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The Age of Jubilee

excerpted from Snyder, H. (1985). The Age of Jubilee. A Kingdom Manifesto: 67-76

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. Leviticus 25:8-10

Most fascinating of all the biblical kingdom themes is the jubilee.

The jubilee appears first in Leviticus 25 and later is developed prophetically, especially in Isaiah 58 and 61 It is based on the fact that God as King is owner of the land, and his people are stewards. The jubilee is a Sabbath of Sabbaths. It extends the provision of the sabbatical year by requiring all land to be returned to its original occupants. Thus the four main provisions of the jubilee were (1) the land was to lie fallow; (2) slaves were to be liberated; (3) debts were to be cancelled; and (4) all land acquired during the forty-nine previous years was to be returned.

Note that these provisions are all fundamentally economic and ecological. Despite the various interpretations of the Jubilee, five implications, at least, are clear, and all have kingdom significance: (1) In the Jubilee, spiritual, social, economic, liturgical and historical dimensions are all interwoven. (2) The Jubilee is especially directed toward the interests of the poor, the disadvantaged and the oppressed (3) The Jubilee is rooted in God's character as seen in creation and redemption (as evidenced, for example, in Gen 2:2-3; Ex 20; Deut 5). (4) The Jubilee concerns the relationship of God's people to God's land and is thus earthly and ecological. (5) The Jubilee combines total dependence on God's sovereignty with human freedom, responsibility, initiative and accountability. Precisely
because God is sovereign over his people and land, his people must act in harmony with his revealed character.

Isaiah uses the Jubilee theme as a picture of the goal of God's kingdom:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion-
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
(Isa 61:1-3)

Here are the nature, character and breadth of the kingdom of God in Jubilee language. And this vision in turn provides the background for Jesus' own proclamation of the kingdom.

Jesus clearly identified himself with the Jubilee in his Nazareth sermon when, reading from Isaiah 61, he said, "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 favor," and then added, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk 4:18-21). The "year of the Lord's favor," or "the acceptable year," scholars agree, clearly refers to the proclamation of the Jubilee year.2 Jesus' proclamation in Nazareth may actually, have occurred during the Jubilee year of AD.
26-27.3 As Mortimer Arias says, 'Jesus came to announce the Kingdom of God and he did it in Jubilee language."4

What did Jesus mean by proclaiming Jubilee in Luke 4? It is indisputable that Jesus here refers to the Jubilee; the question is what he intended and what it means for us today. Interpretations vary, ranging from those of Trocme and Yoder,5 who see here a literal Jubilee year announcement, to views which see the "release" Jesus proclaimed as exclusively "spiritual" or eschatological. What is the truth?

As we have seen, the Jubilee is tied closely to themes of justice, the land and care for the oppressed. In the Old Testament the Jubilee is an earthly, this-worldly concern. Even in Isaiah 58 and 61, where the theme looks ahead to God's decisive Jubilee, the meaning is not necessarily "spiritualized." We cannot remove the this-worldly weaning of jubilee from the Luke 4 passage, therefore, without solid justification. On the other hand, interpretations which see Luke 4 as the proclamation of a literal jubilee year in Jesus' own time fail to explain adequately the Jews' reaction in Nazareth or to align this proclamation with the rest of Jesus' ministry, where the jubilee does not seem to be prominent The most balanced interpretation of Jesus' Nazareth sermon I have found is given by Lesslie Newbigin in his book Sign of the Kingdom. Jesus' Nazareth proclamation, says Newbigin, is the proclamation of a true king in the messianic tradition. It is the function of a just ruler, a true king, to bring deliverance to the oppressed. This is an application of the Davidic strand in Old Testament teaching about the Kingdom. And the reasons for which Jesus' words were rejected is not (as far as this periscope is concerned) because he was on the side of the poor against the rich. The reasons are twofold. In the first place, he offended against nationalist sentiment (verses 23-27). The suggestion that God's first care might not be Israel but the Gentiles was the first thing that aroused the popular fury against him. In the second place they took offence at his person. "Is not this Joseph's son?" they said. And so the rejection at Nazareth was not an action of "the Establishment"; the story seems to make it quite clear that it was a "people's movement" that tried to destroy him at the outset.6

Newbigin notes that the Gospels do indeed "carry forward the Old Testament faith that 'God has a bias in favour of the poor,'" but this must be understood "in the framework of the basic Old Testament conviction that Yahweh is the true king who intervenes to establish the cause of the oppressed against their oppressors." Thus "the cause of stumbling is that [God's] intervention is embodied in the person of this man Jesus, who does not conform to the popular expectations of the Messiah. . . . The cause of stumbling is the Person of Jesus himself."7

Jesus does not seem to have been inaugurating a Jubilee year. Rather he was announcing the Jubilee age the very kingdom of God (Mt 4:17). But his announcement was no mere spiritual or symbolic one. Jesus healed the sick, freed the demon-possessed and gave sight to the blind - not just in a spiritual sense but physically as well. When Jesus touched the deaf and the blind they heard and saw with their physical ears and eyes. They were not just spiritually enlightened. Jesus is the Messiah who brings the literal fulfillment of the Jubilee provisions for justice. Thus Jesus' healings, while certainly in a sense parables of the kingdom, are not to be understood or interpreted only as illustrations of a "higher" spiritual truth (for example, of Jesus' power to open our eyes spiritually). Jesus' literal, historical healings, like his resurrection, are signs of the literal, historical character and in breaking of the new order of God's kingdom. Thus also Jubilee is not spiritualized, nor its force blunted, by this interpretation.

