A Prophet Without Honor
Have you ever thought that if only Jesus were alive today, and you had the opportunity to hear him preach and to see his awesome miracles, your faith would be much stronger? I suppose it’s natural to think like that, but it’s probably not true. Faith, you see, is not generated by sight. Rather it consists of the simple recognition that God keeps his Word and is totally reliable. There is very clear evidence in Scripture that most great people of faith were great people of faith not because they were bombarded by miracles or because they were given infallible proofs, but because they simply believed God.
It is tragic but true that the people who knew Jesus best, or perhaps I should say thought they knew him best, were those least inclined to accept him as Messiah. In fact, I believe the life of Christ may be best summed up in the well-known words of John 1:11: “He came unto his own, but his own received him not …” That was certainly his experience in Nazareth, as we will see as we read together Luke 4:14-30:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“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 freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.'”
“I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian.”
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
We have a well-known proverb to the effect that “familiarity breeds contempt.” I would like to use that proverb to open our study today.
Familiarity breeds contempt.
What does it mean when we say, “Familiarity breeds contempt?” Well, it refers to our natural tendency to view those we know best with a jaundiced eye. The better we know someone the more likely we are to see their warts. This is true in the home, in the church, and at work. It’s why often the most highly respected people tend to be authors, media personalities, seminar leaders, or actors. Their exposure tends to be in sound bites, and they control what we know about them. They look good from a distance, which is the only way we see them. But when it comes to our spouse or our boss or our pastor – well, we know too much.
But familiarity can also breed contempt toward people who are outstanding in character. The problem isn’t so much that we see their warts as that we begin to take them for granted. This happened to Jesus when he returned to his hometown of Nazareth.
Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth.
It would seem from Luke’s account that this visit to Nazareth occurred immediately after Jesus’ baptism and temptation. However, a careful study of the gospels reveals that perhaps as much as a year passed between verses 13 and 14 of Luke 4. Each of the gospel writers is selective, and Luke focuses his attention on Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles. So he passes over Jesus’ first year of ministry, which concentrated on the Jews in Judea and the Samaritans in Samaria. That year is covered primarily in the first four chapters of John’s gospel. Let’s take a brief moment to summarize those chapters.
Following his baptism and temptation Jesus called his first five disciples and traveled to Cana, where at the wedding of a family friend he did his first miracle by the power of the Spirit, turning water into wine. After a brief visit to Capernaum Jesus and His family (Joseph apparently already having died) and His disciples went south to Jerusalem to attend the first Passover of His 3-year public ministry. When He entered the temple, He cleansed it of the merchants who had turned His Father’s house into a den of thieves. (By the way, don’t be confused; He did this once again at the end of His ministry, during Passion Week). Shortly afterward, He was visited by a Pharisee named Nicodemus and gave His great discourse on the fact that one must be born again.
Then Jesus headed north toward Galilee. On the way He passed through Samaria and stopped to have a conversation with a sinful woman at Jacob’s well, as recorded in John 4. Following that powerful encounter, we read in John 4:43-45:
After the two days in Samaria he left for Galilee. (Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.) When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, for they also had been there.
It is at this point we pick up the story in Luke 4:14:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.
I get somewhat wearied by people who drop out of church because “they aren’t getting anything out of it,” or “the pastor isn’t feeding them,” or “the music isn’t their style.” How much do you think Jesus got out of attending the synagogue? Believe me, a podunk town like Nazareth would not merit a highly educated, eloquent Rabbi; and there was probably no music ministry, or children’s ministry, or youth ministry. But Jesus knew that the mere hearing of God’s Word and the fellowship of God’s people (though they were few in number) was intrinsically valuable. So He developed a habit of attending the synagogue. Not only did He attend, but on this particular day He was invited to preach.
He preaches in his hometown.
This is the earliest description we have of a synagogue service. Later records indicate the service began with prayer, followed by readings from the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Since there were no full-time rabbis in small towns, local synagogue authorities would invite members to read and preach. I suppose Jesus was invited on this occasion because He had just returned to town and the people were curious about the rumors they had heard of their small-town-boy making it big.
In 1966 when I was in my first year of seminary my wife and I visited Wichita for Christmas. As soon as the pastor of the little church in Andover which she attended when in high school heard we were in town, he asked if I would preach that Sunday. My in-laws were proud, but believe me, three months of seminary does not a preacher make. I look back at that—my first live sermon—with more embarrassment than pride.
Jesus did better. On this particular day, he was handed the scroll of Isaiah. We don’t know whether he asked for Isaiah or maybe it was just on the schedule for that day, but we do know he chose his own text—chapter 61:1-2—and read it aloud. Then, we are told, “he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.” Now some of you are probably thinking, “I wish our preacher could preach like that – read two verses and then sit down.” The fact is it was customary to do the reading of the Scriptures while standing, but the preaching was done sitting down. I can only assume that the full sermon is not recorded for us. What is recorded for us is Jesus’ application: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Isaiah 61 was a favorite passage in the synagogue. People always love to hear prophecy and to contemplate the coming Messianic age. This passage predicts that Messiah would come with the good news of hope and deliverance to people in distress – the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. The “year of the Lord’s favor,” mentioned in verse 19, refers to the beginning of the Messianic age, the period when God would grant salvation to all who turned to him in faith. People would no longer need to live in constant fear of Satan and his demons, the world, the flesh, sin, and death.
