Jesus' Commission (Luke 4:14-19)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Luke 4:14-19

[14] Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. [15] He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

[16] 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. [17] The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

[18] "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,
[19] to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."


Exposition

The Power of the Spirit (4:14)

After Jesus' baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him, Luke records that "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, ... was led by the Spirit in the desert...." (4:1). In spite of the power of his temptations and his Tempter, Jesus isn't drained. He is still full of the Spirit, for our passage begins with the words, "Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit..." (4:14). Later in the passage, Jesus reads from Isaiah a passage which begins, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me..." (4:18). Certainly, we are to understand that Jesus was operating in his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It's so easy to pass off Jesus' ministry as one-of-a-kind, only possible because he was divine. But notice Luke's terminology in the Book of Acts when he refers to ordinary mortals. Acts is prefaced by saying, "In my former book, Theophilis, I wrote about all that Jesus began (archo) to do and to teach..." (Acts 1:1). This clearly implies that Jesus is still acting and teaching in the Early Church. Luke starts the book of Acts with the promise of the Holy Spirit (1:5, 8), followed by the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost (2:8, 17). Now we begin to find similar phrases in Acts concerning the disciples as we do in Luke concerning Jesus:

    • "Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said..." (Acts 4:8).
    • "They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (Acts 4:31).
    • "Choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3, 5).
    • "Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit..." (Acts 7:55).
    • "The Spirit told Philip..." (Acts 8:29).
    • "The Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away... (Acts 8:39).
    • and so on

In other words, Luke sees the Spirit as both Jesus' power for ministry on earth, and ours, too, as disciples. Yes, Jesus is a special case in that he is divine and his redemption on the cross can only be accomplished by the sinless Son of God. But he is NOT a special case in his ministry; he ministers from the fullness of the Holy Spirit just like we can. This is why Jesus gave his disciples an awesome prediction:

"I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." (John 14:12)
"But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you." (John 16:7)

I believe that Jesus intended his disciples to understand that we are to minister in the same power with which he ministered -- the power of the Holy Spirit, who is present with us today on the cusp of the Twenty First Century, full strength and undiluted.

Returning to Galilee (4:14-15)

"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" (4:14-15).

The Judean wilderness, where Jesus had been baptized and tempted, is John the Baptist's area. But Galilee is Jesus' turf. He knows and understands these people. He probably speaks with an accent characteristic of the Galilee (Matthew 26:73). In his day the region of Galilee comprised northern Palestine. This included "upper Galilee", the towns north of the Sea of Galilee, and "lower Galilee," the towns around the Sea of Galilee as far west as the great Jezreel Valley, except for the east side of the Sea of Galilee, an area called the Decapolis.[1]

Luke's Gospel indicates that Jesus' ministry had begun before he returned to his hometown of Nazareth (4:16). His fame has spread throughout Galilee, he has taught in many of the areas village synagogues, he has healed many sick, and is uniformly praised. Capernaum, especially, has been a focus of this early ministry (4:23).

Synagogue Life in Jesus' Day

Now he comes home to Nazareth. He has been away for months-- first to hear John the Baptist, then for a month and a half in the wilderness, and then as his ministry commenced in Galilee. He leaves a homeboy, he returns a celebrity. So when he visits the local Nazareth synagogue, he is given the privilege of reading the Scripture and then commenting on its meaning (4:17, 20-21ff).

The Greek word is synagoge, from syn-, "together" and ago, "to lead." It means "1. 'gathering-place,' 2. 'place of assembly,' 3. '(the congregation of a) synagogue' ... 5. 'a meeting' for worship."[2] Before the Jews were exiled to Babylon (605 to 587 BC), their faith had centered in the Temple. But when the Temple was destroyed in 587 BC, a new kind of community developed among the exiled Jews to sustain and purify their faith. The reading of the Scriptures became much more important. Scribes and teachers like Ezra became leaders. And, scholars believe, the institution of the local synagogue became a central feature in Jewish life among those who returned from exile in the years after 537 BC.

There is a large amount of information in the Jewish Talmudic literature and from the Jewish historian Josephus, but this was written decades, and in some cases, centuries, after Jesus' time, and may reflect the more developed form of synagogue life that followed the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. Our passage in Luke 4 is the very earliest reference to synagogue worship available anywhere!

