Luke 4:20-30

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[Note: This is the "Old" version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]


Luke 4:20-30 reveals the reaction of the people to Jesus after He taught from Isaiah 61:1-2a. They respond by trying to kill Him. Such a response is initially surprising since there does not seem to be anything offensive or controversial in the text that Jesus expounded. The verses He read seem to promise only blessings and restoration to the Jewish people, and through them, to all the earth.

Of course, Luke does not record the actual teaching Jesus provided, and so maybe His explanation was more controversial than we assume. Whatever Jesus said, there are hints in the passage which explain why the Jewish audience would have taken exception with Jesus when He taught this text in the Nazareth synagogue. These will be seen as the text unfolds.

4:20. After Jesus had read from Isaiah 61:1-2a, He closed the book, which was probably a scroll. It is unclear if Luke has recorded the entire Scripture portion that Jesus taught from that day, or only the crucial text for his narrative. Some argue that this could not be the entire text because Jewish tradition required that Sabbath-day teachings come from at least three verses of text, whereas Jesus had only read one-and-a-half. But this is a later tradition which was most likely not universally followed at the time of Jesus. Even if it was, Jesus was known for breaking with certain traditions if it would prove a point and did not break any of the Mosaic Law.

And if that is what Jesus did here, it would have made His point quite clear. After mentioning the Year of Jubilee (the Year of the Lord’s Favor), Isaiah 61:2 then speaks about the day of vengeance of God. The Jewish expectation was that when the Messiah arrived, He would not only restore the fortunes of Israel, but would do so by destroying her enemies. He would be a Militaristic Messiah (Evans 2003:290). But Jesus does not read that part. Luke, it seems, knows the point that Jesus is making, and so emphasizes the fact that it was here that Jesus stopped and closed the book. With His actions, Jesus emphatically shows that He is not going to talk about the vengeance of God upon the enemies of Israel, not even upon the Roman Empire, Israel’s current captor (cf. Wright 2004:48). Such an exclusion was unthinkable for most Jews. Deliverance from captivity was not complete without some sort of destructive judgment upon the enemies of God who enslaved them. Think of their deliverance from Egypt! Think of the entrance into the Promised Land. Think of the times of the Judges! Think of the deliverance from the Babylonian Empire, and the Medo-Persian Empire. In all these cases, deliverance came through the destruction of their enemies. It should be no different with the Roman Empire.

And after He closed the book, He gave it back to the attendant—who may have been the Synagogue Ruler or some other person in charge of caring for the scrolls—and then sat down. The teacher would generally stand to read the Scripture portion for the teaching, and then sit to explain it (Barclay 1975:48; Bock 1994:411).

Since Jesus stopped reading mid-way through Isaiah 61:2, and had stopped right before “the good part,” He certainly had the attention of all who were there: The eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. They were eager to know what He would say about the text and read, and more importantly, why He had stopped where He did (cf. Evans 2003:288).

4:21. The words of Jesus recorded here are not the entire sermon. Luke only records what Jesusbegan to say. After reading the text, Jesus started His teaching by saying, ”Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” In homiletic terminology, this would be “the hook” or the attention grabber. It is the introductory statement which gets the audience interested in what will be said. It is certain that following this statement, Jesus goes on to explain the text of Isaiah 61:1-2a, explaining what the statements mean and how they were fulfilled in their hearing (see Lightfoot 1989:68-71). It seems unlikely that Jesus is saying that the statements were literally fulfilled right at that moment—either spiritually or physically—for He still had most of His earthly ministry ahead of Him, including His death and resurrection. Rather, He is explaining how they would be fulfilled in His ministry as the Messiah and in the life of those who followed Him (cf. Bock 1994:412).

4:22. The custom was that the audience would let the teacher finish his lesson before any questions were asked or additional comments were made. But after Jesus finished His teaching, the people all bore witness to Him, and marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. It seems that their initial response was quite positive. However, in the following verses, their response quickly turns negative. How did this happen? There are three possibilities. First, it could be that some received and accepted what Jesus while others did not. Those who received it are mentioned here, and those who are critical are described later. This option seems unlikely in the context.

