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Luke 4:14-21 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 4:14-44. THE OVERTURE TO LUKE-ACTS
Luke’s account of Jesus visit to the synagogue at Nazareth is based on Mark 6:1-6 (as is Matthew 13:54-58), but there are significant differences that transform Luke’s account into a different story with a different purpose.
• Luke moves the Nazareth synagogue story to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, immediately following his baptism (3:21-22) and temptation (4:1-13). He does so for emphasis. Verses 14-44 serve as a paradigm (model) for Luke-Acts. Like an overture to a musical work, they introduce themes on which Luke will expand later, telling us what to expect from Jesus and the early church. In particular, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ empowerment by the Holy Spirit (v. 14), the importance of his teaching ministry (vv. 15-30), and his miracles (vv. 31-44).
• Luke adds the quotations from Isaiah. These verses announce the nature of Jesus’ ministry and set the tone for Luke-Acts. Jesus’ preaching in Luke has a different emphasis than in Mark, where he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent, and believe in the Good News” (Mark 1:15). In Luke’s version of this synagogue story, Jesus does not call people to repentance. However, he will have much to say about repentance elsewhere in this Gospel (5:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7; 16:30; 17:3; 24:47).
• Then Luke adds the favorable mention of the widow at Zaraphath (1 Kings 17:8-16) and Naaman the Syrian (1 Kings 17:8-16; 2 Kings 5:1-19)—righteous Gentiles of the Old Testament (vv. 22-30). This emphasizes, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, God’s openness to Gentiles. This favorable mention of Gentiles offends the hometown crowd and leads to an attempt on Jesus’ life—preparing us, at the beginning, for the continuing opposition to Jesus and his eventual crucifixion.
• Then Luke tells of the exorcism of a demon (vv. 31-37) and healings at Simon’s house (vv. 38-41)—miracles that complement his teachings.
• Then Luke tells of Jesus proclaiming good news in the synagogues of Judea (vv. 42-44)—thus forming an inclusio (a bracketing that marks the beginning and ending of a section) with the Nazareth synagogue story (vv. 16 ff.). Green points out another inclusio—vv. 16a and 30—Jesus’ entry into and departure from Nazareth (Green, 208).
In summary, this section re-emphasizes Jesus’ empowerment by the Spirit (v. 14; see also 1:35; 3:22; 4:1). It then introduces his teaching (vv. 15-30) and his miracles (vv. 31-44), the two primary components of his ministry prior to his Passion. It introduces his concern for the vulnerable (vv. 18-19) and his openness to Gentiles (vv. 24-28)—themes that will permeate this Gospel. His short sermon at Nazareth (vv. 18-21) thus serves as his mission statement—given further impetus by his comment at the end of the chapter, “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also. For this reason I have been sent” (v. 43).
LUKE 4:14-16ab. JESUS TAUGHT IN THEIR SYNAGOGUES
14Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and news about him spread through all the surrounding area. 15He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
16abHe came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. He entered, as was his custom, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day,
Verses 14-15 serve as a transition between Jesus’ temptation and his appearance in the Nazareth synagogue.
“Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit” (v.14a). Luke has told us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (1:35)—and that Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied of Jesus that God “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (1:69)—and that the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon as he held the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God for allowing him to see God’s salvation (2:27-30)—and that the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism (3:21-22)—but he now deems it important to remind us once again that Jesus’ ministry is Spirit-powered.
“into Galilee” (v.14b). Galilee, the northernmost province of the Jewish people, has been at the forefront of this Gospel from the beginning. It was in Galilee that the angel told Mary that she had found favor with God and would bear a son whom she would name Jesus (1:26ff.). Joseph and Mary went from Nazareth of Galilee, where they were living, to Bethlehem to be enrolled in the census (2:4ff.). Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned to Galilee after Jesus’ birth (2:39). Luke tells us that Herod was the ruler of Galilee (3:1).
