Tom Gilson

Jesus’ First Words: Luke 4

Reconstructed Synagogue at Nazareth

It’s not clear what the people of Nazareth thought of Jesus as he was growing up, but when he came back to deliver a message in the synagogue, he came back with one reputation, and when he left, it was with quite a different one. Rarely has anyone fallen so far in favor so quickly. They almost killed him. Why?

Nazareth and Capernaum in Galilee

The account is found in Luke 4:14-30. He had been teaching in other cities, being “glorified by all.” He had performed healings in the considerably larger town of Capernaum, less than thirty miles to the northeast, and the news did not fail to reach his hometown.

So they were ready for something good, and he delivered. It may in fact have been the best news anyone has ever brought forth in a sermon. He started by reading from Isaiah 61:

“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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That much was familiar enough. What he followed it with, though, was something they had never heard before: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This was a Messianic passage: “Messiah” actually means “anointed one.” Jesus was announcing his identity. They thought they knew him: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” It seems that Nazareth was ready to claim him for their own, and why not? Who doesn’t love to say, “I knew him when he was a boy–we were neighbors!” And who doesn’t expect at least a bit of special treatment for it? So they looked to him to do there what he had done in Capernaum.

But Jesus was not the son of Joseph, except by adoption, and he was not a child of Nazareth but the Lord and Savior of mankind. He was the one who by speaking Isaiah 61 was also fulfilling it. No one else could or would have dared say the same. He knew who who was. He would not be owned by any man, woman, or people, not even the people of his birth and upbringing:

And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 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, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 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.”

At this the crowd turned violent! They tried to throw their favored son right off a cliff for it! What on earth brought that on?!

It was Jesus’ rebuke to their racism and their chauvinism. God is not the property of the Jews, he was saying. Not only that, but Jesus wasn’t going to perform for his old friends and neighbors on demand. Apparently something else was going on there that Luke doesn’t mention but Matthew does (Matthew 13:58): “And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.”

This might have been a good pre-election article, had I written it last fall, for it’s a great reminder that God has his own agenda, and it’s not to promote any person or party. That’s not to say he won’t favor one person or one program over another, but on his terms and for the sake of his Kingdom. If God is opposed to abortion (and he is) it’s not because he’s with the pro-life party. It’s because he is who he is.

We who claim the name of Jesus Christ must remember we do so as his followers. The true claim is not ours upon him, but his upon us. It’s easy to forget that God loves his enemies (Romans 5:1-8), that we ourselves were once among them, and that he has brought us to himself on his own terms.

While seeking to avoid that mistake we must not overcorrect, however. Even though God doesn’t choose sides among humans, it’s still possible for humans to choose for or against God and his ways. If someone claims God is on his side, he is wrong. If he claims he is on God’s side, however, he might indeed be right, to the extent that his life and purposes are in line with God’s revealed purposes. Jesus himself said “whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30). There are some who are with him, and some who are against him.

Jesus is at the center of all of this, yet he is there uniquely to give: to proclaim good news to the poor, to announce liberty and healing the Lord’s favor upon all who are in need, especially the oppressed and most especially the spiritually oppressed. He is (most uniquely!) the God who can do anything, who uses that power for others.

And that might be one good indication of whether we are on the Lord’s side: do we use our own limited power for others? Do we keep him at the center as we do so? I’ll close this now and ask myself those questions. They’re not easy ones, are they?

Images from Accordance

Series Navigation (Jesus' First and Last Words):<<< Jesus’ First Words: Mark 1<<< Jesus’ First Words: Matthew 5Jesus’ First Words: John >>>


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