After Jesus was baptized in the river of Jordan and started to preach the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God, he visited his hometown. He was received by God his Father. He was welcomed in Galilee. So we’d expect that he would be welcomed in his hometown. After all, the name “Jesus of Nazareth” itself carries a certain pride for the little town of Nazareth. Imagine a village boy returning to his village after his successful sojourning to a big city! Wouldn’t it bring some pride to the village?
On the Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue. The service started with the reading of the Shema: “Hear O Israel! Yahweh our God is one. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, soul, and strength!” The reading of Shema was them followed by some reading from the Torah and the Prophets. After that, a short sermon was given. On that day, Jesus read a portion from the Prophets and then preached the sermon. Jesus stood, opened the scroll of Isaiah right at chapter 61, read it out loud, rolled the scroll, and sat –taking a posture of a teacher. See, a Christian preacher stands while preaching. The rabbis, on the other hand, sat. What was the passage from Isaiah about? It was the gospel – the good news of deliverance from oppression and bondage! Then Jesus said, “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” What good news! The synagogue attendees rejoiced. Yet they started asking around, “Isn’t he Joseph’s boy?” Well, this Joseph’s boy kept preaching. After he was done, they were mad and dragged him out of the village. They tried to push him down from the top of a cliff. This is certainly not a punishment for a bad sermon! Let’s say you don’t like my preaching today. You won’t try to push me down from the top of that stair. What’s the worst case? Probably the offering may be less than usual. Or next time I am here, I won’t be invited to preach.
In Jesus’ time, if someone deserves to die on the spot without any trial, he will be dragged outside the town and thrown onto a lower plain to be stoned to death. The lower plain signifies an accursed state of the accused and amplifies the impact of the stones. That was the punishment of a false prophet. But Jesus’ time was not yet up. Through the power of God, Jesus escaped the imminent death. But why did the Nazarenes turn from receptiveness to rage then finally to rampage? There are at least two reasons.
First, Jesus corrected their wrong interpretation of the gospel. The Jews understood the gospel as the good news of deliverance from oppression – which, in their interpretation, was from the hands of the Gentiles. Yet that’s not all. The gospel also proclaimed vengeance against God’s enemies – which, in their interpretation, was the occupying Gentiles, i.e. the Romans. The history of Indonesia is filled with foreign imperialisms: from the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, and the Japanese. The Dutch occupied our country for three and half centuries. They not only robbed our natural resources, but they also took captive of many Indonesians for forced labors. They extorted high taxation from the royal families and land owners. Needless to say, these people were robbers and in many cases murderers. The Japanese –who claimed to be “the Big Brother of Asia” – was even worse. They forcefully enlisted many young Indonesians to fight for them in WWII and kidnapped numerous young girls for sex slaves. They did some much damage in three and half years. Imagine how our grandparents felt about the Dutch and the Japanese. This was what the first-century Jews felt about the Gentiles. Since their childhood, they were told the great sagas of Abraham. They knew that their forefathers used to be slaves in Egypt until Yahweh sent Moses to rescue them. A Hebrew prince of Egypt turned a shepherd, and finally a kingly and prophetic figure of Israel! Moses led Israel out of Egypt with the guidance of the pillar of fire and cloud. Then they arrived at the Red Sea. They thought they were about to get killed by the Egyptian soldiers behind them. But Yahweh – through Moses – split the sea into two so that the Israelites might pass through the sea on a dry land. What a glorious salvation! But that’s not all. Yahweh obliterated the Egyptian soldiers as they entered the split sea. They were killed by drowning. What a severe vengeance! Yes, the exodus was an epic of salvation and vengeance. So they were waiting for the ‘Prophet like Moses’ whom Moses promised in Deut 18. He would not only deliver them out of the hands of the Gentiles, but also destroy them by the power of Yahweh. That would be their second exodus – so they thought.
But one day, a boy-next-door told them that he was indeed the ‘Prophet like Moses.’ Yes, he proclaimed deliverance. But to their surprise, he did not proclaim vengeance against the oppressive Gentiles. Even worse, he told them that God’s blessing that was meant for the Jews would be transferred to the Gentiles. That’s outrageous! It’s not good news. It’s another gospel, a false gospel, proclaimed by a false prophet. And the false prophet must die!
Brothers and sisters, who do we hate the most? Who do you think deserve the most severe judgment when Jesus comes again? Is it someone who hurt us? Or a group of abominable sinners whom you think are too far from God’s grace? A false prophet named Benny Hinn once prophesied that the homosexuals in America would be destroyed by fire from heaven before a certain time. The prophecy did not come true of course. But is our prayer like that? If so, we must come before God and repent. No one is too far from God’s grace proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the power onto salvation for everyone who believes.
Second, Jesus refused to perform miracles to authenticate his prophetic role. In the Gospel of John, the Jews did not expect a prophet to come from Galilee –let alone Nazareth. A great rabbi perhaps, but certainly not a prophet – especially the ‘Prophet like Moses’ … If someone tells you that the math champion in the East Java math competition studies in the Petra High School, it’s not so surprising.¹ But if someone tells you that the champion comes from the high school in Wlingi [a relatively small village in East Java], you will not believe and want to test the champion – see if his or her math is truly good. So if a famous Pharisee from Jerusalem said that he was the ‘Prophet like Moses’, many would believe him. But Jesus –the boy-next-door – was not a likely candidate. They wanted to see some signs first. Yet Jesus knew their unbelieving hearts and refused to entertain them. Jesus also knew that the ultimate test for the Prophet was not signs and wonders, but whether his prophecy came true. This was indeed what Moses taught in Deut 18. Ironically, this prophecy came true. The Acts of the Apostles –and some letters of Paul – told us that multitude of the Gentiles came to faith while most Jews were hardened. Many Jews rejected the ‘Prophet like Moses’ whom Moses promised and hence missed the second exodus. The blessing was indeed transferred to the Gentiles who now take part in the kingdom of God.
Brothers and sisters, do we live as people pleasers? What or who is the motivation of our ministry? Do we serve the Lord? Or perhaps we strive to simply make people happy. Do we preach the gospel faithfully or do we compromise the gospel to make it more acceptable? Jesus could have avoided all the problems if he granted their wishes or changed his message. But Jesus stayed on course. He fulfilled the mission that his Father gave him – to preach the true gospel. In fact, Jesus brought the good news to those who were destitute, those who were regarded as second classes, and those who were perceived as unclean. Jesus hung out with sinners and tax collectors not to live like them but to transform them with the power of the gospel. Jesus touched the unclean lepers to cleanse them not only from their diseases but also from their sins. This was his mission as Isaiah 61 says. He was the herald and the good news himself. Do we live out the gospel like Jesus? No one deserves the grace of God in the gospel of Christ. Yet when we were sinners, Christ died on behalf of us. Let us be channels of blessing through whom the gospel is preached to others – whether to our friends or to our enemies. Let us pray.
¹ Petra Christian High School is one of the best high schools in Indonesia. Note that academic achievers are much more excelled than high school athletes in Indonesia (unlike in America!). So this illustration is more relevant for this audience.