Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

87. In the Synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30; Matt. 13:53-58; Mark 6:1-6)*

All three synoptic gospels record an occasion when Jesus returned to his home town along with his disciples (Mk), and preached in the synagogue there. But there is considerable disagreement as to whether Matthew and Mark are describing the same incident as Luke. There are certain striking similarities-his teaching in the synagogue, the astonishment of the people, their allusions to Jesus as being well-known among them, the Lord’s sardonic reference to a prophet without honour among his own folk, and their ultimate rejection of him. Normally these would be adequate to justify equating the three records. But there is a chronological difficulty. Matthew and Mark set this incident well on in the ministry — in the middle year-whilst Luke has it as the first detailed incident offer the temptation. Even Matthew and Mark are at variance in their placing of this Nazareth incident.

Two considerations lead to the conclusion that Mark’s order of events is to be followed: 1. Even in Luke 4 there is an indication that there had been considerable activity earlier in Capernaum: “Whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country” (v. 23). The phrase “as his custom was” (v. 16) confirms this. 2. There is evidence that both Matthew and Luke sometimes abandon chronological order for the sake of a different emphasis in line with the aim and purpose of their gospel. Matthew assembles his material according to topic. Luke also rearranges incidents, though it is not always easy to see with what intention. Perhaps he set this at the very beginning of his account of the ministry because he intended it to be read as a typical sample of the reaction of the nation to the preaching of Jesus, or maybe to explain why Jesus moved his centre of operations to Capernaum (see also Study 27).

There was not a little interest in the town when it was known that Jesus the carpenter was back home and that he was to take the synagogue service on the ensuing Sabbath. “As his custom was” may describe his attendance at the synagogue, for through a period of eighteen years he had never been out of his place there; or it may refer more specifically to his “standing up to read” (though this happens to be the only place in all the Bible where Jesus is spoken of as reading). More likely, the expression alludes to the normal pattern of his preaching at this time in his ministry-a public message delivered by invitation of the ruler of the synagogue.

A gracious Scripture

“There was delivered unto him the roll of the prophet Isaiah”. The Greek word here implies that this followed the routine reading from the Torah. And he found and read the gracious prophecy in chapter 61, because that was appointed for that particular sabbath according to the standard synagogue lectionary of the time- in which case this was the third Sabbath before the Feast of Tabernacles.

As he concluded the Scripture portion and returned the scroll to the chazzan, the entire congregation became the more expectant when
he made to occupy the preacher’s seat: “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him”. Their ears also were eager to catch every word when he startled them with his exordium: “Today is this scripture fulfilled in your ears”.

It seems very likely that at this point he launched into a detailed exposition of what Isaiah 61 was about. His reading of the passage would be from the Hebrew text, with a translation in Greek or Aramaic improvised verse by verse or when it was concluded. The version given by Luke follows the LXX text verbatim nearly all the way, but has a significant addition: “to set at liberty them that are bruised”, culled from Isaiah 58:6. Here is a plain hint that the discourse of Jesus did not stick solely to the original passage. However, this was his main theme. It is worth careful investigation.


The historical setting of Isaiah 61 is one of outstanding interest. The only national observance of the Year of Jubilee recorded in the Old Testament is that which was appointed by God as a sign to Hezekiah of divine deliverance from the Assyrians: “Ye shall eat this year such things as grow of themselves, and in the second year that which springeth of the same; and in the third year sow ye, and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat the fruits thereof” (2 Kgs. 19:29). More than this, it was to be a sign of the release and return of the 200,000 captives Sennacherib had carried away from the cities of Judah: “And the remnant that is escaped of the house of Judah shall yet again take root downward, and bear fruit upward”.

It was to this that Isaiah alluded, by the Spirit of the Lord which was upon him: “liberty to the captives, the opening of the prison to them that are bound... the acceptable year of the Lord... that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified. And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations... For your shame ye shall have double (blessing)... in their land they shall possess double (harvest)” – according to the promise in Leviticus 25:20,21.

