He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Luke 4:16-21 NIV
Years ago I was in a meeting with about thirty others listening to a someone speak about a subject which I have now forgotten. But during the course of her talk, the speaker would stop from time to time to speak a word of encouragement or prophecy to different members of the assembled group. This struck me as very odd at the time because she did not know any of us, but simply spoke these words over different people, spontaneously without warning.
Since then I have come to understand this as a way that the Holy Spirit speaks to individuals, and I have come to realise that it is often very specific, encouraging or challenging. Indeed the idea that God would want to speak to individuals at all is extraordinary and encouraging in itself, but that is the God that the Bible teaches us about, and the God that I have come to know and put my faith in. That is the God that Jesus explained and demonstrated to the world: a God that is interested and involved in individuals, as well as the “big picture.”
Unexpectedly, and somewhat embarrassingly, this woman suddenly stopped in the midst of her teaching, her eyes having come to rest on me, and her mind somehow distracted by words of the Holy Spirit coming into her mind. She spoke these words over me, prayed briefly, and then continued on with her lecture. Someone else in the room, unbeknown to me, noted down her words and handed them to me after. Il have carried that little piece of paper in my Bible to this day, and from time to time I look at it and wonder…
Part of the “message” that I was given was a Bible reference: Psalm 7:12-13. It speaks of the weapons of God, his sword of judgement, his bow, and his arrows. The speaker likened me to one of God’s “flaming arrows,” being sharpened in preparation to be shot out into the nations, the ammunition of God, prepared for his purposes. I did not interpret this to presume I had been given the task of judgement of the nations, though that is what the verse in Psalms seems to be referring to in a more general sense. But I did understand that I had been given a job to do for God, in a place or places distant from where I had been launched. I saw it as confirmation of a call to cross-cultural mission.
I believe that this “prophecy” has to some extent been fulfilled, though I wonder if maybe some of the fulfilment lies in the future. But the point of telling my story is not that. Rather it is to illustrate the idea of understanding our identity from words of prophecy recorded in the Old Testament. This seems to me to be what Jesus did. He read from the words of Isaiah and said simply that these words refer to him. If you want to know who I am, he said, listen to these words of Isaiah.
The words he read would have been known to many of his listeners, certainly any of those who knew the words of the ancient prophet. Until that day it is unlikely that any in the congregation would have imagined that those words of Isaiah could have been written specifically about a coming Messiah, and certainly not specifically about a person who they knew from their local village. But here was Jesus, a man they had known for many years, whom they had seen grow up in their midst, whose family they knew, saying that these well known words about God, were actually about him.
Jesus found himself in the Old Testament. Or perhaps more accurately, he found himself in the words and character of God. Is that our experience? Of course we won’t identify ourselves “as” God, but we can like Jesus identify ourselves “with” God, or at least with the words of God. When we realise that we are God’s children we start to see that things in us have their origins in his words and character. We also start to see that things he says can describe and direct our lives.
A similar process has happened to me several more times over the ensuing years. I have come across a passage in the Old Testament where for some reason, which I believe to be the moving of the Holy Spirit in my heart and mind, I have suddenly thought – this passage is about me! I have found myself unable to let go of the verses that I have read, becoming more and more convinced that God is explaining something important about who I am, or what I am to do.
There are times when we struggle to know who we are and why we are here. When we have an identity crisis. I believe that when we put our faith in God, and as we travel the journey of faith over the years that follow, that he helps us to understand our identity in a new way. Often that will involve verses or passages of Scripture that the Holy Spirit highlights to us in a very special way. Holding on to those passages, memorising them, reflecting on them, meditating on them, gives us a better understanding of who we are and what God has given us to do in the world.
It also gives us a way of explaining to people who we are. That is what Jesus did in the synagogue that day. He was introducing himself to the people of his own village in a way they could get a grip on, using the words of an Old Testament prophet that they were familiar with. So the words of Isaiah helped Jesus understand who he was, but also explain who he was.
It is good if we can imitate this way of Jesus. If the Holy Spirit has highlighted specific words of the Bible in a way that helps you understand who you are and what he is calling you to do in the world, then memorise them, get to know them, and live by them. Move beyond the identity crisis and find yourself in the words of God, as Jesus did.