All spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. Luke 4:22
It’s always worth remembering your first impression of a person, because your first impression tells you what is immediately obvious. Notice the first impression these people had of Jesus…
The year of the Lord’s grace
Stories about him were circulating everywhere, but this was the first time they’d heard him speak. What impressed them most deeply is summed up in the word grace: “They marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (4:22).
It’s not hard to tell why—Jesus had come to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” That word “favor” is a synonym for the word “grace.” Another way to say that would be “the year of the Lord’s grace.”
Grace was what struck them when they were listening to Jesus. If you travel the world and listen to what’s being said in mosques, synagogues, and even in many churches, you’ll find that the message is largely about what you must do for God. What you should be! What you ought to do.
An exhortation to duty and morality would have been the staple diet for the synagogue congregation in Nazareth, as it is for millions of people of all religious stripes around the world, whether you worship on a Friday, a Saturday, or a Sunday.
If you were to ask people who are not currently going to church why they don’t come, you will hear many of them say something like this: “I don’t need someone telling me how to run my life.”
Nobody thought that when they listened to Jesus. They knew they were hearing something completely different. They hadn’t heard anything quite like it before. The people were amazed! They were surprised because it was not what they were used to hearing.
Harshness or grace?
Some of you were raised with the traditions and trappings of religion.
Church was part of your life, but perhaps was more associated with harshness than with grace.
You went to worship and you had the experience of coming out feeling worse than before you went in. More demands were being added to your already overburdened life, and it left you feeling condemned. If you were to listen to Jesus, you would hear something different.
Some of you have been discouraged by an authoritarian harshness; an unyielding moral superiority that holds sinners in contempt. That was not what these people were hearing from Jesus.
There are some comments that stay with you your whole life. One of those comments came from a friend who lost his wife when he was young. He had served Christ faithfully all his life, but sometime during this difficult season, he stopped going to church.
When I found out that he was no longer in church, I asked him, “What’s the deal?” Here’s what he said to me: “Every week it was like being hit over the head with a two-by-four.”
I have another friend who was brought up in a church tradition that was especially harsh, and he said to me once, “the problem was that everything was forbidden, except for what was compulsory.” That doesn’t leave you with a lot of room for maneuver!
If you listen to Jesus, you will be amazed by his grace. People who were really awake in the synagogue that day would have picked this up, not only from what Jesus said, but from where he ended his reading from Isaiah. He stopped in the middle of a sentence.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). Jesus stopped the reading in the middle of the sentence.
There is a day of God’s vengeance, but that is not what Jesus came to proclaim. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, might be saved! If grace is what Jesus was all about, then…
What is Grace?
- Grace means something is offered
Law means that something is demanded. Grace means that something is offered or given. God has the right to demand anything of us, he is God, but instead God offers something to us.
Grace means that God offers something to us—to cancel all our debts to him, to set us free from Satan’s power, and to restore the inheritance that Adam lost. “The law came by Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
You must possess what you promise to give
You can’t give what you don’t have. I came across a quotation from the writing of Charlotte Bronte in a book that many of you will have read: “Jane Eyre.”
The character, Jane, often reflects Charlotte Bronte’s own experience, and at one point she describes going to church and hearing a gifted young preacher…
The heart was thrilled, and the mind was astonished by the power of the preacher; [but] neither was softened. Throughout there was a strange bitterness, an absence of consolatory gentleness…
When he had done, instead of feeling better, calmer, more enlightened by his discourse, I experienced an inexpressible sadness. For it seemed to me… that the eloquence to which I had been listening had sprung from a heart where lay turbid depths of disappointment, where moved troubling impulses of insatiate yearnings and disquieting aspirations.
I was sure the preacher, pure-minded, conscientious, zealous as he was, had not yet found that peace of God that passeth all understanding, he had no more found it, I thought, than I…” i
I wonder how often that has been experienced by a Christian congregation? Here was a man talking about peace, but what does he know about it himself? The man is talking about faith or humility or patience, but there is little evidence of these things in his own life.
Jesus has what he offers
A faithful preacher is one who is looking to Jesus, trusting in Jesus, clinging to Jesus himself, and his task is to get our eyes fixed, not on himself, but on Jesus who holds in his hand all that we need.
In Christ, God offers himself to us. The fullness of God lives in him (Colossians 2:9). In him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He says, “I am the good shepherd, and I give my life for the sheep.” In a world of demands, God comes to us as the great giver.
When the mail comes, at this time of year, my wife sorts the Christmas cards and the bills into two piles. She takes the Christmas cards and she says, “I’ll open these, and you can open the rest.”
The Christmas cards are gifts. The rest are either needs or demands. Take away Christmas, and all that that we have left is a list of needs and demands. Everyone wants something from you. Christ comes and offers something to you!
Grace means that something is offered and it is offered freely: Mercy, forgiveness, and cleansing, strength, power, and release, hope, peace, and joy… and as people heard this offer from the lips of Jesus, they were amazed. Where else can you hear something like this?
- Grace means we have no rights
If something is given freely, you cannot claim it as a right. All rights are based on law. You may have a right to a tax refund next year, if you’ve paid too much. But no one has a right to a Christmas gift. Rights belong to the world of law, but there are no rights in the world of grace.
This was where the people of Nazareth got into problems, and where many people still do today. Nazareth was Jesus’ home town. The people heard Jesus was doing miracles in Capernaum and other places, so they felt he owed it to them to do the same, or at least a few miracles, here.
The people of Nazareth felt that they had a special claim on Jesus. This was his hometown, wasn’t it! They felt, in some way, that Jesus had an obligation to them.
Jesus knew what they were thinking, so he says, “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’” (Luke 4:23).