Besides all this, Jubilee was a time when Jewish bond-servants were released from service by their fellow-Jews. And since this time of blessedness came in at the Jewish New Year, it was right and proper that in later generations the synagogue lectionary should appropriate this Scripture for one of the sabbaths just before the Day of Atonement. Hence also the allusion made by Jesus to Isaiah 58, the out-standing prophetic Scripture about the Day of Atonement: “to let the oppressed go free”.

Here, then, was a wonderful symbolic prophecy of God releasing His people from the bondage of sin-forgiving their trespasses, their debts, and at the same time requiring that they each forgive one another the debts owing among themselves.

In the phrase “deliverance (or release) to the captives”, that key-word is what the LXX Version used repeatedly for the Year of Jubilee, in Leviticus 25: 28-33. It is also the usual New Testament word for “forgiveness of sins”.

The loveliness of this message and of the fine prophetic phrases which expressed it were, no doubt, laid before the people that day with a charm and power such as they had never known: “good tidings to the meek ... binding up the broken hearted ... comfort for all that mourn ... beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness”. Lovely words to proclaim a lovely theme! Weddings for funerals, comfort and rejoicing instead of hardship and struggle.

There are those who would have it that Jesus stopped where he did in the reading of the Scripture because, regarding “the day of vengeance of our God”, it was inappropriate to say “this day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears”, inasmuch as this part of the divine purpose belonged to some forty (or two thousand) years later.

On the other hand, an interruption, which splits a continuous prophecy in two parts, and puts a long time gap between the two at a point where there is no sign of a gap, can hardly be regarded as satisfactory. If this can happen with one prophecy it can happen with others, and the time of reference of any given Old Testament Scripture is reduced to guess-work or to the uninspired insight of any self-confident interpreter (and that is only another way of saying the same thing).

The better approach, already suggested, is illustrated by the New Testament use of Psalm 2. In Acts 4:25-27 that prophecy is given specific reference to the first century. In Revelation 19:15 and 2:27 it is applied to the future age of the kingdom of God. The one is a prototype of the other.

So also with Isaiah 61. The presence of Jesus, endowed with the powers of the Kingdom, gave to the men of Nazareth a wonderful oportuniry to experience a fulfilment of that gracious symbolic prophecy, but its true and greater outworking is reserved for the time when Messiah’s kingdom comes in its fulness.

“This day”

As it turned out, Nazareth would have none of him, so “the day of vengeance of our God”, which Luke does not quote, but which was almost certainly read by Jesus along with all the rest, became the most relevant part of the whole prophecy for these rejectors of the Son of God.

“This day”, Jesus insisted, “is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears”. The earlier portion of the Law assigned for that Sabbath was Deuteronomy 29:9 to 30:20. It included this repeated exhortation: “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; in that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God ... But if thine heart turn away, so that thou wilt not hear, I denounce unto you this day that ye shall surely perish ...1 call heaven and earth to witness against thee this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live”. Since nowhere else in the gospels is Jesus said to use this emphatic expression: “this day”, it may surely be taken that his discourse echoed Moses as well as Isaiah the prophet.

The telling exposition of this alluring message of salvation, anciently written in Law and Prophet, went home, so that “all bare witness, and wondered at the words of grace which proceeded out of his mouth” (Ps. 45:2). There is a delightful double meaning about Luke’s phrase here. For whilst “grace” is one of the New Testament’s commonest synonyms for “the forgiveness of sins”, it is also used idiomatically in many a place for the gift of the Holy Spirit. In this sense it is apt commentary on the Scripture Jesus read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor...”

Bad reaction

Mark’s record describes how the people were utterly flabbergasted by the power of what they heard: “Whence hath this man these things?” Their minds flew to reports of amazing miracles done down by the lake-side: “What wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands?”

