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A Generation of Unbelief

Matthew 11 is a chapter in the Bible where Jesus is responding to questions posed by John the Baptist while John is in prison concerning the validity of who Jesus claims to be. The opening lines of the chapter have John sending messengers to Jesus to ask him if he is really who he says he is.

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’
(Matthew 11:2-3 ESV).

The rest of the chapter, Jesus is responding to these questions, and then further explains the idea of unbelief to the messengers and to the crowds which followed him. He begins by comparing the current generation to that of children who play games in the marketplace, and then proceeds to denounce the cities in which he performed most of his miracles. I would like us to focus on verses 16 through 24 (Jesus is speaking).

“’But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.’

Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.’”
(Matthew 11:16-24 ESV)

What I wish to share with you are three things Jesus teaches us in these verses and why they are critical in our walk with Christ.

  • What is unbelief?
  • How does unbelief operate?
  • How can we overcome unbelief?

What is unbelief?

If I were to ask you to define unbelief, you would probably say something like, “It’s when you lack faith in the trueness of someone or something.” This definition is accurate, but unbelief, as Jesus shows us in this passage, is far more than simply denying the truth of someone or something.

Right in the middle of this passage, Jesus breaks into a rather quick and seemingly random statement concerning wisdom.

“Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
(Matthew 11:19b)

Wisdom is different than knowledge; wisdom is knowing what is real. The older I grow, the more I understand that with age comes wisdom. I may not be as sharp as I was when I was in Bible college in terms of knowledge, but I grow a deeper understanding of the realness and trueness of life as I age, mainly due to my experiences and extended time of exposure to various things in life. Jesus here is asserting that those who reject him, reject him because they are not wise.

Jesus shows by his denouncing of the three cities Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum that they lack wisdom, even though they have seen sufficient amounts of empirical evidence through his miracles. These three towns were where Jesus did the most of his public miracles, and there are many recorded in our Bibles where Jesus performed various mighty acts in these cities. At the end of John’s gospel, he tells us that only a fraction of what Jesus did was ever written down (John 21:25), so there were surely plenty more miracles performed in these cities than we are told in the Gospels.

Jesus essentially says to the people around him that he went into those towns and gave them all of the evidence they needed to believe he was who he says he is, yet they still did not believe. What we can see here is that unbelief is not simply the absence of faith because of a lack of evidence, but the presence of something else which causes us to fear, hate, and reject the message of Jesus as Messiah, and no amount of evidence in the world could overwhelm the force pushing out of our hearts against his message.

I have operated independent ministries and have served at many churches in my career, but I have never once adopted or preached the idea of assertionism. Assertionism, though not officially recognized as an idea in our language, is what I refer to as a religion which says, “Believe because I said so,” or “Just believe and don’t ask any questions.” I wholeheartedly believe that those who are skeptical of Christianity and have questions about our faith deserve great answers to the great questions they bring. Jesus never once walked up to a group of people and said, “Believe that I am the Messiah,” and that was it. Rather, he overwhelmed the people around him with evidence of his claim to be the Messiah and even reasoned with them by teaching them through the Scriptures of why he was the one to come. Even after his death, Jesus hung around Earth for weeks and appeared to the Apostles numerous times to show them that he really did resurrect from the dead. In particular, he appeared to the Apostles, showed them the wounds on his hands, ate a fish in front of them, and read through Scripture with them to prove that he was not just an apparition appearing to them but was truly the risen Messiah (Luke 24:36-49).

However, the people of these three cities, even though they had been given enough evidence of the validity of his claims, remained in unbelief. This proves that unbelief is not caused by a lack of evidence, but by a presence of another power or force working in opposition to the Gospel protruding from the heart of man.

As a student and teacher of philosophy, I have heard more times than I can count that “if only I could see God with my own eyes,” or “If I saw a miracle happen in front of me, then I’d believe!” But Jesus tells us, “I have already done that, but they still did not believe.” The point here is that if we truly believe that the only thing that can solve our unbelief is an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence, we do not truly know our own hearts. Recognize that Jesus teaches us that we do deserve and need evidence of his existence and claims, but also recognize that Jesus teaches us that our unbelief cannot be justified solely on the basis of a lack of evidence, because that will not overwhelm the force pushing form our hearts.

How does unbelief operate?

Now that we recognize that there is a force present in our hearts that causes unbelief, I want us to see what that force looks like and how it operates. This is the same force that causes the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum to see miracles and wonders, yet still question if Jesus was truly the Messiah.

Jesus explains a parable to the people around him and to the messengers of John the Baptist who have just questioned his claims.

“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
(Matthew 11:16-19 ESV)

To understand this metaphor, we must understand the cultural context of first century Israel. In these small villages that Jesus continues to visit, the adults would go to the marketplace six out of seven days per week (they would rest on the Sabbath), and the children would gather to play games while their parents were buying or selling at the market. There were really only two games that the children played – wedding and funeral – because these were the only two big events that happened in these small villages. There would typically be a ringleader among the children and he would play either a wedding song or would sing a dirge (a mournful song) while the other children would act out the event as wedding guests or a funeral procession.

