This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time at the opening of the public ministry as told in the Gospel of Luke. It strikes me as supremely appropriate that the first record of public ministry is the very living Word made flesh sharing the Word of God. Luke records these first spoken words of Jesus’ ministry:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
What is recorded is not, per se, directly from one continuous citation of Isaiah. Luke 4:18–19 brings together in modified form verses from the Septuagint (LXX) version of Isa 61:1 and 58:6. Once more, the reader is given indications that Luke has carefully chosen and arranged elements of this account in order to tell the story in a particular way and express certain ideas to the reader. The Lucan modifications are shown in italics:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor [Luke omits: to bind up the brokenhearted.]
He has sent me to proclaim liberty (release) to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free [Isa 58:6], and to proclaim the year acceptable to the Lord.”
Significantly, Jesus does not go on to read the next phrase in Isa 61:2: “and the day of vengeance of our God.”
The text from Isaiah (61:1–2) is a promise of the restoration of Israel. The original context is the anointing of a prophet, but the figure of the promised Messiah, the kingly Anointed One, is also implied in Jesus’ usage of the text. He is the spirit-bearer foretold by Isaiah (Isa 11:2), the Prophet and Messiah who will usher in a new age of freedom and divine favor. The reference to an anointing by the Spirit is not a separate anointing from that given at Jesus’ baptism. It points to the baptismal anointing that was more than a single event; it is a state of being, a way of life. The first part of the Isaian quotation explains the significance of the Spirit and serves as a confirmation of Jesus’ authority when later we read of activities that illustrate Jesus’ fulfillment of the four phrases in this text (bring, proclaim, set free/release, and proclaim).
The unique feature of the Lucan account is the OT quotation itself (from Isa 61:1), which does not occur in the other Gospel accounts. Even though the idea of “fulfillment” is introduced by Jesus himself here (v. 21), Luke does not really present the OT passage as a prediction whose fulfillment offers proof or even witness of who Jesus is. Given the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is preceded by the baptism and the temptation narratives, the Isaian reference defines a particular role for Jesus and His ministry. The significance is not related to prophetic utterances as much as it demonstrates Jesus’ taking to himself the role of the servant described in Isaiah. This becomes an important aspect of what Luke understands to be the role of the church (developed in Acts of the Apostles)
4:18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me: The context strongly suggests Jesus is referring to his baptism (3:21-38) As this incident develops, Jesus is portrayed as a prophet whose ministry is compared to that of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Prophetic anointings are known in first-century Palestinian Judaism from the Qumran literature that speaks of prophets as God’s anointed ones.
to bring glad tidings to the poor: more than any other gospel writer Luke is concerned with Jesus’ attitude toward the economically and socially poor (see Luke 6:20, 24; 12:16-21; 14:12-14; 16:19-26; 19:8). At times, the poor in Luke’s gospel are associated with the downtrodden, the oppressed and afflicted, the forgotten and the neglected (Luke 4:18; 6:20-22; 7:22; 14:12-14), and it is they who accept Jesus’ message of salvation.
4:19 liberty to captives…oppressed go free: aphesis, Luke uses this word five times. Three of those it part of the phrase “forgiveness of sins” (1:77; 3:3; 24:47). The other two times are in the above quote. The quote suggests that for Luke, forgiveness is more than just saying “sins are forgiven”. It includes releasing or freeing people from whatever has captured them, or has oppressed them. Some hold that the translation (release or forgiveness) hinges on linking another significant word, apostello – “to send” (from which we get “apostle”), which also occurs twice. Jesus reports that he has been sent (apestalken) to proclaim and then says that he is sending (apostelai) the broken/shattered in forgiveness. It is plausible and quite interesting, particularly if you link the final phrase so that it reads “sent the broken in forgiveness (ev aphesei) to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
a year (eniautos) acceptable to the Lord: Is the “acceptable year of the Lord” a reference to the Jubilee Year in Leviticus 25? It is not clear that Luke intends this connection. This word for “year” (eniautos) occurs frequently in the LXX of Leviticus, but another Greek word for “year” (etos) occurs even more often in chapter 25. While these two Greek words can mean a calendar year, which they likely mean in Lv 25; it is perhaps not the intended meaning in this quote from Isaiah. In fact and in history Jesus did not limit his ministry and the “acceptable year” to a 12 month period. The word eniautos can refer to a more general period of time, an indefinite period of time. With this definition it might be translated “age” (although probably a shorter period than aion), “era,” or “time.” Jesus is ushering a new era that has a limited time-span — not as long as aion = “age,” “eternity”. This “era” may be the short period of time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but more likely, it is the period of time that begins with Jesus’ ministry and extends until Jesus’ return. There is a point when this “acceptable era” is replaced by something else.
- Culpepper, R. Alan. “The Gospel of Luke.” New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E. Keck. Vol. 9. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994–2004) 102–109
- Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at crossmarks.com
Scripture: Quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.