Jesus displayed his divine authority in the few stories leading up to Mark 6. He calmed the chaotic sea, commanded innumerable demons, cleansed a chronically ill woman, and conquered death itself. One would reasonably expect a wide reception of Jesus as the Son of God to imminently follow. After all, Mark has already informed his audience of this truth in the first sentence of the work. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Instead, Jesus is met with suspicion even by those who should most readily recognize him: the community he grew up with and the authorities most concerned with the coming Messiah.
Jesus arrives in Nazareth and continues his typical pattern of ministry. He teaches in the synagogue and offers healing to those who come. His audience responds to his teaching with disdain. Jesus lacks the credentials to teach the way he does. Carpenters and other manual laborers in Jesus’ day were uneducated. He lacks the social standing to carry such influence. They address him as “the son of Mary” rather than “the son of Joseph.” To address a person by their mother’s lineage rather than their father’s was an insult. They may have assumed Jesus was an illegitimate child.
Above all this, there may be a broader self-disparaging reason they view Jesus with suspicion: he was from Nazareth, a small, unremarkable town in what used to be the northern kingdom of Israel. In other words, it was an insignificant village in a long-cursed region. Gospel writers go out of their way to communicate how backwater Nazareth was. As Nathaniel famously asked Philip in John 1:46, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus’ neighbors would have known the reputation of their town. That the anointed one of God and the deliverer of Israel would come from such a town as theirs was offensive.
For all of these reasons, they find it easy to disparage his miracle-working. Mark’s statement “he could do no mighty work there” is not to be understood as an inability on Jesus’ part. Such an interpretation would ignore the magnificent displays of his divine power in Mark 4–5. Healing is offered to those who come asking for it in faith. As Geoffrey Grogan writes, “it was not morally fitting for [the people of Nazareth] to receive this blessing. Unbelief so often bars the door to vital blessings from God.” 1 Performance of miracles with those who have no faith would only aggravate their guilt and further harden their hearts. Jesus refuses to be viewed as a genie or a magic charm. He will be viewed as Lord, whether one chooses to rebel against him or submit to him.
Jumping ahead to verses 16–29, Mark shows that hardness of heart spans from the lowest and least in Nazareth to the highest and mightiest in Jerusalem. Herod rejects Jesus just as he rejected John the Baptist. The account of John’s execution is lengthy and gruesome, but is included because it foreshadows the coming execution of Jesus by the hands of Judea’s religious and political elite. Herod (not Herod the Great, who commanded the execution of all infants in Bethlehem, but Herod Antipas, his son) is portrayed as weak and conflicted. He is initially unwilling to have John put to death since he is a holy man. He is happy to listen to his preaching, but not to heed his direction. John’s message is a source of entertainment, not conviction. When duped into ordering John’s execution, he takes no delight in it but does nothing to stop it.
In the same way, Jesus’ words will amaze the one who has authority to free or execute him. Rather than following his conscience, Pilate will instead capitulate to the crowd’s demands and send Jesus to the cross. Jesus understands this parallel and explains it to his disciples following the transfiguration in Mark 9:9–13. Immediately following the true revelation of Christ in all his glory, Jesus explains the true identity of John the Baptist. He was Elijah, and the messiah will follow his path to death.
Mark places the account of Jesus sending the twelve in the heart of this passage. Despite resistance and suspicion, Jesus’ name spreads throughout all of Judea, from Nazareth to Jerusalem. This brief account of the sending of the twelve marks the pattern of gospel ministry through the apostolic age. The apostles will be sent to the ends of the earth, from the least to the greatest. They will go with no earthly provision, having their needs providentially met along the way. They will bring either blessing or judgment to all they encounter. Just as their Lord was met with suspicion and faced resistance, they too will be rejected — and many will be executed. And yet, they carry the full authority of Christ as they extend his ministry and message, driving out demons and healing diseases. As a result of their mission, Jesus’ name will be known. Here in Mark 6, Jesus’ name is all that is known. Precisely who Jesus is is still a mystery. Speculation abounds; is he John the Baptist back from the dead? Is he Elijah or another great prophet? Later, all will be made clear. “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36, NKJV)
* * *
It is remarkable to consider how Jesus’ sinless life went unrecognizable, or at least unappreciated, for three decades. How could his neighbors not see that Jesus was different? How could a person who lived thirty years without ever sinning go unnoticed?
Here is a possible answer. Just as they misconceived what the Messiah would look like, they may have been looking for a far different kind of sinless righteousness than what Jesus exemplified. They were looking for a mighty warrior, a king upon a horse with sword and scepter in hand who would deliver them from their oppressors. All they saw was Jesus, the little boy who was forgotten and left behind at the temple, an ordinary carpenter with tools and Torah in hand. Similarly, they likely would have expected a sinless person to look like a pristine Pharisee in flowing robes and large phylacteries. Jesus lacked all the fancy dress of outward religion. His righteousness was far more subtle, far more humble, and far more just.
Jesus articulated what some of those differences looked like throughout his earthly ministry. The Pharisees preferred praying loudly on street corners and fasting with sackcloth and ashes and practicing charity in the public square. Jesus taught to practice these things in secret before the God who sees in secret (Matthew 6:1–18). The Pharisees loved their own easily enough, but hated their opponents just as easily. Jesus taught to love one’s enemies. (Matthew 5:43–47). The Pharisees allowed for children to steal from their parents. Jesus called this practice a disgrace and a dismissal of the law of Moses for the sake of the Pharisee’s own traditions (Mark 7:9–13).
Many people assume sinlessness would be so alien and so glorious to a sinful world it would be impossible to miss. In some ways, this is true. Jesus says that those who live according to the righteousness of God will be salt and light to the world. However, in other ways, sinlessness is far less alien than one might think. Jesus was not, to quote Paul, a “Pharisee of Pharisees.” He was in every respect an ordinary Jewish man, perfectly integrated into his community. His sinlessness did not force him out of the world or render him unintelligible to his neighbors. In fact, it was his sinlessness which allowed him to engage with those around him with such deep, unencumbered love.
People expect for righteous people to look strange, but Jesus’ righteousness was a strange kind of strange. Jesus kept company with fisherman, tax collectors, and sinners. He flipped tables in the temple courts. He publicly criticized religious leaders. He worked miracles on the sabbath. In all this, Jesus claimed that his righteousness exceeded that of the Pharisees — and he calls his followers to do the same. The Pharisees used the facade of outward religion to avoid carrying the full burden of love the law of God demands. Jesus invites us to live up to the fullness of that love, both for God and for our neighbors. Like Christ, we will defy the culture’s expectation of what a pristine religious person will look like. We will share in his strange strangeness, simultaneously blending in with our neighbors and standing out in odd ways — ordinary people, carrying our briefcases or backpacks or toolboxes in one hand and our Bibles in the other.2
1 Geoffrey Grogan, Mark: Good News from Jerusalem, “Focus on the Bible.” 121.
2 That is not to say that Jesus expects his followers to never sin. It is clear that no one other than Jesus can live without sinning. See 2 Chronicles 6:36, 1 John 1:5-2:6, Romans 3:23. Essential to righteous living is genuine repentance. See Matthew 6:12. A part of the perfect life Jesus calls us to in the sermon on the mount is to pray for forgiveness of sins. Consider the fact that keeping the law of Moses in the Old Testament included offering appropriate sacrifices for one’s sins. This is one of the failings of the Pharisees. Their false religion replaces genuine repentance with pageantry.