Updated: Feb 4
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Luke 4:16-30
In our passage this week, Jesus demonstrated the truism "You can't go home again". He also demonstrated that He was a great prophet with a worldwide mission, much to the chagrin of the people He grew up with.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
"You Can't Go Home Again"
In our passage this week, Jesus is rejected by many of the people in His hometown of Nazareth. Jesus knew this was going to happen, so He was emotionally prepared for it. But it got me thinking -- what if I had that kind of encounter at my hometown? How would I deal with that?
Maybe you've already had that kind of experience. What was it like?
The phrase we often use for this experience is "you can't go home again" from Thomas Wolfe's posthumous novel. What do you think that means? Have you experienced it to be true? A poetic way of saying it is "sometimes we leave home; sometimes home leaves us". Basically, it just means that everything is constantly changing. The infrastructure changes. The environment changes. The population changes. The people change. We change. Sometimes those changes are for the better. Sometimes they aren't. We might look at the community of our childhood memory and lament changes that have (or have not) happened. Others might look at us and lament the changes that have (or have not) happened. And sometimes, we realize that what we remember (nostalgia) isn't what really happened.
So, you might get started with a thought and memory exercise. First, what is "home" and what makes it so important to us? How have we reacted to changes we have already experienced in our home (and in this case, I'm thinking more about our childhood community and less about our childhood house and family)?
If there are people in your group who grew up with you or in the same community, share a few stories of the changes you've experienced. But for this to be effective, you have to be broad-minded. Some changes have been for the better. Some changes have not. And not everybody is going to agree on which is which!
If there are transplants in your group (which might be you!), share some stories that put the present in the context of the past that they probably don't know about.
And here's the point: Jesus, whom Luke told us was held in high regard by the people of His hometown, had His path severely diverge from theirs. And this utterly fractured their relationship. What do you think it was like for Jesus or His neighbors to realize that their differences were irreconcilable?
A little later, I'll share another approach you can take to this idea.
This Week's Big Idea: What We Know about Ancient Synagogues
We know a lot about synagogues dating from the 3rd century; we know very little about synagogues from Jesus' day. The word "synagogue" is simply the Greek word for "house of assembly", so we can't prove that early uses of the word have to do with the technical understanding of a place of Jewish worship. Additionally, the other word we sometimes see in ancient literature -- proseuche ("house of prayer") -- may or may not be referring to the same thing as a synagogue. There are just a lot of questions. Of course, after the final destruction of Herod's temple in 70 AD and the diaspora of the Jews, synagogues appeared all over the Roman empire as Jews strove to maintain their religious and cultural identity. But it is almost certain that this "new" synagogue was quite different from those in Jesus' day.
Some scholars trace the origins of the synagogue to the houses of prophets, where people would go to ask questions or pray (2 Kings 4:23). Most scholars believe the synagogue came to be after the destruction of the temple in 586 BC -- with no more temple, the people needed a new understanding of their worship. But the oldest synagogue that has been excavated only dates to about 50 years before the birth of Jesus, and there really isn't much of a literary picture painted of it before Jesus' day.
The synagogues that have been excavated that date of Jesus' day were very simple. The oldest inscription we know of from a synagogue is called the "Theodotus Inscription".
It roughly translates to:
Theodotos son of Vettenus, priest and head of the synagogue, son of a head of the synagogue, and grandson of a head of the synagogue, built the synagogue for the reading of the law and for the teaching of the commandments, as well as the guest room, the chambers, and the water fittings as an inn for those in need from abroad, the synagogue which his fathers founded with the elders and Simonides.
This and other such evidence implies that early synagogues were used for education, gatherings, and hospitality -- not the specialized worship/cultic elements of later centuries. They did not have shrines or religious art. In other words, synagogues of Jesus' day were likely the primary public Jewish buildings of their communities (we should remember that they had limited governance, and in Judaism religion is a part of society). They were indeed places of worship, but the primary expression of worship was the public reading of scripture.
The Bible mentions synagogues in Nazareth (our passage this week), in Capernaum (the passage immediately following ours), Jerusalem (Acts 6), Damascus (Acts 9), Antioch (Acts 13), and so on through Acts. The works of Josephus, as well as texts found at Qumran, mention even more synagogues that likely date to Jesus' day. Comparing all of the passages together indicates that "synagogue" could refer to multiple buildings serving multiple functions in a community.
