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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Luke 4

 

 

Verses 1-44

Chapter 4

THE BATTLE WITH TEMPTATION (Luke 4:1-13)

4:1-13 Jesus came back from the Jordan full of the Holy Spirit. He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and for forty days he was tempted by the devil; and in those days he ate nothing, and when they were completed he was hungry. The devil said to him, "If you really are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus answered him, "It stands written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone.'" He took him up and showed him in an instant of time all the kingdoms of the inhabited world. The devil said to him, "I will give you all this power and the glory of them, because it has been handed over to me, and I can give it to whomsoever I wish. If then you worship me all of it will be yours." Jesus answered him, "It stands written, 'You must worship the Lord God and him only must you serve.'" He brought him to Jerusalem and set him on a pinnacle of the Temple, and said to him, "If you really are the Son of God throw yourself down from here, for it stands written, 'He has given his angels instructions concerning you, to take care of you, and they will bear you up in their hands lest you dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It has been said, 'You must not try to test the Lord your God.'" So when he had gone through the whole gamut of temptation, the devil left him for a time.

We have already seen how there were certain great milestones in the life of Jesus and here is one of the greatest. In the Temple when he was twelve there had come the realization that God was his Father in a unique way. In the emergence of John, the hour had struck and in his baptism God's approval had come. At this time Jesus was just about to begin his campaign. Before a man begins a campaign he must choose his methods. The temptation story shows us Jesus choosing once and for all the method by which he proposed to win men to God. It shows him rejecting the way of power and glory and accepting the way of suffering and the cross.

Before we go on to think of this story in detail there are two general points we must note.

(i) This is the most sacred of stories, for it can have come from no other source than his own lips. At some time he must have himself told his disciples about this most intimate experience of his soul.

(ii) Even at this time Jesus must have been conscious of quite exceptional powers. The whole point of the temptations is that they could have come only to a man who could do astonishing things. It is no temptation to us to turn stones into bread or leap from a Temple pinnacle, for the simple reason that it is impossible for us to do such things. These are temptations which could have come only to a man whose powers were unique and who had to decide how to use them.

First of all let us think of the scene, namely, the wilderness. The inhabited part of Judaea stood on the central plateau which was the backbone of Southern Palestine. Between it and the Dead Sea stretched a terrible wilderness, thirty-five by fifteen miles. It was called Jeshimmon, which means "The Devastation." The hills were like dust heaps; the limestone looked blistered and peeling; the rocks were bare and jagged; the ground sounded hollow to the horses' hooves; it glowed with heat like a vast furnace and ran out to the precipices, 1,200 feet high, which swooped down to the Dead Sea. It was in that awesome devastation that Jesus was tempted.

We must not think that the three temptations came and went like scenes in a play. We must rather think of Jesus deliberately retiring to this lonely place and for forty days wrestling with the problem of how he could win men. It was a long battle which never ceased until the cross and the story ends by saying that the tempter left Jesus--for a season.

(i) The first temptation was to turn stones into bread. This wilderness was not a wilderness of sand. It was covered by little bits of limestone exactly like loaves. The tempter said to Jesus, "If you want people to follow you, use your wonderful powers to give them material things." He was suggesting that Jesus should bribe people into following him. Back came Jesus' answer in a quotation of Deuteronomy 8:3. "A man," he said, "will never find life in material things."

The task of Christianity is not to produce new conditions, although the weight and voice of the church must be behind all efforts to make life better for men. Its real task is to produce new men; and given the new men, the new conditions will follow.

(ii) In the second temptation Jesus in imagination stood upon a mountain from which the whole civilized world could be seen. The tempter said, "Worship me, and all will be yours." This is the temptation to compromise. The devil said, "I have got people in my grip. Don't set your standards so high. Strike a bargain with me. Just compromise a little with evil and men will follow you." Back came Jesus' answer, "God is God, right is right and wrong is wrong. There can be no compromise in the war on evil." Once again Jesus quotes scripture (Deuteronomy 6:13; Deuteronomy 10:1-22 ; Deuteronomy 20:1-20 ).

It is a constant temptation to seek to win men by compromising with the standards of the world. G. K. Chesterton said that the tendency of the world is to see things in terms of an indeterminate grey; but the duty of the Christian is to see things in terms of black and white. As Carlyle said, "The Christian must be consumed by the conviction of the infinite beauty of holiness and the infinite damnability of sin."

