Return to Nazareth
We have probably all heard the story of the man who purchased a horse that formerly belonged to a preacher. To make the horse go, the command, “Praise the Lord,” had to be given. To stop the horse, “Hallelujah!” was the instruction. The purchaser did all right in getting the horse started. “Praise the Lord!” he shouted. The horse took off at a full gallop. The problem was that the horse was headed for a cliff. “Whoa!” the man shouted, but to no avail. Suddenly he realized he had forgotten the command to stop the horse. Just in the nick of time he remembered. “Hallelujah!” The horse came to a stop at the very edge of the cliff, so that its new owner could look into the chasm below. The man began to feel a bit religious himself, and so with great excitement and relief he shouted, “Praise the Lord!”
The point of this old story for us is that saying the wrong thing can get a person into a lot of trouble. There are several public personalities that can testify to the truth of this statement. I can immediately think of several political figures, not to mention some religious leaders who have found their statements to have gotten them into a lot of trouble.
In the case of the fictitious rider, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying what appeared to be the wrong thing nearly got both tossed over the edge of a cliff. The one critical difference with the statements of our Lord is that they were intentional. Jesus did not suffer from a “slip of the tongue,” but from a careful and deliberate statement, made to the people with whom He had lived and worshipped as He grew up. The tension of the text is this: Why did Jesus deliberately sabotage his popularity among the people he had grown up among? Our study will (hopefully) provide us with the answer to this question.
Summary of the Galilean ministry (vss. 14, 15)
When Jesus comes home to Nazareth, he has already been active for a while and has gained a sizable reputation. Matthew notes:
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him (4:23-25).
No doubt, the synagogue was full that Sabbath of folks who had come to hear the popular, young preacher.
Jesus’ Sermon at Nazareth and the Peoples’ Positive Response (vss. 16-27)
There would have been two scripture readings during the Sabbath service; one from the Law and one from the Prophets. We don’t know whether Jesus was invited or volunteered to read the second. There were no official clergy in first century synagogues. Any adult male had the right to read and comment on the scripture, and it was the custom to invite notable visitors to read.
As Jesus stood to read, he was handed the scroll containing the book of Isaiah. He unrolled it to chapter 61. Whether that was the appointed reading for that day or his own choice, we don’t know, but the selection could not have been more apt:
Spirit of the Lord is on me,
When we looked at these verses in the book of Isaiah back before Christmas, we noted that they comprise the mission statement of the Messiah.
Jesus rolls the scroll back up, hands it to the attendant, and sits down. By sitting down, he is not signaling that he is done, but that he has just begun. In those days, teachers sat to teach. We still have an echo of that today in the professor’s “chair”. So, Jesus sits down and Luke reports, “The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him” (vs. 20). Naturally, because now he’s going to comment on what he just read and everybody wants to hear what he has to say.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (vs. 21). In other words, Isaiah was talking about me. Since Isaiah 61 was considered a messianic passage, this is an explicit claim to be the Messiah. And the people eat it up:
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked (vs. 22).
I once thought that the question, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” expressed doubt. “We know him, he’s Joseph’s boy. How can he be the Messiah?” But, now I’ve come to think that it’s an expression of pride, “The Messiah is one of ours!” I believe they’re thinking that they’re in for some favorable treatment.
Jesus Corrects Their Positive Opinion and the People are Enraged (vss. 23-30)
Jesus knows that they’re thinking this. That’s the point of verse 23:
Surely you will quote this proverb to me: “Physician, heal yourself!” And you will tell me, “Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.”
When are we, here in your hometown, going to get in on all these messianic goodies?
It’s a popular message and Jesus has the people eating out of the palm of his hand. And then he goes and spoils it all.
Truly I tell you, (always an ominous beginning) no prophet is accepted in his hometown.
“I’m sorry, did you think I was talking about you? Oh no, prophets are never accepted in their hometown.”
As proof of his assertion he cites two Old Testament examples:
Example 1—Although Elijah never helped any of the many widows in Israel during a time of drought and famine, he was sent to a widow in Zarephath in Sidon, a non-Israelite city (1 Kings 17:18-24).
Example 2—Of all those who suffered from leprosy in Israel, Elisha only healed Naaman. A Syrian! Worse yet, a Syrian military leader who was fighting against Israel at the time (2 Kings 5:1-14).
This is too much, and the once appreciative crowd becomes murderous. They try to push him off a cliff. But Jesus miraculously walks away, right through the middle of them.
What angered the people was Jesus’ suggestion that God cared about gentiles as much or more than Jews. The Jews were so certain of their special standing with God that they despised all others. Their saying was that God had created the gentiles to be fuel for the fire of hell. And here was this young Jesus, whom they all knew, telling them that God cared about gentiles too.
