Pastor Scott L. Harris
November 28, 1993
The Tragedy of Unbelief
How important is what you believe? Does it really make that much difference? We have a tendency to diminish the importance of what we believe, because often we view beliefs as the equivalent of opinions, and everyone has an opinion, and everyone’s opinions are just as good and important as everyone else’s. Isn’t that the “American way?” Or at least that is how it is often presented by those who want to reduce your opinion and belief to relative unimportance.
But the reality of the matter is that not all opinions are equal. Some opinions are based on truth, and therefore have a valid standing, while others are based on lies and distortions, and therefore do not have a valid standing. Let me state this another way. People are free to believe whatever they want, but they are not free to determine the consequences of their beliefs. If you believe a lie, if you are mislead by someone else’s deceit, if you just misunderstand, regardless of how sincere you were in your beliefs, you will still have to deal with the results of whatever decisions you made. The same thing is true if someone tells you the truth and you do not believe them. There are consequences to the things you believe and do not believe.
That concept is not hard to illustrate. Many people voted for President Clinton because they believed his political rhetoric. Now they are finding out the truth about him and what his policies really are, and not only they, but all of us, have to deal with the consequences of how they voted. It is not hard to be fooled into believing the lie – especially when you would like it to be true.
Another illustration – you’re walking through the woods and come to a bridge that crosses over the stream. Next to the bridge are two signs. One says that your destination is on the other side of the river, and the other sign tells you about the history of the bridge, when it was built, who built it, etc. and that though it is old, it is safe to use. There is another bridge two miles upstream. You look at the bridge and see that it is old; it has loose boards and some missing boards. You now have to make a decision. If you do not believe the sign and head for the other bridge, you have a four mile detour ahead of you. However, if you believe the sign, but the bridge is not safe, you could end up all wet. What will you do? You will do what you believe to be true and bear the consequences of your decision.
Now, why all this talk about beliefs and opinions and consequences? Simply because there are consequences to what you believe about Jesus Christ and this morning’s text points out the consequences of refusing to believe the truth. There is great tragedy in unbelief.
Turn to Matthew 13:53 as we conclude our study of this chapter. This section, as well as the next couple of chapters, is a vivid example of the truths that Jesus taught in the parables of Matthew 13. In the parable of the sower, we found that some of the seed of the gospel landed alongside the road where those who heard did not understand it and what was sown was quickly snatched away by the evil one. Other seed fell on rocky soil, and after quickly sprouting, it died. (See: The Parable of the Sower) The end of this chapter describes just such examples.
Matthew 13:53 says, “And it came about that when Jesus had finished these parables, he departed from there.” Remember that Jesus had begun to teach in parables for the express purpose of revealing truth to His followers while hiding those same truths from His enemies. The Scribes and Pharisees here had accused Jesus of doing His miracles by the power of Satan. Jesus had strongly rebuked them, even declaring that such an accusation, since it was made against the work and witness of the Holy Spirit, left them without hope of redemption. (See: The Unforgivable Sin, Exposing The Heart & What Sign Are You Looking For?) Jesus then begins His series of parables. Jesus has now finished His discourse of parables, and as the text says, He departs from there.
Woes on Capernaum
The “there” is the area of Capernaum, a city where Jesus had done many great miracles. In fact, Matthew 11:20 tells that Jesus had done most of His miracles in this region. Yet now we find that though there had been an initial response that was very favorable to Jesus and His teachings, that was now past. The people enjoyed the show, but they refused the message. Even those that were favorable to Jesus bowed before the religious leaders and were hesitant to declare their thoughts about Jesus in a positive manner (Matthew 12:23). Those in Capernaum proved to be like the rocky soil and the soil full of weeds in the parable. They heard and received the message, but then quickly died or were choked out by other concerns.
Jesus reproached Capernaum in Matthew 11:23, 24 saying, “And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”
Jesus had in effect pronounced a curse on Capernaum, and when He left there, that city’s doom was confirmed. Jesus occasionally passed through the city again on His way to somewhere else, but He never ministered there in the same way again. Jesus had demonstrated in that city power that could have only come from God, but while some marveled and some criticized, only a few believed. A few centuries later the city would fall into ruin – even as it is for the most part today. Archaeological excavations show that the town had enjoyed a period of worldly prosperity, but along with that came increasing pagan influence. The last synagogue built in Capernaum, which was built over the site of the one in which Jesus had taught, was decorated with various animals and mythological characters demonstrating that in rejecting the one true God, they had fallen into worship of false ones.
For Capernaum, what they failed to believe and what they believed instead sealed their doom.
Rejected by His Hometown
Our text says that Jesus departed from there, and in verse 54, “coming to His home town He began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they became astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom, and these miraculous powers?”
Jesus departed from Capernaum and returned to His home town of Nazareth. This was the second time he had been there since He had started His public ministry. The first time is recorded in Luke 4. Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist, had spent forty days in the wilderness of Judea where He had been unsuccessfully tempted by the devil, had begun preaching, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and had had his conversation with the woman at the well as He went through Samaria. In Luke 4:14 we find that Jesus had returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit and had begun teaching in the Synagogues.
