Bible Study: Luke 4:16-21

No mere political manifesto

Jesus’ campaign launch at Nazareth: Luke 4:16-21

Marc Dale is the Rector of Highgate in the Diocese of Perth.

16He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

 

Political leaders give some of their most memorable and powerful speeches at their campaign launches and inaugurations. In May 1940, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons with these words, ‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs—victory in spite of all terror—victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.’

Gough Whitlam launched his historic election campaign in November 1972 with these words, ‘Men and Women of Australia! The decision we will make for our country on the second of December is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and the demands and opportunities of the future. There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time.’

In his inauguration speech in January 1981, Ronald Reagan declared, ‘It is time for us to realize that we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We are not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.’

The one thing each of those speeches, and many more like them, have in common is that they hold out hope and expectation that depend on human endeavour for their fulfillment, so they’re naturally bound by the finiteness and frailty of human beings.

In Luke 4:16-21 Jesus makes his campaign launch speech, but it has a radically different scope and trajectory to those of politicians and statesmen. He delivers it before a home town crowd and as the scene unfolds, there’s nothing out of the ordinary. Jesus had taken his place in the local synagogue and was invited to read the Scriptures (something he’d certainly done many times before) and no-one would have been expecting anything unusual. It was no coincidence that it was the scroll of the prophet Isaiah that was handed to him, from which he read,

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

In the first few chapters of his gospel Luke carefully builds his case, showing us by his baptism in the Jordan, his anointing, his family tree and his triumph over Satan that Jesus’ is the new Israel, the new, true human and the true King. He’s the one through whom God will fulfil his plans and keep his promises for Israel and the whole world.

In Luke 4:16-21 Jesus announces that he is the one for whom Israel had been waiting—God’s promised King—and he tells them what his rule will be. He wasn’t seeking election to high office. God had already bestowed on him the highest office and authority that there is. Jesus has always been ruler of all. He had come to bring life to the dead, to bring the lost home, to make God’s enemies his friends, to exalt and raise up the broken and rejected and to set a world full of prisoners free. This was not a mere political manifesto.

Isaiah knew that what God had promised was something much greater than earthly political revolution, but by Jesus’ day many Jews had limited it to merely that. It had been four hundred years since God had sent a prophet. They’d been invaded and oppressed by successive foreign powers and now they’d been subsumed into the pagan Roman Empire. They wanted a political revolution to overturn their immediate, present circumstances. That’s understandable, but it made their expectations for a Messiah very small. Many Christians do the same the thing today. They limit Jesus’ mandate to political and social revolution in this world or even to just turning their own situation around, but when we read the rest of Luke and listen to what Jesus says about his Kingdom, it’s clear that those things are a consequence of his Kingship not its end goal.

God’s grand purpose in sending Jesus is to ‘rescue us from the dominion of darkness and bring us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.’ (Col 1:13) The scope and trajectory of Jesus’ kingdom are eternal. That doesn’t mean it’s only about the future beyond this life. God’s kingdom comes here and now when a person accepts Jesus as Lord and when people have Jesus as their King—when they love him, trust him, follow him—God uses them to transform the world.

If political, economic and social revolution was the primary objective of Jesus’ mission in Judea, then it was an abject failure. In Luke 7, John the Baptist was languishing in Herod’s dungeon when he sent his disciples to ask if Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus pointed to his miracles and preaching (Lk 7:22) and said the same thing as had said that day in the synagogue: ‘Yes, I’m the one you’ve been waiting for’. But he didn’t storm Herod’s stronghold and set John free from prison or save his life from the executioner. Jesus healed many people and raised some from the dead, but not most. He didn’t drive the Romans out of Judea or improve living standards or reform the justice system. That’s not because justice and human dignity and flourishing don’t matter to him or because he didn’t have the power to do it. Satan had offered him that option in the wilderness. He could have done all of that and limited his agenda to temporal, earthly matters but he had come for much more than that.

Jesus’ miracles and even his challenges to the politically powerful and affluent of his day were never an end in themselves. They always pointed to the eternal picture and because Jesus stuck to the mission God had given him and refused to be limited to political revolution, countless millions have been rescued and are being rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into his Kingdom.