v.16 Jesus was a church-going man and had been all his life. It may interest you to know that this is the earliest description of a Jewish synagogue service that we have.
v.17 It does not appear that Jesus chose which book of the Bible would be given to him from which to read, but he may have chosen the particular text in Isaiah.
v.19 Jesus read from the opening verses of Isaiah 61. The “year of the Lord’s favor” is another way of referring to the era of salvation, as before in chapter 2 we read of the time of the “consolation of Israel” and the time of “the redemption of Jerusalem.” The age of the Messiah is what is meant.
v.20 It appears that it was the custom to read the Scripture standing up and to deliver the sermon sitting down.
v.21 This astonishing statement was already being visibly demonstrated in the Lord’s ministry, had been for some weeks or maybe a few months before this. In 7:22 we will read that in answer to questions from John the Baptist, Jesus sent this reply: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the good news preached to them.” In other words, the very things Isaiah prophesied would mark the year of the Lord’s favor had come to pass. Jesus’ contemporaries did not doubt that the kingdom of God would come someday, but Jesus told them and then proved that it had come that very day, that they were the favored generation upon whom the fulfillment of the ages had come!
v.22 Everybody was at first mesmerized by the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t know exactly what it was that captivated them though we have reference to the authority with which he taught and the gracious words that came out of his mouth. In his teaching there was a combination of learning and of strength and power of insight that they had not heard before. It was striking and all the more for these people in Nazareth because, of course, Jesus had grown up in their midst. They knew him and had known him as a boy and a young man.
v.23 Jesus had already made a reputation for himself by healing miracles and teaching, as we gather from v. 14. But he knew that the people of Nazareth did not believe. As we will read of the Jews so often later, their enthusiasm for Jesus was superficial and would prove to be temporary. Perhaps what they meant is that they admired Jesus’ speaking gift, but didn’t agree with his message. “What we have heard you did…” is what they said, not “What you did at Capernaum…” [Morris, 127] They weren’t persuaded that the stories they had heard about Jesus were actually true. The point of the parable, a common one in the ancient world, is not immediately clear. Why would Jesus be thought to need to heal himself? The sense seems to be that Jesus should do for them in Nazareth what he had done in Capernaum, great signs that they had heard of, but which they had not seen. They wanted to see such signs themselves and felt that they deserved, as his hometown, whatever he had given to others. [cf. Green, 216-217]
v.24 Jesus’ remark is a rebuke to their expressed desire to see a miracle. Jesus wasn’t an entertainer! But along the way he lays claim to being a prophet. But in the next verses he reminds them that Israel has a tradition of rejecting the prophets the Lord sent to them and the result is that others received the blessing the Jews missed for their unbelief.
v.28 The people get the Lord’s point and are infuriated, both by the suggestion that they fail to believe just as their forefathers did and by the suggestion that God’s blessings may, as a result, go elsewhere.
v.30 It is a question whether the Lord’s escape from this lynch mob is intended to be taken as something miraculous or not. It is hard to tell. But it was not his time to suffer death and so he escaped. [cf. Bock, i, 420] In any case, with v. 16, this final statement frames the narratives and completes it: Jesus came to Nazareth as we read in v. 16; now he went away. [Green, 208] As we learn elsewhere, it was Capernaum, a village on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, not Nazareth the Lord’s hometown, that was to be the center of his ministry.
