What Could Possibly Make Jesus “Marvel?”

If, as we believe, Jesus upholds the entire universe by the Word of His power (Hebrews 1:3), and if He is able to read men’s minds (Matthew 9:3-5; John 2:24-25), then how is it, exactly, that anything would ever cause Him to “marvel” or otherwise be caught offguard? And yet, Scripture records more than one instance where incarnated God responds with “surprise.” It sure doesn’t seem to make much sense, at least at first blush, and so I think it might be wise for us Christians to pay a great deal of attention to what’s going on whenever the Bible records Jesus as having been surprised.

Merriam-Webster defines marvel as 1) one that causes wonder or astonishment; or 2) intense surprise or interest; astonishment. With that simple definition in mind, let’s take a closer look at Mark 6:1-6:

Mark 6:1-6 (ESV)

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.

It’s noteworthy, I think, to point out that Jesus was both teaching and performing works of healing when the residents of his hometown decided to take offense at Him. In verse 2, those who happened to be on hand for Jesus’ ministry to the people of Nazareth very matter-of-factly admit that His teachings are indeed wise, and the works of His hands are mighty. But even when faced with the miraculous wisdom and healing of Jesus, those who ought to know Him best make a conscious decision to reject Him. (Certainly none of us would make this identical mistake, right?)

As if this hometown rejection – clear evidence notwithstanding – was not mind-blowing enough, Mark testifies that immediately after this encounter Jesus “could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them” (verse 5). This statement troubles me somewhat, as it would appear to contain two very different and seemingly contradictory ideas.

  1. “He could do no mighty work there.” This is just the sort of verse that sends me running to my copy of the ESV Study Bible. “How is it,” I ask myself, “that the God of the universe could not do whatever He pleased, wherever He wished, whenever He wanted?” Well, of course Jesus is able to do whatever seems best to Him, but in this case what seems best is not to drag a stubborn soul into His kingdom kicking and screaming. The ESV study notes on this, as usual, are immensely helpful: “With some exceptions, Jesus could do no mighty work there. Jesus will not force his miracles on a hostile, skeptical audience. It stands in contradiction to the character and will of Jesus to heal where there is fundamental rejection of him (unbelief).” The study notes for the parallel passage in Matthew 13:53-58 add this: “Hard-heartedness and rejection of Jesus prevent the Spirit’s healing ministry, just as they prevent forgiveness of sin. The Holy Spirit does not force his miracles on a hostile, skeptical audience.”

  2. “No mighty work…except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.” Maybe I am missing something, but it seems to me that laying your hands on a sick person and healing them would qualify as “a mighty work,” at least by 21st-century standards of medicine. Again, I find it fascinating that Jesus “restricts Himself” just to healing a few sick people. Perhaps the preaching and healing ministry of Jesus had, by that time, become so powerful that the miraculous healing of a few sick people no longer seemed like such a big deal. Well, it is a big deal, of course, and who among us would not wish to have this “minor” miracle bestowed upon us next time we are down for a few days with the flu (or worse)? What I take away from this verse is the idea that the “bigger” miracles of Jesus had by this time become common knowledge (John 20:30, 21:25) and we are also afforded a better understanding of the grace, compassion and mercy of Jesus, such that He will sometimes heal people even as He is being rejected.

If you’ve been reading ESI for more than a few weeks, you may already be aware that I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. In His mercy, the Lord has blessed me with 14 years of sobriety, and my gratitude to Him is such that I am anxious to help others struggling with addictions and/or other repetitive, besetting sins. One of the most powerful witnesses to the unlimited grace of Christ is “the transformed individual,” the saved and sanctified person who not only has (for example) stopped drinking, but has completely lost the inner desire to drink. In simple terms, it’s one thing to not drink booze for a day…it’s something else altogether for 24 hours to pass without even thinking about alcohol.

There are a lot of differing opinions in the larger recovery community about what total transformation looks like and how it is best achieved. Every individual is unique, of course, and so I really don’t think that there is anything remotely resembling “one size fits all” for achieving victory over drugs, alcohol, sexual sin, or what-have-you. Many addicts – most of whom would admit that they very much require soul-level healing – unwittingly find themselves to be “spiritual cousins” to the residents of 1st-century Nazareth, doubting the ability and/or willingness of the Lord to heal them simply because they think they have known Who He was their entire lives, and since He hasn’t healed them yet…He clearly cannot or will not. More often than not, however, the statement, “Yeah, yeah, I know all about Jesus,” is all-too-easily countered with, “No, you may well know about Jesus, but that is not the same thing as knowing Him.”

It seems to me, then, that even Jesus is able to marvel at the hardness of the human heart. How else to explain the rejection of true healing, turning one’s back on the only source of true transformation and comfort? As I volunteer in separation/divorce recovery ministry and reach out to others in the community who are desperate for healing, I too marvel at some of the answers I will hear to some very basic questions:

  • Do you really want to be healed…or will your initial response to Christ’s offer be some sort of excuse? (John 5:6-7)

  • Do you believe that God has the ability to heal you at a soul level? (Romans 8:2-4)

  • Are you willing to accept the healing offered in Christ, regardless of personal cost? (Philippians 3:8-10; Mark 8:34-36)

  • What’t the first thing that comes to mind when I ask, “What is it that is holding you back?”

It’s my prayer that the broken and the dying among us would not waste even one more day scoffing at the ability of Christ to heal, and that we would cease our efforts to construct a mental checklist of all the things that we don’t want to surrender to Jesus, even as we sink further and further into our own personal hell. May God grant us the power to stop surprising Jesus by how unwilling we are to accept His merciful and gracious healing in our lives.

Psalm 51:17 (ESV)

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

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