When my great-grandfather was in Russia in the early 1900’s, he and a preacher friend of his made plans for evangelistic services. He owned a flour mill and his hope was that the workers at the mill and others in the town would hear the gospel. They had done this before, but this time, they neglected to let the mayor of the town know what they were doing. As a result, my great-grandfather and his friend were put in jail for a short period of time.
That is one of the memories of persecution that I have in my family history. Of course later, both my grandfathers were taken from their families and killed by the communists also in part because they were Christians.
I personally cannot think of a time when I experienced persecution. There have been a few times when I suspected people did not take me seriously because of my faith, but that is about the extent of it. I suspect that my experience is not uncommon.
The experience we have in North America is rare in history and rare in the world. Many times in history and many places in the world today face at least some persecution and in some cases it is very severe persecution.
Today, we are taking some time to give thought to the persecuted church and we will pray for the persecuted church. The Bible has a lot to say about the persecution of believers. We do not read those passages with any intensity because we have not experienced persecution, so they mean very little to us. But we need to be aware of these passages in the Bible and learn from them so that we can be prepared if we should ever find ourselves in such a situation.
As we continue with our study of Luke, we will look at a passage which describes Jesus’ first ministry experience. It is interesting that as Jesus begins his ministry he also immediately experiences persecution. Turn in your Bibles to Luke 4:14-30 and let us examine what Jesus experienced in his early preaching ministry.
Following Jesus’ temptations, which we read about in Luke 4:1-13, we read that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, began to go around Galilee and preach the good news. In His preaching wanderings, he came to Nazareth, which was where he had grown up. On the Sabbath, he attended synagogue, probably the synagogue he had attended in the years he had grown up in Nazareth. The synagogue service normally included the recitation of Deuteronomy 6:4, a Psalm reading, priestly blessings, prayers and other readings from the law and the prophets and often also some interpretation of these readings.
Supposedly because he was a traveling teacher and had a reputation which preceded him, he was invited to read the Word of God from the prophets. The reading he chose was from Isaiah 61:1,2. He read, “read Luke 4:18,19.” In Isaiah 61:1,2 we read, “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn…”
This prophecy was looked upon as a word of hope from God. It used the language of Jubilee. In the Old Testament, for example in Leviticus 25:11-13, God allowed for a year of jubilee in which debts would be cancelled, property would be restored to the original family that owned it and it was a year of God’s blessing in which the people would rely on God for all they needed. When I think of the year of Jubilee, I always think of some friends of ours whose children liked to play Monopoly. When they played, and they would notice that one of the siblings was getting too poor and the others were getting too much property, they divided things so that it would be even once again. That is part of what Jubilee is all about - a time of restoration and renewal for all people. This passage was viewed as referring to the Messiah and most in the synagogue would have appreciated it as a promise which they all longed to have fulfilled. They would have looked forward to the time when God would restore everything again. What is interesting is that Jesus stopped reading after the phrase, “the year of the Lord’s favor.” In terms of God’s plan for history, the year of God’s favor and the “day of vengeance of our God” were separated by many years. The coming of Jesus, as we will learn shortly, was the fulfillment of this part of the prophecy. The coming of the “day of vengeance of our God” would await a future day of fulfillment - a day that is even future for us.
Up to this point, everyone would have been nodding and rejoicing at the promises of God, but things were about to change. As Jesus put the scroll away, people waited for him to say something that would encourage them from this reading. Jesus said something encouraging all right, he shocked them by saying “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” By saying this, he was saying that he was the instrument through whom God would fulfill these promises. He was claiming to be Messiah.
As we examine the life of Jesus, we realize that he was not making an idle claim. The demonstration of the reality of these statements permeate the ministry of Jesus.
Some time later, John the Baptist, who was at the time in prison, began to have doubts and sent his followers to question Jesus about who he really was. The answer Jesus gave in Luke 7:22 was, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”
Indeed, as we will study in the rest of Luke, we will see all of these things lived out in the ministry of Jesus. We see good news to the poor in the feeding of the 5000. We see freedom for prisoners when Jesus healed the demon possessed man later in this very chapter. We see recovery of sight for the blind when Jesus healed the blind beggar in Luke 18. Release for the oppressed happened for many who were released from their illnesses and the stigma attached to those illness, like the healing of the leper in the next chapter.
