Luke is going to spend some time revealing to us the teachings and activities of Jesus. Jesus is teaching in the synagogues, a place where local Jews convened for the reading of the scriptures and teaching (something similar to church services today). Jesus has been going to each synagogue in various cities throughout the Galilee region. This would be like Jesus going to various churches throughout south Florida teaching the scriptures. Verses 14-15 reveal that the people are responding positively to Jesus’ message, praising and glorifying him and his teaching. Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, where he grew up. He enters the synagogue and Luke is going to tell us about what happens to Jesus in the synagogue of his hometown. Will the response be favorable like the rest of the places Jesus taught in Galilee or not?
To appreciate what is happening, it is useful to understand the synagogue service order. We have ancient Jewish sources like the Mishnah that tells us how synagogue services were run in ancient times. The congregation would recite Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which was called the Shema. The scripture begins, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” After reciting the Shema, they would share in prayer and singing songs. After the prayer and songs there was a reading from the Law of Moses and then a reading from the Prophets. Once the readings were completed, there would be an exposition of the text (what we would call a sermon today) that usually would tie the readings together. The service closed with a benediction, the pronouncing of a blessing on the people.
Now we can understand what is going on here in Luke 4. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah is given to Jesus. We are in the part of the synagogue service where the prophets were read. Jesus opens the scroll of Isaiah and turns to the place that is marked in our current scriptures as Isaiah 61:1-2. This passage in Isaiah was predicting the coming of the Messiah, who would bring salvation to the nation. The figure of Isaiah 61 brings a message of God’s deliverance to the exiles. The Spirit of the Lord being upon this Messianic figure means that he would be God’s designated servant with a special task given by God. The Messiah was not going to be a self-proclaimed messiah, but one designated by God (as we saw in the baptism scene of Luke 3).
Notice the emphasis of Isaiah’s prophecy is on the proclamation. Three times Isaiah says that the Messiah is going to be proclaiming. He will proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, and the year of the Lord’s favor. This reading by Jesus helps us understanding the thinking of the day. Israel had already been set free from Babylonian captivity. However, Isaiah’s prophecy had not yet been fulfilled because Isaiah was not merely speaking of a physical release from a world power. Rather, Isaiah is picturing the coming of the Messiah who will liberate the people from their sins. The prophecy pictures a messianic figure who will restore God’s blessings to the people (“proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”). The people are oppressed by sin and wandering in the darkness of sin. But the Messiah will come and bring light, blessings, and favor. Notice that God’s blessings and favor will not be proclaimed to the rich and powerful. The message is to the poor and the oppressed. God’s saving grace is coming to all people.
This picture is summarized in the statement, “The year of the Lord’s favor.” This phrase has an allusion to the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-55). Under the Law of Moses the year of Jubilee occurred every fiftieth year and was when the debts were canceled and slaves were freed. All of this is a metaphor for the salvation of God that would come where the debt of sin would be canceled and the people would be set free from the slavery of sin. Isaiah is picturing a time when salvation, liberation from sin, and illumination of the people would arrive. This is what the people thought when this scripture in Isaiah was read in synagogue.
Before we go forward, we need to also ponder why Jesus did not finish the rest of Isaiah’s sentence. Verse 2 of Isaiah 61 reads, “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” We have previously noticed that Luke has recorded that when the Messiah comes the blessings of God will come. But the judgments of God will also come. This is what Isaiah also prophesies. The Messiah will come, bringing blessings to the people, but judgment will also arrive with him. There are a number of reasons conjectured by scholars as to why Jesus does not finish the quotation in Isaiah. I think that those who knew the scriptures (and those in the synagogue knew the scriptures well) would finish the rest of the sentence in their minds.
After reading the scripture, Jesus takes his seat. All eyes are upon him, waiting for his exposition of the text. Here is how Jesus’ sermon started: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The time that the faithful people of God have been waiting for has arrived. The time is now! What a statement! God’s salvation has now arrived! The blessings of God are being poured out on his people today!
The People’s Conflict and Jesus’ Response
This sermon leads the people to a conflict. The people are amazed at his gracious words, but they are troubled because they know who Jesus is. Jesus is in Nazareth. They know his parents and they watched Jesus grow up. Jesus has now placed upon himself the Isaiah 61 scripture, declaring himself to be the prophesied servant that Isaiah spoke about. The people are thinking, “Wait a minute! We know who you are. You can’t be the one! You are not messianic material!” Mark’s account records the words of the people. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3). Essentially, “You cannot be the one! Your family is right here!” Luke shortens this thought process with the concise, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” So Jesus preached a good sermon, but they did not accept the point Jesus made. This leads Jesus to respond sharply to the synagogue.
