(St. Matt. iv.13-17; St. Mark i.14, 15; St. Luke iv.15-32.)
The visit to Nazareth was in many respects decisive. It presented by anticipation an epitome of the history of the Christ. He came to His own, and His own received Him not. The first time He taught in the Synagogue, as the first time He taught in the Temple, they cast Him out. On the one and the other occasion, they questioned His authority, and they asked for a sign.' In both instances, the power which they challenged was, indeed, claimed by Christ, but its display, in the manner which they expected, refused. The analogy seems to extend even farther - and if a misrepresentation of what Jesus had said when purifying the Temple formed the ground of the final false charge against Him, the taunt of the Nazarenes: Physician, heal thyself!' found an echo in the mocking cry, as He hung on the Cross: He saved others, Himself He cannot save.'
It is difficult to understand how, either on historical grounds, or after study of the character of Christ, the idea could have arisen that Jesus had offered, or that He had claimed, to teach on that Sabbath in the Synagogue of Nazareth. Had He attempted what, alike in spirit and form, was so contrary to all Jewish notions, the whole character of the act would have been changed. As it was, the contrast with those by whom He was surrounded is almost as striking, as the part which He bore in the scene. We take it for granted, that what had so lately taken place in Cana, at only four miles' distance, or, to speak more accurately, in Capernaum, had become known in Nazareth. It raised to the highest pitch of expectancy the interest and curiosity previously awakened by the reports, which the Galileans had brought from Jerusalem, and by the general fame which had spread about Jesus. They were not to test, whether their countryman would be equal to the occasion, and do in His own city what they had heard had been done for Capernaum. To any ordinary man the return to Nazareth in such circumstances must have been an ordeal. Not so to the Christ, Who, in utter self-forgetfulness, had only this one aim of life - to do the Will of Him that sent Him. And so His bearing that day in the Synagogue is itself evidence, that while in, He was not of, that time.
Realising the scene on such occasions, we mark the contrast. As there could be no un-Jewish forwardness on the part of Jesus, so, assuredly, would there be none of that mock-humility of reluctance to officiate, in which Rabbinism delighted. If, as in the circumstances seems likely, Jesus commenced the first part of the service, and then pronounced before the Ark' those Eulogies which were regarded as, in the strictest sense, the prayer (Tephillah), we can imagine - though we can scarcely realise - the reverent solemnity, which would seem to give a new meaning to each well-remembered sentence. And in His mouth it all had a new meaning. We cannot know what, if any, petitions He inserted, though we can imagine what their spirit would have been. And now, one by one, Priest, Levite, and, in succession, five Israelites, had read from the Law. There is no reason to disturb the almost traditional idea, that Jesus Himself read the concluding portion from the Prophets, or the so-called Haphtarah. The whole narrative seems to imply this. Similarly, it is most likely that the Haphtarah for that day was taken from the prophecies of Isaiah, and that it included the passage quoted by the Evangelist as read by the Lord Jesus. We know that the rolls' on which the Law was written were distinct from those of the Prophets; and every probability points to it, that those of the Prophets, at least the Greater, were also written on separate scrolls. In this instance we are expressly told, that the minister delivered unto Him the book of the prophet Esaias,' we doubt not, for the Haphtarah, and that, when He had unrolled the book,' He found' the place from which the Evangelist makes quotation.
When unrolling, and holding the scroll, much more than the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah must have been within range of His eyes. On the other hand, it is quite certain that the verses quoted by the Evangelist could not have formed the whole Haphtarah. According to traditional rule, the Haphtarah ordinarily consisted of not less than twenty-one verses, though, if the passage was to be targumed,' or a sermon to follow, that number might be shortened to seven, five, or even three verses. Now the passage quoted by St. Luke consists really of only one verse (Is. lxi.1), together with a clause from Is. lviii.6, and the first clause of Is. lxi.2. This could scarcely have formed the whole Haphtarah. There are other reasons also against this supposition. No doubt Jesus read alike the Haphtarah and the text of His discourse in Hebrew, and then targumed' or translated it: while St. Luke, as might be expected, quotes (with but two trifling alterations ) from the rendering of the LXX. But, on investigation, it appears that one clause is omitted from Is. lxi.1, and that between the close of Is. lxi.1 and the clause of verse 2, which is added, a clause is inserted from the LXX. of Is. lviii.6. This could scarcely have been done in reading the Haphtarah. But, if as we suppose, the passages quoted formed the introductory text of Christ's discourse, such quotation and combination were not only in accordance with Jewish custom, but formed part of the favourite mode of teaching - the Charaz - or stringing, like pearls, passage to passage, illustrative of each other. In the present instance, the portion of the scroll which Jesus unrolled may have exhibited in close proximity the two passages which formed the introductory text (the so-called Pethichah). But this is of comparatively small interest, since both the omission of a clause from Is. lxi.1, and the insertion of another adapted from Is. lviii.6, were evidently intentional. It might be presumptuous to attempt stating the reasons which may have influenced the Saviour in this, and yet some of them will instinctively occur to every thoughtful reader.
