David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

The Nazareth Manifesto

Luke's Gospel chapter 4 verses 14-30

This article is based on a talk that was first given by David Couchman at Above Bar Church, Southampton, on Sunday 13th June 2004. It may be used in print or on other web sites, subject to the copyright notice below. The European and Local Government elections had just taken place on the previous Thursday.

Thursday was the day of the European and local government elections. Here are some of the flyers produced by different parties:

  • Labour: working for Britain. Vote Labour on June 10th
  • Let down by Labour? Vote Conservative on June 10th
  • Say NO to Europe - Vote for the UK Independence Party on June 10th

All the parties put out their manifestos. These:

  • Tell you what they will do if you elect them
  • Promise their program
  • Set out their agenda

Theologians call Luke chapter 4 verses 14-30 the 'Nazareth Manifesto.' We can have the Maastricht Treaty, or the Kyoto protocols. Well, Jesus had the Nazareth Manifesto. It is a public statement setting the agenda for his ministry; promising his program; telling us what he is going to do. Please do read this section from the Bible before you go any further, as the rest of this article will make much more sense if you do.

This is a very densely packed passage, and it is difficult to unpack all that is going on here. We are going to look at the Nazareth Manifesto under two main headings:

The roots of the manifesto (verses 14-21)

- mainly the roots in the Old Testament.

The Gospel writers do not always put things in time order, so we cannot be sure when these events took place. It seems that Jesus had already had a period of ministry in Jerusalem and Judea, and then he had come back up north to Galilee, and at some point in his Galilean ministry, he went back to his hometown of Nazareth. Both Matthew and Mark record similar incidents, which may be the same event, although they do not record what Jesus said in the synagogue.

Luke puts this here, near the beginning of his Gospel, as a program statement for Jesus's ministry. Jesus is setting the agenda. He is 'setting out his stall.' He is publishing his manifesto.

Luke begins by saying that he returned 'in the power of the Spirit.' The Holy Spirit is very important for Luke. He mentions the Spirit nearly sixty times in the book of Acts. In the Gospel, Luke speaks a dozen times about Jesus being full of the Holy Spirit, or ministering in the power of the Spirit,

You only have to look back to the start of chapter 4 to see an example:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert... (chapter 4 verse 1)

Or look down to verse 18:

'The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me...'

So Jesus comes to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and people receive him positively: everyone praised him (verse 15). Then he goes to Nazareth, his home town - where many of the people would have been his relatives - and everything goes pear shaped.

Nazareth was actually a rather insignificant place. It is not mentioned in the Old Testament, or by any Jewish writers from the time of Jesus. It was an unimportant village.

Because of this, you may hear people say that there is no evidence that Nazareth even existed as a place until a couple of hundred years after Jesus. Hence, they say, the Gospel stories are fictional accounts, made up later. However, like so many objections, this is based on out of date and inadequate information which is mindlessly recycled by unbelievers.

The IVP 'Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels' says this:

Since Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, in the Apocrypha or in rabbinic literature, some during the last century disputed its existence in New Testament times. In addition to an inscription mentioning it as a settlement for priests in the third to fourth century, excavations of recent years have removed every doubt... Remains dating from New Testament times consist especially of cisterns and silos hewn from rock, along with tombs...

The Biblical Archaeological Society's web site says:

In past years, excavators in Jesus' hometown have found a number of agricultural structures, including three watchtowers, a double wine press, quarries and olive crushers.

So Nazareth was a real place, but not a particularly important one.

Kenneth Bailey is a man who spent many years as a missionary in Middle Eastern villages. He is also a theologian who understands Luke's Gospel better than almost anyone else I know. Bailey says something interesting about Nazareth:

If you know anything about the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians today, you will know that one of the hot issues is the Jewish settlements that have been built on land the Israelis won from the Palestinians in various conflicts.

The purpose of these settlements is really to make sure that the conquered land stays Jewish. I am not going into the rights and wrongs of this here and now.

But there is a historical parallel: Bailey says that when the Jews came back from their Babylonian captivity, they settled in and around Jerusalem. Then, in 165 BC, the Maccabees conquered Galilee, and one of the things they did was to set up Jewish settlements in Galilee. It is an exact parallel with what has been happening in recent years.

