“Jesus Tells It All in the Nazareth Synagogue” by S. Kent Brown

As a preface, one of the important messages running through Luke chapter 4 has to do with true power and authority. It begins with the devil’s temptations, continues through the Savior’s experience in the Nazareth synagogue, and ends in Capernaum, where Jesus first delivers a man from an unclean demon, then cures Peter’s mother-in-law, and, after the Sabbath ends, heals a multitude. Naturally, there is more.

On a quiet Sabbath in the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus rises and receives from the attendant the scroll that contains the book of Isaiah. He deftly rolls the scroll to the beginning of chapter sixty-one and then steps forward onto the slightly raised platform in the middle of the room.[i] While his fellow worshipers—including family members, friends, and townspeople—sit around the room, literally surrounding him,[ii] he begins to read. The effect is electric. Every eye is “fastened on him.” They have already heard of miracles that he has performed in Capernaum. The question on everyone’s mind is, What might Jesus do here, in his hometown? He will surprise them all.

Before we examine this intriguing scene, we should notice that it fits within a context. It does not sit in Luke’s narrative in trimmed isolation. No. What precedes and follows are a part of a connected story, a story that begins with the devil.

Somewhere west of Jericho and east of Jerusalem, in a wilderness that can quickly drain life, Jesus fasts for forty days, communing “with God.” After roaming barren hills, “he was afterwards an hungered, and was left to be tempted of the devil” (JST Matt. 4:2). This experience and others are captured in prophecy when the angel who appears to King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon predicts, “he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer” (Mosiah 3:7).

After Jesus is wrung out physically and mentally, the devil swoops in. Without waiting for a receptionist angel to allow him access to the Son of God, the devil approaches, points to a stone on the ground, and begins to test the fatigued Jesus. “If thou be the Son of God,” he hisses, “command this stone that it be made bread” (Luke 4:3). At first glance, it appears that Jesus’ trial or temptation will be a test of his willpower, whether he can resist the devil’s urging to satisfy a hunger that has been gnawing at him for almost six weeks. This understanding is surely true. But I suggest that something more fundamental is at play here. It has to do with power and authority and is embedded in the conditional expression, “If thou be the Son of God.”

“Jesus,” the devil is saying, “if you are really God’s Son and possess his power, it is a small thing to turn a stone into a nicely shaped loaf of bread. After all, back during the creation, you helped to make a human being from dust, a much more intricate and complex task than turning a stone into something edible.” But without arguing about power and its proper manifestations, Jesus brushes the devil aside by quoting scripture: “It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Deut. 8:3; Luke 4:4).

The devil is not deterred. Not yet. He bores deeper still. In Luke’s reckoning, the devil and Jesus meet on “an high mountain” and then at the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. In each instance, the devil presents a temptation. When examined, each of these contests that the devil provokes has to do with power and authority. In each case, Jesus dismisses the devil by quoting scripture, not by bandying about the subject.

Now we turn back to the Nazareth synagogue. As Jesus stands reading, his lips form the words from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives” (LXX Isa. 61:1; Luke 4:18). Here is the grand announcement of what is coming during his ministry. It all begins because “the spirit of the Lord” now rests upon Jesus and because he has been anointed and sent. More than this, here is his response to the devil’s challenge specifically about authority. On this man rests God’s holy authority; with this man comes God’s Spirit. Significantly, the announcement takes place in a synagogue, an institution of devotion and worship and ordinances and sacred learning.

We all know that Jesus’ experience in the Nazareth synagogue does not turn out well. Soon the congregants turn on him and he has to withdraw. Luke then follows Jesus to Capernaum where, on the next Sabbath, he goes into the local synagogue. There, Jesus encounters “a man, which had a spirit of an unclean devil” (Luke 4:33). Now comes a demonstration of power that is aimed partially at the devil and his minions.

When the “unclean devil” or demon (Greek daimōn) screeched, “Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? . . . Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him” (Luke 4:34–35). In one last act of defiance, the demon casts the afflicted man into the middle of the synagogue and “came out of him, and hurt him not” (Luke 4:35). Here, Jesus effectively invades the devil’s domain and, with power, subjects one of the devil’s minions. As we have noticed, this is Jesus’ second response to the devil’s earlier challenges, this one about power. In fact, the gathered worshipers make the point for us when they say to one another, “What a word is this! for with authority and power he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they come out” (Luke 4:36). We observe again that Jesus chooses to answer the devil in a place of prayer and worship, of holy ordinances and sacred learning.

Now that we have seen an important element in the broad context of Jesus’ experiences—namely, how he responds to the devil’s challenges in the days after he breaks his fast— we step back into Nazareth, where Jesus reads from Isaiah’s book and then sits down to comment. The words that he quotes brim with authority and carry the stunning essence of who he is and what he is about to do: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18).

When Jesus sits down to comment, he holds the attention of everyone in the room. But instead of giving the crowd what it wants—a miracle of some sort that they have heard about from Capernaum—he draws their minds back to stories in scripture that have to do with God’s gracious acts toward Gentiles, namely, Elijah’s blessing of the widow of Sarepta during a famine and Elisha’s healing of the Syrian army officer Naaman from his skin disease. The worshipers erupt in fury and try to kill him. He escapes only by miraculously “passing through [their] midst” and heading down to Capernaum (Luke 4:29–31).

