The Inauguration of Jesus’ Ministry
Luke 4:14-15 says,
14 And Jesus returned [hupostrepho, “under a revolutionary turn”] to Galilee in the power of the Spirit; and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. 15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised [doxazo, “praised, extolled, magnified, glorified”] by all.
News spread about Him because the people were excited about His message. They must have known that He just returned from a forty-day fast in the wilderness, and no doubt they were interested in the revelation that He had received.
Luke tells us that Jesus was doing a lot of teaching in Galilee before going to Nazareth, but he gives no real details about this earliest point in Jesus’ ministry. We must turn to the first chapters of John to learn how Jesus first met some of the men who later became His disciples.
John and Jesus Meet Again
Not long after John baptized Jesus, it appears that John the Baptist had traveled north to Bethsaida (John 1:44) in Galilee, where he was preaching repentance and discussing the Kingdom with his disciples. When Jesus returned from the wilderness, as the story goes, Jesus soon ran into his cousin, John the Baptist.
It seems that John had been teaching the people about the Messiah and had been telling them about Jesus’ baptism, bearing witness to Him as the Messiah (John 1:24-28). The next day John saw Jesus coming. This meeting is described in John 1:29, 30,
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me’.”
The following day, Jesus was still in that area, and so we read in John 1:35-37,
35 Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked upon Jesus as He walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.
Jesus Meets Andrew and Peter
One of John’s disciples was Andrew, who was so excited that he ran to his brother, Simon, shouting, “We have found the Messiah!” Simon immediately dropped everything and came with his brother to see for himself. John 1:42 says,
42 He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John [or Jonah]; you shall be called Cephas” (which translated means Peter).
We know no more of that conversation. Peter and Andrew went home that evening.
Apparently, both Andrew and Simon were disciples of John the Baptist. In the metaphorical terminology of the day, they were said to be “sons” of John. The name, John, is of Greek origin, but the text in John 1:42 literally reads Iona, or Jonah, not John. According to Dr. Bullinger, Iona, or Jona, is “Aramaic for John.” The NASB translators took the liberty, then, of translating the name Jonah to John.
We know, of course, that Peter was called Simon Barjona (Matt. 16:17), which means Simon Son of Jonah, or Simon Jonasson (as the Swedes would spell it). The Gospel of John seems to imply a double meaning in his gospel account, telling us that Simon was the biological son of a man named Jonah, but that he was also a spiritual “son” of John the Baptist.
At any rate, Jesus seemed to find his name to be prophetically significant, as this is the only detail about their introduction given in John 1:42. Jesus immediately gave him a new name, changing it from the Hebrew name Simon (“one who hears”) to the Aramaic name Cephas (“stone”). This, in turn, translates into Greek as Peter. Hence, Peter had three names, one for each language.
When Jesus Met Philip and Nathanael
The next day they found Philip, who was also from Bethsaida (John 1:43). He was probably an acquaintance of the others, though not a fisherman himself. Perhaps he was one of their customers. Philip was impressed with Jesus and immediately accepted His call to follow Him. He ran to find his best friend, Nathanael, telling him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45).
“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
“Come and see for yourself.”
Nathanael was his Hebrew name, which meant “gift of God.” His Aramaic name (used in Luke 6:14) was Bartholomew, which means “son of Tolmai.” He had been born in Cana and was not at all impressed with the narrow nationalism of the people of Nazareth.
In fact, his friend Philip seems to have had only a Greek name, indicating that he and his friend Nathanael were heavily influenced by Greek culture. Yet because his friend Philip pressed him, he came with him to see Jesus.
As Nathanael came into the room, Jesus turned to him, saying, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile” (John 1:47).
“How do you know me?”
“Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
“Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.”
“Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these. Amen, Amen, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
John gives us no details about the “fig tree” incident. We do not know if Jesus literally saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree, or if He knew by the Spirit. It is likely that Nathanael had been doing something that was a private matter and was therefore not mentioned. Perhaps he was helping a woman or a non-Jew, or some other act of kindness that would be better left unsaid, lest he should be criticized by his peers.
At any rate, his name, “Gift of God” seems to have drawn a prophetic statement from Jesus. It seems likely that he was giving someone a gift under the fig tree, and that this act of generosity was not suitable to disclose to the general public.
