The Power of Unbelief
“And it came to pass, that when Jesus had finished these parables, he departed thence. And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house. And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” (Matthew 13:53-58)
We often hear and read about the power of faith, and rightly so. Our Lord Jesus said, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you” (Matt. 17:20). But in this closing paragraph of Matthew 13 the Holy Spirit sets before us the power of unbelief. Just as faith as a grain of mustard seed, looking to Christ, has the power to cast the mountains of our sins into the depths of the sea, so unbelief has the power to ruin your soul, unleash the wrath of God, and drag your soul down to hell.
The power of faith in Christ is manifest throughout the Scriptures. Abraham believed God and it was imputed to him for righteousness. Noah believed God and built an ark to the saving of his family. Israel believed God and walked through the Red Sea. David believed God and slew Goliath. Daniel believed God and stopped the mouths of lions. The centurion soldier believed God and saw his servant healed. Two blind men believed God and received their sight. The woman with an issue of blood believed God and was healed of her infirmity. Jairus believed God and saw his daughter brought back to life. The Philippian Jailer believed God and received everlasting life. The list could go on and on. The Bible says much about the power of faith.
But the Word of God also shows us the power of unbelief. Adam, Noah’s generation, Lot’s wife, Pharaoh, Israel, Nebuchadnezzar, the Scribes and Pharisees, the Rich young ruler, Felix, Festus, and Agrippa all stand out as beacons to warn us of the danger and power of unbelief. All unbelief is a matter of the will. Unbelief is a matter of choice. Unbelief is saying “no” to God in spite of the evidence. This is what we see in Matthew 13:53-58.
Capernaum had been the home base of our Lord’s ministry for about a year (Mt. 4:13; 8:5). The people there had seen his miracles. They heard his word. They watched his life. But they did not believe on him. Therefore, the Lord departed, never to return (v. 53). The Lord Jesus never went back to Capernaum again, except to walk through it to go to another place.
When the Lord Jesus returned to Nazareth, he met with opposition and unbelief in his own hometown and among his own kinsman (vv. 54-57; Luke 4:16-32). The people who heard him preach and saw the miracles he performed were astonished by his doctrine and his divine power; but “they were offended in him.” They stumbled at “the stumbling stone.” That which should have been a stepping-stone for them, the incarnate Son of God, the sinner’s Friend and Substitute, because of the gospel he preached, was “a Rock of offense” to them.
Poor souls! Like multitudes today, the things they heard from his lips, by which they were astonished, made him “a savor of death unto death” (2 Cor. 2:16) to them! Because they only knew Christ after the flesh, and not after the Spirit (2 Cor. 5:16), they despised him. He was, therefore, a prophet without honor in his own country and among his own people. The offence of the cross has not ceased; and it never shall.
Time and again our Lord came to Nazareth. Yet, “he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (v. 58). J. C. Ryle wrote, “Behold in this single word the secret of the everlasting ruin of multitudes of souls! They perish forever, because they will not believe.” Let me show you six things about unbelief. May God the Holy Spirit be our Teacher and give us understanding.
1. Unbelief ignores the obvious.
“And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works ?”(v. 54) — Those who heard his doctrine and saw his miracles did not reject him for lack of evidence, but in spite of overwhelming evidence. They did not reject him because they lacked the truth, but because they rejected the truth. They despised the light because they preferred darkness (John 3:1-20).
When men and woman willfully reject Christ, the most powerful arguments and the most convincing facts will not convince them of divine truth. These people, being left to themselves, would not and could not come to him. The most convincing preaching, the most unquestionable displays of divine power, and the most emotional experiences did not produce faith in them. Faith in Christ is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9). It is something that must be wrought in us by the omnipotent mercy of God the Holy Spirit (Col. 2:12)
2. Unbelief exalts the irrelevant.
“Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things?” (vv. 55-56) — These things were totally irrelevant. The Lord Jesus preached the gospel to these eternity bound sinners; and they began to quibble about his family, his education, and his qualifications as a preacher!
“They grew sarcastic, and harped upon the family names of James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas. They hinted that he could not have learned much wisdom in a carpenter’s shop, and as he had not been among the rabbis to obtain a superior education, he could not really know much. How could he have attained to such eminence? He was a mere nobody. Why, they knew him when his parents lost him when they went up to the feast at Jerusalem! They could not listen to the talk of the carpenter’s son.” (C. H. Spurgeon)
There are multitudes just like them today. As Paul described them, “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). There are countless armchair theologians, men (and even women!) who consider themselves the religious authorities of the age, honor bound to enlighten all with whom they come in contact regarding spiritual matters of which they have no knowledge. They contribute nothing to the cause of Christ or the souls of men. But they are always full of questions, questions they spew out under the pretense of sincerity, with no purpose except to exalt themselves and slander faithful men.
