They All Ate and Were Satisfied

This sermon was preached on January 27, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

What is something in your life that seems impossible? Is there a task that you must do, but you don’t know how you’ll accomplish it?

What is the greatest opposition you face in life? What is getting in your way?

How will you do the first thing and overcome the second? How can will do the impossible and overcome whatever is stopping you?

There are things in life that seem impossible. It might be a health issue. It might seem impossible that you or your loved ones will get better. It might be a task like raising kids, which sometimes seems impossible. How will we provide for them, protect them, and teach them all the life lessons that they need to learn? Maybe there are impossible people in your life, or you have a job that seems impossible.

There are also things in our lives that seem to be opposing forces. We’re trying to do those impossible things, and just when we feel like we’re making progress, something or someone comes up against us. If it’s our health that we’re working on, it could be another illness, an injury, a condition, a disease. If it’s raising kids, it could be bad influences on our children, like other kids in school, or drugs. If it’s our job that we’re talking about, it could be a difficult coworker.

I ask these questions because we’re going to see today that Jesus calls his disciples to do tasks that seem impossible. And they are impossible—apart from the power of God. We also see that Jesus and his followers face opposition, sometimes from powerful people. But we will also see that Jesus is able to provide, to make the impossible possible, and Jesus is able to overcome the powers that oppose his people.

We’re continuing to study the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’ll look at Luke 9:1–17. What I’m going to do is read the whole passage and then focus on those three points: Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible; Jesus and his disciples face opposition; and Jesus provides and overcomes.

So, let’s read Luke 9:1–17:

1 And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. And he said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.

10 On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 And they did so, and had them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.[1]

So, first, Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible. He has “the twelve” with him. These are not just any of his disciples, which means “students,” but the disciples, or apostles. He sends them to proclaim news of the kingdom of God, that the King has come and people can enter into God’s kingdom by turning from their sin (repenting) and trusting in King Jesus (believing). The verb that’s translated “send” is ἀποστέλλω (apostellō), which is related to the word “apostle.” These are Jesus’ official messengers, ambassadors, envoys.

Why is this task impossible? Well, miraculously healing diseases is obviously something that is impossible apart from God. But what’s so hard about proclaiming the message of the kingdom of God? On one hand, it’s not hard. You open up your mouth and say what you know about Jesus. But what makes it hard is that people often don’t believe. And you can’t make a person believe. Most of us realize it’s very hard to change a person’s mind. Even if people are confronted with a lot of evidence and persuasive arguments, people are stubborn. I’ve realized that most of us are very irrational. We don’t believe something to be true based on evidence. We often want something to be true, and then we believe it, whether there’s evidence to support that belief or not. And proclaiming a message that requires people to repent, to stop their old ways of sinning, has never been popular. It tends to be met with apathy and even hatred.

So, the task is hard, perhaps impossible. But Jesus seems to make it even harder. He asks them not to take a staff, a bag, bread, money, or an extra shirt. They’re supposed to rely on the kindness of strangers. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t want them to appear like they’re preaching for money. There were some philosophers in the Roman Empire who went around doing that. But it seems like, more importantly, Jesus is asking these men to trust that God will provide for them. There are going to be people who invite them in to their homes, who give them meals and a place to stay.

So, that’s one’s impossible thing that Jesus asks his followers to do. But in verses 10–17, Jesus asks them to do something else. After the disciples return from their mission, they retreat with Jesus to Bethsaida. But Jesus has been drawing some large crowds, and they follow him. Jesus welcomed the crowd and did what he asked the disciples to do: he taught them about the kingdom of God and he cured those who were sick.

As the day went on and it was getting late, the disciples showed concern for the crowds. They tell Jesus to send the crowds away so they can manage to find places to stay and food to eat. This is when Jesus asks the impossible of them. He says, “You give them something to eat.” The problem is there are five thousand men. Matthew’s Gospel says that there were also women and children (Matt. 14:21). So, let’s say there are about ten to fifteen thousand people. The idea that a group of twelve people could feed that large group is preposterous. The twelve only had five loaves and two fish. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples ask if they should buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, which would be two hundred days’ wages (Mark 6:37). Let’s say that’s about $25,000 in today’s money. I doubt the disciples had access to that kind of cash. The point is that it’s an impossible situation. Well, it’s impossible for the disciples apart from God.

Second, we see that Jesus and his followers are met with opposition. When Jesus sends the twelve out on their mission, he tells them, “wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” In other words, if you’re talking about the kingdom of God and people don’t want to hear it, don’t waste your time. Shaking off the dust from your feet was like saying, “I don’t want anything to do with you, I don’t even want the dust of this crummy town to stay on my feet.” Jesus knew that people would reject him and his disciples. He knew his disciples would do well to focus on those who would believe. This suggests that there will always be people who reject the message of Jesus.

But the biggest opposition we see to Jesus is given in three verses in the middle of today’s passage. Again, here are verses 7–9:

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.

Herod was the king of Galilee and he was generally not a good man. We already heard about him in Luke 3. John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative and the one who proclaimed the coming of the King, confronted Herod because he had married his brother’s sister. We were told that Herod had imprisoned John (Luke 3:19–20). Now, we’re told that Herod was perplexed by the news of Jesus. There were people saying some pretty wild things. Some had said John the Baptist was raised from the dead. Some said that it was actually the prophet Elijah. There’s a prophecy in the Old Testament that Elijah would return to bring people to repentance (Mal. 4:5–6). Elijah doesn’t literally return, but John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy. Perhaps the people realized that someone like Elijah had come, because Jesus did call people to repentance. Others thought that another prophet had come, probably the prophet that Moses had promised would come (Deut. 18:15–19; John 6:14). I don’t think they actually believed in some form of reincarnation—that’s not the kind of thing Jews believed. But they knew someone special had arrived on the scene.

Herod can’t believe what’s happening. There was someone else who fit this description: John the Baptist. But Herod says he had John the Baptist beheaded. This is the only mention of John’s death that Luke gives us, though you can read more about it in Matthew 14:1–12 and Mark 6:14–29. Obviously, the person the crowds are going on about isn’t John. Herod took care of John. So, Herod “sought to see” Jesus.

Verse 9 is so short we can read over it quickly and not think about it. Herod had John the Baptist killed because he was a preacher of righteousness and also because Herod made a terrible promise to his stepdaughter, who asked on behalf of her mother that John’s head be served on a platter. Now, Herod wants to see Jesus. That’s rather ominous. If Herod had John killed, what will he do to Jesus? This is a short but strong bit of foreshadowing. Herod will meet Jesus shortly before Jesus’ death, though Herod found nothing wrong with Jesus (Luke 23:6–16).

Jesus’ disciples were rejected because of their message, but Jesus was killed because of who he was. And Christians today still face rejection and, sometimes, death because of who they are, what they believe, and what they do and do not do.

