This is the fourth of five blog posts asking the question “what is the Gospel?” We looked at passages from Paul, Peter and the writer of Hebrews. But do we have any good indication what Jesus himself understood the Gospel to be?
Yes, we do. The Gospel of Luke contains a story that gives us good insight into what Jesus thought was the thrust of his Gospel message.
In Luke 4:16-21 we read that when Jesus visited Nazareth, the town in which he grew up, he went to synagogue on the Sabbath as was his habit. As a visiting rabbi, it was customary he be given the opportunity to read one of the scripture passages of the day and speak to the people. He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, a very large scroll. In our version of the book it’s divided into sixty-six chapters. But in his day it was one long, undivided scroll. He had to have known the text of Isaiah intimately to have turned the scroll to the passage he read.
Jesus turned to a passage in the part of Isaiah we know as chapter 61. He read these verses:
“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.”
In the synagogue practice of Jesus’ day, the reader of the Scripture text stood to read. The rabbi sat to instruct. Luke says Jesus rolled up the scroll of Isaiah and handed it back to the synagogue attendant. Then he sat down. Everyone simply stared at him. And then into their attentive silence Jesus spoke these thunderous words: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It was an absolutely stunning declaration of both who he perceived himself to be, and the Gospel message he was sent to proclaim.
There are four elements in the passage Jesus read from Isaiah, and they give outline to his Gospel, or good news.
It was to the poor he was proclaiming good news. What do we suppose Jesus meant by “the poor?” Certainly the economically depressed constituted the poor for Jesus because he focused much of his ministry among and to them. But we should also remember the phrase from the Sermon on the Mount in Mathew’s Gospel that the poor are also the “poor in spirit.” For Jesus the poor are also those who are broken-hearted, spiritually distressed, those who are empty, or deprived.
To all these and more Jesus says his Gospel is an announcement that those who are hungry will not always be deprived. In the economy of his Father the empty will be filled and their emptiness will be replaced by fullness. To those who are broken-hearted they will be comforted and healed. Those distressed spiritually will find encouragement and vision and lightness.
Jesus goes on to say that his mission is proclaiming liberty to the captives. Some human beings are literally slaves to other humans. One impact of the Gospel of Jesus is to free women and men so that they may live as their Creator desires, not as another person demands. As the message of Jesus permeates this disordered realm, those who are captive will be freed.
Human captivity comes in a variety of forms, however. The genuine spiritual seeker trying to live a good life increasingly realizes a difficult and cruel reality. We are grossly limited by our very nature to be the people we earnestly desire to be. So Jesus promises freedom also for those of us captive to unseen, but equally cruel, forces.
The Gospel of Jesus includes proclaiming the recovery of sight to the blind. Miracles are recorded of Jesus restoring physical sight to blind persons, giving powerful demonstrati0n of the power of God in his Gospel. But Jesus also made clear that a common affliction of humanity is spiritual blindness (John 9). A physically blind person knows they cannot see and has to learn to accommodate that limitation. But a spiritually blind person by very definition does not recognize their disability, and so lives a dangerous and precarious life. They think they are perceiving life in all its physical and spiritual elements as it truly is and, therefore, making wise life choices accordingly. But they are not perceiving spiritual reality accurately, because they cannot see, and so they are hopelessly in danger of making poor choices and missing the main points of this life.
Jesus continues that his Gospel sets at liberty those who are oppressed which means he will bring relief to those who struggle with the burdens this life so often imposes. Life can be difficult and challenging, much more for some than for others, and the oppressive realities many of us endure severely limit our ability to find peace or joy. Life in this realm often brings relentless fatigue and hopelessness. Jesus says his Gospel will have the effect of causing those downcast and inwardly bruised to find their way to healing and freedom.
This passage concludes with the phrase “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” rendered “the acceptable year of the Lord” in other translations. The prophet Isaiah was not referring to a calendar year as we might think of it. He was describing the future age in which God firmly and finally moves to redeem and restore his people by sending the heir of David’s dynasty, the prophet like Moses, the Anointed One, the Messiah.
When Jesus told the folks of his hometown in the synagogue at Nazareth that today this passage—including the proclamation of it being “the year of the Lord’s favor”—was being fulfilled in their hearing, he was declaring himself to be the Messiah. They clearly understood his remarks this way because they took umbrage at them. They’d seen him grow up, and good reputation or not, who did he think he was?
As Jesus goes on with his ministry he performs many miracles, demonstrations of the power of God to interrupt the natural process so as to emphasize the truth and power of his Gospel. Jesus not only proclaimed good news, he physically demonstrated illustrations of the fulfillment of God’s intentions towards his people. If the passage from Isaiah 61 is one way of describing the mission and Gospel of Jesus, his miracles underline the fact that he has both the position and the power to fulfill that mission.
Those of us who want not only to believe what the Gospel actually is but participate with Jesus in living it out in our lives need to ask ourselves some questions. If the invitation to do life with Jesus is usually more comprehensive than we think, where are my blind spots? What are my prejudices that block the impact of the Gospel in my life? How am I resistant to the full effect of the Gospel in my life?
How do we see if we are spiritually blind? How do we find our way to spiritual freedom and sight? By following him and daily opening our selves to his Spirit, inviting him to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts—admitting our need and asking his help.
This passage in Luke begins with the words, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit” and that’s how we must live our lives if we are to follow him.
There’s wonderful invitation in this passage, but warning, too: the hearers—who knew Jesus and thought they knew him well—rejected his message, and so they rejected him and his Gospel.
He never returned to Nazareth.