Why Jesus Couldn’t Do Miracles in His Hometown

The lack of signs and wonders in Nazareth says more about Jesus than about people’s lack of faith.
Why Jesus Couldn’t Do Miracles in His Hometown
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Painting by Nicolas Colombel

Off the shores of the Philippines, a fisherman discovered a very large, misshapen pearl. It was not pretty. It looked more like an amoeba, with blobs and folds everywhere. He took the unusual find home and stowed it under his bed.

When he moved ten years later, he had no use for it, so he gave it to the local tourism office. It turned out to be the world’s largest pearl, with an estimated worth of roughly $100 million.

It’s easy to miss the value of something when it bears no resemblance to what we were thinking. Scripture tells us that the good news of the kingdom is like a priceless pearl (Matt. 13:45). But what if it doesn’t look like any pearl we’ve ever seen?

There’s a story in the gospels about a time in Jesus’ ministry when he returned to his boyhood stomping grounds of Nazareth. The reception was less than stellar, because he didn’t look like the hope anyone expected.

There’s no place like home

Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples visited his hometown on a Sabbath. He went into the synagogue and started teaching in a way that stunned his listeners. People were shocked that this man they had known since childhood had the audacity to say the things he did, as if he had the authority and credentials to do so. It was offensive.

That reception impacted Christ’s work outside the synagogue:

He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:5–6)

It’s a little jarring to read that Jesus was unable to perform any miracles that day. What happened? At face value, it sounds as if the people’s lack of faith was his kryptonite, as if it weakened him or robbed him of his power. The incident reads like a sad footnote to a day gone wrong, where Christ couldn’t do what he really wanted to do. Here is a cautionary tale against the dangers of unbelief.

Granted, faith is essential to the Christian life (Heb. 11:6). It’s difficult to receive anything from Christ if we don’t believe he can offer it in the first place. But is that all there is to this story? Is this nothing more than a warning about what happens when faith is subpar? If so, the unbelief of the people of Nazareth (or us) replaces Christ as the main character.

In the play Peter Pan, there’s a moment where audience members must clap their hands if they believe in fairies so that Tinkerbell will live. Her very existence hinges on the volume of the applause.

We can adopt a similar attitude toward Jesus, making his strength dependent on the strength of our faith. We become preoccupied with the sufficiency of our own belief, agonizing over the question: Do we have enough faith to make miracles happen? It puts Christ at the mercy of our commitment to him. And our unease increases as we step up the pressure to generate our own adequacy.

It is a subtle yet dangerous shift in our focus. As author Bryan Chapell puts it in his book The Gospel According to Daniel: A Christ-Centered Approach, when we are in that place, “Our faith is not so much in God as it is in the amount of belief we have conjured up to control him.”

In the very first verse of his gospel, Mark makes it clear that his writing has one theme: “Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Every line supports his contention that Jesus is the Messiah. The author stays singularly on topic throughout the entire book.

That includes this passage. Despite appearances, it is not primarily about followers and their role in making miracles happen: It’s about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And it is about his strength—not his weakness.

When Mark says Jesus “could not” perform any mighty works there, he isn’t suggesting the Lord was incapacitated in some way. As New Testament scholar William Lane makes clear in his commentary on Mark, the “could not” is one of principle more than power. Working miracles in the absence of faith was impossible because it would have directly contradicted Christ’s message.

No need for approval

In fact, Christ’s choice to do nothing in this story embodies a bigger truth. Instead of indicating failure, his inactivity told the world exactly who had arrived. Theologian P. T. Forsyth in The Cruciality of the Cross alludes to how the silence of Christ speaks volumes about his work. Similarly, the very lack of a dramatic display in Nazareth becomes a revelation of Jesus’ character.

Think for a moment about the people of Nazareth. They could not bring themselves to accept Jesus as the Son of God. The whole notion of him being special was offensive. It did not fit their understanding of the world.

And why would it? Important people have money. They have good looks, the right schooling, impressive resumes, connections to other influential individuals. Jesus was just a local boy no different than anyone else who had a sketchy origin story and a blue-collar skill set. Humanly speaking, he didn’t have the credentials to merit paying him much attention. Isaiah had spoken to this fact centuries earlier: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him ... and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:2–3).