It appears that Nazareth was one of these settlements. If so, it would have been a village of people who were very aware of their pure Jewish extraction. They would have been fanatical nationalists, just like many of the Jewish settlers today are.

It is even possible that the name Nazareth itself comes from the Hebrew word for 'Branch' - and 'Branch' was one of the titles of the Messiah - the deliverer God promised in the Old Testament. If this is so, the people who set up Nazareth were consciously claiming to be pure Jews who were paving the way for Messiah's coming.

When Jesus lived, it was a time of great expectations, as far as Messiah was concerned. People had all kinds of different ideas about what sort of Messiah they were expecting, and when Messiah would come. There was a lot of confusion. But at the heart of all these expectations, there was the idea that Messiah would be a military leader who would deliver Israel from their hated Roman overlords, and a great king who would re-establish Israel as an independent, and powerful, kingdom.

So this is the background to the people of Nazareth, and these are the expectations they would have had.

On the Sabbath, Jesus goes to the synagogue, which is his regular routine - that is an interesting reflection on Jesus's own spirituality. I am sure there were times when he did not feel like going. There may have been people there he found difficult to get on with. He may have disagreed with the rulers of the synagogue - but he did not stop going.

He stands to read. The rule in the synagogue was that you stood up to read the Scriptures, and sat down to teach.

The attendant hands him the scroll of Isaiah.

Jesus finds the place he wants, and reads a passage. He rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, and sits down - not because he has finished, but because he is about to start teaching from the passage he has just read. Everyone's eyes are locked on him:

Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. (verse 21)

The passage Jesus reads is from the beginning of Isaiah chapter 61. This is a passage about the Servant of the Lord. Jesus's hearers would have understood it as describing the Messiah - and they would have been very familiar with the words.

Let's look more closely at these verses, because there is an important point to draw out:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor
and the day of vengeance of our God... (Isaiah chapter 61 verses 1-2)

When they heard Jesus start to read this passage about Messiah's deliverance for Israel and the day of vengeance of our God, you can imagine these people in the synagogue at Nazareth were all nodding their heads: this was good stuff. This was how it is supposed to be! They would have been dead keen on God's vengeance on the occupying powers - the hated Romans.

But did you spot the deliberate mistake, in Luke chapter 4?

Jesus gets it wrong. He leaves out the best bit - the part about the day of God's vengeance.

You can be sure that they noticed he had left it out, and that they were not pleased! Jesus is implying that the day of God's favor is not just for the Jews, but extends to the non-Jewish people of the world too.

So Jesus is doing two things, here in the synagogue at Nazareth:

  1. When he says 'today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,' he is making a very explicit claim to be the Servant of the Lord foretold by Isaiah. He is claiming to be God's promised deliverer, the Messiah. You cannot avoid this claim.
  2. He is telling them what kind of Messiah he is. Most of the would-be Messiahs saw themselves as military deliverers from the Romans.

Jesus very clearly says that his agenda is different. Remember this is his manifesto. He says I have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to fulfil the mission God has appointed for me. And he defines his mission in terms of preaching good news to the poor, and doing works of deliverance.

It is the day of the Lord's favor - this is an allusion to the Old Testament year of Jubilee: the time for debts to be cancelled. Why is it the day of the Lord's favor? Because Jesus is here. If he is not the Son of God, this is the most paranoid claim imaginable.

Jesus's manifesto is inclusive, not exclusive. It is not that God is interested in the poor rather than the rich, or the prisoners rather than those who are free. In that culture, the poor and the prisoners were seen as the ones God was not interested in. If God blessed you, you would be rich and free. But Jesus says no, God is interested in everyone: the poor as well as the rich, the oppressed as well as the free, the non-Jew as well as the Jew. It is a message for the marginalized, and it overturns preconceived ideas and prejudices.

It is about spiritual realities: it is about proclaiming good news to the poor - literally, it is about evangelizing the poor; freedom for those who are prisoners of Satan; release for those who are oppressed by sin; God's favor for those who are by nature under his judgment, and cancellation of debts that we cannot repay. Jesus did not come to deliver the Israelites from Roman domination: he came to set his people free from a much greater problem. The poor, like the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed are not just those who are unfortunate here and now, but also those who are spiritually downtrodden.

