In Luke 4, we find an interesting sequence of events. Jesus stands up in a synagogue, reads a portion of Isaiah 61, and when He sits down, everyone’s staring at Him like He just said something shocking. What’s that about?
Well, first realize that there wasn’t an “Isaiah 61” to the Jews because their Scriptures weren’t divided into chapters. Isaiah’s entire book would have been one long scroll for them. Chapters were not added to the Bible until the 13th century A.D., and verses were then added in the mid-16th century. All of the stuff you read about in the New Testament happened during the 1st century.
Now even though there weren’t chapters, Isaiah’s book is a series of visions and speeches which are stand alone thoughts. To understand the context of a single verse, you need to find the start of the speech that it’s a part of, and read the whole speech. Chapter headings can actually get in the way because they make you feel like a new speech is starting when sometimes the chapter break happens in the middle of the speech. Either way, in the case of Jesus, He didn’t come anywhere close to reading a whole speech. He just read a few lines from the middle of a long speech. He really wasn’t modeling a good use of context—but then again, that wasn’t His purpose.
What Jesus did was go up to a front of the synagogue, take a big fat “Isaiah” scroll, fiddle with it until He found the section He wanted, and read it. Synagogues were places that Jewish commoners gathered (men only) to be taught by a Pharisee or scribe (an “expert” in Yahweh’s law). Synagogue gatherings were like modern day men’s home groups–the guys got together and the home group leader would read some Scriptures, then talk about them.
Because scrolls were expensive (and rather awkward when they were large), common folks didn’t have them in their homes. This meant that people’s familiarity with Scriptures really depended on what they remembered being taught in synagogues and at the Temple. Just like Christians today, Jews had favorite passages which were quoted a lot while other passages were ignored.
Today Christians talk about “Messianic passages” in the Old Testament–those are passages in which they think Yahweh or some human is dropping prophetic hints about a Messiah who will one day show up and save Israel. Today Christians really get carried away with trying to “see Jesus on every page” of the Old Testament. Modern day lists of supposed “Messianic passages” that you find on the internet can have hundreds of entries, but a closer look will reveal that many of those passages really had nothing to do with Christ.
In the time of the Gospels, the Jews were playing the same “Messianic passage” games that we do today. They were seeing hints of a Messiah in passages where there were no such hints. In other words, they were just as good at twisting passages to say what they wanted them to say as we are today. Abuse of Scriptures and yanking Scriptures out of context was a very popular practice among the Jews. We see this happening a lot in the letters of Paul, the book of Hebrews, and in speeches given by Paul and Peter in the book of Acts. Misapplication was very common and widely accepted, as long as you were misapplying in a way that your fellow Jews liked. So given this cultural context, the Jews Jesus was talking to really wouldn’t care if He was applying His quotation from Isaiah correctly or not. They didn’t care about context–they just wanted the bottom line to be something they wanted to hear. In the Gospel books, we find Jesus intentionally playing this same game with Jewish leaders–using their own misapplications of Scripture against them. A great example is how He pretends Psalm 110 is about Him in order to trap them into acknowledging that He could be a Supernatural Being (see Debunking Messianic Psalms: The Real Meaning of Psalm 110).
Like Christians today, the Pharisees said that the entire Old Testament was “God breathed” (which is quite untrue–see Imitating the Idolatry of NT Jews: All Scripture is God-Breathed). Synagogues were Pharisee inventions, so any Scripture Jesus read in a synagogue would be treated as Divinely inspired. (This was not the case with the Sadducees, for they only considered the Torah—Genesis through Deuteronomy—to be Divinely inspired).
Cultural context is important. Jesus is speaking to a crowd of folks who have been taught to believe that every word in the Old Testament is Divinely inspired. He’s talking to a crowd of Jewish male commoners while some group leaders are standing by watching. When He reads from Isaiah 61, He is quoting a favorite and better known passage. Why is it a favorite? Well, Isaiah was a major prophet, and his stuff was more frequently quoted than some of the other prophets (you’ll find him quoted many times in the NT epistles). Also, Isaiah 61 is talking about Yahweh promising to do great things for Israel, and New Testament Jews would definitely have focused on those promises much more than the sections where Yahweh talks about how disgusted He is with Israel.
Now if we look over the sections of Isaiah in which Yahweh is speaking to Israel, we find a mix of scary threats and comforting promises. In the threatening passages, Yahweh predicts that He is going to do horrible things to the Jews because they are being so rebellious towards Him. But then in the comforting sections, He talks about restoring a devastated Israel and causing the Jews to thrive once again. The catch is that the only people who God promises to abundantly bless are those who actually repent out of their rebellion. Today you’ll find that this requirement of repentance is usually ignored when Christians and Jewish rabbis quote passages that talk about the restoration of Israel. The popular interpretation of these passages is that God is upset over the fact that Israel has spent a long time in oppressed misery, and He has promised to suddenly bless her and turn her into a world power just because He’s nice like that and Israel is His favorite nation. Is this really what Yahweh has promised? No. God’s promises always have conditions. Under the Old Covenant, the condition for a blissful, glorious Israel was that all of her people must sincerely repent out of their rebellion and start following Yahweh with all of their hearts.