Notably, both Jesus’ words and the crowd’s reaction will characterize his unfolding ministry. Taken as a whole, Jesus’ visit to Nazareth stands as the radiant centerpiece of Luke’s gospel. This visit highlights the colorful tapestry of his teachings and miracles, his life and redeeming death. In the first place, he comes to Nazareth to undrape his messiahship and chooses the synagogue to do so, the one place in the town where, within moments, he turns acquaintances into witnesses. Jesus’ chosen pattern of teaching in synagogues where he can reach as many as possible is one essential thread which becomes visible again and again in Luke’s report.

Further, in Nazareth Jesus puts his stamp on the character of his ministry. Only days before, he withstands the temptations to aggrandize himself by a dazzling public display in Jerusalem by jumping off the temple pinnacle. In Nazareth he faces the very same temptation, this time to satisfy the expectations of friends, people whom he loves and who will surely support his ambitions. Instead, he demonstrates that his powers are not for mere display, but that his earnest exertions will be to deliver “the poor” and “the brokenhearted” and “the captives” (Luke 4:18). His ministry will be to those who are in need of his aid, and will accept it.

In addition to the Savior’s announcement about his authority, he weaves a subtle but direct reference about his powers into his remarks. For he cites the biblical stories of Elijah’s nourishing stay with the widow of Sarepta during a famine and Elisha’s healing of Naaman the Syrian leper (see 1 Kgs. 17:8–16; 2 Kgs. 5:1–14). But Jesus is appealing to more than Gentiles who receive heavenly blessings. He is lifting up a clear reference to divine powers that he will match during his ministry, powers that will preserve and enrich people’s lives. The first manifestation will occur a week or so later in the Capernaum synagogue, but the announcement rings through the Nazareth synagogue at the very moment that he frames the proclamation of his authority.

The Savior’s featuring of the widow in Serepta emphasizes his compassionate concerns. Drawing attention to her and to her situation is plainly intentional, carrying a subtle message that, on a spiritual level, he has come to deliver individuals from death-dealing hunger and illness, to heal people from spiritual lack. More openly, Jesus ties himself to the enormous powers that Elijah exhibits, though he holds them back in Nazareth. In addition, as in the case of most widows, the woman of Serepta is little noticed inside her larger society, except for her presence in this story. By pointing to her, Jesus pushes forward the message that he has come to meet the needs of the little-noticed, the vulnerable.

In this connection, the Savior’s powers emerge into the full light of day, but not in a form that we might anticipate. As we have seen, it is plain that people in Nazareth expect Jesus to perform a miracle as he has elsewhere. His refusal only heightens the drama of what finally happens—the expected miracle occurs in a way that the angry crowd cannot see, right in front of their dimming eyes. As they furiously seek his death and roughly lead him to “the brow of the hill,” he turns and passes “through the midst of them [and] went his way” (Luke 4:29–30). That he escapes is astonishing. That he calls on his powers to rescue, in this case to rescue himself, is plainly evident from the account, though Luke does not report it as a miracle. Yet a miracle occurs within plain sight of the townspeople, one that they will refuse to recognize because of their newly aroused ire.

The crowd’s stormy response to the Savior elucidates another irrepressible theme that pushes through Luke’s narrative—rejection. In time this kind of response will also affect the disciples, for we behold some of the intensifying exasperation that builds within the circle of the Twelve when, after villagers in Samaria refuse them customary hospitality, “James and John . . . said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them?” Gratefully, Jesus is in control and, after rebuking the two brothers, declares that “the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (Luke 9:54, 56).

With rejection, death also raises its frightful countenance as a major theme to be fulfilled at the end of the Gospel. Although Jesus does not die at the brow of the hill, it is the congregants’ intent to kill or seriously injure him, as opponents will succeed in doing at Jerusalem. His death becomes more explicit when he, in transfigured form, speaks with Moses and Elijah “of his decease,” or exit from this life, and when Jesus draws the Twelve to himself and intones, “we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished” (Luke 9:31; 18:31).

By quoting from Isaiah in the synagogue, the Savior announces other aspects of his ministry. First, he understands that Isaiah sees and prophesies of his days, a notion that appears in other scripture (see 2 Ne. 11:1–2; 3 Ne. 23:1–3). Hence, he grounds his own work in Israel’s past. Prophets and others who look forward to the days of the Messiah are looking forward to this moment, and Jesus stands as its fulfillment. Second, for those who see Jesus’ ministry extending beyond the grave, the words of Isaiah point directly to his eventual ministry to “the captives,” to “the spirits in prison” (Isa. 61:1; 1 Pet. 3:19; see D&C 138:42). There, he will “heal” and “set at liberty” those who “sometime were disobedient” (Isa. 61:1; Luke 4:18; 1 Pet. 3:20; also D&C 138:18, 31). Perhaps surprisingly, this passage is one of the only firm allusions in the four Gospels to Jesus’ ministry among the departed dead. The first hints in Luke’s Gospel lie in lines from Zacharias’ prophecy, “To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79; see D&C 138:30; also Isa. 9:2). Third, because Jesus brings the “Spirit of the Lord,” a prominent grace in the best eras of his people’s past, he is reintroducing the spiritual strength and divine enrichment of distant days when the heavens opened and blessings showered onto God’s people. For those attuned to their people’s past, the present moment brims with providential promise.

[i].Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 93–94.

[ii].Levine, Ancient Synagogue, 185, 337–41.

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