On the vocation of Jesus the Messiah, and what it says to us about the Church’s vocation, which is to say, our own
Third Sunday after the Epiphany • January 27, 2013 AD Readings: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 • I Corinthians 12:12-31 • Luke 4:14-21 Responsive: Reading: Psalm 19
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; 19 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (LUKE 4:18-19 NKJV)
BEGINNING WITH ADVENT, our recent journey through the Gospels has presented us with the Lord’s conception, his birth, the visit of the Wise Men, his baptism, and the miracle at the wedding in Cana. In most of these events, others testified to who and what Jesus of Nazareth was. At the wedding in Cana, his miracle of turning water into wine testified to these things. But in our Gospel reading for today, Luke 4:14-21, Jesus himself declares who and what he is. He is the Messiah, the God- anointed King of Israel. His declaration is a manifesto, and it is made up of two parts. The first part is a clearly messianic passage from the prophet Isaiah. Written some seven hundred years before Jesus was born, this passage describes a goodly part the coming Messiah’s vocation. The second part of the manifesto was Jesus’ own declaration that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. He, in short, was the Messiah.
Jesus declared his messianic manifesto in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, which was located in the region of Galilee. The timing is instructive. The Isaiah passage Jesus read from spelled out the kind of things the Messiah would do, and as it happened, he had already famously begun to do those very things, in Galilee, before he arrived in Nazareth.
The manifesto declared both the Messiah and his program. It explained the source of his power, which was the Holy Spirit. It declared the purpose of his authority and power, which was to liberate his people from their assorted bondages. His manifesto also described the pitiful condition of the Messiah’s people.
So. Let’s look into the Messianic Manifesto this morning, following this track: First, we’ll examine the manifesto in terms of what it reveals about the Person, Power, and Purpose of the Lord Jesus. This examination will reveal a great deal to us about the Lord’s vocation. Second, we’ll examine what the manifesto says to us about the condition of the Messiah’s people, as he found them in the days of his earthly labors. This part of our examination will say a great deal to us about the Lord’s constituency. Third and finally, we’ll seek to understand what the Messiah’s vocation says to us about the Church’s vocation, especially as it relates to ministering to people in need. My aim, in other words, is to speak to healthy Christians whose ministrations are needed among the less fortunate. May the Holy Spirit, who empowered Jesus of Nazareth to meet the needs of his oppressed people, guide us into his truth.
I. THE VOCATION OF JESUS THE MESSIAH
Let us first look into the vocation of Jesus the Messiah, as his public manifesto in Nazareth reveals it. We’ll first take note of the setting in which the manifesto was proclaimed, and then turn our attention to what the manifesto says to us about the person, power, and purpose of the Messiah whom it declares.
Let’s begin with the place where Jesus declared his manifesto, which was in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
THE VILLAGE. Nazareth was the village of Jesus’ upbringing and, we assume, his early adult life. His mother Mary and his siblings lived there. The man whom most thought to be his father, Joseph, was from Nazareth. So Jesus was well known in Nazareth.
THE SYNAGOGUE. The synagogue in Nazareth was the center of community life, and served as a place of worship, prayer, and the study of Scripture. It also served as a town hall of sorts where community problems and issues were addressed.
So when Jesus declared his manifesto in the synagogue, he did so in the very heart of his hometown and among the people who had known him since childhood. He also declared himself during a well-ordered synagogue worship service. We’ll say more about this in a moment.
TIMING AND EXPECTATION. Let’s now think through the timing and expectations that were bound up in this event.
As to timing, as I stated in brief above, by the time Jesus declared his manifesto in Nazareth, his fame had spread throughout the surrounding region. Recall that Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism in the Jordan. Following that, the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness where Satan tempted him for forty days (Luke 4:13). After that, victorious over the tempter, Jesus returned to Galilee to launch his messianic campaign. The campaign exercised a remarkable effect in Galilee and the regions surrounding it. Luke describes it this way: “Then Jesus returned in the power of Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region. 15 And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all” (Luke 4:14-15). Matthew’s account of the Lord’s initial Galilean campaign is more detailed than Luke’s, and informs us that the Lord itinerated throughout the region preaching the kingdom, working healing miracles, casting out demons, and teaching in synagogues (cf. Matthew 4:12-25, esp. vv. 23-25). Luke’s account doesn’t provide these details, but emphasizes that the Lord’s fame spread far and wide.