Jesus compares his current generation to that of children who refused to partake in either game. Imagine a little boy as the ringleader in the middle of the market surrounded by his friends. He announces to everyone that he is going to play a well-known wedding song and that everyone is to dance as if they were at a real wedding, but over in the corner is a group of children who sit with their arms crossed, refusing to play. When he asks them why they do not want to play, they reply, “This is a stupid game. We don’t want to play wedding.” So the little boy says, “That’s fine! We will just play funeral instead. Here, let’s line up like we are walking to the tomb!” The group of children reply with arms still crossed and shaking heads, “No! That’s a stupid game, too! We don’t want to play funeral!” The ringleader, knowing that the children play these games all the time, and knowing that there is really no other games to play, is completely perplexed as to why his friends refuse to do what he knows they enjoy doing. In reality, the problem is not with the game or the tunes that are being played; the problem with these children is that they are not in control. They would be more than happy to play if they were the ones playing the flute or singing the dirge, but because they do not have control of the game, they refuse to do what they love to do.

In our modern culture, we still see this behavior in children. Imagine you are planning your child’s birthday party and telling her all the wonderful things that are going to be at the party, and the child’s face lights up every time you tell her something. But halfway through the party, the child’s composure completely changes and he storms off to her room where she tells you that she hates the party and that everything is stupid, even though you know that she loves these things deep down, and no amount of reasoning or logic will convince her otherwise. This is not because she isn’t enjoying the tune of the party, but because she’s not in control. As a parent, you are amazed at the irrationality of the child’s behavior, just as Jesus was when these three cities denied his claims as the Messiah.

In these illustrations, we must recognize that the children are essentially lying to themselves, and by extension, their friends or parents. They know that they love what is happening around them, but they choose to convince themselves that they hate it all because they are not the ones in control. The children always have a reason to resist, no matter what options are presented to them. The truth is, the reasons given by the children are not the true reason at all; the true reason is that they do not want to surrender control to someone else, even if it means getting to partake in great and awesome things. Likewise, unbelievers today, even if we present the Gospel in the most logical and rational ways, will continue to reject it as long as they wish to remain in control.

I would like to share a third and final illustration to further prove my point. You may have heard of the Dead Man Walking illustration, but it fits in nicely with the point I am trying to make. Imagine that you have a friend and your friend has convinced himself that he is dead. You become concerned with your friend and worried that his mental health has deteriorated, so you take it upon yourself to prove to him that he is wrong and that he is not dead. You gather the best medical books in the world and present them to your friend and explain to him that all of medical science concludes that dead men do not bleed. He analyzes the data and concludes that medical science absolutely affirms that dead men do not bleed. You and your friend then agree to conduct a scientific experiment on his presumed-dead body by cutting his hand. When you cut his hand, he begins to bleed. You say to him, “Do you see what is happening?” He responds with, “Yes! This is amazing!” You then ask him what this means, to which he replies, “This means that all of medical science is wrong. Dead men do bleed!”

In this illustration, the “dead man walking” is completely out of touch with reality because he has concluded that his own cognitive faculties and understandings are the ultimate authority in the universe, and because of this, all empirical data will be seen through that lens, verifying what he already believes to be true. Wisdom is letting go of preconceived notions or presuppositions and allowing the truth to be revealed to us purely, without being influenced by our own wills. This was the problem of the unrepenting cities in the time of Jesus, and this problem persists even today, some 2,000 years after Jesus performed his greatest miracle by dying and rising again, all because people cannot fathom the idea of losing control of their own lives.

How do we overcome unbelief?

Now that we see that unbelief is a resistive desire of wanting to be in control of our own lives, it becomes easy to see how to overcome it.

After typing the current generation to the children in the marketplace pitching and fit, Jesus types John the Baptist and his own self as the two types of games being played in the marketplace. Jesus says that John “came neither eating nor drinking” which represents John’s abrasive and mourning-like personality and message of repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God, and that people accused him of being demon-possessed because of it. Inversely, Jesus says that he himself came “eating and drinking” and that people accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard, which represented his gracious and joyful personality. The people rejected both John and Jesus because they did not play the games the people wanted to play. John did not dance when they wanted to be happy and joyful, and Jesus did not mourn when they wanted to grieve and fast. The people of that generation wanted John and Jesus to conform to their own agendas rather than let God’s will be done through the usher and Messiah.

To the people, John is too holy, and Jesus isn’t holy enough. But the problem is not with the tunes that each of these two men are playing; the problem is with the unreceptive and unbelieving hearts of the people around them. The people want to be in control of their lives so badly that they misidentify and even murder the two central figures of God’s salvation plan. These people are completely out of touch with reality, or unwise.

There is more to the reason why Jesus makes a reference to wisdom in the middle of his lecture. In God’s word, wisdom is personified as a woman who was already at God’s side when he created the heavens and the Earth (Proverbs 8).

“When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man.”
(Proverbs 8:27-31 ESV)

The Apostle John confirms that Jesus himself was and is the wisdom of God that the prophets saw.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
(John 1:1-4; 14a ESV)

The solution to this problem is that we must become wise; we must recognize that we do not have the capabilities to lead our own lives and that only by surrendering to the will of God, will we be able to dance and mourn to the tunes being played. We must recognize and understand that Christianity is the saddest funeral and the most joyful wedding of all funerals and weddings. Christianity’s intensive pessimism says that we are broken, damned, and hopeless on our own because we can never obey God’s law enough to be right with God, but Christianity’s amazing optimism inversely says that we are totally and completely saved by grace alone because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ for our sin of breaking God’s commandments. Wisdom is recognizing that we are completely and utterly unable to save ourselves, but that God has made a way for us to find peace with him, and regardless if we choose to surrender and see this balance within Christianity, wisdom – Jesus – will be justified by his deeds.

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