[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
From a thematic perspective, Luke 4:16-30 may be the central passage of the Gospel (Ford 1984:63). Surprisingly, some Bible commentators pass over the central verses in this section, verses 18-19 without a single word of explanation! (See Barclay 1975:47-48; Lightfoot 1989:68-72; Pentecost 1981:140). This passage contains a mission statement from Jesus about His ministry and also provides foreshadowing for how His ministry will be received (cf. Wright 2006:301). The rest of the Gospel of Luke unfolds how Jesus fulfilled this mission, and yet was continually misunderstood and rejected by the people He worked among.
Above even this, it could be argued that Luke 4:16-30 is the foundation passage for the Book of Acts. If the Gospel of Luke shows how Jesus fulfilled the mission mandate of Jesus as recorded in Luke 4:18-19, then the Book of Acts shows how the church, guided and empowered by the same Spirit, worked to carry on the ministry of Jesus. As such, some argue that Luke 4:16-21 is “the key text not only for understanding Christ’s own mission but also that of the church” (Bosch 1991:84, 89, 109).
As discussed in Luke 4:14-15, this event occurs after one year of ministry, and Jesus is now beginning to transition from gaining disciples to training them.
4:16. To initiate these two years of training His disciples, Jesus traveled to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. It was in Nazareth where Jesus Himself received His training, and where He grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52). So it is natural for Him to choose Nazareth as the place where He will begin focusing on training His disciples. Nazareth was not a small town, but may have had as many as 20,000 inhabitants (Barclay 1975:47).
Luke writes that it was the custom of Jesus to go into the synagogue on the Sabbath day.Attending the synagogue was part of the normal, weekly routine of Jesus. The synagogue setting is probably the background foundation for many of the practices of the early church. It is uncertain from history when exactly the Hebrew people started meeting in synagogues, but most believe it was around the time period of Ezra and Nehemiah. The primary purpose and function of the synagogue was to provide a place for Jewish people to pray and study the Scriptures in community (the meaning ofsynagogue is literally “assembly”). It was required that at least ten men commit to faithfully attending and supporting a synagogue before one could begin. Ten such men could be found in most Jewish communities, and so nearly every town had at least one synagogue, while some of the larger cities had several. It is reported that at the time of Jesus, Jerusalem had over 400 synagogues.
Luke records that Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, which is Saturday. The Sabbath was the primary day that the Jewish people attended the synagogue, but it was not the only day. Other common days of attendance were Monday and Thursday, while some attended every day.
No matter what day a person attended the synagogue, the primary synagogue activities were prayer and the teaching of the Scriptures (Bock 1994:403). Though we cannot be certain about the order of events in the average synagogue at the time of Jesus, later Jewish tradition codified set prayers and passages for each day of the week and year. Depending on which tradition is followed, the Torah (the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible) are taught through either once per year, or once every three years. If Jesus used a cycle, it was probably the Triennial cycle, as it is known to have been in use in Palestine during the First Century AD. It also contained additional passages from the Prophets which the One-Year cycle did not contain, and the passage Jesus reads from is not found in the One-Year cycle. (See the article on the Triennial Cycle.)
Whichever cycle was used, the synagogue gatherings were used to read, interpret, and explain the weekly Torah readings (Bock 1994:403). Also, depending on the Torah reading for the day, related passages from the historical books and prophets would also be taught (these were called Haftarah, meaning “parting” or “taking leave”). At the time of Jesus, the Haftarah passages were probably not codified, and so the man asked to teach the concluding Sabbath lesson (he was called the maftir) was allowed to choose his own text. (See the article on Haftarah; Bock 1994:411; Edersheim 1988:452; Pentecost 1981:139).
On this Sabbath, Jesus was probably this concluding teacher, because when he stood up to read, He read not from the Torah, but from one of the Prophets.
