Jesus Outside the Church?

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Luke 4:16-30 is the story of Jesus going to Nazareth where he grew up and preaching a sermon their synagogue.  It’s a story I didn’t understand for a long time, but I think I do now thanks to God’s spirit and an amazing book by Kenneth Bailey.

Jesus has just begun his ministry after being tested by Satan in the desert.  He has traveled around a bit preaching and done some healing.  He enters Nazareth knowing that he will be rejected by his own people.

Bailey argues that Nazareth is a settlement community of Jews established about 100 years before Jesus was born.  Most people in Galilee were not Jewish. Settlement communities were supposed to spread Jewish influence by growing.  They were supposed to take over the region from the Gentiles through cultural dominance. The people of Nazareth had a mission.

Isaiah 61 is a text that fits right in with this mission.  It was understood to mean that when the Messiah came he would restore the original land of Israel to Jewish rule and make all the Gentiles slaves or servants.

Jesus enters Nazareth and preaches a sermon on this very text.  The only problem is that he changes the text.  That’s right, he changes the Bible. He brings in verses from another place in Isaiah and he leaves out the verse where God takes vengeance on the Gentiles.

He then preaches a sermon that enrages his own people.  He gives them two examples of faith.  The two examples are Gentiles who lived in their own region.  They aren’t even believers. One is a widow who Elijah helped. She had faith enough to give Elijah her last bread during a famine and God provided a miracle to save her. But she was a worshipper of Baal, the pagan god of the Sidonians.

The second example is Naaman, a Syrian general and enemy of Israel.  He had faith to ask the prophet Elisha how to heal his leprosy and then to do what he was told even though it didn’t make sense to him.  He did become a believer and worshipped God, but he also continued to worship the gods of his country.

Why would Jesus point to such people as examples of faith? 

The people of Nazareth knew truth from the Bible. In many ways they were very close to God.  But they had become captives to the idea that God was only at work in them and in this one task they thought they were called to do. They could not imagine that God was at work outside their church. Jesus says that they are blind.

We who are the church today are no different are we?  I am no different. If I see something good happening or being done outside the church I don’t know what to do with it. I want to brand it as Christian and control it or else I dismiss it and ignore it.

I was sent a song yesterday by Peter Mayer called Holy Now.  It is about this very question. Where is God at work?

Jesus came to open the eyes of the blind.  Who are the blind?

4 thoughts on “Jesus Outside the Church?

  1. Your sermon on this was really good. Here’s my push back.

    I don’t think Namaan continued to worship the gods of his own country. I think he is going back to his station in life (a similar principle is found in 1 Corinthians 7) and caring for the person in authority over him. Namaan clearly understands that his conversion to Israel’s God is a conversion to the one true God otherwise he wouldn’t ask forgiveness for “kneeling” in the pagan temple. He asks to be forgiven for this one act, not because he still worships a pagan idol, but because his station in life requires him to act in a way that would SEEM TO CONTRADICT right worship. In other words, Namaan is saying: “Elisha, when I go into the temple and kneel down, it may look like I’m not a true worshipper, but I really am. I want to continue to be a blessing to the one in authority over me in my home country.”

    I think this is the “missional” edge of this passage. After his conversion, Namaan goes back into “the world” as a faithful worshipper of Israel’s God but still continues in his own role that community, seeking to be a blessing to those around him.

    • Thanks Ryan. I see your point for sure. It is striking though that Naaman is an example of faith. He believes and worships yahweh for sure, but his understanding is Very limited. I don’t know if we can excuse him for worshipping another god just because of his station in life. This shows he understands yahweh as just one of the gods. This is the same reason he brings back the soil from Israel. Yahweh is a local deity to him. Maybe his worship of another god and apology for it can be excused given that he is very new in the faith. But it could never be accepted as an endpoint. Jesus is using examples of people who are really on the outside of the people of God, hardly believers if at all, as examples of faith.

  2. My point is that I don’t think he is worshipping the other god at all. Yhwh isn’t a local deity to Namaan and he even says so: “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel” (verse 15). When he goes into the temple and assists his master he does so because it is his duty and his master must “lean on his arm.”

    I totally agree that this is the reason Jesus tells these stories. They are stories of a man and a woman who come to faith who are outside of Israel. But, I think they do come to true faith.

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