“You can’t go home again” is an old saying that means if you try to return to a place you remember from the past it won’t be the same as you remember it. The expression comes from a book title, but it just as easily could’ve originated from the text we study today. Jesus comes to His hometown of Nazareth and finds that no one is ready for Him to be the Messiah. His ministry is now established in Galilee (the region surrounding Nazareth) and His fame is spreading, but that doesn’t mean the old friends and neighbors are ready to look at Him differently. Their reaction to His teaching is extreme by any measure. The episode at Nazareth shows what happens when self-righteousness and intolerance meet the Messiah’s message of grace and mercy for those in need. For us, Nazareth shows the danger of living as if we don’t need the Messiah’s message every day.
Sometime after His temptation, Jesus returns to Galilee (the northern part of Israel where He’s from). He apparently goes there because the Spirit leads Him (in the power of the Spirit). The text doesn’t mention it, but He performs miracles throughout the region as well as teaches in the synagogues of the different towns. As he does this, His fame begins to spread and He’s well-received everywhere He goes (this will certainly change). He teaches and heals, and the people respond favorably to Him and His message.
There’s no way to know when this event takes place. Both Matthew and Mark place it later in Jesus’ ministry than Luke who puts it here, right after Jesus’ temptation. There is a chance that Matthew and Mark recount a second visit to Nazareth since they mention nothing about the people trying to kill Jesus, as in this story (spoiler alert). However, it seems odd that Jesus would go back after the events in this chapter, and it seems especially odd that He’d receive essentially the same response more than once. While it’s hard to reconcile why Matthew and Mark say nothing about the mob violence (which seems like a fairly major aspect of this story to leave out), the reasonable assumption is that Luke places it here to make a point (perhaps about the type of people who reject the Messiah’s message) while Matthew and Mark place it more chronologically.
When Jesus arrives in Nazareth, it’s likely that the people of the town have heard of all He’s been doing throughout the region (Jesus refers to this in verse 23). They know He’s making waves and making a name for Himself. They aren’t sure what to think of Him, however, as to them He’s still Jesus, son of Joseph, a carpenter.
Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath as is His custom. This goes along with what we already learned in verse 15, that Jesus speaks in the synagogues in the towns He travels to. He stands up to read – as a visiting rabbi He’s afforded this honor – and the attendant hands Him the scroll for Isaiah (hard to know if the attendant chooses the scripture or Jesus does). Jesus finds the scripture in what is now chapter 61 and reads:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are downtrodden,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.
The passage is clearly messianic and the people listening realize this. Jesus reads it because it describes Him and His ministry (as He’s about to point out). And what it says about His ministry is enormously encouraging to everyone who isn’t a Nazarene confused by its application. Note the grace throughout. The Messiah comes for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the downtrodden. In each case, the reference is to those who are outcasts, who aren’t in the religious elite, who can’t save themselves (we should read the words more than literally – in each case there’s a spiritual component to the meaning – so while He does come to give sight to the blind and cast out demons from those who are bound to them, He also comes to give sight to the spiritually blind and freedom to those who are in bondage to sin). In a word, He comes for us. All of us. Anyone and everyone who desperately needs a Savior is mentioned. Jesus comes in compassion and love to save everyone who understands that he is lost and hopeless. It’s a rescue mission for the damned.
The last line of the prophecy likely plays off the Year of Jubilee. This is the year – per the Law of Moses – that all land reverts to its original owner, all slaves are freed, everything essentially goes back to what it was when Israel first divided up the Promised Land. It occurs every 50th year. Here, the prophecy likens Jubilee to the advent of the Messiah. Jesus comes to set free, to restore those who are lost in sin, to allow those who have made a mess of their lives to start over. It’s the Year of Spiritual Jubilee – all can be restored.
After Jesus reads this amazing passage, He hands the scroll back to the attendant and sits down (it’s tradition that a teacher stands to read scripture and sits to teach on what he’s read). The lesson Jesus teaches is brief and to the point – “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Imagine this scene. This is a man they’ve all known since He was a child (hard to know how old He was when He came to Nazareth – remember that He spent His earliest years in Egypt – but He likely arrived when He was very young and spent from that time until He was 30 living with them) and who until recently was simply a local carpenter. Now He’s famous throughout the region for His teaching and miracles, and even more, He just claimed to be the MESSIAH. A carpenter from a poor family in Nazareth (not exactly a cosmopolitan place) is the MESSIAH??
Some things to think about when considering the people’s response to Jesus’ words. First, remember that Jesus was born under shady circumstances. It’s almost certain that everyone remembers the scandal of Mary becoming pregnant before marriage. That has to affect how they see Him even now. Second, it’s likely that Jesus received no more formal education than any other boy in Nazareth. He wasn’t sent away to study under a rabbi and become a religious leader or expert in the Law; He learned a trade. Third, it’s also likely He didn’t perform miracles as He grew up. Remember the spiritual anointing after His baptism was what kicked off His ministry, and it doesn’t seem a stretch to assume that He didn’t do anything miraculous before that anointing (if He HAD done miracles, it seems like the people here would be less surprised by His claim to be the Messiah).
On the other hand, Jesus HAD to stand out from other boys and men as He lived in Nazareth. Even a common carpenter would make a mark if He’s sinless. It seems like there would be some inkling that this man is certainly different and has always been different from other men.
