Jesus—His Life and Message: Hometown Visit
June 9, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Hometown Visit
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
The three Synoptic Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ visit to His hometown of Nazareth and the rejection He met while there. Luke presents Jesus’ return to Nazareth earlier in his Gospel than Matthew and Mark,1 probably for literary reasons. Luke’s version, which we’ll look at more closely in this article, is longer and contains more details than the others, but all make similar points regarding Jesus being spurned by the people of the village He'd grown up in.
Jesus’ visit to Nazareth occurred after He had done miracles in Capernaum and news of His acts had begun to spread throughout the surrounding area. We don’t know how long He had been visiting in Nazareth before the events in this story happened. Having grown up in Nazareth from His infancy probably into at least His late twenties, Jesus would have known most of the village's inhabitants. Along with His father Joseph, he probably had at some time over the years done carpentry or building work for most of the town’s families. Many of His childhood friends were probably still living there. His sisters probably married local men, and they and their children may have been living there as well. (Commentators speculate that His brothers, or at least some of them, had moved away from Nazareth.) The “local boy made good” had returned to His hometown.
He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.2
As He had done weekly for as long as He lived there, Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath. He was asked to do the second reading, from one of the books of the prophets, and was given the scroll containing the book of Isaiah. Scripture in those days was preserved on scrolls of papyrus or vellum glued together side by side to make a continuous roll, with the beginning and the end of the scroll connected to wooden rollers. There were no chapter or verse numbers, as there are in Bibles today. The scrolls were unrolled with one hand and rolled with the other to find the reading that had been selected.
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”3
The passage He read from the scroll is found in Isaiah 61:1–2 in the Old Testament. Jesus left out the last part of verse 2, which speaks of the day of God’s vengeance, while including a line from what is now Isaiah 58:6, which speaks of letting the oppressed go free.
Isaiah 61 gives a message of God’s deliverance, showing parallels to the year of Jubilee, which occurred every 50 years and during which all debts were to be canceled and Jewish indentured servants were to be freed. It paints a picture of forgiveness and spiritual liberation, which is at the center of Jesus’ message.4 It begins with the Spirit of the Lord resting upon the speaker, which serves as a parallel to God’s Spirit coming upon Jesus at His baptism,5 when He was led into the wilderness,6 and when He returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee.7
Jesus was anointed to “proclaim the good news to the poor.” The Greek word used here for proclaim (kerysso) was also used to speak of John the Baptist proclaiming or preaching good news to the people.8 This connection to John’s prophetic role also points to Jesus' prophetic role. Throughout all four of the Gospels, Jesus is seen as a prophet.9 The “poor” doesn’t refer only to those in economic need, but has a religious connotation as well, referring to those who look to and depend on God.10
Jesus was commissioned by His Father to proclaim liberty to the captives—to set humanity free from spiritual captivity due to sin. His call is to come to God through accepting His forgiveness, which is provided in Jesus and sets people free from captivity.
Jesus was also sent to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind. While He healed the blind numerous times,11 this was also referring to spiritual sight. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus referred to “seeing but not seeing” when He said to His disciples:
Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?12
The proclamation of setting at liberty those who are oppressed describes a function of the Messiah, and would have been understood as such by the original listeners. Jesus would have been understood as claiming not only prophet status, but Messianic status as well.
The last line from Isaiah 61 about the “acceptable year of the Lord” refers to the year of Jubilee. Every seventh year in ancient Israel was a Sabbath year,13 during which three things were mandated: all Israelite bondservants were to be freed,14 all debts were to be canceled,15 and the land was to be left fallow.16 After seven Sabbath years (49 years), the fiftieth year was the year of Jubilee. In Jubilee year, there was a fourth mandate which was added to the other three: that all land that had been sold was to be returned to the one who had sold it.17 The Jubilee year was considered a year of release and liberty. By analogy, through Jesus, the concept of Jubilee becomes a picture of total forgiveness, redemption, and salvation.18
We now read what happened next:
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.19
As the hazzan returned the scroll to the ark where it was kept and Jesus sat ready to teach, everyone looked intently at Him. He declared that Isaiah 61 “is now fulfilled.” Bock comments:
The sequence of verses indicates that Luke is summarizing the events. Luke only notes Jesus’ brief declaration here, but the following verse indicates that the crowd was impressed with his message of gracious words, a remark that suggests that Jesus said more than what Luke recorded. The text also says that Jesus began to speak, suggesting that he gave more than one sentence of exposition.20
While those of His hometown were amazed at His rhetorical skill and gracious words, that doesn’t mean they agreed with or accepted what He said. It was incredibly bold to say: Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. In doing so, Jesus was proclaiming that He was the one who was fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah.
But those of His hometown didn’t see it that way.
They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”21 Matthew’s Gospel says: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.22
Jesus made the claim that God’s Spirit was upon Him, that He was anointed to proclaim the good news, to proclaim liberty, to give sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free. The response is basically, “Who does He think He is? We know His mom and dad and brothers and sisters!” Their doubt about His claims centers on the fact that He’s just a local boy, with common parentage—so how could He make such claims?
