The inauguration of Jesus' ministry, Part 1
Dec 13, 2013
Luke 4:14-15 says,
14 And Jesus returned [hupostrepho, “under a revolutionary turn”] to Galilee in the power of the Spirit; and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. 15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised [doxazo, “praised, extolled, magnified, glorified”] by all.
News spread about Him because the people were excited about His message. They must have known that He just returned from a forty-day fast in the wilderness, and no doubt they were interested in the revelation that He had received. Luke gives us a sample of the message Jesus was teaching in the next verses, where we learn what He told the people of Nazareth. Luke 4:16 says,
16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up, and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read.
Here we learn that Jesus was “brought up” in Nazareth. Luke 2:4 informs us that Joseph (and probably Mary as well) were from Nazareth when Jesus was born. Hence, they were long-time residents of that town, and “as was His custom,” Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day.
It is plain, then, that virtually everyone in the town knew Jesus. We do not know if He had joined one of the local haberim (“the friends”), which were groups of people who met nightly to discuss the law in those days. It would be strange if He shunned such discussion groups. Kenneth Bailey says,
“We can be confident that Jesus was part of this group because in the Gospels He demonstrates skills in the rabbinic style of debate such as were nurtured in these fellowships” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 147).
Yet in small towns, which are known for gossip, many may have remembered the scandal surrounding His birth, for His mother had claimed to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit. It is not likely that many of them believed her story, but in the end they had to agree grudgingly that Joseph had the right to forgive her and marry her.
By now the people had heard that Jesus had already performed some unrecorded miracles of healing in neighboring towns, and they were hoping to witness some being done in Nazareth as well (Luke 4:23). If Jesus had satisfied them in this regard, it is more likely that He and His message would have been accepted. But this was not to be.
Nazareth was not mentioned in the Old Testament writings. It was a Jewish settlement on a hill overlooking a cliff. During the Maccabean conquests in the second century B.C. they conquered Galilee and Idumea and soon became obsessed with establishing settler towns on the high ground, much like what we see today in Palestinian territory. Such settlements in the midst of resentful or hostile neighbors, invariably create a fanatical nationalistic mindset, where all are divided into Jews and non-Jews, friends and enemies, and “us and them.”
Nazareth, then, was an all-Jewish town even three centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem.
This was Jesus’ home town. We do not know if He discussed the impartiality of the law or even if He expressed His view in His early years. But it is clear that the town did not shape His theology or influence His understanding of the law. The contrast between Him and the town came to a head only when He returned to the synagogue and “stood up to read.”
Luke does not tell us if He volunteered to do the reading that day as the Maphtir, or if the ruler of the synagogue asked Him to do so on account of the miracles He was rumored to have performed. But custom dictated that if the Maphtir requested to read a Scripture that differed from the prescribed reading for that day, it had to be approved by the ruler prior to the meeting. It was customary that the Maphtir should read at least 21 verses, although this was not always done. More importantly, there had to be an interpreter to tell the people what those verses were believed to mean. In this way, the “traditions of men” became well established in the minds of the people.
It was also important that Jesus stood up to read the Scripture. The rabbis taught that it was unlawful to read the law while sitting down or while leaning against a pillar. Following that custom, Jesus “stood up to read.” When He had finished, He also interpreted the passage, as this was allowed.
Luke 4:16-19 forms a Hebrew parallelism, though written in Greek, with the Scripture text in its center.
16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up…
A1 and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath,
B1 and stood up to read.
C1 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him.
D1 And He opened [unrolled] the book [scroll], and found the place where it was written,
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me…
a to preach the gospel to the poor.
b He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
c and recovery of sight to the blind,
b to set free those who are downtrodden,
a 19 to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.
D2 20 And He closed the book,
C2 and gave it back to the attendant,
B2 and sat down;
A2 and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon Him.
We can see from this parallelism that the most important portion of the Scripture reading is in the middle (c), which says, “and recovery of sight to the blind.” In fact, because the order of the text is taken directly from Isaiah, we can say that this was Isaiah’s primary focus as well.
In other words, Jesus came to open the eyes of the blind, and when He healed those who were physically blind, it demonstrated His power to open the eyes of those who were spiritually blind as well. In Exodus 4:11 God told Moses, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him dumb or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”
The problem of Israel’s blindness was evident even after spending forty years in the wilderness, for Moses tells them in Deuteronomy 29:4, 5,
4 Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear. 5 And I have led you forty years in the wilderness…
The prophet Isaiah also prophesies of Israel’s blindness, saying in Isaiah 42:18-20,
18 Hear, you deaf! And look, you blind, that you may see. 19 Who is so blind but My servant, or so deaf as My messenger whom I send? Who is so blind as he that is at peace with Me, or so blind as the servant of the Lord? 20 You have seen many things, but you do not observe them; your ears are open, but none hears.
This blindness was also prophesied in the life of Isaac, who was blind (Genesis 27:1) when he blessed Jacob, rather than Esau as he had intended to do. Abraham had offered up Isaac on Mount Moriah earlier in Genesis 17, formally making him God’s servant. Thus, Isaac was the original “blind servant” and was the prophetic model in the writings of Isaiah.
Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1, 2 but left out Isaiah’s statement, “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.” He also stopped in the middle over verse 2 without reading the final two parts of the prophecy, including the people’s favorite statement: “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Remember that Nazareth was a town of settlers in the midst of non-Jews who resented their land grab. There is little doubt that Nazareth was well steeped in the common Jewish view of the day that God hated all non-Jews who got in the way of their supposed land “redemption.”
Isaiah’s parallelism puts the primary emphasis on the Year of Jubilee:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted:
A1 He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
B1 to proclaim liberty to the captives,
C1 and freedom to prisoners;
C2 to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord,
B2 and the day of vengeance [naqam] of our God
A2 to comfort [nakham] all who mourn
We can see from this that “the day of vengeance” runs parallel to proclaiming “liberty to the captives.” The Hebrew word for “vengeance” here is naqam, which is a homonym of nakham (or nacham).
The day of vengeance is the time when our great Avenger of Blood (or, kinsman redeemer) comes to re-establish the lawful order. His “vengeance” is not like man’s vengeance, for it is described in Romans 12:19-21,
19 … Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Paul’s counsel to the church is to follow God’s definition of vengeance, rather than man’s. God’s “wrath” is His passion, not anger as we ourselves might experience. His idea of vengeance is to send the Holy Spirit to “comfort” us, that is, to send the baptism of fire (Matthew 3:11, 12) to consume all that is fleshly in us. Hence, to “comfort all who mourn” is to “bind up the brokenhearted.” That is the inner work of the great Comforter whom Jesus sent after ascending to the throne.
This was Isaiah’s primary focus, but Jesus altered it in order to apply it more specifically to His current mission in His first appearance. He had not come the first time to restore the lawful order but to prepare the way for that second work. The main work that lay before Him was to open the blind eyes of the people in preparation for the Year of Release that was to come later.
The people of Nazareth did not share Jesus’ understanding of divine “vengeance,” nor did they want any part of overcoming evil with good. In Part 2, then, we will see their violent reaction to Jesus’ teaching.
This is part 1 of a mini-series titled "The inauguration of Jesus' ministry." To view all parts, click the link below.
This is part 13 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.