Luke 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Overview of Jesus' Ministry
Luke summarizes Jesus' activity by juxtaposing teaching (4:16-30) with miraculous activity (4:31-44). Jesus' teaching evokes both wonder and rejection, two reactions that continue in our contemporary world. This passage's events take place mostly on one day; only the introductory overview, the synagogue speech and the concluding verses move outside this narrow time frame. The section could be summarized by the title "A Few Days in the Life of Jesus." While up to this point the Gospel's events have moved quickly, jumping months and years at a time, now the pace winds down to give us a slow-motion look at Jesus. Those who study narrative tell us that when time decelerates in the presentation of an account, important events are being related. That is certainly the case here.
In the midst of people's rejection, there is also cosmic struggle as Jesus encounters hostile spiritual forces in 4:40-41. Jesus is always dealing with the reality behind the scenes of everyday life. The passage closes with reflection about Jesus' mission in Luke 4:42-44. He must preach God's kingdom. Jesus must explain how his rule and God's promises come in stages and how he overcomes forces hostile to humanity and to God (10:9, 18; 11:14-23; 17:20-21; 24:44-49; Acts 2:16-38; 3:14-26; 10:34-43).
This short summary makes two simple points. First, Jesus is still led by the Spirit (Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit). Second, he is drawing attention to himself through his teaching, as he taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
Galilee, lying in the northern region of Israel, served as the major ministry center for Jesus. The headquarters of this ministry was Capernaum, the city mentioned in Luke 4:31. It was because of Jesus' teaching that his fame began spreading throughout the region (so also 4:31; 5:3, 17; 6:6; 11:1; 13:10, 22, 26; 19:47; 20:1, 21; 21:37; 23:5). This is the first of several reports about the popular interest, curiosity and excitement being generated by Jesus (4:22, 28, 32, 36-37; 5:15; 7:17). What message could possibly generate so much interest? The next passage reveals the nature of Jesus' claims and provides initial answers to this question.
Have you ever waited a long time for something? As you see it draw near, anticipation rises. Do you remember the turning points as you moved from dating to engagement and then marriage, the anticipation of graduation, a work promotion, the purchase of a house, the arrival of a child? The moment, when it comes, is full of joy and the emotion of the realization of what had been anticipated.
God had promised the decisive demonstration of his salvation for his people for a long time. Now Jesus turns to declare the day has come; opportunity is present. After almost two thousand years of promise, stretching all the way back to Abraham, Jesus claims that the promises of a prophet like Isaiah are now being decisively realized.
But as in many great moments, questions arise. Is this really it? Have we moved from the days of promise to the time of the beginning of realization? Is God at work to fulfill his promise? Jesus' synagogue declaration brings a moment of decision for those who hear his claims. A snapshot of his entire ministry flashes in this brief exchange. Jesus offers much, but the crowd questions what is on offer. In the tension of the contrast, Luke's readers are left to choose sides.
The piety of Jesus' parents continues in Jesus, as on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. Unfortunately this is the first of several sabbath events that will end in controversy (4:31-37; 6:1-5, 6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-5). Jesus' piety is not like that of the Jewish leadership. The controversies raise the question who represents God and his way--a major thematic concern in Luke's portrayal of Jesus.
Yet despite the tension, Jesus does not attempt to separate himself from Judaism. Rather, he presents his mission as the natural extension and realization of Israel's hope. As Jesus hopes to show, the time of fulfillment has come. The opportunity to share in and experience release according to God's promise has come this very day (v. 21).
To appreciate the account, it helps to understand the order of an ancient synagogue service (m. Megilla 3--4; m. Berakot 2). To have a synagogue service required the presence of ten adult males. At the service, the Shema was recited (Deut 6:4-9), followed by prayers, including some set prayers like the Tephillah and the Eighteen Benedictions (m. Berakot 2:2). After this the Scripture was read, beginning with a portion from the Torah (Gen--Deut) and moving next to a section from the Prophets. Instruction then followed. Often the speaker linked the texts together through appeal to other passages. The service then closed with a benediction.
Jesus appears to speak during the reading of the Prophets. He reads from Isaiah 61:1-2, a passage that promises the coming of God's salvation. His commentary, unlike most sermons, is brief, declaring simply, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." The claim is so great that we need to work through the elements of the Old Testament passage carefully.