4:17. Jesus was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. As the Hebrew Scriptures were written on scrolls, the entire Bible could not be contained on one scroll. Sometimes, longer books (like Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), would fill multiple scrolls. The scroll that was handed to Jesus probably contained the second portion of the book of Isaiah (Chapters 40–66). Heopened the book and found the text He was going to read from that day. The text He reads is primarily from Isaiah 61:1-2. This specific text is not contained in the modern one-year cycle of Haftarah readings, though the first weekly portion (Bereshit, Genesis 1–6) does contain a reading from Isaiah 42:6-7 which has similar content, while the fifty-first portion (Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29–30) contains Isaiah 61:10-11. It is possible that if these were the chosen texts for the day, Jesus used the Jewish “string of pearls” method to connect to this passage. Or possibly, was handed the scroll of Isaiah, and He simply chose this text. Regardless of how Isaiah 61:1-2 was chosen, it became the basis for the sermon of Jesus which followed the reading and interpretation.
4:18. From Isaiah 61:1-2, Jesus explained to the people of Nazareth what He came to do. The six statements in this passage very aptly summarize His earthly ministry. While we don’t have the full text of His explanation of this passage (all we have is the opening statement in verse 21), we can guess at what Jesus said by how He fulfilled these verses throughout the rest of His ministry.
The text appears to be originally spoken by Isaiah about himself. He didn’t see himself to be the Messiah, but He did correctly believe that God had chosen and prophetically anointed him to help lead the people of Israel back into righteous obedience to God (cf. Isa 6:7-13). Here, however, Jesus applies the passage to Himself, and by inference, to all who would follow Him.
The passage states that The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me. This is a reference to the Holy Spirit, and alludes back to the coming of the Spirit upon Jesus at His baptism (Bock 1994:407). He is the source of empowerment for godly ministry, and even the Messiah had to depend on the Spirit for guidance and power. “The ancient synagogue regarded Isaiah 61:1-2 as one of the three passages in which mention of the Holy Spirit was connected with the promised redemption” (Edersheim 1988:454).
Prior to Pentecost in Acts 2, the Spirit only came upon certain individuals (like prophets, priests, kings, and artisans) for a period of time to help them accomplish specific tasks. After Pentecost, the Spirit permanently dwells within all who believe in Jesus for everlasting life. The purpose of this indwelling stays the same: to guide and empower people to accomplish specific tasks. Jesus, of course, lived prior to Pentecost, and so it can be assumed that He, as the Messiah, permanently had the Spirit upon Him to guide and empower Him for ministry. The Book of Acts records how the Spirit that was upon Jesus came also to indwell believers, so that the church could carry on the mission and ministry of Jesus to the entire world.
The Spirit anointed Jesus to accomplish specific tasks. In the Hebrew text of Isaiah 61:1, which Jesus was reading from, the text refers to “the anointed one,” which could also be translated “Messiah.” And so the play on words is that when Jesus read that the Spirit has anointed Him, He is implying that the Spirit has anointed Him to be the Messiah. The rest of verses 18-19 reveal six mission tasks that the Messiah would focus on.
There is much disagreement over how to understand these six statements of Jesus, primarily about whether they should be understood spiritually or physically. Did Jesus come for those who were materially poor, or for all who are spiritually poor? Did He set out to deliver those who were captive to Rome, or those who are captive to the devil? Did He want to heal those who were physically blind, or those who couldn’t see what God was doing in their midst? We must make sure that our understanding of “the poor and the blind” in this passage do not exclude the poor and the blind (Bock 1994:401).
The best way to solve this debate is to look at what Jesus actually did during His ministry, and assume that most of His actions were in fulfillment of these six statements. When this is done, it immediately becomes clear that we do not have to choose between the two. The ministry of Jesus focused on bothphysical and spiritual needs. Meeting a physical need often led to meeting a spiritual need, even if these needs were not always for the same person. Also, readers must be careful to not break up the various statements in verses 18-19, so as to focus on only one part of Jesus’ mission. “All the images have to do with the comprehensiveness of Jesus’ message and the hope that he offers people.” (Bock 1994:400).
The first mission task of Jesus was To preach the gospel to the poor. The term preach the gospel is really one word in Greek (euangelizō; cf. Luke 1:19; 4:43), which is where English gets the word “evangelize.” It might be best translated “to proclaim the good news.” This proclamation involves both words and actions, as evidenced by the life of Jesus (cf. Luke 9:6). Both sermons and service are used to reveal the gospel to other people.