Now the Jews believed God’s kingdom would come someday. But Jesus says, not someday, but today. “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The initial reaction is favorable. Verse 22 says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” But then they begin to think, “How could this one we know so well make such audacious claims as to be fulfilling a 700-year-old prophecy? After all, is this not Joseph’s son?” As a matter of fact, no. He is not Joseph’s son – He is Mary’s son. But they know Him as Joseph’s son since He grew up in Joseph’s house, and they could not believe that someone reared in a carpenter’s home could be the long-awaited Messiah. Just a year ago this guy was building decks and hanging drywall here in Nazareth. The more they think about Jesus’ claims, the more they experience doubt.
The thing that really gets to them, however, is that He won’t do any miracles for them. After all, they knew the Old Testament well enough to know that when Messiah was to come, he would perform signs and wonders. All the evidence they have about Jesus is some rumors of miracles he supposedly did in Cana and in Judea. Nothing like that was happening in His hometown with His own kinfolk.
Whether these thoughts were verbalized, Jesus knows what they were thinking. And so He responds in verse 23: “Surely you will quote the proverb to me: ‘Physician heal yourself!’” What the proverb means is that an allergist who is always wheezing and coughing is not going to have much credibility, or a dentist with rotting teeth, or a dermatologist with psoriasis. He puts further words in their mouths, “Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.” Jesus should show His stuff in His own backyard before branching out to neighboring towns. Notice, however, their skepticism showing through: it’s not what you did in Capernaum, but what we heard you did. They have their doubts.
Jesus is rejected in his hometown.
One wonders as we read Luke’s account, “Why doesn’t Jesus just do a miracle or two here in Nazareth?” What could it hurt? Well, Jesus never did miracles to satisfy people’s curiosity. In the parallel account in the gospel of Mark 6:5-6, we read these fascinating words, “He could not do any miracles there (in Nazareth), except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.” I’m not sure what it means when it says, “He could not do any miracles,” but I think it may mean that God would not let him do any miracles there because of the unbelief of the people. It is possible that our unbelief can actually handcuff the power of God, or at least prevent us from experiencing it.
As we noted earlier, people are always more ready to see greatness in strangers than in those they know well. From time to time I do a Bible conference in some far away location. It’s good for the ego. I usually preach something I’ve already preached here, so it’s well-practiced, and people are impressed. More importantly, they don’t know me. They don’t know my shortcomings, my failures, my weaknesses, my insensitivities. Anyone can put on an act for a weekend.
But how does this apply to Jesus? He had no shortcomings or failures. True, but the people of Nazareth may not have paid that much attention to Him as He was growing up. If Jesus was quiet and unpretentious, which is what I suspect, they may not have given much thought to this carpenter’s helper. You know, it’s often the juvenile delinquents and the young hoodlums who get most of the attention, not the kids who belong to the National Honor Society.
Whatever their reasons for rejecting Him, Jesus is not surprised: “I tell you the truth,” he says in verse 24, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” Jesus stands in a long line of prophets who were rejected by God’s people. He goes on to offer examples of two of the greatest Old Testament prophets, and what He says about them turns the skepticism of His neighbors in Nazareth into murderous hatred.
Jesus first mentions the prophet Elijah, who lived nearly 800 years earlier. God instructed this prophet to deliver a message of judgment to the wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, who were leading the people of God into idolatry. Elijah told the king there would be no rain for 3 ½ years as God’s judgment on him. During the subsequent drought many people were starving in Israel, but they didn’t turn in repentance toward God. So God sent Elijah to help a Gentile widow in Sidon who was willing to share what little she had with the prophet. He performed a miracle by multiplying her little supply of flour and oil until the drought ended, and he raised her son from the dead as well.
Then Jesus speaks of the prophet Elisha, whom God used to heal the leper Naaman, a Syrian who was the commander of the whole Syrian army. There were many lepers in Israel at the time, but God reached out to a Gentile leper and healed him when he was willing to dip himself in the muddy Jordan seven times.
Jesus employs these two stories, with which the synagogue crowd was certainly familiar, to press home a fact they readily overlooked, namely that God’s plan of redemption goes beyond racial boundaries and includes all who place their faith in Messiah, including Gentiles. Just as God told these two prophets to leave the unbelieving Israelites to offer deliverance to believing Gentiles, Jesus is warning the people that if they reject His message, He will have to do likewise.
The mere suggestion that God would turn from the Jews to Gentiles sends the people of Nazareth into a rage. They want to push him off a cliff, but Jesus walks right through the crowd, apparently invisible to them, or at least they are impotent to stop Him. He performs a miracle all right, but not the kind they are looking for.
