[K:NWTS 3/2 (Sep 1988) 20-24]

Luke 4:16--Redemptive-Historical or Exemplary?

N.H. Gootjes

A minister is reading his Bible and in the meantime, thinking of suitable texts for preaching, hits on Luke 4:16: "(Jesus) went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom." His eye latches on to the expression "as was his custom" and his thoughts develop quickly. Jesus kept the custom of going to the synagogue to attend services. He did this even as a grown-up man; even as a man living in the power of the Spirit (4:14). He lived according to that custom.

Then how did this custom become established? We may assume his father and mother inculcated the necessity of going regularly to the synagogue. And not only his father and mother would have taken care of his religious education, but also the local rabbi would have had Jesus as his pupil. They were responsible for his religious education.

And then the minister, a sermon-outline already developing in his mind, sees one further point. By going to the synagogue according to his custom, Jesus showed his gratitude towards those who educated him. He was grateful towards his parents as well as his rabbi. Yet all the while Jesus knew more than his parents and even more than his rabbi!

 Thus the sermon application takes shape in his mind. The Christian religion has its own patterns and we should grow into them. Even Jesus had this custom of going to the synagogue. So we should make it our pattern to go to church regularly. Here the pastor can mention several reasons that could be used as excuses for not attending the church services. For example, the temptation to say: I am better educated than the minister; why should I go to church? This would be shown to be false by pointing to Jesus, who certainly knew God better than any rabbi and yet regularly attended the meetings in the synagogue.

Next we must consider the people who taught us to keep religious customs. Parents should teach their children to keep the traditions of the church. Ministers also should do their best to explain the meaning of the customs of the church.

Third, we should be grateful to our parents for the religious education we received from them. We should also be grateful to our minister, even if every sermon is not a masterpiece. And having thought this far, the minister already knows a suitable closing admonition for the sermon. "Did you ever thank your parents for what they did for you? And did you ever express your gratitude to the minister for a sermon? And when was the last time that you expressed in prayer your gratitude towards God for the religious education you received?"

Actually, the preceding sermon-outline is not an example I thought up; it is a summary of a sermon I heard. Certainly a sermon worked out in this way could be called practical. It is important to attend church services on a regular basis, not just when you are in the mood. It is also important for parents to teach their children to keep the customs of the church and that ministers explain the reason why we keep these customs. And of course we must feel grateful towards those who educated us in the Christian religion. And we should express that.

But before constructing a sermon along these lines, let us return for a moment to the text for the sermon. It all started with the remark that Jesus went to the synagogue "as was his custom." The minister wanted to emphasize that we should be grateful to those who educated us in religion: yet there is no word about gratitude in the text. Whether Jesus at any time expressed his gratitude, we do not know from this text.

Then we suddenly remember that the minister assumed that Joseph and Mary taught Jesus to go to the synagogue regularly. That is not in the text! It will be true that they gave religious instruction to Jesus, but it is not expressed here. The role of the rabbi is also assumed, not mentioned as a fact. If the Bible does not think it important enough to mention these things here, how can they become central elements in a sermon on this text? Of the three main points of the projected sermon the second and the third have no basis in the text.

The first point remains–that we should go to church regularly. This surely has a basis in the text, since Luke 4:16 reads that Jesus went to the synagogue "as was his custom." It seems possible to mention this in a sermon on this text, but we may ask whether this was the intent when God had this passage written by Luke. There is no command connected with it: Luke just mentions the fact that Jesus went regularly.

But there is more to make us feel uneasy about this use of Luke 4:16 for a sermon. In sermons such as this, Jesus Christ is presented merely as an example. Just as Jesus had his religious customs and kept them, we should have our religious customs and keep them. But Jesus Christ is far more than an example for us, he is our Savior. This is dramatically emphasized in Luke 4. Jesus reads from Old Testament Scripture the passage about the Anointed of the Lord (Is. 61:1, 2). He follows that up by saying that he is that Messiah and that he has come to do the salvation-work proclaimed by Isaiah. The text does not emphasize the similarity between Jesus and us, but the difference between the one who is our Savior and ourselves who need the salvation he will bring.

In the sermon outline above, this unique position of Jesus Christ is completely neglected. God's salvation-work through Jesus Christ is also relegated to the sideline. This explains the fact that in the sermon outline there is no specific Christian element. In many religions, there are religious customs that have to be kept. Parents and others should teach these and those who receive instruction ought to show their gratitude everywhere. Therefore the sermon outline presented above cannot be called a satisfactory Christian sermon.

