1 He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 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? 3 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. 4 And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” 5 And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6 And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching.
In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne published his short story, “The Great Stone Face,” the inspiration for which came from “The Old Man of the Mountain” rock formation that was on Cannon Mountain in the White Mountains of New Hampshire before it collapsed in 2003. In Hawthorne’s story, he depicts a beautiful valley in which there was a village. In this village, the people who lived there lived under the shadow of the Great Stone Face, which Hawthorne described as, “a work of Nature in her mood of majestic playfulness, formed on the perpendicular side of a mountain by some immense rocks, which had been thrown together in such a position as, when viewed at a proper distance, precisely to resemble the features of the human countenance.”
The Great Stone Face had been granted a kind of spiritual power over the years. The villagers saw the face as wise and all knowing, a face that spoke of knowledge of the deep mysteries of the universe, a face that instilled humility and confidence in the villagers that their village was somehow specially blessed. Along with the face on the mountain came a prophecy. The prophecy, as one little boy named Ernest learned from his mother, was that “at some future day, a child should be born hereabouts, who was destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face.”
So Hawthorne tells how the little boy Ernest, a boy poor by worldly standards and uneducated by the same standards, nonetheless learned much as he lived a simple life in contemplation of the Great Stone Face. One day, the news spread throughout the village that a man who had been born in the village but who had left years ago was returning. His name was Gathergold. He was returning to the valley in triumph having amassed a great fortune in his life. Gathergold built a great mansion in the valley, and when he returned the people all swore that the prophecy had now been fulfilled, that Gathergold was the Great Stone Face in human form. But Ernest did not see it. He thought the faces looked nothing alike. What is more, Gathergold turned out not to be a great man at all, but rather just an old man corrupted by money.
As Ernest grew older, he saw this same excitement and the same inevitable disappointment happen twice more, first with Old Blood-and-Thunder, a great warrior and a famed General, and then with Old Stony Phiz, the powerful politician statesman. In both cases, the rumor was that the prophecy would now be fulfilled in the great returning men, and, in both cases, Ernest saw through the hysteria and simply did not see the similarity between these men and the Great Stone Face. Through it all, Ernest grew older and wiser and his own renown as a good and noble and wise soul grew. In fact, Ernest came to be known so widely that wise people outside of the valley would come to sit with Ernest and learn from him.
One day, a great and celebrated poet came to the valley. Ernest sat at the feet of the poet and marveled at the beauty of his verse. He wanted desperately to believe that here, in the person of the poet, the prophecy had been fulfilled, and the Great Stone Face had now come to the valley in human form. But as badly as he wanted the poet to be the fulfillment of the prophecy, he simply did not see the similarity. Saddened, he concluded that he would never see the prophecy fulfilled.
The poet and Ernest, an old man now, went walking in the village. They came to a little mound in the earth and Ernest himself stood upon it and began to speak. As he did so, the poet and the gathered village listened. The poet and all the people were struck by the beauty of Ernest’s words. Here is how Hawthorne describes Ernest’s words: “It was not mere breath that this preacher uttered; they were the words of life, because a life of good deeds and holy love was melted into them.” As he spoke, the poet looked at Ernest’s face. Then he looked at the Great Stone Face. Then it hit him and he announced, “Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!” The story concludes thus:
Then all the people looked, and saw that what the deep-sighted poet said was true. The prophecy was fulfilled. But Ernest, having finished what he had to say, took the poet’s arm, and walked slowly homeward, still hoping that some wiser and better man than himself would by and by appear, bearing a resemblance to the Great Stone Face.
It is a fascinating story, and a sad one. Its power is in its irony: the villagers kept looking for the embodiment of the Great Stone Face, wrongly turning from one powerful figure to another but always being frustrated. All along, however, the very embodiment of the Great Stone Face was in their midst. The problem, though, was that he was too close and too humble to be seen and noticed. In fact, Ernest was such an unlikely candidate to have fulfilled the prophecy that even he did not believe it.
Jesus, of course, knew who He was, but He lived, like Ernest, among a people who were so fixated on what the coming of the great one must be like that they could not see that He was among them all along. And, like Ernest, it was His humility and His seeming commonness that made it so very hard for them to see it.
The tragedy of allowing the mundane to eclipse the divine.
When Jesus returned to His hometown of Nazareth, He was met with incredulity and skepticism. More than that, He was met with outrage and contempt. Consider why this was so.
1 He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 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? 3 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.
