How Jesus Read the Bible

The temptation stories in the Synoptic Gospels precede Jesus’ ministry. Satan quotes Scripture to Jesus to support Satan’s efforts to co-opt Jesus’ ministry. Jesus responds to these quotes by referencing other passages which challenge Satan’s exegesis. Two of the many lessons we can learn from this crucial passage are (1) anyone (even a parrot) can quote Scripture, and (2) Scripture can be quoted and used by all forms of evil. (See Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13.)

Jesus must decide how he will carry out his mission. He can choose an expediency which is characterized by compromise, violence, greed, arrogance, “bait and switch” tactics, and façade or a way which reflects the character of the God he knows as Abba. 

Jesus began his ministry of teaching, healing, and modeling the true human made in God’s image. When he came to his hometown (Luke 4: 16-30), he read from the scroll of Isaiah (61:1-2). Jesus stopped his reading with the phrase “the acceptable year of the Lord” which referred to the hope and justice of Jubilee. He omitted the following phrase in Isaiah which the Jewish people cherished and longed to see fulfilled: “and the day of vengeance of our God.”

Jesus sat down (the stance of a teacher) to interpret the passage. He said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He saw himself as bringing to a climax the entire history of Israel’s relationship with God. The long-awaited Kin-dom of God was arriving with him, his deeds, his teachings, and, later, his death, resurrection, and ascension. 

What was the response of the people of Nazareth? We’re told that “they bore witness to him” as they recalled his lowly status. (I am aware that this is not the usual translation of this word. However, the Greek verb translated “spoke well of him” actually means “to bear witness to him.” Such “witness” could be positive or negative. The word “amazed” in this context should be translated “shocked or scandalized”. They were angered by his “gracious words” which left out any mention of vengeance toward the gentiles.) Jesus responded to their poor opinion of him, the son of a mere local handyman, by saying, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.”

The original setting of Isaiah 61 was the aftermath of the Babylonian exile. The Jews had returned to their homeland, but they were still under the rule of a pagan nation (Persia). Geographically, their exile was over, but politically, economically, and socially they were still “in exile.” Their land was devastated; their enemies were harassing them; the Jews who had not been taken into exile had accommodated themselves to their new situation; the Samaritans threatened them from the north; and the Jewish people could not agree on how to keep the calamity of judgment and exile from ever happening again. 

Third Isaiah promised a reversal of fortunes. The Jews will heal and prosper. Their shame and disgrace will be reversed. Pagan nations shall serve them. God will bring them justice and heap revenge on their enemies. 

The Jews of Jesus’ day still saw themselves in “exile” since they were governed by the pagan empire of Rome. They longed for the messianic age when Israel would drive out the pagans, rededicate the Temple, and become a self-governing and sovereign nation under their God Yahweh. Since Jesus’ hometown folks had not fully comprehended the point of his reading of Isaiah 61, he made his point explicit when he said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Jesus reminded his hearers of two stories: (1) the story of Elijah and the widow of Sidon (a traditional enemy of Israel) when Elijah “was sent” (divine passive) to provide this pagan woman food during a three-year famine in the ancient Near East [I Kings 17)] although there were many Israelite widows suffering during the famine and (2) the story of Elisha and the Syrian general Naaman who was a leper Elisha healed although there were many Israelite lepers not healed by the prophet. (Syria was the chief enemy of Israel during the time of Elisha) [II Kings 5].

The people at that moment fully understood. Jesus purposely left out the vengeance part of Isaiah 61. They became enraged and tried to kill him. 

This passage contains a splendid example of how Jesus read Scripture. Why did he leave out the vengeance part of this much-loved prophecy? Because vengeance and violence have nothing to do with the character and will of the One he called Abba. Throughout his teachings and especially in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mirrored and called his follows to mirror the unconditional and indiscriminate love of God. Jesus knew he was so loved by God, and in that intimate relationship he had with this one he called Abba, he knew God’s character and thus the authentic intention behind the tradition/Scriptures of the Jewish faith. 

By referring to the stories about the Sidonian widow and the Syrian general, Jesus was saying that God’s love and compassion were extended to Israel’s enemies. Those in Nazareth knew those stories. They simply chose to forget them. They didn’t want to hear or be reminded of such traditions. They wanted a God who hated those they hated and who would heap violence and revenge on their enemies. They now got the point, but they didn’t like it. So, they tried to kill God’s Son. 

Three Questions:

  1. If Jesus were here today (which he is if we believe in the Holy Spirit), read Isaiah 61, and then proceeded to give his sermon, whom would he choose as examples of people we would become enraged over if we saw them receive God’s compassion and love? Who do we think deserves God’s vengeance, and how do we react to Jesus’ teachings that vengeance and violence are not God’s ways and should not be our ways as we follow him?
  2. Often, it is said that Jesus’ teachings about loving and forgiving our enemies (as well as his rejection of violence and vengeance) only pertain to individual relationships—in other words, our families, friends, and those with whom we may come into contact in our daily living. Jesus surely meant for his message to be applied to individual relationships as well as among people living in the same vicinity. He was establishing an alternative way of life in these villages as he travelled through Galilee and Judea. 

However, in this passage, Jesus presents Israel’s political enemies as examples of those receiving Yahweh’s healing and compassion. The ones many Jews of his day wanted to receive the vengeance of God were the Samaritans and the Romans. 

How many wars, conflicts, and confrontations could be avoided if we truly lived according to Jesus’ insistence that violence and vengeance are not God’s ways at any level (individual, communal, national, and international)? When will we ever learn that it is blasphemy to call upon God to do violence for us or to bless our violence against others even in the cause of patriotism?

  1. If Jesus were in our midst like he was among his hometown folks 2000 years ago, sitting right here, would we react to him any differently from the way his hometown folks did? Isn’t it convenient to keep Jesus stuck in a Holy Book that we read occasionally and selectively so we don’t have to come face to face with what he actually said, meant, and demanded of his followers? In the words of Clarence Jordan, “We’ll worship the hind legs off of Jesus, but we won’t do a thing he says.”

Jesus read the Bible according to what he believed mirrored the character of the one he called Abba. What might we learn from his way of reading the Bible? JESUS TRUMPS THE BIBLE!!! If there is something in the Hebrew Scriptures or in the New Testament (!) which is contrary to the character, teachings, example, ways of relating to others, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, then it’s not the Word of God. Why? Because for Christians, JESUS IS THE WORD IN THE CHRISTIAN FAITH, NOT A BOOK! And Jesus, the Word made flesh, reveals the truest nature of the God who made us, loves us, trusts us, and call us to join Christ in loving this world into its healing and redemption. 

[This article is based in part on insights from various New Testament scholars and especially those of Michael Hardin in The Jesus Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity with Jesus (pp. 59-62) and Douglas A Campbell in Pauline Dogmatics.]

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