The story of Jesus’ visit, early in His ministry, to the synagogue in His home town of Nazareth is recorded for us in Luke 4:16-30. You may remember that Jesus read from Isaiah about how the Messiah would preach the gospel, care for the poor, work miracles, and bring in the final year of Jubilee. Then Jesus said that He was the fulfillment of that Scripture. The crowd marvelled at Him, saying, “Is this not the son of Joseph?”
Then Jesus began to rebuke them, saying that they wanted miracles, but that He would not do them because a prophet is not honored in his home town. He reminded them that there were many widows in Elijah’s day, but that Elijah ministered to a Gentile woman. He reminded them that there were many lepers in Elisha’s day, but that Elisha had healed a Gentile leper. Those in the synagogue were enraged, and sought to kill Jesus, but He escaped them.
I have always assumed, and every commentator I can consult assumes, that when the crowd at Nazareth said, “Is this not the son of Joseph?” they meant Joseph the Carpenter, Jesus’ legal earthly father. The reason they asked this question was because they were astounded that this hometown boy would claim to be the Messiah. “You can’t be the Messiah,” they were saying. “You’re Joseph’s boy. We know about you, and you’re one of us, not the Messiah.”
Increasingly, however, I think that this is a totally wrong approach to the text. For one thing, Luke writes that they were “all speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, `Is this the son of Joseph?’” That does not sound like incredulity and rejection to me.
If we were to ask a conservative rabbi, “Who is the son of Joseph?” he would answer, “The Messiah.” The phrase “Son of Joseph” does not occur in the Old Testament as a title of the Messiah, but it is easy to see how it could become one. Joseph saved his brethren, delivered Israel, and became de facto ruler of the world.
Psalm 77:15 says, “Thou hast by Thy power redeemed Thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph.” Here the expression “sons of Joseph” clearly does not mean only the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, or even Northern Israel, but is a reference to all of Israel. Since the Messiah was the True Israel, He was also the Son of Jacob and the Son of Joseph.
With this insight, suddenly Luke 4 takes on a completely different, and I believe much more coherent, cast. The people in Nazareth were pre-disposed to think Jesus might be the Messiah. Messianism was all over the place at this time, because everybody who could add knew that Daniel’s seventy weeks were ending during these years. Even if the count was inexact, they knew the Messiah was due sometime soon. Additionally, they all knew that Herod had massacred all the children in Bethlehem thirty years previously because the Messiah had been born there, and thus they knew that the Messiah was now about thirty years old, the age to begin ministry. Moreover, according to Luke, everybody was expecting the Messiah because John the Forerunner had told them He was coming soon (Luke 3:15).
John was now telling people that Jesus was the Messiah. After His temptation, Jesus had returned to Galilee and was preaching everywhere, “and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district.” He was “praised by all” (Luke 4:14-15).
It is in this context that Jesus arrived at Nazareth. Everybody turned out to the synagogue to see what would happen. They did indeed remember Jesus, and they certainly knew that He had been a perfectly faultless man all the years He had lived among them. Perhaps indeed He was the True Son of Joseph.
After Jesus read from Isaiah, we find that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon Him” (Luke 4:20). They waited breathlessly to see if Jesus would indeed claim to be the Messiah described by Isaiah. When Jesus fulfilled their expectations and made the Messianic claim, they did not reject it. Instead, as we have seen, they were excited and praised Him, marvelling at His gracious words. They said among themselves, “Could this, at last, be the Son of Joseph?”
Now, possibly this had a double meaning for the crowd, and perhaps Luke is playing on terms here. There is every reason to think, however, that Luke intended for us to see a reference here to the Joseph who stood before Pharaoh. The proof for this lies in what happened next.
Recall first the story of Joseph. Joseph was hated by and rejected by his brethren. As a result, he went to the Gentiles. Among the Gentiles he eventually found acceptance. Potiphar thought so highly of him that he rejected the lying testimony of his own wife and put Joseph over the prison that Potiphar was responsible for (Gen. 39:1; 40:3). At the age of thirty, which was Jesus’ age according to Luke’s testimony in this same context (Luke 3:23), Joseph stood before the Gentile world-ruler. When Joseph presented the gospel to Pharaoh, Pharaoh did not reject it, but accepted it wholeheartedly. He honored Joseph, and put him in charge of everything. (For extended argumentation proving the genuineness of Pharaoh’s conversion, see my book Primeval Saints, chapter 10; available from Biblical Horizons .)
Now let us return to the story of Jesus. As soon as the people recognize Him as the Son of Joseph, Jesus states that a prophet is not welcome in his own hometown. Where does this proverb come from? It is not found as such in the Old Testament, but again it comes from the story of Joseph. Joseph was a prophet, but when he told his dreams to his brothers, they rejected him, hated him, and tried to kill him. (When he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, however, Pharaoh welcomed him.) I know of no other Old Testament prophet who was rejected in his hometown as was Joseph.
Jesus goes on to say that His message will be rejected by the Jews but embraced by the Gentiles. Since they already have the story of Joseph in mind, Jesus reminds them of Elijah and Elisha, and how they too went to the Gentiles.
At this point, the crowd reenacts the behavior of Joseph’s brothers. They are filled with rage at His teaching, and seek to kill him. Like Joseph, Jesus escapes death at their hands.
The rejection of Jesus by Israel and the carrying of the gospel to the Gentiles is an important theme in Luke, and particularly in Luke’s second volume, Acts. Acts shows stage by stage the rejection by Israel of the ascended Christ, and His acceptance by the Gentiles. Like Joseph, Paul yearns to stand before Caesar (Pharaoh) and preach to him.
In conclusion, if we interpret the question “Is this the son of Joseph?” to refer to Joseph the Carpenter, we miss the larger biblical-theological thrust of this passage. Such an interpretation is out of context, both in theological terms, and in psychological ones. The crowd at Nazareth was fully ready to welcome Jesus as Messiah — provided He was the Jewish Messiah they had been looking for. When He really did turn out to be the Son of Joseph, they hated him as Joseph’s brethren of old.
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This post was originally found on Biblical Horizons.