And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." And he closed the book, 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."
In Luke 4:18–19 Jesus reads Isaiah 61:1–2. He sits down, looks at the crowd of worshipers in the synagogue at Nazareth, and says, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." They may have thought that Jesus was another prophet like John the Baptist, announcing that the Messiah would soon come. But that is not what Jesus meant. In Luke 7:20 John the Baptist sends and asks Jesus, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" Jesus answers indirectly by saying to John's messengers, "Go tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear; the dead are raised and the poor have the good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me" (Luke 7:22–23). So what Jesus meant in the synagogue at Nazareth was that the day of Messiah has arrived. The hoped-for king, son of David, liberator, Savior, world ruler, bringer of justice and peace—Messiah has come.
The Day of Liberation and the Day of Judgment
But the way Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 reveals a mystery about the Messiah's coming. It is an extraordinarily short Scripture reading for a synagogue service. He breaks off right in the middle of a verse. Jesus says in Luke 4:19 that he has been sent "to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" and he stops. But Isaiah 61:2 says "to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God." Why didn't Jesus finish the sentence? Because there is a mystery about his coming, namely, that it is a two-act drama. The Old Testament prophets (like Isaiah) saw the drama whole and didn't separate the two acts by centuries. They anticipate salvation and judgment together. The year of liberation and the day of vengeance were all one.
But when Jesus comes, he says (in John 12:47–48), "If anyone hears my sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day." The first coming of Jesus Christ ushered in the acceptable year of the Lord—a year (i.e., a space of time) for salvation not judgment. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:2, "Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation."
We live in a day of great grace and patience. God withholds his judgment and offers full amnesty to our rebellious hearts while the acceptable year lasts. But when the day of salvation is over, and the time appointed by the Father has come, then the day of vengeance will arrive and the prophecy of Isaiah 61:2 will be completed. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 1:7–8 that at the end of this interval of patience "the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." Therefore, what Jesus says in Luke 4:18–19 at the outset of his ministry is that he is the Messiah and that he is ushering in a day of good news—a day of release and healing and liberation; and for now the day of vengeance is postponed.
Jesus' Mission Is the Church's Mission
Before we look at what this good news is, let me give two reasons why I think Luke 4:18–19 describes not only the mission of Jesus but also the mission of the church.
1. As the Father Sent Jesus, He Sends the Church
First, Jesus met his disciples after the resurrection just before he returned to heaven and said, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so send I you" (John 20:21). Disciples of Jesus are an extension of Jesus' mission in the world. We are to be like him in his suffering for others. He is the light of the world and we are little beams or little reflections of him (John 12:36; Matthew 5:14–16).
2. The Church Is the Body of Christ
The second reason I think Luke 4:18–19 describes our mission as well as Jesus' mission is that the church is called the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22–23; 4:15–16). Just as our bodies are what people see of us, so the church is what people see of Christ. As our bodies put our will into visible action, so Christ puts his will into visible action through the church. Therefore, the mission which Christ once performed in his own physical body on earth, he now performs through his corporate body the church.
So every time you read what Jesus did or said, always give attention to two things: what he did for you, that you could not do for yourself, and the example he gives to you. Everything Jesus said and did was to make us trust him and imitate him. Everything he did is a ground for faith and a call to action. 1 Peter 2:21 says, "Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps." "Suffered for you"—that's your salvation which he purchased at a cost we could never have paid. "Leaving you an example"—that's our illustration; though we can't atone for sins, we can take up our cross and endure hardship to lead people to one who can.
Tracing Jesus' Footsteps in His Mission
So to encourage our faith and call ourselves to action let's trace Jesus' footsteps and listen to his words.
Refusing Satan's Power and Relying on the Spirit's
First, I want us to see the crucial work of the Holy Spirit in Jesus' life. In Luke 1:35 Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit. Then in Luke 3:22, when Jesus was thirty years old, the Spirit descended on him like a dove at his baptism. This was a special anointing for ministry and a sign of his Father's love. Then in Luke 4:1, "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil." In the wilderness Satan tried to allure Jesus away from his mission as the suffering servant who would die for our salvation. Jesus resisted this temptation by the Word of God and the Spirit of God, and he came forth like silver.
I want you to see a beautiful contrast here between two sources of power. Remember (in Luke 4:3–13) Satan tempted Jesus to avail himself of his rights and power as God's Son to get the pleasure of food, the glory of a world ruler, and the acclaim of a wonder-working Messiah at the door of the temple. But Jesus kept his face set towards the cross and renounced that kind of power. And the result is given in v. 14: "Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee." He refused to seek pleasure and power by Satan's agenda and the result was the enjoyment of the power of God.