Galilee is significant because of its insignificance. Jesus did not grow up in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life and religious practice. Instead, he grew up in Galilee, the hinterlands, a place where many Gentiles live—a nowhere place as far as the religious elite are concerned. He will carry out the major portion of his ministry in Galilee. Luke will note that the women who observe Jesus’ crucifixion and burial are from Galilee (Luke 23:49; 23:55).
“and news about him spread through all the surrounding area” (v. 14c). This is the first of several reports of people being amazed by Jesus and his growing fame (4:32, 36-37; 5:15; 7:17; 9:43).
“He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all” (v. 15). Jewish worship takes place at the Jerusalem temple and at synagogues in each community. Temple worship focuses on ritual and sacrifice; synagogue worship involves prayers, scripture readings, and teaching. For most Jews, temple worship is something that they experience, at best, a few times a year. Many Jews can only hope to make one Jerusalem pilgrimage in their lifetime. Local synagogues meet their need for regular worship. The synagogues placed less emphasis on ritual and more emphasis on teaching spiritual values. Synagogues strongly influenced early Christian worship.
This verse makes it clear that Jesus’ ministry was well underway before he visited his boyhood hometown synagogue in Nazareth. We don’t know which synagogues he had visited or what he had taught, but a comment later in this sermon tells us that he has done impressive work in Capernaum, his hometown as an adult (4:23).
“He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up” (v. 16). Matthew tells us that, early in his adult life, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum (Matthew 4:13), so his visit to Nazareth is just that—a visit. However, it is the visit of a hometown boy made good. Some people will be proud of him—others curious—others dismissive or jealous.
“He entered, as was his custom, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day” (v. 16a). Luke establishes Jesus’ deep rootedness in Jewish religious tradition and his faithfulness to the synagogue and Sabbath observance. The center of Jewish worship historically was the temple in Jerusalem. However, during the Babylonian Exile and the Diaspora (the geographical scattering of the Jews), Jews established local synagogues so that they might worship regularly. While the emphasis of temple worship was animal sacrifice, synagogue worship focused on teaching and prayer.
“as was his custom” (v. 16a) is a phrase pregnant with preaching possibilities. With the circumcision, purification and presentation in the temple (2:21-24) and the annual visits to the temple (2:41-51), Luke has established that Mary and Joseph were observant of Jewish religious traditions. They surely raised Jesus from infancy in the synagogue, connecting him with Jewish tradition in a way that made the synagogues a natural starting place for his ministry. Their faithfulness in raising Jesus within this tradition helped to shape the person that he was, and is an important part of our salvation history.
Jesus’ lifetime immersion in the synagogue has already paid dividends. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. He responded to the tempter, “It is written!” He had learned the scriptures in the synagogue, and they became his sword and shield when confronted by the devil. There is an important lesson here. All of us have wilderness experiences, whether temptation, grief, or some other adversity. Wilderness experiences seldom telegraph their coming—we cannot expect a week to prepare. Their outcome will depend on the state of our readiness at the moment that the challenge comes. In some cases, our very lives—spiritual and physical—will be at stake.
Mary and Joseph provide an excellent model for us to follow in raising our own children. Parents who bring newborn babies to worship in plastic infant carriers do a good work. They come to church against the odds, because it is not easy to get themselves, the baby, and the necessary paraphernalia ready for church. During worship, the baby will sometimes distract the mother. Parents are tempted to ask if it is worth it, but great oaks from tiny acorns grow. Parents who worship regularly give their children great faith-advantage. The baby who becomes accustomed to church in infancy is likely to enjoy strong faith as an adult.
LUKE 4:16c-19. THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS ON ME
16c and stood up to read. 17The book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He opened the book, and found the place where it was written,
18“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release to the captives,
recovering of sight to the blind,
to deliver those who are crushed,
19and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
“and stood up to read. The book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him” (v. 16c-17). This is our oldest detailed account of synagogue worship. The language would be Aramaic, the language of ordinary Jewish people during Jesus’ lifetime. A portion of the Torah would be read in Hebrew, and a Targum or explanation would be given in Aramaic, followed by a reading from the Prophets with explanation. Other elements of worship would include the recitation of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:49), the Eighteen Benedictions, a psalm, and a benediction (Evans, NIBC, 73; Bock, 88; Stein, 155)
There is some question whether Jesus follows a lectionary or selects his own text. There is some evidence that the Law is read in a cycle, but that the reader chooses the reading from the Prophets (Gilmour, 90). “He…found the place where it was written” (v. 17) sounds as if Jesus chooses his own reading.
