When the people in Jesus’ hometown did not welcome Him, Christ was astonished at their hardness of heart. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his sermon series in the gospel of Mark, summoning us to consider the state of our own hearts before the Lord.
We’re going to continue our study of the Gospel According to Mark. As I look at the prescribed reading for the day, I think it is too ambitious, so I’m going to restrict myself to reading just the first six verses of the sixth chapter of Mark. If God grants me more time than I need for these six verses, then we’ll go beyond that, but for now, I’m going to read Mark 6:1–6 and ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Then He went out from there and came to His own country, and His disciples followed Him. And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue. And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, “Where did this Man get these things? And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands! Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” So they were offended at Him.
But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.” Now 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. Then He went about the villages in a circuit, teaching.
He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let them hear. Please be seated.
Now, O Lord, by Your mercy and grace, by Your Holy Spirit and His illumination of His Word, we pray that this morning we may be, in a sense, transported to Nazareth, that we may observe the homecoming of our Lord, and that You, O Holy Spirit, would apply to our own hearts the conviction that the people of Jesus’ town did not have and did not feel, and that by no means would Jesus ever be a stumbling block to us. We ask these things in His name. Amen.
Home to Nazareth
So far, all this time that we have been spending observing the public ministry of Jesus has been primarily focused on or around the immediate region of the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum. Now, the location for Jesus’ ministry shifts, as He moves away from Capernaum and Galilee and goes home. He comes back to Nazareth, which is about twenty-five miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum. He comes not to the city of his birth, but to the village where He grew up, which was an obscure village that didn’t even have a Christian church in it until the fourth century, under the reign of Constantine in the Roman Empire.
Excavations have gone down to the base rock of Nazareth and discovered that there were many caves in those rocks and that the people of Nazareth built their village out of a rocky hillside in an area that covered sixty acres. The whole town was sixty acres. Less than five hundred people lived there. Of course, having grown up in such a small village, Jesus knew everyone in town. If you want to imagine the size of Nazareth, this property where our church is located is just about six acres. The whole town of Nazareth was only about ten times larger than our church property. But Jesus made the journey, and His disciples went with Him.
Astonishment with a Twist
We read in verse 2 that when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue, and many of the people were astonished. That’s a word that reaches the very top of the frequency list of Greek words that are found in the New Testament. According to the writers of the Gospels, everywhere Jesus went, His teaching, His power, and His miracles provoked a response of astonishment. The people were amazed at the wisdom and power of Jesus. There was a little twist of this astonishment that occurred in Nazareth, however, as well as astonishment that Jesus Himself experienced.
What surprised the people of Nazareth was that Jesus of Nazareth was going into the synagogue and teaching like a rabbi, and with Him were these students who followed Him everywhere He went. They knew Jesus. They knew He didn’t go to seminary. They knew He didn’t go to the university. They knew He didn’t study under the great rabbis of the day. For all intents and purposes, they knew that Jesus was not qualified to be a teacher and a rabbi. Because He lacked the credentials, they were shocked that He would enter into the synagogue and begin teaching. But then they listened, and they were astonished again because they couldn’t get over His wisdom and profundity in what He was teaching. They didn’t understand that this was the Word of God incarnate Himself who was teaching. He didn’t need a degree from Gamaliel to be an expert in theology.
They were also amazed about the reports of the deeds that had been performed by Jesus, so they asked this question: “Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” They were offended at Him, and there’s a lot in this question.
Let’s look at the first part of the question: “Is this not the carpenter?” It doesn’t say, “Is this not the son of the carpenter, Joseph?” Rather, they knew Jesus as a carpenter.
The Greek word here, tektōn, means “carpenter” or “stonemason.” It has reference to somebody who is involved in the craft of building. It’s very possible that, instead of a being carpenter who worked with wood, Jesus was more like a stonemason. That could give some reason for the strength He obviously developed as a young man. In all probability, He worked both with wood and stone, as builders in this day were people who would make yoke for oxen, and cabinets, and so on. From the Greek word tektōn comes the English word architect, which simply means “chief builder.” Jesus was known as that lad who grew up in this village and worked as a builder. In the ancient world, builders did not have a lot of prestige. They were not of a high status. Carpenters were considered menial laborers, so the people looked at Jesus and said, “What’s He doing—a carpenter—teaching in the synagogue?”