However, we must not over-spiritualize it. In Bible-believing Churches in Britain for the past hundred years or so, we have tended to spiritualize Jesus's manifesto to the point that we empty it of its plain meaning: let me say again, it is a message for the marginalized. Jesus is concerned for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. He is concerned for those who other people regard as rejects, whether because of their ethnicity, their gender, their income level, or because they are disabled or ill. Whatever it is, Jesus's love for the outsiders is one of the key themes of Luke's Gospel. We are supposed to love them too, if we are his people.

The Good News is supposed to influence how we spend our time and our money at a very practical level. Did Jesus's manifesto affect how we voted on Thursday? It should have done. Not that we shall all agree about which party reflects his priorities best, but that we shall be thinking about Jesus's priorities, not just our own best interests.

So here we have Jesus's manifesto: his program statement, his agenda for ministry. He is claiming to be the Servant of the Lord, God's promised deliverer, and he is making it clear that he will not be the kind of nationalist political deliverer that the Jews are looking for. Instead, he has a message for the marginalized. And the roots of his manifesto are in the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah.

The response to the manifesto (verses 22-30)

When you read this story, what happens does not seem to make sense: in verse 22, all the people are speaking well of Jesus. By verse 28, they are furious with him and are trying to kill him. And there is nothing obvious in what Jesus says in between to cause such a change. Not only that, but as all the people speak well of Jesus in verse 22, his response in verse 23 does not seem to make much sense either - it does not follow.

The difficulty is in the way our English versions translate verse 22. Something has been lost in translation. So it is time for a quick Greek lesson.

I said something was lost in translation. It would have been more accurate to say something was added in translation: The original Greek does not include the word 'well.' It says: 'All emarturoun him, and wondered at the words of grace that came from his mouth.' Emarturoun is the word 'witness' or 'testify.' It is from the same root as our word 'martyr.'

This word is often positive - in fact, nearly all the English versions, and almost all the commentators, read it as positive. But a widely respected theologian called Joachim Jeremias pointed out that it does not have to be positive. Just as in English you can testify in support of someone or testify against them, you can be a witness for the defense or a witness for the prosecution, so this word can also be negative.

I Howard Marshall's commentary on the Greek text of Luke 4:22 says that 'martureo, 'to bear witness to', can be taken in the sense 'to praise', with a dative of advantage, or in the sense 'to bear witness against', i.e. 'to condemn.''

To give a parallel example, look at Matthew chapter 23 verse 29. Jesus is having an argument with the Pharisees, and he says:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! (Matthew chapter 23 verse 29)

'Testify against yourselves' is the same word in Greek, in the same grammatical construction.

So we might do better to translate verse 22 as 'all spoke against him.' It could be the exact opposite of what the English translations imply. Remember that it is the original Greek that is inspired, not our favorite English translations!

Interestingly, the Authorized (King James) Version is one of only two English versions I've found that don't translate this verse positively. The Authorized Version just says:

And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth...

Bible translators do a wonderful job, and of course most of the time, they get it right. I have a good friend who is a Bible translator. But they are fallible human beings, and just occasionally, perhaps there may be a slight possibility that they could just conceivably make a mistake.

Translating verse 22 as 'all spoke against him' would also help us to understand the end of the verse. They all spoke against him and were amazed at the words of grace that came from his lips. They were amazed that he did not mention the day of God's vengeance. It is not that they were pleased by these words of mercy for hated outsiders, but that they were angry with them.

If we translate verse 22 as 'all spoke against him', everything slots into place - both Jesus's response in verse 23 onwards, and the people's reaction in verse 28 makes much more sense.

They all spoke against him, and were amazed at the words of grace that came from his lips. Isn't this Joseph's son? they ask. Who does he think he is, claiming to be the Messiah? What does he think he's doing, telling us that God wants to be merciful to outsiders? He's just the carpenter's son!

Then Jesus responds, in verse 23:

Surely, you will quote this proverb to me: Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your home town what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.

In other words, you claim to be the Messiah, you claim to have a ministry of healing and deliverance - well, prove it!

Jesus's response to this challenge is in two parts:

First, in verse 24, he states a general principle: 'No prophet is accepted in his home.' The accounts in Matthew 13 and Mark 6 of what is probably the same incident include the words

Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.

This is just a simple principle, as true today as it was then, that you can have a respected ministry anywhere else, but when you come back to your home town and home church, you are just the carpenter's boy. Far from an advantage, for Jesus, as for many other people since, there is a home ground disadvantage. This is the principle.

Then he quotes two examples from the Old Testament. They are both stories about mighty works of deliverance done by prophets.

Verses 25-26 - a story from 1 Kings chapter 17, from Elijah's time, when God sent a drought and a famine. God told the prophet Elijah to go and stay with a woman from Sidon - a foreigner. As Elijah stayed with her, her supplies did not run out during the whole time of the famine.

Verse 27 - a story from 2 Kings chapter 5, from Elisha's time, when Naaman, who was the Army commander of Israel's enemy the Syrians developed leprosy. God used the prophet Elisha to heal Naaman.

Why did Jesus choose these two stories?

  • Elijah and Elisha were two of the most important prophets, and by comparing himself with them, Jesus is making a claim to be a prophet.
  • Then in both these stories, the hero (or heroine) was a foreigner, not a Jew. Not only that, but they were foreigners who believed and obeyed God, at a time when his chosen people, the Jews, were refusing to believe and obey him. Of course, there was a parallel between this and the way the people of Nazareth were responding to Jesus.
  • Finally, because of their faith and obedience, both of these despised foreigners experienced great deliverances by God.

The point is not just that God shows favor to those who are outside the chosen people - it is that, but more than that, it is that the chosen people rejected God's message and God's messenger, while both Naaman and the Sidonian woman believed and obeyed God's message.

The people of Nazareth, so sure of their own 'most favored nation' status with God, were about to do the same thing as the Israelites in Elijah's day and Elisha's day - to reject God's messenger.

Remember that this is Nazareth - it is a Messianic community. Jesus is saying to them, if you want to be part of Messiah's kingdom - if you want to share in the benefits of this new age that I am bringing in, you have to respond with the same kind of faith that the Sidonian woman showed; the same kind of obedience that Naaman demonstrated. Just being an ethnic Jew is not going to cut it any more.

But the people of Nazareth were not willing to entertain the possibility that their carpenter's son could be the Messiah. Those who are supposed to be God's people are so stuck in their ways that they cannot see that God is at work through someone they know so well.

So now we can understand what happens at the end of the story: the people become furious with Jesus, both for his claims for himself, and for his words of mercy towards outsiders, and for his putting down of their closed, self-righteous spirituality that rejects him just because they think they know him. They are furious because of his condemnation of their unbelief, and because of his favorable attitude towards non-Jews.

So they drive him out of the town, take him to the brow of the hill, and are about to throw him over. But Jesus is completely in control of the situation, as he always is, and he walks right through the crowd and goes on his way.

The response to the manifesto is rejection. When the people of Nazareth reject him, the end result is that Jesus goes off and makes his base at Capernaum. But it is not just Jesus who is rejected. The people of Nazareth are also rejected: there is no record that Jesus ever went back to his home town.

The Relevance of the Manifesto

So is this story just a quaint bit of Bible history, or is it relevant to us? I want to suggest three ways it applies to us:

(1) It asks us what we believe about Jesus. We cannot escape his claim to be the Messiah, God's appointed deliverer. The people of Nazareth thought they knew who Jesus was, and because of this, they rejected his claims. We need to think through this question carefully.

(2) There is a great temptation today to re-invent Jesus to fit our priorities - to make Jesus a Greenpeace campaigner, or a Buddhist monk, or a New Age philosopher.

The ancient Jews faced the same temptation. They wanted to re-invent him as a military leader. But Jesus would not let them do that.

And the way he prevented it was by holding them to Scripture - by defining his mission in terms of preaching good news to the poor and works of deliverance for the oppressed. He defined himself and his mission in terms of Isaiah's prophecy of the Servant of the Lord.

The way we make sure we are not re-inventing Jesus to suit ourselves is to keep going back to the historical revelation of him in the Bible. There is no other legitimate way for us to understand who he is or why he came.

(3) Finally, if we do believe that Jesus is the Son of God, if we get our understanding of him and his mission from the Bible, this story challenges us whether we are lining ourselves up with his priorities. Are we getting with his program?

What is Jesus's program? It is proclaiming good news for the poor, setting captives free, sight for the blind, release for the oppressed. It is the year of the Lord's favor - of canceling debts. It is a message for the marginalized.

He invites us to join him in it.

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