(iii) In the third temptation Jesus in imagination saw himself on the pinnacle of the Temple where Solomon's Porch and the Royal Porch met. There was a sheer drop of 450 feet down into the Kedron Valley below. This was the temptation to give the people sensations. "No," said Jesus, "you must not make senseless experiments with the power of God" (Deuteronomy 6:16). Jesus saw quite clearly that if he produced sensations he could be a nine days' wonder: but he also saw that sensationalism would never last.

The hard way of service and of suffering leads to the cross, but after the cross to the crown.

THE GALILAEAN SPRINGTIME (Luke 4:14-15)

4:14-15 So Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee; and the story of him spread throughout the whole countryside. He kept on teaching in their synagogues; and he was held in high reputation by all.

No sooner had Jesus left the wilderness than he was faced with another decision. He knew that for him the hour had struck; he had settled once and for all the method he was going to take. Now he had to decide where he would start.

(i) He began in Galilee. Galilee was an area in the north of Palestine about fifty miles from north to south and twenty-five miles from east to west. The name itself means a circle and comes from the Hebrew word galiyl (Hebrew #1551). It was so called because it was encircled by non-Jewish nations. Because of that, new influences had always played upon Galilee and it was the most forward-looking and least conservative part of Palestine. It was extraordinarily densely populated. Josephus, who was himself at one time governor of the area, says that it had 204 villages or towns, none with a population less than 15,000. It seems incredible that there could be some 3,000,000 people congregated in Galilee.

It was a land of extraordinary fertility. There was a proverb which said that, "It is easier to raise a legion of olive trees in Galilee than to bring up one child in Judaea." The wonderful climate and the superb water supply made it the garden of Palestine. The very list of trees which grew there shows how amazingly fertile it was--the vine, the olive, the fig, the oak, the walnut, the terebinth, the palm, the cedar, the cypress, the balsam, the firtree, the pine, the sycamore, the baytree, the myrtle. the almond, the pomegranate, the citron and the oleander.

The Galilaeans themselves were the Highlanders of Palestine. Josephus says of them, "They were ever fond of innovations and by nature disposed to changes, and delighted in seditions. They were ever ready to follow a leader who would begin an insurrection. They were quick in temper and given to quarrelling." "The Galilaeans," it was said, "have never been destitute of courage." "They were ever more anxious for honour than for gain."

That is the land in which Jesus began. It was his own land; and it would give him, at least at the beginning, an audience who would listen and kindle at his message.

(ii) He began in the synagogue. The synagogue was the real centre of religious life in Palestine. There was only one Temple; but the law said that wherever there were ten Jewish families there must be a synagogue; and so in every town and village it was in the synagogue that the people met to worship. There were no sacrifices in the synagogue. The Temple was designed for sacrifice; the synagogue for teaching. But how could Jesus gain an entry into the synagogue and how could he, a layman, the carpenter from Nazareth, deliver his message there?

In the synagogue service there were three parts.

(a) The worship part in which prayer was offered.

(b) The reading of the scriptures. Seven people from the congregation read. As they read, the ancient Hebrew, which was no longer widely understood, was translated by the Targumist into Aramaic or Greek, in the case of the Law, one verse at a time, in the case of the prophets, three verses at a time.

(c) The teaching part. In the synagogue there was no professional ministry nor any one person to give the address; the president would invite any distinguished person present to speak and discussion and talk would follow. That is how Jesus got his chance. The synagogue and its platform were open to him at this stage.

(iii) The passage ends by saying that he was held in high reputation by all. This period of Jesus' ministry has been called the Galilaean springtime. He had come like a breath of the very wind of God. The opposition had not yet crystallized. Men's hearts were hungry for the word of life, and they had not yet realized what a blow he was to strike at the orthodoxy of his time. A man with a message will always command an audience.