Resist the Devil, Draw Near to God
And the same thing is true for us. "Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you" (James 4:7–8). Every pleasure and every power offered to you in the way of sin will destroy your pleasure in the long run and rob you of all power in the end. But if you resist and draw near to God, he will come to you in the power of the Holy Spirit and everything you think you have given up will be repaid one-hundredfold. You were made for God and nothing can compare with being filled with the power of his Spirit.
On the Offensive to Set the Captives Free
So Jesus returns like David, having bound the Goliath of Satan in the wilderness, and now he is ready to go on the offense and rout the Philistines and set the captives free. He could have chosen other texts to read in Nazareth. But he chooses Isaiah 61:1–2 to show that he comes in the power of the Spirit. Verse 18: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor." His mission is all the more relevant for us, because the same Spirit that leads him into battle has also been given to us. In the wilderness Jesus fought on the defense by the power of the Spirit. In the synagogue at Nazareth he takes the offense by the power of the Spirit. He sounds the trumpet for battle and calls us up out of the trenches to fight at his side with the weapon of the gospel.
Four Major Battlefronts for the Church Today
Two weeks ago Noël and I took some of our day off to survey the personal computer scene, and we learned how easy it is to be so entranced by man-made machines that our perception of spiritual reality becomes clouded. Well, this past Thursday we had the opposite experience. We spent about six hours with Leighton Ford and Gottfried Osei-Mensa, being briefed about the ongoing work of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. The Lord is good: if he allows one day off to obscure our vision of the spiritual warfare raging around us (in order to humble us and give us some empathy with those who struggle with the delusion of pervasive secularism), he gives us another day off to blow the haze away and clarify the horrible scenes of battlefield carnage. Leighton Ford sees four major battlefronts where unbelief and sin and misery should be fought by the church of Christ in the coming decades.
1. Urban Centers
By the year 2000 (16 years away), the Population Reference Bureau estimates that 51% of the world's people will live in major cities. Mexico City is expected to top 31 million people by that time. It already has a population, under 14 years old, greater than the population of New York. The cities must be a major front in our global strategy. As a church in the city we have a greater responsibility than others to fight on this front and to train others too.
Islam will be a greater challenge than Marxism. The only popular enthusiasm for Marxism, says Ford, is where the people have not lived under it. But Islam has 750 million adherents in 152 countries with an increasing zeal to extend its influence. Presently there are only about 500 Protestant missionaries fighting on this 750-million person front. And if you think it's hopeless, listen to this promise from Isaiah 19:24–25, "In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, 'Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands.'"
3. The Secular West
Ford sees the need to re-evangelize the secular West. The widespread influence which Christianity had in this country collapsed in an astonishingly short period of time historically speaking. We never were a Christian nation, but it was not that long ago that the evangelical presence in this country significantly influenced almost all our institutions and thought patterns and worldviews. What a shame to evangelize an unreached culture in the two-thirds world only to see it collapse into secularism in a half-century because we don't know what went wrong at home. The revitalization of the western church and the re-evangelization of secular western man are a crucial front in the church's global strategy.
4. The Poor
The fourth great battlefront for the church in the future is the poor. We may quibble over whether there is hunger in America, but there is no question about other parts of the world. Leighton Ford reported that 150 million people in Africa today are on the verge of starvation. He said food is so scarce in Ghana (where there are four times as many Christians as Muslims!) that you can't even go unless you bring your own food. The lives of millions hang in the clouds—will it rain?
"The Christian Pilgrim"
Then after six hours with Leighton Ford and Gottfried Osei-Mensa, later that evening, when the boys were in bed, Noël and I read together a sermon of Jonathan Edwards preached in 1733 entitled, "The Christian Pilgrim." In it he said, "We should desire heaven more than the comforts and enjoyments of this life . . . Our hearts ought to be loose to these things, as that of a man on a journey . . . These things are only lent to us for a little while, to serve a present turn; but we should set our hearts on heaven, as our inheritance for ever" (Works, vol. 2, p. 243).
So when last Thursday was over, my heart was saying to the Lord: I know my life here on this journey is very short compared to eternity; I know that this world is the battlefield of indescribable carnage as unbelief and sin send people into temporal and eternal misery; I know that there is incomparable glory and joy promised to those who will suffer with Christ in the warfare of the gospel (Romans 8:17f.); and I know, O God, how prone I am to retreat from the field of battle to try to have the ease of heaven now without following Christ into combat. Guard me from this folly; keep my mind awake to eternity; give me the compassion of Christ; thrill me with the adventure of cosmic combat in the power of the Holy Spirit; put me on the offense with Jesus; and give me endurance in the struggle till he comes or until I die.
