Recently, we have probably heard the word ‘jubilee’ used in connection with Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, a celebration for her sixtieth year as Queen.
The use of ‘jubilee’ in this context has little, if anything to do with the biblical idea of Jubilee, except as a marker of a length of time to celebrate; in Israel’s case, jubilee was a celebration every fifty years. A little closer to the biblical ideal is the Jubilee movement that aims at encouraging rich nations and the World Bank, to ‘forgive’ the crippling debt accrued by developing nations who struggle simply to repay the interest let alone the principle, and so fail to look after their people and build infrastructure. By forgiving the debt, this idea of ‘jubilee’ gives these nations a ‘fresh start’, a ‘new beginning’.
Perhaps the best analogy that captures the heart and intention of Jubilee outlined in Leviticus 25 is surprisingly, one from modern technology, the smart phone.
When we use our smart phones, adding apps and programs, putting in more and more information, glitches and conflicts can develop over time. One of the best and radical ways to fix all of these compounding conflicts is by doing what is called a ‘factory reset’; in other words, formatting your smartphone to its original factory settings before loading your information all over again. In many ways, Israel’s ‘jubilee’ was a ‘factory reset’ for God’s People and his Promised Land. Every fifty years all the ‘glitches’ of sin and situations not in line with the Lord’s purposes were meant to be removed and Israel started fresh and clean all over again. Or at least that was the ideal.
The theme of the Jubilee surfaces at significant points throughout the Bible story and especially so in the ministry of Jesus. This short ‘blog article’ will follow Israel’s story from the description of Jubilee in Leviticus then crosses to the description of the length of the Exile as an expression of Sabbath years in 2 Chronicles, then to Isaiah 61 where we have described for us, the coming of one who will be God’s Spirit-filled representative, bringing an end the exile by announcing Jubilee to an oppressed Israel. In the New Testament, we will focus on Luke’s Gospel and themes of Jubilee in the ministry of Jesus, especially Luke 4, before finally considering how we might live in the light of that Jubilee and re-enact ‘jubilee’ in our own lives as God’s people.
Leviticus 25 & 26
Leviticus 25 begins by discussing a Sabbath year. Every seventh year was to be a year when there would be no planting or sowing of crops, the land would rest, have a Sabbath.
The year of Jubilee follows, grows out of, and completes seven Sabbath years (forty-nine years in all) being the fiftieth year. In this fiftieth year, on the Day of Atonement (the day the Lord forgives Israel’s sins), the tenth day of the seventh month, throughout the land, trumpets are blown and ‘liberty’ is proclaimed. And what does this ‘liberty’ entail?
Firstly, there is no formal sowing or reaping for that year, only eating what comes directly from the fields. The Lord promises to provide an abundance in the previous years, (v21).
Secondly, everyone returns to their own ancestral property because in the year of Jubilee, the land that was sold to others reverts to the original owners. In Israel, the Land must not be sold permanently because it does not really belong to the Israelites, it is owned by the LORD (v23).
Thirdly, Israelites who sold themselves into slavery are to be freed or released in the year of Jubilee and their land, if they sold it, is restored to them.
The Jubilee year was a radical means of resetting the lives of the Israelites back to the Lord’s original settings.
Leviticus 26 primarily concerns itself with reminding the Israelites of the rewards for being faithful to the covenant and the punishments for disobedience which primarily results in exile. Exile, the removal of the people out of the Land, is described as a time when the Land will enjoy the rests (including jubilees) that were not celebrated previously (Leviticus 26:34-35).
2 Chronicles 36:21
The author of Chronicles picks up the issue of Sabbaths not celebrated in the Leviticus 26 prophecy in 2 Chronicles 36.21
‘The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfilment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah.’
The exile, is seen, in part at least, as a benefit to an abused creation/Promised Land that requires rest – sabbath.
It is not surprising then, that return from Exile is seen as a Jubilee, a renewed and redeemed Land and People of God in Isaiah 61:1-4.
