How do you deal with rejection? In our fallen world that’s an important question. One of the major themes in Mark 6:1–29 is that those who live and die in the joy of heavenly comfort still face huge disappointments. In this passage the church’s cornerstone and the most significant men of the apostolic church all deal with rejection. This great cloud of witnesses urges us to run with endurance the challenging race that is set before us (Heb. 12:1). As we learned in Mark 4, one of the purposes of the four Gospels is to show how the kingdom starts small, gains momentum despite setbacks, and eventually changes the lives of millions.
There are three distinct rejection narratives in Mark 6:1–29. In the first we see the rejection of our Lord.
Marvelous Unbelief (6:1–6)
In the previous narrative Jesus did what you might expect God to do. He conquered nature, subdued demons, disarmed disease, and defeated death. In the last passage Jesus raised to life the daughter of a synagogue ruler. When Jesus came to the synagogue in Nazareth (6:2) we might have expect him to receive a hero’s welcome. Amazingly people stumbled over him, questioning Jesus’ background and authority. Even Jesus “marveled because of their unbelief ” (6:6). Remarkable as it is, the Bible teaches that people will always be offended at Jesus until their eyes and ears are opened and their hearts are made soft toward him (Ps. 119:18). The more we understand this truth the more resistant we will be to sugar-coat the gospel to make it more appealing. The Bible says that all men are sinners and guilty of the eternal punishment of hell. God alone removes our guilt by forgiving our sins for the sake of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That is an inherently offensive message! Only the Holy Spirit can make us embrace the gospel as He mollifies our resistance to the things of God (John 3:5–8).
The Third Evangelist provides some important details explaining the specific points at which the crowds stumbled over Jesus (Luke 4:16–30). Jesus’ preaching text was from Isaiah 61, where God promises a spirit-anointed gospel minister who would come to heal the brokenhearted, set captives free, give sight to the blind, and proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. From the perspective of the audience, the problem came when, after handing the scroll back to the attendant and waiting until every eye was fixed on Him, Jesus said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). The crowd wondered how this man was qualified to make such a statement. Ironically, God answered the question at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, specifically at His baptism. When God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit He commissioned Him to mediate for God’s people as their perfect prophet, priest, and king. He audibly declared, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Jesus received His authority from His heavenly Father. Christ came to the Jews, as He comes to all people, with a divine right to our allegiance.
The authority of Christ is incredibly encouraging for those who submit to it. Believers communicate the gospel to others with divine authority (Matt. 28:18–20). How much it should mean to us to have the risen, reigning, and returning Christ standing behind us when we witness to his glory! Sometimes my son tries, on his own authority, to get his little sister do something. His efforts sound timid to say the least: “Eva, let’s go in the house, c’mon Eva, it’s time to go in . . .” But sometimes I send him to get her on my authority. You should hear the change in his tone of voice: “EVA, DAD SAID, COME IN THE HOUSE.” Our witness will be transformed as we increasingly glory in the authority of Christ.
The crowd also questioned Jesus’ background. “Is this not the carpenter?” (v. 3). The word used by the crowd can be translated as “craftsman.” Though they perhaps spoke derisively (he’s the tinkerer), they also spoke prophetically. Jesus is the master craftsman of the kingdom of God (Heb. 3:1–6; 11:10) and of all creation (Col. 3:16), yet He humbled Himself by coming to the earth and taking up a common trade. To the believer Christ’s vocation as a carpenter is a wonderful condescension. To the unbeliever it is one more occasion to doubt and mock. Similarly, the doubters scoff at Jesus’ family tree because they failed to grasp the incarnation. They saw Jesus, the son of Mary, the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. They didn’t see Him as the Son of God who transcends genealogy to meet sinners from every family of the earth.
In response to this rejection, Jesus reminded the people of a sad trend in Israel’s history: Prophets are always dishonored at home. In another setting Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and your fathers killed them” (Luke 11:47). In a similar way Stephen would say, “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers” (Acts 7:52). Jesus came to His own knowing that His own would not receive Him (John 1:11). Amazingly, He persevered in His ministry going about the “villages in a circuit, teaching” (Mark 6:6) although, because of their unbelief, Jesus did shroud His power among them, doing fewer miracles there than elsewhere (v. 5).