In the synagogue, there is no professional clergy. The president of the synagogue invites someone to comment on the scriptures. While the people are more biblically literate than most churchgoers today, most commentary would probably be rote recitation of lessons learned in synagogue school. The main question would be whether the reader will get it right. The main suspense would be whether someone will have to correct him. When Jesus speaks, it is a very different experience, because he speaks with authority (4:32).
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me” (v. 18a; see also v. 14). Jesus quotes primarily from Isaiah 61:1-2. The phrase “recovering of sight to the blind” is not quoted directly from the Old Testament, but appears to be inspired by Isaiah 35:5 or 42:7. The phrase, “to deliver those who are crushed,” is from Isaiah 58:6. Jesus omits Isaiah 61:2b, which speaks of “the day of vengeance of our God,” because the emphasis of his Nazareth homily is salvation, not judgment. Judgment will come later.
“he has anointed me” (v. 18). Jesus was anointed at his baptism, where the Spirit descended upon him like a dove and the voice from heaven said, “You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased” (3:22).
“to preach good news to the poor” (v. 18b). Is Jesus talking about spiritual or economic poverty? He is almost certainly talking about outsiders, people of low status, vulnerable people—whether their problems stem from economic poverty or other causes. Jesus has a mission to the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed, categories that indicate the breadth of his concern for people in need.
“to proclaim release to the captives” (v. 18c). Luke illustrates what this means by the first of Jesus’ miracles in this Gospel—the cleansing of a man possessed by a demon (vv. 31-37). While we tend not to believe in demons today, we are confronted daily with stories of demonic behavior.
Captives would also include people imprisoned for debt, another outgrowth of poverty.
“recovering of sight to the blind” (v. 18d). In this Gospel, Jesus will restore the sight of blind people (7:21-22; 18:35-43), and will also tell prideful people to “ask the poor, the maimed, the lame, or the blind” to come their banquet table (14:13).
Jesus’ interest is not limited to physical sight, but encompasses spiritual vision as well (6:41-42; 7:44; 8:16; 9:27; 10:23; 11:33; 12:54-56; 17:22; 21:27-31). Later, Jesus will give Saul/Paul his mission—“to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive remission of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18—also written by Luke). The emphasis in that verse clearly has to do with spiritual vision.
“to proclaim release to the captives” (v. 18e). Is it too much to say that only those who have experienced oppression can fully appreciate what it means to be free? Archbishop Desmond Tutu who grew up under apartheid in South Africa says, “There’s nothing ever to equal being free. You can’t put a money value to being free, to be able to wake up in a country and not have to say, ‘Do I have my pass on me?’ ‘Am I allowed to go there?’ ‘Can I take my children to that school?'” He tells of walking past a playground with his daughter and having to stop her from playing on the swings. She would protest, “But there are other children there.” He says, “You got quite sick having to say, ‘Yes, there are other children there, but they are not quite children like you'” (Tunku Varadarajan, “The Archbishop,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 30-31, 2006).
“and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (v. 19). Isaiah wrote these words originally as encouragement for Jewish people in exile. The salvation of which Isaiah spoke is now to be found in Jesus (Fitzmyer, 533).