The third thing we see is that Jesus provides. When Jesus sends out the apostles, he “gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.” He empowers them to do what he asked them to do. I’m sure that the disciples had to trust that they could do what they were called to do. They might not have felt like they had authority and power. They would only know when they tried to heal people. They had to trust Jesus’ instructions about not bringing extra supplies on their trip. They couldn’t have known in advance that they would be successful, other than by trusting that Jesus was telling them the truth. And from what we see, they were successful. They preached and they healed in many villages.

Luke spends more time telling us about the results of Jesus’ command to feed the masses. Jesus tells the disciples to do something impossible: feed thousands of people with very little food. He instructs them to have the people sit down in groups of fifty. Then he takes their meager bit of food, says a blessing over it, and breaks the bread so that it can be distributed. Somehow, there was enough food for everyone. We’re told that “they all ate and were satisfied.” Twelve baskets full of leftovers remain—one for every apostle. This is clearly a miracle, the kind of thing that only can Jesus can provide.

I have heard it said that the miracle was that Jesus got all the people to share their food. In other words, Jesus didn’t miraculously multiply a small amount of food. Instead, his act of generosity led everyone else in the crowd to be generous, so that everyone had enough to eat. According to that interpretation, if we would all share what we have, everyone in the world would have enough. Now, that last part is surely true. But it seems that it’s clear that Jesus miraculously multiplied the food. Otherwise, the disciples wouldn’t have been worried about the people getting food in the first place. And John’s Gospel makes it clear that the people were amazed that Jesus could do this and they followed him in order to get more food.

I think there’s a reason why these two stories—the going out to proclaim the gospel (the good news of the kingdom of God) and to heal, and the feeding of the masses—are told together. They’re related. The feeding of the masses is a sign indicating something more than literally feeding the hungry. Feeding the hungry is important. We need food to live. But there’s more to reality than this life. Whether we have a lot to eat or a little to eat in this life, we will die. We need something that will give us life beyond death. And this is something that only Jesus can provide.

In John’s Gospel, after Jesus feeds the masses, they follow him. And Jesus says something very important to them. I want to read this passage, because it sheds light on the meaning of this miracle. So, let’s turn to John 6:26–51:

26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus tells the crowd that the physical bread they are eating doesn’t last. You have to eat more each day, just like the Israelites in the Old Testament had to collect the “bread from heaven,” manna, every day. You can be well-fed in this life and die eternally. But Jesus is the superior bread from heaven, the one that gives life after death. He says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” And what is this food that endures? “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus is that bread.

How can Jesus be the bread of life? What does that mean? Well, think about this: we need food to eat or we will die. But everything we eat dies in order to feed us. That’s certainly true of meat, but it’s also true of plants. For bread to be made, grain has to die. The result is that we live. Jesus is the God-man, the Son of God who also became a human being. And his body was broken on the cross, an instrument of torture and death, so that we could live. The cross was used to punish criminals, enemies of the Roman Empire. Though Jesus had done nothing wrong—he is the only person who has never sinned—he was treated like a criminal. That happened so that we, who have sinned against God, can go free. His body was broken, and he died so that we could have life.

This story of blessing and breaking bread foreshadows the last supper Jesus had with his disciples. On the eve of his death, Jesus ate a Passover meal with his disciples. At that meal, he took the bread and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). He took the cup of wine and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). He said it was “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). God’s covenant, his pact with his people, demands perfect obedience, which none of us possess. Jesus is the only perfectly obedient one. And God’s covenant demands that sin must be punished. Jesus paid the penalty for our rebellion against God, our failure to love him and live for him the way that we should.

But Jesus’ death only covers the sins of those who come to him as the bread of life. How can we partake of this spiritual food? Jesus said that we must do the work of God, and he defines that for us: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” We must trust Jesus. We must believe that he is the Son of God who became a human being, who lived a perfect life and died an atoning death. But we must not just trust that certain facts about him are true. We must trust him, which means we must follow him. We don’t earn a right standing with God through our obedience. We receive a right standing by faith. But real faith leads to doing what God wants us to do. We do this out of love and gratitude, not in an effort to earn something from God or manipulate him to do what we want.

And that leads me to the question that I always ask: what does this have to do with us? What should we learn from this passage?

God has called us to do the impossible. He has called us to turn from our sin and put our faith in his Son. Apart from God providing for us, we could not do this. The human heart is so corrupted, so confused and deceitful and divided and fickle, that we could not love God properly unless he gave us the power to do that. In a passage about salvation that comes up later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

God has called us to be his witnesses. Now, we’re not all apostles. Jesus has not commanded us to go to every town and heal the sick. We’re not all called to travel with no supplies—though I’m sure many of us could travel far more lightly, by having a lot fewer possessions. But we should all be witnesses to Jesus, wherever we are. And that can feel like an impossible task. It might feel impossible because it’s hard to talk about Jesus. People aren’t thinking about eternal life. They’re thinking about politics, the bills they have to pay, the things that they have to do today, and perhaps the Super Bowl. But people generally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life, what happens after death, if there’s a God and what he’s like, and how we can be right with God. We live in a very trivial culture, where the big questions of life are suppressed and ignored. So, when we talk about Jesus, people may think we’re crazy.

And when we do talk about Jesus, people may very well reject us. We could lose friends. People may say angry and hateful things to us. They may listen politely while inwardly rolling their eyes at us. Or, they may believe. We trust that God still does the impossible, opening up people’s eyes to see the truth, causing people to be born again so that they can enter the kingdom of God.

Like Jesus and his disciples, Christians today experience opposition. We see increased opposition in this country, but nothing like what Christians in other parts of the world experience. I think of the Christians in China. There are millions of Christians in China. It’s possible that there are more true Christians there than in the United States. China is a Communist country, and they have churches that are officially recognized by the state. But there is pressure to compromise beliefs in order to be part of the state-recognized church, so there’s a large number of unofficial churches. Recently, the government has been cracking down on these churches, removing crosses from their buildings, having them fly the Chinese flag and sing patriotic songs, and even barring minors from attending.

The government is producing its own version of the Bible, with a new translation and notes that will highlight commonalities between Christianity and Communism. Bibles can’t be purchased online in China, so the government is trying to keep “unofficial” versions of the Bible out of the hands of its citizens.

Lately, the government has been shutting down the unofficial churches, including one in the city of Chengdu called Early Rain Covenant Church. The pastor and his wife, along with about a hundred others, were arrested in December.[2] As far as I understand, the pastor and his wife are still detained. The church continued to meet, though they were evicted from their building. I saw video of them meeting in a park. I’m sure they are trusting that God will provide for them, even if they should be imprisoned. The government can take away a building, bread, and life, but they can’t take away the bread of life and eternal life.

