On the unbelief that rejects Jesus the Messiah
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany • February 3, 2013 AD
Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10 • I Corinthians 13:1-13 • Luke 4:21-30 Responsive: Reading: 71:1-6
28 So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, 29 and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. 30 Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way. (LUKE 4:28-30)
PROPHETIC WITNESS IS NOT ALWAYS RECEIVED. It often provokes hostile rejection. Sometimes the rejection can turn murderous, as happened when the congregants in Jesus’ hometown synagogue thrust him out of the city and attempted to throw him off a cliff. This morning I want us to look at that rejection under the title, “Throwing Jesus Off a Cliff.”
As we will soon see, the rejection Jesus suffered in Nazareth was rooted in and motivated by unbelief, a poison we do well to understand because it is all around us in our sin-sick world. It was the motive force behind Nazareth’s rejection of Christ Jesus. It is the driving force behind our fallen world’s attempt not only to throw Jesus off the cliff, but the Christian people as well.
So let us plumb the depths of the Nazareth congregants’ rejection of Jesus. Let us observe how the Lord exposed their unbelief and provoked it to act out. Let us also take note of how our Lord responded to the rejection he suffered. In all these things there are lessons aplenty for us. My outline will be revealed in steps, as we proceed. May God the Holy Spirit guide us through the story St. Luke presents to us, and enable us to plumb its depths and learn its lessons.
I. REVIEW OF LUKE 4:14-21
Luke 4:16-30 tells one story. We looked into the first part of this story last week when we studied verses 16-21. So before we dive into the rest of the story that presented to us by verses 21-30, let’s review in brief what we covered last week.1
Works and fame before entry into Nazareth
Jesus began his messianic labors in the region of Galilee.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, he itinerated throughout Galilee teaching in her synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, healing all sorts of sicknesses and diseases, and casting out demons. As a result, his fame spread within Galilee and as well as in surrounding regions, including Syria. As a result, multitudes followed him from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. (See Matthew 4:23- 25 for a summation of these things.) Jesus’ fame, therefore, preceded his entry into his hometown of Nazareth.
In the synagogue
With his fame preceding him, Jesus, a son of Nazareth, came to Nazareth and participated in the worship of its synagogue. During the service he stood to read Isaiah 61:1-2. This passage, written some seven centuries before, predicted the very labors that Jesus had recently begun in Galilee. What were those labors? Preaching the gospel of the kingdom to the poor, healing the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, setting at liberty those who were oppressed, and preaching the acceptable year of the Lord. Following his reading from Isaiah, Jesus returned the sacred scroll to the attendant and sat down. (In the synagogue, one stood to read and sat down to teach.) Seated, he announced to the synagogue congregants, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your ears.” With these words, Jesus declared himself to be the Messiah, the Anointed One, the long promised King and Savior of Israel. In combination with the reading from Isaiah, the Lord’s declaration was nothing less than his Messianic Manifesto.
What happened next
Now let’s turn to our reading for today, which describes what happened next.
II. REACTION IN THE SYNAGOGUE (Luke 4:21-30)
The synagogue congregants’ immediate reaction was favorable, but Jesus’ reply to it provoked severe hostility. In this section, let’s trace what happened, looking first at the synagogue’s initial response, second at Jesus’ reply, and finally at the violent rejection that Jesus suffered at the synagogue’s hands. In this section we’ll deal with the story. We’ll attempt to plumb its lessons in the next.
The surface response
The immediate response of the synagogue worshippers was favorable, at least on the surface. Luke writes, “So all bore witness to Him, and marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22) There appears here to be an acceptance of what Jesus said, an appreciative recognition of the grace that poured forth from his lips. The congregants also appear to claim Jesus as one of their own. He was (as they supposed), Joseph’s son, and had been raised among them. He was a town son, a friend, a participant in the life and worship of the community.
The Penetrating Rejoinder
Jesus’ reply to these things was not what one might have expected. Instead of nodding in agreement to what appears to be a welcoming response, Jesus instead launched a penetrating rejoinder that exposed the true heart of the synagogue crowd. Let’s look at his rejoinder now, each part of which we’ll seek to interpret as we proceed.
1. Luke writes, “He said to them, ‘You will surely say this proverb to Me, “Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in Your country” ’ ” (v. 23). With these words, Jesus exposed the thinking of the synagogue congregants. And while this thinking appears on the surface to be welcoming, it is in fact a challenge borne of skepticism. Their thinking is layered, and Jesus peels back each layer in turn.
