|I preached a sermon this past Sunday (July 5) and just a few minutes before wrapping it up I mentioned that the miracles that Christ performed did not depend upon (as in could not be thwarted by) the faith of the ones who were receiving the miracle. I mentioned it in passing, and not really having enough clock left to dig into that, I underscored the notion by mentioning the various dead people whom the Lord raised, asking, "How much faith does a corpse have?". In this way I hoped to demonstrate from the absurdity of the premise that the faith required to perform a miracle rested in the one performing the miracle, and not the one receiving the benefits of the miracle.
In hindsight, given the thought didn't really add much to the sermon I was preaching, it would have been easier to bite my tongue and skip over the thought, given I didn't really have the time to park there and show from the scriptures why I believed that to be so.
But after I preached the message someone mentioned, intending to gently suggest a correction, that Jesus, in Mark 6, after coming to His home town of Nazareth, couldn't do many miracles there "because" they didn't have enough faith. This was mentioned in passing, and since it wasn't really something I thought would be productive to get into at the time, and again, since I wanted to study again this thought more thoroughly, in case I had indeed suggested something that was wrong, I chose to study the matter anew and this post is a summary of that subsequent effort.
The scriptures tell us that Jesus "...went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people." (Matthew 4:23). Consider also Luke 6:17-19, "Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place; and there was a large crowd of His disciples, and a great throng of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were being cured. And all the people were trying to touch Him, for power was coming from Him and healing them all."
From these two passages alone we see that Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, and that wherever he went, people sought Him out both to hear Him and again to be healed by Him. Consider also what we read in Matthew 8:14-17, "When Jesus came into Peter’s home, He saw his mother-in-law lying sick in bed with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her; and she got up and waited on Him. When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: He Himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases."
If a person was too weak to come for healing themselves, others brought them to Jesus, and Jesus healed them. Note in particular that Matthew tells us -why- Jesus was healing people: to fulfill the scriptures. Jesus cast out demons, raised the dead, opened the eyes of the blind, and healed the sick because these things proved Him to be the Messiah.
Recall the healing of the ten lepers? Only one of them, a Samaritan, turned round to give God glory for the healing. It may not be clear at first, but the more you look, the more obvious it becomes, that not everyone who was healed by Jesus possessed saving faith. Luke writes in Acts 10:37-38, "You yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him." God was with Jesus (in the person of the Holy Spirit), and through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus healed those who were oppressed by the devil (i.e. cast out demons etc.), but we see in John 6 that these crowds weren't hanging around Jesus because they were full of faith - they were rather hanging around Jesus to benefit from the miracles He was performing.
Wherever He went, crowds pressed in on Him, with one exception. When Jesus returned to His home town (Nazareth) it was no big deal.
That is perhaps the single most important thing we read in Mark 6:4 - that a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household. Recall how Christ's brothers mocked him when it was time to go up to Jerusalem for the feast of booths? Few things can paint the picture described hear with greater clarity. There were no crowds of people in Nazareth seeking to hear Jesus teach and coming to be healed. The main reason few people were healed on our Lord's return, is because so few of them came to be healed, or to hear him speak.
Why didn't they come to be healed or hear Jesus speak? Because it was Jesus - the kid who grew up next door. He was nothing special, certainly not a prophet, and not someone to go and listen to, or come to for healing. This unbelief on their part is the main reason so few were healed - and Jesus marveled at this.
So when we read the verse that follows this truth - that our Lord was not respected in his home town, and reason that few came out to be healed, and remember that wherever our Lord had gone previously all who came to Him (regardless of their faith) were being healed, and understand that few from Nazareth would have come out to see someone they had no respect for, we can understand that those few whom our Lord healed, were the few that had come out - and all of them were healed, as many as came.
The objection raised however, finds its greatest support in the nomenclature of the very next verse in Mark (6:5), where we read, "And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them." To be fair, the word translated here as "could do no" means just that in the Greek - it literally describes, an inability to do something. What it does not describe is why or how a thing is impossible.
In the immediate context, the reason it was impossible for the Lord to heal was because the people of his hometown were offended by him. They wanted to know where he got all this stuff from - wasn't he a local carpenter - the son of Joseph? Weren't his brothers and sisters among them in the very synagog that he was preaching in? They didn't believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and even the thought that He might be a prophet offended them. They rejected Him, and frankly, very few people are going to come to listen to a person they think is off their rocker, and fewer still will seek out such a one to be healed.