Finally, well into Luke’s fourth chapter – and his are long chapters, making up the longest book in the New Testament! – Jesus begins his public ministry. Actually, from the other Gospels, including the Gospel of John, we learn that Jesus began his public ministry shortly after his baptism and the forty days in the wilderness being tempting by the devil; he began it in Jerusalem and he appeared on the scene there as a firestorm. He performed his first miracles there, gave his first teaching there, and before he reached Nazareth on this occasion, he had performed miracles in Galilee as well. It appears that he had already changed the water to wine at Cana in Galilee and had performed miracles of healing. Immediately huge crowds of people began to follow him and listen to him and reports about him began to spread like wildfire. The first report Luke provides his readers of the Lord’s public work is that of a sermon that Jesus preached in the synagogue in Nazareth, a synagogue in which he must have worshipped many times as a boy and a young man. By that time, very clearly, his reputation was already building and there was a tremendous interest in him on the part of people in general. We may forget that in his public work, first and foremost Jesus was a preacher. He was always preaching, he was preaching even when he was not working miracles, and after the synagogues were closed to him he preached to tremendous crowds in the open air, as many of his followers would do as well in the ages that followed. In what we might call today the Q and A that followed the sermon in Nazareth that day, Jesus made some further points.
What is so important about this first paragraph in Luke’s account of the Lord’s public ministry is that it so clearly introduces the great themes of the history that is to follow. We find here in the Lord’s return to Nazareth, his hometown, what we will find throughout the rest of the Gospel. We find, for example, the unbelief of the Jews and not only unbelief but real antipathy. Don’t imagine that this is not true to life. Lynch mobs are part and parcel of human history and, for that matter, of American history. I was reading recently an account of the United States in the Jacksonian era, and was reminded how violent that period was. Mob violence against Indians, against immigrants, against any group of people thought to pose some threat to another group was commonplace. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, was effectively murdered by a lynch mob. There were then and are today a lot of a lot of little people in the world who quickly turn to violence when their sense of themselves is threatened, when they fear some threat to their personal interests, or because they are easily stirred to a frenzy by demagogues. Palestine in Jesus’ day was such a place with many such people. America today is just such a place.
But more important, what we have here is the basic outline of the Lord’s message, the message that he will preach throughout Galilee and Judea over the next three years. It is the message that centuries before the prophets had foretold would be the message of the Servant of the Lord when he came and the Lord emphasizes that fact by making the words of Isa. 61:1-2 his own and then by saying to the assembly before him, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” which was to say, “I am the one Isaiah was speaking about; I am the one who is anointed to proclaim the good news…”
The message that Jesus preached that day and would preach through the next three years had two parts. The first part of that message was that there is grace and mercy from God for those who are troubled. He specifically mentioned a number of such people, but in each case, as will become still clearer as the Gospel narrative continues, the physical description served to identify a wider and deeper condition of life. The “poor” are not simply those who are economically disadvantaged. They may be physically destitute, many of those to whom Jesus referred were, but the poverty he spoke of refers to any and every way in which a person may be destitute in life, may be thought to stand outside the favor of God. The poor in the Gospels are simply those people who are in great need of God’s mercy and help and know that they are. The poor, in that sense, included the Lord’s disciples, none of whom, so far as we know, was financially destitute.
That last point is very important. There are many people who are objectively poor in this world – are destitute of what makes life good, and comfortable, and happy – but who will not admit it and will not seek help from the one who can give it. As Jesus will later put it, it is not those who are well who need a doctor but those who are sick and he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. But, in each case, as the context will make perfectly clear, the “well” and the “righteous” are not people who actually have no need of God’s grace, but rather people who don’t realize and who will not admit that they have any such need. They may be objectively sick and objectively sinful, but in their own minds they are healthy and righteous. The Lord had no message of grace for them! He came to bring good news to those who were poor, by which he meant to those who knew and realized that they were poor.
And so with “the captives,” and “the blind” and “the oppressed.” There were, of course, literally blind people to whom the Lord would miraculously restore their sight, but there was as well a spiritual blindness that the Lord encountered and he opened the eyes of many more people who could see perfectly well in the physical sense but who had been blind to the salvation of God. They may have had 20/20 eyesight, but they had never seen themselves as sinners, never seen God as a gracious savior, and never seen the new life that God grants to those who trust in him. The recovery of sight throughout the Bible, but especially in the Gospels, is a metaphor for receiving the truth of God and being saved. “I was blind but now I see,” was a confession on the lips of many more people than the man born blind to whom the Lord gave sight in John 9, the man who first uttered those words, the words that John Newton took up into his famous hymn Amazing Grace: “I once was blind but now I see.” It is a way of speaking of salvation as the illumination of the mind and heart, coming to see things one did not see before.
