Luke 4:14-21 “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 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 preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 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, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”
Encouraged by the assurance of his Father’s love for him, and strengthened by his victory over Satan the Lord Jesus walked from the desert to his home area of Galilee, but no loner to be making doors and fence posts and tables in a carpenter’s shop. Never again did Jesus make even a shelf. Now he was equipped for the three years of his public ministry by the power of the Spirit. In other words, there was a dimension of spiritual enabling about him that even Christ had not known before his baptism. The descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove was no mere symbol. Our Lord had always been filled with the Spirit from the womb of Mary but because of this new, energizing endowment our Lord had become gifted and prepared for his public ministry. So in the next chapters of this gospel, until the end of chapter nine, Jesus’ ministry of word and action is comprehensively described to us. Never had the world seen anything remotely like those next two years when the Lord Christ took the initiative traveling slowly from one community in Galilee to another. His ministry transformed that whole area, banishing disease from the place, and bringing the message of the Kingdom of God – the reign of grace over the lives of men and women – to Galilee. One consequence was that news about him spread through the whole countryside, the women at the wells, the elders at the town gates and even the children as they played talked to one another about this striking new preacher, and initially he found favour in everyone’s eyes. They all spoke well of him. Jesus appeared to be riding the crest of the wave of popularity.
JESUS THE MESSIAH BEGAN HIS PREACHING.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the subject of all that Luke writes here from the fourteenth verse onwards; he returned . . . he taught . . . he went to Nazareth . . . he went to the synagogue . . . he stood up to read . . . he found the place . . . he rolled up the scroll . . . he began by saying . . . and so on; it is all about decisions and actions which he took by himself. Someone claimed that Jesus did not come to preach but to do something that we might have something to preach, but this chapter shows us how mistaken that view is. Here is the incarnate God and he involves himself for a couple of years in the life of the ordinary people of Galilee, the farmers, the housewives, the fishermen and their children by talking to them, by exhortation and counsel and rebuke and calling them to repent and believe.
We are being shown what God is like, that he is not one who made the earth and then left it to run by itself. He doesn’t observe this planet from afar. He is one who constantly intrudes; he is always involved in the world of his own making. Sometimes this involvement is one of judgment. We find that in the flood, and again at Sodom and Gomorrah, but on most occasions his involvement is redemptive. Here is the Son of God moving around Galilee of the Gentiles, meeting ignorance and opposition and need and never giving up. For seven hundred years it had been the most compromised part of the nation. Other gods and philosophies had had enormous influence there from way back at the time of the Assyrian ascendancy, but that was the place Jesus chose to begin his preaching. It was the vortex of ignorance in the nation, but there the people that dwelt in darkness saw a great light.
I am saying that this is the period above all others in the history of God’s dealings with this world when the Lord displayed himself most radically as an involved God, when he took a decisive and firm grip of human history, when he radically altered its course. This planet was never to be the same after our Lord erupted into the three-dimensional reality of human lives, and the Lord did so by preaching the word of God to men. Though his personality was wonderfully attractive, and his deeds quite breath-taking, most of all men were struck by his words. Never man spake like this man. This is the time at which the Old Testament prophecies and types found their fulfillment, that great period which it had been looking forward to with such expectancy and longing. That glorious time had come.
So Luke tells us of one particular Sabbath day in Nazareth and describes what happened in the local synagogue, the one Jesus had been attending for almost thirty years. He and his family had sat in the family bench week after week; they were one of the most godly families in the community. There they listened to the Pharisees or rabbis reading and speaking to the people. The building was as familiar to him as the carpenter’s shop and he was just as familiar to the whole congregation. Just his being there affected what the preachers said and didn’t say – like some of you in particular affect me. Jesus was principally known to them as the local carpenter, the son, they supposed, of Joseph who had started the business – “Joseph & Son: Joiners.” The congregation knew the names of the whole family. A collection of cottages and crofts did not have many carpenters. Some, no doubt, would remember Jesus coming to their homes to hang a new door or to deliver a table they had bought from him and his Dad.
Now a remarkable change had taken place, but knowing Jesus as they did they couldn’t have been all that surprised. He had gone to the Jordan river, listened to John and some of the more ignorant thought he had ‘got religious.’ There he had been baptized, and then he didn’t return home. He was missing for about six weeks, and then the stories began to trickle into Nazareth that he was actually preaching in different places in Galilee; more that that, he was healing the sick, and people everywhere were impressed by him. He had a good reputation, and his own fellow townsmen and women wanted to see the new Jesus and hear him. Maybe he would even do a miracle for them. So when he entered the synagogue with his family heads turned to look at him, to see if now he dressed any differently, or looked more ‘religious.’ Would he be looking like one of the hyper-religious Pharisees? And would he preach to them?
