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.

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.

The Sky is Not Empty

Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain. ~ Psalm 104:2

Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain. ~ Psalm 104:2

God is in Heaven, and that’s good for us.

Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God thou art very great; thou are clothed with honour and majesty.
– Psalm 104:1

Like the Bible in Genesis 1, Psalm 104 starts with the reality of God. There is no proof, defense, explanation, or justification–God is. He revealed himself to Moses as the “I am” (Exodus 3:14). He explained himself as “I am that I am”–unlike any other. He is self-existent, uncreated, and unending.

He revealed himself to the prophet Isaiah as unlike any other (Isaiah 42:8; 48:11). The Book of Isaiah reveals a God of majesty and power. He is the one who stretched out the heavens like a curtain and measured the oceans in His hand. His judgments are fierce and His wisdom silences all. Though He thunders, He also gathers His people as little lambs and carries them in His arms. He comforts them as a mother comforts her small child. He also atones for the sins of His people through the offering of His suffering servant and He pardons and washes as white as snow.

God is revealing himself and inviting us to know Him. God is there and He is not silent.

How does God reveal himself?

He reveals himself in His creation (Psalm 19:1-6) and in His word (Psalm 19:7-11). Psalm 104:1-35 shows how the order and constancy of life and the world testify of God. All of His works reflect His glory. He reveals himself specially in His word and in His Son (Hebrews 1:1-3; John 1:1-18). Only through His Son, Jesus, can we know God savingly (Matthew 11:27).

What is revealed of God?

God reveals himself to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. He reveals that He is the creator and sustainer of the universe. He is supremely sovereign. He is supremely holy. He is supremely knowing and wise. He is supremely righteous. He is supremely just. He is supremely true. He is supremely loving.

God is God. He is self-existent. He is alone worthy of praise and worship. He is greater and higher than all His creation.

How do we get it wrong?

God is the greatest reality. He is ultimate reality. He has revealed himself but we fail when we don’t acknowledge Him or we distort His reality. The Bible identifies at least six worldviews that fail because they are wrong about God.

  1. The fool thinks there is no God (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). He makes man the highest being and survival-of-the-fittest is his ethos. The fool thinks that whatever he has the power to do, he can do. There is no fearful looking for judgment with him, because there is no one to judge.
  2. The rich, worldly man doesn’t think of God (James 4:13-17). God may be there, or He may not be there to the worldly minded. It doesn’t matter to him, because he takes no account of God in his daily life.
  3. Pharaoh thinks God has no right or authority over him (Exodus 5:2). He judges the truth of God’s claims and can receive or refuse at his own discretion. He is deluded into thinking he can mediate his own reality. He was postmodern before it was cool. The man-on-the-street way of saying it is, “That may be true or right for you, but it is not true for me.”
  4. The wicked think that God is like them or like a man (Psalm 50:16-23). God may object to their thoughts and ways, but He can do nothing but thunder in the distance. If He objected to them, He should have spoken or forever hold His peace.
  5. Nebuchadnezzar thought that God was beside him (Daniel 4:29-37). He thought he could make his own way and maybe even that God owed him prosperity. He was an early prosperity preacher who made God a means to an end in order to get a little more comfort during his vaporous appearance on earth.
  6. False professors think God is their imaginary god (Matthew 7:21-23). They live their lives using God’s name, but they have actually put God’s name on the craft of their own minds and ultimately do not know Him at all.

We don’t overstate the case to say that knowing God is a life-and-death reality. God’s existence is the greatest truth, greatest reality there is. We come now to our last question.

How is God’s existence good for us?

If God is who He says He is and who He shows himself to be, how is that good for us? Or, what are we profited by it? God’s existence is good for believers and unbelievers. Let me explain.

Good for believers

God being there for believers means that daily you have answers to the questions of life. It doesn’t mean that you know everything, but you can know some things for certain. Being a believer means that God has specially revealed himself to you and you know truth that the greatest human mind cannot find out on its own.

God’s existence means you have purpose and meaning to life. You’re not left to drift and wander aimlessly. You have no need to question why you exist or futilely pursue fulfillment.You are set to pursue His righteousness and His kingdom. You have a purpose.

You can make some sense of suffering because God is there. You don’t know how it all works together or why one thing comes to one and not another. You know suffering isn’t pointless.

You have comfort for the sorrow of death. Death is a painful separation and a reminder of frailty. In death, you do have hope, though it is washed with tears.

You have forgiveness and cleansing from sin. Apart from God there is no atonement and no covering righteousness. Though you fail everyday, the blood of Jesus Christ washes your sins white as snow.

You have help. You are not alone, though there be no human beside you. You do not have to live and do of your own strength or wisdom.

You have guidance. Life can be a confusing maze at times and our way is one of the easiest things to lose. You have sure counsel from God.

You have hope. Everyday you live a life filled with hope. You have something to live for and something to die for. You have something to look forward to that outweighs all grief and pain now.

Good for unbelievers

It might seem odd to suggest that God’s existence is good for unbelievers because that means their condemnation is sure. Many deny His existence rather than face such reality. However, if you are not a believer, I’m glad you are reading this and I assure you God’s existence is good for you.

God’s existence means there is ultimate meaning to life. If there is no God, then all is random, chaotic, and meaningless. I know you are taught that continually but no one lives their life consistently with that view. You probably show kindness to others and care deeply about social justice. You likely want to help the hurting and relieve as much suffering as you can. If life was truly random and meaningless, why would you do any of those things? God’s existence is the foundation for all good things and makes life meaningful.

God’s existence assures you of personal worth and dignity because you are created in the image of God. The questions: Who am I? Why am I here?, have answers because God exists. You are a living soul worth more than the whole world (Matthew 16:26). You are not a waste nor an accident. You have been fearfully and wonderfully made by a wise and loving creator.

God’s existence means that God himself and truth can be known. You are not left to wander in a void. You are not left to doubt and fear with no comfort or sure knowledge. God can be known because He has given you witness of himself.

God’s existence means you can have eternal life. You can live forever in a new heaven and a new earth where sin will never enter and all is true, good, and beautiful.

God is there. God is not silent. God is good for us. Look to His creation. Look to His word. Look to His Son.

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