The reason Luke begins with this story is that it serves as a cameo of Luke’s Gospel: Jesus goes to His own people and reveals Himself as their promised Messiah, but they reject Him; so the gospel message goes to the Gentiles. The story shows us some reasons why religious people often reject Jesus Christ: Religious people reject Christ because they do not want to submit to His lordship and they do not want to admit their sinful, desperate condition.
As we study this portion of God’s Word, we need to take it to heart that most of us are religious people or we would not be in church listening to this sermon!
It was the religious crowd in Nazareth that not only reacted against Jesus’ sermon, they went right from their “church” service to try to shove the speaker off a cliff! I trust that no one here would do that, but still, we must be careful to examine our own hearts, so that we do not imitate the religious people of Nazareth in their hostile rejection of Jesus.
Missed Opportunities? Luke 4:14-30
We’ve all heard the words of the poet who wrote, “The saddest words of tongue or pen are simply these, It might have been.” How often do we miss opportunities to speak a word for Christ …miss opportunities for service …miss opportunities to worship Him?
I want us to spend our time today looking at two sets of verses which speak in a powerful and practical way to each person here today. The intent is that we see the events of our average day in a different light; that we determine to “open our spiritual eyes” and allow faith to reign.
Read Luke 4:14-30
(Mark 6:5 NIV) He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.
Jesus had been ministering in and around Capernaum for about a year, using it as His home base (see 4:13; 8:5). But the majority of the people who saw and heard Him in that region eventually fell away, manifesting their rejection either by blasé indifference or direct opposition. There were eight incidents in the life of the Lord.
Because the Lord had spent more time there than anywhere else thus far in His ministry, Capernaum was especially guilty for rejecting Him. Earlier, Jesus had scorchingly rebuked them, saying, “And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day” Matthew 11:23.
Jesus had, in effect, pronounced a curse on Capernaum, and when He departed from there, that city’s doom was imminent. Jesus never went there again except as He passed through to minister elsewhere. He had come into the city and demonstrated power that could only have been from God. Yet the people would not have Him as Lord. Many marveled and some criticized, but few believed.
Now Capernaum’s opportunity was passed, and she entered a decline into oblivion from which she never recovered. Today the city is in virtually the same state of ruin—without houses or people—that it was a few centuries after Jesus was there. Apparently the town and the synagogue enjoyed a period of worldly prosperity for a while, but archaeological excavations show increasing pagan influence on the Jews there.
The last synagogue built in Capernaum, erected over the floor of the one where Jesus taught, was decorated with various animals and mythological figures. Having rejected the true God, the people were at the mercy of false ones.
Jesus’ home town was Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary went to live after returning from Egypt with their infant Son (2:23). It was to Nazareth that Jesus returned after His baptism and temptations (4:12-13); and we learn from Luke that the response to Him then was the same as it was on this occasion.
At first the people did not understand that Jesus was referring to Himself, because their initial response was quite favorable: “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 4:17-22).
Knowing that the people’s praise was based merely on faithless recognition of His popularity and power, Jesus began to expose their real motives. He knew they wanted Him to duplicate in Nazareth the miracles He had performed in Capernaum. And He knew that if He complied with their demand they still would not accept Him as the Messiah, because “no prophet is welcome in his home town.”
In further rebuke of their hypocrisy and faithlessness, He reminded them that in the days of Elijah God had shut up the rain in Israel for three-and-a-half years and caused a great famine. During that time the Lord showed mercy on none of the many suffering widows in Israel but showed great mercy on a Gentile widow of Zarephath.
He also reminded them that during the time of Elisha, God cleansed no lepers in Israel but did cleanse the leprosy of the Gentile Naaman of Syria (vv. 23-27). They could not have missed Jesus’ powerful, rebuking point that a believing Gentile is dearer to God than an unbelieving Jew.
Religious people may accept Jesus on a superficial level, but they do not want to bow before Him as Lord.
Outside of Nazareth, the news about Jesus was spreading, and so far it was favorable: He was “praised by all” (4:15). Probably at this point, the people of Nazareth were proud of their hometown boy who was becoming famous. A few may have grumbled, “Why doesn’t He come to Nazareth and show His stuff here? Does He think He’s too good for us now?” But others said, “He’s just too busy. But He will come and we’ll see if the rumors are true.”
Sure enough, He soon came into town, and everyone turned out at the synagogue that Sabbath.
From Jesus’ second, and similar, encounter with His former neighbors in Nazareth we can learn four important truths about unbelief: it blurs the obvious, builds up the irrelevant, blinds to the truth, and blocks the supernatural.
