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Matthew 13:58

and he did not there many mighty works, because of their unbelief. (YLT)
And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief. (KJV)
And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. (ESV)
And He did not do many miracles (Or works of power) there because of their unbelief. (NASB)
And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. (NIV)

What is the relationship between "unbelief" and "mighty works". To clarify, here are some ways to rephrase this question:

  • What does Matthew 13:58 mean by "mighty works" / "works of power" / "miracles"?

    • Is there a Biblical definition of this concept?
    • Can we know what the author meant based on how the culture at the time would have understood the word "miracle"?
  • How is lack of faith ("unbelief") related to occurrences of miracles?

    • First of all, lack of faith in what?
    • Is Jesus implying that faith is a necessary condition for miracles to happen, i.e., without faith in miracles, miracles will not happen?
    • Is Jesus implying that faith is a sufficient condition for miracles to happen, i.e., with faith in miracles, miracles will necessarily happen?
  • Lastly, is Matthew 13:58 teaching a universal principle, or merely describing an anecdote without universal application?


Related CSE questions that prompted this one:

3 Answers 3

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It's good to interpret Matt 13:53-58 along with the parallel Mark 6:1-6. This answer agrees with Anne's and Dottard's answers, but approaches this text from another angle while also addressing more specifically the OP's analytical questions.

A possible interpretation: Jesus CHOSE NOT TO

A Christian Courier article Why Couldn't Jesus Perform Miracles in His Hometown? by Wayne Jackson reconciles Jesus's divine unlimited ability with the Mark's parallel text's saying "could not" by looking at the alternate meaning of the Greek ouk edunato as "chooses not". So why did Jesus choose NOT to? The article proposes, quoting Mark commentaries by Hiebert (1994) and Brooks (1991), that God requires us to have at least a certain openness to Him rather than close-fisted refusal:

“[Jesus] felt it morally impossible to exercise his beneficent power in their behalf in the face of their unbelief (Matt. 13:58). It closed the door against the operation of His power. He refused to force Himself upon those who did not want Him” (Hiebert, p. 156).

“God and his Son could do anything, but they have chosen to limit themselves in accordance with human response. . . Jesus was not the kind of miracle worker whose primary purpose was to impress his viewers [with no regard to the nature of their disposition]” (Brooks, p. 100).

Barnes's notes on the Bible (1870), commentary on Matthew 13:58 views it similarly, that Jesus sees it as useless to perform miracles if the witness is like a hostile 20th century scientific naturalist (following David Hume) who refuses to accept a phenomena as miracle but insists on explaining it in scientific terms ONLY (by excluding a metaphysical cause that comes "outside" / "above" nature). In the 1st century, the equivalence would be someone who insisted to interpret Jesus's miracle power as coming from the devil instead of from God Almighty:

Because of their unbelief - That is, it would have been useless to the great purposes of his mission to have worked miracles there. We are not to suppose that his power was limited by the belief or unbelief of people; but they were so “prejudiced,” so set against him, that they were not in a condition to “judge of evidence” and to be convinced. They would have charged it to derangement, or sorcery, or the agency of the devil. Compare John 10:20. It would have been of no use, therefore, in proving to them that he was from God, to have worked miracles. He did, therefore, only those things which were the proper work of benevolence, and which could not easily be charged on the devil. He gave “sufficient” proof of his mission, and left them in their chosen unbelief without excuse. It is also true, in spiritual things, that the unbelief of a people prevents the influences of the Holy Spirit from being sent down to bless them. God requires faith. He hears only the prayers of faith. And when there is little true belief, and prayer is cold and formal, there the people sleep in spiritual death and are unblessed.

Answering your questions

  • What does Matthew 13:58 mean by "mighty works" / "works of power" / "miracles"?

    • Is there a Biblical definition of this concept?
    • Can we know what the author meant based on how the culture at the time would have understood the word "miracle"?

    ANSWER: Research into Second Temple study literature will answer this better. Research into unconventional interpretation of Mark / Matthew (such as using narrative criticism) may yield another reading. But it seems that "miracles" in Matthew simply refers to the commonsensical definition #2 I described here.

  • How is lack of faith ("unbelief") related to occurrences of miracles?

