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Considering the Cliffhanger of Luke 4:30

The message of Jesus of Nazareth elicited a wide range of responses from his contemporaries. Some, like his core group of twelve disciples, did not hesitate to leave everything behind to follow him (Lk 5:11). In the words of Simon Peter, a spokesman for the twelve, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life ...." (Jn 6:68).


On the other hand, there were some who violently opposed him. For example, when Jesus criticized the lack of faith he encountered at his hometown synagogue, the people there reacted in anger. Luke reports that "they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff" (Lk 4:29).


Luke 4:29 is a suspenseful juncture in the Gospel narrative, with a mob preparing to push Jesus off a cliff. Strangely, though, Luke says little about what happened next. "But passing through their midst, he went away," is his abrupt and cryptic conclusion to the Nazareth synagogue account.


The brevity of Luke 4:30 arouses our curiosity, causing us to wonder how Jesus escaped the mob at Nazareth. As we continue reading, we are given several clues that suggest what happened.(1)


First of all, Jesus' journey was not an aimless one. He had set out "to proclaim good news to the poor" (4:18), and he was determined to accomplish that goal. When he decided to move on after ministering in Capernaum, he stated, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose" (4:43).


Jesus also implied in Nazareth that he would carry on in the tradition of the prophets Elijah and Elisha (4:24-27). There are two examples recorded in Luke 7. As Elisha had healed Naaman the Syrian (2 Ki 5:1-14), so Jesus healed a centurion's servant (Lk 7:1-10); and as Elijah had revived the son of the widow at Zarephath (1 Ki 17:17-24), so Jesus raised the son of the widow at Nain (Lk 7:11-17).


Moreover, Jesus' destination was not random. He made it known that he was headed for Jerusalem (Lk 9:51-53), where death awaited him (13:33). That death, however, was not the final word. At one point he explained to the twelve, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise" (18:31-33).


These clues make clear that in the Gospel of Luke, the ministry of Jesus proceeded according to a preordained plan. A plan God would not allow to be thwarted by the whims of a mob in the village of Nazareth. At Nazareth, it was not yet time for Jesus to die. There still were many things for him to accomplish.


When we read Luke 4:30 in the overall context of the Gospel of Luke, the implication is that God intervened to rescue Jesus at the cliff so that his plan could be carried out. This rescue from death at Nazareth foreshadows the later resurrection of Jesus at Jerusalem. In the literary structure of Luke's Gospel, these two miracles would form a set of bookends at the beginning and end of Jesus' earthly ministry.


A divine rescue in Luke 4:30 is also consistent with the series of miraculous escapes that Luke reports in the book of Acts, the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. In Acts 5:19-20, an angel released Peter and John from prison. Similarly, an angel led Peter out of prison in Acts 12:6-11. An earthquake freed Paul and Silas from bonds in Acts 16:25-26. A mob at Lystra stoned and left Paul for dead, but he got up and walked away (14:19-20). Later, at Malta, Paul survived a deadly snakebite (28:1-6). In each case, God intervened so that the spread of the Gospel would continue as planned.


In the escapes of Acts 5 and 12, God sent angels to aid the apostles. It would have been fitting if God also had sent angels to assist Jesus in Lk 4:30. Such an event would constitute a fulfillment of Ps 91:11-12, which says, "For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone."


Interestingly, just such a fulfillment is suggested by the fact that these verses were quoted earlier in Lk 4:10-11. The devil invites the Messiah to prove his divine sonship by throwing himself from the top of the Temple. Jesus counters the devil's proposal by quoting Dt 6:16, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test." However, he does not deny that Ps 91:11-12 applies to him.


Indeed, Matthew and Mark mention that Jesus received angelic assistance after the wilderness temptation (Mt 4:11; Mk 1:13). Luke says that the devil "departed from him until an opportune time" (Lk 4:13), raising the possibility that the devil was involved in the attempt to kill Jesus at Nazareth, and that angels were sent to prevent Jesus from "striking his foot against a stone."


In Lk 10:19, Jesus told a group of his disciples, "Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you." Here Jesus was applying Ps 91:13 ("You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot") to his disciples. This use of Ps 91:13 is another point in favor of Lk 4:30 fulfilling Ps 91:11-12.


The frustrating vagueness of Lk 4:30 may have been a deliberate strategy on Luke's part, prompting us to read further and carefully consider the overall message of his Gospel and the book of Acts. In these writings, we find hints that divine intervention occurs, like the one at Nazareth, to enable the ongoing fulfillment of Jesus' messianic mission.


Footnotes:

(1) For a discussion of these clues, see Bruce W. Longenecker's Hearing the Silence: Jesus on the Edge and God in the Gap-Luke 4 in Narrative Perspective, Cascade Books, 2012.

 

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