Two Misuses of Jesus' Words
Luke 4:18–19 gives us our mission. Jesus came with good news to the poor. Specifically: release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and liberation for the oppressed. This text is subject to two misuses right off the bat.
1. Limiting Poverty to Physical and Social States
The first is the misuse that limits the poor and captives and blind and oppressed to physical and social states. But Jesus said in Revelation 3:17, to the church of Laodicea, "You say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing'; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." The arrogant, self-satisfied, wealthy American is utterly poverty-stricken and miserable in God's eyes, and ought to be in our eyes. Most of you work with those people and your heart should go out to them just like Jesus' did to Zacchaeus.
2. Making No Effort to Relieve Physical and Social Poverty
But the other misuse of this text is to say what I said, and then sit back and think we are following Jesus when we feel no compassion and take no action on behalf of people who are materially poverty-stricken and hungry, who are captured unjustly behind visible iron bars, who are physically afflicted with diseases like blindness, and who are oppressed by heartless human power-brokers. We must be a church that does not make these two mistakes. We should feel compassion for the rich who are bringing eternal misery on themselves through slavery to comfort, and we should feel compassion for the poor who are crushed by present circumstances in addition to their eternal plight.
Laboring for the Captives, Blind, and Oppressed
Let's look at some examples from each of these three categories of captives, blind, and oppressed. Let it be declared unashamedly and reasonably that the greatest and most loving thing we can do for anyone is release them from the captivity of sin (Romans 6:22–23), heal them from the blindness of unbelief (Acts 26:17f.; 2 Corinthians 4:4), and set them at liberty from the oppression of Satan (2 Timothy 2:26). Efforts at social improvement that neglect this great goal will be looked back on by poor people in hell as a horrible form of ecclesiastical malpractice.
It is true that when a person becomes a follower of Jesus, his life changes. But it is also true that the way we win people to the greatness of Christ includes doing the great things he was sent to do. A verbal witness to the value of Jesus Christ without a life of radical commitment to the things he stood for will produce converts who are carbon copies of our fallen culture. Therefore, lifestyles of simplicity for the sake of love are essential if we want to make true disciples.
Specifically, to follow Jesus in proclaiming release to the captives, we should be mobilized to help people be released from the captivity of alcohol, drugs, pornography, homosexuality, gluttony. It ought to grieve us that creatures made for God are held captive by a foreign power. Our zeal for the glory of God should fire us to win them back to their rightful sovereign.
There are other kinds of captives that followers of Jesus ought to stand up for. An editorial in Friday's Tribune said, "Hundreds of people are under arrest or have disappeared [in El Salvador]. All independent press and broadcasting have been destroyed by the army and the oligarchy. What is left of the press is controlled by the hard right hand and the armed forces." Whether you think the elections in El Salvador today are a sham or not, the point is this: there are right-wing and left-wing governments in this world which imprison people and dispense with people in ways that would enrage us if they were applied to our own family. The global application of the golden rule means we must speak up against forces that usurp the place of God.
Martin Niemöller died three weeks ago at the age of 92. He was a German pastor who survived the Dachau concentration camp. He once said, "In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade-unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade-unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up" (Christian Century, March 21–28, 1984, p. 296).
But the followers of Jesus will pray and speak and work not only against unjust captivity but also against disease. Many will become doctors and nurses and give themselves especially where there is much misery and little medicine. Others of you will visit the sick and bring comfort and strength. Others will seek the gift of faith and healing to pray for miracles of recovery. But nobody who follows Jesus will be indifferent to disability and disease. Freely we have received our health, freely let us give.
Finally, we follow Jesus in setting at liberty the oppressed—the ones who are powerless and abused by the heartless. The Bible is strewn with references to the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner. So it warms my heart to see how much adopting and foster-parenting is happening at Bethlehem, and how the young and old are joining hands with Rollin and others to visit and care for our shut-ins; and how Phaitoon is forming house-churches for the Asians and others are planning new English classes. I was glad that we spent $15,000 to make our church more accessible to the handicapped. I was glad that so many of you attended your caucuses last week and supported resolutions on behalf of the most oppressed and disadvantaged minority in America—the unborn.
When the Spirit of the Lord is upon us and he anoints us to share in the ministry of Jesus, we will pray and speak and work for the release of captives, the recovery of sight for the blind, and the liberty of the oppressed, as long as the acceptable year of the Lord lasts. And then will come the day of vengeance and the day of reward. The tables will be turned. The narrow, rocky Calvary road will open into endless fields of thick green grass and crystal streams and cool winds and warm sunshine, precious friends, perfect health, and the presence of Jesus; and this slight momentary affliction will give way to an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.