Familiarity breeds contempt. Friends, we too need to be careful about this. We can get so used to coming to church, and singing hymns, and listening to the Scriptures that we begin to take it all for granted. We can hear the old, old stories so often that they become boring and trite. Our problem is like that of the people of Nazareth. It is not really that we are too familiar with Jesus; it is that we have only a surface acquaintance with Him. He is unlike anyone else in that the better we get to know Him, really know Him, the more He is loved and trusted.
Friends, as far as we know, Jesus never returned to Nazareth. Those who refuse to believe must realize that someday Jesus may no longer keep reaching out to them. Rejection can be final.
Now a second key principle I see in our text today is that …
Spiritual authority breeds amazement.
Let’s continue our reading in verses 31-37 of Luke 4:
Then he went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and on the Sabbath began to teach the people. They were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority.
In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, “Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”
“Be quiet!” Jesus said sternly. “Come out of him!” Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him.
All the people were amazed and said to each other, “What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!” And the news about him spread throughout the surrounding area.
Jesus exhibited authority in his teaching. Jesus’ teaching was never mealy-mouthed. He didn’t use terms like, “I suggest,” or “it seems to me,” or “the best scholars conclude.” He said, “Thus saith the Lord.” The result is the people were amazed. They had never heard anyone speak like this man.
Now there are times when the wisest and best of human preachers needs to humbly acknowledge that he doesn’t have all the answers. Dogmatism is not a pleasant characteristic when it pervades a person’s preaching or teaching. But there is a place in the pulpit for clarity and certitude. You wouldn’t know that from what you hear in a lot of churches today. Tolerance seems to be the watchword. The Bible is hardly used, much less expounded. There is no authority because there is no message from God.
Synagogues and churches like that are no threat to Satan because they are powerless to set people free. However, when Jesus began to teach that freedom is possible through a relationship with Him, Satan’s kingdom began to quake.
He exhibited authority also over demons. There was a man in the synagogue in Capernaum who was possessed by a demon, an evil spirit. The demon inside this man started screaming: “Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” The demon recognized and publicly acknowledged Jesus’ power, position, and person. The Jews who heard this were likely to be confused by this demon’s witness, so Jesus responded to him, “Be quiet!” It was inappropriate that the Messiah should be proclaimed by representatives of the Evil One. But He also healed the man spiritually. And again the Jews reacted in amazement at the power and authority displayed by Jesus in casting out this demon.
He exhibited authority over sickness. Listen to Luke 4:38-41:
Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her. So he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them.
When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them. Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ.
In the interest of time, I will simply comment here that Jesus knew the difference between demon possession and physical ailment. Some people scoff at the Bible’s references to demons, suggesting that the pre-scientific mind-set of that day saw all illness as the result of evil spirits. That is not true at all. Simon’s mother-in-law was sick, and Jesus doesn’t claim she has the demon of fever; she just had a fever.
Jesus rebuked the fever in the same way He later rebuked the winds and waves on the sea of Galilee. The fever left her and “she got up at once and began to wait on them.” When Jesus healed people, they were healed. Period. They didn’t have to be helped off the platform. He had authority over sickness.
Now there’s a third principle I want us to briefly consider this morning, and it is this:
Solitude and prayer breed power and purpose.
Look at verses 42-44 of Luke chapter 4:
At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.
The secret of Jesus’ life and ministry cannot be found merely in the fact that He was God incarnate. Nor can it be found merely in the fact that He was the Messiah. He was also a man. But as a man He knew where His strength lay – in an attitude of dependence upon His Father. He knew He couldn’t just give out constantly and never take in. So He regularly sought out a solitary place where He could pray and commune with His Father, where He could be spiritually refreshed and restored.
That was the secret of Jesus’ power. That was the secret of the direction of His life. Dave Roper has written of the prayer life of our Lord,
… he prayed without ceasing. Prayer was the environment in which he lived, the air he breathed. Subject to continual interruptions, busy beyond comparison, resisted by friends and foes, hassled and harried, he managed to keep in touch with God. Every situation was an occasion for prayer.,,. His life was continuous prayer. No demands, only dependence; no clamoring for attention, only a quiet continual reliance on the Father who always heard him.[i]
If we seek times of solitude and prayer, we will be able to say, “The fact that everyone is looking for me (and trying to get me to do this or that) will not determine my day, my ministry, or my priorities; before I do anything, as a servant of Jesus Christ I will check in with my Lord about what I should do and say, and where I should minister in this sick and evil society.”[ii]
The Apostle John wrote, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:11-12). Let us not be like the people of Nazareth, seeking signs and wonders and miracles in place of simple faith. It is of such people that Jesus himself said, “They have the words of Moses and of the prophets. They have my works. If that is not enough then they would not believe even if they saw someone raised from the dead” (Luke 16:29-31). Jesus is not interested in passing our proof tests for belief. He gives us enough evidence to believe, but not proof. The gap between evidence and proof is faith. And faith is what Jesus demands of us.
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24). Have you crossed over?
[i] David Roper, sermon preached at Peninsula Bible Church.
[ii] Ron Ritchie, sermon July 30, 1989 at Peninsula Bible Church, “How Should We Respond to a Sick Society,” p. 4.