Unbelief Blurs the Obvious
The people at the synagogue in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth immediately recognized Him as the person they had known as a boy and young man. They also remembered that less than a year earlier He had worked miracles in other parts of Galilee, had impressed them with His great wisdom, and had so angered them by exposing their hypocrisy and unbelief that they tried to throw Him over the cliff to His death.
He taught about regeneration, worship, evangelism, sin, salvation, morality, divorce, murder, service, servanthood, pride, hate, love, anger, jealousy, hypocrisy, prayer, fasting, true and false doctrine, true and false teachers, the Sabbath, the law, discipleship, grace, blasphemy, signs and wonders, repentance, humility, dying to self, obedience to God, and countless other subjects. He taught the truth about everything that pertained to spiritual life and godliness (cf. 2 Pet. 1:3).
Even though it came right out of their own Scriptures, they were offended when Jesus brought up the stories from Elijah and Elisha’s ministries and applied it to them. The point of both stories was the same. Israel was at a low point of idolatry and moral corruption. God told Elijah to pray that it would not rain, and so a famine came over the land. That meant that Elijah himself needed food. God could have picked any one of many widows in the land as the place to send Elijah for sustenance, but instead, God sent him to a widow in Sidon, a Gentile. Through her, God provided both for her and for the prophet. Similarly, in Elisha’s time, there were many lepers in Israel whom God could have cleansed. But instead, God chose to heal a pagan man, Naaman the Syrian, a general in the army of Israel’s enemy.
These stories offended the religious crowd in Nazareth for two reasons. First, they were offended because the stories clearly teach that God sovereignly chooses those on whom He bestows His mercy, and that no one can demand His grace, because all are undeserving sinners. If God chooses to go outside Israel and bestow His blessing on a widow in Sidon or a general in Syria, while withholding His blessing from those in Israel, He is free to do that.
Proud man will accuse the Almighty God of being unfair because He does not pour out His grace on everyone, as if everyone was deserving of it! But the Bible teaches that there is none righteous, not even one (Rom. 3:10), and that God owes nothing but judgment to all sinners. If He chooses to show His mercy to some, that is His prerogative as the Sovereign Potter, but Scripture plainly declares, “He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Rom. 9:18). And if proud man cries, “That’s not fair,” Scripture’s answer is, “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” (Rom. 9:20). That doctrine is offensive to religious people who think that they are deserving of God’s blessings because of their basic goodness.
The second reason these stories offended the religious crowd was that they show that God is pleased to bestow His blessings on pagans as well as the religious. The widow in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian were both pagans, outside of the covenant blessings of God’s chosen people. There is a wrong way to apply the doctrine of election, namely, to grow conceited and think, “I’m really something because I’m one of God’s chosen people. But that person is not as good as me, because he is a pagan.” The proper application of the doctrine should fill us with humility, gratitude and fear (Rom. 11:17-22). When we realize that God shows His mercy to one kind of person only—sinners—we who know God should reach out with compassion to those who are lost.
Let’s apply this point to ourselves: It’s easy to accept Jesus on a superficial level. We hear that God loves us and that Jesus cares for all our needs, and that’s true. So, we welcome Him into our lives. But at some point early on we begin to get a bit uncomfortable as we realize that Jesus’ teaching confronts our pride and self-righteousness. Rather than building up our self-esteem, Jesus begins shining the light of His holiness into the dark, hidden closets of our soul. We begin to see that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18).
At this point, you have a crucial decision to make. You can dodge the hard truths of the Bible, either by throwing out the whole thing or, as many people do, by finding a church where you hear more soothing, comfortable messages. Or, God’s way is that we face the hard truth about ourselves and submit to Jesus as Lord.
In addition to teaching with great wisdom, Jesus had displayed supernatural power that all but banished sickness and disease from Palestine and had performed miracles of nature that astonished the most hardened skeptics. At the very least, it should have been clear that Jesus was a prophet of God unequaled by any of the Old Testament era. How could the people not believe Jesus was from God, when only divine power and wisdom could explain the greatness of what He said and did?
Like the scribes and Pharisees, the people of Jesus’ home town synagogue refused to make the logical and obvious connection between His power and His divinity because they were willfully unbelieving. The seed of the gospel fell on the hard-packed soil of sin-loving hearts into which God’s truth could not make the slightest penetration.
Those who heard and saw Jesus did not reject Him for lack of evidence but in spite of overwhelming evidence. They did not reject Him because they lacked the truth but because they rejected the truth. They refused forgiveness because they wanted to keep their sins. They denied the light because they preferred darkness. The reason for rejecting the Lord has always been that men prefer their own way to His.