They will call him a physician, but it is a deceptive flattery. They will challenge him to heal himself, that is, to heal his own community, a community of which he had long been an integral part. They will pull at his heartstrings, reminding him that Nazareth is the home of his fathers, and his home too. But here is the rub: They will want to see for themselves, in Nazareth, the kinds of things they heard he had done in Capernaum. In other words, they are skeptics. They will want proof before they believe.
So in essence, their supposed invitation is not an invitation at all. It is a dare, the taunt of unbelief. And it may be that all they really wanted was to see a miracle show.
2. With his opening words, Jesus exposed unbelief. With his next words he exposed the rejection that was really at work in the congregants’ hearts. He does so by stating a truth that the Hebrew nation had proved time and time again. “Assuredly,” he emphasized, “I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country” (v. 24). Yes, this is my home country, the Lord implies, but I am a prophet (and more than a prophet), and as it has ever been in Israel with prophets, you will not receive me. Your invitation to work in Nazareth is hypocritical and empty. It is meaningless.
The Lord’s words exposed the heart of the matter. They implicitly indicted the synagogue for rejecting him. They also made clear that Jesus had no intention of proving himself or putting on a show.
3. Having stated the fact—a prophet is not accepted in his home country—Jesus then illustrated the case with citations from the Hebrew Bible. “But I tell you truly,” Jesus continued, “many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; 26 but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (vv. 25-27).
Both of these stories were well known. During a long drought and famine Elijah the prophet lived in the Gentile region of Zaraphath, where a widow fed him out of a store of flour and oil that was miraculously replenished (cf. I Kings 7:8-16). Elisha, who was Elijah’s successor, later worked a miracle of healing for the Syrian general Naaman (cf. II Kings 5:1-14).
Both stories had this in common: the widow of Zaraphath and Naaman the Syrian had faith. The implication? The people of Nazareth, despite their Jewishness, despite their membership in the synagogue, did not. Like many of their forebears in the Northern Kingdom during the times of Elijah and Elisha, they were faithless. God would not provide for them.
So we see that Jesus exposed the true thinking of the synagogue. Refusing to be swayed by flattery and ignoring their skeptical dare, he exposed their unbelief and indicted them for it. In truth, Nazareth offered him no welcome. He would be moving on.
The violent response
The Lord’s words struck a nerve, provoked rage, and led to a violent attempt on Jesus’ life. Luke writes, “So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, 29 and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they
led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff” (vv. 28-29).
So much for Jesus being a Peacemaker.
The hypocrisy! The Jews in Nazareth had doubtless long prayed for the advent of the Messiah. But when he came into their midst and announced himself, they excommunicated him and tried to kill him.
Jesus goes his way
Luke is silent as to how Jesus escaped the enraged mob. He simply writes, “Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way” (v. 30). We marvel at the ease of his escape, and wonder at its method. But the main point here is that Jesus, in essence, continued his journey. There was much yet to do, and he exited Nazareth focused on doing it.
These, then, are the things that happened. But what did they mean? What do they mean? To these questions let us now turn.
III. GOING DEEPER & MAKING APPLICATIONS
Let’s now dig a little deeper. Let’s plumb the depths of what happened in Nazareth on that long ago day and then seek to apply what we discover to our own world.
First, let’s remind ourselves of what happened. Jesus came into Nazareth in the power of the Holy Spirit. His fame preceded him. He entered the synagogue as the Messiah. During the synagogue worship service, he read a passage from Isaiah that explained the vocation that in recent weeks he had been fulfilling throughout Galilee. He then declared that passage fulfilled, in the Nazareth congregants’ hearing. He therefore effectively declared himself to be the Messiah. After he declared himself, he exposed the synagogue congregants’ thinking, which was hostile to him. Doing that, he exposed their unbelief and in effect censured them for it. He did so in the manner of a Hebrew master teacher. That is, he did it with stories, expecting his hearers to perceive how the Old Testament stories he referenced applied to them. Doing these things, he provoked their wrath.
In all, he exposed and indicted the unbelievers in his hometown synagogue. Some were perhaps brothers.
The anatomy of unbelief
In combination, the words of Jesus and the reaction of the synagogue exposed unbelief from all angles.
Unbelief’s fundamental quality is that it refuses to receive Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, the Anointed One whom God has made king. This was the synagogue’s fundamental and foundational error. They didn’t believe Jesus was who and what he claimed to be.
