We have probably all heard the story of the man who purchased a horse that formerly belonged to a preacher. In order to make the horse go, the command, “Praise the Lord,” had to be given. To stop the horse, “Hallelujah!” was the instruction. The purchaser did all right in getting the horse started. “Praise the Lord!” he shouted. The horse took off at a full gallop. The problem was that the horse was headed for a cliff. “Whoa!” the man shouted, but to no avail. Suddenly he realized he had forgotten the command to stop the horse. Just in the nick of time he remembered. “Hallelujah!” The horse came to a stop at the very edge of the cliff, so that its new owner could look into the chasm below. The man began to feel a bit religious himself, and so with great excitement and relief he shouted, “Praise the Lord!”
The point of this well-worn story for us is that saying the wrong thing can get a person into a lot of trouble. There are a number of very public personalities that can testify to the truth of this statement. I can immediately think of several political figures, not to mention some religious leaders who have found their statements to have gotten them into a lot of trouble.
In the case of the fictitious rider, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying what appeared to be the wrong thing nearly got both tossed headlong over the edge of a cliff. The one critical difference with the statements of our Lord is that they were purposeful. Jesus did not suffer from a “slip of the tongue,” but from a careful and deliberate statement, made to the people with whom He had lived and worshipped as He grew up. The tension of the text is this WHY DID JESUS DELIBERATELY SABOTAGE HIS POPULARITY AMONG THOSE WITH WHOM HE HAD LIVED? Our study will provide us with the answer to this question.
In this lesson we will begin by looking into the background of the Lord’s appearance at the synagogue in Nazareth. We will briefly survey the public ministry of our Lord up to this point, a ministry which was nearly a year in duration. We will then consider the unique situation our Lord found at Nazareth. Next, we will consider the text which our Lord cited, and the response to our Lord’s words by the people who heard Him. This will lead us to an analysis of our Lord’s response to His popularity among the people. We will especially focus on the misconceptions of the people and our Lord’s clarifications and teaching in the light of these. Finally, we will seek to explore the implications of the principle which undergirds the entire event, the principle that a prophet is never popular at home with his own people.
Our text can be broken down into the following divisions:
(1) Verses 14-15—Galilean ministry summarized—Jesus’ preaching & popularity
(2) Verses 16-21—Jesus in the synagogue—Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled
(3) Verse 22—The positive response of the people
(4) Verses 23-27—Jesus corrects misconceptions: prophets are never popular
(5) Verses 28-30—From praise to the precipice
Verses 14 and 15 summarize the ministry of our Lord in Galilee, which serves as a backdrop to His appearance at Nazareth. In verses 16-21 Luke has recorded the appearance of our Lord at the synagogue, His reading of a portion from the prophecy of Isaiah, and His astounding claim that this prophecy has been fulfilled in the hearing of His audience. The positive response of the people is described in verse 22, which is immediately challenged by our Lord in verses 23-27. The result is a near riot, where the people have every intention of killing our Lord by forcing Him over a precipice to His death.
Our Lord did not appear at the synagogue in Nazareth immediately after His baptism and temptation, as one might suppose from reading only the gospel of Luke. Actually, nearly a year has passed since our Lord first was presented to Israel as the Messiah, introduced first by John the Baptist. Our Lord’s ministry in Galilee resulted in a growing popularity. The people of Nazareth had heard the reports of His preaching and power, and were eager to see what He could do in their midst (cf. Luke 4:23). Verses 14 and 15 of our text are a very concise summary of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and its impact. Actually, there is very little record of the ministry of our Lord that first year of His public ministry, and what we do know comes to us from John’s gospel. Below is a summary of our Lord’s ministry, up to the time of His first appearance at Nazareth.
John introduces Jesus
Jesus returns to Galilee
This chart informs us that before our Lord appeared at the synagogue in Nazareth, He had ministered publicly for about a year. During this year of ministry He had been introduced as the Messiah by John (John 1:19-34), called some (if not all) of His disciples (John 1:35-51), cleansed the temple in Jerusalem (John 2:13-22), talked with Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish teacher (John 3:1-21), and proclaimed the gospel in Samaria (John 4:4-42). When He returned to Galilee (John 4:43-45), He healed the nobleman’s son from a distance, the nobleman approaching Him in Cana, while his son was ill in Capernaum (John 4:46-54).
