Imagine the scene.
It’s the Sabbath. Jesus has returned from an intense time of fasting and meditation in the wilderness and already the news has spread about Him. The Bible says “He returned in the power of the Spirit” to Galilee. I wonder what that looked like! He joins his faith community at Nazareth and, at the appointed time, walks forward. “And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written…” (Luke 4:17)
Notice what He read.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Then He closed the book.” (Luke 4:18-20)
Closing the book at that point was a highly dramatic gesture. It was drawing everyone’s attention to this point.
What point? The proclamation of the anointing of favour. The “acceptable year” means that the time of grace has begun.
First, let’s explore the meaning of that special “year” of favour, and then ask what it means for us today.
The word favour crops up right through the Bible, mostly in the context of the phrase, “I will look on you with favour.” It paints the picture of a millionaire looking at a trusted employee and saying: “I’ve got my eye on you for promotion.” The blessing in Leviticus 26:9, for example, is typical: ‘“I will look on you with favour and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you.”
The idea of favour is very noticeable in the Gospel of Luke. Three times Mary is so described: ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.’ (Luke 1:25): The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’ (Luke 1:28) “But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God.” (Luke 1:30)
And the favour is extended more widely by way of angelic chorus: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ (Luke 2:14) And then, of course, the young Jesus is described in Luke 2:52 as growing “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”
And so here in Luke 4:19, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61, that the anointing on the Messiah will be accompanied by the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favour.’
What is the “year of the Lord’s favour”?
The Jubilee (יובל) year was the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita (Sabbatical years), and had a special impact on the ownership and management of land in Israel. Jubilee dealt largely with land, property, and property rights. Slaves would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and land restored and renewed. (Leviticus 25:8-13)
The word Jubilee refers to the Ram’s horn; the Shofar which was also called the “Yobhel” which announced the beginning of the Jubilee. In fact, the Hebrew word became linked with both Latin and the Greek “iubilum”, from which we derive “jubilant.” Oh happy day!
When the Yobhel sounded on the Day of Atonement the Jubilee year meant a whole new start. It meant three basic things: a release of the enslaved, a return of all property to the original owners and a rejuvenation of the land through letting it lie fallow.
First and foremost it meant a setting free. All the slaves and indentured servants would be freed and it would all happen on the Day of Atonement.
The Day of Atonement represented the free gift of grace to a sinful people. Their sins were “covered.” The same idea of undeserved forgiveness is picked up in the “Lord’s Prayer” in Luke 11:4: “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive those who are indebted to us.”
We act towards others the way that Christ has acted towards us Our sins are forgiven through the sacrifice of Christ. But this is not freedom from something so much as freedom to something. Jubilee meant celebration. It was a mighty once-in-a-lifetime national reminder of grace: “My chains are gone! I’ve been set free! My God, my Saviour has ransomed me!”
Can you imagine the way the people would look forward to the Jubilee in ancient times? But perhaps slaves and owners had a different take on it?
But to both owner and slave the same message would come through: this is God’s will for you, this is God’s grace to you; this is what His Lordship means for you.
And how about us? What a challenge to our concepts of power and ownership! And since it was every fifty years, then every generation would experience the sharp reminder (at least once) of God’s grace and compassion to the underdog and His Lordship and authority over the ruling classes.
The second part of Jubilee was about the return of land to the original owners (the details are in Leviticus 25:14-17). It meant that God was to be at the heart of any transaction when it came to the land. Jubilee meant that the land be considered as on lease, rather than as a permanent possession. Jubilee emphasised stewardship rather than ownership.
So when land exchanged hands they sold the number of potential harvests until the next Jubilee.
It prompts the question: what about us? Who owns us? Do we see ourselves as responsible stewards or as owners of our own lives?
The concept of Jubilee forces a kind of inventory of people living under the Lordship of God. “Every knee will bow; every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord.” That will happen. Atonement points us that way a little bit, as we return and acknowledge that we are in the hands of the real Owner.
The third part of Jubilee is about leaving the land fallow. Set aside. Old farmers call it “resting the land.” How was the land regenerated? It was by resting; by not being ploughed up; by not having crops. It was replenished; it was restored by rest; it was revitalized. So it was not being cultivated, not domesticated, you might say.
And so it is with us. As Paul put it:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2)
This is the message of Jubilee. That’s the message of Atonement, that we are to be transformed by the revitalization of our mind. Our minds have to be renewed; they have to be revitalized; they have to be reconstructed so that they are a spiritual creation.
All these things come together when Jesus announced the year of the Lord’s favour. He was bringing tremendous news for the underdogs: their time of slavery was over. He announced liberty for the enslaved and oppressed. He proclaimed a brand new revelation – a light shining in a dark place that was overwhelmed the darkness.
Grace has begun! Let that jubilee trumpet blow!