Opposition to Jesus and his people has existed from the beginning, but it can never defeat Christianity. I am reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’s great book, Mere Christianity:

Again and again it [the world] has thought Christianity was dying, dying by persecutions from without and corruptions from within, by the rise of Mohammedanism [Islam], the rise of the physical sciences, the rise of great anti-Christian revolutionary movements. But every time the world has been disappointed. Its first disappointment was over the crucifixion. The Man came to life again. In a sense—and I quite realise how frightfully unfair it must seem to them—that has been happening ever since. They keep on killing the thing that He started: and each time, just as they are patting down the earth on its grave, they suddenly hear that it is still alive and has even broken out in some new place. No wonder they hate us.[3]

Jesus calls us to do the impossible, and we are opposed by evil forces—forces from without and even forces from within as we continue to battle our own sin. But Jesus also provides. Do you believe that? Do you trust Jesus so much that you obey him, even when it looks like what he’s asking you to do is impossible?

If you’re a Christian, I want to ask you this: what is it that you are doing in your life for Jesus that seems impossible? In other words, what is it about your life that demonstrates that you trust Jesus? What hard tasks are you doing simply because you are a Christian? It might be being very generous with your money even though you don’t know what will happen financially this week, this month, or this year. Instead of stockpiling all kinds of finances, we’re supposed to trust that our Father will provide our daily bread. So, we give to the church and we give to the poor. You might consider giving to a ministry like the Voice of the Martyrs, which helps persecuted Christians.

Trusting Jesus might mean sharing the gospel with people, even if you don’t know how they’ll react. Actually, it means talking about Jesus when you don’t know how people will react. If you do this, you may lose a friend. Or, you may gain a brother or sister in Christ. Trusting Jesus might mean staying married even though it’s hard, or raising your children in a Christian way even though the world around you says to do something else. Our lives should reveal how we’re trusting in Jesus.

Christians should care about both preaching the gospel and feeding the masses. I once heard John Piper, while he was still a pastor, talk about how his church viewed “ministries of mercy,” basically giving to the needy. He said his church was committed to alleviating suffering, so they did have ministries that helped the poor. But he said his church viewed eternal suffering as of far greater importance. If you care about suffering people, give them literal bread, give them money. But also give them the bread that gives eternal life, the kind of bread that can’t be bought with money but can only be received by faith. Christianity only makes sense if it’s viewed in light of eternity. Christianity is not about ending suffering in this life, which is truly impossible. But it is about ending the suffering of those who come to faith in Jesus.

If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus. There is a life after this life, and it will either be one of infinite joy or infinite suffering. The only one who can give you eternal, abundant life is Jesus. I invite you to have a right relationship with him. That means that he is who the Bible says he is, that he has done what the Bible says he has done, and that his path for your life is better than any you could ever come up with. If you don’t know Jesus, or if you’re not truly trusting him, I urge you to turn to him now.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Information about what’s happening in China can be found in Lily Kuo, “In China, They’re Closing Churches, Jailing Pastors – and Even Rewriting Scripture,” The Guardian, January 13, 2019,

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/13/china-christians-religious-persecution-translation-bible.

  3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 222.

 

Authority and Power (Luke 4:31-44)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 25, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Recently, we’ve had another mass shooting.[1] This time, seventeen people died. The alleged shooter is a very troubled young man, Nikolaus Cruz. This shooting is an evil act, to say the very least. The consequences are horrific. And in the wake of this shooting, there have been many reactions. Some demand action, often talking about gun control. Some who support the Second Amendment push back, talking about the need to balance safety and freedom, security and constitutional rights. Others said that local law enforcement knew that this young man was dangerous and should have acted in some way. If the authorities had acted responsibly, this young man should never have had access to guns. Not only do we have to deal with the horror of the seventeen lives lost too soon, but we have to deal with the confusing and controversial debates that follow this event.

Now, my point in bringing up this issue isn’t to get into specifics about gun laws. I’m certainly no expert in public policy. But my point is this: This shooting is another reminder that we live a broken, fallen world that contains evil. And when evil is on display, we often cry out for authorities to do something. We long for someone to have the power to stop such a tragic event. We want someone who can fix this broken world.

Today, we’re going to see that Jesus has the authority and power to fix what is broken in this world. We’ve been studying the book of Luke together over the last three months and today we’ll look at Luke 4:31–44.

Before we start to read this passage, I want to say one thing about it up front. Most of us don’t have a problem accepting that there are supernatural elements to the Bible. Obviously, God is supernatural—he is beyond the world of nature, the world that we can see, hear, and touch. But there are other elements of the Christian worldview that are beyond nature, things like the devil and demons and the possibility of miracles. And some people have a hard time believing such things are real. If you’re one of those people, I want to ask you to suspend your disbelief for a while. And then, later, I’ll address some objections that you may have. We suspend our disbelief when we watch superhero movies in order to enter into a different world. We don’t say, “Wait, there’s no planet called Krypton! Radioactive spiders can’t make a person climb walls! There’s no such metal called vibranium!” For now, I want you to enter into a world of spirits and miracles. This may seem like a fantasy, but I believe it’s true, and I’ll try to convince you of that, too.

Before I read today’s passage, let me explain the context briefly. Jesus has recently begun his ministry. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus began his public activity by reading Scripture and teaching in a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. Here, he is in another town in Galilee, Capernaum. Capernaum was one of the larger villages in Galilee. It had anywhere from 600 to 1,500 people and it was known for its fishing industry, since it was on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was teaching in this place on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest and worship. It seems that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, the place where Jewish people gathered to pray, read Scripture, and hear teaching.

While teaching in the synagogue, Jesus encounters a man who was possessed by a demon. That same day, Jesus also heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law as well as other people as well.

So, let’s now read the whole passage together. Here is Luke 4:31–44:

31 And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, 32 and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority. 33 And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, 34 “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” 35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. 36 And they were all amazed and said to one another, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” 37 And reports about him went out into every place in the surrounding region.

38 And he arose and left the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. 39 And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them.

40 Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. 41 And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.

42 And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, 43 but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” 44 And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.[2]

I want to make four basic points about this passage. The first is that Jesus’ word possesses authority and power. If you’ve ever read the Gospels, the four biographies of Jesus in the Bible, you will see that Jesus does some amazing things with words. Obviously, Jesus is an amazing teacher. There is simply no one who taught like him. He speaks with complete authority. He is self-assured, never doubting who he is or what he teaches. Jesus not only explains the true meaning of passages from the Hebrew Bible—our Old Testament—but he adds powerful new teachings, too. It would be impossible to mention all of his astonishing teachings in one sermon, so I would encourage you to read through one of the Gospels. Perhaps start with Matthew and read chapters 5–7, the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” If you want to learn more about Jesus and his teachings, you could go to our website and listen to sermons from two sermon series I have presented here: “Who Is Jesus?”[3] and “Conversations with Jesus.”[4]

We’re not told about the content of Jesus’ teaching. We’re only told that his teaching was astonishing. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus preached the message of the kingdom of God. Here, it’s called “good news” (verse 43). That’s what the word “gospel” means. Jesus often taught the good news that the kingdom of God had arrived. The kingdom of God is God’s rule over God’s people in God’s place. Jesus is the true King, not just of Israel, but of the world. People who respond to his message are his people; they belong to God and his kingdom. And the true place of God is wherever Jesus is. Jesus often told people about their sin, how they had ignored God and done what is wrong. But he also told them how they could respond rightly to God and be forgiven of their sin. I’ll talk more about that later.