Jesus’ recent fame therefore preceded his entry into Nazareth and the declaration of his manifesto in the synagogue.
I don’t think we’re wrong to reckon that expectation, along with a heightened sense of curiosity, also factored into the setting. They congregants had to have had questions. Who, really, was this young man who had been raised among them? What, really, was he? How had he done the things that were already making him famous? Would he explain what he’d been up to? With his fame preceding him, the synagogue congregants were doubtless ready for answers. So when Jesus rose to read the Scriptures, and then comment on them after he read (as was expected), we imagine that all eyes were fixed on him and that every person in the synagogue leaned into his every word.
So we see that place, timing, and expectation all combined in the synagogue setting where Jesus declared his manifesto.
Declaring his manifesto
It was in the context of the synagogue’s well-ordered worship service that Jesus made his announcement. Customarily, a number of Scripture passages were read during the service, with the reader, or perhaps a senior brother or visiting scholar, offering commentary on each reading.1 Jesus may have been the last to read and offer commentary. We don’t know. What we do know is that the passage he read from was Isaiah 61:1-2, a clearly messianic prophecy that points to the person, power, and purpose of the long-promised Messiah. We also know that, after he read the passage, Jesus offered commentary.
His words were few. Luke writes, “Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ ” (vv. 20-21). With this one simple sentence, Jesus made the breathtaking announcement that he was the Messiah. There was no room for ambiguity. There was nothing veiled in what he said. He was plainspoken and direct.
1 As many as seven passages were read and commented on during a typical synagogue service.
Startling in their simplicity and breathtaking in their breadth, his few words struck his hearers like a lightning bolt. The promise of the ages had come. Messiah is here among us. He is one of Nazareth’s own.
We can only wonder at the amazement that spread over the synagogue assembly.
Authentication: works, text, and testimony
Three things combined to authenticate the messianic manifesto. In the historic order of things, the Isaiah text, written some seven hundred years before the time of Christ, predicted the Messiah’s vocation. But in terms of realization, the works of Jesus, in Galilee, before he entered Nazareth, put him and his messianic vocation on display. Then, in the synagogue, the reading from Isaiah explained Jesus and the messianic vocation that was already in operation. Finally, Jesus added his own testimony to that of his works and the testimony of Scripture. So we see that Jesus’ works proved him and his messianic vocation, the Isaiah text he read in the synagogue explained it, and his testimony sealed it. Jesus was the Messiah.
Explanation to the townsfolk
As far as the synagogue congregants were concerned, the Lord’s manifesto explained nearly everything. It explained who and what Jesus of Nazareth truly was. It explained how he worked his miracles and cast out demons. It explained his preaching power and teaching authority. The Spirit of God was on him, enabling him to do all he did. The manifesto also explained the Messiah’s primary purpose, which was to liberate his people.
But his people were in pitiable condition. Let’s look into this issue next.
II. THE MESSIAH’S SUFFERING CONSTITUENCY
The Messiah came first to his own people who, in the days of his earthly sojourn, were the lost sheep of Israel then dwelling within the ancient borders of the Promised Land. These lost and distressed sheep were the Messiah’s constituency. A pitiable lot, Isaiah 61:1-2 spells out their wretched condition. They were poor, brokenhearted, captive, blind, oppressed, and dispossessed.
The sad conditions of the people
Because it will enrich our understanding of the Lord’s vocation, let’s now look into the miserable conditions the Messiah, the Great Physician, came to alleviate and cure.
THE POOR. The majority of the Messiah’s constituency was poor. Because of the sins of their forefathers, God had long since removed from His people many of His blessings. One of the results of that was poverty. Poverty is relative, of course, but in comparison to the great prosperity enjoyed by the first generations of Hebrew settlers that took dominion in the Promised Land, their descendents living in the land at the time of Christ were poor. Long gone were the prosperous days of King David and King Solomon. The current heritage was that of exile and oppression—and the poverty that goes with it. The poverty was both spiritual and material. Spiritually, the sins of God’s people impoverished the soul. Materially, the long time fruit of sin was material want.