From what we can piece together, however, the officers of a typical synagogue in Jesus' day consisted of a president (Luke 8:49), a group of elders who directed actives, an almoner who would collect and distribute alms for the poor, and an "attendant" (hazzan) who took care of the Scripture scrolls and announced the beginning and end of the Sabbath by blowing the ram's horn. While in our day a Rabbi serves as a professional leader of a synagogue, in Jesus' day rabbis were usually recognized teachers who functioned within the synagogue structure, but not necessarily as officers or official leaders of synagogue life. A building wasn't necessary -- a synagogue could be formed by 10 Jewish men -- but we read in the Gospels of synagogue buildings in several Gallilean towns, and ruins of early synagogues have been unearthed by archaeologists all over Palestine. In Capernaum, the dark basalt walls of the First Century synagogue where Jesus probably taught has been found, buried beneath the ruins of a much later synagogue made of white limestone.

Synagogue buildings consisted of a large hall, seats along the walls for honored teachers and members, and a table or desk on which the scroll was laid for reading. Later synagogues had an elaborate room or ark (box) where the scrolls were stored. The general congregation members may have sat on mats or carpets. In Jesus' day women were apparently mixed with the men (Luke 13:10-17), though by the Middle Ages they were segregated in special galleries.

Synagogue worship probably consisted of prayers, perhaps reciting the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), the "Amen" response from the congregation, reading of excerpts from the scrolls of the Torah (Acts 15:21) and of the Prophets, translation of the Scriptures into Aramaic paraphrases, a sermon and a benediction (Nehemiah 8).[3]

Synagogue Protocols (4:16-17)

Jesus attended synagogue every Sabbath. In our day Christians sometimes act as if they are above assembling with believers. "Churches contain hypocrites," they tell us. "Churches contain some disagreeable people," they say. "I've been hurt by petty people at church," they admit. And all that may be true. "I reject the 'institutional church,' " they say with a certain degree of superiority and purity. "I worship God in nature, and feel closest to him there." Or "Our family has 'church' in the privacy of our home. We don't need to go to any building to worship" (faint sneer).

But to be accurate we must accept the fact that all his life Jesus attended synagogue worship "as was his custom" (4:16). Synagogue worshippers in Jesus' day weren't any better than church-goers in ours. They, too, were petty, vain, hypocritical, and sometimes rejected the people who needed God the most. But Jesus didn't distance himself from the synagogue, as imperfect as it must have been. The Son of God himself attended synagogue regularly and faithfully, and identified himself with the People of God on earth. We Christians, too, are exhorted: "Let us not give up meeting together (Greek episynagoge), as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another -- and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25). If assembling with the faithful was the Son of God's custom, who are we to strike out on our own?

Returning to Nazareth as a famous teacher, Jesus is invited to read the Scripture, and is handed the scroll containing Isaiah's prophecies. Did he ask for Isaiah, or was there some kind of lectionary in his time that dictated the reading? We don't know. But he unrolled the scroll on the table in the front of the congregation to a specific passage.

Luke records that Jesus stands to read, and sits to give the exposition or sermon. This reflects the practice of the day to stand in honor of God's Word, and then deliver a homily from a seated position. (Luke 5:3; Matthew 5:1-2; 13:1-2; John 8:2; Acts 16:13; though see Acts 13:16).

Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2, no doubt in Hebrew. Luke's Greek text follows fairly closely the Second Century BC Greek Septuagint translation.[4] Let's focus on the text that Luke gives us, and look at it phrase by phrase.

Jesus' Commission

I believe that Jesus read these words as a statement of his commission as the Anointed One (Messiah). They reflect his self-understanding of his mission. I want to offer a premise to Jesus' disciples everywhere: If we are followers of Jesus, then Jesus' commission is our commission, too. We must both embrace his mission and adopt it for ourselves.

The Spirit's Anointing (4:18a)

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me..." (4:18a). In the context of Isaiah's original prophecy, declared many hundreds of years before Christ, the speaker seems to be the anointed prophet Isaiah himself. But when Jesus utters these words in Galilee in 26 AD or so, they must have been electrifying. The Anointed One, the Messiah, was eagerly expected. Messianic speculation could grow intense about any spiritual leader. Earlier it had swirled around John the Baptist (Luke 3:15); already it may have shifted to Jesus. When Jesus reads the ancient Hebrew words, his utterance of the word mashah, "anointed," must have caused wonderment. Mashah is the root word of mashiah, "Messiah." When Jesus finally declares, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (4:21), I hear a gasp of astonishment sweeping across the congregation.