In other words, it was impossible for Jesus to heal, not because He was trying (and failing) to heal people who were coming to Him with insufficient faith, but rather very few were coming to Him, so that he could do no mighty works there. As many as came to him, were healed. Those who did not come, were not healed.
The alternative is a picture of crowds coming to Jesus from Nazareth, and Jesus attempting to heal them, in the same way He had always (successfully) healed -everyone else- who had come to Him for healing in the past, but suddenly finding himself "unable" to do so. The picture of our Lord laying His hands on the sick, the blind, the demon possessed, etc. and saying, something like, "be healed." only to fail - that is what we are talking about.
Now, there is room also in the nomenclature used by Mark. The phrase he uses is used elsewhere in scripture idiomatically to describe, not so much literal "inability" but rather a figurative one. Consider 1 John 3:9, "No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he -cannot- sin, because he is born of God." - is John saying that once you become a Christian it will be impossible for you to sin? Obviously not, or no one could claim to be a Christian.
The use of the phrase is obviously idiomatic, what John is saying is that the reason a Christian begins to overcome sin is because the Holy Spirit within Him desires it, and eventually the believer, will choose not to sin. They won't be perfect in their obedience, but as they learn to walk in the Spirit and mortify the deeds of the body, they will no longer pursue rebellion against God's rule in their life with unmitigated vigor. God will work in them, to will and to do, what He desires, over and against what they desire.
The point is that even if we ignore the context of Mark 6:5, we still wouldn't necessarily conclude that Jesus was being thwarted in His attempts to heal, on account of an abundance of insufficient faith unique to the city of Nazareth. Rather we'd say that Jesus responded to their unbelief by choosing not to do mighty works among them, that is, we'd understand "could not" in the idiomatic sense of "would not" do many mighty works, etc.
One might object at this point: What about the "littleness of their faith" we read about in Matthew 17? The reason the disciples couldn't cast out a demon was because they didn't have enough faith. isn't Mark 6 just another example of this same thing?
That's a fair question. In Matthew 17:20, the word translated as "littleness" (NASB) is used only once in the New Testament - and the nuance isn't necessarily describing physical size - it can describe littleness in terms of quality as well as quantity.
In other words, it may be that the reason they couldn't cast out the demon was because they didn't have "enough" faith, or it could also be true that the faith that they did have was either flawed or being used in the wrong way.
Faith isn't a commodity, it is a settled certainty: a trust that one has in something. In 1 John 2:12-14, we see three levels of trust described - the first is those who can trust that God is their father, the second are those who know the word of God and therefore cannot be lied to by the devil about what God has and has not said, the third are those who have come to know God personally through living in obedience, and seeing the reality of God in their lives through the answered prayers, and rich communion associated with living as a mature believer. Remember that the same Peter who had been daily with Christ for over three years, denied him three times on the night of His arrest, later stood up on the day of Pentecost and preached Christ from the rooftop, and when brought before the Sanhedrin, did not shrink back from putting the guilt of what they had done, at their doorstep. It wasn't that Peter had "more" faith, it was that his faith had grown ("up").
You may disagree with that. You may say that isn't what it means to grow in faith, but I think that is exactly what the scriptures teach. Consider what our Lord said concerning the mulberry bush in Luke 17:6: If his disciples had had the faith of a mustard seed they could have ordered a nearby mulberry bush to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea.
Don't miss this: the reason the Lord chose a mustard seed was not because mustard seeds hold faith - but because he wanted to figuratively illustrate the notion of having the smallest amount of faith possible. The message was that if you have -any faith at all-, you can do the impossible. The problem wasn't that they didn't have enough faith - it was that their faith wasn't perfected, it wasn't mature, it wasn't complete - it wasn't resting on all that it could be resting on. They believed as much as they had been told, but they hadn't been told it all yet. They didn't know, as they would know, that Christ was God, they didn't know how the coming of the Holy Spirit was going to inaugurate a new kingdom - not an earthly one, but a spiritual one, etc. etc. Their faith was fine, it just wasn't full (yet).