A second option is that they were all initially impressed by what Jesus said, but when He clarifies in verses 23-27 that He is referring not just to the Jewish people but also to the Gentiles, and specifically their Roman captors, the mood of the audience turns sour (cf. Evans 2003:289; Bock 1994:414). The primary problem with this option is that verses 23-27 seem to be to a defense against an accusation. Does Jesus manufacture this accusation Himself in verse 23 just so He can refute it in verses 24-27? That seems unlikely. He either knew their critical thoughts (cf. 6:8), or they actually said something which showed their disdain and disagreement with His exposition.

The third option is that the audience disagreed with Jesus all along, and make a statement of disagreement here in verse 22: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” In this case, they would be saying, “This is the son of Joseph, a carpenter! Didn’t he grow up here? Doesn’t he know how we feel and how we understand this text?” With this understanding, the opening words of verse 22 are better translated, “And all witnessed against Him, and were amazed at the words of mercy that came out of His mouth” (Bailey 2008:151, 162). An even more forceful translation would be, “They were stricken with annoyance and horror and witnessed against him because he spoke with words of grace toward the Gentiles” (cf. Ford 1984:61; Malina 2003:243). They are not amazed at His great teaching, but instead, shocked at His claim that God desires to show mercy to the enemies of Israel. They were looking for a ruling Messiah who would throw off Roman occupation and lead Israel to world domination.

Jesus, however, left all that out of His sermon and indicated instead that He had come to be a light and blessing to the Gentiles. This definitely would have offended the Jewish audience of that day. They were offended that He took a passage of vengeance and judgment upon the Gentiles and turned it into a passage of mercy and blessing. Indeed, His message was the most unJewish discourse imaginable (Edersheim 1988:454). At that time, many Jews viewed Gentiles as scum of the earth, as dogs only fit to be kicked around. Some Jews thought that the only reason God created Gentiles was to be fuel for the fires of hell (Barclay 1975:48). So for Jesus to have taught that God’s blessings were also intended for Gentiles would have shocked many in the Jewish audience. He sees their shock and outrage, and so continues to defend His explanation in the following verses.

4:23. One of the ways Jewish prophets proved the validity of their message was with the use of signs and predictions (cf. Deut 18:21-22; John 2:18; 1 Cor 1:22; Bock 1994:416). The other method Jewish people used to decide if a prophet spoke the truth or not was by comparing his teaching with what was already recorded and commanded in Scripture. If the prophet had signs and miracles but contradicted the Word of God, they should still not heed his teaching (cf. Deut 13:1-3).

The proverb which Jesus refers to, ”Physician, heal yourself” has this background in mind. It was a well-known proverb in that day (Bock 1994:416; Green 1997:216), which is essentially similar to our modern-day saying, “Never trust a skinny cook.” If a physician says he can cure colds but he always has a cold, his “cure” should not be trusted. The sign that a doctor is unreliable is his inability to cure himself.

In the case of a prophet, the Jewish people expected to see signs as proof that what the prophet taught was true. Specifically, the signs that were done in Capernaum they wanted Jesus to do here also in Nazareth. This is especially true if what Jesus saying about the inauguration of the year of Jubilee was true (Evans 2003:289). The people wanted the blessings to begin to flow just as they apparently have in Capernaum. Luke has not recorded any signs that were done in Capernaum, but as this passage is already one year into Jesus’ ministry, He has already taught and performed signs in other locations (cf. John 2:1-11; 4:43-54). The Jews want Jesus to perform some of those same signs here. They do not want to accept the eye-witness reports that came from Capernaum and Galilee, but want Jesus to perform signs for themselves also.

