Why did the people of Jesus’ hometown seek to kill Him after He read in the synagogue from the book of Isaiah? Continuing his series in the gospel of Luke, in this sermon R.C. Sproul examines what Isaiah’s prophecy reveals about Jesus’ mission in the world.
We are going to continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke, and this morning I’m going to read from Luke 4:14–21:
Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region. And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
So, He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.”
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.
The text you’ve just heard is of critical importance to understanding the person and work of Jesus in His earthly ministry, so it is imperative that we hear this word and receive it in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, again we beg You to help us understand the things contained in this passage. Our minds and souls are too weak to grasp them unaided, and so we implore You to give us the aid and assistance that can come only from Your Holy Spirit, that we may understand these things fully and be changed by them. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jesus’ Return to Nazareth
Immediately after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Luke tells us, “He returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region. And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.” This brief statement transitions between the conclusion of the temptation and the beginning of the event in the synagogue at Nazareth.
We do not know how much time took place between Jesus’ temptation and His appearance at Nazareth. We do not know where His travels took Him, but looking at the rest of the Gospels, there was clearly a considerable period of Jesus’ ministry between His temptation and His appearance at Nazareth, perhaps as much as a full year.
In Luke’s arrangement of how he presents the life of Jesus, he wants to focus our attention on this event in Nazareth because in this incident, we clearly see the agenda or mission of Jesus. We see it in the light of the Old Testament teaching of the coming Messiah, and obviously the mission of Jesus was the mission of the Messiah. Conversely, the mission of the Messiah was indeed the mission of Jesus because Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel.
The Servant’s Mission
“So,” we read, “He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and He stood up to read.” He appears as a guest, as a visiting rabbi, as it were.
It was the custom in the synagogue to allow a visiting rabbi to give the meditation or exposition of the Word of God by way of the sermon. Every week at the synagogue, the custom was to read a portion of the Torah, a portion from the Law, and then another reading from the Prophets. In this day, the prophet to be read was Isaiah. So, Jesus stood up and received the book of the prophet Isaiah to read the text of the day. When He opened the book, Jesus read from Isaiah 61, perhaps the most important of over two thousand Old Testament prophecies that point to the coming Redeemer and Messiah.
In Isaiah 61, Isaiah describes the mission of the servant of God that had been explained earlier in chapter 53, the mission of the Servant of the Lord to be the sin-bearer and Savior of the people. This Servant is not only to be the Savior of the people by bearing their sins, but He is supposed to be their Lord and conqueror who will bring two things ultimately: salvation and judgment, the redemption of God and His wrath.
So, Jesus read that critical passage in Isaiah to those assembled in the synagogue, and it began with these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.”
The Mystery of the Incarnation
I would like to spend a few moments focusing on that introductory statement from the prophet Isaiah. One of the greatest mysteries we encounter at the very heart of the Christian faith is the mystery of the Trinity. Within the mystery of the Trinity is the profound mystery of the incarnation. In the incarnation of the Logos, of which John speaks, we find the second person of the Trinity, who takes upon Himself a human nature. The person Jesus has two natures: a divine nature and a human nature.
A few weeks ago, we looked at the manifestation of Jesus’ perfect humanity when, at age twelve, He came to the temple and astounded the doctors and theologians with His grasp of the Scriptures and the things of God. I mentioned that such a grasp of the deep things of God did not require divine knowledge, but could be achieved by a perfect, unstained, unspotted, unfallen human being. Then we saw this perfect man, the incarnation of God, coming for baptism. At this occasion, the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove, and God said, “This is My beloved Son.”
Now, it gets even more complicated. In the incarnation, we have the second person of the Trinity perfectly united with the human nature of Jesus. When we look at the earthly ministry of Jesus, we must ask this question: “By what power was He able to perform the marvelous miracles that the New Testament records?”
Were the miracles that Jesus performed a manifestation of His divine nature? That is, were these works empowered by the second person of the Trinity working through the human Jesus, or was the human nature of Jesus, endowed by the power of the Holy Ghost that rested upon Him, able to perform these miracles? You may think that is an insignificant question. Maybe it’s a question you’ve never thought about. I confess, it’s one I never stop thinking about.
I’ve seen so much confusion about the mystery of the incarnation, where classical liberalism so denies the deity of Jesus that they allow the human nature of Christ to swallow up His deity. On the other side of the aisle, evangelicals so zealous to proclaim the deity of Jesus Christ will often so strongly affirm His deity that they end up allowing the deity to swallow up the humanity, so that there is nothing human left of Jesus.