Truly Jesus was and is the fulfillment of this prophecy. This is really great news, not only for those in the synagogue in Nazareth, but for all the world. Messiah has come to heal and restore, to bring a universal Jubilee!
At first the people’s response is positive. They “spoke well” and “were amazed.” But what do they mean by “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Are they curious? Does it heighten their wonder? Or is it the first sign of rejection? One writer suggests that awe at his message was mixed with scepticism.
Jesus knew their heart and responded. He knew that they did not believe in Him and that they were rejecting Him even as they are praising Him.
We wonder at this. How can someone hear such good news and reject it? How could these Jews who were waiting for Messiah miss him when he was standing right in front of them? How can people in our world today reject the marvellous news that God has forgiven their sins and given them eternal life?
Often we think that if people don’t know, then they reject. If they knew about Jesus and what he could do for them, then they would believe. That is often the case. In John 1:5 it says that “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” In other words, Jesus coming is like light shining in the dark world, which does not know what this light represents and is blinded by it because they are so filled with darkness. In the end of Luke, when Jesus experienced the final rejection on the cross, He prayed for his persecutors and said in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Ignorance certainly leads people to persecute Christians.
But that is not what happened in this case. Ignorance is not the only reason why people reject the good news of the gospel and the messengers of that good news. It was not ignorance that prevented the people of Nazareth from accepting Jesus. It was prejudice which was either based on or led to unbelief. I have heard it say that “an expert is anyone who comes from out of town.” It is a common proverb that Jesus quotes to them when he says, “no prophet is accepted in his own home town.” The people were prejudiced against Jesus because they knew Him. He was “Joseph’s son.”
Although they do not say so, the response of Jesus indicates that they wanted a sign to prove to them that Jesus really was who he said. They had heard of his ministry in Capernaum where he had taught and done miracles. They expected him to do the same here, but Jesus could not because they did not believe in him. They had already rejected him in their hearts. Jesus pointed to two Old Testament stories which reveal the problem. During Elijah’s time, there were few miracles done in Israel, rather, miracles were done in Zarephath which was Gentile territory. During Elisha’s time, the only leper healed was a foreigner who came from Syria. Both of these stories come from a time of significant unbelief in Israel. God could not work in the nation because the people did not believe in Him.
Both of these stories reinforce the indictment on Nazareth. Then, as now, the people did not see God at work, in fact they rejected God because of their unbelief. So the reason for their rejection was not ignorance, but rather unbelief. They knew the facts about Messiah, shared an expectation of Messiah, but missed him when he showed up in their town because they did not believe.
When Jesus caught them in their unbelief, they exploded in anger and we have the first recorded persecution in Luke. Since this was the home synagogue of Jesus, their action amounts to an excommunication of Jesus. More than that, they were ready to kill him. They took him out of town to the edge of a cliff which was at the edge of town and they were ready to throw him over. But it was not yet Jesus’ time and so he just walked right through the midst of them and walked away.
I find it amazing that so early in his ministry - the first recorded specific action of Jesus in Luke - is met immediately by rejection. If that is true of Jesus, what will happen to us? In John 15:18, 19, Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”
How do we respond to this recognition that since Jesus was persecuted, the persecution of believers is normal in the world?
It is important to know that what happened to Jesus could very well happen to us. We find it hard to believe that it could ever happen to us, but just think. My great-grandparents grew up in wealth and comfort in Russia before the communist revolution. I doubt if they expected what happened in 1917 and continued to happen through several generations. The turmoil and upheaval in that country was hardly expected, but it came and suddenly there was severe persecution. How do we know that this will not happen to us? There are more and more signs that even in our country Christians will experience persecution. We need to read and understand what the Bible says about persecution. We need to understand what happened to Jesus and know that it could happen to us.
In John 17, Jesus prayed for his followers. He recognized, in His prayer, that his disciples, us included, would be left in a hostile world. Jesus did not pray that we would be protected from this hostile world, but that we would be kept and that we would remain true. Listen to John 17:14,15: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” It is good for us to follow the example of Jesus and pray for those who experience persecution. That is what we want to do this morning.