The speaker is one who is anointed with the Spirit of the Sovereign LORD. The mission of this Messiah (the anointed one) is to proclaim good new, freedom (liberty) and the year of the Lord’s favour. Proclaiming liberty is especially connected with Jubilee in Lev.25:10, but the whole tenor of the passage breathes the setting of everything that is wrong will be set to rights. All the oppressed will find comfort and there will be vengeance against the oppressors.
This prophecy sits, waiting for fulfilment all through the time of exile and even during the return of the exiles to Jerusalem and Judah and is explicitly used by Jesus to define his own ministry in Luke 4:16-21. This takes place immediately after Jesus has been named by God as his king, and Son as well as being anointed by the Spirit at his baptism. Immediately after the baptism by John in the Jordan, he has faced temptation in the wilderness concerning the nature of his sonship, to be self-serving or humble and obedient to his Father. In Luke 4 his reading and embracing of the Isaiah passage in the synagogue and Nazareth sets the direction and tone of his ministry, Jubilee.
I want to quickly, identify a number of ways that Jubilee shapes the narrative of Luke and the ministry of Jesus:
- Mary’s Song in Luke 1:46-55 sings the themes of Jubilee; freedom for the oppressed and reversal of ‘fortunes’.
- Joseph and Mary going to Joseph’s home town, even if, by the order of Caesar Augustus, is the initial response of Israel to the call of Jubilee in Lev. 25:10.
- The Jubilee as a Sabbath celebration makes sense of Jesus’ most provocative actions, his Sabbath ‘infringements’ according to the Pharisees. These begin in Luke 6; the disciples, accompanied by Jesus, pick and eat grain from the standing crop, just as Israel is meant to eat at the time of Jubilee in Lev. 25:12. In response, Jesus declares that he is Lord of the Sabbath. Given the quote of Isaiah 61, I take this to mean that Jesus, in his ‘Spirit of the Sovereign LORD’ anointed ministry has authoritatively brought in Jubilee and so is appropriately called, Lord of the Sabbath. As a consequence, saving the man with the shrivelled hand is not only lawful but absolutely appropriate to the time of Jubilee. In Luke 13, Jesus once again heals on the Sabbath, this time it is a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years. Jesus’ healing words are significant, she is ‘set free’, she has been unbound. She has experienced Jubilee.
- Forgiveness. The Greek word for ‘forgive’ occurs many time in Leviticus 25, but not in relation to sin. In that context, it is release for a ‘debt’ but in the Gospel, it is associated most commonly with the forgiveness of sins, in other words, an unbinding, a release from what holds you most truly captive, Sin. This is particularly pertinent for the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11. ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ In Luke’s context, if the disciples understand that Jesus is bringing Jubilee and particularly atonement through the cross, then they should pray to anticipate it in their own lives by forgiving generously those who have sinned against them as they hope to be forgiven generously by the one they have offended their Father. Given that, the post resurrection commission of Jesus to the disciples to proclaim to the nations repentance for the forgiveness of sins, is declaring that Jesus’ death and resurrection brings Jubilee to the world. Acts of the Risen Jesus continues this explicitly.
What About Us?
First of all, before we talk about social action, we need to receive the Jubilee that comes in Jesus, the forgiveness of our sins. In Luke’s Gospel, the awareness of how much we have been forgiven is the measure of how much we will love our Lord of Jubilee. Jubilee is a personal experience of forgiveness that wipes away our debts and provides us with a better inheritance than we had before.
Secondly, we join a community, the church, where repenting and forgiving should be a lived-out reality reflecting and energised by what we have already received for our Father through the Son. We need to practice the cross and resurrection in our lives together. This will not be easy, but dying to self was never meant to be easy, just a miraculous and life-giving act performed by the people of God regularly.
Thirdly, while we can’t simply replicate Jubilee, we can seek to be on the side of those who experience slavery and seek their liberty. Supporting Freedom Hub Café and similar ‘good works’.
Fourthly, and probably a little more radically, we should care about good practices of production in all things. If Leviticus 25 and Romans 8 teach us anything it’s that God cares about this world, and as his people we should too.
Church2Church Mentor Consultant