LCN Article
Digging Deeper: Why Did Jesus Stop at a Comma?

July / August 2021

Ken Frank

If you have read the account of Jesus’ visit to a synagogue in which He read aloud from a passage in Isaiah, have you noticed that He stopped His reading right in the middle of a verse—at a comma? This was a most unusual preaching strategy, but it was deliberate. Jesus was recognized as a member of His Nazareth synagogue and was invited according to first-century Jewish custom to read a portion of either the Law or the Prophets. He may have deliberately chosen the scroll of Isaiah for this sermon to His fellow worshipers. However, what He read and pointedly commented upon caused them to rise up and threaten His life. Luke alone records this incident, in Luke 4:16–30. 

Jesus quoted two passages from Isaiah that He was beginning to fulfill: Isaiah 61:1–2 and Isaiah 58:6. Combining two texts with a similar theme was a common practice called a gezerah shava. If you read Isaiah’s original version, you will notice some rewording of the text in Luke’s account. This is common throughout our New Testament—God, the Author and Supreme Editor of the Bible, is at liberty to revise and rephrase His word as necessary, depending on the context in which it is cited. 

Jesus First Came as a Prophet 

When Jesus proclaimed that the Spirit was upon Him, He meant that He was moved to do some supernatural work. In Luke 4:18, He explained that He was anointed by the Holy Spirit, as Luke later explained in Acts 10:38. The Old Testament ceremony of anointing with oil inaugurated men into the offices of priest, prophet, or king. Jesus first came as the Prophet (Matthew 21:11; John 7:40), today He is our High Priest in heaven (Hebrews 4:14–15), and He will return as our King (Revelation 11:15; 17:14). He holds all three offices at once. 

Jesus explained that this anointing enabled Him to preach the Gospel to the poor, and Luke emphasized Jesus’ concern for those materially poor, who were often at the mercy of unscrupulous officials and businessmen. It was generally thought that their suffering was due to a curse from God and was their fault. By contrast, those who relieved the poor were considered especially righteous since almsgiving was synonymous with righteousness in the minds of many at the time. 

Jesus then proclaimed that He was sent to heal the brokenhearted—those who were in despair of heart, including those whose mourning over their sins leads to repentance. He continued His sermon, stating that He came to preach deliverance to the captives—i.e., the forgiveness of sin and remission of its penalty. Jesus will deliver those who are held in Satan’s snare as his captives in body, mind, or spirit. 

Jesus added that He had come to recover sight to the blind, including those spiritually blind to God’s truth. During His ministry, Jesus healed many who were physically blind. He next declared that He came to liberate the bruised—i.e., oppressed, broken people. Jesus came to free people from heavy burdens of sin and oppressive rabbinical restrictions. 

Jesus knew what it was like to be poor, brokenhearted, and bruised (Isaiah 53:3–5). The phrase “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” in Luke 4:18 was Jesus’ insertion of a paraphrase from Isaiah 58:6. He was announcing a time when salvation was available to His audiences. The final phrase of Isaiah 61:2 states that, throughout His ministry, He came to comfort all who mourn over loss or sin. He still does today! 

Stopping at a Comma 

In Luke 4:19, Jesus quoted only part of Isaiah 61:2. Notice the complete verse: “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:2). The “acceptable year of the Lord” sometimes refers to the Jubilee year of Leviticus 25:8–17. However, Jesus applied it to His own ministry. He offered liberation from sin and its consequences. Those who accepted His offer of salvation became His disciples. 

As He quoted Isaiah 61:2, He omitted what comes after the first comma in most English-language Bibles, leaving out “the day of vengeance of our God” (cf. Luke 4:19). He seemed to imply that the day of God’s vengeance is reserved for His Second Coming when He returns as conquering King and administers vengeance—justice—on those who willfully oppose Him. 

