No one can be on neutral ground with respect to Jesus. We must either receive Him or reject Him as the promised Savior. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in Luke’s gospel by addressing the hostility Jesus received in His hometown of Nazareth.
During the last sermon on Luke 4, we read the record of Jesus preaching at the synagogue in His hometown and announcing the fulfillment of Isaiah 61’s messianic text, as well as the response of the people to it. We are returning to that text this morning, reading from Luke 4:20–30:
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” So, all bore witness to Him, and marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”
He said to them, “You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in Your country.’” Then He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country. But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
So, all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way.
You have just heard a record of this moment in the life of our Lord Jesus at the very beginning of His public ministry, a moment that set the tone for the rest of the time He would spend on this earth accomplishing the mission the Father gave Him. This record comes to us through the inspiration and superintendence of God the Holy Spirit and bears the full weight of divine truth and authority. Please receive it as such, and not in the way the people received Jesus in Nazareth. Let’s pray.
Again, our Father and our God, we look to Thee as the author and finisher of our faith and salvation, through whose Word we have been quickened and brought into fellowship with our Savior and adopted into Your heavenly family. Even now, as we consider again the person and the work of Your dear Son, we pray that You would stir our hearts to a greater sense of devotion and love for Him as we look at this Word. For we ask it in the name of Jesus. Amen.
An Astounding Message
When last we looked at this text, we saw the astonishing statement Jesus made on the occasion He visited the synagogue He attended during His childhood with His family. He was initially welcomed eagerly by the people of Nazareth as one who had developed a reputation as a rabbi, that is, as a great teacher.
The rumors had spread to Nazareth of the mighty works He had done in the region of Galilee, particularly in and around Capernaum, the place He was residing, presumably in the home of Peter. These rumors told of miraculous works Jesus had accomplished. His reputation of greatness, unexpected and unassumed by the people at Nazareth, piqued their curiosity that day when Jesus appeared as the guest rabbi.
As I mentioned before, the custom was that the guest rabbi would give the sermonic comment on the Scripture reading of the day. The text that day was from the prophet Isaiah, which set forth in prophetic terms the job description of the promised Messiah, whom the Lord had anointed with the Holy Ghost to proclaim good news to the poor and set the captives free. After that text was read, Jesus sat down and gave the shortest sermon that we have on record from Him or anyone else, when He simply said, “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your midst.”
The people were astounded by Jesus’ words. They got the message. They understood that He was saying: “Right now, right here in your presence, this text is fulfilled in Me. I am the promised Anointed One of Israel.” When this occurred, we read, “So all bore witness to Him, and marveled at the gracious words that proceeded out of His mouth.”
They were stunned. They were amazed, and they marveled. They said, “How can this be?” Still, they were positive in their response, saying: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? We know little Jesus that used to work with Joseph in the carpenter’s shop here in Nazareth. We’ve seen Him. We knew His brothers. We knew His sisters, and now He’s saying that He is the Messiah.” Jesus picked up on this instantly.
No Honor in His Own Country
We could speculate about other responses Jesus could’ve made. He could have said to the people: “Dear friends, you’ve known Me since I was a little boy. Many of you have visited My father’s shop. We’ve done business together. We’ve been here in this synagogue together. I just want you to know how much I appreciate all the support you gave to Me and My mother Mary, and to My father, and to our family during My childhood. I want to pronounce upon you today the deepest blessing that God could possibly give you.”
That would have been the politically correct thing to do, and probably would have allowed Jesus to avoid much of the hostility He would soon receive. Instead, Jesus knew what they were thinking. He knew that, like an evil and adulterous generation, they wanted a sign. They had heard the rumors of His miraculous works in the Galilee region. They said: “Okay Jesus, let’s see You do Your stuff. Do it here. Show us Your power now. We know You. You may be fooling these other people with Your clever tricks, but if You’re really the Messiah, then give us a sign here.” That is what Jesus was reading in their responses. So He said: “You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician heal Yourself! Whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in Your country.’”
Jesus went on to say, “Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country.” We have heard the proverbial statement that a prophet is not without honor except in his own country. That is, a person may achieve great fame, great respect, and be lauded throughout the land, except in his own hometown.
There is very little in common between me and my Lord Jesus Christ, but I do remember the first time I was invited to speak at the church where I grew up in a suburb outside of Pittsburgh. I had already spoken at many places around the country, and indeed around the world. I was surprised to be invited to speak on that occasion.
I was completely intimidated because I knew what was going on in their minds: “We knew you, you little Sonny Sproul, when you were…” When I looked out in the congregation, there was my third-grade teacher, and I saw other people who knew me as a boy and knew all the things that I was involved in. As I was growing up, I was not free from original sin like Jesus was. These people had a lot more dirt on me than the people in Nazareth had on Jesus. But I can remember thinking on that occasion, “A preacher is not without honor except in his own country.” That was true for me, and it was true for Jesus.
