“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The people of Israel in the first century had been living under foreign occupation for over 500 years. The glory days of King David and Solomon had long since passed, and they were longing for a better time. They had every reason to expect a better day would arrive, for the great prophet Isaiah predicted a time of grace when the Spirit-anointed Messiah would come, bringing freedom to his people:
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;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour… (Isa 61:1-2a)
“The year of the LORD’s favour” would have evoked jubilance in the minds of the reader, being a parallel description of the special year of celebration in Ancient Israel known as the year of Jubilee (cf. Lev 25:8ff.). A special time, every 50 years, when debts were cancelled, prisoners were pardoned, and repossessed property handed back to the original owners. Could you imagine your bank just cancelling your credit card debt or mortgage one year? In the suburb where I live, where the median house price is just over a million dollars, I’m sure there would be an outpouring of joy!
That joy you would feel is the same emotion captured in this prophecy, but magnified. For by the time we get to the first century, this “year of the LORD’s favour” was not merely seen in material terms but spiritual terms. The ‘poor’ was not just a reference to those in material need but a generalization of all people in need, especially those in spiritual poverty. The ‘captives’, once a description of the Israelites living in exile as a result of their sin, was now also a description of all people enslaved to sin. The ‘blind’ referred to a horrible physical ailment, but also to the spiritual condition we all have towards the revelation of God (cf. 2 Cor 4:4). The time when this prophecy would be fulfilled would be nothing less than the revealing of God’s new age of salvation for Israel and the world.
Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Simeon, a man in Jerusalem, had news from the Lord that this waiting would soon be over (Luke 2:26), and when he saw a young Mary and Joseph bringing their firstborn son into the temple area to dedicate him to the Lord, he knew Jesus was the promised Saviour. He knew the time of the Lord’s favour was here (Luke 2:29-32).
By the time we get to Luke 4, Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan, and the presence of the voice from heaven and the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus in bodily form has confirmed him as the Spirit-anointed Son and servant of God (Luke 3:22). Having fended off the arrows of the evil one, Jesus arrives home in Nazareth to teach in the synagogue. As he stands to read the Scriptures, it is the text from Isaiah 61 that is handed to him. After reading the text, Jesus sits down (the traditional teaching posture) and everyone’s eyes are on him. What will he say about this time we have all longed for?
To the complete amazement of the people, Jesus says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He is basically saying, “the new era of God’s revelation, the era of salvation from sin and death, is now here, and it is found in me”.
But with the hearing of this good news comes the responsibility for a decision. Jesus’ use of ‘today’ emphasizes the current availability of this blessing and calls for a response, and he received varying responses that day. This ‘today’ continues on in the New Testament as a timeless ‘now’, when life-changing decisions need to be made:
Behold, now is the favourable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Cor 6:2b)
Jesus died and rose again to secure this salvation for us, once and for all time. That ‘today’ of Luke 4 is still today.