All of that to say: there does not seem to be a single model of a synagogue -- the building design or purpose, the structure or leadership -- in the days of Jesus. Things that we observe about one synagogue may not apply to another. This might partially explain why Jesus and His followers received such a wide range of reception in their various visits to synagogues.
What We Know about Synagogue Leadership
Understanding the various models of synagogue leadership might help us understand what's going on in Jesus' various visits. For example, in our passage this week, we only have mentioned the "attendant". Here's what we think we know about the various people mentioned in the Bible and adjacent literature:
Elders. This term goes back to the Old Testament; certain men led/represented Israel at a national level (i.e. Ex 3, 1 Sam 8, 2 Sam 5) and a local level (i.e. Judg 8, 1 Sam 11, Ruth 4). They were essentially public officials, though no one knows exactly how they were appointed. They served as judges, delegates, tax collectors, and whatever else the community needed. The position predates the synagogue, so we assume that when synagogues came to be an elder took leadership in it.
Leaders. The New Testament mentions several "leaders of the synagogue". For example, Jairus (Luke 8), Crispus (Acts 18), and Sosthenes (Acts 18). In Luke 13, a "leader" confronted Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. In Acts 13, a "leader" asked Paul to say a word of encouragement at their meeting. We don't know if this is an official title for a leadership position in the synagogue, or if this is a village elder keeping things together. But obviously someone had to be responsible for maintaining order in a synagogue meeting. In later years, this became the role for a rabbi.
Attendants. The synagogue "attendant" is only mentioned in the Bible in our passage this week. We know that eventually synagogues had paid positions for assisting the leaders -- cleaning the building, maintaining the scrolls, administering the school, counting the money -- and we assume that this attendant was one of those. Some attendants dug graves, led the choir, and meted out punishment. The real associate pastor of the day.
That's really about it. We know that synagogues were important centers of Jewish culture in Jesus' day because He and His disciples spent much time there and used synagogues as a first stop for spreading their message. But we can only speculate about the nature and structure of the synagogues themselves.
By the way -- we will talk more about a synagogue "order of service" below.
Our Context in Luke
Here's part of the outline I showed last week. Remember that we took some things out of order to cover "love your enemies" for Sanctity of Human Life Sunday last week.
God affirms Jesus in His baptism (Luke 3:21-38)
Jesus demonstrates that He is worthy of God's affirmation (4:1-44)
Tested in the wilderness (4:1-13)
Rejected at Nazareth (4:14-30)
Drives out an unclean spirit (4:31-37)
Heals many (4:38-44)
Jesus begins to build a new community (5:1-6:16)
Jesus sets the values for this new community (6:17-49)
This week's event is used by Luke to "validate" Jesus' ministry. When we studied Mark, we made note of the "Messianic Secret" -- the idea that Jesus didn't want the circus (and probably violence) that would come with a direct declaration "I am your Messiah" (Luke even alludes to this in a few verses -- 4:41). But Luke makes it clear that Jesus was not secretive about His mission. All of the dots are there for people to connect. God affirms Jesus in chapter 3. Jesus passes the test in the wilderness in chapter 4. Jesus declares that He fulfills the job of the Messiah, and then He immediately goes out and does that job supernaturally. So, it's not that Jesus is being secretive; it's that He wants to control the narrative, so to speak. There is a timeline that He must keep. But passages like this week's make it clear that there is no secret about who Jesus is.
Part 1: True Identity (Luke 4:16-21)
16 He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. As usual, he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day and stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him, and unrolling the scroll, he 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 proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
20 He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. And the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.”
There is so much great stuff to catch in these verses!
First, realize that Jesus spent time ministering in Galilee before this event (see vv. 14-15). The people of Nazareth were aware of miracles that happened in Capernaum (see v. 23). Here's something interesting: Mark doesn't mention this encounter until Mark 6:1-6, and Matthew doesn't until Matthew 13:53-58 -- after many chapters' worth of ministry in Galilee (much of which Luke describes after this encounter). There are two ways of looking at this: (1) Luke put this event out of order because it very clearly establishes some important themes for Jesus' ministry; or (2) Jesus was rejected at Nazareth on two different occasions -- Luke described the first; Matthew and Mark described the second. Either possibility makes sense.