What we see here is that Jesus’ words have power to do things. He’s not just a great teacher. But he can also rule over the spiritual realm and heal people with his words. Jesus drives out a demon from a man in the synagogue and then later he casts out several demons. Then he heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a dangerous fever and heals others.

What are we to make of demons? The Bible says two important things regarding the presence of evil in the world. One thing the Bible acknowledges is that behind all evil lies a mysterious figure, Satan, and that he has many demons. We assume that these are angels who became evil. The Bible doesn’t explicitly teach us the origins of Satan and his minions, though there are some hints as to where they come from. The Bible is more concerned about reporting that these beings are real.

I can’t spend too much time this morning on this issue, but I do want to address it because I know some people have a hard time believing it’s true. So, let me make a few quick points. One, the realm of the demonic is real. Many people have attested to the reality of demons or evil spirits. Craig Keener, a biblical scholar, has written a large book on miracles.[5] Toward the end of this book he has a long section on demons and exorcisms and he reports this: “[A] psychiatrist warns against viewing most sorts of emotional problems as demonic but notes that he has seen a few clear cases of possession by a genuine spirit ‘even in my own psychiatric practice.’” This was a psychiatrist writing for the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation.[6] (I assume this was an American psychiatrist.) Specifically, this psychiatrist offers three examples of people who were involved in occult practices.

Craig Keener also writes, “Still another psychiatrist notes that 70 percent of his work deals with psychosomatic cases, but in 4 percent of the cases he has treated, he has needed to undertake exorcism. He notes roughly 280 cases that required exorcism, especially resulting from the occult practices of the person or their family (such as Ouija boards, witchcraft, horoscopes, etc.).”[7]

Now, if you paid attention to those quotes, you’ll see that demon possessions are rare. A lot of unusual behavior in people can be traced to physical or psychological problems. But there are some cases that cause people to act in strange and evil ways, and these cases can’t be treated with therapy and medicine. In these cases, people often speak in strange voices or do things that are destructive. I can’t say that the shooter in Parkland, Florida was demon-possessed, but I also can’t rule out that he was influenced by demonic forces. Committing such evil acts is an irrational act that cannot be easily explained by pointing to chemical imbalances or a bad upbringing. There are a lot of people with chemical imbalances and bad childhoods who don’t shoot dozens of innocent people.

So, demon possession may be rare. Also, demonic forces don’t seem to be evenly distributed in space or time. It seems like there are times and places where the forces of evil are more active. A number of reports of demonic activity come from places where the gospel, the message of Jesus, is breaking new ground. It seems that during Jesus’ time, demonic activity was heightened. And that shouldn’t surprise us, because Satan opposed Jesus and tried to thwart his plans. We saw that a few weeks ago.[8]

I don’t know that demon possession is common in America. But that doesn’t mean Satan isn’t at work. Whenever people lie and kill and reject God, they are under Satan’s influence. And it seems we do a great job of doing these things without demon possession. In fact, Satan’s greatest trick seems to be getting people to doubt that he and his preternatural powers are real. Whether we see the reality of spirits and miracles is a matter of what we presuppose to be real. In short, whether we believe nature is all there is or whether we believe there is more to reality than meets the eye, our position rests on faith.

To get back to the point of this passage, Jesus is able to exercise authority over the demonic realm through his word. All he has to do is rebuke demons and tell them to leave and they do.

The other thing that the Bible says about evil is that all bad things like illness and even death entered into the world because of our sin, our rebellion against God. When the first human beings failed to trust, love, and obey God the way that we were made to, the world came under a curse. Part of that curse includes illness and death. We see here that Jesus has the authority and power to heal people who are sick. Jesus heals by his word. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a high fever. This was probably a very serious condition, particularly in an era before modern medicine. Jesus simply rebukes the fever and it’s gone. Later, he heals all kinds of sick people. He lays his hands on them not because he has to, but to show that he cares. Often, sick people wouldn’t be touched. They were considered unclean. But Jesus wasn’t afraid to touch them and heal them.

Now, you may wonder why Jesus doesn’t heal all diseases today. You may wonder, “If Jesus could rebuke that fever, why doesn’t he rebuke fever itself?” You may think, “If Jesus could make a blind person see, why doesn’t he remove blindness from the world?” I’ll address that in a little while. But now, let’s move on to the second main point of this passage.

The second point is that Jesus has authority and power because of who he is. Jesus isn’t just a great teacher or even some kind of faith healer. He is “the Holy One of God” and “the Son of God” (verses 34 and 41, respectively). This passage reveals Jesus’ identity. He isn’t just a man, he is the God-man. He is the divine Son of God, equal in divinity and power to God the Father. As the Son of God, he knows no beginning; he is eternal. Yet over two thousand years ago he entered into this world by being conceived in a virgin’s womb and being born in humble circumstances.

What’s interesting is that it’s the demons who recognize who Jesus really is. The Bible says that even the demons know that God exists, and they shudder at the thought (James 2:19). Being a Christian is a lot more than believing in the existence of God. Satan and his forces believe that much. Being a Christian means loving and trusting God. Yet these demons don’t love Jesus. No, they’re afraid. They ask, “Have you come to destroy us?” Yes. Jesus comes to take back God’s world from the forces of evil.

Yet Jesus also commands the demons to be silent. Why is that? There may be several reasons. One is that he may not want this testimony coming from demons. After all, they are probably not the most reliable sources. But I think the better reason is that it was not time for this to be revealed. Verse 41 says that Jesus “would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.” “Christ” and “Messiah” both mean “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, there are passages that talk of a king who was a descendant of King David, a king who would come and crush his enemies and rule with righteousness and justice. If people heard that Jesus was the Christ, they might have thought he would come to overthrow the Roman Empire, which was the superpower of the day and which ruled over Israel. But Jesus didn’t come to be a military ruler or a political revolutionary. He is the true King who will one day remove all evil from the world, but he didn’t come to build a geo-political nation when he came the first time.

Jesus surely also knew that if everyone went around claiming he was the Christ and the Son of God, he would be killed. Of course, Jesus is ultimately killed for claiming to be equal to God. Those who didn’t believe Jesus was telling the truth thought he was committing blasphemy. They were also threatened by him, and they eliminated that threat. Jesus knew he would die, but he knew that his time hadn’t come yet. He first had to teach more. He had to perform more signs and wonders. When the time was right, he would be crucified, treated as an enemy of the state even though he had done nothing wrong. But that time hadn’t come yet.

