What was the mission of Jesus? Why did He come to earth? Why did the people of Nazareth want to throw Jesus off a cliff?
We discover our answers from a passage in the New Testament book of Luke.
Who or What is God?
If I were to ask you, who is God? Or maybe what is God? You might say that:
- God is holy
- God is powerful
- God is omnipotent
- God is love
- God is wise
He can be described both abstractly and concretely.
- God is a shepherd
- God is a rock
- God is living water
- God is bread
- God is a nursing mother
- God is a father
These words not only create images but smells, touch and even taste. Scripture does not emphasize thinking about the goodness of God but rather “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
When examining the life of Jesus people describe him as “powerful, wise and gentle,” yet in concrete terms Jesus was born in Bethlehem, laid in a manger, and had the heavens and angels announce his birth. A manger is a place for water, not hay. Animals were brought out to graze. Food was not brought into a stable.
The word Bethlehem (bet lehem) means house of bread or place of bread. In Arabic the meaning is house of meat. I love this dual meaning with Arab brothers and sisters in Christ.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, which means “branch or shoot”, referencing the messianic words of Isaiah 11 which states, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.”
Connecting the western and eastern understanding, Jesus is:
- the Light of the world came into the world and announced by starlight.
- the Bread of life and Lamb of God was born in the city of bread and meat.
- the Living Water was placed in a water trough.
- and, the Shoot from Jesse’s stump grew up in branch-town.
Jesus gave his inaugural address boldly and shockingly in branch-town, declaring His spirit-led messianic mission.
“And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. 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.”
The Town of Nazareth
Understanding the synagogue service requires some history regarding Nazareth, a town of about 200-250 people founded by returnees from Babylon in about 150 B.C. The people named the community Nazareth, deciding they were the ones where the Messiah would come. They named the town neser (branch), referencing the messianic words of Isaiah 11:1. They were saying, “We are Nazareth. We are Jesse’s family and the messiah is going to be from here.” Yet everyone looked down on them. Remember the often quoted saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” In other words, “What right do they have to claim the Messiah?”
The gospel of Luke is a sequential gospel, placing things in chronological order. This helps provide a proper context for the passage.
According to Luke, Jesus is baptized and spends 40 days in the wilderness preparing for ministry. After this He, “returns in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.” Jesus ministers throughout the Galilee region. This suggests he was a member of the synagogues in a number of communities, including Nazareth and Capernaum.
Luke 8 gives the story of Jairus, the synagogue ruler of Capernaum. The man had various responsibilities. He was the custodian of the building and the master of ceremonies for weekly services. He had the responsibility to schedule synagogue speakers and record the Scripture read and discussed. A list was posted on the wall for the community. A portion from the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, was read along with a section from the prophets.
The Scripture reading was selected far in advance. Similar to liturgical churches today they created something like a Scripture calendar, detailing what would be emphasized each week. In Jesus’ day some believe the Scripture passage may have been selected as far as 200 years in advance, evidence points to at least 3 years. This has huge implications to the particular passage Jesus read on that particular day. God is not a God of coincidence. He arranged this moment years before it occurred.
Jesus, one of their own, did some wonderful things in Capernaum and was scheduled to speak in the Nazareth synagogue. The place may have been packed with townspeople. The speaking list posted Jesus as the selected teacher.
Citizens believed the Messiah would come from their community. Jesus healed people, cast out demons, and did amazing things in the region. They came to the synagogue wondering if one of their own was who they were waiting for, if this was the one they should be expecting.
“And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “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.”
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. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son”
And Jesus reads 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.” He reads the messianic text to people thinking the Messiah was coming from their town. He then sits down and gives a very short sermon, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The sermon was actually the person reading the text.
What Jesus read is slightly different then Isaiah 61. Isaiah 61:2 reads, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus removes the day of vengeance of our God and adds a line from Isaiah 58, “to set at liberty those who are oppressed,” to set the oppressed free. By inserting this phrase, his audience knew He has now made reference to the larger understanding of Isaiah 58, which declares, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him…Then shall your light break forth like the dawn…your righteousness shall go before you.”
Jesus was saying,
“You’re living in a land of foreign occupation, an oppressed land. Yet if you want redemption this is what you must do: Redemption will come when you show charity to the less fortunate, not when God brings vengeance upon your oppressors.”
Spoke Well of Jesus or Against Him?
Luke 4:22 is often translated, “And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words coming from his mouth. And they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’” This may not clearly represent the situation. Why would they say such wonderful things but want to drive Him off a cliff moments later?
The NKJV translates the verse, “So all bore witness to Him, and marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth.” This is more accurate. They bore witness neither favorably or unfavorably. The Greek can be positive or negative, depending on the context.
Most translators prefer, “spoke well of him,” the NKJV stays neutral with “bore witness to Him.”
