I should have expected it, but one of the surprises I experienced when I entered the pastorate was that most of my opposition came from those inside the church, not from outsiders. Early in my ministry I was called on to help arbitrate a conflict in a neighboring church. The chairman of the board in that church, without even talking to the pastor, had written a letter to all the members criticizing the pastor for not feeding them from the Word, for quoting “liberals” in the pulpit (the liberal turned out to be C. S. Lewis!), and for not spending enough time doing visitation.
As I listened to the charges, I realized that the chairman was a man who had been in that church for years. He was not ignorant of biblical principles for dealing with conflict, for keeping the unity of the church, or for respecting those who labor in the ministry of the Word. And yet he had violated what Scripture clearly commands in order to push his own agenda and to try to control the pastor. And many in the church sided with him.
The first major conflict I encountered in my ministry came after about three years, when I preached an extended sermon series on the Christian family. Part way through the series, all of the older people in the church stopped coming on the same Sunday. Since we were a church of only about 100, it was quite obvious that they were gone! I learned that they were disgruntled because my series did not relate to their needs. Here were people who had been in church for years. They should have been mature in the Lord. They should have used the occasion of my preaching on the family to take under wing some of the younger families in the church, many of whom were newer believers who needed nurture. But instead, thinking only of themselves, they left the church! When I would not back down, most of them never returned.
I am not passing judgment on the eternal destiny of all those people, or of anyone else who causes conflict or opposition in the local church. God alone knows their hearts. I am simply illustrating what even the Lord Jesus experienced in His ministry, that most opposition comes from the religious crowd, not from those outside. Luke begins his treatment of Jesus’ ministry with the account of His visit to His hometown of Nazareth where at first He was superficially acclaimed, but then He was strongly rejected.
This visit to Nazareth did not begin Christ’s ministry. We can see that in Luke 4:14, 15, which gives a background summary of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and in 4:23, where Jesus alludes to the miracles He had already done in Capernaum. But, also, from John’s Gospel we learn that Jesus ministered in Judea for about a year after His temptation. We cannot be sure if the incident here recorded by Luke is parallel to Matthew 13:54-58 and Mark 6:1-6, but if it was, Luke has moved it forward chronologically to suit his purpose. The reason Luke begins with this story is that it serves as a cameo of Luke’s Gospel: Jesus goes to His own people and reveals Himself as their promised Messiah, but they reject Him; so the gospel message goes to the Gentiles. The story shows us some reasons why religious people often reject Jesus Christ:
Religious people reject Christ because they do not want to submit to His lordship and they do not want to admit their sinful, desperate condition.
As we study this portion of God’s Word, we need to take it to heart that most of us are religious people or we would not be in church listening to this sermon! Being religious does not guarantee that we will accept Jesus Christ. If anything, it increases the danger that we will reject Him for the reasons just mentioned, as I will explain. It was the religious crowd in Nazareth that not only reacted against Jesus’ sermon, they went right from their “church” service to try to shove the speaker off a cliff! I trust that no one here would do that, but still, we must be careful to examine our own hearts, so that we do not imitate the religious people of Nazareth in their hostile rejection of Jesus.
Outside of Nazareth, the news about Jesus was spreading, and so far it was favorable: He was “praised by all” (4:15). Probably at this point, the people of Nazareth were proud of their hometown boy who was becoming famous. A few may have grumbled, “Why doesn’t He come to Nazareth and show His stuff here? Does He think He’s too good for us now?” But others said, “He’s just too busy. But He will come and we’ll see if the rumors are true.”
Sure enough, He soon came into town, and everyone turned out at the synagogue that Sabbath. The synagogue probably originated during the Babylonian captivity, after the Temple had been destroyed. It served as a local center for worship and instruction each week, even after the Temple had been rebuilt. A typical synagogue service consisted of the reciting of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one….”), prayers, a reading from the Law, another reading from the Prophets, instruction on the passages, and a benediction.
