[January 25, 2009] In Matthew when Jesus came out of the wilderness after being tested, He proclaimed that the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near to Israel (4:17)—meaning, in His own Person. Then He gathered a few disciples into the sphere of His Person, and gave the Sermon on the Mount, describing the blessedness of the sphere into which they had entered. Matthew mentions in passing that Jesus went to Nazareth in 4:13, but it is not until 13:54-58 that Jesus teaches in Nazareth and we have the summary of the story that Luke presents here. In Matthew the story focuses on the familiar people’s unbelief and rejection of Him (before he tells us how Herod kills John).
Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in the synagogues of Galilee (4:15) and had spent some time in Capernaum before He went to Nazareth (4:23). But he purposely rearranges the stories so that this story comes first. Let us see what he does.
When Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit comes upon Him (3:22), anointing Him with “power from on high” (24:49; see 4:14). Then, when He is “full of the Holy Spirit” (4:1), He is tested by the devil with the three kinds of temptations that He will later face in His ministry. But the Spirit leads Him when He is in the wilderness (4:1), implying that the Spirit will continue to lead Him, and He comes out victorious. Now He returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (4:14) and begins to teach. The emphasis on the Spirit is unmistakable.
The first thing He does in Luke is announce Himself. He goes to Nazareth, His home town and place of origin, and reads where it says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me because He has anointed Me …” This continues the strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit that began with His baptism. Here Jesus makes it clear that His entire ministry will be carried out by the power of the Holy Spirit under the anointing that He has received. After this, Luke gives us the first travel log—Jesus’ journey from Capernaum to Capernaum in 4:31—7:1. Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel according to Luke is a series of trips or journeys, and a log of what Jesus teaches and does on these trips.
If we are perceptive, this should remind us of the Acts of the Apostles. In the beginning of Acts, the church is filled with the Holy Spirit and at once begins to minister in the power of the Holy Spirit. So Jesus, our Leader and Exemplar, is a picture of what happens in the church. Not only so, but the same Holy Spirit that empowered Him for His ministry also empowers the church. The Holy Spirit that empowers us is the same that filled and led Jesus Himself. The Holy Spirit has not aged and has not weakened. The Spirit that anoints this congregation is the same Spirit that anointed Jesus.
The Acts of the Apostles is also organized around the travels of first Peter and then Paul, apostles, and also Philip, an evangelist. So Jesus is also the exemplar Apostle (as He is called in Hebrews 3:1). The travels of Jesus are a model for the church, and in particular for the apostolic work. Not only is Jesus utterly exceptional, the Savior whose work is unique, and the Lord who claims and commands us. He is also the One in whose shoes we are to walk. He is the One whom we are to follow. We are to do as He does. And we are to do it in the power of the same Holy Spirit as He did.
The Inaugural Speech (4:16-21)
When Shani’s Jewish friends reach a certain age, they become Bas Mitzvah. They spent several years learning Hebrew, and on that special day the synagogue attendant open the Torah scroll and, using a stick with a hand on the end of it (to avoid damaging the velum), they point to the words that are to be read and the child reads the text to the congregation in the original language. After that, they have the privilege of reading the Scriptures in the synagogue. Every adult in the synagogue could do as Jesus did in our gospel story.
Scrolls are not like books that you can hold in your hand and flip to the page you want. The Book of Isaiah was an entire scroll. It was a bulky thing that an attendant would take out of the closet and lay down on the reading table. It would have also been left on the column where the last reader left off. So when Jesus came up to the front of the synagogue, He would have rolled it until it was open to the text that He wanted—probably the lectionary text for the day—and He would have read the text in Hebrew.
Since Jesus was educated, He would have also been invited to comment on the passage after He sat down (this is how Paul was treated when he was a guest in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, in Galatia. “After the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers sent word to them, saying, ‘Men, brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it’” (Acts 13:15).
What Jesus read was the passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 (slightly modified with a line from 58:6). There, the Servant of the Lord announces the new age, when God would fulfill Israel’s hopes, by comparing it to the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25. These hopes include the announcement of the Gospel to the poor, and forgiveness and healing from both sickness and social alienation.
The Year of Jubilee, which apparently was never carried out, was supposed to be declared every fiftieth year. Every seventh year was a Sabbatical year. This was a super Sabbatical year. (Remember that the Holy Spirit fell on Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter.) In that year, everyone sold into slavery was to be released, all debts were to be forgiven, and any land that was sold was to be restored to its original owner. It is the year of liberation and restoration. Isaiah uses it as a symbol of the Messianic age. What Adam lost would be restored and what our sin has ruined will be healed. Isaiah spoke of how Judah would go into exile and lose everything. But after the Servant of the Lord made Himself a sin-offering for the people (Isaiah 53), not only would everything be restore, but the things promised that never came to pass would at last be fulfilled.