When a person willfully rejects the Lord, even the most compelling evidence will not convince Him of divine truth. Cultists and liberal theologians who refuse to acknowledge Jesus as the divine Son of God can find countless ways to discount or explain away the most obvious truths of Scripture. They then congratulate themselves for their intellectualism in explaining Scripture without accepting its truths, for seeming to honor Christ without believing in Him or in what He taught, and for calling themselves by His name while denying His divine nature and power.
UNBELIEF BUILDS UP THE IRRELEVANT
Instead of accepting the obvious and overwhelming evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, the people of Nazareth focused their attention on the irrelevant. It was indeed surprising to see someone they had watched grow up and with whom they had gone to synagogue all His life suddenly come on the scene as a great leader—with no formal training and no recognition by the accepted religious hierarchy
The facts that Jesus was the carpenter’s son and the Son of Mary, that He had brothers named James and Joseph and Simon and Judas who everyone in Nazareth knew, and that He had sisters who still lived there were irrelevant to the issues of His being the Messiah or not.
The fact that the citizens of Nazareth did not regard Jesus and His family as being out of the ordinary completely undercuts myths that attribute bizarre miracles to Him when He was a child. One story maintains that whenever He found a bird with a broken wing, He would stroke it gently and send it flying on its way healed and healthy. This text completely mitigates against such fabrications.
It is tragic that small issues can be used as great excuses for not believing. The people of Nazareth were like people throughout the history of the church who can find every foolish reason to justify their rejection of the gospel.
They don’t like the attitude of the one who witnesses to them; they think most church people are hypocrites; they think the preacher is too loud or too soft, too stuffy or too overbearing; and the services are too formal or too informal. They are offended at the slightest things Christians do and construe the insignificant as being all important. They put up one smoke screen after another to excuse their unwillingness to believe the clear and demanding claims and promises of Christ.
UNBELIEF BLINDS TO THE TRUTH
Took offense is from skandalizoô, which has the basic idea of causing to stumble or trip up and is the term from which our English scandalize is derived. Jesus’ friends and former neighbors were offended by His claims. They were offended by His ordinary background, by the commonness of His family, the limits of His formal training, His lack of official religious status, and many other irrelevant or secondary issues.
Until a person is willing to have the hard ground of his heart plowed up by God’s truth and to confess and forsake his sin, he will be offended by the gospel. Until a person faces his sin in penitence, the truth of the gospel is hidden from him, and the blessing of the gospel is lost to him.
Unbelief Blocks the Supernatural
Some of Jesus’ miracles were done in direct response to personal faith; but many others, perhaps most of them, were done regardless of any specific expression of an individual’s faith. All of the miracles were done to strengthen the faith of those who believed in Him; but although God can perform miracles where there is no belief, He chose not to perform them where there was hard and willful unbelief.
Example of our lost opportunities: work hard on a Bring a Friend Day or a weekend meeting with a special speaker…pray for success and ask God to send us seekers…yet we do not greet visitors as we should and don’t follow-up those who come…will God send us seekers IF we are going to mistreat them?
Thus, God’s way is that …
B. We must accept Jesus as He claimed to be, as both Lord and Christ.
Jesus did not beat around the bush with these people. After reading Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus plainly declared, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s a staggering claim! Jesus is saying that Isaiah’s words, written over 700 years before, apply to Him. Look at what these words proclaim: Jesus claims to be speaking and acting under the influence of the Holy Spirit (4:18). By the way, in this verse you have all three members of the Trinity: the Lord (God the Father), the Spirit, and the Messiah. The word “anointed” is the Greek word for Christ, of which the Hebrew is Messiah. Jesus is claiming to be the Lord’s Christ or Messiah. He claims to be the “sent one.” He did not come of His own initiative, but He was sent by the Father to bring God’s salvation to the world. The terms “poor, captives, blind, and downtrodden” primarily have a spiritual meaning. Note that Jesus claims not only to be preaching the gospel, but also to be bringing it to pass: He is setting free those who are downtrodden.
In Isaiah, “the favorable year of the Lord” is a reference to the Jewish year of Jubilee, where debts were released and slaves were set free. It was a spiritual picture of the day or time of God’s salvation. Jesus not merely proclaims the good news as God’s anointed prophet. He is the good news, the One who would offer Himself as God’s sin-bearer, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The word “favorable” (4:18) in Greek is the same word that is translated “welcome” (4:24). In other words, even though Jesus proclaimed the favorable news of God’s salvation, the people did not favorably accept Him as God’s anointed prophet. They were acknowledging Him as Joseph’s son, but they refused to recognize Him as God’s Son, which even Satan acknowledged (4:3, 9)!