In the same way, captivity and oppression in the Gospels are primarily to be understood as spiritual states or conditions not as physical ones. It is very interesting and important to note, something you may want to write in the margin of your Bible, that the word translated “liberty” in the ESV twice in v. 18 is the word aphesis, the ordinary word for “forgiveness.” For example, in Luke 24:47, where we read of the Lord commissioning his apostles to preach “the forgiveness of sins” in Jesus’ name to all nations, we have again that same wordaphesis. Release from captivity or from oppression is again a metaphor for release from the guilt and power of sin. Remember what the angel told Joseph before Jesus was born: “he will save his people from their sins.” He might just as well have said that Jesus would deliver his people from captivity. It means the same thing because man’s captivity to sin is his real captivity, the origin of all the other forms of bondage he suffers in his life. Most people don’t think that their bondage as a bondage to sin or that their oppression is the result of their sin, but those who come to realize that are in a fair way of being saved and going to heaven! This concentration on sin and forgiveness as a bondage, remember, was a feature of John the Baptist’s ministry in preparation for the Lord’s ministry. He proclaimed, we read in 3:3, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Same word, aphesis, there too.
What is true of all of these states or conditions of life, of course, is the helplessness of those subject to them. They are prisoners, they are blind, they are overwhelmed. In each case the solution to their problems is beyond their power to effect. But Jesus comes to proclaim in himself sight, healing, and deliverance. This is what the Bible means by grace: divine mercy to the helpless, freedom to those who are in bondage, and life for the dead. And that is what people find when they believe in Jesus Christ.
Most of us have heard this so many times, we are so familiar with this message – “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” – that it is hard for us to reckon with how earth-shattering it is and how utterly unique. It may help you to appreciate anew and afresh the gospel of Jesus Christ if you realize that most people alive in the world today have absolutely no idea that God is a merciful God and that he offers grace and help to us in our need. I have always loved reading this section of a speech delivered before the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1901 by Max Müller, then Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University.
“I may say that for 40 years, as at Oxford I carried out my duties as professor of Sanskrit, I devoted as much time to the study of the holy books of the East as any other human being in the world. [That’s a remarkable thing to be able to claim!] And I venture to tell this gathering what I have found to be the basic note, the one single chord, of all these holy books – be it the Veda of the Brahmans, the Purana of Siwa and Vishnu, the Qur’an of the Muslims, the Sendavesta of the Parsis, etc. – the one basic note or chord that runs through all of them is salvation by works. They all teach that salvation must be bought and that your own works and merits must be the purchase price. Our own Bible, our sacred book from the East, is from start to finish a protest against this doctrine. True, good works are also required in this holy book from the East, and that even more emphatically than in any other holy book from the East, but the works referred to are the outflow of a grateful heart. They are only the thank offerings, only the fruits of our faith. They are never the ransom of the true disciples of Christ. Let us not close our eyes to whatever is noble and true and pleasing in those holy books. But let us teach Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims that there is but one book from the East that can be their comfort in that solemn hour when they must pass, entirely alone, into the invisible world. It is that holy book which contains the message – a message which is surely true and worthy of full acceptance, and concerns all humans, men, women, and children – that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” [Cited in Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, iii, 491-492n]
You begin to appreciate the gospel, the good news, when you realize that no one else, literally nobody else, has such good news to proclaim. No one! It is not good news to learn that you are on your own to get to heaven by your own endeavor. It is not good news when you know yourself a sinner that there is no promise of forgiveness, that no one has undertaken to secure it. It is not good news to be a captive but to have no deliverer. It is not good news to learn that God is waiting on you to satisfy his demands whatever they may be. But it is good news beyond belief to the poor, the helpless, the blind, the captive, and the oppressed to learn that God himself has taken the initiative to bring us salvation, that he is offering deliverance to us as a free gift. It is good news beyond belief to learn that “bliss is not for sale and cannot be earned.” [C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 33-34]
In fact, we are the only ones in the world, we Christians, who can look the human condition in the eye and not blink. No one can bear to face that human condition, not as it really is – corrupt, tragic, and dying – if there is no real remedy. That is why men are always seeking to describe the human condition in more positive terms than it deserves; to make it seem less bleak. We defy men to free themselves from guilt without an atonement and to free themselves from a sinful nature without the new birth. But neither atonement nor a new nature lies within our power to achieve. They are divine works and so must be divine gifts and if you don’t believe that you cannot look the human condition in the eye and not blink. Everybody blinks. Everybody treats the human condition as if it were not as helpless as in fact it is. This is the first part of the Lord’s message: God is merciful to sinners and will save those who welcome and trust in his Son.
