#7. Jesus' Rejection at Nazareth
(Luke 4:20-30)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Luke 4:20-30

[20] 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, [21] and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

[22] 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.

[23] 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.' "

[24] "I tell you the truth," he continued, "no prophet is accepted in his hometown. [25] 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. [26] Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. [27] 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."

[28] All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. [29] 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. [30] But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.


Exposition

Something in me wants to skip over parts of the Bible that are "downers." I don't like negativity. Give me something upbeat, positive and I'm happy. But sometimes vital lessons are found in the hard times of our lives. Jesus' rejection in his own hometown holds two important lessons for disciples.

Jesus, fresh from a preaching and healing campaign in Galilee, has returned to Nazareth after an absence of many months. He left a commoner, he returns a celebrity. On the Sabbath he is invited to read from the sacred scrolls and comment on the text. Nazareth would see what kind of teacher he had become. Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-5, about the Spirit of the Lord anointing him to preach good news, heal and set free, and then says, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (4:21).

Mixed Reaction (4:22)

The reaction in the synagogue that Sabbath was one of astonishment. Luke says they were "amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips." The word "amazed" is Greek thaumazo, " 'wonder, marvel, be astonished' (the context determines whether in a good or bad sense)."[1] Apparently they had never heard Jesus as a public speaker, as a teacher. His life among them had been as a carpenter, never a public figure. This was an entirely new role, and they were, as Matthew and Mark put it "astonished," Greek ekplesso, "be amazed, overwhelmed" (Matthew 13:54; Mark 6:2).[2] Jesus "gracious words" were impressive.

But was this the astonishment of appreciation or of skepticism? At first glance, we're not sure. The NIV translates verse 22a, "All spoke well of him...." The word "spoke" is the imperfect tense of the Greek word martureo, "1a. 'bear witness, be a witness,' b. 'bear witness to, declare, confirm,' c. 'testify favorably, speak well (of), approve (of)."[3] But Marshall points out that the word can also be used in the sense " 'to bear witness against,' i.e. 'to condemn.' "[4] Perhaps there was a wave of approval, followed by muttering, "Is not this Joseph's son?"

The congregation's quickness to pigeonhole Jesus as Joseph's son shows that their paradigm was unable to view Jesus in any other context that as a member of a Nazareth family. They may have been thinking of the scandalous events surrounding his birth. After all, this was a small town, and people talk. Matthew and Mark record other comments of the crowd:

" 'Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?' they asked. 'Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren't all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?' " (Matthew 13:54-56)

They were amazed but skeptical. Sure, he was good with words. But how could he really be worthy of the acclaim and adulation he had been met with elsewhere in Galilee? The congregation "took offense at him" (Matthew 13:57; Mark 6:3).

A Prophet without Honor (4:23-24)

Jesus sensed the unbelief and skepticism in the room that day. The congregation made no attempt to hide their feelings. Jesus' next comments confront this anti-faith:

"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." (4:23-24)

Though this exact saying isn't recorded elsewhere, the words, "Physician, heal yourself" are plain enough.[5] It's similar to our proverb which observes that the cobbler's children go barefoot. Probably the townspeople are applying the words to Jesus hometown vs. other towns where Jesus had performed healings. In other words they are saying. You've healed elsewhere; how about in your own hometown?

The skepticism in Nazareth was so pervasive that Mark records, "He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith." (Mark 6:5-6)

Have you ever wondered why your family doesn't accept your ardent faith? They "know you too well." They remember your past, perhaps, and don't believe you've changed. Though Jesus' family finally came around, his townspeople never did. Sometimes faith means a lonely life.

God's Blessing on Two Foreigners (4:25-27)

In response to his townsmen's open skepticism, Jesus refers to two stories of how God blessed two non-Jewish individuals, at a time that many Jews had needs that went unmet.

Jesus tells of the widow at Zaraphath, a village on the coast of present-day Lebanon, near Sidon (1 Kings 17:7-24). The Prophet Elijah had stayed with her and her son during the 3-1/2 year drought that preceded his victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. The widow's small jar of flour and tiny jug of oil were not depleted, though they fed the three of them for years. Later, when the widow's son died, Elijah's prayers revived him from the dead. No Israelites received such a blessing.

Then Jesus told of Naaman, general of the army of Israel's enemy Aram, whose capital was Damascus (2 Kings 5). Naaman had contracted leprosy, and heard that the Prophet Elisha in Israel had the power to heal. At Elisha's word, Naaman had dipped seven times in the Jordan, and after the seventh time his leprosy was healed and his skin restored like that of a child.