Still, I think Luke wants us to know that Jesus is God. Because Jesus is God, he has the power to deal with evil in this world. In fact, only God can decisively and finally remove all the evil of this world, and he will do that one day.

The third point of this passage is that salvation leads to service. Deliverance should lead to devotion. Healing should lead to helping. We see this with Simon’s mother. Simon is better known as Peter, generally thought to be the leader of Jesus’ disciples. We’ll learn more about him next week. But for now, we see that Simon’s mother-in-law was sick, that Jesus healed her, and that she then started to serve them.

As a side note, we should see that Peter was married (see also 1 Cor. 9:5). The Catholic Church believes that Peter was the first pope. But they also believe that the pope and all priests shouldn’t marry. Yet Peter was married and later tradition says that he had a daughter.[9] There’s nothing wrong with being married and having children, and Scripture expects that church leaders will be married and have children (1 Tim. 3:2, 4). So, we must conclude that the Catholic Church is wrong.

Back to the point at hand, it would be easy to miss this brief description of Simon’s mother-in-law. The focus is on Jesus’ healing. But once she’s healed, she serves. This is often how things work in the Bible. God saves his people and they serve him. He rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt so that they would serve him (Exod. 3:12; 4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). And God rescues us from our own sin and the condemnation that we deserve not just so we can live lives of comfort and ease. No, he rescues us so that we will worship him and serve him. That is always the pattern. So, when people claim to be Christians and don’t actually worship Jesus and serve in a church, I have to wonder if they’ve been saved in the first place. At the least, they’re not acting like it.

Here’s the fourth point of this passage: Jesus destroys evil without destroying us. Look back at verse 35. After Jesus rebukes the demon, we’re told, “And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm.” The demon looked like he would harm this man. Yet Jesus is able to remove the demon and the man was left unharmed.

Now, here’s the importance of Jesus dying on the cross. He didn’t just die because people thought he was wrong and people thought he was a threat. Ultimately, he died to pay for the sins of everyone who is united to him by faith. If you trust Jesus, your sins were destroyed on the cross. As the apostle Paul puts it, God has canceled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14).

We can think of sin in two ways. Sins are wrong actions. They are actions that violate God’s design for our lives and transgress God’s commands. But sin is also a power, a force of evil that we can’t control. Sin distorts our desires so that we don’t want to love and serve God. Sin corrupts God’s world, a world that was initially good. Because God is a perfect, holy judge, he must punish evil. He must punish it and remove it from his world. If it were not for Jesus, every one of us would be condemned. We would be punished for our own sin by being removed from God’s world, cast out into hell. God would be just to do that. But God is also merciful and loving and kind. So, he provided a way for our sin to be destroyed. He sent his Son to take our punishment for us. That’s what Jesus did on the cross. He died so that we can live. He was bound to the cross so that we might go free. He was possessed by evil so that we might be healed.

As I said, Jesus’ death pays for the sins of his people. Only those who put their faith in Jesus, who trust that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that Jesus did what the Bible said he did, will have their sins forgiven. Only those people will be reconciled to God. Only those people will escape God’s judgment and will live with God forever in a perfect world.

Earlier, I raised the question of why Jesus hasn’t removed all evil in the world. Why does God allow things like mass shootings and cancer? The answer is that God will put an end to those things. We don’t exactly when that will happen, but when Jesus returns from heaven to earth, he will make all things right. But when that happens, God will remove all evil from the world. That includes evil people. Those people who don’t have their sins punished on the cross will pay that punishment themselves. In other words, God will punish all sin. Those who trust Jesus already have had their sin punished. Those who reject Jesus will pay the price themselves. When Jesus comes again, it will be too late to turn away from sin and turn to him in faith.

When Jesus comes again, he will purge the world of all evil. Satan and his minions will be cast out into hell. But so will all who reject Jesus. And God will transform the character of his people so that they will not sin. They will receive perfect, immortal bodies and they will live with God in a perfect world.

So, why doesn’t Jesus remove all evil in the world? The answer is that he can’t do that without removing all people who now reject him. He is giving them more time to turn to him in faith.

It may be hard to understand why God would allow evil to happen in the world that he made, particularly since God is all-powerful, perfectly good, loving, and in control. But we can never say that God doesn’t care. We know he cares because he sent his Son into an evil world. His Son performed miracles, which are signs that demonstrate his power and also what he came to do—to rescue us from the forces of evil. And Jesus subjected himself to evil. He let people mock him and arrest him and torture him and kill him, all to save us from our sins. And we’re given the promise that one day he will return to make all things right.

But before he returns, he has given us the opportunity to respond to him. How do we do that? How should we respond to today’s passage?

If you’re not a Christian yet, I would recommend that you learn more about Jesus. Again, read through one of the Gospels. We’re studying the Gospel of Luke, but I would recommend also reading Matthew or John. (There’s nothing wrong with Mark, but he doesn’t spend as much time reporting Jesus’ teachings.) If you read either of those Gospels, you will encounter Jesus’ amazing teachings. I think you’ll find that his words are unequalled in terms of authority and power. There is simply no one who speaks like Jesus.

When we see that, we have a choice to make. We can believe what the Gospel writers tell us. That is, we can believe they reported the truth. Or we can believe that some fairly ordinary Jewish men just so happened to create the greatest fictional character ever. We have evidence outside the Bible that shows that Jesus actually lived and died on a cross, and that Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen him alive again.[10] And I don’t think the writers of the Gospels ever could have created such a powerful fictional character. Jesus is real and his words are real—and really powerful.

Once you are exposed to the real Jesus, you have to choose whether you must put your faith in him or not. I would urge you to trust him. There will be no other answer to the world’s problems. Yes, we can restrain evil and make improvements. But evil has a way of escaping our best restraints. Even the best nations with the best laws experience evil. We are foolish and naïve if we think that we have the power to remove pride, greed, lust, hate, and even murder from the world. No amount of law, military might, money, education, medicine, or technology will be able to do that. Only Jesus can, and only Jesus will.

If you claim to be a Christian today, are you serving Jesus? Has Jesus really saved you? One mark of a Christian is service. We can serve people in our everyday lives, and we ought to do that. But we should be serving in a local church. We always have a need for people to serve. If you feel God moving you to serve in this church, please talk to me about it. We’ll talk about your desires, your talents, and your spiritual gifts, and we’ll see if there’s a way those things can line up with needs that we have in the church.

We should also consider how we pray for those who are hurting. We often pray as if the end goal were healing. But it’s not. The end goal of everything is God’s glory. And God is glorified when we love, worship, and serve him. So, when you pray for those who are hurting, yes, pray for healing. But pray that they would be healed so that they would then be able to serve. We should pray that God would comfort the hurting so that they can comfort others who are hurting. We should pray for good health so that we can serve God well and for a long time. I don’t think it’s a sin to ask God for money, but you should pray that God would give you more money so that you can give more to the church, to other gospel ministries, and to the poor.