As reported by Luke (4:14-15), our Lord’s ministry in Galilee had been in the power of the Spirit (4:14). My assumption is that a number of miracles were performed, but they are not mentioned, nor are they emphasized. What is emphasized is the preaching ministry of our Lord in Galilee, and His prominence and popularity which resulted. Reports of our Lord’s ministry thus reached the people of Nazareth before He did. When He finally arrived, the level of anticipation and excitement was high.
Our Lord’s arrival at Nazareth, as recorded here by Luke, was His first public appearance, but not His last. There are two passages in Matthew and Mark, which initially appear to be parallel accounts, but which I believe are reports of a later, although similar, incident:
Matthew 13:53-58 And it came about that when Jesus had finished these parables, He departed from there. And coming to His home town He began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they became astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom, and these miraculous powers? “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? “And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his home town, and in his own household.” And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.
Mark 6:1-6 And He went out from there, and He came into His home town; and His disciples followed Him. And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands? “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his home town and among his own relatives and in his own household.” And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And He wondered at their unbelief. And He was going around the villages teaching.
The similarities between Luke’s account of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth in chapter 4 and those of Matthew and Mark are evident. Several significant differences overshadow the similarities, at least in my opinion.72 First, In Luke’s account, we are given the impression that virtually no miracles (save our Lord’s miraculous escape from the hostile crowd) took place, while the other texts indicate that a few miracles occurred. Second, in Luke’s account, the disciples are not mentioned, and appear not to be present with Him, while in the other (later) accounts, the disciples are present. Third, our Lord’s departure seems quite different in the accounts. Finally, the attitude of the people in Luke’s account is very positive and expectant, while in the other accounts, the people are skeptical and negative. Thus, while the expression, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” is similar, the meaning attached to it is different. The two different temple cleansings have similarities, but they are clearly two different events, one early in the ministry of our Lord (John 2:13-22), and the other just before His crucifixion (Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-46).
This distinction between Luke’s Nazareth visitation and that of Matthew and Mark is an important one. If we did not see such a distinction, we would have to interpret Luke’s account in the light of the others, but since we understand the events to be distinct we can interpret the same essential statements (“Is this not Joseph’s son,” Luke 4:22; Matthew 13:55-57; Mark 6:3) differently. In Luke, the people are still very positive and Jesus’ power is a wonder, which they are striving to grasp. In Matthew and Mark’s accounts, the power of our Lord is a mystery, which they are compelled to explain (demonic possession is one such explanation, cf. Mark 3:22), because they do not wish to receive Him as the Son of God.
Imagine what it must have felt like to for our Lord to return to Nazareth, the place where He grew up. As a child who was born into a very humble home, Jesus may very well have suffered the scorn or rejection of other children, especially those who came from more influential or well-to-do families. As a child who never sinned, He would very likely have been rejected by His peers as a “goody goody,” by whatever terminology was used in those days. It must have been a very strange feeling to walk those familiar streets into Nazareth, streets He had walked for years, streets in which He had played as a child. In one sense, Jesus was coming home.
Jesus’ arrival at the synagogue, seems to be His first public appearance as Messiah in Nazareth. Jesus frequently taught in the synagogues,73 and this is certainly not Jesus’ first visit to this synagogue, for it was in this town that He grew up.74 It was this synagogue that Jesus must have frequented in the years he and His parents lived in Nazareth. From what Luke has already told us about our Lord’s discussion with the teachers in Jerusalem at the early age of 12 (Luke 2:41-51), we must be willing to consider the likelihood that Jesus did the same kind of thing with the Jewish teachers in the synagogue at Nazareth. Thus, Jesus would have been a very familiar face in that place. The question, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” may very well reflect the growing sense of recognition of this One whom they had seen so much in the past.
