The Messiah Would Do Life-Affirming, Redemptive Deeds
Isaiah 61 and its surrounding chapters speak of a glorious future for Israel. The description spills over into images that suggest nothing less than the final messianic time for the nation. Isaiah 60:20, for example, is echoed in Revelation 21:23 as John describes the very end of history.
In the midst of these passages we come to Isaiah 61:1-2. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” writes Isaiah, “because the Lord has anointed me.” Commentators have often wondered who the “me” is in this passage. Is is the prophet? Is it the “Servant of the Lord” with whom we meet in earlier chapters?
In Luke 4, we find the answer to these questions. As verse 16 says, it was Jesus’ “custom” to attend synagogue each Sabbath. Here, he visits the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, a poor village of some 400 people.1 The contemporary synagogue has a long-standing practice of reading a Torah portion each week over the course of a year and a corresponding portion from some prophetic or historical book. (In the past, a three-year (triennial) reading cycle was also used and still is in some congregations.) We cannot say for sure what the practice was in the first century, but in Luke 4, Jesus reads from a prophetic passage, what today we would call the haftarah, the passage that goes along with the weekly Torah reading:
And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “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 favor.”
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.” (Luke 4:17-21)
Jesus, after reading from Isaiah 61, announces that it is being fulfilled, in fact has been fulfilled, right then and there, in Jesus himself. And this, he intimates, happens in the ways that Isaiah mentions:
“To proclaim good news to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18). Only a few chapters later in Luke, John the Baptist is in prison wondering—given his circumstances—if Jesus really was the Promised One. Jesus sends an encouraging message back to John. Among other things, John should be told that “the poor have the good news preached to them.”
“To proclaim liberty to the captives” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18). The Greek word in Luke for “liberty” also means “forgiveness” when it is used together with the word “sin.” Using that word, at the Last Supper—his final Passover meal—Jesus said over the wine that “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Using a different word, Jesus also proclaimed that “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). In Luke 13, using still a different word—but a similar concept—we read that in a certain synagogue:
There was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. (Luke 13:11-13)
“And recovery of sight to those who are blind” (Isaiah 61:1 in the Septuagint or Greek translation; Luke 4:18). Although Jesus undoubtedly read from a Hebrew scroll, Luke (written in Greek) uses the Septuagint version. Again, a few chapters later Jesus’ response to John the Baptist’s questions includes telling John that “the blind receive their sight.” In the gospels, we see Jesus restoring sight to blind people on several occasions, the most dramatic being in John 9 where we have an extended story of one such healing.
One part of the Isaiah passage, however, Jesus does not include: “the day of vengeance of our God.” Judgment will happen in the future; for now, his ministry is one of mercy, forgiveness, and healing, giving people ample opportunity to respond to him in faith.
The Spirit of the Lord was certainly on the prophet Isaiah, and it is true that he proclaimed good news. But the full picture of restoration that he gives in chapter 61 was not fulfilled in his ministry nor in his lifetime. It took the coming of the Messiah to accomplish that.