Have you ever been part of an exciting, dynamic group with wonderful experiences occurring every day, but then the group is disrupted never to be the same again? Jesus had this experience. He had become part of John the Baptist’s exciting movement near Jerusalem preparing for the coming kingdom of God. But then everything fell apart—John the Baptist, the leader, was thrown into prison.
Matthew 4 says:
When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum…From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
With John out of the public eye, it seems that Jesus, as John’s disciple, picked up John’s message and began to preach in his place. But Jesus is not totally dependent on John as we can see from what happened in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, on a visit during a break from his preaching in Capernaum.
Jesus Makes an Announcement in His Hometown
Luke 4 tells us that:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
Jesus is targeting the poor and marginalized. The passage from Isaiah would have been familiar to those who heard it, but Jesus’ claim that it was fulfilled in their hearing was quite dramatic, bold, and (I would expect) controversial. But it doesn’t seem that the audience responded negatively at all. In fact, they were amazed and spoke well of him; they seemed to be proud of this successful son of their own small village.
But then Jesus ruined the mood completely,
Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.”
Why Jesus added these provocative words, I have no idea. Perhaps he felt they had not understood the depth and significance of his claim, or maybe he was aware that some were suspicious of his work in Capernaum. In any case, there was an immediate negative reaction to his outburst.
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
This is quite a surprising ending to a nice Sabbath service in the synagogue—’Let’s kill the preacher!’
How did Jesus’ Message Differ from John the Baptist’s Message?
Remember that John’s message is stated in Matthew 3 as ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ When Jesus began preaching in Galilee his message, according to Matthew 4, was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” In this regard, the messages sound identical to me; John and Jesus preached the same thing.
However, from prison John wanted to know for sure whether Jesus was who John thought he was. Part of John’s message was of God sending a more important agent for whom John was only a preparation. John thought Jesus was this person, so he sent disciples to ask Jesus about it.
Luke 7 says:
When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”
This was after Jesus’ mission in Galilee was well underway, so Jesus’ replied:
Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
John would recognize Jesus’ references to Isaiah—including the very passage he read to his synagogue in Nazareth. We don’t know how John responded to Jesus’ answer, but I feel certain that he was happy and encouraged by the report; he and Jesus were on the same page.
But Wait! Were They Totally on the Same Page?
Another part of John’s message had to do with judgment. In Luke 3, John said:
The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
And he said about the coming one (Jesus):
His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
These sound like statements of coming judgment. Yet Jesus does not repeat them, and I find it very interesting that when he reads from Isaiah 61, in Nazareth, Jesus leaves out the very significant next line of his quote.
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 favor and the day of vengeance of our God.
Is Jesus, while deriving inspiration from Isaiah, expressing independence from Isaiah’s expectation of God’s vengeance? Does Jesus distance himself from John’s predictions of judgment? It is too early in the story to determine that yet, but later we will encounter similar themes and explore them more thoroughly. Next time, though, we will learn more about Jesus’ work around the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum, which is mentioned in today’s post.
Articles in this series
Jesus Begins His Work:
The Beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Anointed One
Do Jesus’ Words and Actions Demonstrate Empathy — or Judgment?
Does Jesus Disagree with John the Baptist’s Message of the Coming Judgment of God?
Why Didn’t Jesus Recruit Better Help for His Galilean Work?
Did Jesus Really Heal People?
Do Demons Exist?
Jesus Adds a Shocking Twist to Healing
Jesus Calls a Fifth Follower—and What a Loser!
Jesus Refuses to Ask His Disciple to Fast
Entering the Kingdom Requires Abandoning Old Religious Systems
Jesus Gets into Trouble for Disrespecting the Law
What Do We Learn from ‘Jesus Begins His Work’?
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