Any qualified male could read the Scripture and expound on it. So Jesus stood up to do this. There is debate about whether He deliberately chose the passage from Isaiah 61:1-2, or whether it was the assigned portion for that day, but Luke seems to hint that He picked the passage Himself. (The KJV includes in 4:18 the line, “to heal the brokenhearted,” which is in the LXX of Isaiah 61:1, but there is weak textual support for the phrase in Luke. Also, Luke adds from Isaiah 58:6 the phrase, “to set free those who are downtrodden.” We can’t say for sure, but perhaps Jesus expounded on the phrase from Isaiah 58 during His sermon, and Luke summarizes it here.) We have here (4:21) only a sentence summary of Jesus’ sermon, because Luke states that Jesus began to speak, and the people mention “the gracious words which were falling from His lips” (4:22), implying that He said much more.
But, the point is, the initial response to Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth was favorable, although superficial. They were speaking well of Him and were amazed at the smooth manner in which He communicated. As sermon critics, they were giving the “hometown kid” good marks on His delivery and style. “Not bad! I can see why we’ve been hearing good reports about the young man. He’s a polished speaker.”
But it wasn’t long until the nodding heads began to stop, and the approving smiles turned to frowns. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. “Who does He think He is, making these claims about fulfilling this Scripture? He’s implying that His message applies to us! We’re not poor! We’re not slaves! We’re not blind and downtrodden! How dare He imply that He can be our Savior, as if we even needed one! If He really is so great, then why doesn’t He do here some of the miracles we heard that He supposedly did in Capernaum? Then we might believe in Him!” They were initially impressed by Jesus’ style, but they took offense at the substance of His sermon. Their offense soon turned to rage and rejection.
Even though it came right out of their own Scriptures, they were offended when Jesus brought up the stories from Elijah and Elisha’s ministries and applied it to them. The point of both stories was the same. Israel was at a low point of idolatry and moral corruption. God told Elijah to pray that it would not rain, and so a famine came over the land. That meant that Elijah himself needed food. God could have picked any one of many widows in the land as the place to send Elijah for sustenance, but instead, God sent him to a widow in Sidon, a Gentile. Through her, God provided both for her and for the prophet. Similarly, in Elisha’s time, there were many lepers in Israel whom God could have cleansed. But instead, God chose to heal a pagan man, Naaman the Syrian, a general in the army of Israel’s enemy.
These stories offended the religious crowd in Nazareth for two reasons. First, they were offended because the stories clearly teach that God sovereignly chooses those on whom He bestows His mercy, and that no one can demand His grace, because all are undeserving sinners. If God chooses to go outside Israel and bestow His blessing on a widow in Sidon or a general in Syria, while withholding His blessing from those in Israel, He is free to do that.
Proud man will accuse the Almighty God of being unfair because He does not pour out His grace on everyone, as if everyone was deserving of it! But the Bible teaches that there is none righteous, not even one (Rom. 3:10), and that God owes nothing but judgment to all sinners. If He chooses to show His mercy to some, that is His prerogative as the Sovereign Potter, but Scripture plainly declares, “He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Rom. 9:18). And if proud man cries, “That’s not fair,” Scripture’s answer is, “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” (Rom. 9:20). That doctrine is offensive to religious people who think that they are deserving of God’s blessings because of their basic goodness.
The second reason these stories offended the religious crowd was that they show that God is pleased to bestow His blessings on pagans as well as the religious. The widow in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian were both pagans, outside of the covenant blessings of God’s chosen people. There is a wrong way to apply the doctrine of election, namely, to grow conceited and think, “I’m really something because I’m one of God’s chosen people. But that person is not as good as me, because he is a pagan.” The proper application of the doctrine should fill us with humility, gratitude and fear (Rom. 11:17-22). When we realize that God shows His mercy to one kind of person only—sinners—we who know God should reach out with compassion to those who are lost.
