(Luk 4:16-21 ESV) 16 And he 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. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 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. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
We’ve considered this passage before. Jesus announces the “good news” or gospel, not by speaking of substitutionary atonement or even faith in Jesus as Messiah. Jesus, rather, speaks of Isaiah: “good news to the poor”; “liberty to the captives”; “recovering of sight to the blind”; “liberty [for] those who are oppressed.” And he declares these things “fulfilled.”
At last, Jesus says, God has answered the prayers of the people for the Kingdom, for the Messiah, and for the outpouring of the Spirit! That much they understood. But what does Isaiah really mean?
Jesus certainly healed the blind in the most literal sense, but did he free captives? Literally? Or is he speaking of people in spiritual captivity?
If you were a Jew sitting in the synagogue, whom would you consider to be a captive? Well, the Jew sitting in the synagogue. Remember, the Jews went into captivity in Babylon and the Exile wasn’t yet over. Jesus was proclaiming the end of the Exile. They would no longer be captive to the Romans!
If you were a Jew in the synagogue, who would you consider the “oppressed”? Again, yourself — oppressed by the Romans.
If you were a Jew in the synagogue, who would you consider the poor? Well, in Isaiah, “poor” is uniformly used literally —
(Isa 3:14-15 ESV) 14 The LORD will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: “It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. 15 What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” declares the Lord GOD of hosts.
(Isa 32:6-7 ESV) 6 For the fool speaks folly, and his heart is busy with iniquity, to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink. 7 As for the scoundrel–his devices are evil; he plans wicked schemes to ruin the poor with lying words, even when the plea of the needy is right.
(Isa 41:17 ESV) 17 When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the LORD will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
(Isa 58:7 ESV) 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
The listener in the synagogue may well have considered himself poor, but not in some abstract, spiritualized sense. Rather, the poor would be heard as the same poor that the Torah so often expresses concern for. And the Kingdom would be good news for the poor because their suffering would be alleviated by the Kingdom.
And so, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Kingdom somehow or other is expected to relieve the poverty of the poor, just as John the Baptist had preached and the prophets before him.
Of course, we see the beginnings of this element of the church in Acts and the Pauline correspondence —
(Act 6:1 ESV) Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.
(Gal 2:10 ESV) Only, they [the apostles] asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
(2Co 9:7-9 ESV) 7 Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 9 As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”
That leaves for consideration: In what sense could the gospel free the Jews from Roman oppresion and captivity? They, of course, would have expected a rebellion against Rome. Luke knew this isn’t how Jesus would overthrow the Romans. Luke had traveled with Paul and doubtlessly heard many hours of his preaching. How did Jesus free the captives from Roman rule?
(Col 2:13-15 ESV) 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Jesus “disarmed,” “put … to open shame,” and “triumph[ed] over” the “rulers and authorities.” How? By the cross. He let them kill him, so that God could resurrect him. And the resurrection of Jesus proves that the authorities and powers of this world have no power over us — unless we let them have that power.
(Heb 2:14-15 ESV) 14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Slavery, the writer of Hebrews says, comes from the fear of death. If we aren’t afraid of death (or poverty or loneliness or mockery), knowing that God will ulimately give us eternal life (and eternal treasures, eternal community, and eternal respect), we are no longer captive to those who seek to control by fear.
(1Pe 5:6-10 ESV) 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
Redemption and freedom from captivity, therefore, are certainly spiritual, but it’s a mistake, I think, to speak of the Kingdom as “spiritual” rather than “earthly.” Such language suggests that we can’t enjoy freedom today, in this existence. Indeed, such language suggests that there’s no freedom until after we die. Until then, we truly are oppressed and captive.
But Jesus did not live the life of an oppressed, captive, enslaved man. Rather, he lived a full, abundant life. He paid a huge price — his life — which proved to be no price at all, because God gave him eternal life to replace his temporal life.
Jesus lived as a man who cannot lose because, as Paul wrote —
(Phi 1:18-23 ESV) 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
That’s the nature of faith and hope. If we were truly people of faith and hope, we’d live without regard to anything other than the wishes of God. Indeed, if we really had faith and hope, we’d have far more missionaries, living the dangerous lives Jesus and Paul lived. You see, if you are no longer afraid, God can do great things for you.
The early Jewish Christians were freed from the rule of Rome because they were no longer afraid of Rome, and as a result, they could live the lives God meant for them to live, rich, full, abundant, world-changing lives.