This isn’t necessarily an unreasonable request, since Jews were instructed by God to test the prophets in such a manner. However, they themselves (as quoted by Jesus) admit that Jesus has already performed signs. This report they have received—and apparently believed—should be enough for them to accept and believe the message of Jesus. But they want to see the signs for themselves. They wanted to see what they could get from Jesus. Jesus, however, wanted to be a blessing to the entire world, and He invited the Jewish people to join with Him in proclaiming the gospel, fighting for justice, and being agents of compassion.

Jesus supports His position in two ways. First, in verses 24-27, He takes them back to Scripture to provide proof of the validity of His message. In so doing, Jesus shows that signs—as important as they were for the Jewish people—still take second place to being consistent with the Scriptural truth that the people of God are to bless others—including their enemies.

4:24. The reason, Jesus says, that they won’t accept His teaching is not because He hasn’t done any signs, but because no prophet is accepted in his own country (cf. John 4:44). The irony here is that the word accepted (Gk. dektos) is the same word used in 4:19 for the “acceptable Year of the Lord.” The One who brings in the acceptable Year of the Lord is Himself not acceptable to his own people (Bock 1994:417; Evans 2003:289). This follows the tradition of many of the Prophets who were rejected—and even killed—by their own people (2 Chr 36:15-16; Pss 78; 105; 106; Lam 4:13; Acts 7:51-53).

The word country does not refer literally to “the country of Israel” but could also be translated “hometown” and so refers to the region or area that Jesus grew up, which was Nazareth. It is often argued that the reason Jesus was not accepted in Nazareth is that the people there were so familiar with Him as a young boy, and watched Him grow up and become a carpenter, they had trouble recognizing Him as a teacher and a prophet, let alone the promised Messiah. While this may be part of the reason, the account that Jesus relates in the following verses hints at a deeper reason that prophets do not minister in their own country.

4:25. Jesus points the audience to the Prophet Elijah. When Elijah lived and ministered, many widows where in Israel. And certainly, these widows had great need, especially since the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land. For three and one-half years it did not rain, which resulted in famine. It is likely that many died as a result.

4:26. During this family, God did not send Elijah to minister to any of the needy people of Israel, not even the widows who had no one else to provide for them. Instead, Elijah was [/b]sent[/b] elsewhere by God. This is one reason why some prophets are not accepted in their home country. While sometimes it is due to a lack of faith (Matt 13:38), most often it is because God simply sends the prophet elsewhere. The rule is not universally applied, since some prophets do minister in their home region.

In this case, God sent Elijah to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.Though there were many widows in Israel who were in dire need of aid, God gave an unending supply of food to this widow of Zarephath. God sent Elijah to help someone that the Jewish people would have despised and looked down upon. Not only was this person a woman, but she was a Gentile woman. In the account of 1 Kings 17, the woman exhibits great faith by giving her last loaf of bread to Elijah when she asks for it (cf. Bailey 2008:164). In return, she is rewarded with a bottomless jar of oil. With this example, Jesus shows that God is concerned about the needs of Gentiles—not just those of Israelites—and that Gentiles can have great faith.

4:27. Jesus provides a second example from another great prophet to prove the identical point. In this example, many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5). If a Gentile woman was bad, a Gentile leper was worse. Not only that, but Naaman was the general of the enemy army, which had killed and enslaved many of the Israelite people. At the time of Elisha, Naaman was one of the most hated men in all of Israel. When it was discovered he had leprosy, those Jews who heard of it must have rejoiced that God had judged him for his sins against Israel. And yet Naaman, even though he was insulted by Elisha, showed great humility and faith by doing what was asked of him (cf. Bailey 2008:165). As a result, many in Israel may have viewed Elisha as a traitor because he helped Naaman.

The point, once again, is that God wanted to show His compassion and love for all people, not just the Israelites, and that once again, a Gentile exhibits great faith. God was so intent on showing the Israelites His love for all people, and that all people can have faith in God, He chose the most hated man in Israel to prove it.

