Date: September 8, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Series: The Gospel according to Luke
Scripture: Luke 4:16–4:30
Several years ago, I attended a rather unforgettable chapel service along with a few hundred other people. We had gathered for the service in the typical way, the speaker seemed like your typical kind of guy, and he even began with a typical kind of question – “What do you think Jesus would do in a crowd this size, if he were here this morning?” That’s an interesting question, but pretty standard stuff for a chapel service. “What would Jesus do if he were here?”
But then the speaker made a very untypical statement. He answered his own question by saying – “If Jesus were here today, he would preach the gospel in such a way that 90% of you would leave either angry at him or offended over what he said about you.” So much for a typical chapel service, right? The room went silent, as you might expect, but then the speaker went on to deliver a very insightful message. He began to explain how the gospel according to Jesus is not what many people, especially many religious people, assume it to be. Contrary to what many people assume, the gospel actually begins by saying that no one is righteous, not even a single person – neither the flagrant sinner nor the respectable church-goer – all are equally guilty before the Holy God. That’s why some folks, especially religious folks, would either leave or find Jesus offensive. It’s because the gospel, according to Jesus, is a jarring message. It’s a jarring message that challenges much of what we assume about ourselves and even about God.
And this is exactly what we find in our passage this morning. Here in Luke 4, we find Jesus doing precisely what that chapel speaker suggested. Jesus preaches the gospel in such a way that people literally revolt. I’m sure you noticed it as we read. This is the first full description of Jesus’ preaching, and it happens in his hometown synagogue, among people who have gathered to worship to God, no less. And yet, what do these apparently pious people do in response to Jesus’ good news? They try to kill him. That chapel speaker was on to something, wasn’t he? The gospel, according to Jesus, is jarring. It is unsettling even. But for those with ears to hear, it is also the best news in the world.
Here is what we must do today, brothers and sisters. We need to listen to Jesus’ preach the good news, but we need to do so with the recognition that some of what he says will convict us. Some of what he says will challenge us to see ourselves in a different light. But, that’s part of the blessing of God’s Word. That’s part of how the gospel works. It doesn’t leave us where we are, but instead challenges us and ultimately re-shapes us according to the truth.
Specifically, this passage gives us four insights into the good news, with each one coming from Jesus’ own ministry. The first and the last have to do with Jesus, while the second and third say something about us in relation to Jesus. That’s where we’re going – four insights into the good news from the Messiah himself. Let’s begin, then, in vv16-21, where we see very simply that the Good News Centers on the Person of Jesus.
The Good News Centers on the Person of Jesus
The passage opens with Luke setting the scene in vv16-17. Jesus has returned home to Nazareth, and as was his custom, he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. But on this Sabbath day, Jesus is not present simply to worship. He’s also present to participate. You’ll notice in v16 that Jesus stands up to read, and then v17, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah is given to him. Now, this appears to be the regular practice in the synagogues of Jesus’ day. One of the men would stand, there would be a reading from the OT Scriptures, and then that man would provide a short teaching, a mini-sermon so to speak, on what had been read. As Jesus stands up here in v16, his intention is clear. He stands to teach the people from God’s Word.
But that is not all Jesus intends at this point. Not only does he take the initiative to stand up, but Jesus also takes the initiative to pick out a very specific passage. Look there in v18, where Jesus picks out Isaiah 61. You have to understand that this is striking selection on Jesus’ part. We may not be familiar with Isaiah 61, but for the people in Jesus’ day, this was a passage full of expectation and hope. Let me give you just a little background.
The focus of Isaiah 61 is an Individual whom Isaiah calls the Servant of the Lord. If you read chapters 40-55 in Isaiah you’ll see what a pivotal role this Servant plays. The Servant of the Lord is the one who will deal with the people’s sin, even being pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, Isaiah 53. The Servant is also the One whose ministry will signal that God’s kingdom is coming, a kingdom that can rightly be called a new heaven and a new earth, Isaiah 42. The Servant is a significant Figure in God’s plan for his people.
But in Isaiah 61, what stands out about the Servant is how he is anointed by the Spirit for the work of delivering God’s people. That’s the good news of Isaiah 61 – God is raising up his Servant, and this Servant will deliver God’s people from bondage. Like the exodus but on a greater scale, the Servant comes with divine power to set God’s people free. Do you hear some of that expectation and hope? Jesus has picked a passage that is brimming with the hope of redemption, deliverance, and even restoration for the people of God.