When verse 2 says that “many who heard him were astonished,” the Greek word for “astonished” literally means, “‘knocked out’ by what he said and had done,” as Ben Witherington renders it. Witherington also notes that the peoples’ astonishment had less to do with familiarity breeding contempt than with “the ancient mentality that geographical and heredity origins determine who a person is and what his capacities will always be.” In other words, some of the people’s skepticism arose from the mundaneness of Nazareth itself. James R. Edwards writes this about Nazareth:
Nazareth is not mentioned in the OT, in Josephus, or in the rabbinic literature of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Outside the dozen references to it in the NT, it is first mentioned by an obscure writer, Julius Africanus, some two centuries after Jesus’ birth. No church was built in Nazareth until the time of Constantine (A.D. 325)…The resultant picture is of an obscure hamlet of earthen dwellings chopped into sixty acres of rocky hillside, with a total population of five hundred – at the most.
The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, however, states that Nazareth “had a population of approximately 150-220.” In other words, this was a small town in the middle of nowhere that folks just did not think much about. You can see this low view of Nazareth in John 1 in Nathaniel’s response to the idea that the Messiah had come from Nazareth.
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
So first there is the mundaneness of the place itself. But there is also the perceived mundaneness of Jesus and his family. Listen again to the questions that are asked.
- 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?
A.T. Robertson memorably observed that the questions of the townspeople were “laconic and curt” and that they spoke “with a sting and a fling in their words.” Indeed! “How,” they seem to be saying, “can this local kid whose family is just like us roll into town like this and presume to speak to us as if He is one of the great and mighty men of the earth? Who does he think he is?” Henry Turlington writes, “to the people of Nazareth Jesus may have seemed unusually gifted, but his heritage was utterly ordinary.”
What an unbelievable tragedy! Here we see the tragedy of allowing the mundane to eclipse the divine. The people’s minds were so conditioned to think in one particular way about the way they thought the world worked that they could not grasp that God Himself might be present working in the seemingly ordinary contours of their lives. They saw, but they did not see. They could not see. Once your mind has ruled out certain possibilities, it has a very hard time seeing them!
Ronald Kernaghan has offered a fantastic historical example of what this looks like.
Several years after the Berlin Wall was torn down Baerbel Eccardt obtained a copy of the files that the East German Secret Police had compiled on her. She had served for thirty years as the central person in the Berlin Fellowship, an unpublicized but vital spiritual pipeline between Christians in the West, particularly in America, and Christians in East Germany. Looking through her files, Baerbel was appalled to discover the extent to which the Secret Police had penetrated the network of pastors and laypeople she had cultivated. Virtually every prayer meeting she attended in East Germany had a page in her file. Despite the intensive surveillance, however, some interesting things escaped detection.
Near the front of a file three feet thick was a report on a meeting with a group of pastors in East Berlin that had eventually led to the formation of the Berlin Fellowship. It took place about eight years after the Berlin Wall had been erected, when the full weight of their isolation from other members of the Christian family had pressed in upon them. The meeting was led by Ralph Hamburger, a Presbyterian minister who had grown up in a Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany. He encouraged them to believe that God could create a channel of encouragement, hope and reconciliation with Christians in America. Twenty years into their experience of communism that was not easy for them to believe. Ralph spoke in German, of course, and answered many questions with the assurance: “Don’t worry, der Herr will take care of that.” In German der Herr means both the Lord and gentleman or even sir. It is as common as the English word mister. In the margin of the typed report on this meeting was a handwritten note: “Despite a great deal of effort and months of intensive investigations we still do not know who der Herr is or where he lives.”
Ah! There it is! Seeing but not seeing. The assumption that the only players on the stage are the ones that should be there keeps us from seeing the greatest One of all. In fact, it keeps us from even thinking that He can walk onto the stage.
The people of Nazareth were like the East German Secret Police: they thought they knew how things worked, and things, by and large, were and remained merely ordinary. Even in their investigations of and devotions to God through their normal religious routines, it never occurred to them that God Himself might step into the normal and change everything!
The tragedy of being so close yet so far away.
There is another tragedy here as well. It is the tragedy of being so close yet so far away.
4 And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”
How unbelievably sad this is! In the place where He should have received the greatest honor, He received the least. The people of Jesus’ hometown failed to understand just what had happened in their midst.
Their very familiarity with Jesus condemned them, did it not? To be so close yet so far away is a profoundly sad thing. Even their questions reveal that they should have known better, for it reveals that they knew these folks, that they knew this family. But it is possible to know without knowing just as it is possible to see without seeing.