Two Prophetic Examples from History
Jesus went on to use two historical examples to illustrate His point, both from the Old Testament, both from the history of the prophetic office. He first looked to Elijah and said: “I tell you truly.” When He said this, He prefaced His statement with the Greek word amēn, or amen. This is a solemn statement. It is like an oath or a vow, where He’s saying, “Before Almighty God, what I’m about to say to you is the unvarnished truth, and you need to hear it in all of its weightiness.”
Jesus said: “I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land. But to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.” She was a Phoenician woman; not an Israelite, but a Phoenician widow.
Jesus was saying that the miracle that Elijah performed was not for somebody from his home nation. There were many widows there that he could’ve ministered to in this miraculous fashion, but in the providence of God, He was sent to Sidon. There, the widow would receive the blessing that Elijah would bring to her.
In like manner, He said: “There were many lepers in Israel in those days when Elisha, the successor to Elijah, was functioning as a prophet. But not one of them was cleansed through the power of the prophet Elisha. No, Elisha was sent to Naaman the Syrian, the foreigner, the outsider to Israel, in order that he might be miraculously healed.”
What was Jesus saying? This is the economy of God. “Why should I come to Nazareth and do anything for you? I have no honor here. You’re not really receiving Me as the Messiah. Remember that Elijah didn’t come to the widows in Israel. Elisha didn’t come to the lepers in Israel. So, I’m not coming to the sinners in Nazareth.” That’s what Jesus is saying.
You can see the paroxysm of anger and fury erupting in that very moment against Jesus. Instead of simply having their curiosity piqued about what this hometown boy was going to do, they were filled with wrath. They didn’t just get mad and walk out. Rather, they rose up and threw Him out of the city: “They led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way.”
There is a lot contained in that last statement. We don’t know how Jesus managed to leave, but there was more than one occasion during His earthly ministry when soldiers and others were sent to arrest Him. There was something about Jesus in His resolute determination not to be taken at that moment. I don’t know if it was just in the look that came from His eyes, but He would look these enemies down and then just walk away, and no one dared to lay a hand upon Him.
His Own Despised Him
I want us to see, at the early stage of Jesus’ ministry, the people of Nazareth’s response to one of their own. It was unqualified rejection. Remember, the same prophet Isaiah, when he spoke of the One who would come as the sin-bearer, as the Suffering Servant of Israel, spoke in this manner: “He was despised and rejected of men.” This was the modus operandi of the Lord’s Anointed: He would be despised and rejected.
Look in contrast to words from the pen of the Apostle John at the beginning of his gospel. In John 1:10, he writes: “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” Let me change the language, by way of illustrative license, and have it read like this: “He was in Nazareth, and Nazareth was made through Him. But Nazareth did not know Him. He came to His own Nazarenes, and His own Nazarenes did not receive Him.” That merely is an application of the particular to the universal. This happened throughout Israel.
He came to Israel. He made Israel. Israel was His own, but they received Him not. Let’s go beyond the scope of Nazareth, beyond the scope of Israel, to the whole world. He came to the world, as John says, and the world was made by Him, but the world didn’t know Him. Beloved, this is as true this morning as it was true that day in Nazareth.
Would it be true that all of you know Him, and that none of you in this congregation have rejected or despised Him, that you are here this morning because God in His mercy and His grace has called you out of the world and to Himself? As I have said before, it is exceedingly unlikely that this would be true of everyone who is in this house this morning. The odds are that there are people sitting within the sound of my voice who have not received Him, who have never received Him, who have rejected Him, and despite their being here this morning, beneath the mask of religion we would find the heart of one who despises Him.
The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that with Jesus, there is never neutrality. If you are not with Him, you are against Him. If you are not His disciple, you are His enemy. Your natural state, the state in which you were born, the Scriptures tell us, was a state of enmity. By nature, God is your enemy, and by nature, God’s Son is your enemy.
Only a supernatural work of grace can change the disposition of your heart from one of antagonism to one of devoted love and religious affection. Unless God the Holy Spirit regenerates your soul and turns the disposition of your heart, you will be reluctant and recalcitrant in your disavowal of the Lord’s Anointed.
Receive, Not Accept
There is language that arises within the religious community. It is a natural thing that we have our own jargon and hear the same words used endlessly in the religious community. One has always attracted my attention, and I’ve bristled at it when I hear it, as sacrosanct as it is. When people engage in evangelism, they will say, “Have you accepted Christ?”