Here are Luke's primary themes established in this encounter:
Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promises.
Jesus, though anointed by God, will be rejected by people.
Jesus' message is not for Jews only for also for Gentiles.
So, whatever the case, it makes complete sense that Luke would mention this encounter here, at the beginning of Jesus' ministry.
I just love the "as usual" comment. Jesus went to church every week! Jesus grew up going to church! That's essentially what Luke is saying. None of us has an excuse for "not feeling like" going to church. Remember what I said above -- the focal event of a synagogue meeting in this day was reading scripture and someone giving an encouraging word about it. Now, consider that Nazareth was a backwater (see below). Educated people did not move there; famous teachers did not travel through there. It would have been the same probably-self-taught men saying the same things every week for all of Jesus' life. And yet He was faithful in His participation. Why? Because He was faithful to His relationship with God, and He knew that God wanted Him to experience His relationship in community.
Catch that. If we are to take the example of Jesus for anything -- and I hope we do -- we must realize that worship must have a communal element. Yes, Jesus worshiped by Himself a great deal. But every Sabbath, He worshipped in community.
One of the awe-inspiring finds at Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) was a nearly-intact scroll of Isaiah. Google "Great Isaiah Scroll" and you can find a website devoted to making quality imaging of it available. It's breathtaking.
Anyway, synagogues had some scrolls of the Hebrew scriptures. The Isaiah Scroll pictured above contained 17 sheets of parchment that were stitched together. It was twenty-four feet long! Like today, there were multiple versions of the scriptures available. The most common to be found in Judean synagogues was the traditional Hebrew text. However, some synagogues apparently used a version paraphrased in Aramaic (the common language of the people of the area). And, some synagogues outside of Judea used a Greek translation (like the Septuagint). Luke's quotation favors the Septuagint, though that doesn't mean Jesus read from it in Nazareth; Luke's audience would have been more familiar with it.
This passage, along with a few verses from the Mishnah, are our best sources for how synagogue services likely worked in Jesus' day.
The men would gather together in the room. (Sorry -- remember that women were not allowed.)
They would pray and recite the Shema (Deut 6:4-9)
Someone (pre-selected) would read from the law.
Someone (pre-selected) would read from the prophets.
Someone would say a word about what was read. (This could be a visiting teacher, or it could be a group discussion.)
[People would stand to read the scriptures, then sit to talk about them.]
Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1-2 (which we did not cover when we recently studied Isaiah). You might remember that I described the final chapters of Isaiah as a juxtaposition of the failure of Israel and the faithfulness of the Messiah. God announces the ways Israel has been unrighteous, then He follows with a description of how the Messiah will be righteous. Isaiah 61 sits smack in the middle of a description of the faithfulness and success of the Messiah -- He will shine God's light to all the nations and announce that deliverance has come to all people. It's a feel-good passage that was not really understood in Jesus' day. In the context of Isaiah 56-66, it establishes that the Messiah will take upon Himself the suffering for sin, and He will also break the power of sin. And that for the whole world.
In other words, Isaiah 61 is clearly about the Messiah. When Jesus says that it is fulfilled, He's not really trying to be super-subtle.
When you hear those verses from Isaiah, what is your first reaction what you think they mean? I think of some kind of political revolution -- good news for the poor, release for the prisoners, freedom for the oppressed. And of course, that's how Jesus' Jewish contemporaries would have understood it, and they would have assumed that they were the poor, the captives, the oppressed. And thus, their first reaction to "this is fulfilled" could have been something like "oh good, that is good news". And of course, Jesus immediately goes on to say (and later to demonstrate) that they understood this passage incorrectly. And that's when the tension rises.
Here's a thought exercise: when someone gives you news that seems too-good-to-be-true, how do you initially react? I'll admit that I'm a cynic. I immediately look for the catch or the angle or the hook. But I know plenty of people who just jump right in. How about you? What Jesus says to these hearers is really, really good news (the best news ever, you could say), but as He goes on to explain the implications, their attitudes change.
