On October 31st, we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was a revolution—a complete overhaul of the way in which Christianity functioned in the world. (Or rather, a return back to the way the gospel was meant to be transmitted.) It was one of the most significant events in the history of the world, because it represented a complete overhaul of the way people thought about God and related to him.
Jesus’s arrival on the scene at the beginning of his ministry prompted the same kind of overhaul—only one which was much more striking and far-reaching.
Last week Arnaud spoke about Jesus’s temptation in the desert. It was a period of trial for him, during which he proved his divinity in the weakness of his humanity, and thus prepared himself for the trials of ministry that were about to come to him. And we read in v. 14-15:
14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
So Jesus has become a bit of a celebrity. He is going around Galilee, teaching. What he’s teaching, Luke doesn’t tell us quite yet, but we do know it was impressive—he is doing it in the power of the Spirit, and everyone is going on and on about him: he is being glorified by all.
It is in this context that he comes back to his hometown of Nazareth. And it is here that Luke gives us gives us for the first time an example of a sermon Jesus preached.
1) “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled.” (v. 16-21)
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.
On the Sabbath the men would gather in the synagogue, basically to do what we’re doing now. Their order of service was structured and fixed: there were no surprises. At a certain point, someone would be designated to read from the prophets, after which there would be a sermon; and it seems that on this day, Jesus—the homegrown celebrity—was invited to speak.
17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus is reading from Isaiah 58.6 and Isaiah 61.1-2, and he did not choose these particular verses accidentally. These verses were a promise from God to his people: that one day he would send someone who was anointed (or set apart) to do these things. He would give good news to the poor, set the captives free, heal the blind, and liberate the oppressed from their oppressors. This is a promise the people of God knew well.
So Jesus reads this Scripture, then Luke adds a very pregnant pause in v. 20:
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Ancient synagogues were not shaped like our churches are today—they were seated in a kind of circle, so anyone sitting down could still be seen by everyone. So try to imagine it: he reads this passage of Scripture, and then with no explanation, rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, and sits down. This would have taken thirty seconds or so, which is a long time to say nothing. Everyone’s waiting to hear what he will say; everyone is looking at him expectantly.
And that is when he drops the bomb. V. 21:
21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
In other words: “This ‘anointed one’ God promised? The one who would do all these things? That’s me.”
Try to think of how strange this would sound. One of my best friends when I was young was a kid named Jeff. I loved Jeff like a brother. Imagine Jeff walked through those doors today and decided to attend service and hang out with us. I’d be happy to see him; I’d want to spend time with him and catch up on him and his family. Now, let’s say that during our catching-up time, Jeff turns to me and says, “You know, I’m going to be president. Of the world. I’m going to do away with countries and borders—there will be one, united, global nation, and I’m going to rule it.”
Jeff is not a politician; he’s not a guy most people would consider powerful. He’s a nice, funny, normal guy whom I’ve known for a very long time. So my reaction to Jeff’s proclamation that he’s going to be president of the world would probably be to giggle a bit and say, “OK, well good luck with that!”
This is essentially what Jesus was saying. The anointed one in Isaiah would be this kind of Messiah—he would liberate God’s people from oppression and initiate a reign which would put all other nations to shame. That’s quite a statement to make about yourself.
2) ”No prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” (v. 22-24)
Now at first, everyone kind of likes it. V. 22:
22 And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.
For a moment, this sounds like the good news that it is. The idea that God is finally beginning to keep his promise, this promise they’ve waited so long for… That sounds great!
But very quickly, they come back to what they see as reality. 2nd half of v. 22:
And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
Here’s what ends the reverie: these people know Jesus. He’s in his hometown. These men know Jesus’s dad. They have watched Jesus grow up. They remember him as a boy, as a teenager. In chapter 2, verse 52, Luke tells us that Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. He was well-liked as a youngster; people knew him and respected him. But still…to go from being a well-liked and well-respected young man to essentially saying, “I am the anointed one God promised”? That’s quite a pill to swallow!
