The Mission in the Face of Unbelief (Mark 6:1-13)

245 years ago shortly after midnight a young man rode his horse furiously from one small town to another, warning the villagers and townsfolk of the coming invasion. Because of this young man’s diligence and perseverance, weapon stores were reallocated, and butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers transformed themselves into armed militiamen. As the brisk morning sun rose over Lexington, MA, a troop of seven-hundred British regulars came upon seventy American minuteman. No one is certain who fired first, but the “shot heard around the world” was fired and a melee broke out, leaving eight Americans dead before they retreated before the large British army. The Revolutionary War for the independence of the thirteen American colonies had begun. Britain, the most powerful empire in the world with the best trained army and supreme navy, would bring all of its awesome might and power against a rag-tag band of rebel farmers, acting as soldiers. The chance of an American victory seemed nearly impossible. And yet, victory was attained—but was by no means ever certain.

David McCullough, the great popular historian in his book 1776 writes, “The war was a longer, far more arduous, and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate. By the time it ended, it had taken the lives of an estimated 25,000 Americans, or roughly 1 percent of the population. In percentage of lives lost, it was the most costly war in American history, except for the Civil War. The year 1776, celebrated as the birth year of the nation and for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was for those who carried the fight for independence forward a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, as they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too they would never forget. Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning—how often circumstance, storms, contrary winds, the oddities of strengths of individual character had made the difference—the outcome seemed little short of a miracle,” (p. 294).

The Revolutionary War was a war of the underdog; one side lacked the training, resources, and experience the other had, and yet miraculously won. And friends, today we will look at a similar battle where ill-equipped, unprepared disciples are thrust into a task that far surpasses their capacities. But we aren’t talking about a battle of nations, but a battle of spiritual powers, a struggle for people’s eternal destinies, and, in particular, what happens to Jesus and His disciples in the face of unbelief. Turn with me now to our text in Mark 6:1-13,

He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief. 

And he went about among the villages teaching. 

Jesus Sends Out the Twelve Apostles

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10 And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. 

In this passage we are told of Jesus’ arrival in His hometown, Nazareth. Jesus has been away from home for a considerable amount of time—we would presume since He first encounters John the Baptist back in Mark 1:9. In the meantime, Jesus has become extremely popular, widely regarded as a powerful teacher, a worker of miracles, and an exorcist of unclean spirits. Despite opposition from a small group of people, the majority, “the crowds,” who have encountered Jesus’ teaching and works have been left in wonder and amazement. Certainly here, in Jesus’ own hometown, the village where Jesus has spent the majority of His life—decades—we would expect them to welcome their hometown celebrity with excitement and joy. And there is a wonder and astonishment at Jesus, but it is not the wonder of belief, but the astonishment of offense and rejection.

After this rejection, we are told of Jesus commissioning the twelve to go out, two by two, on a “mission trip” of sorts. They are given authority over “unclean spirits” and go out proclaiming the message of the gospel and healing the sick. However, Jesus prepares them for this mission in an unusual manner. He gives them scant resources, tells them to bank on other people’s hospitality, and to plan on being rejected. An odd way to motivate a team, wouldn’t you say?

In these two stories we see what happens with the mission of Jesus in the face of unbelief through the ministry of Jesus and through the ministry of His disciples. 

Jesus in the Face of Unbelief

Jesus arrives in His hometown on the Sabbath and, as was His custom (Mark 1:21), He enters the synagogue and begins teaching (Mark 6:1-2a). The hearers are shocked at (1) the wisdom of Jesus, (2) the power of His miracles, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?” (Mark 6:2). But, they are not shocked by the teaching and miracles in themselves; rather, they are shocked that they are coming from Jesus—a man who they have been around since He was a kid, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us? And they took offense at him,” (Mark 6:3). Jesus’ neighbors, the whole village, are scandalized by Jesus: Who does this kid think he is? Seems like he has grown too big for his britches. Why are you walking around, talking like you are some rabbi or scholar—we know you! We know you didn’t go to school—you’re a carpenter, for crying out loud! Drop the act, Jesus. 