The passage starts with Jesus' claim that the Spirit of the Lord is on me. Jesus claims to be directed by God to minister and preach. The details follow, but interestingly, the reader of Luke's Gospel knows more about what this means than Jesus' original synagogue audience would have known at the time. The first hearers would have heard a claim for a divinely directed ministry, but they may not have realized that at his baptism Jesus had been anointed not just for a prophetic ministry but as Messiah. Readers of Luke have the memory of the anointing fresh in their recall. Jesus' remark recalls 3:21-22. His statement, along with what follows, shows that he is both an anointed Son and a prophetic figure. He reveals God's will and brings God's promise.
In the synagogue speech, the next line gives the goal of the anointing: to preach good news to the poor. This theme has already received attention in Mary's hymnic burst of praise in 1:51-53. Theologians today debate the significance of what Jesus said. Does this verse and those that surround it resonate with themes of political liberation for the oppressed? Is Jesus supporting class struggle? Luke's use of the term poor in chapter 1 and beyond makes it clear this is not only a socioeconomic reference. On the other hand, neither is class excluded from Jesus' concerns. In 1:50-53, the reference to "the humble" is surrounded by descriptions that indicate the spiritually sensitive character of the poor. Luke 6:20-23, too, compares the trouble the poor face in this world to the experience the prophets of old faced. So the text Jesus reads is not a carte blanche endorsement of the poor, nor is it a political manifesto. This hope extends only to the spiritually sensitive poor, to the responsive. The passage recognizes that often it is the poor who respond to God's message and embrace it with humility (1 Cor 1:26-29; Jas 2:5). They tend to sense their need and have no delusions of power, control and independence. They are what the Old Testament called the 'anauim "the pious poor," also called "the afflicted" (2 Sam 22:28; Ps 14:6; 22:24; 25:16; 34:6; 40:17; 69:29; Is 3:14-15; Amos 8:4; Bammel 1968:888).
For those looking to God for hope, Jesus was the answer. To respond to God, one must be open to him. For those in need of God, Jesus has a message of good news. Luke loves to emphasize that a potential audience for this message can be found among the poor. His social concern expresses itself fully through the details of what Jesus said at the synagogue--details the other Gospels lack. But this social concern is concerned with spiritual realities, not political ideologies.
So Jesus is sent to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed. Luke 4:31-44 makes clear that the oppression in view here is mainly spiritual. Forces stand opposed to humanity that pull down and bring sin, pain and pressure. Being under demonic oppression is like being trapped in a prison of pain and despair. Jesus offers release from such pain and dark despair. That is what his miracles picture and point to, the reality beyond the act of the miracle (11:14-23).
Jesus' words, then, work at two levels simultaneously. He will heal the blind, but that also pictures the coming of light to those in darkness (1:78-79). The healing of the blind man in 18:35-43 also pictures what Jesus does for Zacchaeus in 19:1-10. Jesus is the physician who comes to heal the sick (5:31-32). Eventually the ministry of Jesus will bring total restoration and release to the creation (Rom 8:18-39; Rev 21--22), but in the meantime, deliverance means release into forgiveness and relationship with God.
Jesus' statement that he liberates the oppressed makes it clear that he is more than a prophet; he effects salvation. The allusion here is to Isaiah 58:6. Isaiah 58 calls on Israel to respond to God by fasting with a life of ethical honor to God (esp. 58:13-14). The prophet rebukes the nation for having failed to live up to the call of its sabbath worship. What Jesus promises here is a release that will result in his providing what the nation had failed to provide. In fact, many of the sabbath controversies in Luke have to do with Jesus' providing such release despite complaints about the sabbath timing of his healings. But Jesus replies that no time is more appropriate than the sabbath for such healings (and what they picture; 13:16).
This is why Jesus has come to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. Here the allusion is to the jubilee, the year of cancellation of debts (Lev 25:8-17; Sloan 1977:39-41). What happened in that year, when debts were canceled and slaves were freed, pictures what Jesus brings for those who respond to his message of hope. Jesus builds on the picture of Isaiah's ministry, which also proclaimed such hope, and notes that what the prophet had proclaimed Jesus is fulfilling.
In sum, Jesus makes three points: (1) Jesus is anointed with the Spirit. (2) He is the prophet of fulfillment who declares good news. This office is what theologians have called "the eschatological prophet" or "the prophet like Moses," because Jesus proclaims the arrival of a new era of salvation, functioning as a prophet-leader. (3) Jesus is the one who brings release as well as the one who proclaims it. He is Messiah. This final idea helps to explain the blind man's insight into what he has been hearing about Jesus when in 18:35-43 he calls out to the Son of David for healing. The Son of David brings not only a future rule but also present release from sin and a reversal of the effects of Satan's presence in the world (11:14-23). In short, this is the beginning of the fulfillment of God's promise, and Jesus is the source of that fulfillment.