Synagogues were not a biblical innovation, that is they were not required by the Old Testament, but were rather the product of the captivity of Israel. Nevertheless, there is a fair bit of background information available as to how the synagogue service was conducted. For example, Shepherd writes:
“In the worship of the synagogues, which since the restoration from Babylonian captivity had played so large a part in Jewish life, there were three persons who participated: the reader, the interpreter, and the expounder or preacher. On the sabbath and certain festive occasions there were several readers. Two lessons were read: one the parashah was from the Law and the other called the haphtorah from the prophets. Two prayers preceded the first reading. When the selection from the Law had been read, Jesus, invited by the chief of the ten leading elders, took His place to read the lesson from the prophets. The Chazzan, or school-master clerk of the synagogue, took from the ark of painted wood the roll of the prophet Isaiah, and handed it to Him. In the chief seats before Him were the ten leading elders, and behind them ranged the congregation, the men on one side and the women on the other of a lattice division in the middle of the synagogue.”75
The Lord stood, which seems to indicate His desire to read. The scroll containing the prophecy of Isaiah was handed to Him. Whether or not He requested this scroll is not stated. He turned to the text in Isaiah, where these words were written:
“THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE DOWNTRODDEN, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.”
By and large, this citation is a quotation of Isaiah 61:1, although there is also a portion of Isaiah 58:6 as well.76 It is doubtful in my mind that our Lord read only these words. I would imagine that Luke cited only these words, and that more were included in the Scripture reading. These verses contain the “heart” of the text which was read. The essence of these words, along with the statement of our Lord, is that the Messiah has come.
In our Lord’s reading and interpretation of this text in Isaiah, the Lord Jesus is claiming, on Old Testament grounds, to be Israel’s Messiah. This is based upon several areas of fulfillment. First, Jesus’ life and ministry was marked by the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke has emphasized the fact that our Lord was empowered and led of the Spirit, and our Lord does as well (cf. Luke 3:22; 4:1, 14). Second, the ministry of the Messiah, thus far was primarily that of proclamation, preaching. Note the emphasis in these verses on proclamation. Third, the ministry of Messiah which is described here is focused toward the poor, the distressed, the downtrodden. It is the needy who are in view here, those who are “sick” in Jesus’ words, not the “well” (cf. Mark 2:17). Finally, the ministry of the Messiah was not, as yet, that of bringing vengeance on the enemies of God. The citation from Isaiah stops just before this statement: “And a day of vengeance of our God” (Isa. 61:2b).
Jesus had not come to condemn, but to save. Our Lord understood that His role as Messiah was to come twice, the first time to reveal God to men, and to provide a way of salvation. The second coming was to bring God’s judgment to the earth and to destroy His enemies. Our Lord’s use of this text in Isaiah reflects this distinction between His first coming as Messiah, and His second.
The words of our Lord which were spoken in the synagogue at Nazareth were warmly welcomed. Listen to Luke’s description of the people’s response:
And all were speaking well of Him,77 and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22).
Several things characterize this response. First, the people respond very positively to Jesus’ claim. There were no objections, no resistance, no apparent hesitancy. They spoke well of Jesus. Second, there was no clear grasp of what His words meant. I can almost see two members of the congregation which had gathered at the synagogue on that fateful day, whispering to each other. One might have said, “Wasn’t that a glorious message?” To which the other might have responded, “My, yes, but I wonder what He meant?” Luke informs us that the people wondered what Jesus meant by what He said. The words had a gracious tone, but their meaning was obscure. Third, the warm response to Jesus’ words was the result of a distorted concept of the Messiah and His ministry. I believe that the people had grandiose thoughts of what Jesus would do for them. In my opinion, they may have looked at the fact that Jesus was a home-town boy (“the son of Joseph”), and thus expected Him to do even greater things for them than He had done elsewhere. After all, wasn’t Jesus one of their own? Jesus came home, as it were, to a ticker tape parade, and was given the “key to the city.” Now, they expected great things of Him, and He knew it.
There is a proverb which very aptly indicates the significance of the praise of the people:
The crucible is for silver and the furnace for gold, And a man is tested by the praise accorded him (Prov. 27:21).