Finally, we should think about whether Jesus’ words have authority in all of our lives. What would it look like for Jesus to be Lord of your money, our marriages, our work, our time, and our possessions? Are we inviting the word of God to speak into those areas of our lives? For Jesus’ words to carry weight in our lives, we must first know those words. Jesus can’t speak through a closed Bible. And we must not only read or hear God’s words, but we must put them into practice. When we do, we’ll find that Jesus’ words carry authority and power, and it is then that we will experience God’s power in our lives.

Notes

  1. This shooting occurred in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.
  4. https://wbcommunity.org/conversations-with-jesus.
  5. Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).
  6. Walter C. Johnson, “Possession,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 34.3 (1982): 149–154. The quotation appears on p. 839 of Keener, quoting p. 152 of Johnson.
  7. Keener, Miracles, 839. Keener refers to Kenneth R. McAll, “The Ministry of Deliverance,” Expository Times 86.10 (July 1975): 296–298.
  8. See the sermon, “Tempted,” that I preached on January 28, 2018: https://wbcommunity.org/tempted.
  9. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.30.1. Eusebius only says that Peter had a child. An editor’s footnote mentions a tradition that states that Peter had a daughter. See Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890): 1:162fn2.
  10. For evidence that supports the Gospel accounts, see the sermon, “How Can We Know Jesus?” at https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.

 

Authority and Power (Luke 4:31-44)

Only Jesus has the authority and power to heal this broken world. Luke 4:31-44 shows that Jesus’ word had the authority and power to preach, to heal, and to drive back the forces of evil. This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 25, 2018.

No Prophet Is Acceptable in His Hometown (Luke 4:14-30)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 4, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I want us to imagine a hypothetical story, a parable, if you will. Imagine an industrial town somewhere in the Midwest, in the Rust Belt. It’s a town that had a once-thriving industry (let’s say it was making widgets) that has dried up decades ago, kind of like Brockton’s shoe industry. And in this town, there was a boy. This boy wasn’t famous growing up. He didn’t come from a rich family. He wasn’t a star athlete. But he was smart. And he went off to a good college, and then law school, and he then became a lawyer for a firm in another state. Eventually, he became a U.S. Senator in that other state, so he still had family in his hometown. He still had some hometown connections. Eventually he ran for President and he won the election.

At the beginning of his presidency it’s announced that he’s going to return to his hometown to make a speech there. He’s going to make that speech in the old, abandoned widget factory. As you can imagine, the people in his hometown get excited. Pretty soon, there’s talk about how the president’s visit means the town is likely to get a federal grant. Some old factory and mill towns across America have received this grant to renovate and repurpose old factories and mills, so they can be used as apartments, office spaces, and studios. (This has happened in Waltham and Beverly, with the old Waltham Watch and United Shoe buildings, respectively.) Because this president has been talking about the need to put America back to work, and because of his trip to his old hometown, and because of the location of the speech, everyone assumes he is going to announce that this town is going to receive a grant.

The president begins his speech with talk about the old days when people in America worked hard and had good jobs. He talks a bit about the old widget factory. Everyone is waiting for the moment when he gets to that grant. “How much money is the federal government going to spend on us?”, they think. Then the president starts to talk about how Americans are lazy and how workers overseas do better work. He says it’s time for Americans to be tougher, to be more disciplined, to work harder. So, instead of announcing a grant, he talks about how his administration is going to reform entitlement spending, cutting back unemployment benefits and cracking down on Social Security fraud. For the sake of this story, let’s assume what the president says is true, and what he proposes is good.

Imagine the reaction of the people. At first, they were thrilled that the local boy made good was coming to town. They assumed they would receive something good. But then when they hear something they don’t want to hear, they are enraged. They boo the president. Someone starts leading a chant: “Not our president! Not our president!” The Secret Service agents at the event get nervous and they cut things short, escorting the president out of the factory before things turn worse.
Now, why do I tell that story? That’s kind of what happens in the passage that we’re going to look at today. I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of Luke over the last two months and today we come to Luke 4:14–30. Here, we see what happens when Jesus teaches in his own hometown of Nazareth.

Before we start, I want to give us a little bit of context. Two weeks ago, we saw that Jesus was baptized and then anointed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:21–22). At that time, God the Father said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”[1] We Christians believe that there is one God, who is triune. In other words, we believe that God is one Being in three Persons. Here, God the Father blesses God the Son, upon whom God the Holy Spirit comes, giving him power. Jesus has always been the Son of God, but over two thousand years ago, he added a second nature, also becoming a human being. And, as a human being, he was given the Holy Spirit to guide and empower him. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, the long-awaited King of Israel who will reign forever.

That bit of information is important to know as we look at today’s passage. Let’s start by reading the first two verses, verses 14 and 15:

14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.

This is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Luke is giving us a summary statement. Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, went to the region of Galilee, where he had grown up. People heard about his teaching in synagogues and he was glorified by them. This probably means that Jesus’ teaching brought him a certain level of fame. The people started to hear about how Jesus was a great teacher and those who heard him marveled at his teaching.

Then, after giving us that statement, Luke tells us about a particular time when Jesus taught in a synagogue.

Before we look at that, I want to make just a brief note on synagogues. Synagogues probably emerged while the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon, over five hundred years earlier. A synagogue was really a gathering of people, not so much a building. In some towns, the people probably gathered in someone’s home. Synagogue meetings usually centered on Scripture readings and teaching. Any qualified Jewish man might be invited to teach. You might remember that in the book of Acts, the apostle Paul was able to testify to Jesus while visiting different synagogues in the Roman Empire (Acts 13:13–43; 14:1; 17:1–3, 10–12, 16–17; 18:1–4, 19; 19:8).

While Jesus was in his hometown synagogue, he was able to read from Scripture and teach. Let’s read the first part of what happens. We’ll read verses 16–22:

16 And 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. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

18  “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,
19  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 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. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but he was raised in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee. “In the time of Jesus, Nazareth was a small agricultural village with a spring and a population of approximately 400 to 500 people.”[2] Such a small town wouldn’t have its own synagogue building. They also probably wouldn’t have had a complete copy of the Hebrew Bible. In that time, Scripture wasn’t printed in one nicely-bound book. Books of the Bible were written on scrolls. So, a scroll is given to Jesus.

Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll, and he locates a passage that he wanted the people of synagogue to hear. He reads the first verse of Isaiah 61 and part of the second verse. It appears that Jesus may have skipped a line that’s in verse 1 (“he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted”) and added a verse from Isaiah 58:6 (“to set at liberty those who are oppressed”). People used quotations a bit more freely back then. What’s important is that Jesus chose this passage for a purpose.

Toward the end of his book, the prophet Isaiah speaks of a servant upon whom God will put the Holy Spirit. This servant will bring forth justice (Isa. 42:1, 3). He will be a “light for the nations” (Isa. 42:6; 49:6; Luke 2:32). His mission was “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa. 42:7). Most importantly, this servant would be “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). In other words, he would die for the sins of his people. And “with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Though this servant never sinned (Isa. 53:9), he died in place of our sins. He would “make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11).