The Hebrew mashah first referred to the ritual pouring of oil over an individual to set him apart for special office, as a king (1 Samuel 16:12-13), priest (Exodus 29:7; 30:30; Numbers 35:25), or prophet (1 Kings 19:16). In our passage the anointing of the Spirit of God is to accomplish a particular purpose, and thus is both an empowerment and a commissioning. Jesus was anointed with the Spirit "in order to...." and sent "with the purpose of...." We see the word "anoint" appear again in Peter's sermon to Cornelius' household: "... how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him" (Acts 10:38).

Literal vs. Figurative Language

You'll see in a moment that many of the words in this "commission statement" can be taken either literally or figuratively. Only the context can determine which. Perhaps both are implied. Now don't let this disturb you.

I once met a preacher who said he took every word of the Bible literally. Something perverse in me cause me to asked him about "The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands" (Isaiah 55:12). "Did the trees literally clap their hands," I asked.

"If the Bible says they clapped their hands, then I believe they did," he replied. "I don't have to understand how. I just have to believe it."

Now my good brother was being just plain foolish. Throughout the Bible most words are intended to be taken literally, it is true. But some are intended to be understood figuratively. In the passage cited above, the words are used poetically to express a feeling. Tree branches swish back and forth, and the inspired writer/prophet/poet describes it as "clapping their hands." You know what it means. I know what it means. It is plainly intended to be figurative, not literal. One of our tasks in the passage before us will be to determine how the words were meant by Jesus to be taken.

Preaching Good News to the Poor (4:18b)

The first task in this "commission" consists of preaching good news. In Greek the word is euangelizo, "bring or announce good news."[5] The word is formed from two words, eu, "well ... to be well off, fare well, prosper,"[6] and angelos, "a messenger, envoy, one who is sent,"[7] from which we derive our English word "angel." In the Old Testament Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), this word is used in announcing God's kindness (Psalm 40:9) and Messianic blessings of salvation (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; 60:6; and 61:1, etc.).

The recipients of this good news pronouncement are the poor. Are these literal poor people with few pennies in their pockets? Or is Jesus referring figuratively to "the poor in spirit," the humble in contrast to the proud (Matthew 5:3)? I think Jesus refers to both. By and large his message was received eagerly by the poor. The rich and powerful were threatened by it. "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God' " (Luke 18:24-25). [Let's wait to interpret "eye of a needle" until we get to this passage. Okay?] The rich had much more difficulty with Jesus' message than the poor. To the poor Jesus message offered security -- they had little to lose. The rich had carefully placed their money around them to provide a sense of security, and Jesus' message challenged their values to the core. True, some rich people became believers (Zacchaeus, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, etc.), but most were the common folk.

Now a question for Jesus' disciples: Do the poor unsettle and threaten middle class (read "rich") values too much to be comfortable among them? Whom do WE prefer to preach to?

Healing the Brokenhearted (4:18c)

The KJV includes a phrase not found in more modern translations: "He hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted." The phrase occurs in the Hebrew original, and therefore Jesus must have read it on this occasion, but for some reason Luke's gospel may have omitted it.[8] In any case, this, too, is part of Jesus' commission. This, of course, is figurative language. Jesus didn't come for angina sufferers (in particular), but to bring comfort to those in anguish. Jesus' heart went out to those who grieved for dead loved ones; he knew their pain. He probably had felt the loss of his own father and grandparents. He wept at the loss of his friend Lazarus (John 11). Not all pain is erased by healing and resurrection. Even those Jesus healed eventually succumbed to death. But you get the distinct impression when you read the Gospels that Jesus cared deeply about the people he met. He knew the devastating loss his disciples would feel at his death and later ascension, and sought to prepare them by telling them of the coming of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.

"Blessed are the merciful," Jesus says, "for they shall obtain mercy" (Matthew 5:7). Paul exhorts us, "Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep" (Romans 12:15).

In American culture a prevailing macho influence tells men to suppress their feelings. Many men find it difficult to show tenderness toward their children; it's a mother's role to comfort them, men feel. Yes, mothers have an important role in comforting, it is true. But men, too -- at least those who would follow Jesus -- must be willing to spend time with the hurting and bring comfort. Disciples, take heed.

