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.

John 7:43

“So there was a division among the people because of him.”
~ John 7:43

What are we to do with Jesus? This was the question that troubled many in Christ’s day. In the time of our text, many said of Him, “Of a truth this is the Prophet. Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee?” (John 7:40-41). They first sought to understand or define who Jesus was and, though they were not agreed about who He was, they next had to figure out what to do with Him. “And some of them would have taken him; but no man laid hands on him” (John 7:44). On both accounts, “there was a division among the people because of him.” Regardless of the diverse opinions of the people, one thing was clear—they could not ignore Him.

The division over Jesus was not limited to a few crusty old Jewish theologians. The questions about Jesus touched the whole community—the poor, the rich, the sick, the healthy, the powerful, and the oppressed. None were spared from facing this question. Everywhere He went the common people would flock to Him and this drew criticisms from the upper class, “Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). So, wherever He went, “there was a division among the people because of him.”

The division over Jesus was not limited to His own public life. After His ascension, His church began to spread throughout the known world, taking the message of Jesus with them. Not surprisingly, they found “there was a division among the people because of him.” Paul told the Corinthians, “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Paul explained the division of the people: “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22). Even then, there were also those who were called who found Jesus “the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24).

It is amazing to think that the Jews could not find signs sufficient enough in Christ. Had there ever lived a man who did the quantity and quality of miracles that Christ did. With only a portion of His career available to us today, we certainly could not find any to compare to Him. John wrote in his Gospel, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). The world could not contain the books that would be required to record the things He did and yet “the Jews require a sign.”

It is also amazing to think that the Greeks could not find sufficient wisdom in Jesus Christ—“the Ancient of day” (Daniel 9:7). On many occasions, the people were put to amazement when they heard Him speak. “The people were astonished at his doctrine” (Matthew 28:8). “And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth” (Luke 4:22). “Then said some of them of Jerusalem, Is not this he, whom they seek to kill? But, lo, he speaketh boldly, and they say nothing unto him. Do the rulers know indeed that this is the very Christ?” (John 7:25-26). “The officers answered, Never man spake like this man” (John 7:46). Christ testified of the queen of the south who “came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42). The world had never known greater wisdom than Jesus had. Jesus Christ possessed the deep riches of the wisdom of God and yet the Greeks rejected Him and sought “after wisdom.”

Evidently, the world at large fared no better in settling the question of Jesus in the first century than did those of Palestine during His life. Some would perhaps like to think that Jesus would receive a better hearing in the world today because we are more civil and progressive. However, even today, there is “division among the people because of him.” Jesus is no more receivable today than He has been throughout history.

Just as the Jews and Greeks of the first century, many modern people have not found what they would like in Jesus Christ. They just cannot make the Christ of God to fit in their mold and so, significant revision is needed before their minds will rest from the question. And, there is no end of liberal theologians and scholars who work tirelessly to revise and upgrade Jesus to suit the tastes of modern man.

No matter how hard you might try, you just cannot ignore Him. However, we do not define Jesus and we do not put Him into any sort of a mold. He defines us and puts us into His mold. “And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder” (Matthew 21:44).

The question of who Jesus is, is not decided, it is revealed: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God . . . flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-17). “No man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him” (Luke 10:22). “But when it pleased God . . . To reveal his Son in me” (Galatians 1:15-16).

The question of what to do with Jesus is not decided, it is commanded: “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:29). “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). “Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink” (John 7:37).

Mark 9:24

“And straightway the father of the child cried out,
and said with tears, Lord, I believe;
help thou mine unbelief.”

~ Mark 9:24

While Christ was away with Peter, James, and John, a man had come to his disciples with a great problem. His child was possessed with a devil from the time of his early childhood. It was a most sad case to the father who was powerless to help his son. He testified of his son’s condition saying, “And ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him.” He watched helplessly as the evil spirit tormented and tortured his son, not knowing what would become of him. Finally, having heard the fame of Jesus of Nazareth, he brought his child seeking help.

