And Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.
And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day,
and he stood up to read.
And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.
He unrolled the scroll and found [the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 61].
Before we delve into our story in Luke 4 this week I want to fill in some of the biblical-historical background of the text.
The scripture Jesus reads from (Isaiah 61) echoes a merciful and gracious law which is found in Leviticus 25.
According to Leviticus 25, once every 50 years, on the Day of Atonement, God’s people were supposed to observe a Sabbath of Sabbaths and the priests were supposed to proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the people. The Greek word for ‘liberty’ – aphesis, LXX and NA28 – means ‘release’ or ‘forgiveness’. So the Year of Jubilee was designed to be a time of rest, release, and refreshment for all the people.
These benefits were intended to come as a result Jubilee’s emphasis on redemption and restoration. Redemption because it happened on the Day of Atonement. All sins were forgiven and all debts were cancelled. Restoration because things lost were returned, things loaned were repaid, and things locked up were released.
All of this was rooted and grounded in the principle of Sabbath-rest.
Who says there is no grace in the OT?!
Sadly, the people of Israel stubbornly refused and selfishly neglected to practice Jubilee. This we know because they were eventually punished and expelled from the promise land for their disobedience.
According to Jeremiah 34:13-17, Jeremiah the prophet advised King Zedekiah to do something that Israel had rarely (if ever) done — proclaim liberty and practice the law of Jubilee. So the king followed the prophet’s counsel and proclaimed liberty to all the people of the land. In response, all the people proclaimed liberty to each other. They released their slaves and renewed covenant with God.
But no sooner did they do all this than remorse set in and they regretted it. They reneged and took it all back. They re-enslaved their freed slaves and they broke covenant with God. As a result God was so angry with them that he released the sword, pestilence, and famine against them.
According to 2 Chronicles 36:15-21, since the people kept mocking the messengers of God, and despising God’s words and scoffing at his prophets, the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, and there was no remedy for them. So God sent Israel into exile to punish the people and to preserve the land. They were in exile for seventy years: one year for every Sabbath year they skipped, and one year for every Jubilee Year they failed to observe—from the Exodus to the Exile.
Finally, according to Nehemiah 5, when the people came out of exile after seventy years they went to work, rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and its walls—not to mention their own lives and families. But many of the exiles who returned to the promise land were burdened by crushing debts. They mortgaged their fields, their vineyards, and their houses just to get grain because of the famine. Some had to borrow money just to pay the king’s tax on their fields and vineyards. Others were even forced to sell their sons and daughters as indentured servants.
So, even after seventy years of exile, the people continued in their old ways of holding each other captive, not showing mercy, not forgiving one another their various debts. Nehemiah the reformer blasted the priests and charged them to apply the law of Jubilee—to release the people from the crushing burden of debt and to return their lands, houses, and children. So the priests did what Nehemiah charged them to do.
The point of all this is to show that the gospel of Jubilee was a gift of grace that God’s people neglected and rejected.
Jubilee was supposed to be a time of rest that flowed from redemption from sins and debts, reconciliation with God and man, and restoration of people and property.
Alas, rather than striving to enter God’s gracious rest, the people strained to retain their own greedy routines.
Now, by the time we enter the synagogue with Jesus in Nazareth, several hundred years after the Exile, we see that God’s people have fallen into a new state of exile. Only this time they are in their homeland, but they are under the rule of the Roman Empire. It feels to them like they are under house-arrest.
Once again, they find themselves as abused, broken, crushed, despised exiles.
So, it was in that context, with all that historical baggage, that Jesus went to the synagogue in his hometown, stood up to read the Scriptures, and sat down to preach the good news of Jubilee from Isaiah 61.
This sets the stage for the rest of Luke’s Gospel and Jesus’s mission to proclaim the gospel of the true and better Jubilee, to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles.
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