A familiar face appeared this week to read from the Prophets. A man who had grown up in Nazareth, but who had been gone for a while, he stood up at the appropriate time to read from the scroll that was handed to Him. But as this familiar face read these very familiar words, something was different. And no matter how hard you tried to put your finger on it, you couldn’t. But you knew something was different. This man’s very presence that morning in the synagogue signified that something had changed, or, perhaps it reminds us that some things never change!
READ LUKE 4:16–30 CEB
There was nothing unusual about a Jewish man standing and reading from the Isaiah scroll on the Sabbath. Why this had been done without event for centuries. But this day was different. This man on this day incited the people to mob violence by his actions. And I want to know why. Why such hatred? Why such animosity toward a man reading scripture in the synagogue?
As I mentioned before, perhaps this episode signifies that some things never change. The people of God have always treated prophets this way. They knew there was something special about Jesus. But for some reason, these folks followed in the footsteps of those who came before them. Here was God came among them, but they refused to accept the Lord in their midst.
As I read this text from Luke’s gospel, I wonder why these people became so upset. I mean all Jesus did was read scripture, right? It’s not like He challenged the way they were living. He didn’t preach a sermon on repentance. He didn’t rebuke them for sin in their lives. He just read from Isaiah! I know that some people read this text and say the reason the crowd became so enraged was because of the specific passage Jesus read. Some say Jesus here is proclaiming Himself the Messiah! The “anointed one.” So, Jesus reads a text about the “anointed one” and then makes the arrogant proclamation: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The argument follows: These hometown folk couldn’t bear the thought that their Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary—the one they had seen grow up, scrape his knees, and follow his father in the carpentry business—they simply couldn’t accept the idea that this man was the Messiah! So, they formed a mob and were ready to lynch him right then and there. But, I really don’t think that is what is happening here. Notice that the crowd does not get upset after He reads from Isaiah. Not even after he makes His claim that this scripture is being fulfilled among them. In fact, at that point, the crowd seems down right impressed! The text says they all spoke well of him. They “raved” about him!
And I have to tell you something else: I don’t believe Jesus is here claiming to be the Messiah. Sometimes we get caught up on the phrase “anointed one”. But listen: there were other “anointed” people in Israel. Kings, Priests and Prophets! And it’s this last category, prophets, that ultimately gets Jesus in trouble I think. The reason these people become so enraged at Jesus in his hometown is because he claims to stand in the lineage of the prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah.
The people of Israel, you see, held prophets in high esteem. They were the spokespersons of God! They were the authors of Scripture! And by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, it had become widely accepted that the days of prophets had ended. This would be akin to someone standing up in the mid-twentieth century and claiming to have an overt gift of the Holy Spirit! There were those that made the argument that the Spirit existed in the Bible alone. After the last apostles died, the miraculous acts of the Spirit ceased.
Now listen, I was born into a belt of conservative Churches of Christ in Northwest Arkansas. There were certain things you would not be wise to do in such settings. For example, if you grew up in this setting around 1950, you might want to think twice about just walking into Main Street Church of Christ in Central Arkansas claiming to have the gift of speaking in tongues! There were people in those parts that wouldn’t take too kindly to that kind of claim! They’d probably not give you a loaf of bread for being a visitor that Sunday. In fact, they’d probably make sure you didn’t ever come back to share your gift again!
Well, when Jesus lived, it had become widely accepted that the days of prophets had come and gone. The Jewish Talmud illustrates this point:
When Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, the latter prophets, were dead, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel…Jesus’ contemporaries believed that with the deaths of these last prophets, God had ceased to work through prophets any longer and they had been dead for hundreds of years. So, for Jesus to stand before all of these people and make such a claim was too much for many of them to handle! It would be like someone this morning standing up here and proclaiming themselves one of the 12 Apostles! It would be considered arrogant and even blasphemous. But make no mistake, a prophet is exactly what Jesus was!
That is certainly not all that Jesus was, he was more than a prophet. But this aspect of Jesus’ identity is powerful in its own right. And we sometimes miss the significance of this aspect of Jesus’ identity. Listen, a prophet in the ancient world was special. We often think of prophets solely for their ability to foretell the future. Certainly prophets did foretell the future. In fact, many New Testament authors show how the Old Testament writers foretold of Jesus’ existence. His birth, his ministry, even His death and resurrection. But prophets did more than foretell the future. Prophets, I believe more importantly, became God’s symbolic presence among God’s people. Prophets were literally the mouthpieces of God. As if God were actually standing among the people giving instruction, correction, and encouragement. A recurring phrase in the Old Testament prophets, “Thus says the Lord,” highlights this aspect of the prophetic life.
When you boil it down to its simplest form, the existence of prophets in the world signified that the Lord was in their midst! And if the Lord was in their midst, nothing was too difficult. No trial was too great. So the fact that Jesus refers to Himself as a prophet repeatedly throughout His ministry and the fact that other New Testament authors refer to Jesus as a prophet is important. If Jesus was a prophet, His words were on par with Scripture! If Jesus was a prophet, His actions came directly from God! And if Jesus was a prophet, the Lord was still in their midst!
I am excited to introduce a new series, which I am entitling “The Lord in Our Midst.” Over the next several weeks, we will engage the words of various biblical prophets. Trying to understand why these individuals, and more importantly why their messages, were so important. More than anything else, as we look at these biblical prophets, I want us to consistently return to one question:
What does it mean for the Lord to be in our midst today?
It is tempting, sometimes, to believe the days of the prophets have come and gone—when things do not go like we want them to, when all around us seems hopeless, when we feel like God has left us. My prayer is that we will not buy into the same lie as those who were with Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue that day. The lie that says the days of prophets have come and gone, the lie that convinces us that God has ceased to work among His people. God may have worked miracles in the past, but not anymore! In fact, the New Testament reveals that many prophets existed even after Jesus ascended into heaven. Paul says some are teachers; others are encouragers; some are prophets. So some people in the church are given this gift to challenge us the way Old Testament prophets did in days past.
But there is another aspect of this message we cannot overlook. In many respects, each of us, as Christians, has the opportunity to offer the greatest prophetic gift to the world. Each time prophets appear in Scripture, they come through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came upon them and they prophesied, or as they performed some action of God, or as they wrote some words for the people of God. So, the greatest thing prophets offered was God’s Spirit to the world! There was a time when God bestowed His Spirit to certain people on special occasions.
But in our age, we have a unique opportunity, church. The prophet Joel tells us that a day would arrive when God’s Spirit would be poured out on many.
READ JOEL 2:27–32 CEB
Church, we are living in those last days. And we have a tremendous opportunity. If God’s people are faithful, we will, through the power of God’s Spirit within us, bless this world. And as we do that, we show that the LORD is still in our midst. There are some folks in this world who desperately need to know that is true. And I count myself among them!