So, Isaiah promises a time of comfort and salvation, of rescue for the hurting and the oppressed. Isaiah also contains a description of a new creation, where there will be no more crying (Isa. 65:17–19) and no more death (Isa. 25:6–9).

The passage that Jesus read recalls those good promises. It’s therefore understandable that after he read it, the crowd was waiting for him to say something. That’s why “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” They were waiting for Jesus to tell them something about that passage. Perhaps they were wondering when the “good news” that Isaiah promised would come.

Jesus probably said more than Luke reports, but we’re given only one sentence: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” I’m sure the crowd didn’t fully understand what Jesus meant. Perhaps they thought Jesus was telling them that someone else would bring this liberty, this freedom, the Lord’s favor. But what Jesus meant was that he is the one who has been anointed by the Holy Spirit. He is the one who proclaims the gospel, which means “good news.” But more than that, Jesus is the one who brings about liberty and healing. He is the one who fulfills the great promises of the Old Testament. When you stop and think about it, his claims are amazing. He is the one who will make everything right in this broken world.

It’s not clear how much the crowd understood, but they liked what they heard. Luke says, “And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.” Jesus spoke a message of grace. The liberation and healing that he said had been fulfilled was not something that God owed to anyone. We aren’t entitled to freedom and good health. But God gives us salvation through his Son. That is why salvation is by grace alone. It is not something we deserve or can earn. The crowd probably wasn’t thinking of salvation the way that you and I think of it. They might have thought of physical healing of blind people and others who had disabilities. They might have thought about being delivered from the oppression of the Roman Empire, which occupied their land. But whatever they understood, they were impressed by Jesus.

Then they say, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” It’s not clear what they mean. It is usually understood to mean that they are doubting whether Jesus could be the fulfillment of the passage of Scripture he read. They liked the idea that the promised liberation and healing had come, but then they thought about it and said, “Wait a minute, Jesus is Joseph’s son. Maybe he’s wrong?” Or perhaps they realized that Jesus was claiming to the be God’s agent of salvation, and they thought, “Hey, how could Joey Carpenter’s son be the Messiah? I mean, have you seen Joey’s work? I could make better tables than that guy!” In other words, they’re doubting that a small-town guy could be the key to making everything right in the world.

That may be what they thought, but there’s another way of reading their question. When they ask, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they may have been thinking something like, “Wait a minute, if Jesus has something to do with this liberation, this year of the Lord’s favor, this healing, and if he’s Joey Carpenter’s son, then that’s good news for us. Jesus is from Nazareth. If he can bring God’s favor to Israel, how much more are we going to receive all these good things? We’re definitely in!” They’re like the people in that story I used at the beginning of the sermon. The hometown folks thought the president, a hometown hero, would bring home the bacon. Little did they know they were going to be grilled.

The people in this synagogue in Nazareth might have thought that Jesus would bring them special favor. After all, Jesus’ message, which is Isaiah’s message, sounded a lot like the year of Jubilee, which was supposed to occur every fifty years. Leviticus 25:10 says, “you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan.” Nazareth was a poor town. They might have thought that Jesus was promising them that they could be released from their debts and poverty.

Either reading is possible, and either reading makes sense of what Jesus says next. Let’s read verses 23–27:

23 And 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.’” 24 And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25 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, 26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 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.”

Depending on whether we think these people are skeptical or hopeful, the proverb “Physician, heal yourself” could mean one of two things. If they were skeptical, they might be saying, “Prove it to us!” If someone who was obese and sounded like he smoked five packs a day claimed to be a doctor, you might say, “If you’re a physician, heal yourself.” That could be why the people wanted Jesus to perform the miracles they heard he performed in Capernaum. In other words, they might not have believed that Jesus was the Messiah, or Christ. They might have wanted to see signs and wonders that authenticated his message.

But if they were hopeful that Jesus would first bring good things to his hometown, that same proverb could mean, “If you’re a good doctor, you make sure that you and your family are particularly healthy.” They might have been pleading for special favors. “Jesus, you’re one of us. Why are doing those miracles in Capernaum? Take care of your own first.”

Either way, Jesus won’t have it. He won’t give to those who reject him, and he can’t be manipulated. So, he says, “No prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” That could be true because people don’t believe a regular “Joey from the block” could be a prophet. Or it could be true because people think that their homeboys shouldn’t say hard things, which the prophets often spoke.

Jesus then reminds the crowd of what happened in the Old Testament. Some eight hundred years earlier, there were two prophets in Israel, Elijah and Elisha. They were called to turn Israel back to God and away from worshiping false gods. They served during a time when Israel was led by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, both infamous for being wicked rulers. During Elijah’s day, there was a great famine in Israel. That famine was a judgment on Israel’s idolatry. Jesus reminds the crowd that Elijah didn’t go to any widows in Israel during that time, even though there were many in Israel. No, Elijah was sent out of Israel to the coastlands, to Gentile territory. In Zarephath, which was between Tyre and Sidon, he miraculously provided flour and oil for a widow and he raised her son back to life (1 Kgs. 17:8–24).

Elisha, Elijah’s successor, healed and cleansed Naaman, a commander of the Syrian army (2 Kgs. 5:1–14). Syria was Israel’s enemy. Though there were many lepers in Elisha’s day, he only healed Naaman.

Jesus’ point is that Gentiles often exhibited more faith when they encountered God’s prophets than the Israelites did. The Israelites often didn’t listen to the prophets. The prophets said hard truths. They said, “You’ve turned away from God. You’re worshiping fake gods and you’re doing wrong. Turn back to God.” The people didn’t want to change, so they rejected the prophets. And because of the people’s continual rejection of God, they were not healed. But God healed Gentiles, at least those who showed some glimmer of faith.

The hint is that just because these people are from Jesus’ hometown, and just because they are Jews, doesn’t mean they will automatically receive God’s favor. God will not be manipulated. He wants people to love, trust, and obey him. And if people continually reject him, he will give his favor to others.

So, how will the people respond? They seemed to like what Jesus said at first. Will they like what Jesus says now? Let’s see by reading verses 28–30:

28 When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 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. 30 But passing through their midst, he went away.

The people obviously didn’t like what they heard. They understood what Jesus was getting at. He was hinting that if they didn’t respond rightly to him, they would be like the sinful Israelites of Elijah’s day. But more than that, they probably hated the notion that Gentiles would receive God’s favor. The Jews thought of themselves as God’s treasured possession. They thought they were automatically part of God’s kingdom. They assumed that just because of their biological heritage, they would receive God’s blessings.

But God doesn’t work that way. He calls a people to himself, and these people will come from all nations, tribes, and tongues (Rev. 5:9). There are no people who automatically receive God’s blessings and favor. There are no people who are born into God’s kingdom. No, we must be changed by God. We must be born again (John 3:1–8). We must turn from sinning and making created things our functional gods, and we must turn in faith to the one true God.