If a person was travelling around teaching at schools, speaking at conferences, leading workshops today, and you found out that he had no credentials—didn’t go to college, didn’t go to seminary, didn’t have a Ph.D., you would become highly skeptical of this person’s teaching. The same was true in Jesus’ day. Common rabbinic practices of Jesus’ day required aspiring teachers to first apprentice themselves under another rabbi for a period of years before he could be considered a rabbi (teacher) himself. Jesus had no formal training, but simply studied Scripture Himself and claimed to be taught by His heavenly Father. In the gospel of John, at a certain Jewish festival, we are told, “About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching. The Jews therefore marveled, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me,” John 7:14-16

Jesus did not have a framed slip of paper validating his ivy league credentials, but He nevertheless spoke boldly, with authority, often contradicting all the other credentialed, apprenticed teachers of His day (Mark 1:22). I have never been to medical school, but if I walked around and began dispersing medical advice like I was an expert and disregarded the surgeon general’s advice, people would likely be skeptical and slow to listen to me. But, Jesus explained that He didn’t need rabbinic training to be taught or for people to take His teaching seriously. Rather, He simply explained, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority,” John 7:17. If you truly are a disciple, if you are a child of God, you will listen to Jesus—but, of course, His hometown doesn’t. And Jesus marvels at their unbelief (Mark 6:6) and is unable to perform any mighty work there, save for a few (Mark 6:5).

This is surprising. You would think that if Jesus had a base of support anywhere, it would be in His own hometown. They had all spent far more time with Jesus than any of the disciples certainly had. Yet, Jesus explains that, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household,” Mark 6:4. Jesus, the perfect human being and the best teacher of the gospel who has ever lived, sometimes, struck out—people didn’t listen to Him.

Application:

Jesus was a Human Being

We have already seen in Mark that Jesus’ own family thinks that He is out of His mind (Mark 3:21). This would lead us to assume that Jesus’ childhood and upbringing must have been rather mundane. There are a handful of counterfeit stories that were made early in the church that describe what Jesus’ childhood was like, picturing him working miracles as a young boy. These are all works of fiction that sometimes dupe people into thinking they are really just “lost gospel accounts.” If Jesus was raising people from the dead or turning pieces of clay into birds (two actual claims from these pseudo-gospels), then His village certainly wouldn’t be flabbergasted by Jesus’ miraculous works, “How are such mighty works done by his hands?” Rather, it is precisely the fact that Jesus seemed just like any other Jewish kid growing up—taking on His father’s trade, playing around with brothers and sisters—that made it so difficult for the other villagers to believe Him. Jesus didn’t walk around floating a couple of inches off the ground or have golden beams radiating from His face. He was, in a sense, a regular human being, complete with a bellybutton, fingernails, and who worked a job that would leave him sweaty and tired. And it was this ordinary person who one day started saying, “I am the Son of God,” and then suddenly started healing diseases and raising people from the dead just by speaking words. 

Listen to the Word, Wherever it Comes From

The villagers couldn’t overcome the contempt that familiarity had bred in them. They, in one sense, acknowledge that Jesus’ teaching is full of wisdom—so much so that they are astonished by it! But they can’t get over the messenger of the wisdom. This is Jesus! We remember when you were just toddling around here, playing games with the other kids, learning how to swing a hammer. But their failure to take the messenger seriously was a fatal mistake. Friends, the lesson for us is to then be receptive listeners to God’s Word, wherever it may come from. Remember, Jesus explained that if you desire to do God’s will, you will hear His word (John 7:17). Have you ever been tempted to dismiss what someone was saying just because of where they have come from, their age, or their experience? Or maybe because you just don’t like them? God’s Word often comes to us through people, which means we need to focus more on the message than the person. 1 Thessalonians 2:13 is speaking specifically about the preaching of God’s Word, but applies to this as well, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers,” (see also 1 Pet 4:11). Do you have a willingness to focus more on the message than you do its carrier? 