It is sad and tragic to see people exalting small, insignificant things, using them as great excuses for not believing the gospel. They like to discuss obscure texts, choosing to ignore the obvious. They value their opinions more highly than the Revelation of God in Holy Scripture. They cling to personal experience, religious tradition, and religious creeds as coverings for their rebellion to divine authority and unbelief. By their quibbles, they seek to divert attention away from the gospel, escape the claims of Christ, and justify themselves. Pastor Chris Cunningham, in his commentary on John 9, accurately describes the know-it-all Pharisees of the religious world as “orangutans with a vocabulary.”
3. Unbelief stumbles over the truth.
“And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house” (v. 57). Read Romans 9:30-32; 10:3-4, 1 Corinthians 1:21-24, and Luke 4:20-24. The fact is, all who are left to themselves in unbelief are offended by Christ and the gospel of Christ. In Matthew 11:6 our Savior declares, “blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me.” Truly they are blessed of God, blessed with grace and salvation in Christ, who, rather than being offended by the gospel, believe it and cannot part with it. Trusting Christ alone as our Savior, we have peace, joy, and comfort in our souls and look for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life (Jude 21).
4. Unbelief blocks the supernatural.
“And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (v. 58). — Our Lord performed some miracles there, but not many, that they might be left without excuse. John Gill wrote, “He only ‘laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.’ Yet, these were such as raised their wonder and astonishment, but did not command their faith, and were rather stumbling blocks unto them. Such were their prejudices, their unbelief, and the hardness of their hearts. And the reason indeed why he did no more was, ‘because of their unbelief.’”
Mark tells us that “he marveled because of their unbelief,” and ‘he could there do no mighty works’ (Mark 6:5-6). That does not mean that he lacked the power to perform them, or that their unbelief was too great and mighty for him (the omnipotent God) to overcome. Some of our Lord’s miracles were performed in direct response to personal faith. But many, perhaps most of them, were performed without any expression of faith in those who benefited from them. So man’s lack of faith does not bind the power of God. Man’s unbelief does not hold dominion over God’s omnipotence. God does what he will, whether man believes or not!
However, throughout his earthly ministry our Lord chose not to perform his miracles where men and women manifest a hardened, willful unbelief. Unbelief became a barrier to divine blessings. In Matthew 13:58 the Holy Spirit specifically tells us that it was because of the unbelief of the people that our Savior did no miracles of significance in Nazareth.
5. Unbelief can never see the glory of God.
How unbelief robs us! I cannot help wondering, “What might have been, had I but believed God?” People sit around and debate the issue of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility as casually as they debate politics, so that they may appear very precise and orthodox in their theological opinions and excuse their rebellion, unbelief, sin, and disobedience, saying, “Well, God is sovereign. His purpose stands fast. His will is done.” All of that is true enough; but their rationalization is wrong. In Isaiah 48:16-19 the Lord God expressly declares what might have been, had Israel simply obeyed his voice. As Martha stood before her brother’s tomb, “Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?” (John 11:40).
John Calvin wrote, “Our own unbelief is the only impediment which prevents God from satisfying us largely and bountifully with all good things.” Too often we walk upon God’s promises like children upon ice, always fearful of the breaking and us falling! How shameful! It is unbelief alone that prevents us from soaring in our hearts into the celestial city and walking by faith even now across the streets of gold.
6. Unbelief alone holds lost souls in condemnation under the wrath of God.
If you perish, it will be for only one reason. It will be because you will not believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:13-18). There is nothing else in heaven or earth that will prevent you from being saved (John 5:40).
“There are three great enemies,” J. C. Ryle, wrote, “against which God’s children should daily pray — pride, worldliness, and unbelief.” Of these three, none is greater than unbelief. Let us ever beware of unbelief, praying for grace to be delivered from it. Unbelief kept Moses out of the promised land, caused Aaron to fall under pressure, caused David to behave like a mad man, and caused Peter to tremble before a little girl! I often wander what blessings, privileges, and opportunities I have missed because of unbelief! – “Lord, I believe, Help thou mine unbelief” (Mk. 9:24).