If you read those happy passages in Isaiah a bit closer, you’ll find that the super blessed, world dominating Israel Yahweh describes only consists of citizens who are fully devoted to Him. Everyone else has been obliterated. You’ll also find Yahweh describing scenes of every nation in the world streaming to His Temple in Jerusalem just to worship Him. Well, worshiping Yahweh at a Temple and bringing Him sacrifices only works if you’re practicing Judaism. If you’re a Christian, then the whole Temple package becomes quite offensive since Christ and Yahweh have declared those things to be null and void.
Once you understand that the Temple in Jerusalem is directly linked to the Old Covenant, you can understand why Yahweh has no intention of bringing it back now that He has thrown His Old Covenant out. This is why the whole “perfect, powerful Israel” imagery that we find in the Old Testament is no longer valid for anyone today. Isaiah preached 700 years before Christ, and the encouragement Yahweh gave through him was very helpful to the people who lived before Christ. But many Old Testament promises simply cannot be carried into the New Covenant—a fact that the “pro-Israel” section of the Church refuses to admit today, thus you find many Christians still sucking up to Israel in hopes of getting a share of the blessings they think she’s due to receive.
So now that we understand all of that, let’s get back to Luke 4. The section Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 is part of one of those peppy “Someday Yahweh is going to restore Israel and help her trash all of her enemies” passages. At the time of the Gospels, many Jews are feeling cruelly oppressed by Rome and there is an intense desire to see Israel regain her sovereignty so she can then enjoy kicking Rome in the face. The synagogue Jesus is currently visiting is in His hometown of Nazareth. He’s been away for awhile, but the rumors about Him are flowing. It’s being said that He recently turned water into wine at a wedding, and that He miraculously healed some official’s son in Cana. So really—little Jesus who used to run around playing in the streets of Nazareth has grown up to be some kind of matter manipulating super healer? And what about that business of John the Baptist declaring Jesus to be Yahweh’s promised Messiah?
How would you feel if you heard that some kid who you went to school with is now claiming to be God’s power wielding superstar? It’s one thing when a stranger rolls into town and wows the crowd. It’s a whole different deal when you know the guy on stage—especially if you’ve never liked him that much. The men in Nazareth are trying to decide how they should respond to Jesus’ egotistical sounding claims. When He suddenly gets up and steals the pulpit in the synagogue, that seems a bit cheeky. After all, He’s not an authorized teacher. He hasn’t been trained like the Pharisees. And when He then reads from Isaiah 61, well things really get strange.
When He came to the village of Nazareth, His boyhood home, He went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to Him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:
“The Spirit of Yahweh is upon Me, for He has anointed Me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of Yahweh’s favor has come.” [Isa. 61:1-2]
He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at Him intently. Then He began to speak to them saying, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Lk. 4:16-21)
My, my, Someone certainly thinks highly of Himself. Jesus thinks He is the anointed one, huh? Sounds a bit much. But then again, Israel could desperately use someone to rise up and save her from Rome, so what if this rather heady son of a carpenter really is “the one.” Anything could be possible with Yahweh, and since it’s better to be safe than sorry, the men decide to start schmoozing. While they whisper their doubts to each other, out loud, they roll out the compliments. “Sure is great having You back, Jesus. Heard You’ve been doing some pretty impressive things. We could sure use a miracle Man around here.”
Everyone spoke well of Him and was amazed by the gracious words that came from His lips. “How can this be?” they asked. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Lk. 4:22)
Now if Jesus were a human, He would have no doubt enjoyed basking in this moment of glory. But Jesus is God, and God has no use for being schmoozed. Jesus knows that these guys are only oozing over Him in hopes that He’ll do something nice for them. So, in classic Jesus style, He rewards their attempts to manipulate Him with a sharp slap across the face. In Luke 4:23-27, Jesus reminds the guys in the synagogue of some events back in the days of the prophet Elijah. He points out the fact that when Israel was suffering under a terrible drought, Yahweh didn’t perform any miracles through His prophet to help the Jews. Instead, He sent Elijah out of the country to go live with a foreigner, and He miraculously blessed that lady instead of His own people. Skip ahead to Elisha’s time, when there were plenty of lepers living in Israel, and what do we find? Yahweh uses His prophet to heal a military officer of a nation that Israel hated instead of an ethnic Jew.