They were privileged to dwell in the hometown of Jesus, to have known what all of us would like to know: His childhood, His growing years, His hobbies, His personality. Jesus had eaten in a lot of these folks’ homes and had worked for them in His trade. Jesus had likely built things for these people and had numerous conversations with them.
They were so close to Jesus, yet they were so far away.
How can this happen? In fact, it happens all the time. Human beings seem to have a special propensity for seeing without seeing, for knowing without really knowing, and for being close yet being so far away. This whole phenomenon kills marriages and friendship and businesses. It also kills churches. We begin to grow accustomed to things. We are so close to some things that we take them for granted. We assume we know them. But, in truth, proximity does not equal knowledge. Consider the example of the poet Thomas Campbell.
Thomas Campbell was a very considerable poet. His father had no sense of poetry at all. When Thomas’s first book emerged with Thomas’s name on it, he sent a copy to his father. The old man took it up and looked at it. It was really the binding and not the contents at all that he was looking at. “Who would have thought,” he said in wonder, “that our Tom could have made a book like that?”
Just think of it: the old man is impressed at the physical cover and title but totally missed the wonders of what was inside. So it was with Jesus! So it is today!
We miss the point all the time, especially those of us in church. We come week after week and do our religious duty. We sing the songs, we go to the activities, we sit in the pews, we listen to the sermons, we give our money, and we duly critique it all. But do we still believe that God is here in our midst? Even those of us who know the truth about Jesus can miss Jesus by being so close to Jesus that we stop seeing Jesus!
4 And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”
Yes, and “a prophet is not without honor, except in his own church and among his people who should know better!”
The tragedy of miracles missed because of faith abandoned.
Most tragic of all, because of the people’s disbelief, Jesus did no great work in Nazareth
5 And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.
Fascinatingly, Mark says that Jesus “could do no mighty work there.” That is rich ground for theological contemplation, to be sure. Craig Keener makes the very insightful observation that the phrase, “he could do no mighty work there,” “presumes a limitation not of his power but of his mission: to heal without morally directed faith would be to act like the pagan magicians of antiquity.” I believe Keener is getting to the heart of the matter: Jesus’ works of power were always in response to faith. He was no magician and no mere trickster. He was the Son of God who put into the open hands of faith mighty demonstrates of the Lord’s great presence.
Just as the people marveled in offense at Jesus, so He marveled in amazement at their rejection of Him.
6 And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching.
He was rejected in His own hometown. It boggles the mind.
When I was a kid growing up in church, I frequently heard Revelation 3:20 used as an evangelistic text: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Now there certainly is an evangelistic sentiment in these words, and I personally do not think it is wrong to communicate this in an evangelistic context, but let it be noted that these words were not spoken first to the lost. They were spoken first to the church. In Revelation 3:20, Jesus is asking His own people to open the door so that He can come in!
A prophet is not without honor except in His own hometown…or His own Church.
Have we, like the people of Nazareth, missed Jesus through overfamiliarity? Have we shut our hearts off to the possibility of a great work of God because we simply do not think that He does things like that here?
Beware the blindness of Nazareth!
Never grow accustomed to God in our midst. It is a miracle, plain and simple, that He is among us, but it is also a certain miracle, a definite promise. Jesus promised that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). What a tragedy, then, when those two or three miss Him in their midst!
Let us marvel once again that God is with us, that God is among us, that God has come to us! Let us stare in stupefied wonder once again that such a great God would invade the ordinary, the commonplace, redeeming it and making it rich with wonder!
May we never miss Jesus in our midst!
 Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Great Stone Face.” The Complete Novels and Selected Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed., Norman Holmes Pearson. Vol. II (New York, NY: The Modern Library, 1993), p.412-428.
 Ben Witherington, III, The Gospel of Mark. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), p.192.
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Gen. Ed., D.A. Carson. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), p.169.
 David E. Garland, “Mark.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Gen. Ed., Clinton E. Arnold. Vol. I (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.238.
 A.T. Robertson, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Gospel According to Mark. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. I (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.305.
 Henry E. Turlington, General Articles, Matthew-Mark. The Broadman Bible Commentary. Gen. Ed., Clifton J. Allen. Vol. 8 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1969), p.314.
 Ronald J. Kernaghan, Mark. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol.2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p.114-115.
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark. The Daily Study Bible. (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1971), p.140.
 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: 1993), p.149.