Grace—and judgement?—in the ‘Nazareth manifesto’ in Luke 4

The lectionary reading for Epiphany 3 in Year C is Luke 4.14–21. As is often the case with the lectionary, the reading is rather displaced and truncated; the previous episode is the temptation in the wilderness, which we will read at the beginning of Lent, and the following week we revert back to Luke 2 as we celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the temple. More serious, though, is the ending of the passage at verse 21, when the whole episode runs to verse 28, and we should take the lectionary here as ‘advisory’ and read through to the end of the story as Luke presents it to us.

The section linking the temptations in the desert with the Nazareth incident is brief but interesting. Luke’s mention of both the Spirit and ‘power’ is characteristic, and adds an extra dimension to the importance of Jesus having the Spirit come upon him (as I have explored elsewhere). Although Luke does relate the ‘power of the Spirit’ to Jesus’ miracles and healings elsewhere, he also regularly links this to Jesus’ teaching ministry, as he does here very clearly. The phrase ‘their synagogues’ is striking, suggestion (as Luke makes clear in other places) that he is writing to a gentile audience who are removed from the geographical area (note that Matthew talks of ‘their synagogue’ in Matt 13.54, but this is a specific rather than general reference).

The comparison with what appear to be parallel passages in Matt 13.54–58 and Mark 6.1–6 is instructive for two reasons. First, in Matthew and Mark the episode comes some way into Jesus’ ministry, and some of Luke’s account (such as Luke 4.23 which anticipates the taunt at the cross in all three Synoptics) confirms that this was later, rather than initial, teaching. This suggests that Luke has put the episode here because of its programmatic nature; it introduces this major Galilean section of the gospel up to Luke 9.51, when Jesus ‘sets his face to Jerusalem, and many of the following examples of Jesus’ ministry are examples of just the sorts of things mention in his reading from the scroll. But the connections continue into Acts, suggesting that Luke sees this teaching of Jesus as programmatic for his follower as well, and this is hinted at in the substitution of the well known gospel term kerusso ‘proclaim’ in Luke 4.18 where the LXX that this is quoted from uses a different term.

The other notable difference between Luke and the other two gospels is that most of the material here is unique to Luke, including the content of Jesus’ reading and teaching, the anticipation of the proverb, and the examples (omitted in the lectionary reading) of the grace of God coming to the gentiles in the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Despite this, there are also interesting details which are faithful to what little we do know about first century synagogue practice. It is unclear whether there would first have been a reading of the Torah prior to the reading of the haftarah and whether there was a set reading or Jesus himself chose what to read from. Luke uses the word for ‘unrolling’ rather than the more general term ‘open’, reflecting how you actually handled a scroll. Luke mentions the ‘attendant’ to whom Jesus gives back the scroll, an official in the synagogue, and when he ‘sits down’ this does not mean that he joins the congregation, but that he takes his seat as a teacher ready to give a sermon from a central place, which allows ‘the eyes of everyone’ to be on him. It is worth noting that here Luke is presenting Jesus as a good, observant Jew, just as he has presented earlier characters in a similar way, and he includes positive notes of the acceptance of Jesus teaching in this episode, as well as the rejected; Luke continues to be a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’ gospel.

Luke is clearly summarising both the reading and Jesus’ teaching (as of course he does elsewhere), and though he records Jesus teaching in synagogues, this is the only time he offers a glimpse into the content of what he says. The reading actually combines verses from two or three different places, and not just from Is 61:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God… (Is 61.1–2a)

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? (Is 58.6)

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. (Lev 25.10)

As Kenneth Bailey notes in Jesus Through Mediterranean Eyes, whilst passages from the Torah had to be read as they were on the scroll, passages from elsewhere in the Scriptures could be adapted by adding in sections from related, nearby texts.

The link here between Is 61 and Is 58 is created by the repetition of the language of ‘release’ in relation both to the prisoners and the oppressed in Luke 4.18. Although this is commonly read as something ‘social’ rather than ‘spiritual’, it marks Jesus ministry in a number of ways in Luke’s gospel, and is used as often in relation to the ‘release’ from (that is, forgiveness of) sin as it is in other ways, including in one of the other ‘programmatic’ statements, the Benedictus (Luke 1.77). (There is a long list of other uses of the noun aphesis and the cognate verb aphiemi in both Luke and Acts in Joel Green’s NIC Acts commentary, p 211).