If our Lord was tested by the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, the praises of His home town peers was just as much a test of His character. Let us see how this works out to reveal the wisdom and perfection of our Lord.
It would seem that questions and discussion were normally in order after the Scriptures had been read and interpreted in the synagogue.78 Either Jesus had no questions, or He did not give His audience an opportunity to ask them. Instead, Jesus posed the question which they were all thinking. Jesus knew the hearts of men, and He thus knew what His audience was thinking. He cut through the formalities and the niceties and got to the heart of the issue. He understood that His words were misunderstood, and so He set out the raise the critical issue with the question He posed.
And He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself; whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your home town as well.’” And He said to them, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his home town.” (Luke 4:23-24).
The proverb, “Physician, heal yourself,” is somewhat curious. Does it mean that the people expected Jesus success and status to be first evidenced by His own appearance, so that He was challenged to produce the trappings of success? A doctor would be expected to heal himself. A dentist would certainly have lovely teeth. One who was to bring blessings and prosperity to Israel would surely have all the earmarks of prosperity. This One who had come to them was none other than Jesus, the child who had grown up in their midst, the child of Joseph, a very humble man of meager means. If Jesus were the miracle worker that rumor indicated He was, surely He would quickly demonstrate His power, especially since He was one of their own.79 The fact that Jesus was the son of Joseph was not yet viewed as a liability, as a hindrance to accepting Him. Rather, it was a claim to greater privilege and blessing than the other cities of Galilee had received through His ministry.
From a strictly human point of view, what a temptation it would have been to prove Himself to His fellow-Nazarethites, to His peers, especially if Jesus had not been the most popular child in His younger years (which I expect was the case). While He could have proven Himself by working many spectacular miracles—something Jesus would not do for Satan or for the people of Nazareth—He could at least keep His current popularity aflame by simply saying and doing nothing. He could keep the people guessing; He could continue to ride the wave of His success via the reports of His ministry elsewhere.
The principle that a prophet is never honored in his own country, by his own people meant that Jesus, if He were a true prophet, would not be received with open arms, or with bowed knee, but with rejection, like all of the other prophets. The only way that Jesus could be warmly and positively received by His peers was if they did not understand what Jesus meant by what He said, that they did not understand His claim to be Messiah, nor what kind of Messiah He would be. Jesus would not receive misguided praise and therefore He set out to correct their misconceptions of His messianic identity and mission. His words, recorded by Luke in verses 23-27, were intended to spell out what His messianic ministry would mean. This was no revelation, in the sense of informing the people of Israel something entirely new and unknown, for that which Jesus was about to say was a prominent theme of the prophets, and was in the near context of the Isaiah text from which He read in the synagogue.80
Jesus pointed out that if His ministry were correctly understood, He would be rejected like all the other prophets of Israel’s history. Prophets were not received by Israel, but spurned, persecuted, and even killed, and this without exception (cf. 1 Ki. 19:10; Jer. 35:15; 44:4-5; Acts 7:52). Jesus not only cited the principle that Israel’s prophets were never honored by their own people, He illustrated the fact by showing that the prophets were often more kindly treated by Gentiles, and that the Gentiles received blessings at their hands. He cited the case of Elijah’s stay with the Gentile widow at Zerephath (1 Ki. 17:9) and of the healing of Namaam, the Syrian (an enemy of Israel, indeed, a military leader of the army which was successfully attacking Israel (2 Ki. 5:1-14).
In both cases, the prophet of Israel brought blessings to Gentiles which the Jews, their own people did not receive. In both cases, the prophets were sent to Israel to condemn their sin and to pronounce divine judgment, and were largely rejected by their own people.
In the context of this description of Jesus’ return to His home town, Jesus is saying is simply refusing to fulfill their expectations because they are ill founded, based upon a false grasp of the Scriptures and a misconception about Messiah and His ministry. Jesus tested their enthusiasm and incurred their wrath by simply reminding His audience that He, like other prophets of Israel, had come to bring blessing not exclusively to the Jews, their own people, but to the Gentiles.