We see it in the hymnody that sings about God’s dying on the cross. I say: “Wait a minute, God can’t die. God is eternal, self-existent, immutable.” I have told you before that if God died, so would Jerusalem, so would Jesus, so would the soldiers, and so would the whole universe vanish, because it is only through the power of the living God that anything else exists or continues to exist in the universe. God cannot die. Whatever else happened in the drama of the cross, it wasn’t the divine nature that died, but it was the God-man who died, and the divine nature was certainly united to the human nature when the human nature expired on the cross.
Anointed by the Holy Spirit
What about miracles? We find other men besides Jesus in the Bible who performed miracles. We see it in Moses. We see it in Elijah. We see it in Elisha. We see it in the Apostles of the New Testament. Moses didn’t have a divine nature. Elijah didn’t have a divine nature. Elisha didn’t have a divine nature. The Apostles didn’t have a divine nature. By what power did these men perform their miracles?
The Bible makes it clear by what power these men were able to perform miracles. They did it by the power of the Holy Ghost, the power of the third person of the Trinity who, though distinguished from the Father and the Son, cannot be separated, as they are all one in being and in essence. It’s important that the ministry of Jesus on this earth takes place after He is anointed by the Holy Ghost. I think it is safe to assume that even God incarnate was performing these mighty works through the power of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost.
The name “Christ” is simply the Greek translation of the Old Testament word for “Messiah,” and means literally, “the anointed one.” He is anointed by the power of the sovereign God. So, Jesus comes into the synagogue and reads a text that promised a future Messiah who would come and minister in the power of the sovereign God, being anointed by God Himself.
To be anointed meant two different things. On the one hand, one could be anointed by the Holy Spirit to be set apart or consecrated for a sacred vocation. Kings were anointed. They were set apart. Prophets were all anointed, set apart, just as we ordain ministers and elders today in the church. It is an act of consecration.
When Isaiah speaks about the anointing of the Messiah, however, he is not simply speaking about the Messiah as being set apart and consecrated, but rather that He’s being charismatically endowed with power. The first manifestation of that power is in the text: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me,” to do what? “To preach the gospel to the poor.” This tells us that the Messiah would be—and Jesus was—anointed by the Holy Ghost to preach.
Anointed Preachers in America
If you look through the pages of church history, dear friends, you will find the record of great preachers who have had outstanding ministries. Even in our own history in America, we have had many great preachers of the gospel. If you pushed me up against a wall and said, “R.C., in your opinion, how many anointed preachers have ever dotted the landscape of America?” I could only think of three, and one of those is questionable.
One I know for sure was Jonathan Edwards. So empowered by the Holy Ghost and powerful was his preaching that multitudes of people were converted through his preaching. In the eighteenth century, God the Holy Spirit brought about the greatest revival that our country had seen before or since, the Great Awakening. He did so through the anointed preaching of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, and the possibly anointed preaching of John Wesley.
God obviously used John Wesley in an extraordinary way as a vital part of that Great Awakening, despite his bankrupt theology. But he was not empowered to be a theologian, he was empowered to be a preacher. Not that those two things are mutually exclusive, but they may not necessarily be enjoined. Since that time, I can think of several great preachers in America, but none that I am confident were anointed by God.
I think of the anointing of Charles Haddon Spurgeon in England and how God the Holy Spirit used him in London to bring about an awakening in that city and that nation. At a recent Ligonier National conference, Steve Lawson was speaking about Spurgeon. He talked about how Spurgeon wrestled in prayer over every sermon that he gave, and when he would mount the high pulpit there in London, he would say to himself on every step, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, I believe in the Holy Ghost, I believe in the Holy Ghost.” Spurgeon was dependent on the power of God to make his preaching effective because God has promised that His Word will not return to Him void, and that the preaching of the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. I don’t know any true, believing preacher who hasn’t earnestly longed for just once in their preaching career to be anointed and to see the people’s response to the Word of God that only the Holy Ghost can bring about.
I think all of us in this vocation of preaching have seen the Spirit work. I am not suggesting the Holy Spirit fails to work when we preach. However, I have not seen it happen the way it did with Edwards, Spurgeon, and men of that stripe whom God the Holy Spirit anointed for this task of preaching. However, the most anointed preacher that ever walked the face of the earth, the one who had the greatest unction, whose preaching was so powerful that thousands of people could be converted at a single sermon, was Jesus of Nazareth.
Sent to Heal the Broken-Hearted
Jesus had the full unction promised to the Messiah, and He was anointed to preach the gospel to the poor. He preached not just to the physically poor, as we see in His teaching on the Beatitudes, but to those who were poor in spirit, who were numbered among the broken-hearted, who were spiritually poverty-stricken.