Many Jews at the time believed that their salvation was a matter of nationality rather than submission to God. They considered God’s vengeance and retribution to be reserved for the Gentiles. Some Jewish sects believed that the Messiah would arrive as a powerful, conquering prince at the head of a mighty army to vanquish the Jews’ enemies. When Jesus came instead as a suffering Servant Messiah who died for human sin, they rejected Him because He did not meet their Messianic expectations. Their pride, prejudice, and preconceived opinion blinded them to their spiritual need for repentance. What follows in this story is the result of this attitude. 

Scripture Fulfilled in a Man from Nazareth 

In Luke 4:20, Jesus ended His reading, rolled up the scroll of Isaiah, and handed it back so He could sit down to deliver a sermon about these passages. The eyes of the congregation were fixed upon Him. Suspense and tension grew as people wondered what He would say next. He proclaimed that these texts were being fulfilled in their hearing (Luke 4:21). His listeners, however, expected these passages to be fulfilled in a coming Messianic age. Jesus told them that this phase of His ministry had already begun and that they were being given an offer of repentance and discipleship. 

The audience wondered at such words coming from one they had known since His boyhood. They asked, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22). How could He be the Messiah? Jesus foretold in Luke 4:23 that, rather than respond favorably to His offer, they would recite to Him a proverb that questions a person’s power and authority: “Physician, heal thyself!” 

Instead of responding to His offer, they wanted Him to perform a miracle—they had probably heard about miracles He performed during His earlier ministry in Judea and Capernaum. By this point, Jesus had already turned water into wine and healed a nobleman’s son. Out of mere curiosity, they wanted to see a miracle—but not to transform their lives through genuine spiritual responsiveness. 

Not Accepted at Home 

Jesus then explained that prophets are seldom fully trusted at home (Luke 4:24). Jesus recited a proverbial expression that placed Him in the long line of prophets whose people rejected them. In Jesus’ case, his neighbors rejected Him for noting the examples of Elijah and Elisha, Old Testament prophets who performed miracles for Gentiles during an age of Israelite apostasy (Luke 4:25–27). 

This was more than His audience could stand, so they arose in wrath (Luke 4:28). Their rage had been building as they had sat listening to Him, but now it boiled over. They were not slow to see how Jesus applied these Old Testament stories to them—He revealed that they were just as apostate as the Israelites in the time of Elijah and Elisha. Instead of accepting the message to repent of their sins, they chose to attack the Messenger. Familiarity had bred contempt for one of their own. 

They were unwilling to humble their hearts. Their fierce, nationalistic pride and bigotry resented the thought of God having blessed Gentiles in the time of Elijah and Elisha. In effect, Jesus had compared His townsfolk to their unbelieving ancestors. Jesus even gave them another opportunity about a year later, but instead of taking it, they were offended by Him. As a result, He did not work many miracles in His hometown (Matthew 13:53–58; Mark 6:5). At the time, even Jesus’ brothers “did not believe in Him” (John 7:5). 

In Luke 4:29, these congregants led Him to the top of a hill overlooking Nazareth, intending to cast Him down headfirst and then stone Him to death for blasphemy. This was contrary to Jewish custom that prohibited execution without trial and forbade it being conducted on the Sabbath. Not only that, but Roman law required them to have the governor’s permission before executing one of their own. They were acting like a lynch mob. 

But in Luke 4:30–32, Jesus miraculously passed through their midst and continued His ministry in Capernaum; His time of sacrificial death had not yet come (John 7:30). Many elsewhere became His disciples. Jesus lived this proverbial expression: “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house” (Matthew 13:57). 

What about us? Do we allow familiarity to breed contempt when we interact with those God has chosen? Are we resentful of the opportunities God gives to those around us? Do we look down upon those outside of God’s Church and belittle them, simply because God has not yet called them to understanding? Let’s examine the ways we consider and treat others, learn from the example of our Savior, and continue to grow in His grace and knowledge. 

 

Editor’s Note: The above article has been adapted for the Living Church News from one of the many informative Digging Deeper essays available at LCGEducation.org. We hope it has interested you in digging deeper into what Living Education has to offer!