In Matthew 13:16 we find that Jesus had returned to “Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, ‘THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT OF THE BLIND TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE DOWN-TRODDEN, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.’ and He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all the synagogue were upon Him.”
Let me comment here that the normal practice was to read the Scriptures while standing and then to sit down to give the interpretation so that there would be no impression given that the comments were equal to the Scriptures. Here we find Jesus doing just that and now everyone is waiting for His interpretation.
Matthew 13:21. “And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”
Jesus was the local boy who made good. They were proud of Him, they expected the fame Jesus was gaining would result in prestige for their community, but they did not expect Jesus to bring His message or repentance to them. But the message of the gospel is the same for everyone and Jesus began to expose their sin as He revealed their acclaim for Him was not based in their belief in Him.
Matthew 13:23, “And He said to them, ‘No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your home town as well.'” And He said, ‘Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his home town. But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
The people wanted a demonstration of miracles just as He had done in other places. When instead, they received a rebuke that there would be no miracles given and that a believing gentile is nearer to God than an unbelieving Jew. They became infuriated. “And all in the Synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; and they rose up and cast Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff.”
The exposure of their sinful hearts filled them with hate and they tried to kill Jesus then and there, but Jesus passed through their midst and went to Capernaum (verse 30, 31).
What occurs here in Matthew 13 is a repeat of what had happened earlier in His first return to Nazareth. The only difference is that now Jesus has done even more miracles, many of them done in the towns and cities around Nazareth. Jesus comes and is teaching in the synagogue again. They are astonished at His wisdom and miraculous powers (verse 54), yet they still do not believe what was obvious. They question where Jesus learned these things and gained these powers.
Now, the fact they questioned this should put to rest the myths that have developed about Jesus doing miracles while a child growing up in Nazareth. If those myths were true, then they would not be astonished here when He does them as a grown man.
Matthew 13:55, 56 continues their questioning saying, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”
The mentioning of Jesus’ siblings by name should put to rest the Roman Catholic heresy that Mary remained a virgin even after she gave birth to Jesus. Here we find that Joseph and Mary had normal marital relations after Jesus’ birth and they had at least four more sons and two daughters. While Mary is honored as being blessed with the privilege of being Jesus’ mother, she was and is a normal human with a sinful nature in need of a savior. Mary was blessed because that savior is the child born of her womb, but that child, Jesus, is God in human flesh, and the birth was the miracle of God. Mary is not the mother – as in progenerator – of God, she has no special power and she is not to be worshiped or venerated.
Why did they bring up the subject of Jesus’ family? Because it lays the foundation of why they were astonished and why they questioned where Jesus had gained His power and teaching ability. Jesus had grown up in their midst. They knew Him as child and a young man. They knew He did not have formal religious training like the Rabbis – so how could He teach like He does? They had not seen Him do miracles when He was living in Nazareth – so where did this power come from?
Matthew 13:57 tells us that the people of Nazareth “took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his home town, and in his own household.” They were offended in the sense of stumbling over His claims.
Jesus had emptied Himself of certain of His divine prerogatives when He became a man Philippians 2:7 tells us. Although He was sinless and morally perfect every minute of His life, His perfection was not the sort that set Him apart as strange or bizarre in calling attention to Himself. To the people of Nazareth, Jesus was just a carpenter that used to live there and the son of a carpenter whose family still lived there.
It can be hard for those who have watched a child grow up to accept that person later as a public official or community leader. They may be Mr. so and so to everyone else, but to you they are still little Johnny, or Andy, or Davy, or whatever nickname they were called. They say it takes a hundred miles to make an expert, i.e., a local person is not an expert until they go somewhere a hundred miles or more away. A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown. I may be Pastor Harris to you, but to my family I am still Scotty.
It was partly because of this familiarity with Jesus and His commonness that caused them to take offense and stumble making it difficult for them to believe He was a great human teacher, much less the long awaited Messiah. At the same time though, if anyone should have believed Jesus’ claims, it should have been them. They knew Him well and knew by experience that He was truthful and did not lie. They knew that He had no formal religious training, so what He was teaching and the authority He had in teaching could only have come from God. They knew Him as a pious man from His consistent involvement so they should have known that His power to do miracles had to have come from God. Their familiarity was their excuse, but it was an irrelevant excuse.
Their familiarity should have made them pay even more attention to what Jesus was teaching. They heard, but did not believe. Their familiarity should have made them even more thoughtful of His miracles. They saw and heard, but they did not believe.
The Tragedy of Unbelief
How many today also use irrelevant excuses? Throughout history there have been many people like those in Nazareth who find all manner of excuses to justify their rejection of the gospel – that Jesus Christ is the only way to find forgiveness for sin and favor with God. They find fault with everyone and everything but themselves. They did not like the attitude of the person who witnessed to them. They think the preacher is too loud, or too soft, or too long, or too short, or too pedantic, or too causal. They do not like his suit or the way he combs his hair. The church services are too formal or too informal. They have too many hymns or too many choruses. They keep the building too warm or too cold. They say that church people are hypocrites and don’t live perfect lives. If the people in the church are affluent, they must not be godly or they would be more helpful to the poor. If the people in the church have tight finances, then they cannot be godly or He would have “blessed” them more. They are offended at the slightest thing a Christian may do and then make the insignificant their key reason for not becoming a Christian. They find excuse after excuse to discount Christianity and use a variety of smoke screens to hide the real reason for their unwillingness to believe the clear and demanding claims and promises of Christ.