So while preaching the gospel is often thought to be only a spiritual issue, such a view is a distortion of the biblical gospel. The gospel is concerned with much than simply how people can receive eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. While that truth is central to the gospel, it is not the entire gospel. Instead, when the background of the term gospel is understood, and it’s usage in the New Testament is carefully studied, the biblical gospel is best defined as
good news for everybody, whether Jew or Gentile, believer or unbeliever, regarding the benefits and blessings which come to us from the person and work of Jesus Christ. …[The] gospel contains everything related to the person and work of Jesus Christ, including all of the events leading up to His birth, and all the ramifications from Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for unbelievers and believers. (See the article here.)
This means that the gospel is not just about spiritual issues and needs, but also the various forms of physical deliverance that came in and through Jesus Christ. The gospel is not just about Jesus providing grace and forgiveness to sinners through His death and resurrection, but also about healing sicknesses, helping the poor, delivering those in captivity, and everything else done by Jesus and His apostles in the Gospels and Acts. In fact, though this statement in 4:18 is the first of six mission statements, it could also be the title statement (with 4:19 being the summary), which is explained in more detail by those that follow. In this way, “preaching the gospel” includes things like healing the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and giving sight to the blind.
This understanding is further supported by the fact that the gospel will be preached to the poor. There are two terms for the poor in the New Testament, penes and ptōchos. The penes were the poor who worked in the fields, and are contrasted to rich landowners who did not work. The ptōchos, however, are those who don’t even have jobs. They are reduced to begging, and are destitute of all resources, including other family members. It is this “begging poor” that have the focus of attention in the gospels (cf. Matt 26:11; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 7:22; 14:21-23; 16:19-31; Acts 3:1-10. See Neyrey for an article on “the poor”).
So if the physically destitute are the primary focus of this first mission statement of Jesus, then the preaching the gospel is more than just telling poor people how they can receive eternal life. Proclaiming the gospel also requires us to feed, clothe, and train the poor so their physical needs are met. This does not mean that the rich are excluded. Instead, the poor are emphasized because it is they who often feel abandoned by God and who also “sense their need in the greatest way and, as a result, respond most directly and honestly to Jesus. …Their material deprivation often translates into spiritual sensitivity, humility, and responsiveness to God’s message of hope” (Bock 1994:408).
However, some believe the term is best understood as being “spiritually poor.” Bailey argues that in Isaiah 61:1, that while the Hebrew term anawim can refer to people who do not have enough to eat, it most often refers to the humble and pious who seek God (2008:158). In the New Testament, a few places do talk about being spiritually poor (Matt 5:3; Rev 3:17). All of these, however, seem to refer to believers who have not recognized or taken advantage of the riches that are theirs in the family of God. Unregenerate people are not referred to in Scripture as being spiritually “poor.” Instead, it refers to those who “tremble at the Word of God” (Bailey 2008:159). In this case, this first mission statement of Jesus refers not as much to telling unbelievers how to receive eternal life, as to believers to take advantage of their spiritual riches in Christ. From a spiritual perspective then, the “preaching of the gospel” in this context should be understood not as “discipleship.”
So is the text referring to the physically destitute, or simply to the poor in spirit? While it is true that all who experience misery are in some way “poor,” the actual usage of the term in Scripture seems not to warrant such a spiritualization of the term (Bosch 1991:99). Joel Green may provide a solution. He writes that the trouble in understanding the identity of “the poor” results from our economically-driven culture. He argues that being “poor” has little to do with the amount of possessions one has, and instead refers to the Mediterranean concept of honor. Someone who did not have much by way of possessions could still hold a lot of honor, and therefore, not be “ptōchos.” Similarly, someone who was wealthy could be “ptōchos” if they lacked honor. “By directing his good news to [people without honor], Jesus indicates his refusal to recognize those socially determined boundaries, asserting instead that even those ‘outsiders’ are the objects of divine grace. Others may regard such people as beyond the pale of salvation, but God has opened a way for them to belong to God’s family” (Green 1997:211).
