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.