THE BROKENHEARTED. Many among the people were brokenhearted. Every human knows the bitter sorrows of a broken heart. A business fails. A child or parent forsakes the family. An incurable disease is diagnosed. A son dies in battle. Despotism drives out light and freedom. But the brokenhearted condition Jesus encountered among his people was that of a people whose sins had alienated them God. They had lost their way, lost their land, and lost their privileges as a people fully blessed of God. The losses were heartbreaking.
CAPTIVES. Many among the people were captives. Roman overlords and their Jewish surrogates exercised dominating rule over the people of God, in essence making the Jews captives and exiles in their own land. The people of God were also prisoners of their own sins and lusts. In a word, the Lord’s constituency was in jail.
BLIND. Many were blind, some spiritually and others physically. The spiritual blindness was like that of a prisoner long chained in a deep, dark dungeon. He cannot see because the darkness doesn’t allow him to. I think this is the kind of blindness to which Isaiah primarily refers. Sin, poverty, broken hearts, and captivity had combined to drive many of the Messiah’s people into deep darkness. They were blind as a result.
OPPRESSED. The people were also oppressed. The word here describes the condition of being broken into pieces, of being fragmented. Sin, poverty, broken-heartedness, captivity, and blindness do that to people. It shatters them, pulls them apart inside and out, and leaves them in a condition of hopelessness. They were like Humpty Dumpty, after he had fallen off the wall. But Jesus came to do what all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not do. He came to put his people back together again.
DISPOSSESSED. The people of God were dispossessed of their property, and longed to have it restored to them. The Roman Empire, you see, taxed every square inch of habitable or tillable land in Palestine, thus effectively making the empire the true owner of the land.2 Therefore, the people of God weren’t really the owners of their own lands and means of production. Jesus proclaimed a reversal of this reality when he proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lord.
The “acceptable year of the Lord” was that marvelous Year of Jubilee that came along once every fifty years in the Mosaic calendar. During the Year of Jubilee, all debts were forgiven and all rural properties returned to the descendents of the original owners. The Year of Jubilee gave the people of God a fresh start and a new beginning as property and the means of production were restored to them.
The people in Jesus’ day, many of them anyway, bore the sense of dispossession and want. They thus needed the fresh start and new beginning that Jesus proclaimed.
Summing up the condition of the people
2 A word on property taxes: One of the greatest evils in the United States is property tax, which effectively makes the civil government the true owner of the land. (You’ll find that out if and when you don’t pay your property taxes.) A just society will abolish property tax and thereby recognize that the earth is the Lord’s and that He gives it in trust to families.
These then, were the pitiable conditions of the people among whom Messiah Jesus labored. To repeat, they were poor, brokenhearted, captive, blind, oppressed, and dispossessed.
Jesus the Messiah: the cure for the conditions
But Jesus was the cure for all these conditions. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus fulfilled the promise of Isaiah 61:1-2. He proclaimed the good news of his kingdom to the poor. He healed the brokenhearted. He set captives free, liberating them from disease and demonic oppression. He gave sight to the blind, literally and spiritually. He gave liberty to the oppressed, putting broken hearts and lives back together. He preached the acceptable year of the Lord, in essence declaring a material fresh start and new beginning to the people of God.
The Lord’s preaching and teaching healed souls. His miracles of healing and deliverance healed bodies. His authoritative pardon relieved sinners of their sins. Through the power of the Spirit, the Messiah changed his people’s condition. That was in keeping with his messianic purpose. That was what the Holy Spirit anointed him to do.
A king of a very different sort
From time immemorial oppressor kings have mounted armed invasions to seize prosperous lands and people for their own greedy use. But not King Jesus. He was a king of a very different sort. Coming into Galilee in the power of the Spirit, he mounted a one-man messianic salvation invasion. Jesus was a king like no other.
Jesus is a king like no other.