Is it a coincidence that Jesus began to deploy His disciples just as the crowds voiced their skepticism over His ministry?
The Apostolic Ministry (6:7–13)
Jesus’ sending of the disciples into the mission field depicts the Gospels’ powerful movement in the face of rejection. In some ways this is the first Great Commission. The disciples have been trained and empowered; now they are commissioned.
Part of their commissioning service was meant to strip them of material comforts (6:8–9). Disciples— especially those who live in a context of rampant materialism—must not find security in material possessions but in the good providence of God which believers experience through the care of brothers and sisters. The church should reflect this pattern of healthy interdependency among believers and ultimate dependency on God.
The disciples’ light load—Jesus “commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff ” (6:8)— would not only require them to depend on the care of “worthy” saints (Matt. 10:11–13) but also allow them to be highly mobile. It would be clear to the disciples whether or not their listeners were receiving the message. Those who refused to listen, that is, “all unbelievers and such as do not sincerely repent,” needed to hear that “the wrath of God and eternal condemnation abide on them so long as they are not converted.”1 “It will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah” than for those who reject the gospel ministry (Mark 6:11); this fact should send shivers down our spines and drive us to feel the necessity of believing the gospel for ourselves and for imploring others to believe it too. Jesus’ instructions to His first evangelists mandates the church today to continuously refocus its evangelistic efforts toward those who are have not rejected the gospel. Like the disciples, we need to be aware that God both shuts and opens doors (Acts 16:6–10), and we must exert our finite energies accordingly.
Mark’s encouraging report on the success of the disciples’ first tour (Mark 6:12–13) highlights three ministry components which the church that is built on their foundation (Eph. 2:20) must emulate. First, Mark says that they “preached that people should repent.” True ministry always uses the law to reveal man’s radical failures (Rom. 3:20).2 When the Spirit moves us to see our miserable condition before the law we cry out with Paul, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24–25). In this way the law serves as “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). Every so often I’m asked if our church has altar calls. We certainly do. We don’t ask folks to come forward to a physical altar, but we do believe that every sermon should call sinners to repent and believe the gospel. We should “always teach that an entrance unto God is open for all sinners, and that this God does forgive all the sins of the faithful.”3
Second, the disciples dealt with devils. Somehow, what is central to the first apostles’ mandate tends to get minimized in some Christian traditions. We need to believe that the same demonic powers which are so evident in the Scripture story have not relented. Neither has the means of fighting demons changed; it remains the gospel ministry. Paul warned believers to arm themselves with God’s armor to “stand against the wiles of the devil” and to wrestle “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:11– 12). There is a side to gospel ministry that is darker than many churchgoers might be interested in. When churches really begin to imitate the apostles, they find themselves dealing with the occult, with drug addicts, pedophiles, fornicators, homosexual offenders, pornographers, and the like (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9–11). Like the disciples, churches and individuals who truly wrestle against Satan’s kingdom find that Christian ministry is not safe and sanitary. But, like the disciples, they find that Christ is still casting out demons and beating back the kingdom of Satan.
Finally, the disciples were concerned with the ill and hurting (Mark 6:13). The apostle John would later write about what he learned on that first ministry circuit: “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17–18). The social gospel is faulty not because of its emphasis on humanitarian work but because its humanitarian work is not vitally connected to the true gospel of the work of Christ in securing the salvation of His people.
In these first two narratives of Mark 6 Jesus and His disciples are both honored and dishonored as they engage in ministry. The final narrative in this section describes the honor and dishonor shown to John the Baptist.
A Christian Martyr (6:14–29)
Mark 6:14 tells us that the commotion surrounding Jesus eventually reached the ears of King Herod, who thought Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead. Mark then explains what had happened to John the Baptist, an important excursus because John hasn’t been mentioned since Mark 1:14. It was after John’s imprisonment that Jesus began His public ministry. From that point John faded from the Gospel writer’s attention, something that he would have been glad about (John 3:30).
