I thought I’d offer a chapter on a little book I’m working on about the life of Jesus. I’ve read a couple little books about Jesus, and both profoundly affected my life. It has been a dream of mine to write a similar book in hopes it would bless others like these two blessed me.
The Kingdom of God comes to Israel
Jesus’s public ministry really took hold in Galilee, a region of Israel 100 or so kilometers from Jerusalem. Following his first miraculous sign, the turning of water to wine, things really pick up, and the ministry of Jesus becomes the biggest thing going on in Israel since the days of Moses, David and the other heroes of the sacred writings of the Jews. The Jewish people were used to reading and hearing about the great feats of Israel’s heroes: the collapse of the walls of Jericho, the feats of strength by Samson, the wonders and miracles of Elijah as he confronted the false prophets of Baal, calling down fire from heaven.
But for hundreds of years, since the original great temple was destroyed and then rebuilt, the great golden age of Yahweh’s people was pretty much in a lull. Chastened, the people of God dutifully studied their Torah and Prophets in the synagogues, and performed their temple rites. Working hard to keep false gods out of their land, they doubled down their focus on obeying the laws Moses handed down from Mount Sinai, and studied the prophets. Meanwhile, it was hard to discern the hand of God on their land, as they watched the Greeks and then the Romans subdue their nation. They waited, as many Christians, Jews, and even Muslims do today, for the coming of their Messiah. He would be a great and mighty king, who would defeat their enemies, and usher in an amazing period in which Israel would be the great nation of all the world, and the gentile nations would see the greatness of their one true God, paying homage to Him through them. They were looking for a mighty political and military leader, and counting down the days as written in the book of Daniel, who prophesied 490 years earlier to expect the coming of the Messiah in, say, 490 years.
Well, it had been roughly 490 years, and thus an anticipation of something big happening. John the Baptist had people everywhere coming to be baptized and prepare for the event. Pharisees, scribes and priests were looking at their station in society and wondering whether and where they fit into God’s great plan. Did they look the part? They followed the laws of Moses scrupulously. Of that, no one watching them could doubt.
Herod the Great left three sons in charge of Israeli regions. No doubt they wondered about the Messiah and whether, like Herod, they would be replaced, or perhaps even they might fit the bill. Zealots roamed the streets, perhaps like Islamic extremists of our day, discerning the times, believing they may have a role in a great apocalyptic end-times event, and wondering what their role might be in throwing off the unclean yoke of the Roman rulers and ushering in the Messianic Kingdom. In short, the Jewish world needed a hero. And however this hero would come, and behave, and rule, it would be nothing like the Messiah would do so. Those who were not fascinated, smitten and hooked were scandalized by this Jesus of Nazareth.
He created a buzz throughout Galilee with his works, signs, and teachings, and now came back to Nazareth. Local boy made good. Perhaps a parade would be in order. Yeah, there was a parade all right.
Like the Presidential candidate who goes to his home town of his humble beginnings to announce his candidacy, it was Jesus’s own coming into Nazareth, that the Kingdom of God was announced to the world. The townsfolk was pretty excited to see him, a prophet of God whom they heard was doing some pretty remarkable things. Perhaps they would see something from him as well. They gave him the seat of honor in their synagogue, and handed him a scroll to read and teach from. This should be good. Still, they were a cynical lot. We might even want to name Nazareth the “Show Me” town.
Jesus unrolled the scroll, search for and then read a Messianic verse from the great prophet Isaiah:
“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 favor”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. With all eyes fashioned on him, Jesus made the announcement – the Messiah had indeed come. To Nazareth of all places:
“Today,” he said, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Cognitive dissonance swept in. For while all were impressed at the local boy, even amazed by his presentation. But this was a little much. A little like the neighborhood kid, a talented boy, played Yesterday and Hard Day’s Night for you, had done it quite well, and then suddenly announced he was better than the Beatles.
“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. It was going to take a lot more than a powerfully done reading on a Saturday at church to get buy in. Jesus sensed this, and found their faith lacking. Hands crossed against their breasts, people were looking for that miraculous sign. No one brought forward a sick child, or a mute. Like the incident at the Temple, they wanted to see something. Show me. It was the big show temptation again (Jesus at the pinnacle of the Temple with the Devil during his 40 day fast).
For some reason, having his natural family around like this just seemed to make Jesus a little bit prickly. The little town blues was getting to him here. He snapped back hard:
Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ ”
“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 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. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 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.”
Here Jesus was challenging the hometown: You want to see the miracles of your scriptures, in this here scroll, don’t you? You gotta bring a little faith to the game. And the bible study continued, as Jesus explained that even unbelieving Gentiles in their blessed scriptures brought a little more faith to the table, citing 1) a widow from Lebanon and 2) a ruler from Syria.
The first story was likely in the forefront of Jesus’s mind. Elijah was chased out of his home country. Jesus was about to be chased out of his home town.
Israel was ruled by an evil and idol worshipping king and queen of Israel. Ahab and Jezebel refused Elijah’s command to end worship of Baal or else the drought would continue. Elijah was a marked man, and was sent by God to the Sidon widow to be cared for until the time came to challenge the Baal prophets. The widow had enough flour and oil to bake one small cake for her and her son. They would eat it and die, she told him. Elijah responded that she should bake the cake for him, and let him, the prophet of God, to eat it. If she did so, God would provide her with flour and oil for as long as he lived with them. The widow did so, and the flour and oil vats did not run out. Jesus would himself perform a similar miracle soon using a few loaves and fishes.
In the Namaan incident, the Syrian ruler was dying of leprosy, and his aide convinced him there was a great prophet in Israel (Elisha) who could cure him on the incurable disease. Naaman was quite skeptical, but went along. When they came to Elijah, he didn’t even meet Naaman, but merely told him to bathe in the river Jordan. Naaman was furious, and replied to his aide that had he wanted a bath, he could have found a better spot in Syria than the Jordan. His aide replied that he might want to show a little humility here, and do what the prophet said. Had Elijah told him to perform some extravagant task, he said in a challenge to his boss, Naaman would have done so, sufficiently impressed. Obedience, not degree of difficulty, was the issue here. Naaman agreed with his aide’s logic, bathed in the Jordan, and was cleansed.
Jesus not only announced the arrival of the Messiah, but indicated here that if Israel would not show sufficient deference and respect for him, the Gentile world would.
The local townfolk were not impressed with the reply from this too-big-for-his-britches Jesus, who suddenly went from speaking well to insulting them. With Joseph no longer around, they had seen and heard enough and began the hometown hero parade, which was actually a mob, pushing Jesus to a cliff to throw him off of.
But, as Jesus told Mary earlier, his time had not yet come, and he passed through their midst, and went on his way – back to Capernaum. From that point forward, Jesus would bring the Kingdom of God to the region. But he was much more careful in letting people know who they were dealing with.
He would find that whereas the typical Galilean would have trouble discerning the man and the times, the spirit world had no confusion as to who Jesus was.