the sight of all (1 Corinthians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6).

May God break our hearts and loose our tears over those who go on in unbelief. Let us never sit coolly by, eating and drinking, while thinking abstractly with people dying around us. And as far as our moral fable is concerned, we have only covered half the distance.

Next Page »