Kenneth Bailey, a New Testament scholar from the Middle East, fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and other ancient languages believes the Greek would be more accurate translated, “And all witnessed against him, and were amazed at the words of mercy that came out of his mouth; and they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”
Too often the last phrase is interpreted to mean how can the unlearned son of a carpenter read? Yet the Bible gives clues Jesus does not fit this description.
Jesus is reading Isaiah, what does this reveal? He’s literate! More than just read, He takes and deletes portions of Isaiah 61 and inserts information from Isaiah 58. He’s a genius!
The Genius Jesus
Ray Vander Laan, a proponent of studying God’s word in the original Jewish context, addresses Jesus’ level of education. In the first century all youth in Galilee went to school. Boys were taught the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The goal was for every boy to have memorized the first five books of the Bible by the age of 12. If a boy accomplished this he would continue his education. One way parents declared their 12-year old boy had done this was to take him to his first Passover, not meaning the actual first one. Children accompanied their parents from birth. A first Passover refers to the first time a son is old enough in faith to kill the lamb for their family.
“Now Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom.” (Luke 2:41-42) He memorized the first 5 books of the Bible.
People sometimes think, “Well, Jesus is God. Of course he knew.” Too often His human nature is dismissed. Jesus had to memorize like all the other youth and we have an example to follow. Believers should value memorizing of Scripture.
Not many boys went to the next level. Imagine memorizing the first 5 books of the Bible. Those, like Jesus, who accomplished this would continue studying from ages 12 to 15 while learning the family trade. The focus became learning the rest of the Old Testament, memorizing the Psalms and Prophets. Jesus studied Scripture while developing carpenter skills, wood and stone craftsmanship.
Most boys were finished at 15. The next level required dedication, commitment, knowledge and ability. Many were unable to give the necessary time. They needed a natural ability to skillfully learn, similar to playing basketball for the NBA.
I was a good basketball player, making the high school team. The coaches could only select 15 from a junior and senior class of over 900 students. My team made it to the Elite 8 State Finals. We went up against some great players. Kevin Garnett, current NBA player for the Nets, played on a team at the time. I cannot play basketball like Kevin Garnett. Likewise, only a few students in Galilee had the ability to go to the next level of study. Jesus did!
How is this known? The advanced students studied the rest of the Old Testament with a teacher in authority, a special title. This limited number of instructors went through the process of memorizing the Old Testament, learning from another teacher in authority. The study continued from age 15 to 30.
At this 30 years of age two teachers in authority would either decree a graduate student as someone with authority or as someone not having the necessary skills. If not conferred they continued in the family business.
The Authority of Jesus
Jesus underwent the process to become a teacher with authority. He memorized the first 5 books of the Bible, went to the temple for his first Passover, learned the rest of the Old Testament, studied with one of these special teachers, then at age 30 completed His training and became designated as a teacher with authority.
What two special teachers granted Jesus this special title? Does the Bible tell us? Approaching the Jordan River John the Baptizer addressed the messianic authority of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” In other words, as a teacher with authority he attested his authority.
Who was the second person to attest the authority of Jesus? Heaven is ripped open and God became the second witness to the teaching authority of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son; with Him I am well pleased.” He is the only religious teacher in history receiving authority from God. When He speaks, God speaks.
What is Jesus Saying
The phrase “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” means they were asking, “Didn’t he grow up here? Doesn’t he know how we feel and how we understand this text? Doesn’t he understand the messiah will come from our town and bring vengeance to our enemies? What does he mean redemption will come when we show charity to those around us? Are we not waiting for God to crush our occupiers and enemies?”
They saw Jesus as a hometown boy who understood their town’s messianic expectations. The good news Jesus shares and the merciful verses he reads were their stumbling block. Jesus had removed vengeance on the Gentiles from the equation. They were amazed, surprised, disappointed and upset at His words of mercy.
The people of Nazareth loved the promises in Isaiah 61 only as they understood them, as a town resettling after the Babylonian exile. Isaiah wrote, “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks; foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers; but you shall be called the priests of the Lord; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their glory you shall boast. Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy.”
Nazareth was founded to rebuild a former devastation. The citizens intended to possess a double portion. Gentiles would serve them and the wealth of foreign neighbors would flow to them. With the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one of God, hard work would be done by foreigners. The people of Nazareth would become wealthy thanks to their labor.
Instead Jesus proclaims, “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.”
The Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus. He is the anointed One of God. He announces the dawning of the Messianic age as an event taking place before their eyes in him.
“Jesus came to proclaim good news, to show compassion (recovery of sight to the blind), and for justice advocacy (liberty to the captives and oppressed).”
Next week, we’ll look at the rest of Jesus’ message in the synagogue before the townspeople attempt to kill him.
Proclaim good news, show compassion, and act as a justice advocate for those around you. Follow in the footsteps of Jesus and the mission He came to fulfill.
How can you proclaim the good news of Jesus to your neighbor? What acts of compassion have you shown lately? Share your comments below.