He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.”23
Mark’s Gospel adds that the prophet is also “not without honor” except among his relatives or in his own household, most likely making the point that Jesus’ relatives, including even His brothers, didn’t believe in Him.24
Jesus knew and stated what they were thinking. He quoted a popular proverb25 and made the point that they wanted Him to prove who He claimed to be. He knew that they were asking for signs, generally seen as an expression of unbelief.26 Jesus then presented Himself as a prophet by His remark about prophets being rejected,27 and followed up by citing what happens when prophets are rejected.
But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.28
Harking back to times in Israel’s history when Elijah and then Elisha were prophets ministering in the land, Jesus alluded to the fact that they brought God’s blessing to those who were not Jews. Elijah saved a woman, a non-Jewish widow, most likely a person of low status, from a town outside of Israel. Elisha healed Naaman, a Syrian Gentile with leprosy—a disease which, had he been Jewish, would have made him unclean. Jesus made the point that “good news to the poor” embraces the widow, the unclean, the Gentile, and those of low status.29 If Jesus’ hometown, and eventually much of Israel, would reject Him, then others would respond to Him—and be blessed for it. The inference was that the consequence of rejecting Jesus might involve God’s rejection.30
The listeners, who were familiar with the stories of Elijah and Elisha, understood the implication. Being unfavorably compared to Phoenicians and Syrians brought about immediate anger and hostility.31
When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.32
The hometown boy was now seen as a false prophet and worthy of a false prophet’s fate:
But that [false] prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death … so you shall purge the evil from your midst.33
This wasn’t Jesus’ only close brush with death by the hands of those who felt that He was flagrantly violating the law and should be executed without a trial. Twice He was accused of blasphemy and was nearly stoned.34 In this instance we’re not told exactly how He managed to get away from the crowd that was taking Him to be cast off the cliff, only that He did.
But passing through their midst, he went away.35
As mentioned earlier, Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels tell a much more condensed version of Jesus’ visit to His hometown and of the unbelief there. Mark ends with:
And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.36
Jesus and His message were met with unbelief in His hometown, as would later be the case within much of Israel. As the Gospels proceed, we hear of the authority of Jesus’ teachings, His instruction to the disciples, and His parables. We also read of the power that was seen in the miracles He performed. His words and actions bore witness to who He was—the Messiah, God’s Son.37 Many believed, but most did not. Time and again, we read of confrontation and rejection by the religious leadership of Israel. His rejection by those with whom He had spent the majority of His life foreshadowed His final rejection in Jerusalem.
In spite of repeated rejection, Jesus kept on with His mission of proclaiming the good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, freedom for the oppressed, sight to the physically and spiritually blind, and God’s jubilee. Today, as believers filled with the Spirit of the Lord, we are called to follow in His steps by sharing the gospel, the good news, with others, in spite of those who reject Him and His message. Jesus didn’t convince everyone in His day, and neither will we in ours. Nevertheless, He fulfilled the commission of His Father, and we, as believers, are called to fulfill the commission He gave us. Despite whatever rejection we might experience, may we each follow His example of preaching the gospel and bringing spiritual freedom to others.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
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Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.
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Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
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1 Matthew 13:54–58; Mark 6:2–6.
2 Luke 4:16–17.
3 Luke 4:17–19.
4 Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 406.
5 Luke 3:21–22.
6 Luke 4:1.
7 Luke 4:14.
8 Luke 3:18.
9 Luke 7:16, 39; 9:8,19; 13:33; 24:19; Matthew 14:5; 21:46; Mark 6:15; John 4:19; 44; 6:14; 7:40; 9:17.
10 This point will be covered in more detail in the Sermon on the Mount articles later in this series.
11 Matthew 9:27–31; 11:4–5; 12:22; 15:30–31; 20:30–34; 21:14; Mark 8:22–26; 10:46–52; Luke 7:21–22; 18:35–43; John 9:1–7.
12 Mark 8:18.
13 The concept of the Sabbath year, and the practice of leaving the land fallow every seventh year, is still followed by observant Jews in Israel today.
14 Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12; Jeremiah 34:14.
15 Deuteronomy 15:1–6; Nehemiah 10:31.
16 Exodus 23:10–11; Leviticus 25:1–6.
17 Leviticus 25.
18 Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 410.
19 Luke 4:20–22.
20 Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 412.
21 Luke 4:22.
22 Matthew 13:55–57. See also Mark 6:3.
23 Luke 4:23–24.
24 Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind” (Mark 3:20–21).
25 Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 416.
26 Matthew 12:39; 16:1–4; Mark 8:11–12; Luke 11:16, 29; John 2:18; 6:30.
27 Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 417.
28 Luke 4:25–27.
29 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 218.
30 Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 418.
31 The apostle Paul met the same reaction when he said that because of the Jews’ rejection, he would henceforth preach to the Gentiles. Acts 13:36–52; 22:21–22.
32 Luke 4:28–29.
33 Deuteronomy 13:5.
34 John 8:58–59; 10:30–33. See also Stephen’s death without a trial and Paul’s stoning without a trial in Acts 7:54–58 and 14:19.
35 Luke 4:30.
36 Mark 6:2–6. See also Matthew 13:58 for Matthew’s similar ending.
37 Matthew 11:2–6.