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Christ Before Bethlehem

Christ The Deliverer

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 1, 2006

Selected highlights from this sermon

The work and ministry of Jesus was predicted by the prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before Christ was born in Bethlehem. The ancient text said that a deliverer would come who would proclaim good news to the poor and set the captives free. 

When Jesus entered His ministry, He went to the synagogue and declared this mission, reading from the text of Isaiah. Jesus had come to deliver those who needed it most—including the Gentiles. In God’s Church, we must carry on Christ’s work. 

Let me begin today by asking you a question. What would it be like if Jesus were to come to the city of Chicago? If Jesus were to come, where would He go? Would He begin by the great media center of the city – NBC, CBS or the Tribune? Is that where he would go, or would He go to City Hall where there is power, where there’s a great deal of influence and where things get done? Is that where Jesus would go? Or would He go to the commercial centers? Would He go to the banks along LaSalle Street or the great commercial centers? I’m thinking about Michigan Avenue with all of its stores. Where would Jesus go?

I suspect, and I have good reason to believe it, that Jesus would bypass all of those centers, and He would go into His churches and talk to His people about their personal lives and doing His work on earth. I think Jesus would come to His own people. And the reason I believe that is because that is what He did in the Bible when He was here on earth, as we shall see in a moment.

This happens to be number four of a series of messages titled Christ Before Bethlehem. In every one of the messages, we have looked at the book of Isaiah to see a prophecy that the prophet gave under the inspiration of the Spirit about Jesus 700 years before He came at what we call Christmastime.

First of all, we looked at Jesus Christ the Son. For unto us a Child is born, a Son is given. Jesus the King was message number two. Jesus the Servant was number three, and today, Jesus the Deliverer. This message is a little different because not only do we have the prediction of the Old Testament, but also we begin at least to see the fulfillment of it in the New Testament. And that’s why I’m going to invite you actually to turn first of all to Isaiah 61, a critical passage, and then we shall zero in on Luke 4.

Yes, this is Christ before Bethlehem. But just like we look back now to Christmastime which is over, and we look to the future, in the very same way our passage looks back to the time when Isaiah gave it, but also at a future time when Jesus began the process of fulfilling it. It’s important to read Isaiah 61 here, and then we shall also see it in the Gospel of Luke.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”
Jewish scholars always interpreted this as a Messianic promise - the coming Redeemer.

Now with that background let’s take our Bibles and turn to Luke 4. We pick up the text in verse 16. Jesus has been anointed by the Spirit. He has been baptized by John. The Spirit has come upon Him, and then we read in verse 16, “And He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.”
Jesus is born in Bethlehem, but He lives in Nazareth. That’s where Joseph had his carpentry business. It was in Nazareth. This was the hometown where Mary and Joseph raised Jesus and their other children. So Jesus goes back now to Nazareth, and where does He go? It says, “And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day.”

Jesus comes to town, and where does He go? He goes where the religious people gathered, where the Torah was available, and He goes where the center of activity should have been for God and for His glory. And that’s where our Lord enters this picture.

Why didn’t He go to a church? Well, of course, in those days there was no church. The idea of Jew and Gentile being united into one body through the coming of Jesus was an unthinkable concept back then. So Jesus goes to His people, the chosen people, the ones who had all the promises and the ones whom God has especially blessed and given marvelous privileges to, and He goes to be among them. And He enters into the synagogue, and that’s where the drama opens.

Now as Jesus went into the synagogue, the synagogue service went something like this. First of all, it opened with a Shema. “Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai Ehad.” Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord. That’s the way the service opened. Following that, there would be eulogies and people would have the opportunity of saying Amen in response to them. And then there was always the reading of the Law, usually some from Moses, the first five books of the Bible, but then also from the prophets. And if a person were qualified and recognized to be qualified to read and to give an interpretation they were allowed to do so. And Jesus was famous at this time.

The Scripture says in verse 14, “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.” So when Jesus goes into this synagogue there is no question but that He is allowed to participate, and He is given the scroll by the attendant. In those days there was an attendant who had many different responsibilities, basically taking care of the synagogue, possibly also the maintenance of it, and it was his responsibility to take the scroll and give it to a teacher, qualified to teach. And then there was often also an interpreter present who would able to take the Hebrew and translate it into Aramaic, which is the language that most of the people understood in those days.