WITHOUT HONOUR IN HIS OWN COUNTRY (Luke 4:16-30)

4:16-30 So Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been brought up; and, as was his habit, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read the lesson. The roll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He opened the roll and found the passage where it is written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring the Good News to the poor. He has sent me to announce release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who have been bruised, to proclaim that the year which everyone is waiting for has come." And he folded up the roll and handed it back to the officer and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed intently on him. He began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears." And all witnessed to him and were amazed at the words of grace that came from his mouth. And they said, "Is this not the son of Joseph?" He said to them, "You are bound to quote the proverb to me, 'Physician, heal yourself; we have heard about all that happened in Capernaum; do the same kind of things in your own home country.'" He said, "This is the truth that I tell you. No prophet is accepted in his own home country. In truth I tell you there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months and when there was a great famine all over the earth. And to none of them was Elijah sent but he was sent to Zarephath, to a widow of Sidon. There were many lepers in Israel in the times of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was healed; but Naaman the Syrian was." And the people in the synagogue were filled with anger as they listened to these things; and they rose up and hustled him out of the town. They took him to the brow of the hill on which their town is built, to throw him down; but he passed through the midst of them and went upon his way.

One of Jesus' very early visits was to Nazareth, his home town. Nazareth was not a village. It is called a polis (Greek #4172) which means a town or city; and it may well have had as many as 20,000 inhabitants. It stood in a little hollow in the hills on the lower slopes of Galilee near the Plain of Jezreel. But a boy had only to climb to the hilltop above the town and he could see an amazing panorama for miles around.

Sir George Adam Smith described the scene from the hilltop. The history of Israel stretched out before the watcher's eye. There was the plain of Esdraelon where Deborah and Barak had fought; where Gideon had won his victories; where Saul had crashed to disaster and Josiah had been killed in battle; there was Naboth's vineyard and the place where Jehu slaughtered Jezebel; there was Shunem where Elisha had lived; there was Carmel where Elijah had fought his epic battle with the prophets of Baal; and, blue in the distance, there was the Mediterranean and the isles of the sea.

Not only the history of Israel was there; the world unfolded itself from the hilltop above Nazareth. Three great roads skirted it. There was the road from the south carrying pilgrims to Jerusalem. There was the great Way of the Sea which led from Egypt to Damascus with laden caravans moving along it. There was the great road to the east bearing caravans from Arabia and Roman legions marching out to the eastern frontiers of the Empire. It is wrong to think of Jesus as being brought up in a backwater; he was brought up in a town in sight of history and with the traffic of the world almost at its doors.

We have already described the synagogue service and this passage gives us a vivid picture of it in action. It was not a book which Jesus took, for at this time everything was written on rolls. It was from Isaiah 61:1-11 that he read. In Luke 4:20 the King James Version speaks misleadingly of the minister. The official in question was the Chazzan. He had many duties. He had to take out and put back the sacred rolls of scripture; he had to keep the synagogue clean; he had to announce the coming of the Sabbath with three blasts of the silver trumpet from the synagogue roof; and he was also the teacher in the village school. Luke 4:20 says that Jesus sat down. That gives us the impression that he was finished. In point of fact it means that he was about to start, because the speaker gave the address seated and Rabbis taught sitting down. (compare our own phrase, a professor's chair).

What angered the people was the apparent compliment that Jesus paid to gentiles. The Jews were so sure that they were God's people that they utterly despised all others. They believed that "God had created the gentiles to be fuel for the fires of hell." And here was this young Jesus, whom they all knew, preaching as if the gentiles were specially favoured by God. It was beginning to dawn upon them that there were things in this new message the like of which they had never dreamed.

We must note two other things.

(i) It was Jesus' habit to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath. There must have been many things with which he radically disagreed and which grated on him--yet he went. The worship of the synagogue might be far from perfect; yet Jesus never omitted to join himself to God's worshipping people on God's day.

(ii) We have only to read the passage of Isaiah that Jesus read to see the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist. John was the preacher of doom and at his message men must have shuddered with terror. It was a gospel--Good News--which Jesus brought. Jesus, too, knew the wrath of God but it was always the wrath of love.

THE SPIRIT OF AN UNCLEAN DEVIL (Luke 4:31-37)

4:31-37 Jesus came down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and he was teaching them on the Sabbath day; and they were astonished at his teaching because his speech was with authority. There was in the synagogue a man who had a spirit of an unclean demon and he cried out with a loud voice, "What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are--the Holy One of God." So Jesus rebuked it. "Be muzzled," he said, "and come out of him." And after the demon had thrown him into the midst of them, it came out of him and it did him no harm. Astonishment fell on them all and they kept saying to each other, "What word is this? because he gives orders to unclean spirits with authority and with power and they come out." And the story of him went out to every place in the surrounding district.

We would have liked to know as much about Capernaum as we do about Nazareth, but the strange fact is that there is even doubt as to the site of this lake-side town where so much of Jesus' mighty work was done.