Jesus' claim that "today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" places both listeners and readers in the position of having to make a choice. No fence-sitting is possible. Jesus' teaching is not some ethical instruction detached from his person. He is the promise of God. Either he brings God's promise or he does not.
The crowd does reflect on the claim; they are amazed and perplexed simultaneously. They spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. They recognized a persuasive speaker in their midst, but his pedigree gave them pause. Isn't this Joseph's son? How could he be the promised one of God? Knowing their thoughts, Jesus responds. In the Gospels, when someone thinks and then Jesus speaks, his words usually carry rebuke (7:39, 49-50; 11:38-39).
Jesus replies in three ways. First, he cites a proverb that indicates they want him to prove it. "Show me" is their basic response to his claim. Yet after the evidence is produced, there will still be doubt. Miracles, as powerful a testimony as they are to Jesus, in the end never convince one who does not want to come to God (16:31). People must be willing to hear the Word of God and receive it before they will see anything as God's work.
Second, Jesus quotes the proverb that a prophet is not honored in his home. This remark reveals Jesus' understanding of Old Testament history. He knows how repeatedly God's messengers were rejected. This theme will also surface continually in Luke (11:49-52; 13:32-35; 20:10-12: Acts 7:51-53). God's message is often met with rejection. The proverb also serves as a prediction that for many in Israel Jesus' ministry will fit into this tragic mold.
Third, Jesus recalls the history of Israel in the period of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17--18; 2 Kings 5:1-14). The history lesson is a warning. That period was a low point in the nation's life, when rejection of God was at an all-time high and idolatry and unfaithfulness ran rampant. So God moved his works of mercy outside the nation into Gentile regions, as only a widow in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian experienced God's healing. The price of rejecting God's message is severe: mercy moves on to other locales. It is quite risky to walk away from God's offer of deliverance. This exchange reveals the basic challenge of Jesus' ministry: the choice he presents carries high stakes.
The crowd does not seize the opportunity. Rather, Jesus' warning angers them. The suggestion that Gentiles might be blessed while Israel reaps nothing leaves them fuming. Such displeasure at the accountability implicit in the gospel message is echoed in Acts (7:51-59; 13:46, 50; 22:20-22). Many respond similarly today when they realize that the gospel is a matter of "take it or you will be responsible to God for the consequences."
Jesus departs, despite the crowd's efforts to seize him and remove him from the scene. People can try to turn their back on Jesus and do away with him, but he always will be sojourning in their midst.
Opportunities for God's work are also opportunities for tragedy. That is what is pictured in Jesus' synagogue visit. The promise's arrival was a great, historic moment, an occasion to enter into God's rich blessing. But blessing refused is tragic. The crowd's response is the first of many moments of opportunity lost in the Gospel. It is another step in a paradise lost. The gospel brings a choice--and choice has consequences.
These verses contain several quick snapshots of Jesus' public ministry during one day in the Capernaum region. The sequence highlights his miraculous activity, the most distinctive aspect of his ministry. Since these are the first miracles Jesus performs in Luke's Gospel, here we should stop to look at how miracles function for Jesus.
First, miracles are real events that evidence Jesus' authority. Since the Enlightenment it has been popular to question the possibility of miracles, because nature has been viewed as a closed world of cause and effect. But the most difficult miracle of all was the resurrection, yet its reality is the only way to explain how the disciples who were so distraught at the cross became bold proclaimers of Jesus' vindication after the third day. In sum, if a resurrection is possible, the other miracles are a piece of cake. Can God actively intervene in his creation? The testimony of the resurrection and the other miracles is that he can and does with sovereign exercise of his power. And Jesus' consistent exercise of such power testifies to his unique access to God. As Jesus will note, if his power is not from Satan, then it must represent the presence of the "finger of God" (11:14-23).
Second, miracles are audiovisuals of deeper realities. In other words, they are not merely events for events' sake, they picture something more important. This point can be seen in two key miracles. In 5:1-11 Jesus leads four fishermen into a great catch of fish. Yet immediately Jesus makes the point that from now on they will be fishers of persons. The miracle pictures ministry. Another example comes in 11:20, where Jesus says that if he casts out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon his audience. Here he is not speaking merely about the miracle of 11:14, but about all of his activity. The miracles picture a deeper reality about Jesus' authority.