We may thus see why our Lord found it necessary to offend His audience with the truth, so that their sin would be exposed, as well as the nature and need for His coming as the sin-bearer of the world. But why did Jesus choose this issue, the blessing of the Gentiles, to provoke His listeners to action? Why this issue, rather than some other?
I believe that there are at least three reasons for our Lord raising the issue of the blessing of the Gentiles.
First, the blessing of the Gentiles is a prominent prophetic promise. As early as the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis chapter 12, God promised to bless the nations through Abraham. Frequently in the prophets God reiterated this truth. While Israel sought to thwart this purpose by their disobedience (e.g. Jonah), God purposed to bring it to pass, even if through Israel’s disobedience (cf. Romans 9-11).
Second, this was a pivotal issue, a matter of Jewish pride and self-righteousness, which had to be dealt with and set aside in order for Jews to experience God’s salvation. As John the Baptist indicated in the wilderness (Matt. 3:9) Paul insists in Romans (9:6), being a physical descendent of Abraham does not make one a true Israelite. Just as the Nazarethites thought that being a son of Joseph and a resident of their town gave them some leverage with Jesus, so they, as Jews, felt that being such gave them a monopoly on God’s blessings. The people of Nazareth were willing to view themselves as the “poor,” the “captives,” and the “downtrodden,” as depicted in Isaiah, but they were not willing to view themselves as “poor like the Gentiles,” “captives like the Gentiles,” or “downtrodden, like the Gentiles.” This was taxing their racial and religious pride too heavily. In effect, the people of Nazareth were saying this: “If I must identify with the heathen Gentiles in order to be blessed by Messiah, I will have nothing to do with such a Messiah.”
This is a very sensitive point, but a very crucial one. The Law did not bring a Jew any closer to God. Indeed, the Law simply prescribed a higher standard, which no one, including the Jews, could keep (cf. Rom. 2:17–3:20; Acts 15:8-11). The Jews persistently tried to modify the gospel so that the Gentiles would have to enter into the kingdom of God through the “Jewish gate,” that is by becoming a Jewish proselyte, by being circumcised, and by keeping the Law. In effect, they were insisting that Gentiles try to keep the law, which they as Jews had failed to do. Salvation was made possible through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. He is the only door, and through this door men must pass as sinners. The “works of the law” must be set aside as an unclean thing, as an offense to God, just as the heathen practices and beliefs of the Gentiles must be left behind. In order to enter into our Lord’s kingdom, the Jews had to become “like Gentiles,” lost and unclean. This was precisely the problem. They were proud and self-righteous. The extent of this pride is evidenced by the intensity of their reaction to Christ’s words.
Third, Luke’s gospel is written principally to and for Gentiles. The Gentile reader is going to read the gospel with this question in mind: “How can a Jewish Messiah, dying in fulfillment of Jewish Scriptures, obtain salvation for a Gentile?” The answer is simple: The rejection of the Messiah by the Jews made it possible for the Gentiles to be saved. This incident in the life of Christ evidences how strongly the Jews felt about keeping the Gentiles from receiving God’s blessings. In one sense, the Gentiles could rejoice at this sinful reaction of the Jews, for it opened to door to their salvation. Even the disobedience of Israel achieves the purposes of God!
The Nazarethites were furious. They, like the Jews later described by Luke in the book of Acts (13:46, 50; 22:21-22), violently reacted to Jesus’ words. Their aim was none less than murder. There was not even an attempt to “sanctify” their actions by trumping up false charges, as would happen at His trial and crucifixion. Anyone who would speak of the blessing of the Gentiles instead of the Jews was a traitor! He deserved to die! Now!
The crowd rushed Jesus from the synagogue and was pressing Him toward the precipice of a nearby cliff, causing Him to fall to His death. Jesus did not escape by fleeing, nor by “taking a back way out.” Instead, He walked through the midst of His opponents (4:30). Just as the waters of the Red Sea parted to allow Moses and God’s people to pass through, so the angry crowd parted to allow Jesus to pass through their midst, unharmed, untouched. This was the one and only miracle which they would witness. How tragic.