Consider: The Famous Person at a Class Reunion
Another thought exercise might be if you went to high school (or the like) with a celebrity. When you were younger, were they nice or were they hot stuff? When you saw them after celebrity-status, were they nice or were they hot stuff?
In our celebrity-obsessed culture (including a lot of wanna-be paparazzi), everyone has a scoop from someone who went to high school with such-and-such. I poked around the internet and honestly found mostly stories of former classmates who said that the celebrity was nice to them in high school. (A grandma who went to high school with James Dean (!!) said he was chill and cocky.) (Elon Musk's classmates were silent because he was bullied and a loner throughout school.)
For the purposes of this thought exercise, we need to distinguish between celebrities who are very outspoken on some social or political topic, and those who are not. Here's where things get interesting -- the more outspoken a celebrity becomes, the more stories I found about former classmates speaking negatively about them. For example, people who went to high school with Taylor Swift say that her innocent girl routine is a put-on because she was the "mean girl" in high school.
What do you think that means?
I find it fascinating. Of course, it seems to depend on the nature of what the celebrity is outspoken about, and how much it is in line with the character of that celebrity when they were younger. (Obviously, this gets amplified when the celebrity is related to politics or religion or social policy.) In other words, if the celebrity was nice and decent, that cuts them a lot of slack with their former classmates. It seems to me like backlash comes from two major scenarios:
when the celebrity makes Statements about Important Matters that are out of line with who they used to be (i.e. perceived hypocrisy), or
when the celebrity makes Statements about Important Matters that are out of line with what everyone believed/was taught in that hometown.
(Yes, sometimes this isn't fair -- people should be allowed to change their minds as they grow up and learn new perspectives.)
Here's where I want to go with this topic: Jesus' hometown turned on Him rather quickly. Some of it can be predicted by my observations above, but some of it cannot. As we read, I want us to be thinking about the uniqueness of Jesus' rejection. Why did it happen? And why can no one else in history ever say that they are like Jesus in this way?
Part 2: False Understanding (Luke 4:22-27)
22 They were all speaking well of him and were amazed by the gracious words that came from his mouth; yet they said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” 23 Then he said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. What we’ve heard that took place in Capernaum, do here in your hometown also.’” 24 He also said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 But I say to you, there were certainly many widows in Israel in Elijah’s days, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months while a great famine came over all the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them except a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 And in the prophet Elisha’s time, there were many in Israel who had leprosy, and yet not one of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
Now is when the train starts to speed up. There's the initial positive reaction. Remember that Jesus grew up there. He quite literally had a spotless reputation as a good, faithful Jew and neighbor. That will carry the benefit of the doubt for a moment. But then they start to think about what Jesus just said.
And this is where we have to distinguish Jesus' experience from that of any other celebrity in his/her hometown. Jesus is not coming home with an unpopular opinion about a topic like climate change or race relations or immigrant rights. Jesus is declaring Himself to be the Messiah from God. That's not unpopular; that's blasphemy. "We know His father; we know where He is from; He has no authority to say these things!" (Note: this is the tension that Jesus explains more fully in John 7. The problem is that what the people thought they knew about Him was factually incorrect.)
Just as in John, Jesus knew the doubts in their hearts. "Physician, heal yourself" is an ancient proverb challenging a person to prove his authority. And as difficult as that could be, it is even harder in someone's hometown. If you didn't talk about hometowns before, you might want to here. What is it about a hometown that makes it harder for a person to "be revolutionary"? (Note: Jesus may also have been saying this about the Jewish people.)
Jesus then riled them up with two powerful examples -- but He highlighted specific aspects of their ministries that were absolutely antagonistic to his audience. Elijah took care of a widow in Sidon. Elisha healed a man from Syria. This is not to say that Elijah and Elisha didn't minister to Jews or perform miracles in Judea -- they did! But Jesus' specific examples are quite cutting.
This particular story of Elijah comes from 1 Kings 17-18, beginning with the announcements of a fierce drought and ending with the contest against the prophets of Baal. God punished Israel for rejecting Him (this is the era of Ahab and Jezebel), which is how Elijah ended up near Sidon.