However we understand the text, the primary emphasis in this context, and in the Gospel of Luke as a whole, is that the first mission intention of Jesus was to provide for the needs of those who were “outside.” In His ministry He showed them through words and actions that they mattered to God, and that God was concerned to meet the needs of those who were rejected by society.
Second, Jesus reads that He was sent…to heal the brokenhearted. This phrase is not in all Greek manuscripts, and so some translations omit it. However, since this phrase is included in Isaiah 61 that Jesus is reading, we can be fairly certain that Jesus read it on this day. It would be uncommon for a Jewish Rabbi to skip a phrase from the text he was teaching.
This mission purpose, unlike the other five, is very difficult to read in a strictly spiritual sense. Whereas the other five statements are often taught only for their spiritual application (e.g., Jesus is freeing people from sin, death, and devil), this one cannot be so easily spiritualized. Maybe that is why some prefer to omit it.
However, if Jesus came to deliver people not only from sin, death, and the devil, but also from enemies, injustice, addictions, and heartache, then this second mission statement of Jesus fits in quite well. Jesus came to heal, or restore, the brokenhearted, that is, people with deep emotional pain and distress. In the Gospels, Jesus is constantly portrayed as a man of sorrows (cf. Isa 53:3) who is intimately associated with our pain and grief, so that He can turn the tears into the laughter, and the grief into joy.
All of this, of course, was good news to Jewish people at the time of Jesus. Many of them had lost loved ones, land, and jobs due to the policies of the Roman government and the practices of the Roman military. Even more, due to sicknesses and poor living conditions, it is estimated that a child had only a fifty percent chance to live until the age of ten (Carter 2006:116). This means that most families probably experienced the death of one or more children. There was much to be brokenhearted about, and Jesus states that one of His purposes is to mend their hearts and restore their joy.
Third, Jesus has come to proclaim liberty to the captives. Again, while this can refer to both spiritual and physical deliverance, the original context and meaning heavily favors physical deliverance. The termliberty (Gk. aphesis) could also be translated “release” or “forgiveness” (cf. Luke 1:77; 3:3; 24:47) and primarily “denotes eschatological liberation” (TDNT I:650; cf. Green 1997:212). A primary element in Jewish history and theology was that national sin and rebellion against God led to conquest and captivity by foreign powers. The reverse was also true. If Israel was in captivity, repentance from sin led to forgiveness (aphesis) by God, which resulted in the deliverance from captivity, and the restoration of the land and the temple. With this understanding, aphesis, or “forgiveness” is not just the removal of guilt from past offenses against God, but in response to repentance, leads to the future deliverance from one’s enemies.
This understanding is how Jesus’ audience would have understood Him. He lived and ministered at a time when the Hebrew people were captives of Rome. The hope and expectation was that if the Jewish people repented and returned to God as a nation, then God would throw off their captors, and restore Israel to her rightful place among the nations. This is what John the Baptist declared would happen when the Messiah came (cf. Luke 3:3). Jesus seems to affirm this view here.
The objection, of course, is that Jesus didn’t accomplish anything like this. To the contrary, at the end of the Gospels, it appears that rather than overthrowing the Roman rule in Israel, it is the Roman rulers who have defeated Jesus by crucifying Him (Mark 15:24-27; Luke 23:33; John 19:18). And His resurrection doesn’t result in the overthrow of the Roman Empire either.
For this reason, many argue that Jesus is applying this text to Himself in a spiritual sense only. It is then taught that Jesus came to deliver people from spiritual bondage. In this way, the term captives is understood as those who are possessed by demons, enslaved to sin, or captive to addictions. This application of the text cannot be denied since Jesus certainly did these things during His ministry.
However, it must be emphasized that this is not the way Jesus’ audience would have understood His words, and not the way Isaiah meant them when they were written. This “spiritualized application” is not the primary intended meaning of the original author or audience. Among those who accept a literal, physical fulfillment of this third phrase, there are three perspectives on how Jesus accomplished it.
