And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all. And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD.”
And He closed the book, 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.” And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:14–22).
Many historical events have been so significant that I wish I could have been there to experience them in time and space. The account in Luke 4 is one of those events. The word that best describes the scenario is “stunning.” As Luke is prone to do, he mentions the particular ministry of the Holy Spirit and how He, after driving Jesus into the wilderness for satanic temptations (Luke 4:1 ff.), now impels Jesus to Galilee for public ministry.
This Spirit-driven day was going to prove exceptional. Jesus arrives for worship and most likely is recognized by the leaders. His fame is preceding Him. They ask Him to be one of the Scripture readers for the day. A servant opens the box containing the scrolls, chooses the appropriate one, unwraps it, and delivers it to Jesus. Jesus stands in traditional reverence for God’s Word. Custom dictated standing while reading God’s Word, except when Esther was read during the feast of Purim. Jesus, in the town of His upbringing, is handed the scroll opened at Isaiah. Writing about the scrolls, physician Luke vividly employs the Greek word translated “unrolled” or “opened,” a medical word used to describe the “opening up” of a patient’s body ready for surgery.7 Jesus was about to open up more than a scroll; He was going to open up the sluice gates of the Messianic ministry! The LXX uses the same word, “spread it out,” when Hezekiah received a letter and read it, then took it and exposed it to the LORD (2 Kings 19:14). Just as a feast is “spread out” on the table, so now Jesus was about to give His listeners a spiritual feast that they would not soon forget.
Whether Jesus chose Isaiah 61:1–2 purposely or whether it was an assigned reading for the day, the effect was apocalyptic. There would be no reason for Jesus to deviate from custom and pick a different selection, so it was likely the next passage to be read in the synagogue. Divine orchestration is seen as Jesus reads a passage in Isaiah about the Messianic hope, which is really about Himself. In Luke 4:18, Jesus says, “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives …” He purposefully changes the tense of the verb “has sent” in LXX to a perfect active indicative, signifying that He Himself is the One God has sent. Jesus effectively says, “This Messiah is in your midst—I am He!” Jesus Himself will grant liberty to captives and He will release prisoners. He will heal and help the oppressed. He is the object of Isaiah’s prophecy. Now is the time for the prophecy to be fulfilled. The Messianic era starts today. Jesus Himself will glorify the Father by preaching the good news to sinners.
With a dramatic close, Jesus quietly rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, and sits down. Why did He sit down? The Jews knew that He sat down to teach them. That is why they were all looking at Him. The Jewish rabbis would sit to teach their disciples (Matthew 5:1ff.), so the people had their eyes riveted upon Jesus for His Messianic message. They were intently observing Him because it was now time for the teaching of the Word. Marvin R. Vincent reports that the prophetic readings in the synagogues were followed by a discourse. They were waiting for Him to begin the expositional message based upon Isaiah 61.
They were literally staring at Him. With spellbound, rapt focus they stared at Him. They were mesmerized. Paul used the word here translated “fixed” in 2 Corinthians 3:7 and 13 to describe the people gazing on Moses after he returned from Sinai with a glowing face. Jesus had dropped the atomic bomb, “Today, your Messiah, predicted by Isaiah, has come, and I am your King.” Do you think He had their attention?
It seems that Luke recorded only the first sentence of Jesus’ “sermon”: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Luke declared that this sentence was what “He began to say to them,” indicating there was more that was said. Albert Barnes supports this interpretation when he records, “It is probable that he said much ‘more’ than is here recorded, but Luke has preserved only the ‘substance’ of his discourse. This was the ‘amount’ or ‘sum’ of his sermon, or his explanation of the passage, that it was now receiving its accomplishment.” It is inconceivable that Jesus’ discourse would have been about the Sabbath, tithing, or fasting. With the Messiah sitting in front of them (or at least someone claiming to be the Messiah), the people surely heard further elucidation of the person and future work of Christ. Vincent likewise writes that Jesus “expounded” Isaiah 61:1–2.
How did they respond? Their twofold response consisted of praise and wonder. How could such words of grace come from a local carpenter’s son? Without question, the reputation and “fame” of Jesus were on the upswing.
Was this an exposition? Was it expository preaching? The answer is “yes.” Jesus exposed the Jews to the proper meaning of the biblical text, and He surely did it so they would believe Him. Robert Mounce explains, “They needed to be taught the implications of the announcement.” The real Messiah would additionally express clarifying comments so the people could fully understand the ramifications of the Scripture reading and the local man Jesus. F.B. Meyer believes this was exposition, saying,
We cannot found an argument upon this single act, but it is at least significant that the Lord gave His sanction to the systematic reading and consideration of the inspired Word in His earliest sermon. Our Lord was also careful to consider the text in relation to the context and the whole tenor and teaching of Scripture. The habit of taking a little snippet of a verse from any part of the Bible and making it the subject of discourse, exposes the preacher to the danger of an unbalanced statement of truth, which is very prejudicial. Nothing is more perilous than the partial knowledge of God’s truth, which is based on sentences torn from their rock-bed and viewed in isolation from their setting.*
*Abendroth, M. (2008). Jesus Christ: The Prince of Preachers: Learning from the Teaching Ministry of Jesus (146–149). Leominster: Day One.