Unbelief shifts attention away from the truth to the insignificant and trivial as a means of escape or self-justification. The person truly seeking the truth may have many questions they want answered before committing themselves to Jesus, but the sincerity of their desire is the diligence by which they seek to have those questions answered and accept the truth when it is explained. Each answered question takes them farther along in their quest for truth. The person controlled by unbelief scoffs at the answers to his questions and he brings up even more objections.
I do not know what may be holding some of you back, but you need to confront these issues directly. If you are honestly searching for the truth and have questions, then by all means ask those questions and diligently seek out the answers. Ask those questions of your Christian friends. If they do not know the answer, then the challenge will be good for them to find out the answer, or call me. I am usually at the office or the house, but one of the reasons I am here is to help you find answers to your questions.
However, if you are not really interested in the truth then be honest with yourself. You’re certainly welcome to continue attending here, but I do not know why you would. We are committed to declaring the Word of God as plainly and clearly as we can. We want you to know and live according to the truth. But the Scriptures also warn us that to whom much is given, much is required. If you are coming from some perverse desire to prove your intellectual ability to explain away what you hear here or find excuses to discount what is presented, then be warned that you are only bringing more condemnation upon yourself. You hear the truth about Jesus Christ here and when you stand before God you are going to be held responsible for it. Don’t come here to play games, you are hearing the truth, what will you do with it?
Matthew 13:58 tells us that Jesus “did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.” Mark 6:5 adds that, “He could do no miracles there except that He laid His hands upon a few sick people and healed them.” There was unbelief of the miracles God could have done there. Why? Not because God can only do miracles when His power is released by faith as some erroneously teach. God can do anything He wants anytime He wants anyplace He wants regardless of who is present and what they believe. God is not limited by man in any way. The reason is simply that God does not exist for the pleasure of man. The opposite is true. Man exists for God. Jesus would not perform miracles to entertain or satisfy ungodly curiosity. Jesus rebuked the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 12:38 telling them that, “an evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign . . . “ Jesus performed miracles in accordance with the Old Testament prophecies, and thus demonstrating that He was indeed the Messiah, and Jesus performed miracles to strengthen the faith of those who did believe in Him. It was His choice not to do them to satisfy the desire of those whose hearts were hard and were willfully unbelieving. The result was that Jesus did few miracles in Nazareth because of their unbelief.
But you know there is a principle here that is still in effect. How much does your unbelief hinder the work that God desires to do in you and through you? Let me give you a few quick examples? Last week we talked about being thankful in the midst of every circumstance. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 even tells us “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you.” We saw that this was really possible if we kept God and His promises in mind. How has that worked out in your life? May I suggest that is unbelief that brings complaining and despair?
God’s promise is that if we seek His kingdom and righteousness first, He will supply us with our physical needs (Matthew 6:33). When we believe Him and act according to His promise, we see Him supply our needs (not our wants, but our needs) often in very unexpected ways and we rejoice. When we do not believe Him and seek our own kingdom first, we are left to our own devices. Our real needs are not met, and even material prosperity becomes hollow. We chase after happiness and never catch it which leaves us in despair, complaining, and possibly even depression.
Another example. Scripture tells us husbands to love our wives the same way Christ loved the church, which is committed self-sacrificial love of action. Wives are told to respect their husbands and encourage them by their chaste and respectful behavior. When both marriage partners believe and pursue God’s pattern for marriage, then problems can be worked out in a godly manner and joy can reign in the home. When God’s directives are discounted and His commands are disobeyed, then they are left to their own devices. She is often manipulating him to get what she wants, and him responding out of a desire to keep the peace rather than out of love. He neglects her and pursues his own interest, and she either responds in fear and tries to hold onto him tighter or becomes indifferent and develops her own interests to pursue resulting in them living together, but separate lives.
Examples abound. When we believe God and follow through on His commands and directives, we gain His blessings. When we are controlled by our unbelief, we are left to ourselves and His blessings are withheld.
The evidence before those in Nazareth was clear and overwhelming. Jesus is the Messiah. But the evidence was unimportant to them for they were controlled by their sinful hearts of unbelief. What about you? We have presented the evidence here over and over again. Jesus is God in Human flesh who lived a sinless life, died in our place on the cross of Calvary as the substitute for our sins, then He was raised from the dead on the third day. He offers forgiveness to all who ask and will place their faith in Him alone. What is holding you back from either coming to Christ for salvation or living for Him as you should? If there are unanswered questions, then get them answered. If it is unbelief, then repent, confess the sin, and ask the Holy Spirit to help you believe and seek after God. Otherwise your unbelief will keep you separated from God and will ultimately destroy your life. It is your decision, what will you do?
(If you would like to receive Pastor Harris’ weekly sermons via e-mail, Click here)
For comments, please e-mail Church office