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“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up” (Luke 4:16). After His baptism, after His long, intense fast in the desert, after His confrontation with Satan, Jesus went into Galilee, His home province. He began preaching in the synagogues and healing the sick. His fame spread through the territory like wildfire. There was a new prophet in Israel. This prophet preached with color, power, and authority. But unlike the great preachers of former times, this prophet made blind people see and deaf people hear — by fiat.

The citizens in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth heard about His preaching and miracles. Now this new prophet and miracle-worker was returning on the Sabbath to the synagogue of His youth. The room was probably filled with people of the town anxious to hear this son of Joseph and Mary whose fame grew daily. Typically, the service would open with the singing of Psalms 145–150. Then the congregation would recite the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone.” Next would come the recitation of the Eighteen Benedictions. A portion of the Torah (Gen.–Deut.) would be read, followed by a reading from the Prophets, called the Haftarah. After the Haftarah, a sermon would be given. The president of the synagogue had probably asked Jesus to read the Haftarah and then preach. He was given the scroll of the book of Isaiah. What passage did He choose to read?

Notice that the choice was His: “And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written . . .” (Luke 4:17). He read Isaiah 61:1–2: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The rabbis understood that these words described the Messiah who would come to Israel. This was high drama. What would this new prophet say? This had to be quite an “event” for the young man preaching to neighbors he had known from childhood. Luke records, “And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (Luke 4:20). Jesus then made a stunning announcement: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”
(v. 21). He was saying: “I am that Messiah. The long-awaited Savior of Israel has arrived. The celebrated eschatological age has dawned.”

Such bold declarations were a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry. He claimed that faith in Him was necessary for salvation (John 3:16). He claimed that He was the only way to the Father (14:6). He claimed identity with God and thus declared the powerful forgiveness of sins (Luke 5:20). After His resurrection, He claimed that He had complete authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). But on this occasion, His words shocked the congregation in the synagogue. “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they asked.

These were people who had known Jesus for thirty years — the rabbi, the merchants down the street, the neighbors, boyhood friends with whom He had played. Nazareth was a small town, and most of its residents knew this young preacher. Why or how could He make such an absurd claim? You can imagine the naysayer: “If He is Messiah, I am Isaiah!” They had seen Him pull His baby teeth, fall and cut His leg, go to school and learn like the other children. He was just Jesus, Joseph and Mary’s oldest boy.

Many of us are like the people of Nazareth. We grew up with Jesus. We have attended Sunday school and church with Him all of our lives. Our familiarity with Him has dulled our minds and hearts to the awesome reality of His identity. We have become so accustomed to Jesus that we have forgotten the boldness of His words — the gigantic nature of His being.

The doubts of the congregants in Nazareth could not change the fact that He had made such a claim. I once heard a lady state that she had been Joan of Arc in a previous life. Certainly, I rejected the truth of her declaration. Maybe her avowal was a ruse for the purpose of monetary gain. Maybe she was delusional. However, as I heard her reasoned argument, I could not deny that she made the assertion. All of us have been with that congregation in Nazareth and heard Jesus speak plainly of His identity. We have heard Him ask us what He asked the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do you say that I am?” In other words: “Do you believe Me? Do you believe I am the Son of God incarnate? Do you believe I am the storied Son of Man, the Messiah of Israel?”

Jesus does not ask, “Who do you want Me to be?” Rather, Jesus reveals Himself. He does not call us to create and shape His being, character, or mission. We either fall to our knees before Him as Creator and Redeemer, or we walk away, rejecting His claims. We have tried to craft a middle ground. We have tried to re-image Jesus as we want Him to be. This day, go to the synagogue in Nazareth and listen once more. You must curse Him as a profit monger, you must pity Him as a deluded madman, or you must kneel and submit. 

Unworthy at the Table

Circumcised in the Flesh

Keep Reading Worship Matters

From the July 2010 Issue
Jul 2010 Issue