And they’re not buying it. Luke doesn’t explicitly describe what’s going on in their minds; rather, he tells us that Jesus knows what’s going on in their minds. V. 23:
23 And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘ “Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’ ”
He knows what they’re thinking: Yeah…right. You’re the anointed one. You’re the Messiah. Okay—prove it.
Now here’s the thing: they already had proof. Jesus had apparently already performed miracles in Capernaum. Word about him had spread through all the region—everyone was talking about the things Jesus was doing.
They had all the evidence they needed, but as David Gooding writes, they had an emotional bias against Jesus because they had known him for so long. Gooding says, “They would have to recognize [this emotional bias], and overcome it, if ever they were going to be fair to the evidence.” Which they were clearly unable to do.
So Jesus calls them on it. V. 24:
24 And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown...
3) Two Stories (v. 25-30)
And after saying this, Jesus goes on to tell two simple stories.
25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, 26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.
Most of us here today are not Jews, and none of us lived at this time period; so we hear these stories and we have a hard time seeing what the big deal is. But these are stories the men in the synagogue would have known very well, and in the context, it would have been abundantly clear what Jesus was saying. Both stories are taken from the books of the Kings (1 and 2 Kings) in the Old Testament. And both relate to a very well-known prophet in Israel—the first being Elijah, and the second being Elisha.
For the purposes of this passage, what is important about these stories isn’t so much the details (though there are wonderful things to be drawn from there, as well). The important thing here is context.
God had established a covenant with the people of Israel, that he would be their God and they would be his people. Anyone not inside the covenant were outsiders—unclean heathens. But in both stories, the Israelite prophets perform miracles—and in both cases, the miracles were given not to Israelites, but to Gentiles. Pagans. The woman was from Zarephath, in the land of Sidon; and Naaman the leper was from Syria.
So try to hear this the way the Jews in the synagogue would have heard it. Jesus says, “No prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” Then he reminds them of times when God’s prophets seemingly ignored the people of God and went to people who were not of God, and showed them grace. The grace that one would expect to be reserved for God’s covenant people, at some times, God showed to people outside the covenant.
In other words, when Israel will not listen to those sent by God, God will send them to people who will. Even if those people are not his.
So you can see what he is suggesting to these people—he’s suggesting that these might not be isolated stories in the Old Testament, but rather that this is the way God works. His blessing is not just for his covenant people, but actually extends to Gentiles—to non-Jews. And the inclusion of the Gentiles would have been scandalous for the Jews, because it would have suggested, in their minds, that God would be willing to sully himself by joining himself with unclean peoples.
So the Jews in the synagogue are furious. So furious, in fact, that they are ready to kill him right then and there, and would have done, had he not escaped (we must assume he escaped miraculously). V. 28:
28 When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, he went away.
4) A Revealing Offense
Jesus does something in this passage which he does on multiple occasions in the gospels, and it’s something that confused me for a long time. Think of how this could have gone. He could have read the passage from Isaiah, then said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and when they were unbelieving, he could have simply shaken his head in disappointment and left, knowing he wouldn’t get anywhere with these people.
But that’s not what he did. He kept going. He tells them two stories that put them in a frenzy.
Jesus was a smart guy. He knew perfectly well what kind of reaction he would provoke by saying what he did. And yet he said it anyway; it seems that he offends these people on purpose.
A few months ago I preached a sermon entitled “What Is a Good Christian?” (in our “Questions/Answers” series). After that sermon I got a very angry email from someone who said I was teaching all of you that because Jesus has saved us regardless of what we have done or will do—that it’s not based on our own efforts but on his good will for us—that means we can live any way we want and still be saved. Of course I said the exact opposite in the message; but this person was unable to hear it. His idea of salvation was intrinsically linked to his own merit—that God saves in the same way we would if we were in his position, that he only gives salvation to those who earn it and who keep earning it. And his idea of salvation was so intrinsically linked to his own merit that the very idea that it doesn’t depend on our own efforts, but only on God’s grace, was unthinkable.