    • First of all, lack of faith in what? ANSWER: I think the object of that faith is #1 and #2 below:
      1. Faith in God as the origin of the miracles (instead of demon). In Jesus's time this God means Israelite's God, especially since Jesus's audience was Jewish. In the OT He was the one who worked mightily "with his right hand" delivering Israel against Pharaoh and won them the wars against the Canaanites. He was the one behind all of Elijah's and Elisha's miracles including resurrecting people from the dead.
      2. Therefore, it can also mean faith in Jesus acting as this Israelite's God appointed prophet announcing the coming of the Kingdom whose power for the miracles that uncontrovertibly happened (even the skeptics that didn't believe in Jesus acknowledge them as miracles) comes NOT from demons but from the God of Moses, Elijah, etc. In other words, faith that Jesus was NOT yet-another-self-appointed-failed messiah that the people living in Judea and Galilee witnessed a few years earlier. Or faith that Jesus was NOT crazy; maybe at that time they believed crazy people could have summoned the power and principalities to produce supernaturally charged events that could be confused with miracles coming from God.
      3. Can it also mean faith in Jesus as Savior & Messiah? This needs further study as the audience of Mark and Matthew as written Scriptures is different than the audience of the original event in Nazareth. The question is whether at the time Jesus already proclaimed He was the messiah or not, since chronologically this is before his entrance to Jerusalem on the donkey and probably before he announced that he was the suffering servant prophesied in Isaiah 53.
    • Is Jesus implying that faith is a necessary condition for miracles to happen, i.e., without faith in miracles, miracles will not happen? ANSWER: in this context, faith as an openness to the true Israel's God who sent Jesus as prophet seems necessary, just like in most other recorded miracles.
    • Is Jesus implying that faith is a sufficient condition for miracles to happen, i.e., with faith in miracles, miracles will necessarily happen? ANSWER: Ultimately, the sufficient condition is what Jesus as God's prophet CHOSE. In the recorded Gospel miracles, it looks like most of the times, His mission only requires a mustard seed faith as a sufficient condition.
  • Lastly, is Matthew 13:58 teaching a universal principle, or merely describing an anecdote without universal application?

    ANSWER:

    We are in the post-resurrection post-Pentecost era, so the question is what does this pre-crucifixion exchange between Jesus and Nazareth means for us now? What does Matthew try to communicate to the post-resurrection audience?

    I think we should try to discern Matthew's intention, so we need to be guided by Matthew's placement of this event in his written gospel, which is immediately after Matthew 13:1-53, which is a set of parables (Parable of the Farmer scattering seed, Parable of the Wheat and Weeds, Parable of the Mustard Seed, Parable of the Yeast, Parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl, Parable of the Fishing Net) about the way God reveals the Kingdom to us and how different types of people responded to the gospel.

    One type of response illustrated by Matt 13:54-58 is hardened heart (Matt 13:15, quoting Isa 6:9-10) like the seed that fell on a footpath (Matt 13:4).

    Therefore, a possible universal application is:

    1. As in the many parables in Matt 13, God has done his part in revealing himself to those who are at least is open to Him, not resisting (which is not exactly "faith" doctrinally speaking, but a certain trust to let the doctor operates on you for your own good). If we open our heart's door, God will come in and gives us faith.
    2. God honors our free will. If we actively reject, God doesn't force his way in.
    3. But if we at least say: "Come in", if God thinks we need it, God will perform a miracle as an aid to trust Him further.
    4. Are miracles promised for today if we are open to them? I don't think we can say that from this passage. We can only say that if we are actively refusing to believe (like the people of Nazareth) then God will likely CHOOSE NOT TO. I haven't read Craig Keener's massive book which studies and reports modern miracles, but I have a feeling that all who experience miracles in that book were NOT resistant to God and that God (out of his freedom, providence, and wisdom) CHOSE TO perform miracles to them.

Conclusion

We cannot conclude from this verse that FAITH is like a switch that automatically opens the door for MIRACLE to come. If FAITH works like that, it's akin to MAGIC. Many theological traditions teach that even FAITH is a gift. What this text clearly says (as interpreted above) is that REJECTION is an obstacle that God will respect (freedom of will). Just as Jesus mostly chose to perform miracles to people who welcomed Him, it's reasonable to conclude that God would also CHOOSE to perform miracles to those who are at least open to attribute exceptional phenomena to God rather than to demon or to psychology or to nature.

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The other side of this same coin is what Jesus often said in other places. Recall that "belief", "faith" and "trust" all translate the same Greek noun - pistis, best translated as "trust".