“Accepting Jesus” is somehow the language that describes conversion, where one turns around from his hostility toward Christ to embracing Him in love and affection. I must tell you a secret: I hate that language. I just can’t stand it. It is so patronizing to say, “I accepted Jesus.” What? You accepted Jesus? You made allowances for Him? Do you see how patronizing that sounds?
Ladies and gentlemen, in the final analysis it is not whether you accept Jesus; it’s whether He accepts you. If you finally come to the place where you say, “Jesus is acceptable to me, where before He was completely unacceptable,” if you really believe what you’re saying, you still ought to receive Him.
The language in Scripture is to “receive” Jesus. To receive Jesus is not the same as to accept Him. To accept somebody, in our modern language, is to tolerate him. To receive Him, in biblical categories, is to embrace Him. Do you see the difference? The language of the New Testament is not of acceptance, it’s of embracing.
When the Bible speaks of believing “in Christ” or believing “into Christ,” it means to welcome Him, to receive Him, to trust Him, to embrace Him with all your heart. We read in the prologue of John that I was reading from a moment ago: “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them…” I stop there because it is interesting to get the different translations of what follows. It says in the NKJV, “He gave the right to become the children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
The NKJV says, “To those who received Jesus, He gave them the right.” Other translations will say, “He gave them the power.” Still others will say, “He gave them the authority.” The word here is exousia, which can mean “authoritative power” or “powerful authority,” and it is used in both ways in the New Testament. Sometimes it is used to describe the transcendent force and power of God, and other times it refers to the supernatural authority of God. The NKJV translator gives a rather weak translation, “He gave them the right.”
When you receive Christ, it is because you put your faith in Him. Because you have faith, you are justified before God. Because of that justification, adoption into the family of God immediately comes with it, so that now you have the privilege and the authority to say, “Abba, Father.” God is no longer your enemy. He is your heavenly Father.
Because you received the Lord Jesus Christ and embraced Him, the Lord Jesus Christ covers you with His own heavenly mantle. He becomes your older brother, because God only has one Child, the only Begotten, as we hear in the Nicene Creed. He has only one natural Son. Every other child of God is an adopted child of God.
We are not by nature the children of God. We are by nature the children of hell. The only thing that changes our status ultimately from hell to heaven is receiving the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the last thing in the world these people of Nazareth were willing to do.
Your Eternal Destiny Depends on This Question
Where are you with Christ? There is no middle ground. There is no neutrality. You’re either with Him, for Him, or you’re against Him. As you examine your own heart this morning, you need to answer that question, because it’s the most important question you will ever answer in your lifetime. Your eternal destiny depends on how you answer this question: “Do I receive Him, or do I reject him?”
Further, ask yourself this: If you do reject Him, why do you reject Him? Martin Luther, when he was going through his conscientious struggles as a monk in the monastery in Erfurt, muttered on one occasion: “You ask me, ‘Do I love God?’ Love God? Sometimes I hate God.” Why? Because God represented to him the most formidable obstacle to everything he wanted to do freely and with impunity.
Take a moment to think about how the culture you live in responds to the law of Almighty God. Are the people in our country willing to embrace sexual chastity and purity? Or do we revolt, body and soul, against the prohibition against sexual sin? We live in a culture where people can’t make three sentences out of their mouth without blaspheming the name of God or Christ.
Christ stands as the supreme obstacle to your sin. If you receive Him, you must own up to your sin. You must fall on your face in repentance. You must beg for the forgiveness of God for the way you have violated His law. But if we can reject Jesus and reject the One who sent Him, we think we are free from the law: “Oh, blessed condition, we can sin all we want and still have remission.” However, the day comes for every man and every woman to stand before the throne of Almighty God.
It is appointed once to die and then the judgment. God has appointed the day by which He will judge the world through the One He has appointed judge, whom He has vindicated by the power of the resurrection. On that day, Jesus will either be your judge or your defense attorney, because if you reject Him now, He rejects you then.
I am not trying to appeal to you to embrace Christ simply as a ticket out of hell, but it’s a good idea to embrace Him, because if you don’t receive Him, then He will not receive you. Luke tells us this is how it started in Nazareth, and all of what happened in Nazareth was a foretaste of what was waiting for Jesus in Jerusalem.
Are you with Him, or are you against Him? Do you reject Him, or do you receive Him? God grant that you receive Him in all His majesty, in all His excellency, in all His sweetness, and in all His loveliness, now and forever. Let’s pray.
Father, we can’t imagine any reason in ourselves why You would receive us. We can’t imagine any reason in ourselves why You would not totally and categorically reject us, except You have covered us with the righteousness and blood of Your dear Son. So, we beg, O God, that You would look at us through the clothing of the righteousness of Jesus. For we ask it in His name. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.