Jesus Attends a Wedding in Cana
In the sequence of four days at the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus attended the wedding in Cana (John 2:1) on “the third day” from when Jesus and John had met. Cana was not far from Bethsaida, so this too proves that John the Baptist had journeyed to Galilee. Recall that he had baptized Jesus farther south near Jericho at the place where Joshua had led Israel across the Jordan many centuries earlier.
John 2:11 comments on Jesus’ miracle at the wedding, saying,
11 This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him. 12 After this He went down to Capernaum, He and His mother and His brothers, and His disciples; and there they stayed a few days.
It is unclear if the miracle at the wedding in Cana was Jesus’ first miracle or if it was simply the first sign of the eight which John set forth. It seems most likely that this was actually Jesus’ first miracle, on account of His statement at the wedding, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). And so this event must have taken place before Jesus’ other miracles in Capernaum which we have already discussed.
The next verse, John 2:13, is obviously a new chapter in the story, because John skips all the way to a Passover where Jesus cast out the moneychangers from the temple. The wedding feast probably occurred in November or December, but Passover was in April. Further, there is no compelling reason to believe that this particular Passover was the first one after Jesus’ baptism. The eight miracles in John’s gospel do not follow a chronological order, because they are arranged to form a Hebrew Chiasm representing the eight days of Tabernacles.
So Jesus met the first six disciples in the two days prior to going to Cana for the wedding feast. But He did not yet call them to the ministry, for it is not until later that He called them while they were repairing their nets at Bethsaida.
Jesus Continues to Minister in Galilee
Between November and April Jesus was ministering and perhaps even performing many miracles before being asked to speak at the synagogue in Nazareth. We only know from Luke 4:23 that while ministering in Nazareth, Jesus knew that the people had heard that He was a miracle worker:
23 And He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your home town as well.”
Because nothing is said about the miracle that He did at Cana, but only “at Capernaum,” it suggests that Jesus had healed people at Capernaum, and that this was what attracted the attention of the people in Nazareth. He was, after all, the home town boy and perhaps felt that He might confirm their nationalistic cause by making Him the Celebrity from Nazareth.
Nazareth and the Settler Movement
Luke 4:16 says,
16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up, and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read.
Here we learn that Jesus was “brought up” in Nazareth. Luke 2:4 informs us that Joseph (and probably Mary as well) were from Nazareth when Jesus was born. Hence, they were long-time residents of that town, and “as was His custom,” Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day.
It is plain, then, that virtually everyone in the town knew Jesus. We do not know if He had joined one of the local haberim (“the friends”), which were groups of people who met nightly to discuss the law in those days. It would be strange if He shunned such discussion groups. Kenneth Bailey says,
“We can be confident that Jesus was part of this group because in the Gospels He demonstrates skills in the rabbinic style of debate such as were nurtured in these fellowships” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 147).
Yet in small towns, which are known for gossip, many may have remembered the scandal surrounding His birth, for His mother had claimed to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit. It is not likely that many of them believed her story, but in the end they had to agree grudgingly that Joseph had the right to forgive her and marry her.
By now the people had heard that Jesus had already performed some unrecorded miracles of healing in neighboring towns, and they were hoping to witness some being done in Nazareth as well (Luke 4:23). If Jesus had satisfied them in this regard, it is more likely that He and His message would have been accepted. But this was not to be.
Nazareth was not mentioned in the Old Testament writings. It was a Jewish settlement on a hill overlooking a cliff. During the Maccabean conquests in the second century B.C. they conquered Galilee and Idumea and soon became obsessed with establishing settler towns on the high ground, much like what we see today in Palestinian territory. Such settlements in the midst of resentful or hostile neighbors, invariably create a fanatical nationalistic mindset, where all are divided into Jews and non-Jews, friends and enemies, and “us and them.”
Nazareth, then, was an all-Jewish town even three centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem.
This was Jesus’ home town. We do not know if He discussed the impartiality of the law or even if He expressed His view in His early years. But it is clear that the town did not shape His theology or influence His understanding of the law. The contrast between Him and the town came to a head only when He returned to the synagogue and “stood up to read.”
The Scripture Reading and Jesus’ Commentary
Luke does not tell us if He volunteered to do the reading that day as the Maphtir, or if the ruler of the synagogue asked Him to do so on account of the miracles He was rumored to have performed. But custom dictated that if the Maphtir requested to read a Scripture that differed from the prescribed reading for that day, it had to be approved by the ruler prior to the meeting. It was customary that the Maphtir should read at least 21 verses, although this was not always done. More importantly, there had to be an interpreter to tell the people what those verses were believed to mean. In this way, the “traditions of men” became well established in the minds of the people.