The salvation-historical (or redemptive-historical) method of preaching recognizes that in Scripture this salvation-work of God is central. It maintains that in sermons too this should be emphasized. That means first of all that in this salvation-work God is the first. Salvation is the work of God for man. Therefore man can never be left out, but the main emphasis is always on God–who he is, what he does, what he wants.

Second, salvation-historical preaching takes into account the fact that the history of God's salvation-work demonstrates progress. Old Testament times differ from New Testament times. Again between the apostolic period and our days, there is a difference, since we no longer have Jesus Christ and his apostles among us.

The third emphasis of salvation-historical preaching is on the fact that in Scripture we are dealing with salvation. God's work towards us centers in saving us from the sin we have committed and the misery that results from it, thus bringing us into communion with himself.

These facts are well known, but they have only recently been worked out into a preaching method. The greatest problems were felt when preaching historical texts of the Bible. Therefore the discussions in the thirties of this century in the Netherlands concentrated on the salvation-historical method of preaching, especially with respect to the preaching of historical texts. This discussion was summarized and evaluated in the doctoral dissertation of Sidney Greidanus, Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles in Preaching Historical Texts (1970). A renewed discussion was stimulated by a book in the Dutch language by C. Trimp, Heilsgeschiedenis en Prediking: Hervatting van een onvoltooid gesprek (Kampen: Van den Berg, 1986).

How could we approach a text such as Luke 4 from the salvation-historical viewpoint? Of course I can only speak for myself here; there is no established pattern for a sermon on this text. However, I would like to mention three things.

The first is that the part of Luke 4:16 which we discussed above can never in itself be the text for a sermon. It is just an element of a story and not the center of this story. We must take our position in the center of the story and from there decide about the value of each element. Then we will see that unity of which v. 16 is only a part. That unity centers in the fact that this is Jesus' first sermon to his hometown of Nazareth. Here the emphasis is on what Jesus proclaims himself to be. A good text for a sermon would be Luke 4:16-21; or if one wanted to include the reaction of the people, Luke 4:16-30. But I think a separate sermon could be made on vss. 22-30–the result of Christ's first sermon to the congregation in his hometown.

The second thing to realize is the unique historical situation. Jesus has begun his public ministry by being baptized in the Jordan (3:21) and by fighting Satan (4:1ff.). He is now preaching and becoming famous as a preacher (4:14,15). Then he returns to his hometown. They already know about him and what he has done in other places. He goes to the synagogue according to his custom. But then he does something that is new! He not only reads from Scripture (v. 16), but also sits down to teach. By this gesture, he indicated that he (whom they knew as Joseph's son, v. 22) was their teacher. The emphasis of the text is not on the usual–his regular going to the synagogue: but on the exceptional–he presents himself to his hometown as their teacher. They must listen to him.

Third (with respect to the content of his message), we find that the exceptional character of what happens is emphasized even more. He reads the Scripture part about the Messiah as proclaimed by Isaiah (vv. 18, 19). And he proceeds to say that he himself is this Messiah (v. 21). So this preacher presents himself not as one of the many preachers around at that time, but as the Messiah who would bring salvation to the people. We get the impression from the following (v. 23) that the citizens of Nazareth hoped to see miracles. But what Jesus wanted them to know is that he is the Messiah. Also those who have known him from childhood must recognize him as the Savior anointed by God. Here we have found what we should emphasize in a sermon on this text.

Tentatively I propose the following theme and division for a sermon on Luke 4:16-21.


  1. The Content. He is the Messiah who brings salvation to the people. Here it should be explained what this salvation is according to the prophecy of Isaiah.

  2. The Empowerment. He is anointed with the Holy Spirit (v. 18; cf. also v. 14 and 3:22). This gift of the Spirit is not presented here as a general gift for all men or given to all preachers. Therefore we may not generalize this into an exhortation to all listeners (preachers) that they must receive the Holy Spirit. The text makes it clear that Christ received the Holy Spirit in a special way in order to do his salvation-work. This element confirms his Messianic status.

  3. The Requirement. By presenting this message to the inhabitants of Nazareth, Jesus requires their faith. Even those who knew him from childhood had to believe that he was more than one of them. He was the Messiah. All the more we (who know far more than the inhabitants of Nazareth of the glorious salvation-work he did) should believe him to be our Savior.

Korea Theological Seminary
Pusan, Korea