Jesus' Nazareth Synagogue Sermon

by Doug Ward

According to all four canonical Gospels, teaching the good news of the Kingdom of God in the synagogues of Galilee and Judea was a central component of the earthly ministry of Jesus (Matt 4:23; 9:35; Mark 1:39; Luke 4:15, 44: 13:10; John 6:59; 18:20). The synagogues were places of worship, community centers, town halls, and courts of law. They were places where communities gathered to consider ideas and make collective decisions, so they were a natural venue for making the Gospel widely known.


Luke's Gospel preserves an outline of one of Jesus' sermons, delivered one Sabbath in his hometown of Nazareth, which provides some insight into the message he proclaimed in the synagogues. The account in Luke 4:16-30 gives a snapshot of a Jewish synagogue service, with the Scriptures read and then expounded. After a prescribed reading from the Torah, the speaker would choose a related passage from the Prophets as the basis for a sermon, linking additional verses with that passage to develop the sermon's theme.


In this case Jesus chose Isa 61:1-2 as the reading from the Prophets (Luke 4:18-19). We are not given the Torah reading, but there are many candidates. Since "anointed" is a key word in Isa 61:1, the Torah reading could have come from Exodus 29, where instructions are given for the anointing of the Aaronic priests; or from Lev 8, where those instructions are first implemented. Another possibility is Deut 18, which speaks of God choosing priests (v. 5) and raising up a special prophet (vv. 15-18) to proclaim his will. The Isaiah passage also mentions "the year of the Lord's favor" or Jubilee Year, so a fourth related Torah reading is Lev 25, where the Jubilee Year is introduced.


Jesus announced that Isaiah's prophecy was being fulfilled as he spoke (Luke 4:21). In other words, he was saying that he was the Messiah, the one anointed by the Spirit of God to carry out the program described in Isa 61:1. Two other passages in Isaiah (11:1-2; 42:1) also describe the Messiah as led by the Spirit.


Readers of the Gospel of Luke will not be surprised by Jesus' announcement. Luke reports that the Spirit had descended upon Jesus at his baptism (3:21-22) and empowered him to conquer temptation and minister in Galilee (4:1, 14). However, the people in Nazareth had difficulty believing that the carpenter's son who grew up among them could be the Messiah (4:22; cf. Matt 13:54-58; Mark 6:1-6). They may have hoped that Jesus would produce a sign to back up his claim (4:23).


Prophets without Honor

In response to the skepticism he was sensing, Jesus pointed out that Israel's prophets had often been unpopular at home and had sometimes accomplished their mightiest works on behalf of foreigners (4:24). He began to give examples of this pattern, starting with the prophet Elijah (4:25-26). After Elijah told King Ahab that a drought was coming, God sent him north to Sidon, where he stayed with a poor widow at Zarephath. When Elijah caused the widow's last handful of flour to feed them indefinitely, then raised her son from the dead, the widow recognized him as a man of God (1 Kings 17).


Elijah's work in Sidon is an example of an anointed prophet proclaiming "good news to the poor" as expressed in Isa 61:1. This connection suggests that Jesus was linking his examples of prophets ministering to strangers with the phrases in Isa 61:1.1 Jesus' next example (4:27) involved Elijah's successor Elisha, who healed the Syrian military commander Naaman of a serious skin disease, setting him free from a lifetime of chronic pain and discomfort (2 Kings 5). This was a way to "proclaim liberty to the captives," the next phrase in Isa 61:1.


The Rest of the Sermon

No further details of the sermon are given in Luke 4. Apparently the people gathered at the synagogue were so angry that they did not allow him to finish. Instead, they drove him out of town and tried to kill him (4:28-29).


What was the cause of their anger? It may be that they anticipated where the sermon was heading and were not pleased with the conclusion they suspected was coming. The next phrase in Jesus' prophetic program is "recovering of sight to the blind," which connects well with the following chapter in the Elisha narrative. In 2 Kings 6:8-23, Elisha opened the eyes of his servant to the reality of the unseen realm of God's heavenly host. He then blinded a Syrian army that had been sent to capture him in Dothan and led them to Samaria, opening the eyes of the Syrians to the power of the true God.


Unfortunately the Syrians did not internalize this lesson, and they soon returned to lay siege to Samaria (2 Kings 6:24), leading to a severe famine for Israel. Elisha eventually ended the siege, causing the Syrian army to become frightened and flee. A group of lepers discovered that the Syrian camp was abandoned and told the Samarians about the supplies available there. People then rushed from Samaria to the Syrian camp, trampling to death an Israelite official who had doubted Elisha's prophecy of deliverance (2 Kings 7:30).


In lifting the Syrian siege, Elisha acted to "set at liberty those who are oppressed" (Luke 4:18), including the lepers at Samaria. This may have been the next link in Jesus' sermon and the cause of the anger at the Nazareth synagogue. The people at Nazareth may have anticipated that Jesus would compare them to the Israelite official in 2 Kings 7 who lacked faith and died. They had been hoping for a Messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression and judge their oppressors. Instead, Jesus was suggesting that the Messiah would help receptive foreigners, but that Israelites who lacked faith would come under judgment. Angry at this message, they tried to trample Jesus as the Israelite official had been trampled.


Sadly, the people at Nazareth did not allow Jesus to go on and "proclaim the year of the Lord's favor," the final phrase in his reading from Isa 61. This would have been the climax of the sermon, an announcement of how the Kingdom of God would bring liberation, truth, and well-being to the whole world. This Gospel is still the biggest and best news around, and the reason that we pray, "Your Kingdom Come."


1Dr. David Instone-Brewer proposes such a structure for Jesus' sermon in the video "Identifying the Links in Jesus' Sermon" from Logos Mobile Ed. Course NT 390, Jesus as Rabbi: The Jewish Context of the Life of Jesus, produced by Logos Bible Software.

Issue 33


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On 28 Jun 2018, 14:20.