  • Mark 5:34 - He said to her, "Daughter, your faith/trust has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."
  • Luke 18:42 - Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith/trust has healed you."
  • Matt 9:22 - Jesus turned and saw her. "Take heart, daughter," he said, "your faith/trust has healed you." And the woman was healed at that moment.
  • Luke 8:48 - Then he said to her, "Daughter, your faith/trust has healed you. Go in peace.
  • Luke 17:19 - And Jesus said to the man, "Stand up and go. Your faith/trust has healed you."

In Matt 13:58 we have:

And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith/trust.

This is stating a rather obvious fact - humans do not have divine power and thus, if a divine miracle is to be wrought, then we must trust God to do it. If we do not trust God to do it, and thus depend on/trust in other sources, we will not see divine miracles.

Rather simple really!

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  • Would you say these principles still apply in modern times? Mar 18 at 13:31
  • I think it all comes down to the difference between trusting that God WILL perform miracles in our lives and trusting that God CAN perform miracles in our lives. Jesus did not perform miracles, not because they didn't trust that He would do them, but because they didn't trust that He COULD do them. That is the important part. I don't trust that God will perform a miracle for me if I ask Him to; I trust that He CAN perform a miracle for me IF it is His will to do so. That's the sort of faith we should have. We shouldn't expect God to do miracles for us, but we should have faith that He CAN. :-)
    – Rajesh
    Mar 18 at 17:13
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - the NT principles are the same today as ever.
    – Dottard
    Mar 18 at 20:43
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - if you are asking about modern miracles, then there are still many modern miracles of divine origin that are accepted by faith/trust in God.
    – Dottard
    Mar 19 at 20:27
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I think that your examples of rephrasing the main question might trail off topic, and I wouldn't ponder them myself. So, I'll focus on an answer to your main question in the title.

Once the main question is answered satisfactorily, then you might see the answer leading well away from what "mighty works / miracles" were held to be in the culture of that day. And the answer to the main question will give the answer to your last question with hardly any need for explanation.

So, Matthew 13:58 has the background of Jesus preaching with authority in his local synagogue, back home. The people were astonished, wondering where he got such wisdom from, and they also knew about his miraculous works. They were not ignorant as to who Jesus was and what he did, but their familiarity with the child who grew up in their midst and now taught brilliantly and performed astounding miracles caused them to not simply doubt, but to show contempt:

"Is this not the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James and Joses, and Simon and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things?' And they were offended in him." (vss.55-57)

That is why Jesus did not do many mighty works (miracles) in their midst, because of their unbelief in him.

It really is as simple as that. Jesus did not need to prove anything to them. He was not out to impress them. He was not looking for financial support from them. He was the Son of God! Yet they disparaged him because of his humble earthly background? Their eyes were truly blinded to the miracles Jesus did. Why should he favour them with a catalogue of great works? Their ears were truly deaf to his teaching, which had the authority of heaven behind it. Why should he try to reason with them? He just left them to get on with it, their way.

Of course, Matthew 13:58 is teaching a universal principle. The faith that Jesus responds to is faith that he is the Son of God. Faith has to be in Jesus Christ himself. Miracles are not to be the focus of one's faith. The Son of God is the focus of worship, attention, faith, hope and love. People who have Christ as their center of faith are given spiritually opened eyes and ears to see his miracles of grace, while those looking for the spectacular don't notice anything.

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  • Of course Matthew 13:58 is teaching a universal principle. That is too obvious for words. - in other words, if people don't see miracles today, the reason would be their lack of faith? Mar 18 at 15:43
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator, its more like, God won't bless you with the fruits of faith, if you don't have faith.
    – Austin
    Mar 18 at 15:45
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    @Spirit Realm Investigator That could be one reason, and another could be that God does not deign to perform any miracles. But those two reasons don't always go hand in glove. Sometimes God does not perform miracles even when there are a lot of his people around who do have solid faith in him. The point is, nobody can do (or have) X,Y,&Z and thus 'oblige' God to do mighty works. He sovereignly chooses what he will do, and when. Once people learn this principle, they see how much it explains!
    – Anne
    Mar 18 at 15:54
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    Up-voted +1 especially for the point that faith is in Jesus Christ himself . The miracles are not the focus of one's faith. The Son of God is the focus of our worship, attention, faith, hope and love. @SpiritRealmInvestigator
    – Nigel J
    Mar 18 at 15:59
  • @NigelJ - 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. 12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:11-14 ESV) Mar 19 at 0:25

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