The second part of the Lord’s message, and there will be much of this as well as we make our way through the Gospel of Luke, is that there is a sizeable community of human beings who remain and will remain uninterested in this message of divine mercy and will reject it.
It is surely a remarkably phenomenon, if not one of the most remarkable phenomena in all of recorded history, that the preaching of Jesus Christ, delivered with such authority and with such grace and with such perfect form; perfect preaching that it was, delivered by the best man who ever lived, and confirmed as it was by countless public acts of supernatural power, was not widely received or believed by those who heard him. Indeed, he was finally executed by people who had heard his sermons and seen his miracles or, at least, knew he had performed them. The problem was not with the good news; it was rather that there were few people who were poor enough to receive it.
What makes the good news so good and so imperative is that the specter of divine wrath and of punishment for sin looms over the world. There is a fate to which all human beings are consigned unless they are saved. This is the point that Jesus made, somewhat obliquely to be sure, in the afterword of the sermon. He will make that point much more bluntly as we proceed and, as a matter of fact, it was not a point in dispute among the Jews of those days. They knew of God’s judgment and of his wrath. They knew of hell as well as of heaven. Often in preaching the message judgment comes first, it sets the stage, the context and then comes the message of grace, mercy and redemption. But here the order is reversed.
But the message of judgment was not neglected, it was not omitted. The good news requires a context and judgment is that context. First the Lord draws attention to the fact his message wasn’t really accepted or believed by the people who heard it in Nazareth. The very notion that they expected to receive his attention because Nazareth was his hometown betrayed a complete failure to grasp spiritual reality. It was their need that had brought him to them, not their claim on his attentions.
Then, to confirm his point, he mentioned two examples from Israel’s past when Israel lay under God’s hand of judgment on account of her unbelief and disobedience and God’s mercy was shown instead to outsiders, to a Phoenician widow and a Syrian general. Jews knew very well that Israel had been judged often before for her unbelief and her disobedience, but the Jews of Jesus’ day were not willing to think themselves Jews like that! Instead of contrition and repentance, instead of worry and self-examination, this recollection of utterly typical anecdotes from Israel’s past produced only offended anger and outrage sufficient to create a lynch mob. This was a community of people unready to confess their poverty, their blindness, or their captivity. These were the healthy who needed no physician, the righteous who needed no repentance. The attitudes of their heart still compelled them to compare themselves favorably to others like the people in Capernaum, the sure mark of foolish pride and spiritual blindness. As the Pharisee would later say in Jesus’ story, “I thank you, Father, that I am not as that man.” It’s very interesting and it is somewhat obliquely said here – I am not sure all of you would say you would have caught this in your first reading of this narrative – but the Jews in Nazareth by a sort of innate spiritual instinct took offence at Jesus and what Jesus said for precisely the right reason! They got what he was saying. He was actually saying that they needed him! That they were poor and blind! No one was going to talk to them like that, especially no whippersnapper from their own town!
The Lord Jesus was as much as saying to them that he had brought no good news to them because though they were part of the world he came to save, they were not part of the audience to whom his words of hope and love and grace were addressed.