His angry reaction to that sermon revealed that he misunderstood what the gospel was all about. It revealed that he didn’t understand how he was saved, or why. It was an honest mistake, but a revealing one.
The way we react to the gospel reveals something about us. And Jesus never stops bringing that out in us—he will say things which will be difficult for us to accept, in order to reveal something about our hearts.
Jesus knows perfectly well what kind of reaction he will provoke by telling these two stories; but he does it anyway, because it reveals something about the hearts of those who are listening to him. It reveals that they are more devoted to the religious establishment of Judaism than they are to God himself. It reveals that their confidence in what God can do is very small, because they can’t imagine God ever doing something this great through someone they know so well. It reveals that their zeal, while sincere, is profoundly misdirected—for they are unable to see that the plan of God all along, from the very beginning, was not so shortsighted as to include only one people group.
5) Three questions
Now let’s take a step back to see what’s really going on in this passage; Luke’s doing more here than just saying, “This Jesus sure was an audacious character!” We’ve already seen that Luke chooses his subject matter very carefully—he takes care not to just tell us specific things about Jesus, but to bring things to light in a certain order. After this, there will be loads of texts recounting amazing things Jesus does—miracles he performs, teachings nearly everyone admires and accepts—but Luke does not begin there. He starts his retelling of Jesus’s public ministry by recounting a time when Jesus was rejected by people whom he had offended.
Why does Luke do this? Why doesn’t he start with something more upbeat? Why not give us some details about what had gone on in Capernaum before this, the wonderful things Jesus did that got everyone talking? What is he trying to show Theophilus by choosing to show him this story at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry?
I think we can summarize what Luke is trying to make us see here by asking ourselves three questions.
WHAT DO WE EXPECT FROM JESUS?
This first question is something we have already seen in this gospel; Luke is simply keeping up with a theme he has already established: if we were to guess what the coming of the Messiah would be like, we would naturally expect something totally different.
One would have expected the public ministry of the Messiah to be nothing but well-received and victorious from beginning to end: surely if the Messiah was divine, if he was the “anointed one” of God, he would be able to make sure that people received his message. But that is not what happened. Many people saw his miracles and marveled, sure. But many were not impressed. They had all the proof they needed to believe that he was the Messiah, and yet rather than feeling joyful at his coming, they felt threatened. They saw him as a potential death-knell to the religious establishment. They saw in him the end of the power to which they had grown accustomed.
Luke insists very strongly that Jesus is indeed this Messiah…and yet in many ways his ministry could be seen as a colossal failure. The people in his own hometown, who knew him better than anyone, rejected him—and this was the first in a series of rejections that would ultimately lead to his public execution on a Roman cross. Luke is helping Theophilus to see that whatever may seem like a failure on Jesus’s part was not a failure at all—it was perfectly intentional. This was the way he was going to win his kingdom: not through obvious victory, but through seeming defeat.
If we continue our Christian lives, one thing we’ll see on a regular basis is that Jesus is surprising—he rarely does what we expect, including those things he does in us.
WHAT EMOTIONAL BIASES KEEP US FROM ACCEPTING THE TRUTH?
The men in the synagogue had all the proof they needed to believe in Jesus, but they had an emotional bias that kept them from seeing that Jesus really was the man Isaiah prophesied about—they couldn’t believe in him, because they were so emotionally attached to the Law of Moses that the idea that God was beginning to fulfill it in such an unexpected way (by extending itself to Gentiles also!) was unthinkable.
And we are the same. If we grow in our faith, we will see Jesus saying and doing things that make us uncomfortable—the gospel never allows us to remain in a state of comfort. And often, our reaction to what the Bible shows us will be rejection…because it shows us things that bother us.