Let’s apply this point to ourselves: It’s easy to accept Jesus on a superficial level. We hear that God loves us and that Jesus cares for all our needs, and that’s true. So, we welcome Him into our lives. But at some point early on we begin to get a bit uncomfortable as we realize that Jesus’ teaching confronts our pride and self-righteousness. Rather than building up our self-esteem, Jesus begins shining the light of His holiness into the dark, hidden closets of our soul. We begin to see that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18).
At this point, you have a crucial decision to make. You can dodge the hard truths of the Bible, either by throwing out the whole thing or, as many people do, by finding a church where you hear more soothing, comfortable messages. Or, God’s way is that we face the hard truth about ourselves and submit to Jesus as Lord. In a sermon on this passage, Charles Spurgeon (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 8:256) said,
I learn, from this incident in our Lord’s life, that it is not the preacher’s business to seek to please his congregation. If he labours for that end, he will in all probability not attain it; but if he should succeed in gaining it, what a miserable success it would be! He must lose the favour of his Master if he should once aim at securing the favour of his fellow-men. We therefore ought to preach many truths which will irritate our hearers; we ought to declare to them the doctrines which are really for their present and eternal welfare, however distasteful they may be to their carnal reason and natural inclinations. As the physician must give bitter draughts to his patients if he would cure them of their diseases, so must the preacher, who is truly sent of God, proclaim unpalatable truths to his hearers, and he must preach the more often upon those very bitter truths because men are so unwilling to receive them.
Thus, God’s way is that …
Jesus did not beat around the bush with these people. After reading Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus plainly declared, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s a staggering claim! Jesus is saying that Isaiah’s words, written over 700 years before, apply to Him. Look at what these words proclaim: Jesus claims to be speaking and acting under the influence of the Holy Spirit (4:18). By the way, in this verse you have all three members of the Trinity: the Lord (God the Father), the Spirit, and the Messiah. The word “anointed” is the Greek word for Christ, of which the Hebrew is Messiah. Jesus is claiming to be the Lord’s Christ or Messiah. He claims to be the “sent one.” He did not come of His own initiative, but He was sent by the Father to bring God’s salvation to the world. The terms “poor, captives, blind, and downtrodden” primarily have a spiritual meaning. Note that Jesus claims not only to be preaching the gospel, but also to be bringing it to pass: He is setting free those who are downtrodden.
In Isaiah, “the favorable year of the Lord” is a reference to the Jewish year of Jubilee, where debts were released and slaves were set free. It was a spiritual picture of the day or time of God’s salvation. Jesus not merely proclaims the good news as God’s anointed prophet. He is the good news, the One who would offer Himself as God’s sin-bearer, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The word “favorable” (4:18) in Greek is the same word that is translated “welcome” (4:24). In other words, even though Jesus proclaimed the favorable news of God’s salvation, the people did not favorably accept Him as God’s anointed prophet. They were acknowledging Him as Joseph’s son, but they refused to recognize Him as God’s Son, which even Satan acknowledged (4:3, 9)!
The point is, to accept God’s good news, you must accept Jesus as He is and as He claimed to be, as Lord and Christ. If you accept Him merely as a nice Savior who helps you to be happy, but you do not submit to Him as Lord, you are not truly accepting Him. If you accept Him as a Savior for others, but do not confess your own need for a Savior from your sins, you are not truly accepting Him. Jesus came as God’s anointed Savior and Lord, and we must accept Him as He claimed to be. That leads to the second reason religious people often reject Jesus:
The folks in Jesus’ audience liked to think of themselves as basically good people. After all, they were Jews, not pagan sinners! Didn’t the fact that they were in the synagogue that day show that they were good people? Then along comes this young whippersnapper who implies that God’s message is for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the downtrodden! They had more self-respect than to see themselves like that! And then He goes even farther and implies that He is going to take God’s blessings to the Gentiles! “Of all the nerve! After all we did for Him when He was just a boy growing up here in Nazareth!”