This too is a truth that we will, alas, see illustrated with depressing regularity through the remainder of the Gospel, just as we see it demonstrated with the same depressing regularity before our eyes every day. There are those who are being saved and those who will not be saved and the opposite of salvation is not nothing, but judgment and divine wrath and the punishment demanded by God’s justice.
There is a tragic aspect to life in this world, and its origin and its foundation lie here: multitudes of people who have no interest in God’s mercy and who are utterly indifferent to the good news that Jesus proclaimed and that he himself became by his death and resurrection.
But I want you to notice this: the two parts of the Lord’s message as a preacher have a definite order. The order is, in fact, dramatically emphasized here. Today, Jesus said, the gospel is proclaimed, the captives are set free, the blind receive their sight. Today! That “today” is our day as well and it continues to be today until the year of the Lord’s favor has drawn to its end and history comes to its close.
You remember Paul’s statement:
“Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” [2 Cor. 6:2]
And in Hebrews 3 and 4 a similar thought is carefully worked out and if you follow that author’s thought you get this:
“…so long as it is called Today” [and it still is ‘today’] the opportunity of salvation remains.”
What is so striking about the Lord’s message that day in Nazareth – and knowing the Bible as they did they would have immediately noticed this – is that he left out the second half of v. 2 in Isaiah 61. The Lord omitted the final part of the second verse. In Isaiah’s original, we read:
“…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of out God…”
But the Lord left off the last phrase. He concentrated his attention on the good news of mercy for the poor and blind. He certainly did not deny the reality of God’s judgment of the unbelieving and the wicked, but on that day he began with God’s mercy. It wasn’t until people asked him questions, responded or didn’t respond, that he went on to remind them of the rest of the story. And so it continues through the Gospel. Good news first so that all who will hear it, may hear it. This is not yet the day of God’s judgment. This is the today of the good news.
You may well wonder if there is so much woe in our world, so much punishment, so much of the wages of sin, how terrible must be God’s judgment if this is not yet that judgment, not yet. These are but the first fruits of that ultimate, final judgment, the anticipations of divine wrath, it, the warnings of its coming. But until it comes, it is the day of mercy and the year of the Lord’s favor toward all those who know themselves poor, blind, and captive.
Whether there were one or two or three in Nazareth that day that heard the Lord’s sermon and rejoiced in the proclamation of mercy to them we do not know. We may well hope that there were, some of the holy family’s friends, perhaps. But most of Nazareth was not nearly poor enough to hear good news in what Jesus had to say. They heard only offense. These people, religious, upright, moral as they measured morality, they were too rich, too sharp-sighted, too free to care for a message addressed to the poor, the blind, and the captive. They would never accept as a first principle that salvation had to be a divine gift because nothing short of God’s great work of redemption through his son would be sufficient to save a place as proud and as wicked as Nazareth was.
Blaise Pascal, the French polymath and extraordinary Christian, once wrote:
“There are two kinds of men: [And by that he meant there are only these two kinds of people in the world.] the righteous who know themselves sinners, and the rest, sinners who believe themselves righteous.”
That is a brilliant summary of that day in Nazareth. And still today it is the same. There are some of you, no doubt, who can’t bear to admit that you are poor and blind and captive. It makes you angry when people say that you are. You get your hackles up, you are defensive. But why? You are poor, blind and a captive. We know you are. We’ll think better of you if you admit it. And what good is the opinion of the unbelieving world that comforts you in your illusions about yourself. They will believe anyone rich, sharp-sighted, and free; including many you know are nothing of the kind.
There is mercy from God for the poor, but not for those who insist that they are rich. There is the sight of a wonderful new world and of God himself, but not for those who boast of their 20/20. There is the delicious air of freedom for those who know themselves captives, but not for those who insist that they are already free.
A great message; a life changing message, a heart stirring and soul lifting message, a transforming message, an indescribably wonderful message, but a message only for those for whom it comes as wonderfully good news!