III. CHRISTIAN VOCATION
Luke 4:14-21 explains much regarding the vocation of Christ Jesus. In our final section, let’s think through how Christ’s vocation ought to influence our own. My thesis is this: the vocation of Christ Jesus must shape and inform our own vocation.
The uniqueness of Christ
First, as a safeguard against possible misunderstanding, let me emphasize that Jesus of Nazareth was and is unique. He alone is the “only Begotten of the Father,” the “Word made flesh,” the Son of God who is fully God and fully man (with two natures in one Person). He is the unique Lamb of God whose singular death on Calvary made possible the redemption of all who believe. He is the only Mediator between God of man, the only Person who as “all authority in heaven and on earth.” He is the one head of his Church, and much else beside. So when I state that we must share in Christ’s vocation, I mean that we should share in the work he has given us to do which furthers his messianic agenda in the world.
Members of Christ’s body
As our epistle reading, I Corinthians 12:12-31, makes clear, all Christians are membered to Christ Jesus and are, indeed, the members of his body the Church. As such, we who are in Christ are called not only into his fellowship, but also into his vocation. That is, we are stewards of his gospel, ministers of his grace, and citizen-priests of his kingdom. We are also his vicegerents on earth and his missionaries to a dark and sin-filled world.
Christ’s mission defines our mission
Because Isaiah 61:1-2 defines a goodly part of Christ’s vocation, it should also define ours. That is because now, with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to preach good news to the poor. We are called to bind up the brokenhearted. We are called to liberate captives. We are called to bring the blind into the light. We are called to help the oppressed put their lives back together. We are called to declare a material fresh start and new beginning to new disciples.
Participating in Christ’s vocation is a covenantal obligation, one that should first be fulfilled among the Christian people, many of which suffer in one or more of the conditions we outlined above. We need to take care of our own, in other words.3
But Christ’s vocation also offers hope to those who are outside the covenant. Indeed, members of the Church have cared for non-Christian sufferers for going on two millennia, as one of the more famous of Christ’s servants in recent memory, Mother Teresa, demonstrated. And what of the tsunami in Indonesia a few years ago, and more than one devastating earthquake in Turkey over the past few years? Christians have mightily responded to these crises with services and goods. Doing so, they fulfilled an important part of the messianic vocation.
How to participate in Christ’s vocation
How do we participate in the messianic vocation? We fulfill our vocation with faith and good works, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. We fulfill our vocation in obedience to the sacred Scriptures. We fulfill our vocation by serving the needs of others, in the name of Jesus. We fulfill our vocation singly and together, with each of us doing his or her part, and all in concert. We fulfill our vocation through the innumerable institutions and service organizations of the people of God. We fulfill our vocation prayerfully and actively when we influence the world’s commercial and political institutions to conform to the will of Christ. We fulfill our vocation when we mobilize our material resources to minister to the suffering.
Theoretically, we might well dwell on this issue for some hours. (One notable pastor in our region is focusing his pulpit on this issue for the entire year.) Actively, however, we need to dwell on this issue for as long as we have breath.
Works, Word, and Testimony: these thing testify to Christ’s vocation. They should also testify to ours.
Let us conclude. Following his reading from Isaiah 61:1-2, and with the eyes of the synagogue congregants fixed on him, Jesus said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
These words, together with the Isaiah passage, were nothing less than our Lord’s Messianic Manifesto. The manifesto revealed who and what Jesus was. It explained the pitiable condition of his people. It explained his liberating work among them. It explained the source of his magnificent power and his recent, fame-inducing labors in Galilee.
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” wrote the divinely inspired author of Hebrews (Hebrews 12:8). Therefore, the Messianic Manifesto that Jesus declared in the synagogue in Nazareth (nearly two thousand years ago) is still in force. Jesus is the Messiah. His messianic purpose is to deliver his people from bondage. And it is this purpose he now shares with his Church. Seated at the right hand of God, he authorizes and empowers us to advance these purposes in the world.
Participating in the messianic vocation is our Christian duty. Each of us has a part to play, a role to fulfill. May God grace each and all to do his or her part for the glory of God, the building up of His Church, and the transformation of His world. Amen.