Of course, the Bible specifies qualifications for those who want to preach God’s Word (1 Tim 3:1-7); if I were to be discovered that I was hiding an affair or embezzling money from the church, then I would be disqualified from preaching and you shouldn’t listen to me. That isn’t what I am talking about—I am talking about the unwillingness to listen to someone because they don’t look, sound, or seem like someone who should be taken seriously. I think this has a particular application for families. Parents, have you have you ever experienced a time where you have told your teenager something a thousand times over, and they just don’t listen to you, but then someone else can say the exact same thing and, what do you know, your teenager will listen to it! Children, teenagers especially, heed your parents instruction; don’t dismiss it just because it came from mom and dad. Spouses, do you have a heart that is receptive to the words of our husband or wife? Or do you just roll your eyes and dismiss what they have to say? Church members, do you take the words of each other seriously as you “speak the truth to one another in love,” (Eph 4:15)? Do you listen to your pastors seriously as those who are charged with the oversight of your souls and who will give an account to God for their ministry to you (Heb 13:17)? 

This is hardest to do when hearing words of criticism. Jesus’ message He was preaching was a message of repentance (Mark 1:14-15), it was something that was telling His fellow villagers that was wrong in their life and needed to change. And their response wasn’t to consider Jesus’ call, it was to immediately criticize the messenger. And we are so quick to do the same thing when our friends, our parents, our pastors, or our spouses point out something wrong in our life. We have a little attorney pop in our head that gives us all the reasons why we don’t need to actually listen to this criticism. But guys, come on, are we really so well put together and so awesome that we don’t have anything that needs to change in our life? What if, when we are being criticized and that little attorney pops up, our impulse was to pray: God, please help me listen to this without self-righteousness, without trying to squirm my way out of it. If there is anything in this I need to hear, help me hear it. And even if the person criticizing us is only right about 10% of the things they are claiming (which is rare) we will be able to listen to that 10% and, by God’s grace, change. Be careful of dismissing a message because of the messenger–remember Balaam’s donkey (Num 22:21-39).

Disciples in the Face of Unbelief

Jesus, after being rejected at Nazareth, then sends out the twelve “two by two” Mark 6:7. The description of their mission almost exactly mirrors what has defined Jesus’ mission thus far: preaching repentance (Mark 1:15), casting out demons (1:39), and healing the sick (1:34) (cf. Mark 6:12-13). But Jesus gives them some unusual instructions about what they are to bring and how they should conduct themselves. First, “He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics,” Mark 6:8. Why does Jesus send them out with such scant resources? It could be that Jesus is wanting to invoke the story of the Passover, where homes are told to eat their meals with belts on, sandals worn, and staffs in hand so that they can leave in haste after the Passover meal (Ex 12:11), thus Jesus was wanting to reinforce that His disciples are carrying out the work of a new Exodus. Or, it simply could mean that Jesus is wanting them to rely on God’s provision in their mission, made primarily through the hospitality that will be shown to them in v. 10, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there.” Or, it could be a mixture of both.

But Jesus prepares them for what to do when they are rejected, “And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them,” Mark 6:11. The disciples just saw Jesus be rejected in His hometown, and now He tells them, “Get ready to be rejected as well!” Jesus later explains to His disciples, “A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you,” John 15:20. What does it mean to “shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them”? It was a common Jewish practice of the time to shake the dust off your sandals after you had been walking in Gentile areas as a way to remove the “unclean” dirt from your feet and not bring it into the “clean” area of the Jews. This means that for the disciples to shake the dust off of their feet in Jewish villages would be basically saying, “You are now unclean because you have rejected the Messiah and His gospel.” This would have been scandalous to Jews, but salvation is not determined by your ethnicity, but by your reception of the gospel (Rom 9:6). 

Application:

Expect rejection

I think one of the most deflating experiences to our evangelism is rejection. This is an impossible scenario, but imagine that one day one of your friends gets a phone call from the government, “Hello Mr. Smith, we made a mistake with the stimulus checks we were sending out and we sent you ten times as much money as we should have. But, because of bureaucratic red tape, we can’t fix it or take it back, so if you want it you can have the extra money.” Do you know anyone who would say no to that? I don’t. But, if the government called you and told you the same thing, but said, “For you to receive this money you have to promise never to read your Bible, go to church, or pray ever again.” What would you say? Not a chance! It’s not even a question. Why? Because, as Christians we have experienced the glory and beauty of the gospel, we know that God’s law is more to be desired than gold and sweeter than honey (Ps 19:10), we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, we know the joy of the forgiveness of our sins, and the unbreakable hope of an eternity that awaits us—that is all worth infinitely more than all the money on the planet! It isn’t even worth comparing—why on earth would I trade invincible, eternal joy for cheap, temporary, moth-eaten dollars? Who wants to play in the mud when they could be enjoying a holiday by the sea?