Jubilee in Matthew
Luke 4, however, is not the only Jubilee passage in the New Testament Scholars have noted the Jubilee tone of the Lord's Prayer, especially in the petition "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Mt 6:12; Lk 11:4),8 and also the echoes of Isaiah 61:1-2 in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-6.9 Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7) is, in fact, a Jubilee proclamation, functioning in Matthew much as the Nazareth discourse does in Luke. Fundamentally and thematically, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 61, just as he aid (more explicitly but less fully) in the Nazareth synagogue. The Sermon on the Mount announces Jubilee. Here the present kingdom meaning of Jubilee is set forth. To announce the kingdom is to proclaim "the favorable year of the Lord."

The Sermon on the Mount (especially the Beatitudes) stands in the same relation to the Old Testament Jubilee theme as it does to the Old Testament law (the Old Covenant) generally. On the one hand, the Old Testament Jubilee material reveals God's character and intention for his people for all time, including New Testament times; on the other hand, Jesus' words show what the Jubilee means concretely now, in the New Covenant, and in the Kingdom of God, present and future.

A comparison of Matthew 5:3-10 with Isaiah 61:1-2 and Psalm 146:7-8 shows clearly, I think, the Jubilee character of the Beatitudes. Isaiah 61:1-2 depicts the Messiah preaching good news to the poor, the basic and introductory act in his appearance and this is precisely what Jesus does. He begins to preach to the crowds, and his first words are about the poor, fulfilling the Isaiah prophecy.

Jubilee and Kingdom

The mystery and the stumbling block, of course, are that the kingdom did not suddenly spring into fullness immediately. This is a basic mystery of the kingdom. The answer, however, is not that Jesus intended a spiritual rather than a literal, material coming of the kingdom. That suggestion is a cop-out. The answer is rather the question of how God chooses to bring in his kingdom. The kingdom centers in Jesus, and the coming of the kingdom in its fullness on earth still hinges on faith in Jesus and obedience to his word. There is no other way. In Jesus, and in the full coming of his kingdom, God has chosen first of all the power of powerlessness. The kingdom comes through suffering, servanthood and much that the wisdom of this world calls foolishness (1 Cor 1:20-2:7).

But the kingdom finally will come in power, and even in wrath toward all untruth and injustice. The book of Revelation leaves no doubt about that. Revelation 11:15-19, for example, pictures this climax, when the "kingdom of the world" becomes "the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ" (Rev 11:15). This prophecy ties in with the Jubilee and with the land, for God's victory is announced at the blowing of the seventh trumpet (probably a Jubilee motif).10 God is praised for taking his "great power" and beginning to reign (Rev 11:17). The time for judgment has come, "and for destroying those who destroy the earth" or land (Rev 11:18). So the coming of the kingdom is the coming of the final Jubilee and the deliverance of the earth from all oppression and alienation.

Nothing in the New Testament cancels the breadth, literalness or ecological character of the Old Testament Jubilee theme. God still will bring the Jubilee, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. The New Testament makes clear, however, that the Jubilee comes solely through Jesus Christ. For the church today, the Jubilee theme can serve "as a paradigm of Kingdom action in the world," as Mortimer Arias says, assisting us "to develop a missionary vision and model in the Kingdom perspective.'"11

The Narrow Gate

What does it mean practically? How can the church more intentionally demonstrate the meaning of Jubilee in the world today?

Here are some examples:

1. Jesus Christ can be presented as the one who brings Jubilee, the liberator from bondage. Starting with the New Testament, but rooted in the Old, we can lift Jesus up as the Messiah who opens the door to the real Jubilee of the kingdom. This begins with proclaiming and serving the Jesus who comes not only to justify sinners before God but to form a just community which demonstrates Jubilee liberation in the world. If faithful to Jesus' Jubilee message, the church will present Jesus as the one who liberates the oppressed from bondage and who brings final Jubilee in the fullness of the revelation of the kingdom.

2. The Jubilee gospel focuses on the gospel for the poor. Jesus makes this unmistakably plain, as we have seen (Mt 5:3-10; 11:5, 28;25:40; Lk 4:18; 6:20; 7:22; 14:13, 21). He fulfills in himself and in his body the prophetic promises of a Messiah who comes to bring justice for the poor and oppressed.