The first view is that Jesus meant to accomplish this task of overthrowing the Roman Empire, but failed because Israel did not fully repent, nor did they accept Him as their Messiah. Those who hold this view argue that if the Jewish people had repented and accepted Him as their promised Messiah, then the long-awaited kingdom would have been inaugurated immediately. Jesus would have declared Himself as King, and would have led a militaristic revolt against Rome. This, of course, did not occur, and so in this view, the overthrow of various wicked human governments is now a future event, to be fulfilled at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
The second view is a combination of this first view and the spiritualized understanding of this text. This view argues that Jesus did seek to overthrow the Roman Empire (not just set people free from sin and Satan), but that the overthrow was not through violence and military might, but through the gentler and slower methods of love, mercy, and compassion. In this view, Jesus never intended to use violent force against the Roman Empire, for that would be using the same methods they used. So in this way, Jesus defeated the Empire and inaugurated His Kingdom in a different way; He showed people how to live through love, mercy, and compassion, rather than by the Empire’s methods of force, power, and coercion. Those who followed Jesus’ example in this found they had no fear of Rome, and were able to accomplish God’s will and purposes despite Roman interference. Effectively, though the Roman Empire still existed, for those who followed the way of Jesus, the Roman Empire was defeated.
The third view is a combination of the first two. In alignment with the first view, Jesus truly did intend to physically overthrow the Roman Empire, as well as any human government that was based on greed, corruption, and an improper use of might. Also, it didn’t fully happen during the earthly ministry of Jesus. In alignment with the second view, the means by which Jesus wanted to accomplish this overthrow was not through violence and force, but through acts of mercy and forgiveness. The unique element of this view is in regard to the timing. The first view says that Jesus failed in His first coming, while the second view says He finished what He set out to do, but in a spiritual sense. This view argues that Jesus neither failed nor finished, but only began to accomplish this third mission element. What He began, He wanted His followers to finish, not just in Israel with the Roman Empire, but in the entire world, with all who take others captive. And ultimately, these methods of “overthrow” would not result in more violence and death, but would result in blessing and peace to the occupying nations and rulers (cf. Wright 2004:48). This idea of defeating the enemy by blessing them is emphasized by Jesus in verses 20-30. Such an idea was not popular among the Jews, which helps explain their reaction to Jesus.
This third view also seems to be supported in Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts. It shows how the followers of Jesus continued to live and practice the kingdom principles that Jesus initiated, and reveals how these peaceful methods worked to overthrow and defeat powers and authorities, not with violence and might, but with love and compassion. Sometimes, those who are captive are set free (Acts 12), while others are given the opportunity to preach the gospel to kings and governors (Acts 24:24). Much of the rest of the New Testament supports this view. There is even one particular way of reading the Book of Revelation which reveals the methods for this nonviolent overthrow (cf. Carter 2006:124-128).
When Jesus read out of Isaiah 61 that He would bring liberty to captives, while this did include the spiritual captivity to sin and Satan, it also referred to the physical and temporal captivity to wicked rulers and abusive empires. Followers of Jesus are to continue the work that Jesus began and seek justice and righteousness on the earth through the methods of love, forgiveness, mercy, compassion, generosity, and grace.
The fourth mission statement of Jesus is that He would bring recovery of sight to the blind. Bailey notes that the original Hebrew of this phrase is ambiguous, and could be translated “the opening to those who are bound” (2008:161). Is this referring to those who are bound in prison, or to those whose eyes are bound? The Hebrew context could go either way (see below). However, the Greek translation here in Luke 4 seems to favor the latter. But does this refer to physical blindness or spiritual (Green 1997:211)? Physical blindness may be preferred since during His healed numerous people who were blind (Matt 9:27-31; 12:22; 15:30-31; 20:30-34; Luke 14:13, 21; 18:35; John 9:1-32; etc.). It could be argued that all these healings were symbolic for the spiritual blindness of the Israelites (Matt 15:14; John 9:39-41). As Paul writes later in the New Testament, the devil has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they will not believe in Jesus (2 Cor 4:4). Part of the mission of Jesus was to remove this spiritual blindness. It must also be noted that it is occasionally believers who are called “blind” and so spiritual blindness does not refer only to unbelievers (cf. Rev 3:17).