I believe that this incident in the life of our Lord has widespread implications for our own lives. Allow me to conclude by distilling several vital principles from our text and from the Word of God more generally.
God’s Prophets are Never Popular. Our Lord said this very clearly: “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his home town” (Luke 4:24). Later, Stephen would say to his Jewish brethren: “Which one of the prophets did your father not persecute?” (Acts 7:52).
The inference of Stephen’s words is that there was never a prophet in the history of Israel who was popular among his own people. One need only study the life of the prophet Jeremiah for an illustration of this principle.
The Lord Jesus refused the popularity of His peers because He knew full well that popularity could not be based upon a clear grasp of what His ministry and messiahship was all about. He also knew that popularity would not take Him to the cross of Calvary. Jesus refused popularity because, as the greatest prophet of all, men could not and would not take pleasure in Him.
All Christians have all been given a Prophetic Task. It is not hard to conceive of our Lord as falling into the category of a prophet, but it may be a little more difficult to think of ourselves as prophets. Nevertheless, I believe that it is true to say that every Christian has a prophetic calling, a prophetic ministry, and a prophetic message. The church, as the body of Christ, is to continue to do and to teach that which our Lord began in His earthly ministry. The Great Commission, given to the church, is a prophetic commission. The message which we are to take to the world centers around the themes of sin, righteousness, and judgment, to which the Holy Spirit will bear witness (John 16:7-11).
As prophets, Christians can expect to be persecuted. Early in His earthly ministry our Lord addressed the issue of the suffering of the saints, linking their suffering with that of the prophets before them:
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:10-12).
Jesus frequently spoke to His disciples about the persecution they would experience as a result of being His followers (cf. John 15:17-20).
The apostle Paul also spoke of the suffering of the saints because of their prophetic calling:
And after they had preached to gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21-22).
The consistent teaching of the New Testament is that Christians will suffer for their faith (cf. 2 Tim. 3:8-13), and this is, I believe, because of the prophetic nature of Christian life and ministry. Just how Christian life and ministry is prophetic can be seen in the next principles.
Prophets are not Popular because of Whom they Identify With. Prophets must identify with God, rather than with their sinful fellow men. John the Baptist (not unlike Elijah and Elisha) lived apart from his culture, even from his family. He was not unaware of what his culture was doing, but he was not a part of it. He stood apart from the world. So, too, the Christian is to stand apart, and thus will suffer persecution:
For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. And in all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign you (1 Peter 4:3-4).
And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them (Eph. 5:11).
Thus, by refusing to live according to our former lifestyle, the ways of the world, we condemn sin, convict sinners, and become very unpopular.
In our identification with Christ as our Savior, we are also required to identify with the needy, the poor, the oppressed, and the captives. The Nazarethites wanted Jesus to identify with them, but they refused to identify themselves with sinful Gentiles in their need for salvation and forgiveness. Yet the Old Testament prophets had consistently spoken of the Israelites in Gentile terminology (e.g. “not My people”), likening their sins to those of the heathen, Sodom and Gomorrah, Egypt, and so on. The Gospel forbids that we should shun anyone due to their race or to their social status, as Paul’s stinging rebuke of Peter (Gal. 2:11ff.) and James’ warning to the church (Jas. 2:1ff.) make very clear. Christ’s identification will fallen humanity (Phil. 2:3ff.) requires that the church also identify and associate with the humble (Rom. 12:16). This does not mean that we shun the rich, as the rich, but only that we do not favor the rich because they are rich.
Jesus associated with the poor, the sick, and “sinners” and thus almost immediately offended the self-righteous (Mark 2:15ff.). As we identify with Christ, we must also identify with those with whom He associated and identified, namely those who were in need and acknowledged it, and sought His grace. Those who would come to God for grace must stand in line with sinners, with the unclean, with the lepers, and with the harlots and tax gatherers. Those who refuse to identify with such will not want grace at all, nor will they want the source of grace, Jesus Christ.
