'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
Gavin is the rector of St Judes, Bowral, NSW.
The small-town boy, now the talk of the whole region, returns to his home ‘church’ in Nazareth. This is the synagogue in which he grew up. His Saturday school teachers could probably think back to when this Jesus was a young boy in their care. What a morning to be in synagogue that particular Saturday!
Jesus has returned to Galilee after his temptation, and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 14) he commits himself to a preaching tour all around the synagogues of Galilee. His teaching has given him a reputation (v. 15).
Jesus tells his disciples that the reason he was sent is to be a preacher of the gospel of the kingdom (v. 43). Teaching is what the Spirit-filled Messiah focuses on, for it is the essential form of revelation from God.
Luke gives us just one of these first sermons, and even then he only gives us Jesus’ opening sentence: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (v. 21). Let’s consider that opening sentence word by word (slightly out of sequence).
They have just had the Scriptures read, and probably at the guest preacher’s request the passage was a short reading from Isaiah 61 (see Luke 4:18-19).
Isaiah 61 is about a great reversal for the people of God, and for the holy city Jerusalem in particular. The prophet casts his eyes forward beyond the exile, to the redemption and rebuilding that will follow when they return. There will be a staggering reversal for God’s people. They had been made poor under the judgment of God because of their sin. They had become broken-hearted captives imprisoned because of the covenant curses that had fallen upon them. To them Isaiah preaches a gospel of reversal, in which God by his faithfulness will restore his people and make an everlasting covenant with all those who mourn and grieve their situation and the sin that put them there. The poor are Israel, and the answer to their poverty is the kingdom of the Messiah.
As the congregation stands around him, Jesus sits to preach (now there is a custom we ought to reintroduce promptly!), and he opens by telling them that this hope is fulfilled because he is here.
Fulfilment is one of the great themes of this gospel of Luke. The very first verse of the gospel then tells us that the whole book is about “the things that have been fulfilled among us.” Luke wants us to have certainty about the significance of the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He wants us to know that Jesus ministry fulfils and is in continuity with the Old Testament. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the fulfilment of God’s global plan of salvation.
Jesus says, “I am here, so this is now the year of the Lord’s favour.” The first word of the gospel is not a command or an exhortation to work harder, rather it is a proclamation of what God in his grace has already done in Jesus.
If you are carefully comparing Luke 4 and Isaiah 61 you will notice that the Scripture reading that day stopped abruptly mid-sentence. In Isaiah verse 2 continues, “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God”.
Why does Jesus stop before he gets to that last phrase? He does so because he wants to say that “today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. This is not yet the day of God’s vengeance. Today is the day of favour and opportunity.
There are three different fulfillment points of Isaiah’s prophecy separated by centuries.
1.The fulfilment in the history of Israel for those facing the reality of coming exile. They are encouraged that God’s Spirit will anoint someone who will liberate this people. This happens through Cyrus the Persian king.
2. This fulfillment on the ‘Today’ that is the coming of Jesus as the Messiah
3. The return of Jesus in power and glory to destroy his enemies – the day of vengeance.
“in your hearing”
The fulfilment of Isaiah 61 on that day is the preaching ministry of Jesus. His preaching inaugurates the age of favour and grace, but not yet judgment. It is a call to listening ears and responsive hearts.
How do they respond? The movement is striking; verse 14, everyone was praising him: verse 22, they are amazed at his words (with a tinge of condescension): verse 28, they are furious: and then verse 29, they turn into a lynch mob!
What can explain this shift? It is what Jesus adds to his sermon in verses 23-27 by telling two stories form the lives of Elijah and Elisha.
Two stories that both teach that salvation is not limited to the Jews, but at God’s initiative, Jews were passed over for the salvation of Gentiles. It is the Gentile question that leads to them turning against Jesus, just as Gentile inclusion leads to many of the Jews turning against Paul in part 2 of Luke-Acts.
They went from praising Jesus to trying to lynch him, because he told them that he had not come to bring vengeance on the Gentiles, but had come to preach forgiveness to them.
Jesus walks through the crowd, and keeps on preaching and seeking the spiritually poor and weak who know their need and respond to the call, even the Gentiles.
Today, even as many reject Jesus’ offer of favour, we can still expect to find the most unlikely people responding to Jesus. This is the year of favour and salvation to all those spiritually poor and weak who know their greatest need.