There came the time in the service when favoured known men were permitted to speak and Jesus stood up and walked to the front. It was the moment they had hoped for; the atmosphere was electric. He asked for the scroll of the prophecy of Isaiah from its keeper and then he began to roll it from one staff to the other until he found the passage he wanted to read to them. It was the opening verses of the sixty-first chapter. I suppose it was in Greek not Hebrew; I am not sure of that. Certainly no one had actually spoken the Hebrew language for 300 years, they all talked in Aramaic to one another, but Jesus was literate and able to speak a few languages. Maybe they were familiar with the Hebrew of the Scriptures. These are the words he read aloud to the silent congregation; ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’(vv. 18&19).
They were all waiting for what would happen next. He sat down in the front because preaching was done from a sitting position. He looked at them, and their eyes were all glued to him and when he began he said simply, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (v.21). They were on the spot to witness the fulfillment of this prophecy. You will remember that this was the claim Peter was to make on the Day of Pentecost three years later when thousands stood listening to him preach, hearing his explanation for the pouring out of the Spirit on the church; “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” ‘This is that;’ you are present when prophecy is being fulfilled. So in Nazareth Jesus announced that what they had been hearing concerning his actions and words in the villages of Galilee was the literal fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah as he spoke of the Spirit of God coming down in power on a special preacher in the last days. “You are living in a time,” Jesus told them, “when the Bible’s predictions are being fulfilled of what is going to happen in the days when the Messiah comes.” So Jesus was no longer being a teacher; he was issuing a proclamation. He was announcing that he was a prophet and the mouthpiece of God, in fact he was hinting at messianic identity.
JESUS TAUGHT THE PEOPLE OF NAZARETH ABOUT ISAIAH’S PROPHECY ABOUT THE JUBILEE YEAR.
Isaiah was speaking about the Year of Jubilee. Let me explain what that means; in the law of Moses which had been given seven hundred years before Isaiah’s time a 50 year calendar was set up under the old covenant which was to be kept by the people of God. There was first of all the seventh day of each week which was the Sabbath day. Every seventh year was a sabbatical year when the land was to lie fallow. Then every seven sabbatical years, in other words every fifty years, was the Year of Jubilee.
Let me read to you from Leviticus 25, and verses 8 through 12 “Count off seven sabbaths of years – seven times seven years – so that the seven sabbaths of years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.”
At the minute that year began, as the Day of Atonement dawned, there weren’t our now familiar fireworks with which our New Years are welcomed, but trumpets which sounded a fanfare in every community. When the poor man sitting on the floor in the debtors’ prison craning his ears listening for that sound heard the notes what delight it brought him because he knew that the jailer would be round in a minute with his keys. He had to open the prison’s doors and let his prisoners free. The man’s sentence was ended. His wife and family would be outside waiting for him and together they would walk back to his own land, the farm he had forfeited because of his debt. That was the first mark of Jubilee – freedom! Also the land was left fallow that great year and the oxen did no ploughing. I remember from my teenage years living in a mining valley of South Wales when the pit ponies were brought up to the surface once a year for the weeks when the miners had their annual holidays, and how those little horses frolicked in the fields when they were released. There was one occasion when I saw them; people came and watched them tenderly knowing that soon they would be taken in the cage down under ground for fifty more weeks of darkness and dust. So in Israel during the Year of Jubilee the oxen didn’t plough and the donkeys didn’t carry vast burdens around the farms. In fact no one was to labour but rather to feast on the food God had abundantly given them the previous years in preparation for this year’s rest. It was a time of deliverance and restoration. Israel’s cycle of oppression – the poverty trap – was broken. “All debts were cancelled; the poor regained their inheritance; their families were reunited. This law governed debt management in Israel, because the coming of the Year of Jubilee marked the new order that was to begin” (Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, Crossway, 2003, p.127). So it was also a year with a foretaste of heaven about it, a prophetic year, of three Rs, a day of Release for the slaves and the bond servants, a day of Reversion for the land going back to its original owners, and a day of Renewal of the fields as they were to lie fallow for twelve months. All this was a great symbol to the children of Israel, speaking of a blessed time yet to come. God is going to do wonderful things in the future; he can make a new heavens and a new earth and then the curse will be removed.