Prophets are not Popular because of their Message. I am reminded of the Old Testament prophet, Micaiah. When Jehoshaphat was deliberating as to whether or not he should go to war with Ahab, the king of Israel, the false prophets of Israel all gave the green light. Jehoshaphat was not convinced, however, and wanted to be sure that a true prophet had been consulted. He therefore asked, “Is there not yet a prophet of the LORD here that we may inquire of him?” (2 Chron. 18:6).
To this, Ahab responded, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the LORD, but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me but always evil. He is Micaiah, son of Imla” (2 Chron. 18:7).
From the perspective of wicked Ahab, Micaiah never told him what he wanted to hear. From the perspective of God, Ahab never wanted to hear what God had to say. Ahab only wanted God to confirm and affirm His sinful actions. Prophets are not popular with disobedient people, for they do not want to do God’s will—it is an offense to the natural or sinful man, who is at odds with God.
So it is with the Christian. Our words of counsel and exhortation may be welcomed by a fellow-believer, who seeks to do the will of God. But our words of warning and admonition are going to be rejected by anyone who is intent upon doing evil. Prophets are not popular because they tell men what the need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.
One of the Greatest Hindrances to our Prophetic Ministry is our Desire to be Popular with the World, and to have its Approval. If I were to be completely honest about my sinful failures to witness to my faith, I would have to confess that me fear of rejection, my fear of losing popularity with my peers, is my number one enemy. If we are more intent upon winning man’s approval than God’s, we either keep silent about the gospel, which will very often offend people (“You mean that if I don’t believe in Jesus Christ, God will send me to hell?”), or we modify the gospel to make it more appealing, and thus dulling its most cutting edge (sin, righteousness, judgment).
The life of our Lord is a constant testimony to His desire to please the Father, more than anyone else. Thus, His actions and His words are always governed by the will of the Father. Once we have settled the question as to whom we would serve, whom we would please, we have come to grips with the most fundamental issue of the task of the prophet. God put it this way to Jeremiah:
“Do not say, ‘I am a youth,’ Because everywhere I send you, you shall go, And all that I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, For I am with you to deliver you,” declares the LORD (Jer. 1:7b-8).
Before leaving our text, let me simply probe the principles we have discovered, so as to “prime the pump” of your thinking concerning their practical outworkings.
In the first place, our text should give us considerable insight as to how we can distinguish between true prophets and false prophets. As you read through the Bible you will discover that false prophets are more popular that true prophets. False prophets tell people what they want to hear; true prophets speak those unpleasant truths from God which men need to hear. False prophets appeal to the flesh, and not to the spirit. They justify sin, rather than to condemn it.
Second, we ought to be encouraged in the sharing of our faith, reminded of the fact that men do not naturally accept the things of God, but rather reject them. The gospel will only be effective in the salvation of men as the Spirit of God works a miracle in their hearts, convincing them of the truth of His word and giving them renewed hearts to respond positively to it. I have heard it said, “If only the gospel were conveyed clearly, no one would reject it.” Just the opposite is true. When the gospel is clearly conveyed, natural men will always reject it, unless stirred by the Spirit of God. Witnessing will not save men, but it will often make them mad. Only the working of the Spirit saves men.
Third, because prophets are not popular in their home town, they may be tempted to proclaim the gospel out of town. If the principle which our Lord laid down is true than it is easier to be a witness anywhere than it is to be a witness at home. Going to the “foreign mission field” could be a temptation for some to avoid the heat of staying home. Perhaps this is why our Lord commanded His disciples to begin witnessing first at home, and then to go beyond.
Fourth, our patriotic duty may conflict with our prophetic duty. In effect, the people of Nazareth appealed to Jesus’ sense of patriotism, narrowed from His country to His home town. Even the original term used for “home town” in Luke 4:23 is similar in tone and meaning to patriot. Our ultimate allegiance, like the Old Testament saints named in Hebrews 11, is to that heavenly land, that heavenly city. We are but strangers and pilgrims here. When we become too attached to our country, or our city, we may find our obligation to God being overshadowed. Jonah was a true patriot, but a miserable (albeit successful) prophet.