But the wave of astonishment which swept through the congregation as the message made its impact very soon gave way to a very different sentiment (Lk. 4:22,28,29). After all, was not this Jesus raised there in their village? Many of them had known this son of Joseph for years. Some of those present had gone to school with him. They had seen him in that synagogue hundreds of times. There was hardly a house in the place which did not own a chair or table, a yoke or a plough, made by him. Then by what right did one so ordinary presume to come among them as though with all the authority of an Isaiah or a Moses?

“Is not this Joseph’s son? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Those who used that last expression doubtless had long memories and were insinuating an unworthy innuendo about his birth. And since he was only a carpenter and not college-trained, what right had he to assume to himself the authority of interpreting Scripture as though he were a rabbi?

They had forgotten Zechariah’s prophecy of a “craftsman” called Jesus-Joshua who would build the temple of the Lord (6:11-13). All they could harp on in their small-minded way was that this Jesus was an ordinary villager like themselves. Then why should he set himself up as superior to any of them? “Is he not the brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? and his sisters, are they not all with us?” Most of the family had joined the move to Capernaum, but evidently the three half-sisters of Jesus (1 Sam. 2:5) had married and settled down in Nazareth, and were present in the synagogue at that very moment-or does the Greek expression in Mk. 6:3 imply: “they agree with us”?

Jesus picked up their murmuring: “Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself”. This curt proverb is usually taken as equivalent to our: “Charity begins at home”-an interpretation suggested by the ensuing complaint: “Whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do here in thy country”. But “Heal thyself” more likely has a different point, a more personal barb: “You claim to be Messiah? Then show in yourself some of Messiah’s glory. We see nothing more in you than an ordinary member of an ordinary Nazareth family”. It was the temptation he had faced in the wilderness all over again-the temptation to appeal to the people through sensational superhuman achievements which would capture the crowd.

Or, did their proverb have a different barb?: ‘Jesus, you have a poor reputation here in Nazareth, for we hear of you using your powers to help Gentiles and the unclean! - the son of one of Herod’s noblemen; the servant of a Roman centurion; a woman from Caesarea; a demoniac living in the tombs; blind men, outsiders. Now is the time to mend your reputation with miracles amongst your own folk’. In answer to which Jesus talked of miraculous help brought to an outsider and to a Gentile by the great prophets Elijah and Elisha.

Reasoning calmly and coolly, Jesus laid before them the natural prejudices against him now operating in their minds: “A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country (Nazareth), and among his own kin (his sisters living there), and in his own house (the rest of the family in Capernaum)”.

Jeremiah’s experience with the men of his own home was an acted prophecy of what was to befall Jesus in the place where he grew up: “Even thy brethren and the house of thy father, even they have dealt treacherously with thee; even they have cried aloud after thee” (12:6); “the men of Anathoth seek thy life saying, Prophesy not in the name of the Lord, that thou die not by our hand” (11:21).

The widow of Zarephath

Demeaning himself, Jesus reasoned that the pattern of his own ministry was precisely that of other prophets of the Lord, so he was not surprised to be accorded similar treatment. “Of a truth I say unto you, There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah ... but unto none of them was Elijah sent, save unto Serepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow”. The shape of this sentence seems to imply that the widow was a woman of Israel who, presumably, had married away from the faith of her fathers, or had been unfaithful to her true husband. 1 Kings 17:18 combined with Numbers 5:15 might suggest the latter conclusion. Yet she, of all the sufferers in Israel, was blessed throughout that famine with an inexhaustible supply of food. The explanation lies, of course, in the remarkable faith which led her to prepare the last vestiges of her food supply for Elijah, believing implicitly his assurance that “the barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail”. Faith in the man of God was the redeeming virtue then, and so also in Nazareth now.


To make his point yet more clear, Jesus went on to cite another extreme example: “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, but none of them was cleansed save Naaman the Syrian”. It was faith which had come by hearing, which had brought Naaman, believing, to the home of Elisha. And although at first faith staggered at the commandment: “Go, and wash in Jordan seven
times”, he did as he was bidden, believing in the power of the God of Israel, and at the seventh dipping, not before, “his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child”.

