You can imagine the scene. It’s Sabbath and the whole town of Nazareth is at the synagogue. But this week it’s a little different. Space seems a little tighter. Some unfamiliar faces—a rare sight—can be spotted in the crowd. A low thrum of excitement pulses through the room. And then the whispers begin.
—Have you heard? He’s back!
And indeed, near the front, with his family, with Joseph and Mary and James and the rest of his siblings is Jesus.
—Give him the scroll!
—Rabbi, have Jesus read.
—Yes, let us hear him.
Jesus is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolls it gently and without hesitation finds and reads Isaiah 61:1-2:
“The Spirit of YHWH 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 YHWH’s favor.”
He rolls up the scroll and sits down. The silence is palpable, the people are breathless, and every eye, young and old, is fixed on him and what he will say next.
“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
In that moment, Jesus defied all expectations. No doubt his fans expected a great sermon from this now-famous hometown boy-turned-rabbi. His detractors hoped for a flop, and those who knew him well readied themselves to pat him on the head afterwards with cloying words: “Aw Jesus, you did great! Look at you now! All grown up and such a fine young man!” But instead he laid claim to being the fulfillment of a centuries-old prophecy about a Messiah, an anointed one, who would come and bring good news, heal infirmities, and lead Israel in a second Exodus out of oppression.
This was undoubtedly an astounding claim—unbelievable in every sense of the word. And of course the theological implications are enormous. The end-time prophecy of restoration and reign has intruded on the present. The kingdom has already arrived, but not yet in fullness.
But there is something equally fascinating when you turn to the Old Testament context from which Jesus quoted. Isaiah 61:1 is more or less the same as Luke 4:18, and 61:2 begins similarly to Luke 4:19. But Jesus only gets through the first part of 61:2, “to proclaim the year of YHWH’s favor,” before he stops. And though the full quote should have included 61:3 as well—note the grammatical repetition of “to proclaim,” “to grant,” “to give”—it’s all the more intriguing that he stopped quoting in the middle of one of these “to” clauses. There certainly is a minor logical break with the “and” conjunction, but it would have made much more sense to continue to the major logical break by quoting the entire “to” clause: “to proclaim the year of YHWH’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Why didn’t he include that last phrase? Why leave out Isaiah’s prophecy of the day of vengeance? The more obvious answer is that the day of vengeance is reserved for his second coming. When Jesus returns again he will judge the living and the dead, he will conquer on a white horse with a sharp sword that proceeds from his mouth—read Revelation 19.
But could it also be that Jesus didn’t say those words that day because he knew what being the Messiah meant? In order to bring good news, to proclaim liberty, to bring freedom from true oppression—not simply the oppression of the Romans or earthly powers, but the oppression of sin and guilt and death—a day of vengeance had to take place. God’s wrath had to be satisfied, punishment had to be poured out, the heavens needed to turn black, the earth rent open, a sacrifice slain. Only then could there be jubilee and the joyous song of a people set free.
In Nazareth that day Jesus didn’t proclaim the day of vengeance because he knew he would himself undergo the day of vengeance so that those united to him would never know such a day. By being in Christ that dark day has already passed, the morning has come, and we can sing because of what Jesus went through and what Jesus didn’t say.