There is another nuance in this part of the question that I don’t want to pass over too quickly. When Jesus was a young man, after Herod the Great died, Herod Antipas inherited a portion of the kingdom of Herod the Great and became the tetrarch of Galilee. He wanted to build a city where his palace would be housed, which would then become the regional capital of Galilee. He built this city just four miles north of Nazareth. The historians tell us that he hired craftsmen and laborers from all around the district to help him build his capital city. We don’t know this for sure, but it’s possible that those who were hired by Herod Antipas included Joseph and Jesus. Nazareth is just four miles away. If artisans from the region were hired, and certainly Jesus and Joseph were included in that group of artisans, then it’s possible that they participated in this as well.
The Son of Mary?
Notice something strange here: “Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary?” These are questions that strongly suggest ridicule. We know that legally speaking among the Jews, Jesus was the son of Joseph. So, why did they say, “Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary?”
They did not ask this question because they were enamored by the virgin mother. This wasn’t some thinly veiled testimony to the virgin birth or an attempt to exalt the status of the mother. No, in almost every single case, the Jews would name men according to their relationship to their father, not to their mother. Even if Joseph was dead by now, the custom would still be to call Jesus the son of Joseph, but instead they call Him the son of Mary. The best guess we have to explain this is that they still believed that Jesus was an illegitimate son and that Mary had this baby out of wedlock: “Isn’t He that carpenter who was the son of that woman? We know that family. He’s the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, and are not His sisters with us?”
Some people jump through hoops with this text. Those who believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary argue that these brothers and sisters must have been children of Joseph by a previous marriage. However, no such import anywhere in history that would indicate that to be true. Some say that they were cousins, arguing that the Greek word for brothers and sisters can be translated as cousins. That is not normally the case, because there is a specific word for cousin in the Greek language. You would have to have a theological bias to try to force this idea. The text is clear: Jesus had brothers and sisters.
What is so amazing about the testimony of the New Testament is that His brothers and sisters were unbelievers. We know that James later became a believer, after the resurrection. He became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and the author of the book of James that we have in the New Testament. At this period in time when Jesus came to Nazareth, however, not only were the townspeople unbelievers, but his brothers and sisters were unbelievers. By this point, Joseph was likely dead and the only believer in Jesus’ household was His mother.
Jesus, the Scandalous One
The townspeople came to the synagogue and said: “Who is this guy? He’s a carpenter. He’s the illegitimate son of Mary. We know His family. We know His brothers. We know His sisters.” It says that they were “offended” at Him. The Greek word there is a form of the verb skandalizō, from which the noun is skandalon, which comes over into the English language as the word scandal. These people were scandalized by Jesus. They were profoundly offended. They did not want any identification with Him because He embarrassed them and He shamed them.
Let’s stop for a second. Does Christ serve as a skandalon for you? Are you embarrassed by Him? Are you a “secret service” Christian, where you don’t want anybody to know your real identity because being identified with Him is an embarrassment, or shameful, or a scandal?
The word skandalon was also used for the concept of the building stone that was rejected (1 Pet. 2:7–8). When builders selected stones to be used in the construction of a building, they examined the quality of the stones and the strength of the stones, just as Michelangelo used to go to the quarries in Italy to choose the very best marble for his statues. Sometimes Michelangelo would find flaws and cracks in the Carrara marble, and he would reject the piece. So, in the ancient world, when the builder would go out and choose the materials for his construction, if he found flaws or cracks in the stone, he would reject it.
The New Testament makes much of this idea in the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah (Ps. 118:22). That stone which the builders rejected became the chief cornerstone of the building of God (1 Pet. 2:7). In the building image, it’s the prophets and the Apostles who are called the “foundation” for the church. There is no other foundation that can be laid except the one which is laid in Christ Jesus. But Jesus Himself is not the foundation; He’s the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). Even as the cornerstone, He’s also the skandalon. He’s the disgraced One. He’s the One who was ashamed, who was rejected by His own people, by His family, by the townsmen, and by the nation of Israel. The One whom God appointed to be the cornerstone of His building was considered to be flawed and repulsive by His contemporaries. The same word is used in our text to describe the revulsion that the people of Nazareth felt with respect to Him.
Jesus knew what was going on, so He said to them, borrowing an ancient Semitic adage, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, except among his own relatives, except in his own house.”
A Prophet in His Hometown
I can’t imagine what going home was like for Jesus. I know what it’s like for me when I go back to my hometown and I see the people I grew up with. They can’t believe I’m a minister. They can’t wait to say: “We knew you back when—How in the world did you ever become a minister? If the board who ordained you would have inquired of us, you wouldn’t have had a chance to be ordained to the ministry.” I know what that’s like.
