With the exception of the times when I was attending Appalachian State University and Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute, I’ve lived my entire life right here in Mitchell county. It’s a small, rural county located in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina. We have a population of approximately 15,000 people, but even that relatively small number is declining. We were actually one of three counties statewide that saw a decrease in population last year.
Still, despite our small size, we have plenty of churches. I haven’t seen any exact figures lately, but the number is somewhere in the ballpark of 100. The primary denomination is Southern Baptist, but that’s not to say that other denominations aren’t well represented. Basically, in Mitchell county you can find whatever kind of church you are looking for as long as you aren’t looking for a mega-church.
I have served as a pastor here for over nineteen years now. Therefore, I speak with quite a bit of experience and expertise when I say that Jesus certainly knew what He was talking about when He said, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house” (Mark 6:1-6). It’s hard to describe in precise words, but there really is some dynamic at work that hinders a God-called preacher from carrying the weight and authority that he should with those who have known him all his life and know him best.
No doubt some of the problem stems from mistakes the preacher made growing up. Someone might say something like, “That guy can’t be a true preacher. I remember that time back in high school when he…..” The reputation of the preacher’s own family is another factor. If that reputation isn’t sterling, the man will typically be looked upon with distrust because he “came from a bad batch.” Still another factor is some peoples’ strange jealousy over a friend, neighbor, or acquaintance bettering himself. Trust me, “getting above your raising” is a cardinal offense with certain folks.
And would you believe that this problem is one that even Jesus Himself was hindered by? The gospels give us the record of two separate visits that Jesus paid to His hometown of Nazareth after He began His public ministry. The first visit took place in the early days of His ministry, not long after He was tempted by Satan in the Judean wilderness. Luke 4:14-30 tells us that Jesus emerged from that temptation and made His way up to Galilee, the northern part of the land. There He ministered in the synagogues that dotted the region. That circuit inevitably took Him to Nazareth, and there He continued with His custom of going into the local synagogue on the Sabbath and preaching. This is actually the first recorded sermon that we have from Jesus, and, mind you, He preached it in the synagogue that He had attended all His life.
His text that day was a chosen portion of Isaiah 61:1-2, a Messianic passage. The gist of His sermon was, “Today you are looking at the fulfillment of these words because I am the Messiah of which they speak.” The attendees marveled at His assertion and asked the obvious question, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” They might as well have added in, “Aren’t you that kid who used to play out there in the streets? How can you be the Messiah?” It was at that point that Jesus launched into a lecture on how a prophet’s ministry is greatly hindered among his fellow countrymen. He explained to them that He couldn’t perform the healing miracles there that He had performed in nearby Capernaum. Why not? A prophet is not without honor except in his own country.
By way of illustrating His point, Jesus even referenced a couple of Old Testament examples. The first one involved Elijah’s ministry. Even though there were many hurting widows in Israel during the three-and-a-half years of drought and famine of those days, God didn’t send Elijah to help any of them. Instead, He sent him outside Israel to a Gentile widow in Zarephath, a Phoenician town in the region of Sidon. The second example involved the ministry of Elijah’s successor Elisha. Even though there were many lepers in Israel during the days of Elisha’s ministry, he didn’t cure any of them. The only leper he cured was Naaman, a Gentile from Syria.
Well, you can imagine how those people in Nazareth’s synagogue responded to their local boy not only claiming to be the Messiah but also saying that He couldn’t heal any of their citizens. Luke tells us they were filled with wrath and led Jesus out of the city, up to the brow of the hill upon which the city was built. Make no mistake, their intent was to kill him by throwing him off that cliff. It takes quite a preacher and quite a sermon to evoke that kind of response from a crowd of church-goers! Maybe Jesus should have preached on the Old Testament law’s 6th commandment: “You shall not murder.” At any rate, He didn’t allow Himself to be killed that day. That wasn’t the time or place. That would come later. In some way that Luke doesn’t fully explain, Jesus passed through the midst of that bloodthirsty mob and went on His way. Oh well, so much for the first trip back home.
But I told you that the gospels give us the record of two visits that Jesus paid to Nazareth. So what about the other one? Well, it came much later in Christ’s ministry and we find the account of it in both Matthew 13:53-58 and Mark 6:1-6. For this visit, the same pattern plays out. Jesus goes into the synagogue on the Sabbath and teaches. The people are astonished at His words and immediately start asking, “Where did this man get this wisdom? How does he do the mighty works that are attributed to him? Isn’t he the son of Joseph the carpenter? Isn’t his mother Mary? Don’t we know his brothers and sisters?” Following the questions, Matthew’s gospel says, “So they were offended at Him” (Matthew 13:57). You see, it was always Jesus’ background that tripped them up. They had watched this kid grow up. They knew Him too well. He was the illegitimate son of Mary and Joseph, conceived before they were married, right? How could such a person be God’s Messiah?
And then, following the questions, Jesus again gives them the applicable line: “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house” (Mark 6:4). Obviously, nothing had changed in the months that had passed since His first attempt to minister there. Mark reports that He did lay His hands on a few sick people and heal them, but He couldn’t do any work there that He would have classified as “mighty.” Even Jesus “marveled because of their unbelief.” At least they didn’t try to kill Him this time!
Now, in closing, let me say that I know full well the problem that Jesus faced in trying to minister to those people of Nazareth. In my own way, I’ve faced it my entire ministry. Have I done some good work for the Lord here in my home county? Yes. But have I done any work that could rightly be labeled as “mighty”? No way. It’s not that I haven’t been faithful; it’s just that I keep hitting the same knot in the wood that Jesus hit in Nazareth. I’m up against a dynamic that even Jesus, Elijah, and Elisha couldn’t overcome, and so I shouldn’t be surprised that my results haven’t been more impressive.
You say, “Okay, Russell, I understand what you are saying, but I’m not a preacher. And so how does all this affect me?” It affects you by way of the spiritual influence that you can have on not only the residents of your hometown but also your own family members. If you find that your influence is somewhat limited, you’ll understand now that there is a biblical explanation. Even if you do the best job that you can do for the Lord, there will always be a certain impediment between you and those who have watched you grow up or know you best. Certainly the impediment will be lesser among some than others, but it will always be there to some degree. This doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t want you to minister to these people. It simply means that it’s not the easiest soil to cultivate. I’m not trying to get you to give up the effort or move, but I do want you to know what you are up against right out of the gate.