‘UNBELIEF AND BELIEF: THEIR UNBELIEVABLE POWER!’ [Part 1, The Incredibly Destructive Power of Unbelief]

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[Hiroshima 75 years ago]

There are so many massively destructive powers in our world presently, not least in the political, social, economic, ecological and health realms. We’re all aware of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine – our news media daily update us on the terribly destructive rocket fire and tank attacks on Ukraine’s major cities. I submit that, in the spiritual and eternal realm, humankind has always been threatened by ‘THE INCREDIBLY DESTRUCTIVE POWER OF UNBELIEF!’

Going back two millenia, the evangelist Mark (6:1-6a) captures the ministry of Jesus in Nazareth. This record demonstrates some sharp contrasts between the Nazarene’s failure and success, opposition and acceptance, misunderstanding and understanding – of all places, in Nazareth, where he grew up! We might have expected the village to give a warm welcome to its now famous son, just as a modern country might celebrate some distinguished person whose reputation has spread across the globe: e.g. South African and world statesman Nelson Mandela, who first brokered peace in our divided nation. But when Jesus visits the local synagogue on the Sabbath and accepts an invitation to teach, his audience is largely skeptical – surprised but not impressed: “They asked, ‘Where did he get all this wisdom and power to perform such miracles?’ Then they scoffed, ‘He’s just a carpenter, the Son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.’ They were deeply offended and refused to believe in him'” (v. 2-3/NLT) [The fact that Joseph isn’t mentioned here indicates that by now he was probably deceased or it was a blatant insult to the family: Bible scholar E.M. Blaiklock makes the point that in ancient Hebrew culture, describing a person’s parentage without naming the father was tantamount to hinting at illegitimacy, i.o.w. a calculated insult!] The sad result: ‘Because of their unbelief’ there was nothing Jesus, the very Son of God, could do in Nazareth beyond healing a few sick (v.5-6). All he could do was remind his followers that great men (and women) are not appreciated at home, even the greatest of prophets! The evangelist John brilliantly exposes the essence of unbelief, commenting on the work of the Holy Spirit: ‘And when he comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment. The world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me… (Jn. 16:8-9/NLT). In short, there is a day of ultimately accountability, and our final destiny depends on what we think of and do with Jesus!

In sharp contrast (Mk. 6:6b-13), Jesus’ work had now reached such momentum beyond Nazareth that he could send out the Twelve to repeat his work in the power of the Spirit, through preaching, exorcising demons and healing the sick wherever people accepted them (otherwise they were to shake that town’s dust off their feet, an action all pious Jews performed on leaving a Gentile territory). A seemingly harsh judgment, but indicating to Jew and Gentile alike the seriousness of unbelief! Mark ends this passage with good news: ‘So the disciples went out, telling everyone they met to repent of their sins and turn to God. And they cast out many demons and healed many sick people, anointing them with olive oil’ (v. 12-13) (cf. Acts 13:46-52 where Luke contrasts the Jews’ stubborn unbelief in Pisidian Antioch with the Gentiles’ joyful response to the Good News).

[Just a mention of Mk. 8:1-21, recording Jesus’ miraculous feeding of 4000 people, in spite of the disciples’ ill-preparation and lack of faith in the Master’s power] In Mk. 9:14ff we read of Jesus’ encounter with a loving dad who had brought his severely demon-possessed boy to the disciples for healing, his followers failing to do so because they were ‘faithless people.’ Jesus responds, ‘bring the boy to me.’ Dad replies, ‘Have mercy on us and helps us if you can.’ Jesus: ‘If I can?… Anything is possible if a person believes.’ Dad: ‘I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!’ (v. 24) (I’ve been there many times, haven’t you?) After some struggle, the boy is set free to the joy of his family! When the embarrassed disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to help the boy, Jesus responds,‘This kind can only be cast out by prayer’ (v. 29/some mss ‘by prayer and fasting) – one assumes by fervent, sincere and persistent prayer as an expression of true faith in God. (I know of some staggering healings right here in my city, which only took place months or in one case years later, in answer to believing prayer)

The Epistles endorse the Gospels’ teaching, a clear example being Heb. 3:16ff, written by Apollos (?) to persecuted Jewish (and Gentile) believers tempted to return to un-persecuted Judaism. The writer reminds them that Jesus is infinitely greater than Moses! ‘And who was it that rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? … And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest’ (NLT).

My fellow-pilgrim, the message of unbelief is not just for ‘those bad (and perhaps ‘good but lost’) people out there’ who refuse to believe. Every time I’m tempted to control circumstances myself, with resultant anxiety, am I really believing in Jesus? I think of passages such as Ps. 27 (recently, after some teaching on this psalm by one of our house church members, we decided to read it privately every day for a week, with much benefit), Mt. 6:25-34 and Phil. 4:6-7… Faith surely = TRUST!

Finally, imagine the plight of the billions around the world today, who, having been faced by God’s truth and love powerfully expressed over millennia in creation, our conscience, the Bible and the Living Word, only to turn their back on this revelation in preference to their ego, resulting in eternal lost-ness! It makes me shudder. We recall Jesus’ familiar words in Jn. 3:16, ‘This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.’ Jesus continues in v. 17ff, ‘God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-king Son of God when introduced to him’ (MSG). That same Jesus urges each generation (us) to preach his Kingdom to all the world – by word, deed and life. Are we?? Someone related the story of a lone Christian prisoner in a Nazi death camp bungalow. For breaking some minor camp-rule the inmates were all sentenced to death by locking them up with no access to air, food and drink. The story goes that, aware of the inevitable, the Christian man began to share the message of Jesus with each one. When he had completed his task, he died. What an example for us all…

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