The gist of that argument, that these people of Nazareth who should have been closest and most loyal to him, were right now showing themselves to be vastly worse than Gentiles and outsiders, was immediately clear to all in that synagogue. Roused to fury, they rushed on Jesus and dragged him violently out. Quite near, at the back of the town, was a rock face with a forty foot drop. They hustled Jesus out there with the savage intention of throwing him over the edge. The lynching could then be completed by hurling rocks on him from above. This, perhaps, in perverted obedience to a commandment in their Law (Dt. 13:6-10). Or were they saying: ‘He seems to love Gentiles. Then suppose we treat him as our forefathers treated their Gentile neighbours!’ - for the word translated “cast him down headlong” comes in only one other place, describing one of the most barbarous acts in all Israel’s history (2 Chr. 25:12).


However, this savage intention came to nothing. He escaped out of their grasp, and got away.

Perhaps they chose this unusual form of violent action as a sardonic response to part of the Lord’s own discourse. As already mentioned, the words he had used: “to set at liberty them that are bruised”, were quoted from a prophetic commentary on the Day of Atonement. Presumably, then, this had been the theme of part of the Lord’s exposition to them. On that great day in the Jewish year, one of two goats became the nation’s sin-offering, whilst the other was led off into the wilderness, traditionally to be pushed over a precipice. All this was an acted parable. It laid before Israel, as they remembered their sins at the sanctuary of the Lord, the alternatives of being reconciled to God through the atoning blood of an appointed sin-offering, or of being symbolically thrust out from God’s presence to suffer in a waste howling wilderness.

It may be surmised that in his sermon that day Jesus had similarly put before the congregation in Nazareth the stark alternatives for the nation of enjoying the gracious blessings of a Messianic Jubilee or “the day of vengeance of our God”, the fate of the goat that was sent away to be destroyed.

These very alternatives had been put with almost brutal plainness in their other Bible reading that day: “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil... therefore choose life, that thou and thy seed may live” (Dt. 30:15, 19).

Now, in high indignation that so ordinary a person as Jesus the carpenter should presume to address them with such assumed divine authority, they thought to turn the tables of his discourse on himself, treating him like the wretched goat destroyed on the Day of Atonement.

Such was Nazareth where Jesus lived for thirty years. There is no mention of the place in the Old Testament or in the Apocrypha or in the Talmud or in the histories of Josephus. Deservedly its name does not exist in history, except as the place which raised Jesus and rejected him.

The escape of Jesus from these violent men has provoked a vast amount of speculation. Says one: It was through sheer force of personality that he made them let him go. To another it was an exercise of the divine power that was in him (though does not the principle behind the first temptation rebut such a conclusion?). Another suggests that “the eyes of the people were holden”, whatever that means. “Perhaps old memories softened them”, says another.

No one seems to have thought of the matter-of-fact possibility that the twelve, rallied by a fiercely loyal Peter, were ready to rescue their Leader by a sudden onslaught when the men of Nazareth let go their hold on Jesus rather than face the incalculable violence of a body of determined men. The Bible’s explanation is, of course: “He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up”. But there is nothing unreasonable in seeing the angels at work through the agency of the apostles, as just suggested.


So Nazareth saw Jesus for the last time, until it is ready to say: “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord”. Matthew concludes his account in a way that could be expected^ “And he could do there no mighty work, save that he laid his hands on a few sick folk, and healed them”. No wonder he could do so little good there if this was the attitude of the people. Probably these few who were healed were neighbours of one of his sisters whilst Jesus was staying at the house.

The last sorry commentary on Nazareth is that as he went away Jesus “marvelled because of their unbelief”. These people whom he knew through and through left him altogether amazed at their obdurate spirit. The only other time that the gospels tell of Jesus marvelling is when he was moved to audible astonishment by the far-reaching faith of the Roman centurion: “I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof: wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word and my servant shall be healed... And Jesus marvelled at him” (Luke 7:6-9). What a contrast!