Reading Scripture aloud in a synagogue service was a common practice, and a person did not necessarily need to hold a special office to offer leadership in worship and instruction (compare Acts 13:13-15). The biblical text cited in Luke 4:17-19 is not a single passage from Isaiah but a combination of Isaiah 61:1-2a and part of Isaiah 58:6. These two passages are probably combined here in Luke because in the Greek translation of the Old Testament the same word is found in both places. This word is aphesis, which appears when Jesus says he is “to proclaim release to the captives” and also “to let the oppressed go free.” Combining the two passages from Isaiah emphasizes this theme of “release” that characterizes Jesus’ ministry. The same word appears elsewhere in Luke to describe people’s release (usually translated “forgiveness”) from sins. The word also appears frequently in Leviticus 25:8-55, which discusses the jubilee year, a “year of release” meant to preserve justice in Israel through the fair and regular distribution of wealth and personal freedoms. Jesus’ sermon, therefore, implies that his ministry is one that liberates people from social and economic oppression, just as other pronouncements indicate that Jesus also frees people from sin’s oppression. (Enter The Bible)

The connection with the Jubilee year in Leviticus clearly comes through its mention in Is 61, but together with Jesus’ claim that ‘Today this is fulfilled in your hearing’ suggests several things in relation to Jesus’ own ministry. First, it is prophetic, in line with Isaiah, so the subsequent comment about Elijah and Elisha completes this strong link with OT prophetic ministry. Secondly, it suggests Jubilee, and the offering of the rest for the people of God as they live in obedience to God’s commands and instructions. Thirdly, here is the final fulfilment of the eschatological hope that God will come and liberate his people. So we have the intertwining of prophetic ministry, Jubilee and eschatology.

Philip Long helpfully observes:

Did Jews think they were still in an exile and in need of restoration? A key text is Daniel 9, where Daniel reads the prophet Jeremiah and determines that the 70 year exile ought to be over. In response to his prayer for restoration and the end of the exile, God reveals to him that the exile will be extended for “70 Sevens,” presumably 490 years. Only after that period is over will God finally end the exile.

Another text found among  the Dead Sea Scrolls has a similar view that the end of the exile will be like a Jubilee.  11Q13 Melichzedek indicates that at least some Jews prior to the time of Jesus thought of themselves as living in the exile. While this text is fragmentary it appears to be a collection of texts from Isaiah describing the end of the age as a new Jubilee. Melchizedek appears as a messiah-like figure who was predicted by “the anointed of the spir[it] as Dan[iel]”in Dan 9:25. He will be a “the messenger of good who announ[ces salvation].” All this sounds very much like Jesus’ words in Luke 4.

In fact, if the community at Qumran is associated with scrolls like this one, then their location in the desert, near the place where Israel ended their 40 years exile in the wilderness and finally entered the Land is remarkable. They are enacting the prophecy of Isaiah 40 to go “into the wilderness and make straight the paths of the Lord.”

The final major question here relates to the common observation that Jesus fails to cite the final line of the quotation from Is 61.1–2. It is often thought to set Jesus apart from either Isaiah or John, as represented in these two online comments:

Mike, whatever actually was said at the time, I would find this scripture much more difficult if the line about vengeance had been included. At the heart of Jesus’ proclamation was the radical idea that instead of seeking vengeance upon our enemies, we are to bless them and pray for them and to care for their needs as if they were our own. Two thousand years later we are only beginning to get a handle on this outrageous concept. Turn on your TV and check out the latest from the Middle East or watch the sentencing of an American murderer when those concerned are given freedom to address the murderer. Think back a couple of years to the tanker load of vitriol thrown at Rob Bell for daring to suggest that love wins.

And in relation to John:

I think it might be something of a contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist. The Baptist was preparing the way for Christ by preaching repentance; in chapter 3, he’s just told the people that the Messiah would baptize the impenitent “with fire” – according to the next verse, the fires of judgment. But since the Baptist had prepared the way with the Law, Luke has Christ come with the Gospel. Perhaps it’s not a question of why Jesus Himself stopped where He did, but why Luke arranged the stories in their particular order.

Taking these in reverse order, I have already argued that John and Jesus are not so far apart as we might think. And a number of commentators note that Jesus does indeed complete the reading from Isaiah, but does so near the end of his ministry as he approaches Jerusalem for the final time:

When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of vengeance in fulfilment of all that has been written. (Luke 21.20–22)

Jesus, it appears, has not done away with the justice of God. But in his ministry a window of grace has opened up, inviting all who receive his good news of release from sin and sickness to know the restoration of God before the time of reckoning, when we must all give an account to God.

Come and join me for a Zoom teaching afternoon on Thursday 3rd February to explore all the issues around the ‘end times’ and end of the world.