He petitioned the Lord’s disciples to help him. Moreover, try as they might, they could not rid the boy of the spirit. The disciples had at one time rejoiced saying, “Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name” (Luke 10:17). Now they were rendered impotent and could not prevail over this spirit. This must have plunged the poor man into despair. Of course, the scribes found perfect opportunity in this man’s misfortunes. They took interest in the disciple’s failure and sought occasion to win some points. They created quite a stir among the people. This man’s condition was worse now than before.

Jesus came on the scene seeing the clamor and desiring to know what the situation was. Notice that the disciples were not quick to confess their trouble. Having lost sight of Jesus for a short time, their fervor had cooled. Their own lack of faith became apparent. Christ told them, “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”

The boy’s father spread the matter before the Lord. Expressing his own hopelessness he said, “I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not.” Whatever reasons others had for being in the crowd, his agenda was clear. He was not hesitant to speak up when he thought that he might find mercy and grace to help in his time of need. Jesus sought the boy saying, “Bring him unto me.” “And they brought him unto him.” Years of grief, worry, and dismay had all led up to this moment.

It is hard to say what the man expected at this point. Whatever his expectation, I believe he was surprised by the Lord’s words to him. “Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth” (Mark 9:23). The words of Christ were a sharp sword that pierced him to his heart. He felt them a stinging rebuke, as is apparent in our text, for he “cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” Had he ever considered his unbelief as a contributor to his misery? Had he ever realized that his lack of faith had bound him in a prison of despair? Had he ever seen his own handicap by weak faith? He was driven to tearful repentance confessing his unbelief to Christ. Let us now briefly consider some possible points of unbelief with this man.

He may have thought his situation was too hard and beyond help. No one had suffered on the order of his sufferings. Long years he had battled to no avail and his son only grew worse. I imagine he had pursued many avenues of assistance. Perhaps he had brought the child to the Synagogue many times seeking help of the rulers. Perhaps he had even enlisted the expertise of physicians. Perhaps he had prayed and come to no improvement. He had exhausted family and friends looking for aid. He could have thought the sum of these things pronounced hopelessness upon his case. Now the fame of miracles and triumph in similar cases had introduced a small hope.

On the other hand, his despair may have passed to presumption. He had sought help at the hands of the disciples. He may have become over-confident thinking that there was no need to bother Jesus with his problems. His fellow man could supply the help he desired. The disciples could try another approach that had escaped him to this point. He was distressed when this last hope failed.

In all these things, we see a consistency of unbelief. All of his thoughts turn inward. His focus is on his own insufficiency and inability. He cries up his awful circumstance and laments his uselessness. All of his statements involve “if.” If only he were stronger. If only he were wiser.

However, for all this, he had never come so honestly before the Lord and aired his complaint. He labored. He was heavy-laden. Why had he not come to the Lord? Yet in an act of divine mercy, “When Jesus saw that the people came running together, he rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him, Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him. And the spirit cried, and rent him sore, and came out of him: and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said, He is dead. But Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose” (Mark 9:25-27). His burden was lifted.

We too must pray this prayer of repentance, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” Whether we face physical afflictions, temptations and trials, or a call to a greater field of service, we must confess our unbelief to the Lord and seek His help in overcoming. “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).

Unbelief is debilitating. When we focus on our own weakness, we are trapped and are the same as the man with one talent that buried it in the napkin. If we believe the promises of God, then we will focus upon the Lord Jesus Christ. “Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart. Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:4-5). Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13).

Let us look to the Lord and resolve to do as Asa of old who prayed, “LORD, it is nothing with thee to help, whether with many, or with them that have no power: help us, O LORD our God; for we rest on thee, and in thy name we go against this multitude. O LORD, thou art our God; let not man prevail against thee” (2 Chronicles 2:14). Let us seek to exalt and glorify Jesus Christ with our lives and lean wholly upon Him. I believe then we will accomplish much in the cause of His kingdom.

Next Page »