In all the debate about whether miracles are real (or even whether they still occur through spiritual gifts within the church today), we in the West have lost their pictorial value, which is their major point. Those of us who live in the industrialized, philosophically sophisticated West might profit from listening to the testimony of many in the Two-Thirds World who appreciate the symbolism that these texts contain. Numerous passages show Jesus discouraging people from focusing too much on his miraculous activity (Mt 12:39; Mk 8:12; Jn 6:26-27). Sometimes he performs a miracle and asks that it not be divulged (Lk 8:56). Why does he do this? Possibly because he knows the meaning of the miracle will be lost if people focus on the event itself. In the rush to take and experience what Jesus has to offer, people can easily forget the One all the miracles point to.
Third, miracles unveil the deep cosmic struggle between the forces of evil and Jesus. If we ask what the miracles show, it is Jesus' sweeping authority. These events, especially those involving demonic forces, reveal hand-to-hand combat (Eph 6:10-12). The miracles pull back a curtain, as it were, so we can glimpse the behind-the-scenes battle within creation.
Armed with these three observations about miracles, we can appreciate even more what Luke 4:31-44 represents. Jesus tackles demons and disease to show he possesses the key to life. That authority and exercise of cosmic power is why he can speak of his mission being about the kingdom of God in 4:43. Jesus' authority shows the presence and concern of the rule of God on behalf of those who turn to God in a time of need.
This introductory summary of Jesus' ministry begins in verses 31-32 highlighting his teaching in Capernaum--his message had authority. As Jesus teaches in a city that will become his headquarters, the masses are aware that rather than citing what the rabbis had said in the past, Jesus speaks directly about God and his will. The following verses make an additional point: there is more to Jesus' authority than his ability to preach the Word; he can show the presence of God's power.
Jesus' first miracle involves a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit. Demons are mentioned twenty-three times in the Gospel of Luke, but most of the references (fourteen) occur between here and 9:50, in the discussion of Jesus' Galilean ministry. It is clear that the man is threatened directly by this possessive force. Some in Judaism believed that demonic control of humans would end on the Day of the Lord (1QM 1:10-14; 14:10-11; Fitzmyer 1981:545-46). Judaism taught that demonic power would be crushed in the messianic age (Testament of Zebulon 9:8; Assumption of Moses 10:1), and Jesus says as much in 7:22-23. Here is the second face-off in the battle between Jesus and the forces of evil. With Satan already defeated in the first encounter (4:1-11), his underlings are the opponents here. Both the nature of the times and the victor are revealed in the battle.
Given the descriptions of this condition in the Gospels, it seems clear that demon possession, whatever one calls it, is the direct exercise of demonic power from within a person. If something is "exorcised" or asked to depart (v. 35), then something was present that needed removal. Mark 5:1-20 indicates how such possession can become very self-destructive. The New Testament suggests that one can distinguish between possession and sickness (Mt 4:24; Lk 4:40-41; 7:21; 9:1; 13:32), yet some overlap in terms of external manifestations can exist (Lk 8:29; 9:39; 11:14; 13:11, 16). By appearances, then, it can be hard to distinguish certain kinds of sickness from possession. Possession tends to manifest itself in very erratic behavior or physical impairment (Mk 5:1-20; Lk 8:29; 9:39, 42; 11:14; 13:10-17). The concept of possession itself (or, better perhaps, having an unclean demonic spirit, as the Greek of v. 33 puts it) indicates that the destructive and hostile force in control of the person lies inside the person and takes control of him or her from within.
Another way the New Testament lifts the veil on spiritual forces is through the dialogue that accompanies miracles. In this first miracle in Luke, the demon asks whether Jesus of Nazareth has come to destroy us. Who is meant here--all demons, or the demon's complete influence over the man so the two are tied together? If it is the former, then the point is Jesus' authority over all evil spirits, a significant admission early in Jesus' ministry. If it is the demon's strong connection to the man, then the demon thinks Jesus cannot destroy him without destroying the human he possesses. In effect, the remark, though it is posed as a question, poses a challenge. Given the note in the next verse about the man emerging from the exorcism unharmed, the latter sense seems slightly better here: the demon does not think he can be challenged without the man's being harmed as well.