This passage is specially interesting because it is the first in Luke where we encounter demon possession. The ancient world believed that the air was thickly populated with evil spirits which sought entry into men. Often they did enter a man through food or drink. All illness was caused by them. The Egyptians believed there were thirty-six different parts of the human body and any of them could be entered and controlled by one of these evil spirits. There were spirits of deafness, of dumbness, of fever; spirits which took a man's sanity and wits away; spirits of lying and of deceit and of uncleanness. It was such a spirit that Jesus exorcised here.

To many people this is a problem. On the whole, modern thought regards belief in spirits as something primitive and superstitious which men have outgrown. Yet Jesus seemed to believe in them. There are three possibilities.

(i) Jesus actually did believe in them. If that is so, as far as scientific knowledge went he was not in advance of his own age but under all the limitations of contemporary medical thought. There is no need to refuse such a conclusion for, if Jesus was really a man, in scientific things he must have had the knowledge then open to men.

(ii) Jesus did not believe in them. But the sufferer did believe intensely and Jesus could cure people only by assuming their beliefs about themselves to be true. If a person is ill and someone says to him, "There's nothing wrong with you," that is no help. The reality of the pain has to be admitted before a cure can follow. The people believed they were possessed of devils and Jesus, like a wise doctor, knew he could not heal them unless he assumed that their view of their trouble was real.

(iii) Modern thought has been swinging round to the admission that perhaps there is something in demons after all. There are certain troubles which have no bodily cause as far as can be discovered. There is no reason why the man is ill, but he is ill. Since there is no physical explanation some now think there must be a spiritual one and that demons may not be so unreal after all.

The people were astonished at Jesus' power--and no wonder. The east was full of people who could exorcise demons. But their methods were weird and wonderful. An exorcist would put a ring under the afflicted person's nose; he would recite a long spell; and then all of a sudden there would be a splash in a basin of water which he had put near to hand--and the demon was out! A magical root called Baaras was specially effective. When a man approached it, it shrank into the ground unless gripped, and to grip it was certain death. So the ground round it was dug away; a dog was tied to it; the struggles of the dog tore up the root; and when the root was torn up the dog died, as a substitute for a man. What a difference between all this hysterical paraphernalia and the calm single word of command of Jesus! It was his sheer authority which staggered them.

Jesus' authority was something quite new. When the Rabbis taught they supported every statement with quotations. They always said, "There is a saying that . . ." "Rabbi so and so said that ..." They always appealed to authority. When the prophets spoke, they said, "Thus saith the Lord." Theirs was a delegated authority. When Jesus spoke, he said, "I say to you." He needed no authorities to buttress him; his was not a delegated authority; he was authority incarnate. Here was a man who spoke as one who knew.

In every sphere of life the expert bears an air of authority. A musician tells how when Toscanini mounted the rostrum authority flowed from him and the orchestra felt it. When we need technical advice we call in the expert. Jesus is the expert in life. He speaks and men know that this is beyond human argument--this is God.

A MIRACLE IN A COTTAGE (Luke 4:38-39)

4:38-39 Jesus left the synagogue and came into Simon's house; and Simon's mother-in-law was in the grip of a major fever. They asked him to do something for her. He stood over her and rebuked the fever and it left her. Immediately she got up and began to serve them.

Here Luke the doctor writes. In the grip of a major fever--every word is a medical term. In the grip of is the medical Greek for someone definitely laid up with an illness. The Greek medical writers divided fevers into two classes--major and minor. Luke knew just how to describe this illness.

There are three great truths in this short incident.

(i) Jesus was always ready to serve. He had just left the synagogue. Every preacher knows what it is like after a service. Virtue is gone out of him; he has need of rest. The last thing he wants is a crowd of people and a fresh call upon him. But no sooner had Jesus left the synagogue and entered Peter's house than the insistent cry of human need was at him. He did not claim that he was tired and must rest; he answered it without complaint.

The Salvation Army people tell of a Mrs. Berwick in the days of the London blitzes. She had been in charge of the Salvation Army's social work in Liverpool and had retired to London. People had strange ideas during the blitzes and they had the idea that somehow Mrs Berwick's house was safe; and so they gathered there. Though she had retired, the instinct to help was still with her. She got together a simple first-aid box and then put a notice in her window, "If you need help, knock here." Always Jesus was ready to help; his followers must be the same.

