Two and a half millenia ago, Jerusalem sat in ruins, its inhabitants disheartened. Judah’s 70-year captivity in Babylon was over, but the return of the exiles to Jerusalem brought only disappointment. Once glorious Jerusalem was still largely a heap of rubble. The temple had ceased to exist. The city walls were gone, leaving its inhabitants prey to all sorts of mischief. The people were poor, defenseless and hungry, living in something of a post-apocalyptic environment. They suffered from mistreatment by both foreign powers and home-grown bullies. Rather than coming together to restore and defend their community, some were exploiting their neighbors’ weakness for personal gain. Too many people paid no practical attention to God’s requirements for their lives.
Within this environment, a prophet came proclaiming good news in God’s name. His words are written in Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; (2) to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; (3) to grant to those who mourn in Zion– to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (4) They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
Isaiah 61:1-4 ESV
But despite the prophet’s words, the intervening years still failed to fulfill Judah’s deepest longings. Every step forward seemed overwhelmed by two steps back. Every time that Judah found new reason to hope, a new reason to despair raised its head.
Five hundred years after the prophet wrote these words, a carpenter stood up in his synagogue in the tiny village of Nazareth, read them aloud, and announced: “Today, these words have been fulfilled.”
But how have they been fulfilled?
How have the hopes been fulfilled? Luke keeps us in suspense to this point in the narrative. He’s told us repeatedly that Jesus is the king, born of David’s line, who will deliver God’s people from their enemies. He’s told us that he is a prophet like Samuel, who anointed Israel’s first warrior kings. He’s told us that Jesus is the one who will execute God’s judgment, clearing his threshing floor and burning the chaff. He told us that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit, and now he tells us that he is the one who will usher in God’s long expected age of deliverance.
But how does Jesus exercise his messianic authority? And how does Jesus fulfill the hope of Isaiah 61?
Proclaiming good news to the poor and releasing captives sounds a little like the Old Testament institution of Jubilee (or “sounding of the horn,” in Leviticus 25, for example). Many commentators have taken the phrase “year of the Lord’s favor” (4:19) to refer to the Jubilee practice of forgiving debts and manumitting bond-servants. Commenting on Luke 4:19, for example, John Wesley says that it is, “plainly alluding to the year of jubilee, when all, both debtors and servants, were set free.”
I’m not convinced, however, that Isaiah, Jesus or Luke intended to allude specifically to the year of Jubilee. I’m not sure what makes people think that the phrase “year of the Lord’s favor” means anything more specific than “occasion of God’s mercy.” It is not part of the Jubilee texts. Even if Jubilee forms the background for this phrase, the allusion is a loose rhetorical device. Jesus’ work certainly isn’t focused on manumission of slaves, restoration of old property claims (also part of Jubilee) or forgiveness of monetary debts in Jubilee fashion. Insofar as Jesus teaches his disciples to forgive as they’ve been forgiven (including, I presume, the financial debts of others), it is in response to God’s eschatological forgiveness of them. God’s mercy in Jesus demands forgiveness 70 x 7. Jesus never suggests, “Forgive your debtors now, and then you won’t have to forgive them again for 50 years” (well, 7 years for the “Sabbatical Year.”) If anything, the lesser Jubilee of Old Testament law presages in a limited way the greater Jubilee of the kingdom of God. The Sabbatical Year / Jubilee Year structure was an economic and legal framework appropriate for agrarian Israel. Jesus seems to be concerned, however, with something more enduring than temporal economic reform.
So how then does Jesus execute God’s judgment, proclaim good news to the poor and deliver Judah from its enemies? Luke hasn’t told us yet in the flow of the narrative, but the answer comes almost immediately after this pericope (4:31ff): Jesus casts out demons and heals the infirm. In chapter 5 we learn that he also gathers disciples and forgives sins. As Luke describes it, Jesus’ proclaiming good news to the poor does not consist of temporal social reforms or political revolutions, but of mighty acts of eschatological power. The liberty Jesus gives is liberty from demons, sin, disease and death. His acts of power and divine authority are not simply isolated deeds of kindness to those in need, but demonstrations of Jesus’ eschatological identity. The power that will transform all creation is visible in the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus is not just another this-age messiah, but the eschatological king, prophet and judge. Unless one understands the eschatological nature of Jesus’ proclamation in Nazareth, one has missed the point.