And what a rebuff to Jesus at the very height of his popularity! He had come unto his own, and his own received him.not (Jn. 1:11). The cold hard shock of this expereince was to be of value to him in the near future when the tide turned with dramatic suddenness.

Notes: Lk.4:l 4-30

The power of the Spirit looks back to v. 1, and also forward to v. 15, 18.
He taught in their synagogues. The pronoun is specially emphatic, perhaps to point a contrast with John the Baptist.

Glorified of all, as in v. 20, 22. But then comes the stark contrast: v. 28, 29.
Some items in Lk., like this section, are chronologically out of place: 1:66, 80; 3:20; 11:24 ff; 11:42 ff(?); 13:34, 35; 19:41, 37; 21:37, 38(?); 22:21-23, 24-27 (Study 1).

Brought up. Literally: fed. At Is. 61:1, one of the targums reads: “The Spirit of prophecy hath brought me up”.

His custom; s.w. Num. 24:1.
To read. Note the implications behind Ps. 40:7; Dt. 17:19. And only once is Jesus expressly said to have written: Jn. 8:6.
The reading from the Law this day, according to the synagogue lectionary, was Dt. 29:9 - 30:20. where note (at 30:19): “that thou and thy seed may live”; cp. v. 26: the widow and her son saved from famine and death.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me: 3:22; v. 14, 22. The quote, as given here, is LXX slightly modified.

Heal the broken-hearted. Omitted from modern texts, but certainly there in the Hebrew and LXX. It must have been there (as in Dead Sea scrolls) in the synagogue copy.

Recovering of sight to the blind. This authenticates the equally valid LXX reading. The Hebrew phrase in 61:1 is ambiguous.
The acceptable year of the Lord (s.w. in v. 24). From this phrase men like Origen and Clement of Alexandria deduced that the Lord’s ministry lasted only one year. Slipshod Bible study!

B.C. 701 (circa) was a Jubilee. Therefore, working with a 49-year cycle, A.D.27-28 was not. The next Jubilee still to come will be A. D. 1995approx.
Gave it again to the minister. ls. 29:11(?)
Began to say. Then is this report in Lk. 4 only the beginning of what Jesus had to say to them?

Today. Used emphatically by Jesus only in 23:43.
Gracious words. Literally: words of grace. Is the meaning here (a) forgiveness? as in Rom. 3:24; 5:17 ,20, 21; 6:1; Eph. 1:6, 7; 2:5, 7, 8; Tit. 2:11; Heb. 2:9; (b) a gift of the Holy Spirit? (v. 18) as in Rom. 12:3, 6; 1 Cor. 1:4, 7; Gal. 2:9; Eph. 4:7; 1 Pet. 4:10; Heb. 10:29. Here cp. Ps. 45:2; Mk. 6:2.

Joseph’s son. Contrary to what is commonly assumed, Joseph was still alive; Jn. 6:42. In Mk. the question: “Whence?” might mean: This wisdom is surely not from Joseph or from Mary. Of course Jesus learned craftmanship from his “father”, the carpenter, but also from his Father: Am. 9:6; Ps. 104:3; Job 38:5-7; Pr. 9:1.
Physician, heal thyself! Later they said just this: Lk. 23:35. And he did what they said: Heb. 13:20.
No prophet is accepted in his own country. Answering a proverb with a proverb. Cp. 1 Sam. 10:12. See also Mk. 3:21; Jn. 7:3-5.
In the days of Elias. He too was “Joseph’s son” (of the tribe of Manasseh).

Three years and six months. This is not precisely intimated in 1 Kgs. (18:1 is hardly exact enough). Then did Jesus infer this from the “time, times, and a half” of Daniel, arguing back from the literal to the type?
The two examples are fairly closely paralleled by Mk. 7:24 ff and Jn. 4:46 ff
All. Note the force of this repeated “all”; v. 20, 22.
Went his way. “Nazareth” is usually taken to mean Branch-town. But it may also mean Preservation (s.w. ls. 49:8). There is still the problem presented by Jn. 8:59; 10:39.

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