What stark, plain lessons were the people being taught by the installation of the Jubilee year at this time of their infancy as God’s children? They were being taught this lesson, that the earth and this land was the Lord’s, and all its fulness – the soil and the animals – was the Lord’s. It all belonged to God. The people were stewards of what he’d given to them for their brief lifetimes. “If you trust me,” God was saying, “and keep my laws then you’ll be blessed, and this will be a land flowing with milk and honey. If you live by my word and keep the Sabbath as a day of rest each week, and every seven years keep a sabbatical year letting the land be fallow, and every fifty years sound the trumpets and for the next 365 days keep a Year of Jubilee then you will be amazed at my provision for you. You will not go hungry; you will have food enough and to spare. Prove my faithfulness. I will provide for you all richly. Trust me. The whole land will know an awakening; the soil, the trees, the animals and yourselves will know a new dimension of blessedness.” That is what God was saying.
More than that, from the Year of Jubilee the people also learned about God, what sort of Lord he is, a God who cares for the poor, and for the prisoner in the dark cold jail, for the slave and for the oppressed. People matter to God, not just prophets and priests and kings, but little people, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, the street person who has nowhere to stay but a cardboard box, and God cares for them and he would make provision for them, if only they would avail themselves of it.
Even more than that, the Year of Jubilee shows that God makes promises he keeps, not only that future days of liberation are coming but that he will accomplish this liberation. Here is this immense structure put into place by God stretching over fifty years – the socio-spiritual engineering of liberty for the people he loved – for the slaves to be free, and the man ejected from his land to receive it back again, because liberty is what God loves. He sees the man and woman under the yoke, the voice of the oppressor yelling at them, and it grieves him. He hears the sound of the whip and the rod of the taskmaster striking the backs of the slave and it grieves him. God will deliver them. He will do it himself; he will put on his helmet of salvation and his breastplate of justice and he will certainly come to the prisons of Israel every fifty years and fling open the doors and let the people out.
So Jesus, on that never to be forgotten Sabbath in his home assembly in the synagogue of Nazareth, read from the prophecy of Isaiah – a passage written when the people of God were about to go off to captivity in Babylon. There Isaiah was promising that the Lord of Jubilee would deliver them from their distant exile and restore them to their land again. He promised not only restoration but spiritual renewal. They would enjoy a new relationship with God. They would love him more than ever before. They would rejoice in him and trust him with all their hearts. They would give up all their idols that had led them astray and serve him alone. This blessing would be accomplished in the fulfillment of Jubilee.
JESUS PREACHED TO THEM THAT THIS YEAR OF JUBILEE HAD ACTUALLY BEGUN – THERE AND THEN.
Jesus sermon was the actual trumpet call. The notes of the sermon summoned the congregation in Nazareth to wake up and see what had begun. That very Sabbath day that scripture, seven hundred years old, speaking about the coming of the year of Jubilee, was being fulfilled – as they were hearing of the mighty works Jesus had been doing throughout Galilee and listening to Jesus preaching to them. You know the broad Bible picture, that there had been, for a two thousand year dispensation from Abraham to Christ, one little nation on this planet the size of Wales, set aside by God. That nation, Israel, had been commanded to keep this Jubilee pattern, the three Rs, a year of Release for the slaves and the bond servants, a year of Reversion for the land to go back to its original owners, and a year of Renewal of the land as it lay fallow for twelve months. That law had been given, but it was weak as every law is through the sinfulness of the human heart. Did Israel ever keep the Jubilee Year? I doubt it. In those rare times of spiritual obedience there might have been some half-hearted gestures towards this cycle of years, but they failed because whereas God’s law could command the law could not motivate or energize.