Just this past week, I was in Louisville. While I was there, I remembered years ago how Muhammad Ali was first named Cassius Clay. He used to give these outrageous poems in which he would predict the outcome of his next victory, and say, as Cassius Clay, “I am the greatest.” Because of his braggadocio, he was nicknamed “The Louisville Lip” by sports journalists. That was not a very good reflection on the town of Louisville many years ago, before Muhammad Ali became the heavyweight champion of the world. Because of that, I couldn’t get over it when I came into Louisville and saw Muhammad Ali Avenue, and the Muhammad Ali Center, and the Muhammad Ali Building. Now, the whole town gives honor to Muhammad Ali—but there was a time when he was an embarrassment to them.
There is a reason why this ancient adage that every prophet experienced the same thing emerged in the lore of the people. And Jesus said, “A prophet is never without honor except in his own country, in his own family, and in his own house.”
“Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them.” Let’s unpack that for just a second. It wasn’t because Jesus suddenly lost all His power when He went to Nazareth. It wasn’t that He lost all of His power in that healing of the woman with the hemorrhage so that the power went out of Him and didn’t come back. It’s not as though Jesus suddenly became incapable of manifesting this miraculous power that was so characteristic of His ministry. Rather, the circumstances by which God the Holy Spirit would unleash that power were not available because there was a judgment of God on this town of Nazareth. For the most part, God withheld His power from this stiff-necked people who held Jesus in contempt.
We are told that Jesus was amazed. He was astonished at the unbelief of these people. It seems strange to me that Jesus would be surprised by unbelief, because He had to deal with it every day of His life. It’s not that He was surprised they were unbelievers. Rather, He was surprised at the depth of their callousness. With unbelief comes hostility. Those who did not believe in Christ soon grew to hate Him.
The Reason for Unbelief
Why didn’t the people of Nazareth believe? Was it because they saw Jesus working with His hands? Was it because they knew His mother? Was it because they knew His brothers and sisters? Was it because they knew He didn’t study under a well-known rabbi? No. They didn’t believe in Jesus for the same reason your next-door neighbor doesn’t believe in Jesus. They didn’t believe in Jesus because God the Holy Spirit had not invaded their hearts, opened their eyes, and regenerated their souls. Unless God the Holy Spirit opens the eyes and hearts of sinful human flesh, no one will truly come to Him. Before the Holy Ghost opened your eyes and invaded your heart, Jesus was a stumbling block to you. You rejected Him as strongly as these people from Nazareth.
We are surrounded in this world by people who want nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say to me, “Preacher, I don’t need Jesus.” I can’t think of any more foolish statement a human being could ever make than to assess their circumstances and say: “I need this. I need that. I want this. I want that—but one thing I don’t need is Jesus.”
There are probably people sitting in this room right now who have said that. Perhaps they are still saying it, and they’ve been dragged to church this morning by their spouse, or for some other reason they are here, but their hearts are still far from Him. I say to you, there is nothing on this earth that you need more desperately than Jesus, because if you don’t have Jesus, you have no hope in this life or in the world to come. Let me say it again: if you don’t have Jesus, you have no hope. You’re in a hopeless condition. Frankly, my heart breaks for you if you don’t have Jesus.
The Great Danger
Recently, I was with the president of a Baptist theological seminary, and he had just been on a television program. The interviewer was pouring out hostility on him and saying to him, “You’re one of those radical, right-wing Christians, aren’t you?” And he responded, “I guess some people consider me that, but I think of myself as an orthodox Christian.” We were talking about this, and I said to him, “Isn’t it something that the press today cannot mention evangelical Christians without affixing that prefix, ‘radical, right-wing’ Christian?” If you are a Christian, you’re right-wing. If you’re right-wing, you’re a radical.
I was on a phone interview with a radio station just last week, and somebody asked me, “What is a hyper-Calvinist?” I responded, “A hyper-Calvinist is an orthodox Calvinist being described by an Arminian.” That’s the way people are. They want to distance themselves as far as they can from any identification with Christ, or from anybody whose name is not in high regard.
There’s a great danger here, folks. These people had the Lord of glory in their midst during His childhood. They had the theotokos, the mother of the One who was God incarnate, in their midst for over three decades, and all they saw was the offense.
So, I ask you this morning: What is it about Jesus that offends you? What is it about God that offends you? The great danger, dearly beloved, is that God is offended by you and that Christ will be offended by you. All who trip over the skandalon, the scandal of Christ, will have His offense on them. Let us learn from these people. Let’s pray.
Our Father and our God, forbid that we should ever be offended by our Lord, that we should ever distance ourselves from the glory of God, and that we might ever be embarrassed by the radiance of His beauty. Preserve us, O Christ, as Thy people by Thy Spirit. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.