Fifth, our involvement in politics may conflict with our prophetic duties. In light of the principle which our Lord laid down, no prophet I know of would have been elected to public office (Daniel, David, and the other political officials in biblical times were not elected, you will recall). In our country, politicians must be popular to get votes and they must get votes to get elected to office. From afar, I have seen “prophets” (usually preachers) seriously modify their prophetic message when running for office, because being a successful politician requires being popular. I am not saying it is wrong to be in politics, mind you, only that it is dangerous (tempting) to be in politics.
72 I agree with the conclusion of Edersheim: “Many, even orthodox commentators, hold that this history is the same as that related in St. Matt. xiii. 54-58, and St. Mark vi. 1-6. But, for the reasons about to be stated, I have come, although somewhat hesitantly, to the conclusion, that the narrative of St. Luke and those of St. Matthew and St. Mark refer to different events. 1. The narrative in St. Luke (which we shall call A) refers to the commencement of Christ’s Ministry, while those of St. Matthew and St. Mark (which we shall call B) are placed at a later period. Nor does it seem likely, that our Lord would have entirely abandoned Nazareth after one rejection. 2. In narrative A, Christ is without disciples; in narrative B He is accompanied by the. 3. In narrative A no miracles are recorded—in fact, His words about Elijah and Elisha preclude any idea of them; while in narrative B there are few, though not many. 4. In narrative A He is thrust out of the city immediately after His sermon, while narrative B implies, that He continued for some time in Nazareth, only wondering at the unbelief.” Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [reprint], 1965), I, p. 457, fn. 1.
Plummer also comes to the same conclusion: “Comp. Mt. xiii. 53-58; Mk. vi. 1-6. It remains doubtful whether Lk. here refers to the same visit as that recorded by Mt. and Mk… Similarly, the non-Galilean ministry opens with a rejection (ix. 51-56).”Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), p. 118.
73 “All the Gospels mention His teaching in synagogues, and give instances of His doing so during the early part of His ministry (Mt. iv. 23, ix. 35, xii. 9, xiii. 54; Mk. i. 21, 39, iii. I, vi. 2; Lk. iv. 44,vi. 6; Jn. vi. 59).” Ibid, p. 117.
76 “Instead of reading twenty-one verses or even three, He read part of the first verse and a part of the second of chapter 61 and interpolated in the midst a phrase from verse 6 of chapter 58.” Shepherd, p. 119.
“But, on investigation, it appears that one clause is omitted from Is. lxi. 1, and that between the close of Is. lxi. 1 and the clause of verse 2, which is added, a clause is inserted from the LXX. of Is. lviii. 6.” Edersheim, I, p. 453.
77 “All spoke will of him is more literally ‘all witnessed to him.’ Rieu’s ‘they soon began to recognize his power’ is a paraphrase, but it tells us what happened… Notice that Luke speaks of astonishment, not admiration or appreciation. They wondered at His preaching, but they did not take it to heart.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 107.
78 “It was customary for the preacher to answer questions and exchange ideas with his auditors at the conclusion of his discourse. Jesus perceiving their unspiritual comments and hostile attitude, made application of His sermon citing two illustrations from the ministries of Elijah and Elisha.” Shepherd, p. 121.
79 “Now He knows that the hearers in Nazareth demanded that He shall first give evidence that He has improved His own position and circumstances—for is He not a simple former inhabitant of Nazareth who Himself has had to struggle against poverty and difficult conditions? And if it is indeed true that He has performed so many miracles in Capernaum, let Him first reveal His miracle-working power in His home-town of Nazareth. Why, then, does He not first see to it that indisputable proofs be here given of the genuineness of His claims?” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), p. 168.
80 For the salvation and blessing of the Gentiles in Isaiah, cf. 49:6; 56:3, 6-8; 60:3, 4-6; 66:18. For the sin of Israel and her need for repentance, cf. 55:6-9; 57:14-15; 59:1ff. For an emphasis on the Messiah’s ministry to the afflicted and downtrodden, cf. 49:13; 51:4. These are only samplings, the “tip of the iceberg.”