This particular story of Elisha comes from 2 Kings 5. Elisha has been performing miracles while standing against the still-idolatrous Jewish rulers. And who comes for a miracle from Elisha but a commander of the Syrian army -- the same Syrian army that Elisha will miraculously defeat in the very next chapter! Elisha grants the miracle (healing from leprosy). Additional scandal comes when Elisha's Jewish servant Gehazi tries to profit off of Elisha's miracle.
You can read the relevant passages at Elijah and Elisha - Bible Story Verses and Summary (biblestudytools.com). Additional summary can be found at A Summary of Elisha's Life | From Daniel's Desk. There's way more to take in than you have time to cover in an hour.
Anyway, here's the point. Elijah and Elisha were sent to the Jews during perhaps the lowest point of Israel's history (and that's why they were so beloved by the Jews). By making these statements in this particular way, Jesus did three things:
He established Himself as a prophet on the level of Elijah and Elisha.
He compared the idolatrous behavior of the people in Ahab's day with the people in His own day.
He definitively said that God's mission extended beyond the Jews.
That was clearly intended to get a reaction. Simply based on the evidence of the miracles themselves, the people should have known that a great prophet was among them. But they failed to understand what that meant because they were unwilling to consider that a prophet might be sent against them.
If one of your classmates became a celebrity and came back to a class reunion, what do you think he/she would have to say to get this kind of reaction? I tend to think that I would laugh someone off at a nutcase before reacting as viscerally as Jesus' former neighbors did.
Part 3: Misguided Response (Luke 4:28-30)
28 When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was enraged. 29 They got up, drove him out of town, and brought him to the edge of the hill that their town was built on, intending to hurl him over the cliff. 30 But he passed right through the crowd and went on his way.
Had this been me, I would have been emotionally devastated. The people Jesus grew up with tried to murder Him. Of course, they would have justified their actions as against a false prophet; according to Deut 13:5 a false prophet should be killed (cast into a pit and stoned to death). The description of what happened is confusing and vague, probably because the event itself was confusing.
Nazareth indeed sat on the side of a hill with lots of 50-foot drops around. (The large, famous cliff "Mount Precipice" is probably too far away from the old town center.)
We don't know exactly how Jesus "escaped", but He did.
Here's why Luke included this encounter: the Jew's reaction to Jesus proved His point about them. Just as the people of Elijah and Elisha's day could not recognize a true prophet, neither could the people of Jesus' day. They reacted to a powerful move of God with violence and suppression. They had become the people they hated. And then they experienced the kind of miracle that should have revealed the error of their foolish rejection of Jesus. Again -- how could a man simply "pass through" a mob that was attempting to kill him? Things like that don't happen. I guess I'm calling this a miracle. I would not be surprised if some of the people in that mob later became converts precisely because of it.
Application: Jesus' own lifelong friends rejected Him the moment they realized what He was teaching. Shouldn't we expect the same?
Closing Thoughts: About Nazareth
When Nathanael wondered "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46), that apparently meant something to his audience. But if it weren't for Jesus, we probably would have never heard of Nazareth. It's not mentioned by Josephus, by the Jewish Apocrypha, the Old Testament, or even the Talmud. It's in the middle of Galilee, about 8 miles from Cana and about 20 miles to Capernaum (in other words, Nazareth was within a day's walk of Jesus base of operations).
Nazareth only had a single spring for its source of water, likely limiting it's population. Archeological evidence suggests that the town was only about 10 acres in Jesus' day, and probably 500 people (some estimates say that should be much higher, even 2,000 people).
Galilee had a reputation for being independent-minded, less educated, less cultured, and a bit rebellious. We can relate. The limited archeological evidence from Nazareth suggests tenant farms, basic artisans, and modest houses. Many houses built close together indicate multiple extended families; those complexes would share a kitchen and workspace.
That's the environment Jesus grew up in with His 6(+?) siblings. Poor families. Not much privacy. Simple buildings. Independent streak. Distrust of the Romans and maybe even Jerusalem. Modest education. Again, we can relate.
This seems to be the meaning of Matthew's prophecy: "He shall be called a Nazarene" (Matt 2:23). That's not found anywhere in the Old Testament. What is found are prophecies that the Messiah will be despised and rejected. That seems to be the prevailing attitude of the Jewish religious leaders toward the residents of that part of Israel.