But then, notice what Jesus does next. If his selection of Isaiah 61 was striking, Jesus’ sermon on that passage is absolutely astounding. Notice vv20-21 – “And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” It’s hard to describe how staggering Jesus’ statement is. Without any hesitation, Jesus says, “This Scripture, from God’s Word, about God’s promise – this Scripture is fulfilled in me.” “The deliverance, the redemption, the restoration – all of that,” Jesus says, “I’m the One who will give it to you. I’m the One you’ve been waiting for.”
But there’s more. Notice also that Jesus says this promise is fulfilled today. Did you catch that in v22? What God promised so long ago has finally come to pass today, right now, in your hearing, in this very synagogue. “I’m the One,” Jesus says, “and I’ve come to fulfill the promise today.”
Understand this has been part of Luke’s point in laying out these chapters as he has. Think about how things have been building to this point. What happened at Jesus’ baptism, chapter 3? He was proclaimed as God’s Son and anointed with God’s Spirit. And now here in chapter 4, what is that Spirit-Anointed Son doing? Proclaiming the good news that Isaiah 61 promised so long ago, a good news that is now fulfilled in Jesus’ own ministry. Do you see the profound glory, brothers and sisters? God’s plan is moving toward its fulfillment, and there standing at the center is the Lord Jesus Christ. Scripture is fulfilled in him. Redemption is found in him. Deliverance is found in him. If you want to know God, then you must do so through Jesus Christ. The good news, Luke tells us, is centered on Jesus, and nowhere else.
Now, even as I say that, there’s a question that pretty quickly arises. Jesus came preaching good news, but as you know, news is meant to be heard. News is meant to be received. The question is this – To whom does this good news come? Who receives it? And our natural assumption might be that this good news comes to those who are worthy, to those who are sharp enough to recognize it and receive it. In fact, I would say that is what the average person on the street thinks about Christianity – that the good news is for good people, for worthy people who are sharp enough to get it.
But that natural assumption is actually dead wrong, according to Jesus. That’s the second insight we see in this passage – the Good News comes to those in need.
The Good News Comes to Those in Need
Look back to vv18-19, where Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, and notice the kinds of people who receive the good news. It’s quite the list – the poor, v18, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. Now, what is Jesus getting at here? Is he offering social commentary? Is his concern to address the ills of this fallen world? At one level, yes. When you read the book of Isaiah, God commands his people to love and do justice. That’s why Christians should absolutely care about issues of morality and righteousness in the public square. But along with that, Scripture also tells us that God will one day put these things right in his new creation. One day, there will be no more poverty, captivity, disability, and oppression. Those societal ills will be undone, Scripture says, and righteousness and wholeness will define God’s new creation for all eternity. At one level, when Jesus quotes Isaiah, he is saying something about the need for this broken world to be put right.
But, at another level, Jesus is making a much deeper point here. The brokenness of society is not Jesus’ main point. Rather, it’s the brokenness of the human heart that gets Jesus’ attention. Think about it. The poor, the disabled, the captive, the oppressed – what do each of those groups have in common? They are people who are well aware of their need, and that is Jesus’ deeper point. These are concrete examples of humanity’s deep spiritual need.
Take the captive, for example. A captive, a prisoner knows, quite clearly, his need for deliverance. He may be imprisoned justly or unjustly, but whatever the case, he is keenly aware of his need to be delivered. What’s more, the captive knows that deliverance will have to come from the outside. He cannot free himself.
And that gets to the heart of Jesus’ message here about the good news. To understand the good news of Christ, you must first understand your own need. You must first recognize that in spiritual terms, you are poor, blind, captive, and oppressed. You have no riches to buy your way into God’s presence. You cannot see the truth to know the way you ought to go. And worst of all, you don’t even have the freedom to pursue that way if you could see it! Apart from Christ, we are enslaved to sin, we are in bondage to this world, and we have to come to grips with that truth if we would ever truly understand the gospel.
Listen, Jesus himself will make this very clear in the next chapter, Luke 5. For whom did Jesus come? He tells us – “Those are who well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Do you hear the emphasis? To embrace the good news of Christ, you must first embrace the truth that you cannot heal yourself, you cannot free yourself. You need Jesus to do for you what you cannot do on your own.
It’s not the “worthy” person who is close to the good news. It’s not those who are sharp or smart or well-put-together that are near to understanding the gospel. No, it’s the opposite. It’s the person who is well aware of how far he is from God that is close to true understanding. It’s the person who is well aware of her brokenness, who is well aware of her need – that’s the person whose eyes are being opened to see and embrace the good news. The gospel comes to those in need.