However, even though Jesus did seek to remove the spiritual blindness of other people—especially that of the Jewish religious leaders (cf. Matt 23:14-26)—the emphasis in this passage seems to be on physical healing. The reason is that healing the blind was not just a nice thing for Jesus to do, but was a clear sign to the Jewish people that the Kingdom of God had arrived, and that He was the promised Messiah (cf. Matt 11:5; Isa 35:5).
Fifth, Jesus came to set at liberty those who are oppressed. The origins of this phrase are debatable. Some argue Jesus is pulling directly from Isaiah 58:6 and inserting a line here. This is possible (and allowed, using a “string of pearls” approach to biblical exposition). In that passage God is rebuking Israel for not doing what they should have done. But where they failed, Jesus has come to fulfill God’s plan among the nations: He will lovingly meet the needs of other people, and reverse the injustice of the past (Bock 1994:410).
However, it seems more likely to me that Jesus is interpreting the final phrase of Isaiah 61:1 in two different ways. As noted above, the final phrase in Isaiah 61:1 is literally translated “the opening to those who are bound.” In Hebrew imagery, this can refer either to giving sight to the blind (removing the doors from their eyes), or setting free those who are bound and oppressed. It seems that Jesus may be taking one Hebrew phrase and translating it two different ways to provide the full Scriptural meaning. So the final two phrases of Luke 4:18 have their origin in the final phrase of Isaiah 61:1. Both phrases, of course, have parallells in numerous other passages in Scripture (like Isa 58:6) and so are allowable interpretations.
The term liberty is the same word used earlier (Gk. aphesis) and can be translated as “release, deliverance, set free, or forgiveness.” See above for a further discussion on this term. In this case, rather than the captives being set free, it is the oppressed (Gk. thrauō). This is the only time this word is used in the New Testament. The only other place where the exact form is used is Isaiah 58:6, where God declares that He wants His people to loosen the chains of injustice and let the oppressed go free. Most other forms of the term in the Septuagint refer to the oppression of Israel by her enemies as a result of their sin (cf. Exod 15:6; Deut 20:3; 28:33; 2 Chr 6:24). One significant passage is Numbers 24:17 which is a prophecy of how the Messiah will overthrow the enemies of Israel, but with these nations, the Messiah will oppress (or crush) them. So the idea refers to justice being restored; to refugees being sent home (Bailey 2008:160).
As with all the other terms, there is a spiritual element to this mission statement. Certainly, people are emotionally and spiritually oppressed by the circumstances of life and evil, demonic forces. Acts 10:38 is often used to support this point, but the word used there is not the same as used here (cf. Green 1997:212). Nevertheless, the Bible frequently speaks of the evil forces arrayed against us, and how God, through the Spirit, empowers us to stand against them (cf. Eph 6:10-20). Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work (Heb 2:14; 1 John 3:8).
4:19. The final statement describing the mission of Jesus is a summary of the first five. Jesus has cometo proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. This is primarily a statement about the Year of Jubilee when slaves were set free, the land reverted to the original owner and was not plowed, planted, or harvested, and all debts were cancelled (cf. Leviticus 25; Malina 2003:243). This was supposed to happen every 50 years, but there is some question as to whether it ever happened in Israelite history. In declaring the Year of Jubilee, Jesus was declaring the dawn of God’s new age. It was to be a time of total forgiveness and restoration (Bock 1994:410; cf. Bailey 2008:159).
Evans states that the year 26/27 AD was a Jubilee Year, and so it “is possible that Luke understood this as the year that Jesus began His messianic ministry” (Evans 2003:291). But whatever the date, since the Year of Jubilee primarily affected people who were in slavery, hardship, or debt, Jesus is showing with this concluding summary statement that He was concerned not only with mankind’s spiritual needs, but also with their physical wellbeing. Along with the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, Jesus wanted to bring relief from suffering, sickness, slavery, injustice, crushing debt, generational poverty, and governmental oppression. “Jesus’ ministry was to break the power of the economic, social, and political chains that kept people in bondage” (Bailey 2008:157; cf. Bosch 1991:101).