How would you describe your own perception of Christianity?
Many people consider Christianity to be outdated, unsophisticated or tried-and-failed.
In the days of scrolls, before there was such a thing as the blurb on the back of a book, the beginning of the scroll would give the reader an idea of the content and why it was worth reading.
1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
What reasons does Luke give for why his account in particular is worth delving into as we seek to uncover the real Jesus?
It is commonly assumed that the gospels evolved over generations through a long process of ‘Chinese whispers’. However, there is good reason to be sceptical about this caricature. The Gospels were written well within the lifetime of many of the eyewitnesses. Those who met Jesus didn’t disappear in those early decades. Rather, they became well known figures and in demand among the early Christian community for their tales of their life-changing encounters with Jesus. These are the eyewitness testimonies that Luke carefully investigated and weaved into his ordered account.
Jesus was about 30 when he became a public figure, and from the beginning was known for his teaching and miracles. News about him spread like wildfire and his arrival in the towns and villages of first-century Palestine attracted large crowds.
In this early episode, an increasingly famous Jesus returns to his home town to speak at the local synagogue. Jesus reads from a scroll containing the message of the Old Testament Jewish prophet Isaiah (c.700 BC) before sitting down to explain what it means.
16 He 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, 17 and 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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20 Then 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. 21 He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
The passage Jesus chooses from the scroll he is given speaks of ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’. What, according to this prophecy, will characterise this new era?
‘The year of the Lord’s favour’ recalls the ancient Hebrew institution of the year of Jubilee, when once every 50 years all debts were wiped and everyone in society received a fresh start. The imagery here, however, goes way beyond social and economic disadvantage and speaks good news to those who recognise themselves to be enslaved, guilty and blind at the deepest personal level.
Do you think this good news would be received as good by everyone? Why might some respond with indifference or even take offence?
In verse 21, Luke identifies the ‘take-home message’ of Jesus’ sermon. What exactly does Jesus seem to be claiming about this prophecy?
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, ‘Surely you will quote this proverb to me: “Physician, heal yourself!” And you will tell me, “Do here in your home town what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.”’
24 ‘Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his home town. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian.’
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
While the people recognise a gracious authority in Jesus, are they wholly positive?
Jesus senses their reservations and anticipates the demand that he should, there and then, perform some of his famous healing miracles (verse 23).
Why do you think the people of Nazareth would demand displays of miraculous power from Jesus?
How does Jesus seem to view this precondition to accepting his message?
In verses 25–27 Jesus points back to a period in Old Testament history infamous for its indifference towards God and its tolerance of injustice. The prophets performed miracles in those days, but only among their Gentile neighbours, who were considered unclean and unworthy by Israel’s people at that time.
The people of Nazareth move from an initial positive response to murderous reactions. Why do you think they react so strongly to what Jesus says to them?
What do Jesus’ words in verses 25–27 suggest about who are most likely to receive his message as good news?
Luke tells us that he has carefully investigated the accounts of Jesus and has written his orderly account so that we (following his friend Theophilus) can carefully investigate these things for ourselves.
With this episode in mind, what things might prejudice or prevent us from fairly assessing the evidence Luke provides for Jesus Christ?