Now, we’re here in church on a Sunday morning, so I want to pause for a moment and try to help us understand why this particular truth matters for us as a church. There is some personal application we could make, but I want to focus, just for a moment, on why this truth is massively significant for us as a church. Let me tell you a story that illustrates why it’s so important we get this truth right. Several years ago, I heard about an old friend who had decided to go back to church. She had kind of a rough home life growing up, and she had gone pretty headlong after the world for the better part of a decade. But in the Lord’s mercy, she came to the point of recognizing that she needed some change, and so, she decided to try church.
And naturally, she picked one of the larger churches near her house. But as Sunday got closer, she began to have second thoughts. Will there be other people like me at this church? Will I wear the right thing or say the right thing? If I see someone who knew me from back in the day, will they out me as having a past? And do you know what happened? She went once, and I don’t believe she’s ever been back.
Now, did that church run her off? No. Did they intentionally hurt her or reject her? No. But do know what else they didn’t do? They didn’t preach the good news according to Jesus. They didn’t make it clear, from the sermon to the songs to the conversation among the members – they didn’t make it clear that the gospel is for sinners like you and me. Sure, there were upbeat songs and a positive message. But there wasn’t a church-wide level of joy that broken people like us have been redeemed by Christ. There wasn’t a congregation-wide sense of gratitude that we too were once lost, poor, blind, and held captive in sin. There wasn’t a clear celebration that the good news is for those in need.
Brothers and sisters, that’s why this truth matters. That’s why it is absolutely essential that we preach and celebrate the gospel according to Jesus – because we want to be a church were people come in and hear the best news in all the world – the good news that the gospel is for those in need. And that’s who we are, brothers and sisters – needy people who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ.
The Good News Confronts our Self-Righteousness
How do we do this? How do we, as a church, make this truth clear – that the gospel is for those in need? Again, we look to the text, and Jesus here in Luke 4 has something to say to that, though it may not be easy for us to hear. Our third insight can help us, from vv22-28 – the Good News confronts our self-righteousness. After Jesus sits down, the crowd in the synagogue is astounded. Look again, v22 – “And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’” Initially, the crowd is astounded. They marvel at Jesus’ skill in teaching. They are impressed, at least initially, with how good his words sound to their ears.
But, that initial impression doesn’t last, and it’s also not very deep. Notice their question at the end of v22 – Is not this Joseph’s son? Remember, this is Jesus’ hometown, so these people watched him grow up. They remember him playing with his friends outside the synagogue. They recall watching him work in Joseph’s carpentry shop. They know this Man, in other words, so how could they possibly be expected to believe what Jesus says? Fulfilling Scripture? The Messiah? You can almost hear their objection. “C’mon Jesus – we know your parents. We know your siblings. You can’t expect us to believe you.”
But Jesus surprisingly doesn’t back down. Instead of ignoring the comment, Jesus actually confronts their unbelief. Notice v23 – “And he said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, Physician, heal yourself. What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” Jesus anticipates the crowd’s objection. They want him to do some sort of sign to prove his claims. They’ve heard about what Jesus did in Capernaum, and these hometown folks don’t want to be left out. If you’re the One to fulfill Scripture, then prove it, Jesus. Do some miracle, and we’ll believe you.
But Jesus is not going to play that game. Notice his response in v24 – “And he said, ‘Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.’” It is striking that Jesus does not meet their demands. He doesn’t perform a sign. But what’s more, Jesus also turns the tables on the crowd. They are acting like Israel did in the OT. What did Israel often do to God’s prophets in the OT? They rejected them, didn’t they? Jeremiah was put in prison, Isaiah was accused of being a traitor. OT prophets were often rejected, and that’s what Jesus says is happening here. Just like OT Israel, this hometown crowd is showing their true colors by rejecting God’s Word.
And then to make this point even clearer, notice what Jesus does next. Vv25-27, he uses two illustrations from the OT, one concerning the prophet Elijah and the other about the prophet Elisha. And both illustrations have the same point. It was not Israel who received the blessing of the prophet’s ministry – it was foreigners, Gentiles even. Elijah was sent to a Phoenician widow, and Elisha healed a Syrian leper. Two prophets, both sent outside of Israel.
Now, you’ve got to understand that the ministries of Elijah and Elisha were not exactly high points in Israel’s history. In many ways, Israel in those days was very far from God. They were ignoring his Word, they were walking in rebellion. But at the same time, Israel in those days also mistakenly believed they weren’t in danger, that judgment wouldn’t come to them. Read the OT, and you’ll hear the people saying, “We have the temple, we have the Scriptures, we worship on the Sabbath. We’re not like also those pagan Gentiles. We’re not as bad as Phoenicians and Syrians and Philistines. We’re religiously orthodox. God won’t judge us,” OT Israel said.
