Chasing God Part Three: Escape from Nazareth

I have raised a ladder against the wall of unbelief that surrounds my spiritual and cultural Nazareth–a place Jesus can do little because of my unbelief. Here is my escape plan, one rung at a time.

  1. Reading God’s Word with fresh, honest, and hungry eyes. We all read Scripture through the filters of our culture and personal experiences. This is unavoidable. However, awareness of these filters and the guidance of the Holy Spirit can help us avoid reading into Scripture in some places and going blind to it in others. Often we need to read the lines—not between them.

    For the first 25 years of my church life I had never seen any clear evidence of people being demonized. Despite all the mentions of demonization in the New Testament, I did not think casting out demons as part of following Jesus. But after encountering one clearly demonized person, I noticed how often Jesus and disciples were busy casting out evil spirits. It happens in Acts too. How could I have been so blind? I was a religion major for two years and this was never mentioned. I had read my Bible again and again and never noticed how big a part casting out demons was in the ministry of Jesus and that he commands his disciples to do it too.

    Not only I had I missed that healing and deliverance were central to the ministry of Jesus, I had been reading much of God’s Word as descriptive rather than prescriptive. This is especially true of Acts. I had read Acts as a description of what the church once was instead of a picture of what it should be. If we cut from Acts everything that is a supernatural work of God or the result of one, almost nothing is left. If we cut the supernatural from most of our churches and outreach, little would change.

    I now read the Bible like a menu from which God has invited me to order. When I read of the visitation of God to Ephesus where “the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing,” I say, “God, I want that for my city!” It is not just history—it’s what’s for dinner!

  2. The centrality of both the teachings and works of Jesus. This may seem either obvious or easy, but it is neither. Maybe it is because I grew up with a red letter Bible, but I often skipped the descriptions of what Jesus did and jumped to what he taught. I seldom noticed how the two were connected.

    Discipleship, therefore, was reduced to knowing and following what Jesus taught, but never included doing what Jesus did: healing the sick, casting our evil spirits, raising the dead and preaching the gospel to the poor. It didn’t occur to me that declaring the good news of the kingdom included demonstrating the power of the kingdom by doing the works Jesus did.

    I grew up in an evangelical tradition that emphasized The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18—20. We took this command to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” as applying to all believers, not just the disciples Jesus addressed. Although we had altar calls for those called to be full-time missionaries, we emphasized that all are called to be missionaries even if only to those next door. But for some reason, we did not apply the first commissioning of the disciples in Matthew 10:1—8 to all believers. We ignored the commission to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

    Following Jesus has to mean doing what Jesus did as well as teaching what he taught. Too simple? If I read what is between the red letters, I see that healing the sick and casting out evil spirits was a huge part of his ministry. This is inescapable. And even worse, (or for those escaping Nazareth: better) is that in John 14:12 Jesus says, “He who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also: and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” Here Jesus makes clear that doing his works is not just for the disciples; it is for all who believe. It is for me.

    If I look at what Jesus did as being as much a revelation of God as what he taught, I have to assume that it is almost always God’s will to heal and deliver people from demons. We are told Jesus healed every kind of disease and every kind of sickness and that he healed all who were brought to him (Matthew 4:23—24). If to see Jesus is to see the Father, then to see Jesus heal all who came to him is to see the Father’s will regarding healing.

    And yet immediately, we try to escape this obvious revelation of God’s will. We thank God for the story of Paul’s thorn in the flesh because this rare exception allows us to justify all our doubts about healing. Yet if we are honest about Paul’s story, we notice that Paul refers to his affliction as “a messenger of Satan.” Yet, we seldom mention the satanic nature of Paul’s affliction when we use these verses to comfort people who aren’t healed. We don’t tell people, “It’s okay, accept your sickness. God must want to keep you humble by allowing this messenger from Satan to torment you.”

    John declares (I John 3:8) that the Son of God came “that he might destroy the works of the devil.” In Acts 10:38 Peter describes the ministry of Jesus this way:

    You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how he went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; for God was with Him.

    In light of these verses, and all the description of Christ’s ministry, it is clear that with few exceptions it is God’s will to heal people and destroy the works of Satan. It violates both sound exegesis and theology to take a few verses about Paul’s thorn in the flesh and build on them a doctrine of God using sickness to build godly character—and all the while ignore that Jesus healed everyone who came to Him. We have changed the words “Be healed,” into “Be comforted. Your affliction will provide great opportunities for spiritual growth.”

    Yes, Paul’s experience is relevant. It is relevant to those who like Paul have been caught up into the third heaven and had revelations of such “surpassing greatness” that they need a messenger from Satan to keep them humble. We should also note that Paul asked God three times for this affliction to be removed and seems to have stopped asking only after getting a direct answer from God. Paul’s persistence reveals he thought healing was usually God’s will.

    Should I make Paul’s exceptional circumstances central to my understanding of God’s will concerning healing, or should I look at the mission and ministry of Jesus? I choose Jesus.

  3. A both/and approach. Often the strategy of the enemy has been to force believers into false choices. We are sometimes tricked into thinking we have to choose between saving people’s souls or ministering to their physical needs. But Jesus did both. We should too.

    I was raised in a holiness tradition that emphasized the fruit of the Spirit more than the gifts. Some other groups emphasized the gifts of the Spirit, but were less zealous about holy living. This is false choice; we are called to have both.

    I also think the choice between the intellect and the Spirit is a false choice that has bred anti-intellectualism in some Christians. Stupid isn’t spiritual. We are called to love God with our mind and our body and to steward all God has given us—even our ability to think and study.