So we read these words. Verse 17: “And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll (keep that phrase in mind) and found the place where it was written.” And now let’s zero in for a moment on the mission on which Jesus began to accomplish. Here it is. It’s a quotation, of course, from the passage of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.”

Jesus was bringing here good news not of the Gospel that He was crucified, dead and buried, because that hadn’t even happened yet. It was really the Gospel of the Kingdom. It was the establishment of a kingdom on earth where there would be righteousness and justice and an end to all oppression. So He brought some good news to the poor. He said, “Your fortunes are going to change under my direction and under my leadership.”

Now what He had to say was important also for the rich, but the rich are not often interested in what Jesus has to say. Just yesterday I was speaking to a man who said that someone in his particular business, who is his boss, has no interest in the Gospel, or very little, because he is successful. He’s young. He’s in good health. Everything is going well. He doesn’t need God right now, so you can understand that oftentimes the poor were a part of Jesus Christ’s ministry because they knew that they had needs, and they were more open to what God was able to do in them and for them.

So Jesus says, “I’m bringing good news to the poor. Things are going to change for you. I’m bringing freedom for the prisoners, proclaiming liberty to the captives.” That doesn’t mean that all the jails are going to be emptied because there are some people who are in jail who ought to be there. But it means that spiritually speaking, there are those who bring upon themselves a captivity and a sense of confinement and oppression that is absolutely overwhelming. So Jesus says, “I have some good news for you too. You are going to be delivered. No longer are you going to have this sense of alienation from God. You are a prisoner in your own mind and in your own heart because of what you’ve done and because of what you’ve believed, or because of what others have done to you, and I’m here to deliver you.”

And then Jesus says, “to give sight to the blind.” Yes, physically he did that in a few instances in the New Testament, but also to those who were spiritually blind, those who were groping, finding their way to God or desiring to and not knowing how to do it. “I have hope for you,” Jesus is saying. And then this remarkable statement, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” What is that a reference to? It’s a reference to The Year of Jubilee. Jesus says, “I’m here to proclaim something that will bring universal deliverance across the land.”

In the Old Testament, the Year of Jubilee was celebrated only every 50 years. It came at the end of a cycle, seven cycles of seven years. So you have 49 years, and then the 50th year was The Year of Jubilee. When those who were going through difficulty and had to eat, they took their land and sold it to someone. And perhaps they even became slaves to the person to whom they sold the land. And in order to make sure that that would not be perpetuated generation-to-generation, at the 50th year, The Year of Jubilee, all of this was reversed, and the land went back to its original owners, and all slaves went free. This was a remarkable plan to kind of level the playing ground in Israel. You see, rather than some people owning a lot of land, and the rich become richer, and the poor become poorer, what God says is every 50 years it’s going to be all leveled out, and the poor are going to get land that maybe their father or grandfather had sold. And that’s why genealogies and family lines were so important because “You are going to be brought back and given what your family originally owned.” So perpetual slavery and the possibility of no end to those who are rich exploiting the poor would always be held in check. That was The Year of Jubilee.

Did people look forward to The Year of Jubilee? Well, it depends on who you were. If you were rich and you had lots of land, and you had slaves under your command, you disdained The Year of Jubilee because you’d have to give it all up. But if you were poor, and if you were a slave, you could hardly wait for the year to come. Jesus is saying here that to all these captives, to all of this oppression and this injustice, “The day has come when I am able to put an end to this if you receive Me as your Messiah and your King.”

Now notice what happened. Jesus read up to verse 19 in the Gospel of Luke. It says, “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The reason that I read Isaiah 61 first was this: Jesus stopped in the middle of a sentence. If you recall in verse 3 of Isaiah 61, the text says, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” and goes on to say, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” But Jesus says, “I’m not here yet to proclaim vengeance. That’s a future time.” And so Jesus stops right in the middle of a sentence. He gives the scroll back to the attendant who puts it in its place. And in those days in the synagogue, as I’m sure today, you stood to read the Scripture, but you sat down to teach. At least that’s the way it was then. You’ll notice it says in verse 20, “He rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him, and he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’ and all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.” Imagine Jesus reading a passage known to be Messianic, and saying, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled because I am here.”