Jesus sat down and said to the people, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That was His rather short inaugural address. He was saying that He Himself was the One speaking in Isaiah’s prophecy, that He was the Servant of the Lord who would fulfill all of Israel’s hopes, that He was in fact the Messiah.
In His ministry He did the things announced, proclaiming the Gospel to the poor, healing the sick, and restoring the marginalized, but He also healed people of soul-sickness and spiritual captivity. Just like we saw in Matthew, all this happens around Him even though the world itself is not yet changed. Israel will be restored and the nations healed at the Second Advent of Christ, but in the meantime, wherever Jesus is, the world changes around Him. Things begin to change with those He touches, and in the lives of disciples, and in the church. The Holy Spirit working in the church is the foretaste of the age to come (Hebrews 6:5-6; see 2:3-4).
This little incident describes what will follow in the Gospel, and also the nature of the church’s ministry. The Book of Acts shows that the church’s proclamation is the proclamation of the Lord’s Jubilee.
The Reaction and the Fruitful Outcome (4:22-30)
At first the people “marvel at the words of grace proceeding out of His mouth,” just like the people reacted very positively to Jesus at first in Galilee and to the apostles in Jerusalem. In Acts thousands of people believed in the beginning.
But then someone says, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Perhaps this was said in pride. He is one of us! Look at what we have produced. But Jesus becomes provocative. “Surely you’re going to say, ‘Doctor, heal yourself! What you do elsewhere, do here.’ But a prophet is not acceptable in his own country.” They will not believe who He is because He seems too ordinary to them. They saw Him grow up; how can He be that special? Someone that special must be extraordinary. Not a common human being like the rest of us.
This foreshadows the rejection Jesus will experience in His ministry. Not only is His announcement His inaugural address, the rejection by Nazareth foreshadows His rejection by the Pharisees and the people of Galilee and by the priestly establishment in Jerusalem.
This also foreshadows the eventual Jewish rejection of Jesus. When Jesus was crucified, many Jews found it impossible to believe He could be the Messiah. The Messiah will come down from heaven. He will be truly extraordinary. Besides, the world is the same as before. Where is the great deliverance that the prophets promised? We will keep waiting. (The church’s bad behavior also offends them.)
So Jesus speaks of the early prophets of the northern kingdom. Elijah was a prophet who declared God’s judgment while Elisha his successor was a prophet who declared God’s grace. (Luke often compares Jesus to Elijah and Elisha.) In both cases, it turns out that Gentiles were more receptive to them than Israel was.
We begin to see this happening in the Gospel of Luke—Luke pays careful attention to this theme from beginning to end—but it is also the story of the church in Acts. When the Jews reject the Gospel preached by Paul and His companions, he turns to the Gentiles and they receive it enthusiastically.
When Jesus says this, it incenses the people and they try to kill Him. They make an about-face, from marveling at His beautiful words to breathing out murder. Jesus walks away and goes elsewhere. Jesus tells us to also wipe our feet and move on.
This foreshadows what happens to the church in Acts. When the Jews see the Gentiles gladly accepting the Gospel, they become jealous and persecute the church. (Ironically, Paul sees that this is God’s purpose. Eventually, Israel will repent. Paul thought it would happen soon, not centuries later.) [Actually, the Jewish rejection of Christianity has a more complex history; in the first generation it was not “the Jews” but the party of the “zealous,” led by the Pharisees of the school of Shammai; after the Neronian persecution and destruction of the Temple—if I may oversimplify again—it was the Gentile Christian’s rejection of Judaism that provoked the rabbinical rejection of Christianity.]
We are not to be surprised at persecution. Jesus’ initial success did not mean that rejection would not come. It came almost immediately. We should not be surprised when it happens to us. But we should also not linger with it and try to stop it. Jesus moved on, and He told His disciples to move on. In Acts we also see how the apostles moved on. When people reject the Gospel, they are in God’s hands. Often the persecutor makes a complete turn-around, like the apostle Paul did. More often they do not. We do not need to concern ourselves with trying to change them. We simply need to move on to other people—whoever is receptive, even the most marginalized of people, such as pagan widows and lepers.
So this story that begins the ministry of Jesus in Galilee is an introduction and foreshadowing of His entire ministry and the ministry of the church in Acts—a story that continues with us today.