And that is what Jesus is getting at here. The crowd in Nazareth is in a very dangerous position. By rejecting Jesus, they’re following in Israel’s footsteps. They don’t see their need, and they can’t fathom why they, of all people, would need the good news. The crowd in this synagogue is convinced that they’re already good enough. They believe their righteousness, their religious performance is enough to put them right with God. And that self-righteousness keeps them from hearing the good news. Do you see the danger? The good news is going to spread to the Gentiles, while the people who have been waiting for centuries will miss out because they refuse to see their own desperate need.
And if you think I’m being too harsh toward the crow, notice again what they do in v28 – “When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath.” The crowd is furious. They’re seething with anger. Why? Because Jesus dared to tell them the truth, because Jesus confronted their hardness of heart and warned them of where they were headed. Sure, they are worshipping in a synagogue, even listening to God’s Word. But even synagogue worshippers need the good news and that is what the crowd cannot see.
Brothers and sisters, what I’m trying to get us to see is that sometimes, the greatest hindrance to embracing the gospel is not all the things we’ve done wrong. It’s all the things we believe we’re doing right. Or, to say it another way, self-righteousness is one of the great stumbling blocks both to gospel faith and to gospel growth. We can so easily convince ourselves that our religious performance makes us pretty good already. And over time, that mistaken perception ends up distorting our view of the gospel. It distorts how we view other people, as though all those broken people are the one who really need Jesus. But just as dangerously, it distorts how we view ourselves, as though we’re not also broken and in need of Christ’s good news. I once heard a wise Christian say that gospel maturity means I recognize my need to repent of my repentance. Even my religious actions are not good enough to bring me to God. Even on my “best days,” I still need the good news far more than I think I do.
I think a faithful response to this passage means we need to ask ourselves some hard, honest questions. Where do our lives display a self-righteous attitude that distorts and misunderstands the gospel? Am I keeping up appearances, as though God were merely interested in my performance? Am I acting as though there is a category of sinful people that is somehow below me? Am I actually trusting more in my religious actions than I am in Christ? Those are hard questions, brothers and sisters, but they are questions that confront us from this passage. The gospel comes to those in need, and in order to get that truth right, we must also allow the gospel to confront our self-righteousness.
The Good News Will Culminate at the Cross
We noted at the outset that this passage is really a snapshot of Jesus’ entire ministry, and there’s one final insight that reminds us of where things are headed for Jesus. It’s from vv29-30 – the Good News will culminate at the cross. The crowd is angry, v28, but that anger turns murderous in v29. Notice again – “And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.” We should note that it is not despised tax collectors or hated Roman soldiers that are trying to kill Jesus at this point. It is worshippers from Jesus’ hometown synagogue. On minute, they’re listening to Isaiah, and the next, they’re trying to throw Jesus off a cliff. And as far as Luke’s Gospel goes, this is the last time Jesus will be in Nazareth. At a minimum, this should remind us that the gospel of Christ does, at times, invite hostility.
But more importantly, this brief snapshot of the crowd’s rage should also remind us of where Jesus’ ministry is headed. He is headed for the cross. Jesus’ preaching of the good news will cost him his life. Now, it doesn’t happen yet, as v30 tells us. Jesus slips away at this point, since there is more for him to accomplish. But even so, this initial picture reminds us of where things are headed. Jesus came preaching the good news, and that good news will take him all the way to the cross.
But in that sense this is actually a very fitting reminder of why the gospel is good news in the first place. To be clear, it is not good that the crowd hates Jesus and wants to kill him. That is evil, and it reveals the depth of wickedness that resides in the human heart. The crowd’s response is not good.
But it is good news, brothers and sisters, that Jesus, the Son of God, would subject himself to such treatment at the hand of sinners. It is good news to know that while Jesus escaped here in chapter 4, the cross is coming in chapter 23, and Jesus will not walk away at that point. When the time comes for the cross, Jesus doesn’t slip away. No, he picks up the cross, he carries it to Calvary’s hill, and then he willingly sheds his blood to pay for the sins of his people. That’s the reason the gospel is good news. Sinners like us have no hope of saving ourselves, but God, in his grace, has provided a Savior who has come to redeem both the broken and the self-righteous.
If you don’t know the Lord Jesus today by faith, then I pray that the Holy Spirit would open your eyes right now to see and believe the good news about Christ. You cannot save yourself, but there is Savior who laid down his life for sinners like us. Look to him, and be saved.
If you are a Christian this morning – if you are trusting in Christ alone for salvation, then I pray this snapshot of Jesus’ ministry has reminded you, and I hope even encouraged you, as to why the gospel is good news. The good news centers on Jesus, it comes to those in need, it confronts our self-righteousness, and it will culminate at the cross, where – praise God – our salvation was accomplished, once and for all. Amen.