A church infected with kingdom passion will be the presence of Jesus among the poor. It will present Jesus as Saviour from sin, prepares us to welcome his reign. With power and without apology such a church will evangelize among the poor, inviting women and men to experience the new birth and the new life of Christian community. It will disciple converts to become servants and ministers of Jesus Christ in the world. It will build communities and believers whose character is Jubilee.

3. Jubilee means demonstrated commitment to economic justice in society. This was the central provision of the ancient Jubilee law, and it continues today because the gospel concerns koinonia - how people share the resources of life God has given us.

This liberation begins in the church, as noted in earlier chapters, as Christians work justice for all believing sisters and brothers. But it also means siding with efforts for economic justice in society. The church cannot justly claim Jesus for its own unless it follows him "outside the gate" (Heb 13:12 RSV)."

How can the church work Jubilee justice here and now in anticipation of the final kingdom? This will depend on the places of injustice around us, in the neighborhood and around the world. It will mean finding working ways to relieve the poor from bondage, not only through evangelism but also through finding cures for institutionalized injustice. Real Jubilee is not just relief for victims, but structural change to bring justice (Lev 25). Out of their own sense of freedom from sin through Jesus Christ, Jubilee Christians work to eliminate the evil institutionalized in such places as unfair employment practices, discrimination in housing and barriers to providing help to the world's poor. One Jubilee action, for example, might be working to change government policies which reward farmers for not growing food while millions starve in other lands.

The Bible allows no either/or on the Jubilee theme. We take nothing away from the final, full, eschatological meaning of Jubilee when we also stress its present relevance. Rather, in pressing for Jubilee now, we are faithful to the gospel and even now spread the leaven of the kingdom.

Conclusion: Seven Themes, One Kingdom
In tracing the biblical themes of peace, land, house, city, justice, Sabbath and Jubilee, we have seen that all are wrapped up with God's kingdom. These seven themes show that the kingdom is much broader, much more profound, than it may at first appear.

In the Old Testament, these themes reveal the character of the kingdom. The kingdom is God's rule actually manifested on earth, based on God's total sovereignty and mighty acts, and including a covenant relationship with God's people whereby, they bind themselves to live consistently with God's revealed character. Woven together, these themes provide a comprehensive foundation for the biblical vision of God's kingdom.

John Perkins nicely shows how several of these themes combine when viewed from the perspective of justice; "the highest form of love." Justice in this sense, he says, "means (1) to recognize God as the Creator and owner of the earth, (2) to allow man to scratch into the earth with his own hands and enjoy the fruit of his labor, and (3) to be able to raise one's hands in the praise of God. Justice is to have a Sabbath.
"12

The message of the New Testament is that the kingdom has drawn near and become visible in Jesus Christ. This is the "mystery" or "secret" of the kingdom. With the Incarnation, the kingdom is embodied in Jesus - though not unambiguously and not yet in its fullness. Jesus is the King and the agent of the kingdom. And he is now present and reigning through the Holy Spirit who is the foretaste and first fruit of the church's kingdom witness. The presence of the Spirit, as Lesslie Newbigin has said, "is not the lantern which a traveler in the dark carries in his hand; it is the glow on his face which reflects the coming dawn."13
 

The kingdom centers, above all, in Jesus Christ - the one who has "disarmed the powers and authorities, . . . triumphing over them by the cross" (Col 2:15), who has been raised "far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come" (Eph 1:21). Wherever Jesus is, there the kingdom is. Wherever Jesus Christ is working, there the new order is breaking in. Wherever Jesus is working among the poor, there the prophecies that God will bring justice for the poor have their initial fulfillment.


We may summarize the New Testament treatment of these seven kingdom themes by saying that in the New Testament these themes are both internalized and universalized. Their inward thrust is intensified while their outward thrust is expanded To be more precise, in the New Testament we find these themes (1) internalized but not merely spiritualized; (2) universalized but not merely symbolized; (3) partially but not fully realized; and (4) their eschatological focus is clarified but still not fully revealed.

The mystery is dramatically opened and illustrated, but in a way that still leaves us guessing. We are left in awe, for the more we understand, the greater we see is the mystery yet to be revealed.14 The New Testament weaves these seven themes together to form a consistent, strong theology of the kingdom. Each theme points to Jesus Christ, the person of the kingdom, through whom God's kingdom promises are fulfilled. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the one who brings justice for the poor, the true builder of the city of God. He promises and brings Sabbath rest, both now and in final Jubilee fullness. And he is the one who redeems his land, his earth, in God's kingdom economy to unite all things in himself and free the whole created order from its bondage to decay.

Have we seen the kingdom? Are we living the kingdom? Is it for us precisely what Jesus said it should be-our highest and greatest quest?

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Viv Grigg & Urban Leadership Foundationand other materials by various contributors & Urban Leadership Foundation,  for The Encarnacao Training Commission.  Last modified: July 2010