Proclaiming Freedom to the Captives (4:18d)

The next mission is to proclaim freedom to the captives. Are these literal prisoners, sentenced to spend time behind bars? Perhaps, but we have no evidence of Jesus' jailbreak ministry. So I suspect this is intended figuratively. How about men and women who have been imprisoned by habits and desires that leave their will less able to choose the right when tempted? How about those who are totally overwhelmed with lust, and feed that lust with pornography and more? How about those who serve the substitute god Mammon, and are enticed by his glitter? How about physical addiction to alcohol and barbiturates, to narcotics and nicotine?

We Christians are often more prone to condemn the captives than tell them about the freeing power of the Holy Spirit who can deliver them fully and completely. We put them down rather than lift them up to Jesus. Jesus' commission was to proclaim freedom to those in chains; it is our commission, too.

Recovery of Sight to the Blind (4:18e)

The next element of Jesus' commission was to bring "recovery of sight to the blind." Are these the literal blind whose eyes and optic nerves no longer function? Or the figurative blind, who fail to see the truth? This decision isn't so easy. Jesus DID literally heal blinded eyes. I think of Blind Bartimaeus sitting by the roadside begging (Mark 10:46). Or the man who was born blind and was healed after he washed off the mud and spittle Jesus put on his eyes (John 9:1-8). Some disciples of John the Baptist, who was now in prison, came to Jesus with the question, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" Luke records:

"At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, 'Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.' " (Luke 7:20-22)

The messengers were to take back to John the Baptist the word that Jesus did the works that Messiah was supposed to do when he came. Blind literally seeing. Lame literally walking. Lepers literally having whole, clean skin. Deaf literally hearing. Dead literally rising. And good news being proclaimed to the literal poor. Jesus is referring to this very passage in Isaiah 61!

Having said that, Jesus himself healed the literally blind (John 9:1-7), and then used this miracle to point out the irony of spiritual blindness (9:39-41). In the Gospel of John especially, we see him moving from physical bread to spiritual bread (John 6), from physical water to spiritual water (John 4), etc. I think it entirely comprehensible that Jesus intended the Scripture from Isaiah he was reading in the Nazareth synagogue to include both healing of physical blindness AND spiritual blindness.

So what is the commission we disciples have? Certainly to help people see Christ and his truth clearly, to interpret him anew to our own generation in terms they can understand. But also to seek to heal the physically blind. Some do this through medicine. Wonderful! Some do this through supernatural gifts of healing. Wonderful! However we are gifted, let us not be satisfied to see people remain in their blindness, but seek for them the gift of sight.

Release to the Oppressed (4:18f)

The next part of Jesus' commission is "to release the oppressed." The word in the Greek is thrauo, which means, " 'break' into pieces," and then figuratively, 'break, weaken, oppress."[9] Literally, the phrase reads: "to send forth the ones having been oppressed into freedom." A place of being broken and downtrodden is contrasted with freedom, Greek aphesis, which carries two meanings: "1. 'release' from captivity. 2. 'pardon, cancellation' of an obligation, a punishment, or guilt."[10]

In one sense this seems similar to "freedom for the prisoners" earlier in this quotation from Isaiah. Indeed the word aphesis is used in both phrases. But there is a difference: on the one hand you have prisoners released; here you have people who are oppressed or broken set free. Who was oppressed in Jesus' day? The Old Testament often accuses the wealthy of taking advantage of widows and orphans, tricking them out of their property (see Luke 18:1-7). This concept seems to relate particularly to social oppression. Slavery was one of the greatest evils of the First Century, oppressive taxation, oppressive behavior by the Roman occupying troops.

Who are oppressed in our day? This varies from one country to another. In the US with which I am most familiar, to be African American means you are more often stopped by the police than Caucasian citizens. In California we have a flood of emigrants from all over the world, some of them illegal aliens. It is common to hear stories of Mexican and Chinese laborers working for less that the legal minimum wage because they can't complain to the authorities. Of girls being enslaved in prostitution by pimps who addict them to drugs in order to control them. In many cases a divorce frees the man to increase his standard of living while his wife and children are sucked into poverty.