It was, indeed, Divine wisdom' - the Spirit of the Lord' upon Him, which directed Jesus in the choice of such a text for His first Messianic Sermon. It struck the key-note to the whole of His Galilean ministry. The ancient Synagogue regarded Is. lxi.1, 2, as one of the three passages, in which mention of the Holy Ghost was connected with the promised redemption. In this view, the application which the passage received in the discourse of our Lord was peculiarly suitable. For the words in which St. Luke reports what followed the Pethichah, or introductory text, seem rather a summary, than either the introduction or part of the discourse of Christ. This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears.' A summary this, which may well serve to guide in all preaching. As regards its form, it would be: so to present the teaching of Holy Scripture, as that it can be drawn together in the focus of one sentence; as regards its substance, that this be the one focus: all Scripture fulfilled by a present Christ. And this - in the Gospel which He bears to the poor, the release which He announces to the captives, the healing which He offers to those whom sin had blinded, and the freedom He brings to them who were bruised; and all as the trumpet-blast of God's Jubilee into His world of misery, sin, and want! A year thus begun would be glorious indeed in the blessings it gave.
There was not a word in all this of what common Jewish expectancy would have connected with, nay, chiefly accentuated in an announcement of the Messianic redemption; not a word to raise carnal hopes, or flatter Jewish pride. Truly, it was the most un-Jewish discourse for a Jewish Messiah of those days, with which to open His Ministry. And yet such was the power of these words of grace.' that the hearers hung spell-bound upon them. Every eye was fastened on Him with hungry eagerness. For the time they forgot all else - Who it was that addressed them, even the strangeness of the message, so unspeakably in contrast to any preaching of Rabbi or Teacher that had been heard in that Synagogue. Indeed, one can scarcely conceive the impression which the Words of Christ must have produced, when promise and fulfilment, hope and reality, mingled, and wants of the heart, hitherto unrealised, were wakened, only to be more than satisfied. It was another sphere, another life. Truly, the anointing of the Holy Ghost was on the Preacher, from Whose lips dropped these words of grace.' And if such was the announcement of the Year of God's Jubilee, what blessings must it bear in its bosom!
The discourse had been spoken, and the breathless silence with which, even according to Jewish custom, it had been listed to, gave place to the usual after-sermon hum of an Eastern Synagogue. On one point all were agreed: that they were marvellous words of grace, which had proceeded out of His mouth. And still the Preacher waited, with deep longing of soul, for some question, which would have marked the spiritual application of what He had spoken. Such deep longing of soul is kindred to, and passes into almost sternness, just because he who so longs is so intensely in earnest, in the conviction of the reality of his message. It was so with Jesus in Nazareth. They were indeed making application of the Sermon to the Preacher, but in quite different manner from that to which His discourse had pointed. It was not the fulfilment of the Scripture in Him, but the circumstance, that such an one as the Son of Joseph, their village carpenter, should have spoken such words, that attracted their attention. Not, as we take it, in a malevolent spirit, but altogether unspiritually, as regarded the effect of Christ's words, did one and another, here and there, express wonderment to his neighbour.
They had heard, and now they would fain have seen. But already the holy indignation of Him, Whom they only knew as Joseph's son, was kindled. The turn of matters; their very admiration and expectation; their vulgar, unspiritual comments: it was all so entirely contrary to the Character, the Mission, and the Words of Jesus. No doubt they would next expect, that here in His own city, and all the more because it was such, He would do what they had heard had taken place in Capernaum. It was the world-old saying, as false, except to the ear, and as speciously popular as most such sayings: Charity begins at home' - or, according to the Jewish proverb, and in application to the special circumstances: Physician, heal thyself.' Whereas, if there is any meaning in truth and principle; if there was any meaning and reality in Christ's Mission, and in the discourse He had just spoken, Charity does not begin at home; and Physician, heal thyself' is not of the Gospel for the poor, nor yet the preaching of God's Jubilee, but that of the Devil, whose works Jesus had come to destroy. How could He, in His holy abhorrence and indignation, say this better than by again repeating, though now with different application, that sad experience, No prophet is accepted in his own country,' which He could have hoped was for ever behind Him; and by pointing to those two Old Testament instances of it, whose names and authority were most frequently on Jewish lips? Not they who were their own,' but they who were most receptive in faith - not Israel, but Gentiles, were those most markedly favoured in the ministry of Elijah and of Elisha.
