Unpacking a Passage

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The term ‘unpacking a passage’ is one of those Christian cliches that I think is overused, like ‘going into’…worship, announcements, the Word, whatever.

However, it is quite descriptive of what happens when someone explains a biblical passage. It is like taking items out of a box and uncovering treasures beneath the top layer. I know that some people have difficulty in fully appreciating the more complex passages of scripture. Therefore, in this article, I am offering a brief guided tour through a passage I am currently studying.

The Text

Luke 4:14-30 reads as follows:

(14) ‘Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. (15) He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. (16) He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day, he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. (17) The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: (18) “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,  (19) to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (20) Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, (21) and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (22) All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

(23) Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.'” ( 24) “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. (25) I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. (26) Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. (27) And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed — only Naaman the Syrian.”

(28) All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. (29) They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. (30) But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way’.

The Background

The first verse of the passage informs us that Jesus returned to Galilee and then went up to Nazareth. What is not obvious is that this one verse encompasses up to twelve months of the Lord’s ministry.

Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan river and filled by the anointing power of the Holy Spirit. Chapter 4 of Luke’s Gospel starts with the words, ‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert…’ After his forty days of testing, Jesus moved around Galilee ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit, went up to Jerusalem for Passover, and then returned to Galilee. During this time he called his first disciples, turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, cleared the temple, and met with Nicodemus the teacher of Israel. Also, he healed many, delivered some demoniacs and worked other great signs and wonders.

I can almost hear some of you thinking: “Fine for you to know this, but how am I supposed to fathom that so much time elapses between two verses of the text?” Well, any good commentary would reveal this, but the clue to the time-compression is in the text itself. In verse 23 Jesus says to the people, “Do here in your hometown what we have heard what you did in Capernaum”. So, Jesus must have previously spent quite some time ministered in that town. The first four chapters of John’s Gospel fill in the details.

Jesus in the Synagogue

After about a year spent mainly in Galilee, Jesus went up to his home town situated 47 kilometres up in the hills to the South-East of lake Galilee. Like any other law-abiding Jew, he went to the Saturday worship service at the synagogue. A custom in those times was that a visiting teacher would be given the privilege of reading from the Prophets and then sharing some thoughts on the selected passage. The Law, Prophets and Writings (Proverbs etc.) were inscribed on separate parchment or vellum scrolls. The book of Isaiah was the longest of all the prophetic works and was recorded on a separate scroll. The man in charge of the service handed Jesus this scroll who then unrolled it to what we refer to today as Isaiah chapter 61:1-2.

Two things are not immediately apparent in a cursory reading of what Jesus read from the scroll as recorded in Luke 4:18-19.

  1. The first is that Jesus stopped reading half-way through verse three. He read ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ and left off the rest of Isaiah 61:2 that reads, ‘… and the day of vengeance of our God.’ The men in the synagogue would have noticed this omission. They believed that when Messiah came he would both proclaim a year of Jubilee for Israel and severely punish the nations that oppressed the people of God. We know from the perspective of the whole New Testament that Jesus was implying that he, the Messiah, had come only to save and bless. He would come again much, much later to exercise judgement on the rebellious peoples of the word (the first and second comings of Christ).
  2. The second interesting thing about the Isaiah reading is that what Luke records is not exactly what the prophet had penned so long ago. How can you know this? Simply by comparing the Old Testament verses with the account in Luke’s Gospel. It seems that Luke is recording what had been related to him as the fuller content of Jesus’ sermon that immediately followed the reading in the Synagogue. Jewish teachers stand to read from the scriptures but sit when teaching from them. Luke 4:20-21 records that ‘he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the Synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them…’ Jesus started to preach to the people but Luke records only his opening sentence. It appears that Jesus amplified the Isaiah passage by adding in parts of Isaiah 42:7 and 58:6. Jesus was doing what teachers of his day often did, and what good expository preachers do today: he brought in other biblical texts to clarify and amplify the preaching portion of scripture.
Jesus’ Big Reveal

As all eyes were on him, Jesus introduced his message with the stunning words;

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

The only thing that his audience could have understood by this was that Jesus was announcing to them that the Messiah had come. He was telling them that the hope of the nation of Israel was present on Earth right then!

Some of the people present appear to be wondering if Jesus was going even further and intimating that he, himself, was the Messiah. They were amazed by his eloquence and they took note that he was Joseph’s son, a descendant of King David, and in the line of the long-awaited saviour of Israel.

Jesus must have had much more to say about Isaiah’s prophecy as he expounded the passage to them, but then he dropped a bombshell.

The Bombshell

He quoted a parable to them and then explained it with the words, “do here in your home town what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.” The Jews of Jesus’ day accepted the Isaiah passage as clearly messianic and so they expected anyone who claimed to be the Messiah (i) to be anointed as king in the line of David; (ii) to release Israel from its oppression; (iii) to give sight to the blind and to heal the sick. So Jesus knew that his audience expected him to back up his claim by showing them signs and wonders.

Instead of obliging them, Jesus told them that he would not pander to their sceptical lack of faith and that he would instead bless the gentiles with his gifts of healing and deliverance. Talk about waving a red rag before a bull! They realised then why Jesus had not read the part about the day of God’s vengeance.

Instead of judging the accursed gentiles, he was going to bless them! Heresy! This man must surely be a false Messiah! Let us kill him! But guess what… Jesus walked right through them as they were rushing him off to toss him over a cliff, and quietly went on his way.

Some Practical Applications

As you have read through the passage and taken note of my comments, you have hopefully formed some ideas about how you can respond. My personal applications are as follows:

  1. Jesus was speaking under the anointing of the Holy Spirit and that is why he was able to say what he did with such eloquence and grace. So, if I want my words to have both impact and eternal significance then I too must be anointed by the Holy Spirit.
  2. Jesus provides me with a great model for preaching. He expounded a portion of scripture and amplified it by drawing in other texts with similar context and meaning. He preached an expository message and so should I when given the privilege of teaching the Word of God.
  3. He was fearless and did not hesitate to tell it as it is. However, there is nothing in Luke’s account to suggest that he was speaking harshly to them. It is far more likely that his tone was more sad than angry and regretful rather than judgmental. His audience had noted ‘the gracious words that came from his lips’ Moreover, John’s Gospel records that Jesus had come from the Father full of grace and truth. So when I preach, my words need to be seasoned with grace and compassion while conveying truth.
  4. The way Jesus simply walked right through the crowd was supernatural and so I too must make room for the beyond-normal in my ministry. Paul put it perfectly when he wrote;
“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5)
And so…

And so I hope that this article has given you an idea of how anyone can ‘unpack’ a portion of the bible without necessarily having to resort to sophisticated study aids. I hope too that it has encouraged you to read the bible actively, instead of passively, asking questions and seeking answers. Also, not to leave the passage until you have formulated ideas of how you are going to apply it in your life.

One further step of discovery is necessary: Read the passage again, putting yourself into the narrative. What would your five senses convey to you if you were right there in the Synagogue with Jesus? What expression would be on his face as he taught? What would he be saying to YOU?
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Christopher Peppler

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.