Sunday school lesson for the week of May 11, 2014
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Luke 4:14-21
Everyone who is confirmed in The United Methodist Church is asked, “Do you receive and profess the Christian faith as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments?” For membership, we are required to answer in the presence of the congregation with an affirmative “yes.”
But what about the Old Testament? Occasionally, we will hear a person of faith say, “I like the New Testament, but the Old Testament seems rather cumbersome. So, I spend my time reading the New Testament.”
Hear me now! But we are told that when the writers of the New Testament referred to “the Scriptures,” they did not have their own or one another’s writings in mind. For them, “the Scripture” was that collection of books that we Christians call “the Old Testament.” It is also important to realize that the Christians of the Apostolic Age believed that the Old Testament was sufficient for their faith in Christ.
No question, the memories of Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection were central to the Apostles’ preaching, and ultimately, we needed these things to become written records (the Gospels). In a similar way, we also treasure the apostles’ instructions and encouragement to those first-century churches (the Epistles). But we would benefit greatly if we would reflect on how those New Testament writers viewed the Old Testament.
A couple of quotations from Jesus is a good place to begin. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Out on the Emmaus Road, Jesus stated to the two disciples, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:25, 27).
And certainly there are a number of other references to the Old Testament Scriptures from New Testament writers. For instance, Paul speaking to Timothy about those writings declared, “they are all to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 3:15). And referring to the writer of Matthew, William Barclay stated, “It is Matthew’s primary and deliberate purpose to show how the Old Testament prophecies received their fulfillment in Jesus; how every detail of Jesus’ life was foreshadowed in the prophets; and thus to compel the Jews to admit that Jesus was the Messiah.”
The point is that the writers of the New Testament had an extremely high view of the Old Testament Scripture. They would not have dared to place the Old Testament against the New Testament, as though they were in opposition. According to these New Testament writers, the two testaments were very much in harmony, much like the offense and defense of the same football team. And the story of Jesus was uninterrupted succession with the Law and the Prophets that had come before.
John Wesley also believed that Scripture was a coherent whole. He stated it this way in the Preface to the Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament: “The Scripture, therefore, of the Old and New Testament is a most valid and precious system of divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess.”
Jesus, Isaiah and Jubilee
With that understanding of “the Scriptures” (the Old Testament) in his background, the 30-year old Jesus was led by the Spirit from his baptism to the wilderness to the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus’ public ministry was beginning in his hometown where undoubtedly he had a unique relationship with his hearers.
It was the Sabbath day, and it seems that in the synagogue there was no designated person to give the message. Consequently, any distinguished stranger or person with a message was welcome to speak. For sure, Jesus would speak. So, it was that Jesus stood before the assembled crowd to read the scripture and bring the message.
Luke says that the “scroll” of the prophet Isaiah was given him (4:17). While we don’t know why Isaiah was chosen, Jesus evidently had the freedom to choose any passage he desired from that scroll.
The passage Jesus chose was a messianic passage, and his hearers would have recognized it.
In Isaiah’s time, the Israelites had just returned from exile. These confusing and chaotic years brought misgovernment, poverty, and moral disintegration to those who had come back with lofty hopes. Thus, these downcast returnees desperately needed to hear some “good tidings” even as they had needed to hear them when they had been in Exile in Babylon. Unfulfilled hopes and expectations always bring great frustration of soul. So, Isaiah came with his “good tidings” proclaiming God’s constant attitude of grace toward us. Isaiah spoke of being “anointed” (V.1). The Hebrew word for anointed is the source of our word “Messiah.” Thus, Isaiah was speaking about the coming Messiah.
Repeating, the passage Jesus chose was a messianic passage and was part of a body of cherished promises about the man God would someday send to make all things right. The recipients of this anointed one’s ministry included the following: the oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, prisoners and those who mourn. This anointed one would meet all their needs. In addition, the reference to a certain year (Isaiah 6:2; Luke 4:19) recalls Jubilee when the captives and prisoners were set free.
A word about Jubilee! Scholars tell us that every 50 years which is a function of multiplying Sabbaths, a grand “return” was required. There was to be an automatic emancipation of a Jew who, for some reason in that time, had become enslaved to a fellow Jew. There was also to be a return to the original owner of his family the property which had been sold to fellow Jews during that period. The year of Jubilee was designated as the moment of release (Day of Atonement) when a “redeemer” would purchase another’s freedom. As Christians, we are called to live as though each moment were Jubilee – God’s time.
So, after reading a section of this messianic passage, which the people would have recognized, Jesus chooses the text and declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
For generations, the Jews had been waiting for God’s Messiah. Now in his own hometown of Nazareth, where his message would surely be questioned, Jesus announced that he was the one they had been waiting for. But whether they believed him or not, it didn’t determine the truth of his message.
Thus, from a prophecy in Isaiah that had him in mind, Jesus claimed his mission from scripture. And it will also be from scripture that we will understand our mission.
Dr. Brady is a retired South Georgia Conference pastor who lives in the Atlanta area. His non-profit organization, Hal Brady Ministries, focuses on preaching, teaching, conducting seminars, and inspiring others to lead and serve. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.