(ii) Jesus did not need a crowd to work a miracle. Many a man will put out an effort in a crowd that he will not make among his own private circle. Many a man is at his best in society and at his worst at home. All too commonly we are gracious, courteous, obliging to strangers and the very opposite when there is no one but our own folk to see. But Jesus was prepared to put out all his power in a village cottage in Capernaum when the crowds were gone.

(iii) When Peter's mother-in-law was cured immediately she began to serve them. She realized that she had been given back her health to spend it in the service of others. She wanted no fussing and no petting; she wanted to get on with cooking and serving her own folk and Jesus. Mothers are always like that. We would do well to remember that if God gave us the priceless gift of health and strength, he gave it that we might use it always in the service of others.

THE INSISTENT CROWDS (Luke 4:40-44)

4:40-44 When the sun was setting all who had friends who were ill with all kinds of sicknesses brought them to Jesus; and he laid his hands upon each one of them and cured them. Out of many there came demons, shouting out and saying, "You are the Son of God." And he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Anointed One. When day came, he went out and went to a desert place; and the crowds kept looking for him and they tried to restrain him so that he would not go away from them; but he said to them, "I must tell the Good News of the Kingdom of God to other towns too, because that is what I was sent to do."

(i) Early in the morning Jesus went out to be alone. He was able to meet the insistent needs of men only because he first companied with God. Once, in the 1914-18 war, a staff conference was due to begin. All were present except Marshal Foch, the commander-in-chief. An officer who knew him well said, "I think I know where we may find him." He led them round to a ruined chapel close beside General Headquarters and there, before the shattered altar, the great soldier was kneeling in prayer. Before he met men he must first meet God.

(ii) There is no word of complaint or resentment when Jesus' privacy was invaded by the crowds. Prayer is great but in the last analysis human need is greater. Florence Allshorn, the great missionary teacher, used to run a training college for missionaries. She knew human nature and she had little time for people who suddenly discovered that their quiet hour was due just when the dishes were to be washed! Pray we must; but prayer must never be an escape from reality. Prayer cannot preserve a man from the insistent cry of human need. It must prepare him for it; and sometimes he will need to rise from his knees too soon and get to work--even when he does not want to.

(iii) Jesus would not let the demons speak. Over and over again we get on Jesus' lips this injunction to silence. Why? For this very good reason--the Jews had their own popular ideas of the Messiah. To them the Messiah was to be a conquering king who would set his foot upon the eagle's neck and sweep the Romans from Palestine. Palestine was in an inflammable condition. Rebellion was always just below the surface and often broke out. Jesus knew that if the report went out that he was the Messiah the revolutionaries would be ready to flare up. Before men could call him Messiah, he had to teach them that Messiah meant not a conquering king but a suffering servant. His injunctions to silence were given because people did not yet know what Messiahship meant, and if they started out with the wrong ideas death and destruction would surely follow.

(iv) Here is the first mention of the kingdom of God in Luke's gospel. Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15). That was the essence of his message. What did he mean by the kingdom of God? For Jesus the kingdom was three things at the same time.

(a) It was past. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were in the kingdom and they had lived centuries ago (Luke 13:28).

(b) It was present. "The kingdom," he said, "is within you, or among you" (Luke 17:21).

(c) It was future. It was something which God was still to give and for which men must ever pray.

How can the kingdom be all these things at the same time? Turn to the Lord's Prayer. There are two petitions in it side by side. Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven (Matthew 6:10). Now the Hebrews, as any verse of the psalms will show, had a way of saying things twice; and always the second way explained, or developed, or amplified the first way. Put these two phrases together--Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven. The second explains the first; therefore, the kingdom of God is a society upon earth where Gods will is as perfectly done as it is in heaven. If any man in the past has perfectly done God's will, he is in the kingdom; if any man does it now, he is in the kingdom; but the day when all men will do that will is still far distant, therefore the consummation is still to come; and so the kingdom is past and present and future all at the same time.

Other men do that will spasmodically, sometimes obeying, sometimes disobeying. Only Jesus always did it perfectly. That is why he is the foundation and the incarnation of the kingdom. He came to enable all men to do the same. To do God's will is to be a citizen of the kingdom of God. We may well pray-- "Lord, bring in thy kingdom, beginning with me."

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Luke 4:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/luke-4.html. 1956-1959.


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the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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