Now the great Motivator has come! In the incarnation of the Lord Jesus the Jubilee-enforcer has come. Listen to what Jesus read, the words of Isaiah, what will characterize the final perfect Jubilee age. The coming Messiah will appear and he will say, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Was that happening? Has the Spirit of the Lord come upon Jesus? Yes. Has he been anointed to preach the good news to the poor? Yes. Are those bound by Satan and sickness being freed? Yes. Are the blind seeing? Yes. Are those oppressed by sin and guilt released? Yes. Then this is indeed Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favour. Not the types that had been pointing forward to it, not any longer, that is over, but this is the real McCoy! The people of Nazarus who filled the synagogue that day wanted to see a miracle. Here was the greatest of all miracles, Jehovah Jesus, God incarnate standing among them. He is here in their midst with the Spirit of God resting upon him, the one of whom Isaiah spoke, Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
In Christ Jubilee is alive and well and in their midst and beginning to affect the whole world until this Sabbath day. In Christ, “Jubilee” is living today. There is good news for the poor. A student had greatly miscalculated his finances and owed a big sum of money. He had no way of clearing this debt, and he came to me and told me of the plight he was in. He would have to leave college. My wife and I prayed together and we gave him that money and kept him in college here. This is the year of Jubilee. It is good news for the poor. I was preaching in the open air by the Christmas tree in the middle of town just before Christmas when an African student who was broken up by homesickness spotted me. He came across to me and told me he was aching to go home to see his wife and children over Christmas. He had worshipped here once (or maybe twice) and had eaten in the Manse once. I told him I couldn’t afford to buy him an air ticket home but I could give him some money, and I led him to the cashpoint in the bank and took out my debit card and got a sum of money out and I gave it to him. He said to me, “You are my saviour.” “No I am not,” I said but I know of one who is. I returned to the open air meeting and preached that unto us is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. He is good news for the poor because we are living in the day of the reigning Saviour the time of the Jubilee. What I tell you what I have done is just of picture of what all you true Christians do to those in need.
I can read the parable of the ungrateful and unjust steward and I tremble. Here was a steward whose enormous debts were all cancelled by his kind master, but the steward soon found a man who owed him a paltry sum and he grabbed him by the throat, “Pay me now what you owe me!” but he couldn’t and so he was thrown into prison. What was the reaction of the Lord when he heard? “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’”
I ask you, what sort of liberation is this which we Christians say we’re enjoying, what sort of Jubilee is it? If the King liberates his subjects does he allow them to enslave one another? If his Jubilee doesn’t extend into their own patterns of living, it’s good for nothing. Jubilee, by the nature of the case, means that the citizens must live out of true thanksgiving and generosity that transforms the way they deal with one another. Paul puts this very clearly for us in Ephesians 4:32-5:2; this is Jubilee living: Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. That’s Jubilee. Christ’s self-offering for us was a sacrifice of love to God. When we love one another and forgive one another, yes that is a sacrifice. But it is not a waste. It’s a sacrifice to God; it’s something he receives as a sweet-smelling aroma, because it smells like his Son. It’s the shape of new life, of a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness is in everything said and done, a life that the world cannot deliver, a permanent Jubilee life that can only spring out of the soil of the gospel.
But some don’t love the sacrifice of Christ. This servant in Jesus’ parable was not a lover of Jubilee. So what happened to him? What was the outcome? “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” That is what Jesus said, that mean, miserly, penny-pinching men have no place in the Jubilee. Christ will not have them there. He came to proclaim the release of the prisoner, but this servant has actually imprisoned a man over a pittance, and so his latter end was worse than the beginning. The gospel has become for him a savour of death unto death, rather than a life-giving aroma.
Remember the great warning of Jesus as he wraps up that parable? “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” We know that sort of language very well; it’s found in the Lord’s Prayer, isn’t it? “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Then Jesus adds, after giving us that prayer, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” The free grace of Christ brings us into a new reality, a better country where Jubilee is fulfilled. When we refuse to grant Jubilee to others, we show that we’re not seeking this better kingdom. Jesus says that if that is the case, then the land of Jubilee, of forgiveness and liberation, will be barred to us too.
Men and women, Christ has proclaimed liberty to you. He has set you free and canceled your immeasurable debt, so that you may walk as free children of God. We have been transformed from captives into free people, let us live in thankfulness, and transform our brothers and sisters through love and forgiveness. This is the liberty of Jubilee.
But this Jubilee is also a time when the sick are healed and Jesus went everywhere banishing disease. I went to see a man each day in hospital and prayed with him and spoke to him until the very end. When I’d finished praying on one occasion just before he died I heard a voice from the bed, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.” He wasn’t cured, but he was healed of any bitterness that he had to die not as an old man, and his widow was healed of that crippling spirit too, and every Sunday morning when she is in Aberystwyth she worships with us, though missing him dreadfully. She hopes they will one day be together in that fair and lovely place where all God’s children gather. This is the year of Jubilee, with many healings and there is this kind of restoration for the sick, and the certainty of the resurrection of life immortal.