It was also important that Jesus stood up to read the Scripture. The rabbis taught that it was unlawful to read the law while sitting down or while leaning against a pillar. Following that custom, Jesus “stood up to read.” When He had finished, He also interpreted the passage, as this was allowed.
Luke 4:16-19 forms a Hebrew parallelism, though written in Greek, with the Scripture text in its center.
16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up…
A1 and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath,
B1 and stood up to read.
C1 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him.
D1 And He opened [unrolled] the book [scroll], and found the place where it was written,
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me…
(a) to preach the gospel to the poor.
(b) He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
(c) and recovery of sight to the blind,
(b) to set free those who are downtrodden,
(a) 19 to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.
D2 20 And He closed the book,
C2 and gave it back to the attendant,
B2 and sat down;
A2 and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon Him.
We can see from this parallelism that the most important portion of the Scripture reading is in the middle (c), which says, “and recovery of sight to the blind.” In fact, because the order of the text is taken directly from Isaiah, we can say that this was Isaiah’s primary focus as well.
In other words, Jesus came to open the eyes of the blind, and when He healed those who were physically blind, it demonstrated His power to open the eyes of those who were spiritually blind as well. In Exodus 4:11 God told Moses, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him dumb or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”
The problem of Israel’s blindness was evident even after spending forty years in the wilderness, for Moses tells them in Deut. 29:4, 5,
4 Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear. 5 And I have led you forty years in the wilderness…
The prophet Isaiah also prophesies of Israel’s blindness, saying in Isaiah 42:18-20,
18 Hear, you deaf! And look, you blind, that you may see. 19 Who is so blind but My servant, or so deaf as My messenger whom I send? Who is so blind as he that is at peace with Me, or so blind as the servant of the Lord? 20 You have seen many things, but you do not observe them; your ears are open, but none hears.
This blindness was also prophesied in the life of Isaac, who was blind (Gen. 27:1) when he blessed Jacob, rather than Esau as he had intended to do. Abraham had offered up Isaac on Mount Moriah earlier in Genesis 17, formally making him God’s servant. Thus, Isaac was the original “blind servant” and was the prophetic model in the writings of Isaiah.
Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1, 2 but left out Isaiah’s statement, “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.” He also stopped in the middle over verse 2 without reading the final two parts of the prophecy, including the people’s favorite statement: “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Remember that Nazareth was a town of settlers in the midst of non-Jews who resented their land grab. There is little doubt that Nazareth was well steeped in the common Jewish view of the day that God hated all non-Jews who got in the way of their supposed land “redemption.”
Isaiah’s parallelism puts the primary emphasis on the Year of Jubilee:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted:
A1 He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
B1 to proclaim liberty to the captives,
C1 and freedom to prisoners;
C2 to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord,
B2 and the day of vengeance [naqam] of our God
A2 to comfort [nakham] all who mourn
We can see from this that “the day of vengeance” runs parallel to proclaiming “liberty to the captives.” The Hebrew word for “vengeance” here is naqam, which is a homonym of nakham (or nacham), a reference to the Comforter, or the Holy Spirit.
The day of vengeance is the time when our great Avenger of Blood (or, kinsman redeemer) comes to re-establish the lawful order. His “vengeance” is not like man’s vengeance, for it is described in Romans 12:19-21,
19 … Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Paul’s counsel to the church is to follow God’s definition of vengeance, rather than man’s. God’s “wrath” is His passion, not anger as we ourselves might experience. His idea of vengeance is to send the Holy Spirit to “comfort” us, that is, to send the baptism of fire (Matt. 3:11, 12) to consume all that is fleshly in us. Hence, to “comfort all who mourn” is to “bind up the brokenhearted.” That is the inner work of the great Comforter whom Jesus sent after ascending to the throne.
This was Isaiah’s primary focus, but Jesus altered it in order to apply it more specifically to His current mission in His first appearance. He had not come the first time to restore the lawful order but to prepare the way for that second work. The main work that lay before Him was to open the blind eyes of the people in preparation for the Year of Release that was to come later.
The people of Nazareth did not share Jesus’ understanding of divine “vengeance,” nor did they want any part of overcoming evil with good. And so we will see their violent reaction to Jesus’ teaching.