Jesus declares that they are not going to believe him and they will demand the signs done in another city be done in Nazareth. The people want Jesus to show his stuff. It is important to consider that the people are not innocently and honestly asking for a sign for Jesus to prove his claim. Jesus did many things that proved he is the Son of God. The Mark account perhaps gives us an additional insight that despite all the works, teachings, and signs Jesus will perform, the people will not accept him, always asking for another sign. One of the problems that repeatedly occurs in Jesus’ life is that people do not see the signs to prove that Jesus must be obeyed and followed, but they want the blessing of the sign. Rather than be amazed at who Jesus is and follow him completely, the people are amazed at the miracle and selfishly want more miracles to occur to meet their physical needs of health, hunger, or thirst. I believe this is the problem that Jesus is addressing with the people of Nazareth.
But Jesus does not leave his criticism with this point. Jesus digs the point deeper. In verse 24 Jesus notes that a prophet is not accepted in his hometown. Please note that Jesus is calling himself a prophet of God (previously calling himself the Messianic servant of God fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy). Jesus then uses two historical events to illustrate what is going to happen with him.
First, Jesus uses the days of the prophet Elijah. The time of Elijah was a wicked and evil time, a real low point in Israel’s history. It was a time of covenant unfaithfulness. Jesus points out that there were many widows in Israel at that time. But Elijah did not go to those widows. Elijah was not sent to one widow in Israel, but was sent to a widow in Sidon. The point is that God blessed a Gentile widow. God did not send Elijah to Israel’s widows because of the nation’s unfaithfulness. In the same way, the prophet Elisha also did God’s work during a time of Israel’s unfaithfulness. There were many lepers in Israel at that time, but God did not send Elisha to any of the lepers in Israel. Instead, God sent Elisha to Naaman who was a Syrian. Again, another Gentile received God’s blessing. The implications of this teaching are enormous.
- Jesus compares the current time when he is preaching with one of the least spiritual periods in Israel’s history. This is a major blast against the people. The spirituality of the people was at an historical low back in the days of Elijah and Elisha. The first century was just as poor spiritually.
- Gentiles, who were hated by the Jews and were considered not worthy of God and his blessings, would receive God’s blessings during that time rather than the Jews.
- The rejection in his hometown of Nazareth represents what will happen to Jesus as he preaches throughout Israel.
- The rest of the Isaiah text is true. Jesus is proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, but he is also proclaiming the day of vengeance of our God. Jesus is not speaking good news now. He is preaching judgment upon them for rejecting Jesus. Those who reject Jesus are going to suffer punishment.
The story concludes with the response of the synagogue of Nazareth. They do not take this message to heart. They do not reconsider their ways. They respond like Herod and Herodias. They try to kill Jesus. They rise up on the synagogue and drive Jesus out of town. They were going to throw him off the cliff, but Jesus passed through their midst. Here is a sign for the people of Nazareth. They are trying to kill Jesus, but Jesus passes through them unharmed. Jesus’ time has not yet come. No one will take his life. Jesus will give up his life voluntarily at the proper time.
- We must realize that all of us are verse 18. We are spiritually poor, spiritually blind, and spiritually oppressed. Jesus had to say those words to the church at Laodicea. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. (Revelation 3:15–18; ESV)
If we do not recognize our condition, we will fail to understand what God is offering to us. We think that we are prospering and have no need for anything. Unfortunately we do not realize our spiritual condition. We fail to see that we are enslaved to sin. We miss that we are walking in darkness and are not having the life and the blessings that God wants us to have. This is what makes Jesus’ words ironic. It is usually the physically poor and physical oppressed and distressed that understand their need for a Savior. They are the ones who understand they are spiritually needy.
- Jesus teaches in the synagogue to help the people understand that they are spiritually needy. He uses the illustrations of Elijah and Elisha to show them that they have a spiritual deficit and need Jesus. Jesus attacks us where we do not expect him to attack us. We want to think that we are spiritually fine. Jesus says that we are not. We do not understand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah King. We do not understand that we need Jesus to have the good life, to break the enslavement of sins, and to have eternal life given to us.
- Jesus preaches jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus has come and he has broken the power of sin and death by living a perfect, holy life, dying for our sins, and raising from the dead. The good news is proclaimed to us that we can be free from Satan. We can be free from the broken life. Jesus has come offering to heal our lives and change us. He wants to open our eyes so that we can see how much he has done for us and how much we need him.
- Jesus’ mission is our mission. We must proclaim this good news to everyone. The debt of sin has been released and salvation has been offered. We are called upon to accept this truth and put our trust in Jesus. Then we are to turn and proclaim this news to everyone else. In a time of darkness and distress there is Jesus who brings life and light to our lives. He brings purpose and meaning to our lives. He brings promises and blessings. Jesus is calling for people to not reject his message of hope, freedom, and a new life. Jesus is what is missing in your life. Jesus is what you need in your life. We need to tell others that they need Jesus just like us.