There were many lepers in Israel at the time, commented Jesus. But only the foreigner Naaman was healed.

Jesus' clear implication was that the Israelites in these eras were unworthy of these miracles, and so God bestowed miracles on outsiders who believed. It was a not-so-veiled commentary on the faith Jesus perceived in Nazareth. Outside this village Jesus had performed amazing miracles, but the unbelief in Nazareth was too thick. Even though they wanted to see a miracle show, they were neither worthy nor ready. A prophet wasn't honored in his own hometown.

Anger and Murder (4:28-29)

The resentment and skepticism that seethed beneath the surface, now erupted in anger and murder. The congregation rose up from their Sabbath synagogue worship intent to kill their homegrown Teacher. They drove Jesus out of the building and out the village. The Greek word for "drove" (NIV) or "thrust" (KJV) is Greek ekballo, a violent word that means " 'drive out, expel,' literally 'throw out' more or less forcibly."[6] The phrase "took him to the brow of the hill" uses the Greek verb ago. Its basic meaning is "to lead." But here it is used as a legal technical term: "lead away, take into custody, arrest." It is sometimes used of arraignment and trial, as well as of transport of a prisoner, or conducting a condemned man to execution.[7]

Though the cliff referred to in this passage hasn't been identified, Nazareth is built at the edge of a mountain. To the west the ground drops very rapidly to the fertile Jezreel Valley below. Without hearing or trial, and in violation of both Jewish and Roman law, his townspeople intended to kill him by throwing him over a precipice[8], perhaps as a prelude to stoning.

Was Jesus justified in his judgment of their worthiness, faith, and character? Obviously.

Walking Away (4:30)

Though they forced him to the cliff, they couldn't throw him over. Jesus just walked away, through the crowd, and out of town, never -- so far as we know -- to return to his hometown. It wasn't his time for martyrdom, that was three years hence. But the anger in the Nazareth prefigured the anger and resentment that finally killed Jesus.

Lessons for Disciples

In this downbeat story I see two lessons for disciples:

  1. Rejection is part of following Jesus. Sometimes we believe that if we witness flawlessly or live perfectly everyone will like us. Not so. If they rejected Jesus, we can expect to be rejected sometimes, too. Stop second-guessing yourself so much. Instead of focusing on what others think, seek to follow what the Lord shows you to do and let the chips fall where they may.
  2. Rejection is likely to come from those closest to us. By God's grace some of us see our families won to Christ by our testimony, but many don't. A prophet still has no honor in his own country.

Did any good come? Yes, even Jesus' crucifixion released the power of redemption and healing and resurrection that is still resounding and echoing around the world. Anger and evil do not ultimately prevail. It was necessary for Jesus to go to his own people in Nazareth, and to his larger people, the Jews, even though he knew he would be rejected. Though Jesus knew that Isaiah 53 applied to him, yet through it he saw the promise that is fulfilled through suffering. Jesus' disciple John sums it up best:

"He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 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 1:10-12)


Prayer

Lord, you know how I hate rejection. How I go way out of my way to avoid being or feeling rejected. Help me to grow out of it. Give me courage to face those who distrust, dislike, or resent me, who look down on me, who think they have me figured out. Help me to love them while refusing to compromise my integrity. Forgive me where I've been afraid. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.


Key Verse

None


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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  1. How can it be that Jesus can go from declaring his commission from God on high one moment, to being subjected to an attempted assassination the next? Have you ever experienced highs and lows this extreme?
  2. Why do you think Jesus "rubbed it in" with two stories of God blessing Gentiles while Jews were still in need? Is he egging on the residents of Nazareth?
  3. Why couldn't they kill Jesus at Nazareth? Why did Jesus willingly allow himself to be captured in the Garden of Gethsemane?
  4. How did Jesus show courage in the face of rejection? What lessons can you learn from his example?


References

  1. BAGD352.
  2. BAGD244.
  3. BAGD492-493.
  4. Marshall 185. He sites this usage in Matthew 23:31; cf. Susanna 41; John 7:7; 8:23.
  5. Marshall 187 cites three similar references including "Physician, heal your own limp" (Gn. R 23 (15c), in Strack and Billerback II, 156); Euripides, Frg. 1071; and an Arabic proverb, "A doctor who cures other people and is himself ill" (Bultmann, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, Göttigen, 1958, 112n).
  6. BAGD237.
  7. BAGD14.
  8. The Greek word is orphus, "literally 'eyebrow,' then 'brow, edge' of a cliff or hill" (BAG 600).

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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