I see five principles concerning prophets in this passage:
God’s prophets are never popular. Our Lord said this very clearly: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his own hometown” (Luke 4:24). Later, Stephen would say to his Jewish brethren: “Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute?” (Acts 7:52).
The inference of Stephen’s words is that there was never a prophet in the history of Israel who was popular among his own people. One need only study the life of the prophet Jeremiah for an illustration of this principle.
The Lord Jesus refused the popularity of His peers because He knew full well that popularity could not be based upon a clear grasp of what His ministry and messiahship was all about. He also knew that popularity would not take Him to the cross of Calvary. Jesus refused popularity because, as the greatest prophet of all, men could not and would not accept Him.
All Christians have all been given a prophetic ministry. It is not hard to conceive of our Lord as falling into the category of a prophet, but it may be a little more difficult to think of ourselves as prophets. Nevertheless, I believe that it is true to say that every Christian has a prophetic calling, a prophetic ministry, and a prophetic message. The church, as the body of Christ, is to continue to do and to teach that which our Lord began in His earthly ministry. The Great Commission is a prophetic commission. That men are sinful and under the judgement of God, that they cannot save themselves, that they need a savior—these are all aspects of the gospel which non-believers may find offensive.
As prophets, Christians can expect to be persecuted. Early in His earthly ministry our Lord addressed the issue of the suffering of the saints, linking their suffering with that of the prophets before them:
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt. 5:11-12).
Just how Christian life and ministry is prophetic can be seen in the next principles.
Prophets are not popular because of whom they identify with. Prophets must identify with God, rather than with their sinful fellow men. John the Baptist (not unlike Elijah and Elisha) lived apart from his culture, even from his family. He was not unaware of what his culture was doing, but he was not a part of it. He stood apart from the world. So, too, the Christian is to stand apart, and thus will suffer persecution:
For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. 4 They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you (1 Peter 4:3-4).
By refusing to live according to the values and lifestyle of the world, we condemn sin, convict sinners, and become very unpopular.
In our identification with Christ as our Savior, we are also required to identify with the needy, the poor, the oppressed, and the captives. The Nazarites wanted Jesus to identify with them, but they refused to identify themselves with sinful Gentiles in their need for salvation and forgiveness. Christ’s identification will fallen humanity requires that the church also identify and associate with the humble.
Jesus associated with the poor, the sick, and “sinners” and thus almost immediately offended the self-righteous. As we identify with Christ, we must also identify with those with whom He associated and identified, namely those who were in need and acknowledged it, and sought His grace. Those who would come to God for grace must stand in line with sinners, with the unclean, with the lepers, and with the prostitutes and tax collectors. Those who refuse to identify with such will not want grace at all, nor will they want the source of grace, Jesus Christ.
Prophets are not popular because of their message. I am reminded of a story in the Old Testament. When Jehoshaphat of Judah was considering whether to join with Ahab, the king of Israel, in battle, the false prophets of Israel all gave the green light. Jehoshaphat was not convinced and wanted a second opinion. He therefore asked, “Is there no longer a prophet of the Lord here whom we can inquire of?” (2 Chron. 18:6).
To this, Ahab responded, “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah” (2 Chron. 18:7).
From the perspective of Ahab, Micaiah never told him what he wanted to hear. From the perspective of God, Ahab never wanted to hear what God had to say. Ahab only wanted God to confirm and affirm His sinful actions. Prophets are not popular with disobedient people, for they do not want to do God’s will—it is an offense to the natural or sinful man, who is at odds with God.
So it is with the Christian. Our words of counsel and exhortation may be welcomed by a fellow-believer, who seeks to do the will of God. But our words of warning and admonition are going to be rejected by anyone who is intent upon doing evil. Prophets are not popular because they tell men what the need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.
One of the greatest hindrances to our prophetic ministry is our desire to be popular with the world, and to have its approval. If I were to be completely honest about my sinful failures to witness to my faith, I would have to confess that my fear of rejection, my fear of losing popularity with people, is my number one enemy. If we are more intent upon winning man’s approval than God’s, we either keep silent about the gospel, which will very often offend people (“You mean that if I don’t believe in Jesus Christ, God will send me to hell?”), or we modify the gospel to make it more appealing, and thus dulling its most cutting edge (sin, righteousness, judgment).
The life of our Lord is a constant testimony to His desire to please the Father, more than anyone else. His actions and His words are always governed by the will of the Father.
In the final analysis, we must settle the question of whom we will serve and who’s approval we will seek.