It is also deliverance for those oppressed by sin and guilt. The blood of Jesus Christ God’s Son cleanses us from all sin. For freedom Christ has made you free. An acquaintance of mine Tony, at fifteen years of age, went to a funeral of his friend called Clarence, a boy about his own age. It was his first experience of a Christian funeral service. This is what he said; “The pastor was incredible. From the pulpit he talked about the resurrection in fresh and living terms. He had the congregation moved. Then he came down from the pulpit; he went to the family sitting in the front and he comforted them from the fourteenth chapter of John. Jesus said, ‘Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.’ He told them that Clarence had gone to the place Christ had prepared for him.
“The last thing he did was to address the boy lying in the open coffin before the pulpit. ‘Clarence! Clarence!’ He said it with such authority. Tony said he wouldn’t have been surprised had there been an answer. He said, ‘Clarence, there were a lot of things we should have said to you that we never said. You got away too fast, Clarence. You got away too fast.’ He went down this litany of the lovely things that Clarence had done for people. When he finished he said, ‘That’s it, Clarence. There’s nothing more to say, and when there’s nothing more to say, there’s only one thing to say . . . Good night . . . Good night, Clarence.’ He grabbed the lid of the coffin and he loudly closed the lid. ‘Good night, Clarence.’ Bang. Shock waves went over the congregation. As he lifted his head you could see there was this smile on his face. He said, ‘Good night, Clarence . . . Good night, Clarence . . . because I know . . . I know that God is going to give you a good morning.’ Then the congregation stood up and starting singing ‘On that great morning, we shall rise, we shall rise. On that great morning, we shall rise.’ Many were in tears; many were holding on to one another.” Young Tony knew the joy of the Lord, a joy that in the face of death laughs and sings and weeps, for there is no sting to death. Through Christ the jubilee year is here; those oppressed by fear of death are released, and it is the whole gospel.
When I preach the gospel I am conscious that everyone in front of me is in a cage. Every single one is a prisoner. Your cage has its own bars, respectability, conformity, success, prosperity, job-security, popularity, and I want you to come out of that cage and enjoy the Jubilee year of the liberty of Christ. I want you to stand in your real self before God with the confession, “A prisoner whose life is indefensible.” I believe that what I am asking is hopeless. I don’t believe you have the courage to make such a change. I don’t believe you have the ability, and that itself is one of the bars in your prison. But I do pray that the possibility of enjoying life in the Jubilee year – as the word of God has taught you today – will make you do what by nature you cannot do and refuse to do. I want you to stand before God in your striped tunic of a convict, your own number in large figures on the back announcing to heaven and earth that you are a prisoner of sin, and I want you to whisper to him, “God be merciful to me a prisoner, and set me free.” Because every one of us is a prisoner, and whether we are inside for a short time or a long sentence it doesn’t matter. There are simply prisoners and I make no distinction. I say, “Have you heard the trumpet sounding freedom?” Don’t you know that the cage is unlocked? Push it open and see. Come to God in Jesus’ name, to the God who welcomes us back, who receives sinners, profligates, and criminals, and addicts and drunkards. He will take us back for this is the Year of the Jubilee and it speaks of freedom for every personality type, and every social class, and every intellectual level, and every species of sin, and every degree of depravity. The doors are unlocked for every single one. Listen to Charles Wesley:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night.
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I rose, the dungeon blazed with light.
My chains fell off my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee (Charles Wesley, 1707 1788)
And I am saying to you – and I believe that the Lord of Jubilee is saying to you – that you can walk free today. You can know deliverance today. The years of your oppression by sin and death can end now. I can say that, but you must do something, you must push the door to see whether it is unlocked. You must come out of your cell, and Jesus promises he will in no way push you back in. I cannot come out for you. The Holy Spirit cannot come out for you; do not wait and wait for him to do something. The tingle factor is not the Holy Spirit. You must come yourself; you must exercise your will and decide and act now, and you will find that as you are doing that the Holy Spirit is working to do his good pleasure of making you a free man.
All of us, out of our cages; all out of the prison; all out of the cell of despair and hopelessness; don’t let it become a status symbol or the ground of security. Whatever the cell come out of it! The King has come! All change. The Jubilee year has begun. All the prisons are empty; all the captives can go free. May the Lord bless his liberating word.
10th February 2008 GEOFF THOMAS