So Jesus is not telling His Jewish audience that He can’t or won’t do miracles in Nazareth. He can and He does. Instead, Jesus is trying to address their deep-seated sense of superiority, their hatred toward Gentiles, and especially their neglect of God’s plan for them to be a blessing to the nations. Though they expected the Messiah to overthrow the enemies of Israel and rule and reign over the world from Jerusalem, Jesus is showing them that He, as the Messiah, has come to be a blessing to the entire world, as God has always intended. He is saying:

If you want to receive the benefits of the new golden age of the Messiah, you must imitate the faith of these Gentiles. I am not asking you merely to tolerate or to accept them. You must see such Gentiles as your spiritual superiors and acknowledge that they can instruct you in the nature of authentic faith. The benefits of the “acceptable year of the Lord,” which I have come to inaugurate, are available to such people (Bailey 2008:165).

The mission of Jesus is thus shown to include benefits for all people, not just the Jews, and especially for those outcast and rejected by society: the widow, the unclean, the hated, and those of the lowest status (Green 1997:218). Jesus is saying that people like Phoenician widows and Syrian lepers had more preference in the plan of God than the people of Nazareth (Bock 1994:419).

4:28. When the people in the synagogue heard what Jesus said about God’s concern for Gentiles and the Messianic mission to all people, they were filled with wrath. They were angry that Jesus would suggest that God’s plans included not just the Gentiles, but their Gentile enemies. And these plans were not for their destruction, but for their blessing (Evans 2003:290). Furthermore, in the examples of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus implied that the Israelites of their day were unfit to have these great prophets perform miracles among them. Similarly, the implication is that the people of Nazareth were unfit for Him to perform miracles among them. Nothing could be more grating to the Jews, that God would pass over Israelites to bring blessing to the Gentiles (Lightfoot 1989:75).

4:29. The people were so angry with Jesus, that they rose up and took Him out of the city…to the brow of the hill where they intended to throw Him down over the cliff. The people of Nazareth disagreed so strongly with what Jesus taught, that they tried to kill him by stoning Him. There were two different kinds of stoning. The more familiar kind is when a crowd of people throw stones at a person until he or she dies. The second kind involved taking the person to a cliff, and throwing him off of it so that the legs broke. Then they would drop stones down on top of the person until they were crushed. This people from the synagogue were trying to stone Jesus using this second method (Evans 2003:291). He had taught something different than what they believed the Bible taught, and since He had refused to “produce a sign” they felt justified in stoning Him. In their minds, Jesus was a false prophet, and so subject to the punishment of death as laid out in Deuteronomy 13:1-3. Jesus had taught something contrary to their traditional beliefs, and had failed to produce a sign to back up His words, and so they felt justified in putting Jesus to death (cf John 8:59; 10:31; Acts 7:54-58; 21:31-32; Bock 1994:419).

4:30. But the people were unsuccessful in stoning Jesus. Instead, passing through the midst of them, He went His way. Jesus miraculously escapes the mob and gets away safely. Ironically, they asked for a sign, and when they refused to accept His teaching, He gave them a sign to prove that what He had taught was true.

There is a parallel here between this event and the third temptation of Jesus in Luke 4:9-12. There, the devil led Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, and challenged Jesus to throw Himself off the temple in the sight of all the people below. The devil quoted Scripture to say that God would send angels to protect Jesus from hitting the stone courtyard below. Jesus stood against that temptation since it was not God’s will or God’s timing. But here, as Jesus is following God’s will in God’s way, God does protect Jesus from “striking his foot against a stone” and being put to death. This miracle was performed in the sight of the Jewish people, and Jesus escapes from them unharmed. The sign they asked for was granted, but only after they revealed their heart of unbelief and hatred for God’s desire to show mercy and compassion to the Gentiles.

This event proves to be a pattern for the future ministry of Jesus. Whenever He teaches that God loves and accepts all people—especially outsiders—the religious leaders respond by trying to put Jesus to death, but He escapes their grasp and goes on to further expand His ministry with those who accept and welcome Him. So while Luke 4:16-30 foreshadows the ministry of Jesus, it also reveals the rejection He will experience (Ford 1984:63).