That apparently is not what the people think as we read their response in verse 22, although understanding how Luke describes it is a little difficult. The text makes it sound like they initially respond well to Jesus’ claim. However, it seems odd that Jesus would respond as He does in verses 23-27 if the people respond favorably to Him in verse 22. Perhaps what it means is that they initially respond well when He shows up and even when He reads, but after He makes the claim for Messiahship they are astounded and say to each other, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”
As we the readers know, the answer to their question is ‘no’. They’re confused because they think He’s simply Joseph’s son. But that’s not who He is. He’s much more than that – He’s the Son of God. And as such, what He just said is absolutely true.
Jesus now throws fuel on the fire. He reads their thoughts (or hears their muttering) and tells them what they’re ABOUT to think (don’t miss this – He tells them what they’re GOING to say or what they’re GOING to think). He says they’re going to quote the proverb, “Physician, heal yourself.” They’ll say this because they want Him to perform the miracles here that He’s performed other places. He then makes the point that no prophet is accepted in His hometown (for the same reasons He’s running into opposition here – the hometown folks just can’t get over that one of their own is a prophet – they simply don’t see Him that way). Essentially He says, “You want Me to treat you like the other communities in Galilee, but you don’t believe as they do. They received Me and My message favorably, you respond with skepticism.”
We know from the other gospels that Jesus performs very few miracles in Nazareth (Matt 13:58). The people’s unbelief precludes the need for them. Miracles are performed out of compassion and to show Jesus is who He says He is. In this case, the people of Nazareth steadfastly refuse to believe so there’s no point in performing miracles.
After speaking these proverbs, Jesus references the Old Testament to make a point. He says that Elijah provided for a gentile widow outside of Israel during the famine of his time, even though there were many widows in Israel who needed help. He also reminds them that Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian of his leprosy instead of any of the many lepers who lived in Israel during his time. The point seems to be similar to what John the Baptist told the people who came out to hear him speak at the Jordan (3:7). Don’t think that because you’re children of Abraham that you have some special ‘in’ with God. Only those who accept the Messiah are saved. Your lineage isn’t what’s important, it’s your acceptance of the One God sent. The gentiles who accept the Messiah will be ahead of the unbelieving Jews when they stand before God. If you reject Me, you will be as left out as the widows of Israel during Elijah’s time or the lepers of Israel during Elisha’s time.
Not surprisingly, this doesn’t go over well with Jesus’ old friends and neighbors. They’re enraged to hear they are not among the chosen and that they’re more subject to judgment than the pagan gentiles who accept Him as Messiah. They’re so enraged that they try to kill Him (which is truly amazing – they’re in the midst of a worship service, and their emotions go from pleased at what Jesus says to wanting to kill Him for what He continues to say – it’s an incredible picture of human nature and what happens to those lost in misplaced zeal). They haul him out of the synagogue and take him to a hill where they try to throw Him off a cliff to His death.
Somehow – and the text isn’t clear how but it’s apparently supernatural – Jesus escapes the mob. He simply passes through their midst and goes on His way. It’s not His time to die so He doesn’t. He goes away from Nazareth and likely doesn’t return even for family holidays or reunions.
Paul will later talk about preaching the gospel to some for whom the message is foolishness but to others it’s the power of God and the wisdom of God (I Cor 1:22-24). The people of Nazareth show what it means to receive the message of the gospel as foolishness. Jesus reads the prophecy from Isaiah describing His ministry and it’s one of the most encouraging and life-changing messages ever uttered. The Messiah has arrived and He’s here for everyone who’s needy. The people of Nazareth, however, only hear a challenge to their perceived place at God’s table guaranteed by their lineage. Consequently, they decide to KILL the messenger. The Messiah comes with an incredibly loving message full of grace and they want to kill Him.
It’s an amazing picture of an unrenewed, self-righteous heart. It’s what happens when someone comes to the Messiah with no sense of need. Only those who understand that they are poor, blind, captive, or downtrodden receive the mercy and grace of the Messiah’s message. If someone isn’t needy, then the message of the gospel is either foolish or offensive.
The Nazarenes also show the blindness of sin. They don’t hear the message of mercy and grace, they only hear insults and blasphemy. They are so blinded by their self-righteousness that they’re unable to hear the only good news that will set them free. They are blind and captive without being aware of their blindness and captivity. And as a result, they not only can’t receive the only message that will give them sight and freedom, they actually convince themselves that killing the Messiah is the right thing to do. It’s the sad state of the unsaved. Without the Spirit moving, they can’t perceive the darkness that blinds them.
For believers, we must come back to the message of Isaiah continually. We must remind ourselves that we were and are among the poor, blind, captive, and downtrodden. We are hopeless and excluded apart from the Savior. When we meditate on this it takes away self-righteousness and self-reliance. It saves us from thinking we can face a fallen world in our own strength. It saves us from becoming a functional Nazarene. When we lose sight of the Messianic purpose and its effect on our lives, we lose sight of the amazing grace and love that make the world’s rewards and temptations pale in comparison. We also lose sight of the amazing mercy available to us at the throne of Jesus. Remember, He came for the outcasts, but He also came to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. There are fresh starts and mercy at the throne of Jesus. Why would we live without focusing on this incredible message hour by hour and day by day?