A good example is what happens to people the first time they hear Jesus saying something like You did not choose me, but I chose you (John 15.16). The idea that our decision to follow God doesn’t entirely depend on us (if we haven’t grown up hearing it) really bothers us. We have such a strong emotional bias toward free will and our own self-sufficiency that a the beginning, we don’t even take the time to really consider what Jesus says, because what he seems to say couldn’t possibly be true!
Or when he says in Matthew 5 (v. 27-28), “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Men hear this and nod and say, “That’s right…” But that doesn’t keep them from looking when they go outside in summertime and see all the young ladies walking around in their tiny outfits. And that’s because they like it—no matter what Jesus says, there is an emotional bias which tells them that sexual pleasure taken in this way is good.
And there are a million other examples; and Jesus will always make us uncomfortable by challenging the emotional biases we have.
Which naturally leads us to our last question:
HOW MUST THE GOSPEL REFORM US?
The stories that Jesus tells here make the men in the synagogue angry because accepting the idea that Gentiles might benefit from God’s blessing in the same way as the Jews (or even worse: instead of certain Jews) would require a complete overhaul of their entire way of life and worldview.
This is profoundly important for both believers and unbelievers. If you have grown up in church, and have spent a large amount of time hearing and knowing the gospel, let me ask you: Is it possible that you love Christianity more than Jesus? Is it possible that you love the trappings of gospel ministry more than the One about whom the gospel speaks? No two people will agree on how things should be done 100% of the time…but how do you react when people start challenging your idea of what church should or shouldn’t be (even if in the end, they’re wrong)? Do you react in anger? Or do react in humility, taking the time to reflect and to pray and to ask God if perhaps there’s something to that? And if after doing so, you’re still convinced that you’re right, how do you love those people who are wrong?
Accepting Jesus requires a complete overhaul of our way of thinking, and this overhaul doesn’t just apply to those who are religious. If you’re not a Christian today, we’re thrilled that you’re here. But you have to know that you don’t have to be a Christian to be religious; you don’t even have to be religious to function religiously. All of us have an inherent worldview; all of us worship something, because we all worship what we love and desire and believe. And Jesus will consistently press upon our belief systems; he will consistently challenge the way we see the world. He will do this before we come to know him, and he will not stop doing this, for the rest of our lives.
When you meet Christ and begin to live for him, it becomes immediately evident that nothing is the same as it used to be. The world is no longer simply the place I live; it is God’s creation, in which he sets out to accomplish his eternal purpose. I am no longer my own; I am his child, purchased through the blood of his Son, forgiven of my sins and made new. My life no longer exists for me; as a child of God, I have been given the glorious mission to make much of him in my family, in my job, in my leisure, in my friendships. Following Christ costs us everything…but in return, we gain infinitely more.
At its simplest level, the call of this text is a call to believe. The gospel tells us that we are all sinners, and that we need a Savior, and that Jesus is that Savior—that he lived our life and died our death so that we might be able to stand before God and be adopted by him. But it will get us there by making us confront the worst parts of ourselves and giving them over to him—repenting of who we are and following hard after him.
So God calls us to believe—in spite of what it may cost you, in spite of how hard it may seem to be a Christian in a secular society—he calls you to believe. Not just that the Bible tells you the truth about Jesus, but that following Jesus is worth the cost.
Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor—those people who recognize that they have nothing to offer God and are entirely dependent on him. He came to proclaim liberty to the captives—those who were held prisoner by their own selfish desires. He came to give sight to the blind—those who are unable to see the truth for what it is. He came to free the oppressed—those who are beaten down and under the burden of their own sin and rebellion.
So how will we react to him? Will we run away from him, because we feel like it just costs too much? Or will we run to him, because we know that in the end he is our only hope for eternal life and joy? This is what the gospel calls us to do; so my prayer this morning is that everyone of us—those of us who have known Christ for years and those of us who are just coming to know him—will do just that: run to him, and trust in him, and love him more than anything else we hold dear.