You can possess great wealth and still be spiritually impoverished, desperately in need to hear the preaching of the gospel. Any time the Lord Jesus preached the gospel, when the Holy Spirit quickened His words, everyone who heard Him knew immediately of their poverty-stricken spiritual condition. They were awakened by the power of the preaching of Jesus and the accompanying ministry of the Holy Ghost.
Jesus was anointed to be sent to heal the broken-hearted. Do you know any doctor who can heal a broken heart? Is there any more painful condition for a human being to suffer and endure than the broken heart? Do you remember, as an infant, when Jesus was brought to the temple, and the venerable Simeon saw the Messiah for the first time. God had promised that Simeon would not die until he saw the Lord’s anointed. He was patiently waiting there for what? He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, which was the central task of the Messiah promised by God. He would come to console the broken-hearted.
Jesus read the prophecy of Isaiah: “He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives.” This and the appearance of Jesus were the greatest manumission, the greatest Emancipation Proclamation in the history of the world. He came not only to proclaim liberty to those enslaved and in chains, but those who were held captive by Satan himself, those who were in bondage to sin, slaves to the power of evil. Jesus came to set them free.
Jesus came to proclaim liberty to all of us who by nature are enslaved to the impulses of sin. He came to give the recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, the year of Jubilee, the time when all debts are canceled. That cyclical experience in the history of Israel was only foreshadowing the ultimate work of the Messiah, who would cancel the debts of all His people permanently. The Messiah says, “I am anointed to do all of these things.”
The Scripture Fulfilled
After Jesus read the summary Isaiah gave of the mission and agenda of the Lord’s Messiah, He handed the scroll back to the attendant and sat down. Sometimes when you visualize that, you think of the synagogue where you have the reading of the scroll, and this man comes out of the congregation, the attendant hands him the scroll, he stands there and reads the scroll, and when he’s finished, he gives the scroll back to the attendant and goes back to his seat. That was not the case. When he sat down, it signaled the beginning of the sermon. In the synagogues, the preachers sat on a chair or bench and the rest of the people sat on the floor, at his feet. That is where we get that idea of sitting at the feet of a great teacher. In any case, Jesus sat down, and that was the signal for Him to begin His exposition, or His explanation of the meaning of the text that He had just read.
The eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him: “What is He going to say? We know this man. We watched Him grow up here in Nazareth, and He has been gone for a while. He has been living in Capernaum. We have heard all the rumors and stories of the incredible ministry He has performed, doing miracles and healings and speaking to multitudes all throughout the land, especially here in Galilee. Now, He is going to preach in His hometown synagogue for the first time.”
Every person in that crowd was on the edge of their chair, their eyes fixed on him, their ears listening intently: “What is He going to say?” This, of course, is the shortest sermon recorded by anyone in all of sacred Scripture. Jesus sat down, looked out at this congregation peering at Him relentlessly, and said to them, “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Amen, end of the sermon.
It’s as if He was saying: “You have just heard the mission of the Messiah set forth by the prophet Isaiah. The people of this nation have been reading that prophetic agenda for hundreds and hundreds of years. The people of Israel have been waiting generation after generation for the Lord’s anointed, the Lord’s deliverer, the Lord’s conqueror to come. Today, He is here, right now. You are looking at Him. You are listening to Him.” After all these centuries, when the Anointed One of God appeared on the scene, the people from His hometown didn’t get it. What was their response?
What’s Your Response?
Before we look at their response, I want to make this point: there is no more important evaluation that you will ever make than in answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” Sit there for a moment in your imagination on the floor in the synagogue. You’ve just heard the text, you’ve just heard the Word of God, and now you hear the Son of God saying, “I am He.”
What is your response? Do you leap for joy and say, “Thank you, God—we have waited so patiently”? Do you want to run up and hug His neck and say, “We are so glad, Jesus, to know that you are the Messiah”? That was not the response in Nazareth.
People heard these words, looked at Him, shocked, and said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” Yes, He was Joseph’s adopted Son, but He was also Yahweh’s Son. He was the Servant of the sovereign God, the Anointed Son in whom the Father was well-pleased, but they couldn’t take it. They were choking on the words of Jesus.
God-willing, the next time we look at this text, we will explore further how Jesus responded to their unbelief, and how they further responded to His response to their unbelief. He did not get the “Orator of the Year” award in Nazareth; rather, they wanted to kill Him. What about you? Would you be happier without Him, or do you see that He was sent to heal your broken heart and to set you free? Let’s pray.
Our Father and our God, through the record of the Gospels, we know that there was not a scintilla of the task assigned to the Messiah that was not fulfilled completely by Your beloved Son. We thank You for His mission and for His fulfillment of it for our sakes. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.