    We do not have to choose between seeking God’s healing touch or medical help from doctors. We can pray for the sick and open hospitals for the poor. Love will always lead us to do all we can—to be both/and rather than either/or in our ministry to people.

  4. A ravenous hunger for more of God balanced by an overwhelming gratitude for all He has given. Although I speak of chasing after God, let’s be clear: God first pursued me. God has captured my heart and awakened a longing for more of Him. I am desperate for more of Him and to minister in the power of the Holy Spirit so that the afflicted are healed and the captive set free. I hunger for the power evangelism that characterized the proclamation of the gospel in Acts.

    Like most living in Nazareth, I have too often been comfortable with a Jesus who does no miracles and doesn’t expect his followers to do any either. Can’t good thoughts and ethical living be enough? No, no, no! I must fight the temptation to become comfortable with less than God’s Word promises and commands.

    At the same time, I must trust completely in God’s grace and celebrate all God has done through Christ on the cross. I will treasure every work of God’s grace in my life and let my gratitude toward God overflow in praise and adoration. I will worship with abandon and let my praise transcend what God has done. I will praise Him for all He is doing and is going to do. I will thank Him that His kingdom has come, is coming, and will come. In short, I must live in the tension of resting in God’s grace while striving for more of his presence, purity, and power.

  5. A humble love for others. Because of the general lack of unbelief in Nazareth, there were afflicted in Nazareth who were not healed. There were probably those captive to demonic influence who stayed in their chains. Too often those who desire to see God healing the sick and delivering the demonized are accused of needing these signs because of the weakness of their faith. Of course, this accusation assumes that those who desire to see God heal aren’t really concerned about the sick—that they just want a sign to help their faith.

    I suppose there are those who seek to do the works of Jesus because it would validate them or their ministry. I haven’t met any. What I see in myself is a desire for Jesus to be exalted and people to be helped. It isn’t, and must never become, about me. The ministry of healing and casting out evil spirits did bear witness to the truth of the good news Jesus proclaimed, but we are also told Jesus healed simply because he was full of compassion for those who were “distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd.”

    To illustrate the importance of persistent prayer Jesus used the example of someone who has no food to feed a guest. To honor and feed his hungry guest, the host goes to his neighbor at midnight and hammers on the door until his neighbor wakes up and gives him bread. Too often we are not humble enough to admit our cupboard is bare—that we have nothing to give the blind, deaf, lame, and demonized. We can only give them inspirational messages on how God will give them grace to continue on their state of affliction. Our compassion for our guests should keep us and God awake at night until we see them healed and set free. Compassion should make this our goal: Let people coming to the Church today receive the same ministry as those who came to Jesus in the New Testament. Until this goal is realized we should be hammering on God’s door.

    I should add that humility should make me willing to get bread for my guests from any neighbor who has genuine bread: Quaker, Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, or even Nazarene. My tribal pride should not keep me from feeding the lost and broken at my doorstep.

  6. Persevere at taking risks that grow my faith. As I pray for the sick and seek the deliverance of the demonized, I need to always minister at the edge of faith. I need to always be that guy who says, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”

    What exactly am I risking? First, and sadly foremost, is my pride. What if I step out in faith and the person isn’t healed? I will look stupid and weak—maybe even deluded. Even riskier, what if I don’t put in my prayers the “if it is your will” escape clause, but instead command healing the way Jesus did? Yikes!

    Almost as risky is the possibility that God does heals one person, but not another. Honestly, it is safer if God heals no one. When some are healed but not others, we face all kinds of difficult pastoral questions. This is especially true when those who seem most deserving of healing don’t receive it and those on the edge or outside the Church see a miracle. Pursuing God in this area means being willing to say, “I don’t know” to a lot of hard questions. Teachers, like myself, hate saying those words.

    I add the word “persevere” because I have sometimes taken risks and stepped out in faith to pray for the healing of others. When they weren’t healed, I usually withdrew into the safety of prayers that had no real expectation of healing. I have too often thought, “No reason to get our hopes up and then be disappointed.”

    But I can’t live out my faith in that kind of sad safety. I must persevere in obeying the command to heal the sick and cast out evil spirits until I die or Jesus returns. I can’t settle for a form of godliness that lacks all power.

  7. Unoffendable obedience to Jesus and devotion of God’s presence. The Pharisees were always getting offended at Jesus. They were offended that he healed people on the Sabbath. They were offended at who he hung out with.

    We always say we want the presence of Jesus in our services, but in the first synagogue Jesus went to after coming out of the wilderness, a screaming demonized person was thrown to the ground in convulsions (Mark 1:24). Do we really want Jesus? We are told Jesus “went into their synagogues throughout all Galilee, preaching and casting out demons.” I am sure synagogue services were much more peaceful and enjoyable before Jesus got busy cleaning house.

    It will, and does, offend me that God doesn’t let us be in control of healing—that He heals some people and not others. And Jesus often followed no formula. He did weird stuff like healing people with spit or mud. All offensive stuff.

    Those in Nazareth were offended that Jesus, a hometown boy, was acting like he was the Messiah. It easy to get offended at who God uses or how he uses them, but my hunger for God must push me beyond my petty offenses.

All metaphors have limits. Although I have described these points as the rungs of the ladder out of Nazareth, these steps are really not in a particular order. In fact, all these steps have to be taken together and continually.

What’s outside Nazareth? Following Jesus with a renewed mind and strengthened faith that allows Him to do all He desires in me and with me. I also hope to find a community of believers who are following Jesus down this same road.





About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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