We will look at: the background to this language in Jewish thinking; Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 and Mark 13; the Rapture—what is it, and does the Bible really teach it; what the New Testament says about ‘tribulation’; the beast, the antichrist, and the Millennium in Rev 20; the significance of the state of Israel.

The cost is £10 per person, and you can book your tickets at the Eventbrite link here.

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24 thoughts on “Grace—and judgement?—in the ‘Nazareth manifesto’ in Luke 4”

  1. In what way has Jesus fulfilled “the final eschatological hope that God will come and liberate His people”? When I read the descriptions of this liberation in the prophets, it does not look like something God has yet done. (Currently reading Isaiah 40-55.)

    • I’ve been listening to YouTube videos of NT Wright talking about the resurrection. I thing he would say the resurrection had brought heaven to earth and we are struggling thorough the building of the new Kingdom

  2. Whether they considered themselves in exile or not I’m not sure. They certainly considered themselves under gentile domination which Daniel had said they would be for seventy sevens.

    Penelope, aside from more immediate fulfilments at the end of the Babylonian exile, I take the eschatological liberation/salvation of Isaiah 40-55 to be fulfilled in both Christ’s first and second comings. There is a kind of tapestry of fulfilment not always easy to tease apart. The NT often refers to these chapters as at least partially fulfilled in Christ’s first advent. John baptist and the preparing a way for the arrival of the Lord. ‘My servant”. Matt 12 identifies with Christ and his first advent. Lk 2 tells us he is the light to lighten the gentiles. Numerous references in NT to Isa 53 locate its suffering with the cross. Paul applies ‘who has believed our report’ to the early preachers. He identifies the eschatological city in Isa 54 with the Jerusalem above and sees its citizens as those born of the gospel, Jew and gentile. At the same time the city has a future dimension and Isaiah’s language informs John’s vision of the new Jerusalem in Rev 21. We have the weaving of the immediate and ultimate in the destruction of Babylon and the call for his people to come out of her.

    Thus, liberation has aspects of freedom from sin presently that anticipates full freedom in the future. I know this perspective will be familiar to you and you probably have more profound questions in mind. For me the question is how do the NT writers read these OT prophecies and here I see the ‘already not yet’ dynamic.

    • Thank you for addressing my query. As you may have guessed, the questions behind the question are “how long does God expect us to wait?” and “how does creating a church that will persecute His people for 2000 years constitute liberating Israel?”

      • Penelope

        Having read a few past comments you have written I suspect we come from quite different positions. If so, I know my answers won’t satisfy. My own basic position is that God has revealed enough to satisfy our intellectual integrity but does not pander to our intellectual conceit (a point made by John Stott). I suspect both your questions fall largely into the latter category.

        ‘How long’ was the question of those martyred under the altar. The answer was scarcely comforting. They had to wait until the brothers and sisters who have to be killed as they have ben killed is complete. The church is called to suffering and needs to be resolute in the face of it.

        Because of her treatment of Messiah Israel is called to suffering; that the church has been complicit in her suffering is reprehensible.

        Yet there does seem to be a day of ultimate liberation for Israel (Roms 11).

        Back to my main contention; a great deal of faith is faith without full comprehension. It is taking God at his word and refusing to be controlled by questions that damage even destroy faith. That’s my experience anyway.

        • Thank you for addressing the issues anyway. I am probably very conceited, and certainly my questions were grumpily phrased. I do not see them as more unreasonable than many of the questions in the Psalms. Or the mutterings in Ecclesiastes, for that matter.

  3. Jesus certainly came with a message of grace and the gospel is the gospel of the grace of God that has appeared appeared bringing salvation Tit 2. The balance to this is the woes pronounced upon the religious leaders and the cleansing of the temple. As rejection becomes more pronounced so too are warnings of judgement as you make clear Ian.

    The NT church functions in much the same way. Paul rejoices in the grace in which we stand and the year of jubilee in which we live. Yet judgement is present. Ananias and Sapphira… those who are sickly and have died in Corinth… discipline in the local church. Judgement begins with the house of God. Christ walks in holy majesty among the lampstands threatening to remove them. This is why Bell’s universalism could not go unjudged; grace judges that lives may be saved.

    Ultimately in a sinful world salvation flows through judgement. Only in the judging of evil can salvation flow.

  4. The ‘not yet’ of the NT is portrayed vividly in its marital imagery where Jesus is always presented as the bridegroom and never the husband.

    In Jewish culture the putative bridegroom had to pay the bride price to the bride’s father to begin the betrothal period proper (thus 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23). He then would later (could be more than a year) come back to collect his bride to take her home to the place he has prepared for her, reflected in John 14:1–4.