Now of course you say, “Well did all of this happen?” No, not all of this happened because remember now Jesus is not saying, “I fulfilled all of this,” but He is saying, “I am the one who is going to fulfill all of this, and it will be fulfilled in the coming kingdom.” If you’ve been a part of this series you know that I explained the song that we sing, He rules the world with peace and joy. That hasn’t happened, but the day is going to come, and Jesus is presenting Himself to the nation as the great liberator, as the One who is able to deliver them and bring about this Kingdom. Now, of course, they rejected Him, and so the Kingdom is still future.

But let’s look at the text again. How did they respond to what Jesus had to say? What was their response? Did they say, “This is wonderful?” Well, they marveled at the gracious words that came out of His mouth. And by the way, when it says in verse 21, “He began to say to them,” that means that He probably went on a piece. It was probably a long speech that He gave and we have only that phrase, the beginning of it.

And then He said in verse 23, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” You see, He had done some miracles in Capernaum, and now they were saying, “Well, if You did it there, why don’t you do it in your own home town?” And Jesus gives a remarkable response. He says that a prophet is not accepted in His own country, because you know if you read the text, you know they were saying, “Who is this? Joseph’s son? I mean, we grew up with this guy. We knew Him before He was famous. Remember He was the boy who used to run to the edge of the hill.” If you’ve ever been to Nazareth you know that you can run through the city, and you can go right to the cliff, and you look over the cliff and you can see the Valley of Jezreel, the Valley of Armageddon. When I was there many years ago I thought of how often Jesus as a boy must have done that because boys love to run. They love to look. They love to stand on hills. And they knew Him, and they said, “We can’t believe that this is the one that we grew up with.” And yet at the same time, they could not controvert what He had said.

Then Jesus goes on to say, in effect, “You know that you can’t manipulate Me. You can’t think of Me as somebody who is going to come here, and I’m going to perform for you. And you say, ‘Oh, yeah, do what you did in Capernaum,’ and so I come and I say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to prove that I can do even greater things in My home town than I did at Capernaum.’ No, no, no! No one has a claim on me.”

And then He tells two stories that make them furious, both of them from the Old Testament. He says, “You know, during the time of Elijah there was a widow, and she lived in Sidon. She was a Gentile. There were many widows in Israel but do you know something? Elijah went to a Gentile widow and he said to her, ‘If you give me food, your flask of oil will never go out, and your container of flour will always contain more.’” That’s what it says in 1 Kings 17, and that’s what happened. It was a miracle. And so, you see what Jesus is saying, you’ll notice, is that God often goes out of the box. God often goes where He’s unexpected. He bypassed all of the widows in Israel and He chose a Gentile widow to bless, and He did a miracle for her. And if that wasn’t enough he said, “Remember Naaman the leper? There were plenty of lepers in Israel, and what does God do? He goes to Naaman who happens to be a Syrian and He does a miracle for Naaman that He didn’t do for the nation of Israel.”

What Jesus is trying to say here, I think, is don’t ever think that you have a corner on God, or think that God will do a miracle for you because He kind of owes it to you. He doesn’t owe it to anyone. And those who think that they have some kind of a claim that they can demand it are misinterpreting God’s intentions that are oftentimes way beyond our ability to grasp or to understand. And what Jesus is saying is, “If you humbled yourself and acknowledged your great need and realized how desperately you need My salvation and you need what I’m bringing to you, who knows that then God may be pleased to bless you?”

What made them so furious is the reminder that God sometimes blesses Gentiles more than He does Jews. So what did they do? Verse 28 says, “When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath.” He began by everyone loving Him and just looking at all the things that were coming out of His mouth as gracious. But when He got into the racial issue, they became angry. “And they rose up and they drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill (which I told you about) on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.” So there’s Jesus in the synagogue, warmly received at the beginning, and they tried to kill Him at the end.

What is Jesus saying to us today? What He’s saying is first of all, “My ministry goes to those who are oppressed. I always begin there. My rule has to do with justice and righteousness and the poor,” says Jesus. “And then also my ministry goes beyond the boundaries. It goes to those least likely to receive My grace. It goes even to Gentiles. It goes outside the box of Judaism.”