John was imprisoned for the stance he took against King Herod’s marriage to Herod’s sister-in-law, Herodias. As a result Herodias “held it against him and wanted to kill John” (Mark 6:19). Herodias’s response illustrates what happens when preaching hits close to home, as it must. It’s one thing to say, “Repent.” It’s another thing to say, “Repent for committing adultery by taking your brother’s wife” (v. 18). John used the law like a sharp scalpel in the hands of a skilled surgeon. He targeted a specific sin which revealed Herodias’s sin-sick heart. Too often our counsel to sinners more closely resembles personal advice than legal reproof. Had we been in John’s shoes we might have offered statistics demonstrating that adultery adversely affects one’s happiness. Instead, John honestly revealed the bad news while urging her to use the remedy of repentance. Herodias responded with the well-worn saw, “Don’t judge me!” Sadly, such an attitude leads to a judgment worse than that which befell Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 11).
Herod, too, failed to deal with his sin by repentance. The king was exceedingly sorry for murdering John (v. 26a)—but he did it anyway! Godly sorrow would have led the king to repent by breaking his wicked oath regardless of the influence of those who sat with him (v. 26). How often do we pretend to grieve over what we are doing but continue to do it? Repentance is a change of mind that brings about a change of action. Repentance is not merely to say “I’m sorry” (something we might say if we sneeze in someone else’s direction). Repentance is saying, “I’ve been wrong, but now I see the truth and am willing to be transformed by it.” Sorrow not leading to repentance is a sham which needs to be repented of (2 Cor. 7:9–10).
John the Baptist and the apostles were rejected for unmistakably siding with God. They followed Christ as ambassadors who represented the kingdom of God in opposition to the kingdom of this world. Therefore, they spoke on behalf of God against sin—and were soundly opposed. I don’t want to be opposed. I want to fit in. I am tempted to shrink back when I hear that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). But in opposition we find hope.
The ultimate hope for those who are rejected by the world is found the return of Christ. In fact, Mark hints, ever so slightly, at the significance of the return of Christ in what the disciples did with the severed head and body of John the Baptist: they laid them in a tomb (Mark 6:29). They had regard for John’s dismembered body because they knew that his body would be raised up and remade into a glorious body. No amount of rejection is worthy of comparison with the glory which will be revealed in us when Christ returns (Rom. 8:18). If we pay too little attention to Christ’s return it might be because we become so comfortable here.
We close with a prayer from John Calvin, a man familiar with rejection but who found his hope in the return of Christ and the resurrection of the body. He ended nearly every one of his theological lectures with a short prayer, most of which concluded with a reference to our glorious inheritance which Christ will one day deliver to us.
Grant, Almighty God, since you do not cease your daily exhortations to repentance, but do indulge us, and bear with us, while you correct us by your word and your chastisements, that we may not remain obstinate, but may learn to submit ourselves to you: Grant, [we] pray, that we may not offer ourselves as your disciples with feigned repentance, but be so sincerely and cordially devoted to you, that we may desire nothing else than to progress more and more in the knowledge of your heavenly doctrine, till at length we enjoy that full light which we hope for through our Lord Jesus Christ.–Amen.4
1. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 84. 2. Cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 2: “Whence do you know your misery? Out of the law of God.” 3. Second Helvetic Confession, 14.8. 4. From Calvin’s sixty-third lecture on Ezekiel. John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Twenty Chapters of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 325.
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA (URCNA).
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Why are prophets exceptionally dishonored in their own home (Mark 6:6)? Are there any ways in which we experience this truth?
2. How can churches today actively bring the gospel from house to house as the first disciples did (Mark 6:10)?
3. Why does Jesus promise greater punishment for those who rejected the apostles than for Sodom and Gomorrah?
4. How does Mark 6:12–13 help shape the gospel ministry today?
5. How is Mark 6:14–29 an elaboration on Mark 6:12?
6. What do we learn about Herod’s character from our text?
7. What do we learn about John the Baptist’s character from our text?
8. In Mark 6:29, do the disciples teach us anything about caring for the bodies of the deceased?
9. Our text describes both setbacks and victories. In what way is the overall tone of the chapter positive?