    It might be thought it is pressing it too far to point out the bridal imagery in Isaiah 61:10 but the imagery is often subtly employed throughout Scripture—as Phillip Long points out in his book Jesus the Bridegroom, based on his PhD study.

  5. Incidentally, I do not want to stray too far off-piste in this blog—but the OT imagery is of God the husband divorcing Israel (e.g., Jeremiah 3:1–8).

    Thus, in the NT imagery where Jesus is consistently portrayed as the bridegroom offering a new marriage—not a reconciling husband—this might be seen to lend weight to a supersessionist view of national Israel?

    The Bible’s marital imagery is its dominant conceptual metaphor by a very wide margin—I suggest it is unwise to develop a theology that contradicts it.

    • Okay no more straying off topic…
      Interesting though that in the OT …
      priests were contaminated by touching any unclean thing.
      In the NT Jesus makes pure everything He touches.
      Touching the Ark brings instant death in the OT,
      the woman who touches His hem was healed instantly.
      Blood was forbidden as a food in the OT,
      Jesus said “Drink this” in the NT.
      The Lord complained about buildings leaning against his temple in the OT.
      At the last supper He loved the disciple who leaned against Him.
      Separation and divorce seemed the only practical solution in the OT but in the Revelation He is the perfect Bride Groom.

        • Colin,
          Can you think of any more inversions? That is, where an OT prohibition is overturned. Or, like Lord’s complaint about the proximity of houses leaning on the temple is replaced by an actual event?

        • I think it is relevant to this blog. Say, even in the 1600 stadia river of blood. Some see it as a curse that men will drown in. I see it as the fruit of ‘The Vine’ crushed for us. Noah’s flood took the wicked away. This blood (in Rev.) is deep enough to be baptised in as long as your stiff neck doesn’t prevent you from diping below the level of the horses’ bridle.

    • Hosea, in his references to the “husband” being restored to his “adulterous wife” [2:16 – 20] also makes mention of the restoration of the covenant [2:18]. The writer of Hebrews who, clearly referring to Jeremiah’s enunciation of the new covenant [Jeremiah 31:31] claims that the old covenant is obsolete [Hebrews 8:13] . Nevertheless he does not disassociate the new covenant from “the house of Israel and the house of Judah”[8:8]! Clearly as the writer proceeds to delineate the significance of the NC [chapter 9] his primary concern is the Christocentric basis of the covenant – not its membership! I would suggest therefore that NT imagery of the concept of”new marriage” hardly gives support to the idea of “a supersessionist view of national Israel”. Rather the New Testament Scriptures(not least Romans) are providing a mosaic of the foundations on which such a marriage is founded!

      • Colin H
        So, to add to my list above: although remarriage to a previous wife was forbidden in the OT, in the New God is willing to restore a divorced wife (Israel), regrafting in the original.

        Colin McC
        I’ve now got Phillip Longs book

  6. Isaiah 62:5 Speaking to eschatological Jerusalem (female) God says to Israel (male) ‘as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride so your God rejoices over you. The bride/city finding full realisation in the New Jerusalem which is both a wife and a bride. In the New Jerusalem there is no need for marriage. Marriage is for procreation and love-companionship. In a world without death procreation is unnecessary and the all consuming delight in God revealed in Christ makes the need for exclusive life relationships redundant. It will not be golf or sailing or feasting that will truly satisfy – it will be Christ in his glory. He will be the joy that will never wane. The spring of water that will eternally replenish.

  7. And now for the “now” reality.

    “And can it be that I should gain, an interest. In the Saviour’s blood…”

    There’s not a lot in the text that I can see, infers marriage. Acts, yes.

    But without the reality of the redeemed , “now” there will be no future “yet”.
    Maybe there is an exile motif, of a Kingdom of God’s people being in “imprisoned” exile from him, an absence of, not hearing a “word” from him.
    And now, the living Word, speaks the word of God, as “living and active…discerning the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.”

    • Or, indeed, as Ian’s article ends there are motifs of the Exodus, God’s release through judgement from oppression, captivity, into freedom and restoration to worship Him at the centre of their communal lives, his Presence, tabernacling with them even through desert times.

  8. Ian I agree with your asssessment of the omission of verses 22 to 28 from the lectionary. Indeed the biblical translations of verse 22 ( for example the NIV: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips”) coming directly after Jesus’ affirmation (“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing) hardly serve to prepare the observer for what is to come!
    Consequently,even before he launched into his tirade, the puzzlement of the congregation ( ” Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”) could be interpreted yet again as a statement of “amazement” rather than one of bewilderment or even resentment.
    Sunday’s sermon could provide a few headaches for some aspiring preachers( or even for “veterans”) !


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