In the face of that skepticism and outright hostility, Jesus chose not to do miracles. If I were in his shoes, I think I would have gone the opposite direction. Given my tendency to want everyone’s approval and acceptance, I would have thought, “Here’s an opportunity to win these people over. I must give them what they want. They don’t believe now, but if I do something impressive, it will convince them once and for all that I really am the Son of God.”

Praise God that Christ does not share my insecurity. People were always asking him for a sign, some evidence of his claims. It took tremendous inner strength to not act in an effort to prove himself. That strength came from being firmly grounded in the love and delight of his Father (Mark 1:11). His was the only assessment that counted, and he was thoroughly pleased with his Son before he had even begun his public ministry.

That unshakable love was the foundation that freed Christ from the compulsion to scramble after the crowd’s approval. He could stay focused on his singular mission without getting caught in the trap of satisfying everyone’s expectations. He came to save, not to sell.

Foreshadowing temptation

It is easy to convince ourselves that making the best impression on people is what will most serve the gospel. Our rationale is that the better we package the message, the more attractive Christ will be.

Yet our motivation for wanting to be spectacular can often be traced back to fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of being misunderstood. Fear of not being enough. When those anxieties sit behind our efforts, we’re no longer living out of the reality that God loves us beyond measure and nothing can snatch us out of his hand.

Christ’s willingness to suffer the misunderstanding and rejection of his own people is not just some unfortunate byproduct of a day that should have gone differently. It is him revealing his character in a manner that far exceeded any validation he could offer through a miraculous display. Here is the Son of God, suffering injustice and bearing iniquity without defending himself. Here is the Lord of heaven willingly embracing helplessness. And we catch a glimpse of the Lamb who stood silent before his shearers (Isa. 53:7).

The temptation to be impressive in his hometown foreshadowed the temptation Christ faced during his trial and crucifixion. From Pilate to the priests to the disciples, everyone assumed that the best thing Jesus could do was to help himself not be crucified. That seemed like the obvious choice for anybody with the power at their disposal that Jesus claimed to have.

The religious leaders looked at him hanging on the cross and verbalized it directly: “Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:32).

Yet if he had listened to their logic and used their criteria for attempting to prove himself—miraculously getting down from the cross—he would have undermined the very core of his mission and disproved himself instead. The true demonstration of his power was the opposite of what everyone was wanting from him. He showed his strength by doing nothing, by staying right there on the cross. And it was his death, not a remarkable escape, that caused the centurion to say, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).

Every miracle a gift

Kosuke Koyama wrote in Three Mile an Hour God, “Jesus Christ came. He walked towards the ‘full stop’. He lost his mobility. He was nailed down. … At this point of ‘full stop’, the apostolic church proclaims that the love of God to man is ultimately and fully revealed.”

We speak frequently of being crucified with Christ. What if this is what it looks like? Doing nothing and embracing our powerlessness. Not explaining or defending or proving ourselves. Being brought to a full stop where, as Brené Brown puts it, you “get clear on whose opinions of you matter.”

I don’t much like getting to full stop. When I reach the point of utter fatigue in ministry. When I am unfairly treated. When I am helpless to create change. It feels wrong. Where’s the victory? Where is the one who is fully capable of taking our breath away?

In the absence of miracles, a greater wonder emerges: a Savior who transforms my suffering by staying with me through it. Instead of bending to my demands for proof of his power, he enters the vacancies in far more redemptive ways.

I want to have a big faith that looks expectantly for the wine-making, disease-curing, water-walking Jesus. I want to live like everything is possible for the one who believes (Mark 9:23).

But it is good to know that Christ’s work is not all depending on me. His hands are not tied by disbelief. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Tim. 2:13). He is present in the silence of non-answers, true to himself regardless of my fluctuating trust.

Every magnificent miracle he graces us with is a gift worthy of celebration. May he also give us eyes to see and trust that even his inaction—maybe especially his inaction—reflects his full stop on the cross. Because it is only his acceptance of the grave that brings us the hope of the resurrection, the best miracle of all.

Jeff Peabody is a writer and senior pastor of New Day Church in Northeast Tacoma, Washington.

June
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