But why does the demon name Jesus and call him the Holy One of God? Possibly the naming of Jesus is an attempt to gain the advantage by uttering his true name in the midst of the approaching supernatural confrontation. On a literary level, the naming serves to make clear who the combatants are--an interesting recognition by the forces opposed to Jesus that he is on the side of God. The naming makes it obvious that a battle of cosmic proportions is under way. Though it is hard to be certain about the demon's motive in naming Jesus, his remark serves to identify the significance of the battle. Jesus meets the challenge and removes the presence and power of evil on the man without destroying the man himself. What a picture of Jesus' power!
So the confession by the demon is very important. Jesus is the Holy One of God. In the Old Testament, this title or one similar to it was given to Aaron (Ps 106:16), Samson (Judg 13:7) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:9). In the context of Luke's story we know that Jesus is holy because of his regal authority (1:31-35), a point reinforced in 4:41, when the Son is called the Christ. As James 2:19 suggests, demons have knowledge about God but fail to respond to that knowledge. Here is a case of evil having great angst in the presence of active righteousness. Evil cannot stand up to righteousness when righteousness takes a firm stand. Any victory it may appear to have is fleeting.
Jesus rebukes the spirit and prevails. The term used here may well reflect Semitic terms for calling evil into submission (Fitzmyer 1981:546). In addition, Jesus silences the demonic spirit. Why does he do so? Does he want to avoid any suggestion that he is a revolutionary against Rome (Stein 1992:163)? Does he simply want his works to speak for themselves (7:18-23)? Were only certain types of proclamation appropriate for Messiah? So Longenecker (1970:71-74), who notes similar hesitations in the claims of the Qumran Teacher of Righteousness and Simeon ben Kosebah suggesting a Jewish expectation on this question.
Of all the options, the most likely is that Judaism taught that Messiah should only engage in certain types of self-proclamation. Perhaps also there is concern that the title Messiah would be understood with too political a force (Stein's view noted above). More than one reason may lie behind Jesus' command.
Regardless of the exact reason, Jesus' authority prevails, even though the demon tries to injure the man upon departing by throwing him down (Mk 1:26 mentions convulsions).
The story of this healing closes as the crowd asks, "What is this teaching?" In their amazement they recognize that something very unusual has occurred. They see that Jesus approaches evil forces with authority and power. A hierarchy of power is being displayed--what could it mean, and where does such power come from? Luke leaves the miracle as an event to ponder. The demon's confession suggests the answer, as do subsequent events: this Jesus is the Holy One of God, and his power exceeds that of the forces of evil. Needless to say, news of the event spreads far and wide.
Jesus' power over evil is not limited to spiritual forces. His healing of Peter's mother-in-law shows his authority over disease, and thus by implication his authority over life. The story is told simply. Jesus merely rebuked the fever--a verb that almost personifies the illness. Luke's unique use of the phrase he rebuked (epetimesen) parallels verses 35 and 41, linking the events of the day around the theme of Jesus' power (both verses use the same Greek verb). Immediately the woman's health returns. Again, Jesus' actions reveal special authority.
As the sabbath passes, Jesus continues to heal. People with all sorts of maladies show up. Both sick and possessed come. The healings described earlier are not one-time coincidences. Jesus possesses the power to heal consistently. Note that the order in verses 40-41 (healing, then exorcism) reverses the order of verses 31-39. The pairing shows how Luke wishes Jesus' ministry to be seen. It is a ministry of mercy to those in need, fighting to overcome evil with compassion. Jesus' compassion is pictured by his laying on of hands. In his touch are power and presence. People flock to him because they sense that compassionate element in his work. By the way Jesus reaches out to them, they know he cares.
The exorcised demons recognize his authority. They confess Jesus to be the Son of God. Luke explains that this means they knew he was the Christ. Only Luke makes this comment. Jesus' regal, anointed authority extends to overcoming the forces of evil.
When at the break of day Jesus departs, the crowd follows and tries to keep him in Capernaum. Yet again Jesus speaks of his mission: "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns." This is why Jesus has been sent. The content of this kingdom message is seen in what Luke has already supplied (4:16-30): Jesus fulfills the promise. When John the Baptist raises the question again later, Jesus' answer points to such fulfillment (7:18-23). Jesus does not proclaim who he is; he lets events explain who he is. For him, actions speak louder than words. He is more than an ethical instructor or a psychologist; he has power to overcome the forces of evil that plague humanity. His ministry is not designed for a little corner, but it extends far and wide to take the message out to others. So Jesus takes his message and ministry to the other synagogues of Galilee.