The acceptable year of the Lord could refer to the Jubilee year. The Torah requires Jewish people, every sabbath year, to let their land lie fallow, to forgive debts, and to free slaves (Exodus 21:1-6; 23:10-11; Deuteronomy 15:1-18). The Jubilee year is a sabbath-sabbath year—seven times seven years. The Torah requires Jewish people, in the Jubilee Year, to return ancestral lands to their historic owners (Leviticus 25:8-17). With this requirement, God showed his concern for people at the lower end of the economic spectrum. These provisions are designed to reduce the disadvantage of the poor—to insure that the wealthy cannot accumulate all the land and consolidate all of the power. It is a provision that should gladden the hearts of anyone in need, but “the year of the Lord’s favor” suggests that the opportunity is time-limited. They/we must accept grace while it is available.
These Isaiah verses give Jesus his commission—his mission statement—his guiding beacon. Isaiah 61 is a servant song, and proclaims that the Messiah will bring relief to the disenfranchised. It is also the church’s commission. Throughout Luke-Acts, we will see Jesus and the church bringing good news, proclaiming release, restoring sight, and freeing the oppressed. It is also our commission. Jesus calls his church to love the unlovely and to serve the undeserving. It is not a comfortable discipleship.
The good news is not the exclusive possession of the poor, the blind, and the oppressed. They will, however, hear the Gospel more gladly than others, because they have much to gain and little to lose. The status quo has no hold on them. The rich, the powerful, and those who perceive themselves to see clearly, will not be nearly as receptive. They will, in fact, be the ones who kill Jesus. In this Gospel, Jesus will speak often about rich people (1:53; 6:24; 12:16-21; 14:12-13; 16:1-9; 16:19-31; 18:18-25; 19:1-10; 21:1-4). With the exception of Zacchaeus (19:1-10), such references are negative. Jesus will warn:
“For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye,
than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” (18:25).
As we read these words from Isaiah, we must remember that poverty, captivity, and blindness have both physical and spiritual dimensions. It is bad to have an empty wallet, but worse to have an empty soul. Captivity is terrible, but Bonhoeffer and others have shown that it is possible to remain free in the midst of horrific confinement. Athletes and actors, struggling to free themselves from drugs, manifest true slavery. Helen Keller was blind from infancy, but her words and actions demonstrate a clear vision that sees to the very core of life.
These verses from Isaiah hold promise, not only for the poor, but also for all Jewish people. Roman soldiers are garrisoned in their land to insure that Roman law is honored and Roman taxes are collected. The Jewish people are not in a position to chart their own course or to determine their own destiny. With regard to political power, the nation is poor, captive, and oppressed. They desperately need the salvation that Jesus promises.
However, the people of Nazareth will reject Jesus’ gospel because his vision extends to Gentiles as well as Jews (vv. 22-30). Jesus has come to restore the sight of the blind (v. 18), but the people of Nazareth insist on preserving their narrow vision.
LUKE 4:20-21. TODAY, THIS SCRIPTURE HAS BEEN FULFILLED
20He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21He began to tell them, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
“and sat down” (v 20). In the synagogue service, people would stand to read the scriptures and sit to teach.
“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). Jesus’ preaching begins with the word “Today.”
• Today the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.
• Today I bring good news to the poor.
• Today I proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.
• Today I let the oppressed go free to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
This is one of the world’s shortest sermons, but it packs lots of punch. The people of Israel have waited for centuries for the fulfillment of promises that God made throughout their history, beginning with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). Now Jesus declares that the wait is over—that the day has come—that the promises are fulfilled—that salvation is nigh! This is indeed good news (v. 43).
The fulfillment of this scripture began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus but continues in the life of the church today. All over the world, the church is bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, helping the blind to recover their sight, helping to free the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor (vv. 18-19). Whether championing human rights or providing relief funds for hurricane victims or drilling a well for the people of a primitive village or training indigenous people for ministry, the church is helping Jesus to fulfill what he identified in these verses as a core part of his mission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953)
Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol, 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press,(1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
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Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (New York: Doubleday, 1970)
Gilmour, S. MacLean & Bowie, Walter Russell, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1952)
Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Nickle, Keith F., Preaching the Gospel of Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000)
Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1 — 9:20, Vol. 35A (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)
Ringe, Sharon H., Westminster Bible Companion, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
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