In other words, it wasn't the quantity of their faith that was their problem, but the "quality" of their faith. It's the same as Matthew 17:20 - their faith was too little in the sense that it was too immature.
So I would answer the objection by saying that the littleness of their faith isn't describing a lack of faith, but a lack of maturity. If you're tracking with me, you've probably already wondered, why am I bothering to answer such an objection, when we have an example in the scripture of the Lord healing with no difficulty or problem, the son of a man whose faith was lacking ("I believe, help my unbelief!"). Jesus didn't balk at his unbelief, nor was the power to heal thwarted by it.
The man's son was healed, lickety-split. That ought to be enough to convince any honest reader, that miracles do not depend upon the faith of the one receiving the miracle, but rather on the one performing it.
I believe that God -can- heal today, but I do not believe that God is -obligated- to heal, even if we really, really -believe- that He will do so. In other words, I believe that the reason people are not healed when we pray for their healing, is not because their faith is insufficient - or that our faith is (necessarily) insufficient, but rather that it isn't God's will to heal. Paul asked the Lord to take away the thorn in his side, and God's answer was a qualified, "No" ("My grace is sufficient for you"). Paul had raised the dead, and healed the sick, and in Acts 19:11-12, even handkerchiefs and aprons that had been touched by Paul were carried away to heal the sick and drive out demons! Yet when Timothy had a stomach ailment, Paul did not tell Timothy to rub the letter Paul had written on his ailing belly to have it be healed - Paul rather told Timothy to take a little wine in his water.
I remember when I first became a believer, I wondered why I wasn't able to do all the miracles I had read about in the bible. Wasn't I a genuine believer?!?
The truth is that very few people in the bible actually did miracles, and when a miracle happened, it was rare and wondrous, and served the purpose of authenticating both the message and the messenger of God. I don't believe that God is obligated to heal anyone - regardless of how much faith they have, or how earnestly they ask Him. Frankly, the notion that God is obligated by our faith to give us all that we need to live long and healthy lives suggests that the Apostles got it all wrong - since they all suffered much for the gospel.
I don't think -they- got it wrong though, if anything, I think -we- are inclined to get it wrong, which is why we need to know and trust the scriptures on such matters. Doing so will inform our faith, and keep us from pursuing (however well meaning our pursuit may be) all kinds of error.
So I stand behind the notion that our Lord was by no means thwarted by the quality or quantity of faith found in those He would have otherwise healed. He never failed to heal anyone He attempted to heal - and never could have failed because His faith was perfect. Furthermore, because He was not acting according to His own desires but was rather doing all that He did in obedience to God's will, it follows that He would only have attempted to heal people whom God directed Him to heal (since it was God in the person of the Holy Spirit performing the miracles through Him at the time).
If God were limited by our unbelief, God would not be able to save anyone, since the bible tells us plainly (Romans 3 for instance) that no one is seeking God. How can anyone seek God unless God (as our Lord says in John 6) draws them to Himself. God isn't drawing faithful people to Himself, because He tells us that there are no faithful people. It follows therefore that the only way for a sinner to come to God is for God to draw that sinner - and if that is the case (and I very much believe that scripture teaches that it is), then if God were thwarted by our unbelief, He would not be able to draw anyone to Himself.
The conclusion I come to then, makes sense in the context, and makes sense of the rest of the scriptures, the conclusion I dismiss is the one that wreaks havoc with the context, and makes a farce of the remainder of the scriptures: Our Lord was not, and could not be, thwarted in what He was doing, by the lack of faith in the people who would receive the benefits of what He had endeavored to do. Furthermore, I think the reason why "healing-on-demand" fails is not because the one being healed doesn't have enough faith - I think it doesn't work because God is trying (and failing) to heal those people, rather people are trying to cause God to perform through themselves, and blaming the the faith of those that would have received healing, for mankind's inability to command God to do their will on demand.
I believe that God can and does miracles - but He is never obligated to do so, and no man has the power in himself to call such miracles down and expect God to comply simply because they really, really believe God will. That isn't faith, that's positive thinking. The earnest prayer of a righteous man avails much (but not all), and frankly a genuinely righteous man desires to serve God, and not to have God serve him via providing healing on demand.