As we read the report of Jesus' words, we perceive only dimly that aspect of them which stirred the wrath of His hearers to the utmost, and yet we do understand it. That He should have turned so fully the light upon the Gentiles, and flung its large shadows upon them; that Joseph's Son' should have taken up this position towards them; that He would make to them spiritual application unto death of His sermon, since they would not make it unto life: it stung them to the quick. Away He must out of His city; it could not bear His Presence any longer, not even on that holy Sabbath. Out they thrust Him from the Synagogue; forth they pressed Him out of the city; on they followed, and around they beset Him along the road by the brow of the hill on which the city is built - perhaps to that western angle, at present pointed out as the site. This, with the unspoken intention of crowding Him over the cliff, which there rises abruptly about forty feet out of the valley beneath. If we are correct in indicating the locality, the road here bifurcates, and we can conceive how Jesus, Who had hitherto, in the silence of sadness, allowed Himself almost mechanically to be pressed onwards by the surrounding crowd, now turned, and by that look of commanding majesty, the forthbreaking of His Divine Being, which ever and again wrought on those around miracles of subjection, constrained them to halt and give way before Him, while unharmed He passed through their midst. So did Israel of old pass through the cleft waves of the sea, which the wonder-working rod of Moses had converted into a wall of safety. Yet, although He parted from it in judgment, not thus could the Christ have finally and for ever left His own Nazareth.
Cast out of His own city, Jesus pursued His solitary way towards Capernaum. There, at least, devoted friends and believing disciples would welcome Him. There, also, a large draught of souls would fill the Gospel-net. Capernaum would be His Galilean home. Here He would, on the Sabbath-days, preach in that Synagogue, of which the good centurion was the builder, and Jairus the chief ruler. These names, and the memories connected with them, are a sufficient comment on the effect of His preaching: that His word was with power.' In Capernaum, also, was the now believing and devoted household of the court-officer, whose only son the Word of Christ, spoken at a distance, had restored to life. Here also, or in the immediate neighbourhood, was the home of His earliest and closest disciples, the brothers Simon and Andrew, and of James and John, the sons of Zebedee.
From the character of the narrative, and still more from the later call of these four, it would seem that, after the return of Jesus from Judæa into Galilee, His disciples had left Him, probably in Cana, and returned to their homes and ordinary avocations. They were not yet called to forsake all and follow Him - not merely to discipleship, but to fellowship and Apostolate. When He went from Cana to Nazareth, they returned to Capernaum. They knew He was near them. Presently He came; and now His Ministry was in their own Capernaum, or in its immediate neighbourhood.
For Capernaum was not the only place where He taught. Rather was it the center for itinerancy through all that district, to preach in its Synagogues. Amidst such ministry of quiet power,' chiefly alone and unattended by His disciples, the summer passed. Truly, it was summer in the ancient land of Zebulun and Naphtali, in the Galilee of the Gentiles, when the glorious Light that had risen chased away the long winter's darkness, and those who had been the first exiles in Assyrian bondage were the first brought back to Israel's true liberty, and by Israel's Messiah-King. To the writer of the first Gospel, as, long years afterwards, he looked back on this, the happy time when he had first seen the Light, till it had sprung up even to him in the region and shadow of death,' it must have been a time of peculiarly bright memories. How often, as he sat at the receipt of custom, must he have seen Jesus passing by; how often must he have heard His Words, some, perhaps, spoken to himself, but all falling like good seed into the field of his heart, and preparing him at once and joyously to obey the summons when it came: Follow Me! And not to him only, but to many more, would it be a glowing, growing time of heaven's own summer.
There was a dim tradition in the Synagogue, that this prediction, The people that walk in the darkness see a great light,' referred to the new light, with which God would enlighten the eyes of those who had penetrated into the mysteries of Rabbinic lore, enabling them to perceive concerning loosing and binding, concerning what was clean and what was unclean.' Others regarded it as a promise to the early exiles, fulfilled when the great liberty came to them. To Levi-Matthew it seemed as if both interpretations had come true in those days of Christ's first Galilean ministry. Nay, he saw them combined in a higher unity when to their eyes, enlightened by the great Light, came the new knowledge of what was bound and what loosed, what unclean and clean, though quite differently from what Judaism had declared it to them; and when, in that orient Sun, the promise of liberty to long-banished Israel was at last seen fulfilled. It was, indeed, the highest and only true fulfilment of that prediction of Isaiah, in a history where all was prophetic, every partial fulfilment only an unfolding and opening of the bud, and each symbolic of further unfolding till, in the fulness of time, the great Reality came, to which all that was prophetic in Israel's history and predictions pointed. And so as, in the evening of his days, Levi-Matthew looked back to distant Galilee, the glow of the setting sun seemed once more to rest on that lake, as it lay bathed in its sheen of gold. It lit up that city, those shores, that custom-house; it spread far off, over those hills, and across the Jordan. Truly, and in the only true sense, had then the promise been fulfilled: To them which sat in the region and shadow of death, light is sprung up.'