So, we see the beauty and glory of the gospel—but, for so many of our unbelieving friends and family, they don’t. $120,000 dollars seems like it is much better, much more enjoyable than reading some old book, going to a church, or talking to God. They are blind to the beauty. “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” 2 Cor 4:4.

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” 1 Cor 1:18.

So, as you share the gospel with your neighbors, your friends, your family members, the person you bump into, don’t be surprised when you are rejected. When I was in seminary I drove for Uber for a time to make some extra money and I would have dozens and dozens of conversations with people about the gospel, and I cannot tell you exactly how many, but I know the majority of them ended in the person rejecting what I was saying. But that shouldn’t surprise us. Remember, Jesus was rejected by people. The greatest teacher, the most loving, kind, compassionate, bold, and excellent evangelist who has ever walked the earth was turned down by many people. And, He tells His disciples to plan on being rejected. So when you share the gospel and it feels like nothing was heard, don’t be discouraged, friends! That is just par for the course. And this leads us to our next point.

Don’t Give Up

Did you notice after Jesus is rejected in Nazareth we are immediately told, “And he went about among the villages teaching,” Mark 6:6. Of all the instructions Jesus gives His disciples, He spends the most time to talk about them being rejected, but He still sends them out. Christian, your faithfulness in evangelism is not riding on the outcome of each encounter, but is riding on your Lord who commands you to go and make disciples and to be with you in it all (Matt 28:18-20). Our confidence in the effectiveness of our evangelism ultimately is not riding on our charisma or track record of conversions—we cannot open the eyes of the blind, but our God can. Paul, after explaining that the minds of unbelievers has been blinded by Satan in 2 Corinthians 4:4, nevertheless explains that in the face of such powerful unbelief, he will continue to preach the gospel (2 Cor 4:5) because, “God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” 2 Cor 4:6. The same God who made light out of nothing in Genesis 1 and overcame the darkness can do the same miracle in the hearts of unbelievers and overcome their blindness—and we know He can do this because that’s what He did for us. Salvation, friends, is God’s work—He sovereignly saves, He overcomes belief, He opens the eyes of the blind, He gives life where there once was only death—in God there is an infinite treasure of power and resources that can overcome any obstacle to the gospel. So we are bold in our evangelism, God can overcome any unbelief like *that*–do we know when that happens? No. Are we promised that we always get to see the results? No. Will we sometimes fail? Yes. But we do not give up—God is jealous for His glory to be seen and savored by all peoples, so we indiscriminately litter the world with the proclamation of the gospel and trust in His sovereign hand to bring the growth.

So, friend. Do you feel like a lousy evangelist? Do you feel like you lack the knowledge, or the charisma needed to be an evangelist? Take heart. God saves. And friends, remember—Jesus sent out the disciples who were full of unbelief, doubt, and ignorance (Mark 4:40). The disciples get it wrong so often in the gospels that you would think it would be surprising that Jesus sends them out as His representatives here. But send them out He does. One commentator explains, “The sending of reluctant and timorous disciples into mission is, on the face of it, completely mistaken. Uncomprehending and ill-prepared disciples, nevertheless, typify believers in every age and place who are sent out by the Lord of the harvest. No matter how much exegesis, theology, and counseling one has studied, one is never “prepared for ministry.” A genuine call to ministry always calls us to that for which we are not adequately prepared. It is only in awareness of such that the Christian experiences the presence and promise of Jesus Christ, and learns to depend not on human capabilities but on the one who calls and in the power of the proclamation to authenticate itself,” James Edwards, PNTC, pp. 182-83.

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