For Luke, the Holy Spirit is an essential component of Jesus’ eschatological authority and power. He repeatedly tells us that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit. In Luke 4, Jesus says that he is the one of whom it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” This same Holy Spirit is very visible not only throughout the pages of Luke’s gospel, but also throughout the pages of Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles. As the future kingdom was present in the life of Jesus throughout his ministry, so it is present in the community of believers. The community of faith that followed him practiced kingdom values in its life together. In Acts, Luke tells us about the extraordinary level of sharing that takes place within the spirit-empowered early church. This existence of this kingdom fellowship is (or ought to be) “good news to the poor” as the community waits for the final transformation of all creation.
Jesus had already begun his spirit-empowered work when he returned home to Nazareth to proclaim that God’s age-old promises are fulfilled in him. Understandably, the people of Jesus’ hometown were very excited to have him around. If he performed miracles in Capernaum, how much more might he do for his own neighbors and kinsfolk. When Jesus announced that God might choose to work more miracles for foreigners than for home folks, the reaction of the townspeople is shocking. In the course of seven verses, the reaction moves from “they spoke well of him” to “[they] were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.” How quickly they went from marvel to murder!
Luke puts the story of Jesus reception and rejection at Nazareth up front to make a point. Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s eschatological hopes, but he will ultimately be received with more hatred than faith. If the people of Jesus’ own hometown want to kill him, what chance does he have in Jerusalem that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her (13:34)? Jesus’ eschatological power and authority encompass one very unexpected element: his coming crucifixion and resurrection. For although the people of Nazareth sought to kill Jesus, God would not let his “holy one see corruption” (Acts 2:27). Jesus escapes the power of his enemies here simply by walking through the crowd; he will later escape the power of death only by the power of the resurrection.
Luke’s story also hints at the coming mission to the Gentiles. Jesus reminds the people that Elijah fed and raised the son of a Sidonese woman (1 Kings 17), and that Elisha healed the leprosy of a Syrian military officer (2 Kings 5). While the mission to the Gentiles does not come into full fruition until the book of Acts, Luke plants some seeds for it here.
In many ways, Luke 4:14-30 marks the end of the beginning of Luke’s gospel, and the beginning of the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. Luke has now set the stage for everything to come. Jesus is the eschatological king, prophet and judge whose career will demonstrate dominion over every demonic and destructive power in this world, even in the face of lethal opposition. His power will ultimately reach into all the world. Throughout the rest of his work, Luke will show us how Jesus fulfills the expectations that he has set for us in the opening pages of his story.
Some Notes on Structure and Language
Luke’s rendering of Isaiah 61 (conflated with Isaiah 58) forms a chiastic structure filled with Christian language (following C.H. Talbert, Reading Luke):
A – to proclaim good news (euaggelizo– like “evangelism”) to beggars
B – preach (kerusso) freedom (aphesis) to those held at the tip of a spear
C – new sight to the blind
B – send (apostello – like “apostle”) in freedom (aphesis) those who are crushed
A – to preach (kerusso – like “kerygma”) the favorable year of the Lord
The word translated variously as liberty, release, freedom, etc. is the same word that is often translated “forgiveness.” (aphesis).
Luke’s structure in chapter 4:14ff is very strange. Luke tells us that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit and had earned quite a reputation, but doesn’t tell us what Jesus had done to earn the reputation until 4:31ff. Jesus tells the people of his hometown, “No doubt you’ll want me to do for my hometown what you’ve heard I did for Capernaum,” but we learn nothing of Jesus’ actions in Capernaum until the following pericope.