Guess what? Christ does not do miracles on demand. You can’t demand grace. It’s an oxymoron. You can’t be owed grace. God gives it. It cannot be earned or deserved. That’s what makes it grace.
If you think that God owes you, if you feel that you have a right to something better from him, then you cannot receive grace, because you are approaching him on the basis of law. And the last place you want to take your stand in the presence of God is on the basis of law.
If you come to God on the basis of law, he will deal with you on the basis of law. And if God should turn the full searchlight of his law on you, or on anyone else, not one of us would stand.
No miracles were done in Nazareth. The place was passed over. Why? Because the people felt that they had a right. They felt that Jesus Christ owed it to them.
A free pardon
- C. H. Spurgeon tells the story of a great man who was once taken to see the French galley slaves. Here are these criminals, and they’ve been sentenced to an awful life as a galley slave, and he was given the authority to grant a free pardon to one man. It could be anyone that he chose.
He went to a slave and asked him about his crime. The slave said that he had been treated very unfairly, that the charges against him had been greatly exaggerated, and that although he had done some bad, others were worse and that he had done a great deal of good. The great man passed him by. This slave was too good to receive a free pardon.
He spoke to a second slave, who told him that he was completely innocent. The great man passed him by: “This man is innocent,” he said. “What he needs is justice. A free pardon is not for him.”
He came to a third slave who said, “I have a long sentence to serve, and I fully deserve it. If they knew the full extent of my crimes, I would have been condemned to death.” The great man said, “A free pardon is the only hope for this man. This is the man to whom I will give it.”
Many people feel that God owes them. If you come to him like that, you will go away empty-handed. When you come to God, make it clear that you don’t think you have any claim to make upon him.
Tell him, “If you should condemn me, I would deserve it completely.”
Stop trying to impress God with the good you have done, or the problems you have faced, or the difficulties you have had to overcome.
Come to Jesus Christ as the worst sinner must come. Cast yourself upon his mercy and put your trust in his atoning sacrifice for your sin, as he shed his blood on the cross. Ask him to deal with you, not on the basis of any rights or obligations, but on the basis of free grace.
Come to Christ with your hands full, and you will go away empty; come to Christ with your hands empty, and you will go away full. The hands that are empty are ready to receive. Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your cross I cling.
- Grace means God has no limitations
Jesus reminds the people at Nazareth of two stories from the Old Testament that would have been familiar to them: The story of Elijah and the widow, and the story of Elisha and the leper. They teach the same truth—that grace can never be tied down to a particular group of people.
Grace means that God is obliged to save no one. Grace means that God is free to save anyone. God is subject neither to demands nor restrictions. That’s why, for the sake of his own glory, God often surprises us.
God is not like the government. The government is put there by us. They are of us. They exist for us and, ultimately, they are accountable to us. But God was not put there by us. He is not accountable to us; we are accountable to him!
Jesus reminds the people of his hometown, who felt that they had a claim on the blessing of God, about two stories from the Old Testament that would have been familiar to them…
The widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17)
“There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah… and Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.” Luke 4:25-26
There was a great famine and God sent the prophet Elijah to the home of a widow in Sidon! Sidon was the home town of Jezebel, the notoriously wicked queen. It was the heartland of idolatry.
Who would have guessed that salvation would come to her? But she was the one who experienced a miracle of God’s provision. Her jar of flour did not run out and her jug of oil did not run dry. Why? You don’t go telling God that he can’t save a woman in Sidon. He does what he pleases!
Namaan the Leper (2 Kings 5)
“There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Namaan the Syrian.” Luke 4:27
The contrast here is interesting because while the widow was poor,
Namaan was the captain of the Syrian army. This was a man of great accomplishments who had a highly-successful career. But he was a leper. The dreaded disease struck him and he knew he was in trouble.
Namaan came to Elisha, who told him to wash in the Jordan River seven times. He nearly took offense and walked away, but in a miracle of God’s grace, Namaan was wonderfully healed. Who’d have thought that God would save the commander of the army that opposed Israel? But he did!
You might think you’re the most unlikely person to become a Christian. You may say, “God would never want a person like me.” God specializes in saving the most unlikely people. You have not yet come to the point where you’ve sinned so much that you’re beyond God’s grace. Christ stands before you today and offers grace to all who will receive him.
The burglar and the judge
Kent Hughes tells a moving story about a prestigious church in England that had several mission halls under its care. The missions were smaller churches in some of the poorest areas of the city, and among them there were some remarkable stories of people who had been converted to Christ.
Every year on the first Sunday of the new year, people from the church and people from the mission halls would gather together in this church to share a service of communion together.
On one occasion the pastor of the church saw a man who’d been sentenced to prison, a burglar, kneeling to receive communion. Remarkably, as it happened, the man kneeling beside him was the very judge who, some years before, had dealt with his case and sent him to prison.
The pastor was deeply moved, thinking about how God’s grace had touched the burglar’s life, and the wonderful change that had come.
After the service, the pastor caught up with the judge: “Did you see who was kneeling beside you at the communion rail this morning?”
“Yes,” the judge said. “It’s a miracle of grace, a miracle of grace.”
“Yes,” said the pastor, “it really is marvelous to think of how he has been converted from that life of crime…”
“Oh no,” said the judge. “I wasn’t talking about him. I was talking about me! It’s no surprise to me that the burglar came to Christ. He knew the extent of his need.”
“But,” the judge said, “I was taught from earliest infancy to live like a gentleman, that my word was my bond, that I was to say my prayers and go to church. I went through Oxford, obtained my degrees, was called to the bar, and eventually became a judge.”
“People like me almost never see their need of Christ. My miracle was greater than his.”
Have you seen your own need? Have you seen his grace?
© Colin S. Smith
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