How do we as Christians deal with the social oppression we see in our system? We can't just label it "the social gospel" and ignore it. If we are Jesus' disciples, then we have his commission to seek freedom for the downtrodden, justice for the poor. Each political party has its own formula for lessening oppression of the poor and disenfranchised -- and frankly, both parties' programs fall far short of achieving the desired result. Ultimately, helping the oppressed must not be just a political goal, it must be a personal objective as well. It certainly should affect the causes we give to, the way we spend our time, etc.

The Year of Jubilee (4:19)

The final phrase in Jesus' reading is "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." What does that mean? In the context of Isaiah 61:1-2, it seems to refer to the Year of Jubilee that occurred every 50 years. In that year all Hebrew slaves who may have been enslaved due to debt were emancipated, set free. Land that had been sold to another reverted to its ancestral owner (Leviticus 25:8-13). This year of freedom fits well with Isaiah's prediction of release to the oppressed, setting free the captives.

But it is more still. Rather than proclaiming the end of just one more 50-year cycle, Isaiah -- and Jesus -- are declaring the coming of the Messiah at the end of the age to usher in a period of unparalleled freedom and wholeness. Righteousness will triumph over oppression, and, in Isaiah's continuation of the passage Jesus quoted, the unrighteous will suffer severe retribution and justice from God.

When we disciples tell others about Jesus, we too are declaring that "Now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2). We are declaring that the time is at hand of Jesus' setting people free. This time of freedom giving is more than a literal year, of course. But when Christ returns, the time will be over, and the time for judgment will have come.

We have wonderful "good news." Let's not be slack about declaring it. It was Jesus' commission; it is ours, too.


Prayer

Lord, In my quest to be like Jesus, I want to internalize his values and make them my own. Show me how to fulfill my Master's commission in the world in which you have placed me, with the gifts you have entrusted to me. In Jesus' name I pray. Amen.


Key Verse

"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." (Luke 4:18-19)


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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To increase your understanding of Jesus' Jewish context, I'd like to recommend an optional field trip for you and your family: to worship in a Jewish synagogue in your area.

When you go, please be respectful and seek to worship along with the congregation, not try to convert them. Males should wear the skull-cap or yarmulke that will be available at the door. If you can find an orthodox synagogue, consider attending that. It will be the most intensely Jewish service, though orthodox synagogues are usually found only in larger cities that have significant Jewish communities. A conservative synagogue will also give you a good feel for worship, with Hebrew readings and prayers. A reformed synagogue provides a more modern Americanized worship service with less of the traditional Jewish customs. Whichever type of synagogue you attend, I hope you come away profoundly moved and more appreciative of the Jewish heritage that undergirds Christianity.

Here are some questions to discuss:

  1. Is it reasonable to expect that the power of the Spirit will be as great in a Christian today as it was in Jesus?
  2. Here is a premise: "If we are followers of Jesus, then Jesus' commission is our commission, too. We must both embrace his mission and adopt it for ourselves." It could be argued that one person's mission need not be another's. Do you think this is a valid premise? Why or why not?
  3. Why can being around the very poor make us feel uncomfortable? Can we with integrity declare good news to the poor without seeking to alleviate their poverty? Can the two be separated? Should they be? Did Jesus give alms to the poor, do you think?
  4. Who around you is a prisoner? How can you declare freedom to them with sensitivity?
  5. How should you heal the brokenhearted in your world?
  6. Who are the oppressed in your particular community? How can you assist them and help them find justice?

References

  1. William S. LaSor, "Galilee," ISBE 2:386-390.
  2. BAGD782-783.
  3. This material has been summarized from "Edwin Yamauchi, "Synagogue," DJG 781-784.
  4. The phrase "heal the brokenhearted" may have been lacking in Luke's original text, and the phrase "to release the oppressed" seems to be added from Isaiah 58.6.
  5. BAGD317. I realize that Jesus read the words in Hebrew, but the Greek is the language with which Luke communicated.
  6. Thayer 256.
  7. Thayer 5.
  8. The United Bible Society's Greek New Testament (3rd edition, 1976) text omits "He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted" as the "harder" reading. The phrase is included by a number of ancient Greek manuscripts such as A B L W Xi and Septuagint, but omitted by Aleph, D Theta Psi f1 f13.
  9. BAGD363.
  10. BAGD125.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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