But these people didn’t care about all of that. All they knew was that Jesus was saying something they didn’t to hear. And their marvel turned to rage. They were so filled with wrath that they tried to kill Jesus. And, somehow, he escaped from them because it wasn’t yet his time to die.

Before we think about how this passage applies to us, I just want to point out what this passage says about human nature. The passage starts with Jesus being allowed to teach in a synagogue. The crowd had heard about his teaching in other places and they had some respect for him. When he read Scripture and said it was fulfilled, the people at first had a positive reaction. But then when Jesus said something they didn’t like, they flipped. This is not what rational people do. But when people hear things they don’t like, even if they’re true, they often act in irrational ways. I think that’s particularly true when it comes to religion. It’s probably because we’re talking about deep, ultimate matters and we’re talking about cherished traditions and beliefs. I have heard stories about people in churches acting in the most ugly ways when they don’t get they’re way. And I’ve seen some of this myself. I suppose this affirms what the Bible says about sin. The power of sin and evil is irrational. When we turn from God, our minds and our hearts are darkened and we can’t think and desire and act rightly.

That’s important to know, because today people tend to think that if they are hurt or feel offended—if they hear something they don’t want to hear—that they are in the right and the one who has spoken, hurt, and offended is wrong. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the truth hurts. That doesn’t mean telling the truth is wrong.

This episode demonstrates how the truth can create opposition. It shows how we all can resist the truth and become enraged by it. One of the reasons I’m a Christian is because the Bible makes so much sense of the human condition. It’s like holding a mirror up to our world and seeing just how beautiful and also how broken it can be.

Well, now that we’ve gone through this passage, what should we do? How does it apply to us?

First, we should know who Jesus is. According to this passage, Jesus is a teacher, a prophet, and the anointed servant of Isaiah. It’s important to see that while Luke emphasizes Jesus’ teaching, he’s much more than a teacher. He’s the one who makes his teaching possible. He’s not just the one who announces the year of the Lord’s favor, but he is able to bring about freedom, healing, and restoration. In other words, he is more than just a man. He is also God. And he’s our Savior.

We also see that Jesus was a controversial figure. People didn’t always respond to him favorably. After Jesus was born, a man named Simeon told Jesus’ mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed . . . , so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35). Jesus revealed the secret thoughts of these people in Nazareth, and their rejection of Jesus would cause their own fall.

Jesus was also a man who knew what it was like to be rejected, to be hated. People wanted to kill him. Eventually, they did. Truly, Jesus “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Jesus was hated because he told the truth. If you tell the truth, there may be people who turn on you. If you share the gospel with someone, people might at first like the idea of Jesus paying for their sins. But if you say that Jesus is the only Savior, and that if people don’t trust Jesus and follow him, they will go to hell, don’t be surprised if people get angry at you. They first got angry at Jesus.

Second, we should know what Jesus came to do. In part, Jesus came to teach and to proclaim a message of good news. However, there is some debate about what Jesus meant when he said he came

to proclaim good news to the poor. . . .
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.

Some people take this quite literally. They believe that Jesus came to relieve the poor, to give freedom to the oppressed, and to heal those who are disabled. And some people think that since that was Jesus’ mission, that should be the primary mission of the church.

If we’re going to understand Jesus’ mission during his first coming, and if we’re going to understand the mission of the church, we have to think more carefully. First, we should realize that Jesus didn’t free everyone in Israel from poverty. Yes, he miraculously fed thousands of people on a couple of occasions, but that didn’t solve the problem of poverty. Second, we should realize that he didn’t come to heal all disabilities. Yes, he healed at least a couple of blind people (for example, Luke 18:35–43), but he didn’t solve the problem of blindness. Third, he didn’t literally set prisoners free. There’s no account of Jesus leading a jailbreak or bailing someone out of prison. Fourth, Jesus didn’t lead a political revolution “to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

So, what does this passage mean? I think the best way to understand it is to see that it refers to spiritual realities. Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor in spirit, those who realize that they are sinners and can’t save themselves. In order to be reconciled to God, you first need to know how much you’ve been a rebel against him and how much you must rely on his grace, the way a beggar relies on people to give him a handout. Jesus came to proclaim liberty to those who had been held captive by the power of sin. That power enslaves us, leading us to do things we know are not right. Jesus came to give us spiritual sight, so that we can see the truth. Those who can’t see who Jesus truly is remain spiritually blinded. Jesus came to bring freedom to those oppressed by Satan, the devil (Luke 13:16).

The fact that Jesus came to deliver people from spiritual poverty and oppression doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about the physical needs of others. We should. God cares about our bodies, our hunger, and our circumstances. If we’re going to care about other people, we should care about those things, too. But if we care about relieving suffering, we should first care about relieving eternal suffering. It would do no good to help someone out of poverty in this life only. What we all need most is to be reconciled to God, to be forgiven for our sins, and to be united to Jesus, the only Savior. Christians should care about both poverty and souls.

And, when you think about it, the gospel is truly good news to the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, and the oppressed. To the poor, it says, “You won’t always be poor. In eternity, you will never lack for anything.” To the slaves and the prisoners, it says, “You are in chains or behind bars now, but that won’t always be the case. Hang on. Freedom is coming in the new creation.” To the blind or the disabled, it says, “You will receive a resurrected body in eternity. Then, you will be able to see. You will be able to walk and run. Your body will be perfectly healthy, and it will never die.” The gospel has given many people in dire circumstances great hope. God has not promised to relieve all pain and suffering in this life, even for his children. But he has promised that the pain and suffering of his children is temporary.

Third, we should respond rightly to Jesus. What’s interesting is that Jesus stops his quote of Isaiah 61 at “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The next line in Isaiah is “and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isa. 61:2). The first time that Jesus came, he did not come to bring a day of vengeance, but a day of salvation. However, we only have so long to respond to Jesus. After we die, there will be judgment (Heb. 9:27). When Jesus comes a second time, everyone who has ever lived will be judged. Those who hate Jesus or who are apathetic to Jesus will be condemned. They will be cast out of God’s creation. They will experience eternal torment. The same is true of those who try to manipulate Jesus to their own ends, those who demand that Jesus provide all kinds of signs for them. But those who trust Jesus, who realize their own spiritual poverty, who sense that they have been imprisoned by sin and oppressed by evil forces, who have realized they were blind to the truth—those people will be saved. They will live with Jesus forever in a restored, renewed, perfected world. They will experience endless years of the Lord’s favor.

If you are not trusting in Jesus today, I would urge you to put your faith in him. I would love to talk with you about what that would look like in your life.

Let us see that Jesus proclaimed good news and that he made that good news possible. Let’s turn to him in faith. And let’s bring good news to the physically and spiritually poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Lamoine F. Devries, “Nazareth,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 4: 240.

 

 

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