Jesus in the Synagogue

John 4:43–54; Luke 4:16–30

Leaving Samaria, Jesus ventures to Galilee. John makes a preliminary note in verse 44, which we later see in Luke’s passage under this study. While in Cana, where he performed his first miracle, a father from Capernaum came seeking healing for his son. He’s desperate because of the dire nature of his son’s health (v. 47). This father had traveled fifteen miles, about a day’s journey, uphill. The father didn’t make it back the same day, but his servants met him, and the nobleman inquired about when his son became well (vv. 49–53). 

Luke 4:14–16 is a year, filled in by information from John 1:29–4:54. Since Jesus had time to make an impact within a year, his popularity no doubt grew. So when he returned to his hometown to participate in the synagogue meeting by reading from the prophets and preaching, he would have likely been given attention to see what he would say and do.

From this sketching of the synagogue meeting and other passages, we notice how closely the early church worship mirrored the synagogue meetings. The synagogue meetings were not for worship per se but religious instruction. Synagogues were like an institute of religious education (Contra Apion 2.7; Mosis 3.27), and synagogue worship negates the place of the temple in the life of the Jew. The temple was where worship was rendered, though one might argue that common prayers in the synagogue were a sort of devotion.

There were at least two readings in a synagogue meeting—one from the Law and the other from the prophets (Megillah 4.1–5). The latter was followed by the ruler of the synagogue asking if anyone had a message after their reading (Acts 13:15; 15:21). The Law was read on a liturgical calendar in its entirety in three years (Megillah 29b). Had a priest or Levite been present, they would have been given preference over anyone reading (Gittin 5.8), so Jesus’ reading infers the absence of both. The reading of a prophetic book was the meeting’s conclusion, known as the haftarah. Since this portion of the reading was not preselected, the reader, at their discretion, could select the passage to read (Megillah 4.4).

For Jesus to unravel the scroll to Isaiah, to read this small portion from it, to roll it back up and hand it to the attendant likely took some time because the Jews were respectful in their handling of the Scriptures. After his reading followed a sermon that explained the text and applied it (cf. Luke 4:31–33; 6:6), and afterward, Jesus related this reading to the ministry of Elijah. However, the message and point of this relation appear after they question who Jesus’ father was. The fact that stung the audience was that Elijah, like Jesus, was also sent to Gentiles to work miracles when the people of God refused to receive them. This enraged the audience, who likely anticipated the Messiah, but they couldn’t believe his report because they knew him as Joseph’s son and had seen him grow among them.

When Jesus read from Isaiah, one passage Jesus noted was the one that read, “…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This phrase indicates that the year in which Jesus spoke was the year of Jubilee (cf. Lev. 25:8–17, 50–54; Deut. 31:9–13). During the year of Jubilee, whoever sold themselves as enslaved people or was indebted was released from their debts and freed. If someone lost land as surety, it was returned. Imagine a year where all was forgiven. That’s the year of Jubilee, and it is after this model of the year of Jubilee that chapter seven bankruptcies are modeled.

However, that doesn’t mean that a person was free to rack up as much debt as possible so that it could be forgiven in seven years. No, those usually indebted were in that position because they had to borrow to survive and not because they tried to save the cars, boats, and ways of life to which they became accustomed. This year was for those who found themselves in an unfortunate position of indebtedness—a position in which all Christians find themselves (cf. Matt. 18:23–35). Jubilee was meant to avoid oppression and social classes. On this year, every man was square with one another. It was in this year that Jesus begins healing on the Sabbath—a move that would later draw the ire of the religious leaders of his day. 

Author: Steven

Minister at Glendale Road Church of Christ (Murray, KY)

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