But unbelief isn’t a neutral reality. It is instead a working force that expresses itself in ungodly, tangible ways. Jesus’ words exposed the faithless thinking of the synagogue congregants, but their enraged reactions to him brought their unbelief into the light. In that light, we see unbelief for what it is by what it did. The unbelief of the congregation was hypocritical. It feigned initial respect even as it masked the internal motives of rebellion. It was arrogant. It sought to dictate conditions to Jesus; they would believe only if he first proved himself to them. In this it was also ignorant of the divine order, which calls men to believe before they see the works of God. It was on this point they were reproved by the widow in Zaraphath and Namaan the Syrian, who believed before they received their miracles. It was selfish, for it wanted Jesus to serve them on their terms and not on his. It was devoid of grace, empty, because it drove the Messiah out of town. It was angry, for it expressed itself in rage. It was murderous, for it attempted to take Jesus’ life.
In the end, unbelief denied the citizens of Nazareth the presence and power of their own son, Jesus the Messiah. They were the poorer for it. Unbelief is ugly. It is also destructive.
The fundamental sin of so many in our world is the same as that of the synagogue in Nazareth. Those who don’t believe that Jesus is Lord act out in much the same way as the people in Nazareth did. Skeptical, they prove their unbelief in myriad ways. Unbelieving, they refuse to submit to Christ Jesus. Refusing to submit, they are left to themselves to cast aimlessly about. The world is a chaotic place because of unbelief. Many, especially the religious crowd, mask their unbelief in feigned respect. Unbelief thus feeds hypocrisy, which is rampant in our fallen world. Unbelieving men are also arrogant, because they seek to impose their terms on King Jesus. “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6, Proverbs 3:34). The world is a graceless place because of unbelief.
Unbelieving men are selfish. If they entertain Jesus at all, it is for their own service and privilege, and perhaps even for their own entertainment. The world is a greedy place because of unbelief, and as shallow as a lousy side show. Unbelieving men are angry too. They rage against Christ and against true good. (This explains a lot about the present political climate, doesn’t it?) The world is a frightening place because of unbelief.
Unbelieving men can turn murderous. Just as the unbelievers in Nazareth sought to throw Jesus off a cliff, modern day unbelievers often seek to throw his people off a cliff. The world is a dangerous place because of unbelief, and in want as well.
When the people of Nazareth rejected Jesus, he moved on. He “went his way.” That is, he continued his journey and advanced his mission. Nazareth lost out. Others would not. In our day, when Jesus is rejected in one field of labor he moves on to another. Western Civilization, take note! Lest you receive Jesus as Lord you will soon find yourself bereft of his presence and blessing.
A prophecy of sorts
The rejection in Nazareth prefigured the rejection Jesus would later suffer at the hands of the Jewish rulers and their Roman overlords, in Jerusalem. They also would cast him out of the city. They too would take him to the crest of a hill bent on murdering him. When those things happened, Jesus’ way would be the way of the cross, the way of redemption. He would not walk away then. He would lay down his life as a ransom for many. But that day was yet in the future. In Nazareth, Jesus moved on. His death would have to wait until he, and nobody else, was ready to yield it up for the redemption of his people.
The rejection Jesus suffered in Nazareth points us to his cross.
In last week’s sermon we emphasized that the Church’s vocation is to take up Christ’s vocation, insofar as it advances his gospel and work in the world. Part of that vocation is bearing witness to the truth that is in Jesus. Today’s sermon points us to a Gospel passage that demonstrates just how risky bearing witness may be. Our Gospel reading also points us to something else, namely, that witness is needed in the church house. Just as Jesus declared his manifesto in the synagogue, we must declare his manifesto in our churches. Jesus exposed unbelief in the synagogue; we must expose it in our churches. Jesus bore witness with penetrating, relentless courage. So also must we. Jesus doubtless sought the good of the synagogue, but he suffered wrong despite it. We must seek the good of our churches, but we may suffer rejection because we do. Jesus was expelled from his own synagogue, cast out of his city, and brought to the precipice of destruction. So also may we. But bear witness we must.
We must speak the truth, as it is revealed in Jesus.
We must allow the truth to do its work.
We must also accept the consequences of witness, for good or for ill.
If we are not received, we must continue on (if we are able) and bear witness elsewhere.
Our war is with unbelief, whose ugly nature and works are set before us in Luke 4:16-30. But the love of God compels us to do battle with this foe. It compels us to tell our fellows what they need to hear. Only then can they be saved. Jesus later died for the people who tried to throw him off a cliff. Let this serve as a reminder that he died for people who want to throw us off a cliff. Bearing witness is our vocation. Let us be faithful. Amen.