Of course the irony is that even though they saw themselves as basically good, religious folks, they got so angry at Jesus’ convicting message that they left their worship service in a rage with the intent of killing Him! Jesus let them lead Him as far as the brow of the hill to reveal the murderous intent of their hearts. Then, whether miraculously or simply by the power of His commanding person, He walked away from them. But through this they should have seen that they were not basically good people at heart. They were good as long as no one confronted their true heart condition. But as soon as Jesus exposed them for what they really were, they rose up to destroy Him.
What is the heart condition of every person, religious or pagan, according to God’s Word? We are poor, spiritually destitute, bankrupt before God. We cannot buy our way into heaven because we have nothing to offer God. We can only receive from Him. We are captives, spiritually enslaved to sin. We are under the domain of the kingdom of darkness, unable to free ourselves from the wicked tyrant who rules this evil world and unable to extricate ourselves from the sin that holds us in its power.
Furthermore, we are blind, spiritually unable to see the light of the glory of the gospel of Christ unless He opens our eyes. Just as a blind person has no power or ability in himself to open his eyes unless God performs a miracle, so the spiritually blind sinner cannot do anything in himself to remedy his condition unless God sovereignly and powerfully opens the eyes of his heart. Finally, we are downtrodden. The word means “shattered” or “broken in pieces.” Alfred Plummer (The Gospel According to St. Luke [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 122) says that this strong expression “is here applied to those who are shattered in fortune and broken in spirit.”
The main thing that keeps religious people from accepting Jesus is their pride that hinders them from seeing their true condition in God’s sight. The church in Laodicea was there. Their assessment of themselves was, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” God’s assessment was, “You are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). But the good news is, when God opens your eyes to see your true condition before Him, that’s the first step toward receiving the good news. If you know that you’re destitute and someone offers you a million dollars as a free gift, that’s good news! If you know that you’re spiritually poor, and God offers freely to forgive all your sins through Jesus Christ, that’s the greatest news in the whole world!
I conclude with two applications. First, if you are familiar with Jesus you must be especially careful to apply His teaching to your own heart. The people of Nazareth were not receptive to Jesus’ teaching in part because they were overly familiar with Him. “Is this not Joseph’s son?” Familiarity can breed contempt. They had known Jesus when He worked in His father’s carpentry shop. But now they couldn’t conceive of Him as the promised Savior and Lord.
If you grew up in the church or if you’ve been in the church for years, it’s easy to grow so familiar with spiritual truth that you don’t let it affect your own heart. You begin thinking, “Repentance is something the non-Christian needs, but me? I’m a pretty good person!” “Salvation, the tender mercies of our God—ho hum!” Before you know it, you’re right there with those lukewarm Laodiceans! You lose the sense of gratitude that ought to flood your soul when you consider God’s abundant grace.
Second, if you reject Jesus today, you may not get another opportunity to receive Him. The people of Nazareth rejected Jesus, so He passed through their midst and went His way. He may have returned once more, although most scholars think that this was the last time He preached in Nazareth. Rejection of the gospel can be final and fatal! It’s interesting that when Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah, He stopped in the middle of a verse, after reading, “to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” The next phrase reads, “And the day of vengeance of our God.” Why did He stop there? Because in His first coming, Jesus came with the good news of salvation for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the downtrodden. The second time He will come as the Righteous Judge, bringing God’s vengeance on those who refused His offer of salvation.
In verse 21, Jesus says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The phrase, “in your hearing,” points to the availability of the good news. If you’re hearing it, it is being offered to you. The word “today” points to the urgency of the good news. Today is the day of salvation. You may not have tomorrow.
Last year a man jumped from a plane and his parachute didn’t open. It took him more than a minute to fall 3,000 feet. Somehow, he survived. But what do you suppose he thought about in that long minute? Did he cry out to God? If you have not trusted Christ as Savior and Lord, you’re right where that man was. You’re free-falling toward eternity, but you won’t fare well when you hit.
Jesus offers right now to release you from the downward pull of your sin that is plunging you toward God’s judgment. If you will respond by receiving Him as Savior and Lord, then rather than going His way and leaving you, Jesus promises, “I will come in to him and dine with him and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation