Luke 4:16-21 – Reading Isaiah in Nazareth

After the baptism and temptation, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth where he attends a synagogue service. He is asked to read a portion of scripture from Isaiah 61. (It is possible Jesus was allowed to choose the passage, it is not certain whether synagogue readings were scheduled for the prophetic books in the first century. In addition, a small synagogue in an insignificant town like Nazareth may not have had a complete set of scrolls other than the Torah.)

After Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 he declares that they are fulfilled “today.” This is a remarkable claim since the passage in Isaiah is associated with the year of Jubilee – the time when the slaves would be set free and land returned to the original owner. N. T. Wright regularly points out that this prophetic text alludes to Lev. 25:8-12 and would have been understood as a reference to a new age of release and forgiveness for the nation (Simply Jesus, 75, for example).

Did Jews think they were still in an exile and in need of restoration? A key text is Daniel 9, where Daniel reads the prophet Jeremiah and determines that the 70 year exile ought to be over. In response to his prayer for restoration and the end of the exile, God reveals to him that the exile will be extended for “70 Sevens,” presumably 490 years. Only after that period is over will God finally end the exile.

Another text found among  the Dead Sea Scrolls has a similar view that the end of the exile will be like a Jubilee.  11Q13 Melichzedek indicates that at least some Jews prior to the time of Jesus thought of themselves as living in the exile. While this text is fragmentary it appears to be a collection of texts from Isaiah describing the end of the age as a new Jubilee. Melchizedek appears as a messiah-like figure who was predicted by “the anointed of the spir[it] as Dan[iel]”in Dan 9:25. He will be a “the messenger of good who announ[ces salvation].” All this sounds very much like Jesus’ words in Luke 4.

In fact, if the community at Qumran is associated with scrolls like this one, then their location in the desert, near the place where Israel ended their 40 years exile in the wilderness and finally entered the Land is remarkable. They are enacting the prophecy of Isaiah 40 to go “into the wilderness and make straight the paths of the Lord.”

By choosing this text to read, Jesus is drawing on a stock of apocalyptic imagery to describe his own ministry, the “times of jubilee” are fast approaching! It is significant that he stops reading where he does, he does not read the lines about the day of vengeance. The Melchizedek scroll includes vengence on the enemies of God’s people: “Melchizedek will carry out the vengeance of Go[d’s] judgments, [and on that day he will fr]e[e them from the hand of] Belial and from the hand of all the sp[irits of his lot.]”  Why did Jesus stop before the announcement of vengeance? I would suggest that it is simply because he knew his mission was not judgment, but to ‘provide a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The kingdom is already arriving, but it is not yet fully arrived int h ministry of Jesus. The prophecy of Isaiah is demonstrated in the next few pericopes. In 4:31-37 a demon is driven out of a man (releasing of the oppressed); in 4:38-44 many people are healed. In Luke 7:36-50 Jesus forgives a woman’s sin! As Wright says, these stories not only resonate with the long-awaited Jubilee, but also the Exodus story.

Are there other indications that Jesus thought of his ministry as the “end of the exile”?

NB:  All DSS citations are from Martinez and Tigchelaar The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

14 thoughts on “Luke 4:16-21 – Reading Isaiah in Nazareth

  1. I don’t think Jesus thought of His ministry as really historical, at least in our modern sense, though not to diminish the historical, as to fulfill it! So we can often just side-step so-called “scholarship”, for a Jewish Biblical Eschatological, (Matt. 5: 17, see too verse 35). Noting too (Rom. 9: 4-5 ; 15: 8).

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    • I think that you are right in that Jesus thought of himself in an eschatological sense. I am interested in Jesus’ self-understanding, but that is always difficult to get at since we do not really have anything directly from him, it all comes through the gospel writers.

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      • Indeed John’s high-water mark with Jesus as the Logos (John 1: 1-5)! I love B.F, Westcott’s Commentary: The Gospel According To St. John (The Authorized Version With Introduction And Notes, 1881). The Introduction is grand itself!

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      • The Word is always both the Logos and the Rhema! I am somewhat with Barth, Brunner, and even Bultmann with the Word as always that existential reality that comes to us. Here is the Pauline Mysticism!

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  2. In the sense that exile was the punishment of their sins, Jesus was aware that God was bringing the forgiveness of sins, which in that way would be the end of the exile, but also the end of slavery to sins for all nations, not just Israel. Jesus announcing the year of God’s special favor was a sign of his knowledge of the end of the exile and start of the release of prisoners. To state the obvious, Jesus clearly knew the Scriptures well and so he was fully aware of what all the prophecies would come to and perhaps that his life was at the center and cost of it. Whether or not Jesus actually thought of it in a historical sense I also can’t be certain, I do agree that it was rather apocalyptic. I actually can’t be certain of many of Jesus’ thoughts (but what he has said), nor could I understand them. N.T. Wright states, “Jesus was well aware that what he was doing didn’t fit with what people were expecting. But he believed that he was indeed launching God’s kingdom campaign. He was the one in whose presence, work, and teaching Israel’s God was indeed becoming king” (85). As for why Jesus stopped before announcing vengeance, Jesus knew he was not the one to judge, but rather to save. John 3:17, For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. I think Mark 10:45 is better proof of Jesus’ awareness of that being his mission, Doctor Long.

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    • Myself, I would not want to miss the future dispensation of judgment, nor does our Lord, as in Luke 4:18,19 “And He closed the book”. HE will indeed be the Judge! (as we can see often in John Gospel…John 5:22-27 ; 30, etc. ; John 12: 48-49-50. The Hebrew accent separates these two clauses, and note too that the vengeance is assigned to a “day”, in contrast with “year”.

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      • Surely we can see the time of Gentile apostasy closing fast today, and the day of “Israel” (in their Land), closing in both judgment and salvation, (at the Lord’s Coming). But, it will not be without great loss and God’s purpose – God’s election is always for a remnant people!

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      • I don’t mean to dismiss the judgment to come at all, but think in the blog there was a point as to why Jesus stopped reading when he did in that instance. But that is not to say that vengeance isn’t coming just because he didn’t say it that one time. I appreciate your reply and references!

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      • Indeed my point was Jesus own “dispensational” idea, the “day” of vengeance (judgment). Which closes the Age, with the Coming and presence (Parousia).. the revelation and manifestation of Christ, to “Israel” (the Holy Land) and the world! (Zech. 14: 4-8, etc. / Rev. 1:7) From here is the New Creation begun!

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  3. Because His ministry brought with it the arrival of the Kingdom, I believe that one ‘end of the exile’ Jesus may have been referring to an end to the kingdoms of man. As we wrote about in our last paper, the Jewish people had been experiencing oppressive human governments for as far back as they could remember. Whether it was under Egypt, Babylon, Persia, or now Rome, they had been mistreated for generations. In the past, it was God who heard their cries and delivered them when they had no hope. During the time leading up to the ministry of Jesus, the Roman government had tried every way possible to break up Jewish culture and religion. In short, the empire tried to exalt itself to a level reserved for God alone. Like God had done in the past, He again came to the rescue of humanity. However, this time it would not be on behalf of the Jews alone, it would be for humanity as a whole. As Wright points out in chapter seven of Simply Jesus, “In a shocking reversal…Jesus declares that the people who will benefit from this great act of God will not, after all, be the people of Israel as they stand” (pg.7). Jesus was announcing an end to the kingdoms of the world by introducing the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom brought with it spiritual freedom and rescue from the oppression of sin (or exile).

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  4. Even when Jesus was a young boy he had an understanding of the scriptures that surprised the teachers in the temple. “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2:46-47) He knew what he was talking about and he knew what the prophecies said, but when he said these things I believe the Jews thought he was referring only to them, while he was actually referring to all people. The Jews had the opportunity to escape from their exile, but most of them denied Jesus as the Messiah. God gives people free will; he doesn’t force redemption and salvation on people who don’t want it. He provided a way and it was rejected by many. Jesus knew that the prophecies were talking about him; another thing that the Jews may not have realized is that God works in his own time. “He had made everything beautiful in its time.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11a) They believed that the end of their exile was going to happen instantly, but God had other plans. God created a way not only for the Jews to be redeemed but for all humanity to escape from the exile of the fallen world, and be saved by Jesus sacrifice. Jesus knew that he was ending the exile.

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