Now when you’re talking to a group of fiercely patriotic Jews, reminding them of times in their history when their national God favored foreigners over them is an act of war. Jesus’ hostile actions here are a fabulous example of what real loyalty to God looks like. Instead of compromising His message to cultivate His budding fan base, Jesus keeps the focus where it ought to be. He makes it clear right off that Yahweh’s chosen Messiah is going to be loyal to Yahweh, not a country. The Jews naturally wanted their Messiah to be loyal to Israel first, and that means joining with her in all of her carnal agendas. But what they got instead was a Messiah who put Yahweh first—and that meant the only folks Jesus smiled on were those who were honoring Yahweh on a soul level.
Sincere Yahweh followers come in every ethnicity, and as we follow Jesus through the Gospel books, we find Him publicly praising several non-Jews for having the right soul attitudes. Such behavior was very offensive to the Jews. Everyone in Israel knew that non-Jews were supposed to be treated as inferior no matter what their attitudes were. Sure, ethnic Jews would endure other ethnicities converting to Judaism, but if you were born with less than first class blood in your veins, ethnic Jews never tired of reminding you that you weren’t on their level.
Racism was treated as a lovely quality in Israelite culture—and we see it being rewarded throughout the biblical records. If Israel’s Messiah was putting Israel first, then He would be happy to join her in referring to Gentiles as dogs, and promoting Judaism as a tool for controlling the masses. But because Israel’s Messiah put Yahweh first, Jesus is swift to tell this crowd of Jews that He has no intention of pandering to them or blessing them with miracle cures. Since He knows that they are currently holding rebellious attitudes towards Yahweh, He plans to ditch them and go find souls who actually care about God. After all, how did Yahweh respond when His own people were despising Him back in the day? Yahweh sent His prophets Elijah and Elisha to help non-Jews instead. Yahweh responds to people according to their soul attitudes towards Him—He doesn’t play ethnic favorites.
“You will undoubtedly quote Me this proverb: ‘Physician, heal yourself’—meaning, ‘Do miracles here in Your hometown like those You did in Capernaum.’ But I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his own hometown.
Certainly there were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the heavens were closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine devastated the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a foreigner—a widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, but the only one healed was Naaman, a Syrian.” (Lk. 4:23-27)
So how do these Jewish men respond to Jesus saying that Israel’s long-awaited Messiah has no plans to treat her like God’s golden child? They’re furious—so much so that they feel justified in trying to murder Jesus.
When they heard this, the people in the synagogue were furious. Jumping up, they mobbed Him and forced Him to the edge of the hill on which the town was built. They intended to push Him over the cliff, but He passed right through the crowd and went on His way. (Lk. 4:28-30)
Such an extreme reaction demonstrates how inexcusable it was to the Jews for any Jew to say anti-Israel things. But wait—all Jesus did was refer to accounts in Jewish Scriptures of times when Yahweh blessed non-Jews. Since when is quoting Scriptures an offense worthy of immediate execution? Well, it depends what point you’re making. The Jews in New Testament Israel didn’t allow for their national God to make any demands of them. No, Yahweh was just supposed to exist to bless and defend Israel—He was not allowed to actually demand that she respect Him. Of course Jewish Scriptures were filled with accounts of Yahweh pounding Israel into the ground because she was being such a punk to Him—but when’s the last time you heard one of those passages quoted in a Christian church? Like the ancient Jews, modern day Christians are playing the game of pretending that Israel is God’s first priority, thus you will make instant enemies in the Church if you dare to say that God is equally disgusted with spiritual brats who come in Jewish bodies as He is with brats who come in non-Jewish packages. You see, being Jewish has never excused anyone from having to honor God. And being a Christian doesn’t get us any free pass to insult God, either.
Real prophets of God preach that God comes first. They don’t pretend that rotten soul attitudes are suddenly okay just because the one flaunting them happens to be a Christian or an ethnic Jew. Prophets who have their priorities right don’t compromise God’s messages so they can gain more fans. If Jesus had performed some miracles in His hometown, He would have gained the approval of those people—at least for a while. He would have gained some great word of mouth—at least for a while. He would have received financial support—at least for a while. But He also would have turned His back on Yahweh and been a disgrace to the prophetic calling. The way Jesus handled His first homecoming after He’d publicly launched as Yahweh’s Messiah is a fabulous demonstration of what real loyalty to God looks like: we treat His opinion like it’s the only One that matters, and we don’t hesitate to say His message, even if it means we might end up getting shoved over a cliff.
Trapping Jesus – Part 1: The Pharisees Ask About Taxes
Trapping Jesus – Part 2: The Sadducees Ask About Resurrection
Impressing the Devil: Jesus’ Self-Exalting Temptation Story
Understanding God’s Promises: Yahweh Promises to Bless Israel (Isaiah 30:18-33)
Yahweh Talks Ethnicity: Jews & Non-Jews Are Equal Before God