What does this mean for us today, and why should our lives be changed because we’ve read the text and we’ve expounded it? First of all, because of the mission that God Himself has left to us, we actually carry on the work of Jesus. You know, it’s true that Jesus didn’t fulfill all of His prophecy obviously. But this is what He does when He begins to rule, and this is what we should be about in addition to proclaiming the good news that Jesus died for sinners. We should all have within ourselves as followers of Jesus what can be called a very sensitive social conscience, which sometimes we lack.

The book of Acts opens in an interesting way. “In the first book, O Theophilus,” Luke says. Theophilus was a God lover. At least that’s what his name meant, but Luke says, “I wrote you the Gospel of Luke (That’s what he means by the former book) with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” And then he says in effect, “I am writing you this volume, namely the Gospel of Acts, so that you begin to see how Jesus continued to do and to teach these things.” And how does He do it? He does it through His body, the body of Christ, through us, through you and me. That’s why beginning next week here at the church I am hoping to introduce you to a series of messages on the Church, the fact that God thinks so much of us that He calls us the Body of Christ. Why are we the Body of Christ? It is because we should be doing Christ’s work, and we should be doing it in places where people would think that blessing would not be expected, just like the widow in Sidon, or the Syrian Naaman, healed of leprosy.

I am so pleased that as we begin this year we can think about opportunities that God has given to us. We think of Living Faith Church. We should constantly be praying for Pastor Will. We think of Kids Club. You know, of course, about six or eight months ago the authorities here in Chicago came to us and said that what’s happening at Kids Club at Cabrini Green cannot be duplicated in any of their programs. We’ve expanded to Altgeld thanks to the leadership of Donnita and others in the ministry, because God loves to go to places and do unexpected things in territories and in the lives of people that oftentimes we think are “outside the box.”

Early this morning – earlier than I had intended – I read this passage of Scripture, and I read it as a prayer for ourselves and for Moody Church. “May the Spirit of the Lord be upon us. May He anoint us to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed, and say to people, ‘Behold your God, the Year of Jubilee is here.’” Let’s blow the trumpet and be free in Jesus. That is what we are called to do. (applause)

Second, as we read this text, let us be reminded that we do accept the authority of Jesus, not only as Messiah, and of course, all that that entails, but as King of kings and Lord of lords.

As I was meditating on this passage during this past week, I was reminded of another instance in which Jesus was handed a scroll. That’s why when I read this text a few moments ago I asked you to look at that phrase, He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written. Is there any other place in the Bible where Jesus is handed a scroll? I am sure that many times He was handed a scroll, but is there a reference to it?

This is what we read in the book of Revelation 5. “Then I saw on the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’”

And the scroll is given to Jesus, and that’s why they sing a new song saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” He is able to open the scroll.

You read the rest of the book of Revelation. We don’t know everything that was on the scroll. It’s really a scroll perhaps of all of world history, but it includes judgment, so from here on in the book of Revelation you have the first seal. And then you have the second seal, and the third seal, and all the way through to seven seals. And it dawned on me that that’s where we get the phrase now, “And the day of vengeance of our God.”

Jesus in His first coming offers Himself as King, willing to bring about this Kingdom of righteousness. He is there. He is crucified. The Kingdom does not take place. It still is future, but so is the day of vengeance of our God. And the Jesus who heals the sick, who is concerned about the poor, who ministered and touched lives while he was here on earth, that same Jesus then returns. In His first coming He comes as Savior. In His second coming He comes as judge, as Lord, as God. He’s the only one qualified to open that book and to read its contents.

Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we want to thank You today for the authority of Jesus. We thank You today that Jesus surprises us. We’re surprised at where He goes. We’re surprised at whom He heals, and we thank You today that Jesus is a Savior for everyone. And we pray today that You might help us to honor Him, to love Him. We pray that we might worship Him acceptably because we know that He is God. And we thank You for the book that He opened when He was in Nazareth, and the book that He will yet open in eternity, and in each instance qualified to fulfill its contents.

But now, Lord, we pray that those who have never received Him as their Savior may do so. May they know that He is the liberator! And for those of us who do know Him, we pray, O God, grant to us the same passion that He had for the poor, for the oppressed, for those imprisoned, and for those, Father, who need the liberation that only You can give. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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