The point is, to accept God’s good news, you must accept Jesus as He is and as He claimed to be, as Lord and Christ. If you accept Him merely as a nice Savior who helps you to be happy, but you do not submit to Him as Lord, you are not truly accepting Him. If you accept Him as a Savior for others, but do not confess your own need for a Savior from your sins, you are not truly accepting Him. Jesus came as God’s anointed Savior and Lord, and we must accept Him as He claimed to be. That leads to the second reason religious people often reject Jesus:
2. Religious people reject Christ because they do not want to admit their sinful, desperate condition.
The folks in Jesus’ audience liked to think of themselves as basically good people. After all, they were Jews, not pagan sinners! Didn’t the fact that they were in the synagogue that day show that they were good people? Then along comes this young whippersnapper who implies that God’s message is for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the downtrodden! They had more self-respect than to see themselves like that! And then He goes even farther and implies that He is going to take God’s blessings to the Gentiles! “Of all the nerve! After all we did for Him when He was just a boy growing up here in Nazareth!”
Of course the irony is that even though they saw themselves as basically good, religious folks, they got so angry at Jesus’ convicting message that they left their worship service in a rage with the intent of killing Him! Jesus let them lead Him as far as the brow of the hill to reveal the murderous intent of their hearts. Then, whether miraculously or simply by the power of His commanding person, He walked away from them. But through this they should have seen that they were not basically good people at heart. They were good as long as no one confronted their true heart condition. But as soon as Jesus exposed them for what they really were, they rose up to destroy Him.
What is the heart condition of every person, religious or pagan, according to God’s Word? We are poor, spiritually destitute, bankrupt before God. We cannot buy our way into heaven because we have nothing to offer God. We can only receive from Him. We are captives, spiritually enslaved to sin. We are under the domain of the kingdom of darkness, unable to free ourselves from the wicked tyrant who rules this evil world and unable to extricate ourselves from the sin that holds us in its power.
Furthermore, we are blind, spiritually unable to see the light of the glory of the gospel of Christ unless He opens our eyes. Just as a blind person has no power or ability in himself to open his eyes unless God performs a miracle, so the spiritually blind sinner cannot do anything in himself to remedy his condition unless God sovereignly and powerfully opens the eyes of his heart. Finally, we are downtrodden. The word means “shattered” or “broken in pieces.” Alfred Plummer (The Gospel According to St. Luke [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 122) says that this strong expression “is here applied to those who are shattered in fortune and broken in spirit.”
The main thing that keeps religious people from accepting Jesus is their pride that hinders them from seeing their true condition in God’s sight. The church in Laodicea was there. Their assessment of themselves was, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” God’s assessment was, “You are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). But the good news is, when God opens your eyes to see your true condition before Him, that’s the first step toward receiving the good news. If you know that you’re destitute and someone offers you a million dollars as a free gift, that’s good news! If you know that you’re spiritually poor, and God offers freely to forgive all your sins through Jesus Christ, that’s the greatest news in the whole world!
I conclude with two applications. First, if you are familiar with Jesus you must be especially careful to apply His teaching to your own heart.
If you grew up in the church or if you’ve been in the church for years, it’s easy to grow so familiar with spiritual truth that you don’t let it affect your own heart. You begin thinking, “Repentance is something the non-Christian needs, but me? I’m a pretty good person!” “Salvation, the tender mercies of our God—ho hum!” Before you know it, you’re right there with those lukewarm Laodiceans! You lose the sense of gratitude that ought to flood your soul when you consider God’s abundant grace.
Second, if you reject Jesus today, you may not get another opportunity to receive Him. The people of Nazareth rejected Jesus, so He passed through their midst and went His way. He may have returned once more, although most scholars think that this was the last time He preached in Nazareth. Rejection of the gospel can be final and fatal! It’s interesting that when Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah, He stopped in the middle of a verse, after reading, “to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” The next phrase reads, “And the day of vengeance of our God.” Why did He stop there? Because in His first coming, Jesus came with the good news of salvation for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the downtrodden. The second time He will come as the Righteous Judge, bringing God’s vengeance on those who refused His offer of salvation.
In verse 21, Jesus says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The phrase, “in your hearing,” points to the availability of the good news. If you’re hearing it, it is being offered to you. The word “today” points to the urgency of the good news. Today is the day of salvation. You may not have tomorrow.
Last year a man jumped from a plane and his parachute didn’t open. It took him more than a minute to fall 3,000 feet. Somehow, he survived. But what do you suppose he thought about in that long minute? Did he cry out to God? If you have not trusted Christ as Savior and Lord, you’re right where that man was. You’re free-falling toward eternity, but you won’t fare well when you hit.
Jesus offers right now to release you from the downward pull of your sin that is plunging you toward God’s judgment. If you will respond by receiving Him as Savior and Lord, then rather than going His way and leaving you, Jesus promises, “I will come in to him and dine with him and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20).